Magical mediocrity: bringing Bringhurst and literary scholarship into 'coterminous' disrepute
Worlds. Magical realism and contemporary post-colonial literature
in English, edited by Elsa Linguanti, Francesco Casotti and Carmen
Concilio. Published in 1999 by Rodopi, Amsterdam, 282 pages,
€35, ISBN 90 420 0438 X.
written entirely in English, consists of fifteen essays by Italian
academics on the theme of magical realism in literature. It also
features some of the work of the Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst
which the editors have decided to include but which is of dubious
relevance to the undertaking and which, as we shall see, turns out
to do little for Mr Bringhurst's image.
The most striking
feature of the book is that it contains no explicit
acknowledgement to the translator or translators who presumably
rendered it into acceptable English. It thus appears to attribute
to the contributors – rather magically, one might say – a
level of written English which they do not possess. It
consequently also casts serious doubt on the authenticity of the
therefore appears to represent yet another case of typical Italian
academic departure from worldwide conventions of literary
scholarship in respect of intellectual integrity and correct
impression is that most, if not all, of the 15 contributions by
Italian academics could not possibly have been written without
considerable help from unacknowledged translators. Such
unacknowledged translators of the work of Italian academics often
find themselves also having to make significant additions and
clarifications to the point of having to rewrite the original
contributors to the volume either were at the time or have since
become “professori ordinari” (Tommaso Scarano in Latin
American, and the rest in English, studies): Elsa Linguanti,
Biancamaria Rizzardi Perutelli, Tommaso Scarano (University of
Pisa); Paolo Bertinetti, Renato Oliva, Alessandro Monti
(University of Turin); and Alfredo Rizzardi (University of
“professore ordinario” formally translates “full
professor”. It thus conveys the idea that Italian “full
professors” have similar academic competence and moral and
intellectual integrity to bona fide professors in
educationally advanced societies.
It is worth
reminding readers that The Times Higher Education Supplement
(London), The Guardian (Manchester), The Chronicle of
Higher Education (Washington), The Scientist (Philadelphia)
and Just Response Human Rights Journal (London & Rome)
are among international journals which continue to expose the
widespread cynical disregard of moral and ethical criteria at
JUST Book Reviews travelled
to Pisa, Turin and Bologna and spoke to native English-speaking
teaching staff, professional translators and students. All
confirmed that mediocre levels of EL writing skills by Italian
contributors to the present volume would in most cases have
required extensive restructuring in addition to translation from
the Italian original.
confused, the contributions are at best conspicuously lacking in
originality and incisiveness and may be fairly generally described
as mediocre and pedestrian in the typical Italian mainstream
academic tradition. But some of the confusion seems especially due
to contributors’ inability to elucidate the concept of
“magical realism”, which the editorial team has perhaps
unwisely decided to focus on. The remaining confusion is of an
inbuilt, systemic nature.
“magical realism” was imported from the artistic to the
literary world about 80 years ago. It was originally and most
famously used to describe the work of José Luis Borges. Only
within an Italian academic volume on the subject would it be
possible to avoid citing any of Borges’ works or of even
mentioning his name at all. This, incidentally, despite having a
Latin American studies “professore ordinario” on board in the
person of Mr Scarano.
Not content with
bringing literary scholarship into disrepute, Mrs Linguanti and
company have managed to embroil the Canadian poet Robert
Bringhurst in this interesting Italian pantomime. The table of
contents and list of contributors feature the name of Robert
Bringhurst alongside and on an equal footing with those of all the
other contributors with a piece titled “Coterminous worlds”.
A closer reading
reveals that Mr Bringhurst has not in fact contributed a new piece
to the volume but has rather, as Mrs Linguanti says in the
book’s introduction, allowed the re-publication of excerpts from
his published work. Somewhat paradoxically, Mr Bringhurst,
apparently the only contributor who did not provide a commissioned
contribution to this volume, is clearly the only one whose work
merits any sort of serious attention.
