619 22nd Street
5 July 1987
The last communication ended without a conclusion, since it was but the start of what threatens to be an extended discussion, hence readable — or, more to the point, writable — only in installments. When last I was burdening you with the mental wanderings of an aging hippie translator, I pointed out that two twentieth-century occult teachings of The Real Truth had much in common, beginning with the prescription that the seeker after truth is invariably burdened with excessive self-importance.
“I can tell,” says Don Juan to Carlos Castañeda, “that when you were conceived your father was bored and your mother wished she had forgotten the whole business.”
Your correspondant, to a degree I find hard to convey, is bound up with the task of translating a scholarly biography of F.G.W. Struve. The scenario — to adopt a locution from the Watergate-era Cabinetspeak — of using the successful bicycle trip as a psychological base from which to fulfill a long-held dream of returning to graduate school in Russian history has failed to fly, so I return to the same old task sobered by yet another rejection. Translation is admittedly of lower abstraction than original research: indeed it can be described a mechanical, and therefore I cling to it. An hour’s work a day, a couple of hours in a week, is not lost or diminished by the pause before I continue the work.
For Gurdjieff and Don Juan also emphasize the unity of will that harmonizes the human personality when there is an aim to human life. It is not because the only scholarly biography of Struve is a great book — I find the second half rather boring — that I persist; the beginning of my selected field of studies requires it. So far as ai am doing what is needed, even though I find it hard to do, I am consciously improving my world.
But now if I surrender self-importance the task becomes less
Translating, p. 2
meaningful. I’m not improving a let-us-say ‘dad-blamed’ thing by translating Struve: I’m only indulging in mental masturbation like all those incapable of accomplishing things.
Okay, when I accept the charge that I have an irrational fear of success and that spending large amounts of time at something for which I have no particular gift or inclination is self-indulgent, I can still say I have selected a nontrivial task that is within my power to accomplish; — a classic definition of a dissertation topic in graduate school, wouldn’t you agree. Ah yes, the dissertation has gotta be original, but let us invert that and make it derivative instead. Just so happens grad school won’t have me anyway.
I’ve gone round and round about this translation with Seidel, and he warns me that I’ll never finish it. I talked about it with my last algebra tutee, who said I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t. Given my powers of procrastination my only present requirement is that I spend a part of every day working on it.
July 1st —- 1 hour
2nd —- nil
3rd —- 1 hour
4th —- 2 hours
5th —- half an hour & it’s past 9 pm
A discouraging set of numbers after that flowery build-up, eh?
Well you are dealing with someone so successful at questioning self-importance that it is questionable whether I ever accomplish anything. But that’s just the small amount of grace, so to speak, left to me: I do keep trying, keep writing not-particularly-inspiring letters, leaving a mediocre record of my banal thoughts.
Ollie North, live on the hot seat
testifying on TV
Translating, p. 3
P. S. Last night after dinner at the Balints’, Vali read my latest two pages and objected to the self-pity of the last line: I have no reason to believe, she points out, that this translation and my muttering-into-my-beard simultaneous correspondence will not be something extraordinary.
On one level my amendment concerns the choice of the words ‘mediocre’ and ‘banal’ and drags in a quotation from the second-rate writer Jack London; on a more immediate level, an emotional level, my most unpleasant memory of my last months as a contracted teacher in the Oakland public schools was being asked by a student to stop talking to myself.
Everything’s mixed in intention and accomplishment, so that while I attach the connotation of median or average to ‘mediocre’ it certainly, along with ‘banal’ right beside it (meaning common or unremarkable), may well betray indulgence in negative emotions. There’s theoretical objection on my part to Jack London’s outlook upon his conversion to socialism, when because he was physically strong he at first rejoiced in his ability to participate in capitalist exploitation of workers, himself first of all; then, once he realized the inhuman consequences of this setup, vowed forever to avoid physical labor [from “How I Became a Socialist,” on p. 1119 of Jack London, Novels & Social Writings, Library of America, 1982. The passage is censored from the online Library of America website — MM]:
And as I listened my brain began to work. The woman of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat. And I confess a terror seized me. What when my strength failed? when I should be unable to work shoulder to shoulder with the strong men who were as yet babes unborn? And there and then I swore a great oath. It ran something like this : All my days I have worked hard with my body, and according to the number of days I have worked, by just that much am I
Translating, p. 4
nearer the bottom of the Pit. I shall climb out of the Pit
(and here is the part I reject)
but not by the muscles of my body shall I climb out. I shall do no more hard work, and may God strike me dead if I do another day’s hard work with my body more than I absolutely have to do. And I have been busy ever since running away from hard work.
On account of the fact that I do not alienate my self with my rather rebellious choice of a life, I’m not going to refuse to do that by which the world succeeds in oppressing me. In my case it’s very painful to acknowledge the evaluation that my mental work was not good enough to rate honor grades either in undergraduate astronomy nor in graduate history of science. And it’s indeed possible that the terms ‘mediocre’ and ‘banal’ may have negative connotation, but that’s not my intent here.
You see, because physical labor enmeshes the noncapitalist in a web of exploitation London forswears physical labor. Although my professional intellectual contribution has been repeatedly adjudged unexceptional, I do not on that account either forswear writing history of government use of science, or fear its lack of brilliance.
I keep doing it even though it is described to me as not worth while because that is the way I am me.
Done: 114 pages
To Go: 106 pages
Rah, rah, rah. Sis-boom-bah.