Joshua Cohen : On the Transit of Toledo

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Die spanische Stadt Toledo Bild: Picture-Alliance

In medieval times the Spanish city took care of a mutual inspiration of the most diverse cultures. The Europe of our times would not exist without this input. Toledo set an example of how translation transforms the world.

          11 Min.

          In the world above our world there lives a race of perfect beings—beings who are perfect because they are unities, because they are wholes—who are always being called down to this world by half-wits and fools, and who only occasionally, in rare foolish moments of their own, heed that call and decide to descend. They come down to us, they come down to us slowly, but then inadvisably they speed up their descent as our summons of them becomes more and more impatient and insistent, and, in passing through the nearly imperceptible white sheet that separates their world from our world, they are mutilated, they are maimed. In their passage, their perfect forms become imperfect: deformed.

          These deformed forms then proceed to drag themselves around our world, around our highly flawed and polluted planet that we call “earth,” complaining for years, for decades, even in some extreme cases for over a century, about how good it used to be, about how good they used to have it, and how utterly repugnant and defective they are now—whining about how “Up There” was so much better than “Down Here,” and about how they were lured “Down Here” by false representations, by misrepresentations—they were victimized, defrauded, cozened by lies—and they go on like this, these deformed forms, moaning and groaning and just generally making an intolerable fuss for as long as it takes them to fully embody their grievance, for as long as it takes them to become nothing but their rage, in doing so once again attaining a state of total purity, at which point they are allowed to ascend: they are allowed to travel back through that flimsy atmospheric sheet to the world from which they came, and in the process of that return, they mysteriously reacquire their original perfections. 

          Der Schriftsteller Joshua Cohen


          I have the fantasy that were this legend I’ve just related to you to be translated into the terms of some dead language, like Ancient Greek or even Latin—were this legend to be translated in that impossible direction, the past—that some wayward ancestor of mine might recognize my description of what’s now known as Neo-Platonism. My admittedly completely imperfect description of what’s now known as Neo-Platonism.

          If Platonism is the belief in perfect forms dwelling in some higher world or alternate dimension, then Neo-Platonism is the conversion of that belief to Judeo-Christianity: a revision in which these perfect forms enter our world through a fall—they enter through a fall from grace. Our earth becomes their exile. And their bodies—which they acquire in their plummet, and which have to piss and shit and age and become flabby and weak and cancered and stuck in traffic—become their exile too.        

          These forms are us, of course. Or they become us. They are our souls. And they can’t wait to get out of here, and be rid of all this dumb flesh and unread email.

          There are certain ridiculous bureaucratic situations I’ve gotten into while traveling, or while on a quest for employment, in which I’ve been asked my nationality, and even my gender and my religion—questions which have always irked me and which I always answer as follows: “I am a divine soul trapped in a loathsome body, from which I seek release.”

          In response, the bureaucrats who are interviewing me just give their nod, the nod of officialdom, which indicates neither understanding nor non-understanding. They shuffle their “forms” and possibly check the box labeled “Crazy.”

          Sometimes I am searched, and my bags are searched. Sometimes I am hired and pitied.

          But I am not crazy.

          I am just a Neo-Platonist, or a practicing Neo-Neo-Platonist, as I suspect all writers are (though they might not be aware of it).      

          I hazard to make this assumption, outing my colleagues as coreligionists, because this doctrine that derives from Plato and was subsequently Judeo-Christianized—the Jews bringing to it the pessimism of the fall, the Christians bringing to it the optimism of the rising-again—strikes me as the ultimate religion of writing and, especially, of translation.

          Let me rephrase.

          I know what I want to say but I don’t know the words in which to say it. And this, I want to say, is the problem—a theological problem.

          Let me rephrase.

          As a writer, I go about my dull daily life with a book in my head. And, despite that dull daily life, let’s call my head a type of heaven.

          Up in the heaven of my head, this book is perfect. It’s complete. It’s complete and finished. From the first word to the last, though I don’t know what those words might be, though I might not even know anything about it: about the characters, the situations, the settings. All I know, all I have to know, is that it’s brilliant, this book of mine, and that it’s above me, like a star floating high, and that without even the slightest effort on my part, it’s shining brightly “Up There”—I know it’s shining even during daylight.