On the other
hand, perhaps partly on account of the editing and cutting, some
of Mr Bringhurst's statements appear questionable. For example, he
attributes to "the old philosopher-poets of Greece" a
"refusal to be compartmentalized". Perhaps because it is
deprived of its wider context, this statement, which is presented
as a factual assumption, is quite incorrect and anachronistic.
It is not that
the pre-Socratics refused to be compartmentalised since the
compartmentalisation which Mr Bringhurst seems to have in mind had
not yet come into existence. Rather, the poetic, the scientific
and the philosophical spirit were one and had not yet become
dissociated from one another.
reservation concerns Mr Bringhurst's statement that "the
sages of Tang Dynasty China practiced and preached a tradition of
freedom". It is not clear who the word "sages" is
supposed to refer to. The Tang dynasty saw the increasing
influence of Buddhist philosophy, notably Tian-Tai, Hua-Yan and
Chan (or Zen) and did not produce any great geniuses in this area.
The greatness of
the Tang is to be found rather in the poets, for example, Du Fu,
Li Bai, Bai Juyi – and Wang Wei (whose poetry and paintings were
particularly influenced by Buddhism). Again, it may be that what
Mr Bringhurst has in mind would be clearer within the wider,
Mrs Linguanti and
Ms Concilio provide 26 lines of introduction to Mr Bringhurst’s
life and works and proceed to supply excessively short extracts
from four of his books. From the first of these four books the
reader is given six extracts which together run to just over two
pages. Mrs Linguanti and Ms Concilio further edit these passages
from Mr Bringhurst’s first book by making six arbitrary cuts.
In this 2-page
section there are also about a dozen words and expressions in
italics, probably Mr Bringhurst’s own, but Mrs Linguanti and Ms
Concilio fail to make this clear to the reader. The remainder of
Mr Bringhurst’s “contribution” is given similar editing
treatment and the entire contribution runs to just nine pages.
order to lend further prestige to a sad undertaking, Mrs Linguanti
and company decide to seize on Mr Bringhurst's expression
"coterminous world", remove it crucially from context,
pluralise it and baptise it as the title of both the Bringhurst
contribution and their book. It is uncertain whether any of this
was carried out with Mr Bringhurst's collaboration.
"Coterminous Worlds"? The suggestion may be that the
so-called magical world is somehow coterminous with the real
world. But nowhere in the book do the editors either clarify this
or explain in what sense they intend "coterminous". Do
they mean "sharing a single boundary" or "sharing
more than one boundary" and in what precise manner?
Or perhaps the
purpose was to suggest that the world of Italian academia, which
might appear to the uninitiated to share similar groundrules and
conventions to foreign academia, is actually a moral and legal
black hole, a "coterminous world" where egoism, greed,
superficiality and the lust for power prevail and where there is
no serious regard for the pursuit of truth and scientific enquiry.
and from the point of view of Mrs Linguanti and her
co-contributors, rather embarrassingly – in addition to being a
poet, Mr Bringhurst also happens to be an experienced translator
and a typography expert.
also happens to admire, as he himself has put it elsewhere,
“moral and spiritual and intellectual integrity”, while he
abhors ignorance, greed, "the cult of personality and
power” and “the religion of money”. These he describes as
“diseases” which “are as visible in the typographic world as
they are in the world of politics.”
With all the best
will in the world, one wonders if Mr Bringhurst knew exactly what
he was letting himself in for when agreeing to take part in this
Italian academic exercise.
Linguanti sees fit to thank the Rodopi series editor Gordon
Collier for helping "iron out the bumps". It would be
interesting to know exactly what sort of bumps were involved and
whether Mr Collier or Rodopi took the trouble to check the
contributors' knowledge of English and whether they actually
bothered to read the book at all.
It would also be
interesting to know who funded this publication, how much funding
was provided and how much Rodopi normally charge for such a
Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on April 30 2004.