24 December 2008

For formalist literary critics

This is a sentence from the novel The Bamboo Dancers, by N.V.M. Gonzalez, a Philippine National Artist who lived much of his adult life in California: "To understand and to be understood - this has been my motto." What insights do we get if we read this sentence as a sentence in Tagalog (NVM's mother tongue, in which he also wrote fiction), "using English words," as he himself liked to say? In English, the sentence plays cleverly with two meanings of the word "understand," namely, to comprehend the nature of something, and to be sympathetic towards someone or something. That ambiguity is enough to give the sentence literariness, as the Russian formalists would put it. The two meanings in English are distinct from each other ("I understand this sentence" is different from "I understand you"), which is why the ambiguity works. In Tagalog, however, the two meanings are identical when the word "intindihin" is used in reference to oneself ("Intindihin mo ako"). There is no ambiguity in Tagalog. The play between ambiguity and non-ambiguity adds to the literariness of the sentence. This is similar to what the New Critics used to say about meter: the meter of a good poem should work as a counterpoint to the way a line is said in ordinary language (e.g., "To be or not to be - that is the question" is iambic except for the last foot, but it is almost always recited with stresses in other places: be, not, that). The Tagalog of Gonzalez works as a counterpoint to the English, adding to the complexity of the prose.

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