          But then, I get ahead of myself, and I can sense that anyone who’s been following me so far is now getting ahead of me too: you know where this is going—you know because you’ve experienced this yourself. You become a bit haughty, a bit conceited. Maybe you get somewhat drunk or high or lusty one night and in that flush of excitement you find yourself calling this book down—you call this book down to the page or screen.

          You call this book down to its wording.

          As surely you know, this is where the effort begins. This is where the work starts.

          Because it can take forever, or it can feel like it takes forever, to do the coaxing. You say, “please come down, book, you’re so very beautiful.” And you get no reply. Which makes you feel the same as when any fellow human being you’re enamored with doesn’t reply to your entreaties—it only makes you more enamored, more possessive. You flirt with the book—with your book—you continue to flatter it—to flatter her, him—and maybe you get a sentence, or even a paragraph, for your troubles. This, in turn, inflames you, and you move on to cajoling, inveigling, wheedling, making use of every suasion in the synonymicon, making promises you can never fulfill. Making, here is that word again, that Platonic word, representations.

          You have to be insane to be doing this.

          That’s what everyone tells you. That’s what you tell yourself. You must be insane and conceited and absolutely in love.

          And you must also be in love with disappointment. 

          Because the book that descends is not the same book that was hovering so peacefully in the empyrean. The book that descends is never that same book. It’s rather like a parody or satire of that book, but it’s not funny. Or it’s not funny to you.

          The book that you now have in front of you, worded onto the page, or onscreen, is just a beaten ugly incarnation of its original perfect being, and it’s your fault. You have only yourself to blame. Because you couldn’t control yourself. Because you just couldn’t have left it twinkling in the ether. You had to call it down, you were so afraid, so jealous, that someone else might possess it. But now it’s yours, it’s all yours, a justly perverse reward for your needy greed and hubris. Now, instead of perfection, you possess a monster.

          Toledo auf einer Darstellung des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts

          Which brings us to translation.

          Translators are much like writers: they tend to be sedentary and yet have tumultuous romantic relationships. But they differ from writers in one crucial respect: they never believe the books they are working on to be perfect, or to have been perfect—they never believe the books to which they have dedicated their lives to have originated in some uncorrupted primordial form, some prelapsarian and unspoiled sublimity.

          This is because they know a book’s problems. They know all of its problems, as well if not better than does the book’s so-called “writer.”

          And yet still they love these monsters. Or they try to love these monsters.

          They do this by putting these repellent gawky mutant creatures into another language.

          The idea is that the language of a book’s initial wording is like an ungainly body, which cannot contain the soul that it has captured.

          It is the task of the translator to remove that language and to replace it with another—it is the task of all translators to remove all the languages that have come before them and to replace them with their own, flensing the body of a book time and again until the ideal linguistic body for the book has been found and the soul of the book, the eternal and immortal soul of the book, has been most suitably accommodated.

          Of course, in doing so, they are setting themselves up for failure. Because: no book that is a book of words can ever be returned to the realm of the celestial.

          But at least a translated book makes explicit the desire of that return—a translated book makes the sincerest attempt of which I’m aware at achieving that desire.

          This is what translation has done for my own books—for the books for which I must take responsibility and apologize—in many languages apologize.

          Ana asif. Ani mitztaer. ¡Lo siento!

          Of the books that are called mine that I especially loathe, and am especially ashamed of, I can always say: “But they might still become perfect again in Swahili!” “They might yet achieve their apotheosis in Icelandic!”

          Because who’s to say that the language of perfection is not Swahili or Icelandic?

          The answer is: writers in Swahili and Icelandic.

          Samahani. Fyrirgefðu.

          For them, the language of perfection might be Arabic or Hebrew or Spanish.

          I’d like now to mention two verbs in English that aren’t strictly English: from Greek, English has “to catasterize,” while from Latin, English has “to stellify.” The words are synonyms, the former a self-consciously antiquarian adaptation by the “rationalist” 1600s, the latter an earlier adoption by Middle English. Both are translations of a type. They mean “to turn something into a star,” or “to be turned into a star.” They mean this literally, astrally: to be “translated” from corporeality into a constellation. In Classical mythology, this is the reward of great heroes like the hunter Orion, and, in my mythology, this is the reward that translators bestow on unheroic writers: they “catasterize” us, they “stellify” our books.

