Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Word of the day: traduce

The verb, to traduce, covers an interesting spectrum of meanings, ranging from straightforward confidence in the capacity to pass something on, to a recognition that change is likely occur along the way, to a potent sense of suspicion or anxiety about what is passed on and why. According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, its equivalents include to convey, transport, transfer, transmit, generate, propagate, translate, alter, modify, misrepresent, malign, slander, blame, accuse.

A traducian is a person who maintains that the soul of a child, like the body, is propagated by or inherited from the parents. Also (rare), a person who maintains that original sin is transmitted from parent to child.

In logic, traduction refers to the transference or transmission from one order of reasoning to another.

A traductor is a device on the side of a railway carriage that picks up and deposits mailbags while the train is moving.

This family of words strike me as especially interesting, as I’ve just finished reading Christina Stead’s great novel of family life, The Man Who Loved Children. The Man of the title, Sam Pollit, operates a bit like a traductor, picking up and depositing children, like mailbags, while the train of his creative and self-absorbed monologue remains in perpetual motion, protecting him from more than fleeting contact with the surrounding emotional landscape, which is dominated by the relentless antagonism of his embittered and periodically hysterical wife, Henny. For the kids, there’s joy to be had in the world their father creates around himself – it’s fun to be picked up by a human traductor, and there’s something vaguely miraculous, in a strictly naturalistic, scientific way, about the process. But there’s also danger – getting ‘deposited’ from the fast-moving train of endless words and activity that is ‘Sam-the-Bold’ can be a jolting and bruising experience.

For the reader of the novel, the casual cruelty that seems to flows seamlessly from the diversions of Sam’s jokes and invented language remains shocking, even after multiple repetitions of the pattern. One moment, he’s entertaining the kids, and us, with amusing word-plays, or at worst, lulling us into a gentle, drowsing stupor with his endless factual knowledge or his na├»ve humanistic idealism, and the next he’s viciously running one of his children down, goading the boys into hurting one another, demanding that the girls perform grinding domestic duties, or proposing eugenics programs that even Hitler might have baulked at. We come to realise that the charmed atmosphere Sam generates around himself is not a safe or reliable space; it is more about shoring up his ego than providing for his children’s emotional needs. Over the course of the novel, it more slowly becomes apparent that he is also incapable of taking responsibility for his family’s material needs: about financial matters, as about everything else, he is “vague and sentimental.”

Biographical information suggests that the character of Sam is closely based on the father of Christina Stead. One reviewer comments that the portrait, although critical, is drawn without hatred. I’m not so sure of that – there seems to be both hatred and love woven into the many details, like tiny brushstrokes, that build up the picture we are given of this man. Stead has traduced her father, with all the ambiguous range of that word: she has passed him on to us by generating and abundantly propogating the literary character of Sam Pollit. This character is a transmission, a translation of the living man who is, no doubt creatively misrepresented, openly slandered, and yet also reasonably blamed for harms and plausibly accused of domestic crimes committed against the children he loved. This range is what makes the work such a satisfying and intriguing example of literary traduction, to coin an expression, by which I mean the transference or transmission from the order of lived experience to that of literature.

In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead, the daughter, becomes the propagator of the soul of her father. This might well be a kind of revenge upon the father for his persistent assertion of a secular version of traducian orthodoxy: Sam sees himself as the creator, and assiduous gardener, of his children’s souls. While neglecting the conditions of his children’s material and emotional well-being, he shows intrusive interest in examining and attempting to shape their moral development. His eldest child, Louie, feels this intrusion keenly, and a strong thread (I initially wrote ‘threat’) in the narrative concerns her struggle to free herself from his influence. Since Louie appears to be a literary traduction of the young Christina Stead, the novel can also be read as an effort by the mature Stead to examine the extent to which her own soul has in reality been ‘propagated’ by her parents, particularly her father, and how far its structures have been shaped by her exposure to and involvement in the conflictual relationship between her father and the woman whom she called mother (her birth mother, like Louie’s, died while she was very young).

The step-mother of the novel is Henny, the shade to Sam’s dazzling light. In some ways she resembles her husband: she also has charm, and a capacity to create a magical world for the children, as well as an acid tongue which she does not hesitate to use upon them. But she is consistent in her litany of complaints, which gives her insults an expected, familiar quality and softens their effect. They seem an eloquent expression of her own misery, which is visibly wearing her down, more than an attempt to hurt anyone else. For Louie, who is regularly reviled as the step-daughter Henny cannot stand, these attacks seem to flow like water off an ugly duckling’s back; they do not prevent her from feeling a deep affinity with this woman and sympathy for her position. There is an almost extravagant honesty about Henny, in spite of her secrecy and deceptions; she rarely lies to herself, or to her husband – she simply avoids speaking to him, most of the time. If anything, she is too keenly aware of the misery of the world in general and her marriage in particular, which Sam refuses to feel. It is as if she has taken on the burden of this unhappiness alone, as she also increasingly takes on the burden of providing material support for the family, as best she can. She is the rock that holds the family together, but she is a fragile support, ready to shatter under a weight too heavy for her.

And then there is Louie, whose soul does indeed seem to partake of the qualities of her parents. Like Henny, she is keenly sensitive to the “daily misery” of their lives, but like Sam, she has a drive for self-preservation and a capacity for invention and imagination that allows her to transcend her immediate surroundings. Louie does not simply retreat into a self-absorbed fantasy world, however. Rather she finds resources in literature to help her interpret the violence of her emotional life and transmute it into poems and plays and stories, written sometimes in English and sometimes in a language of her own making.

Freud (with Sophocles) has offered us the Oedipal complex as a mythico-psychological guide to the love-hate relations between mother, father and son. In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead gives us an account of the triangular relationship between a father, mother and daughter which suggests that the passions involved in this version are equally powerful, transgressive and destructive in their potential. But her conclusion to the familial drama is quite different. At the end of the novel, Stead’s female Oedipus, rather than blinding herself in guilt, turns her gaze away from the family and toward the world, with a sense of awakening and adventure:

They would look everywhere and conclude that [Louie] had gone for a walk. “So I have,” she thought, smiling secretly, “I have gone for a walk around the world.”

It is an appealing conclusion. However rich or poor the psychic inheritance we receive from our parents, and however happy or difficult our childhoods, there is a whole world beyond the family, awaiting our attention, and if we open our eyes we see that we can traverse - and even traduce - it for ourselves.

But there is another way to understand the sense of liberation and opening that is so strong in the experience of Louie at the end of The Man Who Loved Children. In writing this book, Christina Stead looks unflinchingly into the unhappiness of her early family life, and by the end of the novel there is a sense that this has brought her enough peace and understanding to let the title of the novel be truly ambiguous. Although Stead leads her readers to hold Sam Pollit responsible for multiple failings as a parent (what kind of fatherly love is this, so selfish, so deluded, so intrusive, so neglectful?), at the same time, the book is suffused with a lively, grateful, even wildly proliferating sense that this man does, with all the considerable energy of his flawed, suffering human heart, love his children, and the rebellious Louie, or at least the writer she would grow into, finally understands this and is able to let go of her anger against him.

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