In Praise of Introductions

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Some people will tell you to skip a book’s introduction so that you might form a first impression that is entirely your own — unpoisoned by the academic arsenic of criticism, the blinders of one person’s interpretation, or the dated fashions of scholarly thought. But our palimpsest brains never begin at a book’s beginning. If we approach an introduction tentatively and critically, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to accept or reject its premises on their own merit, at least to the degree that we could do the same with the premises of the book itself. Bad introductions – such as, say, the ones you’ll find in certain Barnes & Noble editions of public domain books – can still provide us with some useful information. Mediocre ones, such as David McDuff’s introduction to Crime and Punishment, can be exasperating but nonetheless informative.

Particularly if we are reading a book in translation, it’s important to discover the mind through which our author’s thoughts have been filtered. Is it a mind we can trust? Does she dot her i’s and cross her t’s? How well does she know the author, the author’s works, the author’s time, and the work being introduced (or whichever among these the reader thinks is important for accomplishing a good translation)? And what do we think of her opinion, or of her lines of reasoning when she presents them? This should all figure into what we make of a translator’s decisions and how much (and in what way) we trust her rendering of an author’s words.

Sometimes introductions are better than the work being introduced (e.g. Michael Walzer’s introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew). Beyond just giving us a “way in” to a work, introductions can themselves be repositories for genius and beauty. It is on this note that I’d like to share some awesomeness from (and maybe incite you to read?) three of my all-time favorite introductions.

The first is actually many mini-introductions in The Portable Twentieth Century-Russian Reader (Brown, Clarence. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.). The book itself consists of a memorable selection of 20th-century Russian literature, replete with all the gravitas of the indefatigable yet often stifled Russian spirit. Many translators contributed to the collection, but Clarence Brown supplied the introductory biographies of each Russian author. His style isn’t overly “academic.” He seems to aim for relatability and readability; he’s working to draw the reader into the times and places that generated these writers and their work. What I found so beautiful about these introductions is the way in which Brown injects every word with his own style and thoughts, yet doesn’t draw or seek to draw the reader’s attention away from the works he’s introducing. He leads us into the texts like a pied piper. Here are some excerpts of his melodic words:

“…being a Jew in the country that has enriched the international lexicon of savagery with the word pogrom did not help.” (170) on Osip Mandelstam

“—and also his continual struggle against the obstacles placed in his way by tall, healthy, blond persons.” (203) on Isaac Babel

“It is called skaz, a Russian term that has been pointlessly imported into English, since no Russian or foreign theorist has ever been able to assign to it a meaning that might justify its encumbering the lexicon of criticism.” (232)

Timeo hominem unius libri (I fear the man of one book), wrote St. Thomas Aquinas. His words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to a single book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered only one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. It is the man of one book, the hedgehog, who gains the victory.” (246) on Yuri Olesha

“Hitler acknowledged the Bolsheviks as his teachers in certain techniques of population control, but his preferred instrument was fire. Stalin used ice.” (419)

“…an unshakeable belief in the moral ascendancy of the suffering people of Russia.” (436) on Alexander Solzhenitsyn

“I asked him once whether he had ever studied English. He replied that a Lithuanian had in fact proposed to teach him English in one of the camps. ‘But,’ he said, ‘suppose that by the age of forty-seven I knew enough English to read good books. How many would I have time to read? Some six or seven. And so I decided to write.” (484) on Andrei  Sinyavsky

“…he soon came to be known as a sort of dissident’s dissident.” (539) on  Georgi Vladimov

For our next introduction (wocka wocka), Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad is a thing of great beauty. He held literality in translation dear, and his work reflects great care and precision in rendering Homer into English (for those of you who prefer musical to literal translation, Fagles comes highly recommended). Lattimore put meaning before rhyme and meter, demonstrating linguistic expertise especially useful to the student of Ancient Greek. And yet what modesty we find in the opening words of his introduction:

I have tried in this introduction to put before the reader the information that will help him to a more complete understanding of the translation. ‘Information’, though, if it concerns Homer, means controversy; so I have had to cut a rather sweeping path through a mass of difficult or insoluble problems, working from the text and not from the literature on the subject. The exposition will of course not have the authority of a properly documented monograph. Some of my interpretations I should like, in some more appropriate place, to elaborate and defend. Still, all this aside, the introduction represents the translator’s ideas about the Iliad. (11)

But the man need not have been apologetic – his thorough exegesis of the Iliad’s form is an education in what a text, by itself, can reveal. His careful study of repetition throughout the work allowed him to separate the tropes of oral tradition from the quirks and genius of its author. And what is missing from his translation – the rhythmic, sing-song experience of the Iliad recited aloud in its original language – he illuminates for us in his introduction as if holding a torch to a dark cave wall’s hieroglyphs, explaining, much as the archeologist would, that this experience can only truly be available to us firsthand. Lattimore returns to us from his quest for Homer’s poetry, and though he describes it in glorious detail, his words urge us to study Ancient Greek.  Having read Lattimore’s entrancing introduction and then his translation of the Iliad, I believe it would be nigh impossible to do so without returning with a love of classical poetry, or an agony for the fate of Hektor, or an impetus to parse Homeric Greek.