          Or, they “re-catasterize,” they “re-stellify,” to “constellate” our culture.

          It was as unheroic heroes that, in the spring of 1085, the armies of Alfonso VI of Castile rode into the city that we call Toledo, deposed the Umayyad Dynasty, and brought to a close nearly three centuries of Moorish Muslim rule, in a campaign that the Castilian Spanish language, but not the Arabic language, refers to as Reconquista. The new Christian reconquerors found that this city called Toledo (which was also a Kingdom, and, in Arabic, a Taifa of al-Andalus) possessed a mixed population, which spoke, read, and wrote a mongrelity of tongues: Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, Latin, and lingua Tholetana, the local Romance vernacular. Concomitantly, the city’s Muslim religious institutions possessed large libraries with a polyglot of books that had, perhaps, only a single commonality: they were largely incomprehensible to their new owners.

          In order to take fuller possession of what they’d fought for, then, a movement came about to translate these works and make them legible. This movement, which in the imagination of history has acquired the moniker the Toledo School—as if its impulse immediately sterilized itself with campuses and deans—succeeded in bringing an unprecedented amount of the scientific and mathematical and philosophical thought of the Arab world, and of the scientific and mathematical and philosophical thought that the Arab world had itself translated from the Greek, into “modern” Castilian Spanish and so into “modern” Europe. Because it is a fact that while the Romans copied Greek statuary and painting—Greek surfaces—it was only the Arabs, and, to a degree, the Persians, who took it upon themselves to preserve the less superficial appurtenances: Greek thought and literary culture.

          Here, at least, is the iconic image that history has passed down to us—that translators have translated for us: the image not of an ecclesiastical library but of a balmy gardened patio (which means something much different in Spanish than it does in English) that’s also the traditional depiction of the Muslim Paradise. In the middle of this patio is a babbling fountain, and surrounding this babbling fountain are overstuffed pillows on which lounge overstuffed Muslims and Christians and Jews, who, having put aside their dogmatic squabbles, discuss instead the divisions of the quadrivium and trivium, and the differences between the spirit and the soul, and which words in which languages might be used to render each.

          Of course, this depiction is sheer surface too: it’s false, a fantasy as shallow as the pool into which the fountain’s nonsense spouts.

          Wehrhaft: Die Bürger Toledos auf den Zinnen der Burg, dargestellt im Codex Vigilanus im Jahr 976.

          And yet the books associated with this School are real: their authors, and their translations, were as real as we are. For example, what appears to be the School’s first notable translation: John of Seville’s version of Qusta ibn Luqa’s On the difference between the soul and the spirit, which sought to elucidate distinctions between those two ghosts that haunt us: the Judeo-Christian perduring soul, which animates the body, and the passing spirit of Arabic medicine, which influences the body’s health.

          It was through the syncretic diligence of this enigmatic enterprise of the city called Toledo that we, today, can make platitudinal reference to the works of Plato, and of the Neo-Platonists—to the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Theodosius, Menelaus, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Galen, and Ptolemy, whose wisdom was widely ignored if not proscribed by the Christian Middle Ages, but intently and respectfully amended by the likes of al-Kindi, al-Razi, and others: ibn Sina known as Avicenna, ibn Rushd known as Averroes, and al-Khwarizmi known as Algoritmi, the author of algebra the concept and Algebra the book. The Toledo School produced versions of Aristotle’s Physics, On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, and Meteorology, the lattermost of which fixed the four elements of Creation: fire, air, water, and earth. Ptolemy’s Almagest—whose Arabic copy drew the School’s most industrious translator, Gerard of Cremona, to the city called Toledo—informed us that the heavens were a sphere, and that the equally spherical earth squatted motionless at its center, with the equally fixed stars clustered into constellations and orbiting as a single unified mechanism around it, and it even lists those stars: all 1,022 of them… I could go on and on, listing these works as the stars they are themselves—after all, it’s simpler to do so than to divine the true nature of the organization that set them spinning…

          It’s telling that, having perused numerous chronicles of this cipherous School, I have yet to find one that seems definitive, or even seems convincing.