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What pity, what window into the souls of Homer’s characters Lattimore gives us. As Hamlet might say, Lattimore sets us up a glass, that we might see the inmost part of them, such as with the ill-fated Trojan hero Hektor:

For this Hektor, Homer’s Hektor, who brags outrageously, who sometimes hangs back when the going is worst, who bolts from Achilleus, is still the hero who forever captures the affection and admiration of the modern reader, far more strongly than his conqueror has ever done. Such are the accidental triumphs of Homer. (36)

Introduction or no, Hektor’s soul-wrenching goodbye to Helen in Book VI of the Iliad is one of the more touching moments in the history of this world’s literature, but Lattimore gives us singular insight into the structural creation of the pitiable, noble underdog Hektor as foil to the poem’s Hellenic (hometown) heroes.  And the greatest achievement, I think, of the truly fine scholarly introductions is their ability to make scholars of all of us, to inspire us to seek clarity in our interpretation of texts and rigor in our arguments.

One such scholar was E.R. Dodds, who penned possibly the most thorough, meticulously ordered introduction ever written (at the very least, the most impressive introduction I’ve ever read!) for his translation of the Gorgias by Plato (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990. Print.). Dodds’s 66-page reasoned account details the credibility and usefulness of extant Platonic manuscripts, reveals his judgments of where and how humor/sarcasm occurs in the dialogue (a subtle task in a dead language), and gives an exhaustive list of all else worth mentioning about his research. Dodds is kind of like the host who thinks of everything from a spare set of keys to a map of the neighborhood. And when he draws conclusions about how to interpret various parts of the text, the conclusions are accompanied by veritably Euclidean proofs. When his resources don’t allow for absolute conclusions, he tells us. And where the final word is not his, he gives us leads so that we might dig into the problem ourselves.  An introduction like this gives us everything the translator’s got in a case file, with all available evidence, and charges us with the task of applying our own minds to the material and deciding what to make of it ourselves.

But with Dodds, it’s not, “just the facts, ma’am.” Because he also, without arrogance or delusion, knows that he’s made himself into an expert on the text, and he’s prepared to share his wisdom. With section titles like “Why is the Gorgias so bitter?” (19) and lengthy reflections on various scholars’ dating of Platonic dialogues, he surveys the entire terrain of the book’s critical past. He tells us of the opinions of his predecessors without merely “using” them – instead he seems to convey a fraternity of scholarship, a sense that all the readers of Plato throughout history have somehow been Plato’s students, and that all these scholars are working together toward a common end. This certainly isn’t always the case in academic discourse. Sometimes it’s much more polemical – more like bonking the heads of giants than standing on their shoulders (and, of course, often this is for the best – we don’t need to be basing future research on, for example, Kant’s racism).

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But the Deweyan-Great-Society of an academic discourse that Dodds offers us is so utterly engaged in the singular task of understanding a language and a philosopher that it allows us a little shelter from the sheer exhaustion of fighting our (necessary, important) postcolonial battles. I bring this point up because the voicing of contemporary egalitarian concerns is notably absent when one is immersed in classical culture. But it is heartening to read the earnest scholarship of someone so dedicated to careful examination of a text, on a quest for that text’s Truth – regardless of the limitations of such a search – and to be inspired to commit to a similar rigor of scholarship in one’s own quests (and to Dodds’s credit, he also comes across as pretty progressive).

I may not have conveyed much of the substance of Dodds’ introduction to the Gorgias in this encomium, but I can’t recommend enough that you read it. It’s dotted with Greek words that not everyone will be able to translate, but I think you can get to the heart of the piece even while skipping these.

In summary, an introduction is a wonderful thing. A well written introduction is all the more wonderful, and the best introductions work to make a book truly unforgettable.

In lieu of a conclusion, I’m tacking on a few bits of wisdom, selected almost at random, from Dodds. Disclaimer: the bits I selected sound aphoristic – Dodds was not a man of hollow platitudes, but I guess maxims make good quotations. The bulk of his introduction involves the presenting of actual evidence.

on the extant writings of the sophist Gorgias: “They were the work of an indefatigable stylist, a man who polished painfully every sentence that he wrote, caring passionately about its form, but (as Plato says, Phdr. 267 a) very much less about its relationship to truth.” 8-9

“…there can be no true science of the irrational.” 10

[Polus] expresses the moral attitude of a ‘shame-culture’ (to use a convenient anthropological term), in which to be ‘well thought of’ is the accepted social aim.” 11

“Of Callicles we know absolutely nothing beyond what Plato tells us in the Gorgias. Since scholarship abhors a vacuum, various older scholars decided that he must be a ‘mask’ for some one whom we do know….” 12

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