          What appears to be the case is that the Toledo School was actually two schools, diverse in era and errand: the first was founded by Raymond, Archbishop of the city called Toledo between 1126 and 1151, which years Muslims call 519 and 545, while the second—the resurrection—was picked up a century later under the reign of Alfonso X. The first was a church institution, operating out of the Toledo Cathedral, with a team that included Jews, Mozarabians (or Arab Christians, who hewed to the liturgy of the Visigothic Church), and monks from the Order of Cluny, translating—together, separately, successively, however—from Arabic into Latin, or from Arabic into Castilian into Latin, which meant that their works were intended for clergy and educated audiences abroad, because the local laity couldn’t read Latin. The second incarnation, however, was a governmental institution, in which the king himself served an editorial role: Alfonso X insisted, apparently, on jettisoning the church’s Latin for the people’s Castilian, which meant that the works being translated were now intended to be readable by all people who sought education, the “general public.”

          In sum, the history of the Toledo School or schools can be read as the microcosmos of its major nonliterary achievement: namely, the compilation of the Toledan Tables— astronomical charts, lastingly referred to as “Ephemerides,” that were used to predict the movements of the sun, moon, and planets—or the five planets that had been identified at the time and deified as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The bounty of the Toledan Tables was the work of al-Zarqali, called Arzachel, a Muslim astronomer of the city called Toledo, whose work was translated by Gerard of Cremona around the year 1140, and then revised—with the help of the Jewish astronomers Yehudah ben Moshe and Yitzhak ibn Sid— and redubbed the Alfonsine Tables, around the year 1270.

          It was these Tables that set the standard for Renaissance astronomy, and though their compilers had accepted the Ptolemaic model that set our earth as the fixed center of all Creation, the Tables’ data were so comprehensive and accurate that they were used by Copernicus, at the dawn of the sixteenth century, to disprove that geocentric misnomer and assert the systemic fixity of our sun and the universal fact of heliocentrism.

          Over a millennium later, the Toledo School remains mostly mythic: a dream of an almost logical comity. So much is unclear, and never will be clear—such as, given all of the School’s literary and, if you’ll excuse me, STEM-related industry, why was no university ever established at the city called Toledo? And, were those among the School’s translators who, as it’s said, “had” Arabic willing collaborators with their European counterparts—or were they impressed into service, forced to translate their culture’s books for their foreign masters in the interests of mere survival? I confess to being attracted to the cruel romance of this hypothesis: I imagine an inky office employing only editor-slaves and a publisher-king.

          To be sure, translators have never had it easy, and it might even constitute an insult to contemporary practitioners of the discipline that those who are trying to kill them now are not royalty but plebs—we writers who kill our translators by our thanklessness, as much as by our thankfulness, which is to say by our obtuseness: such is the tribute that our renderers receive for giving our imperfect work a progressively less imperfect future.

          Of all the legends of the city called Toledo, there is only one about which I am certain—rather, there is only that I am certain cannot be disproven.

          It states: the world is a place but has no places. It tells us: the things of this world can have no name that isn’t constantly in the process of changing.

          It was never the Creator’s intention that our cities should be fixed to the ground. It was never the Creator’s intention that our cities should be immovable.

          The Creator decreed that what we now call locations—our present-day cities, towns, villages—inhered not in the earth but in the heavens.

          At the moment of Creation, then, the constellation that Ptolemy, and that we, call Centaurus emerged low in the sky directly over the spot where the city that we call Toledo now stands. This means that wherever Centaurus was the week after Creation was Toledo, and wherever Centaurus was the month after creation was Toledo, and so on, the city—or the perfect form of the city, which is the only form that we can recognize—remaining in constant galloping motion over the earth, remaining in constant trotting transit around us, while we, the earth’s sad and evil people, persisted in ignoring this cyclical cartographical imperative.

          We ignored it, and then, at some darkly aged point, we forgot it.

          We lost all knowledge of where exactly the stars were in relation to the earth at the moment of Creation, and so, to this very day, we have no way of knowing the names—the true precise precessional and changing names—of where we dwell.

          Tonight, I am saying, because it is night already somewhere, Toledo might be anywhere. It might even be here, above us, now.

          Let us be greedy and call to it, then, in all of our languages.

          Let us call it down.

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