Vygantas Paukštė, Lost Lamb, 1994. Canvas, 90x110cm. From the MO Museum collection

by Donatas Petrošius


Samogitian English is a branch of Sarmatian English
(Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra)

Donatas Petrosius 03Photo by Regimantas TamošaitisIf, when you’re reading, you come across something you don’t understand, don’t worry—it’s normal not to understand everything. For example, I don’t completely understand authors who talk or write clearly. Because there’s really no point in talking or writing about something that is totally clear to everyone. The starting point for literature, philosophy and other adventures is the unclear. If you can’t immediately understand who wants to say what and why they’re saying it, then what fault is it of ours if the narrator tries to drag us out of our blissful ignorance? Fortunately, language—or rather languages—mislead and deceive us, drive us to distraction and lull us to sleep, so the deeper we delve into them, the less we understand.  And our inability to understand is also the starting point for what we can call culture. Misunderstandings have given humankind at least as much as hermeneutics, Asian studies and deductive reasoning put together.

Take Zen, for instance. A millennium and a half ago, the patriarch Bodhidharma crossed the Himalayas and brought the teachings of Buddha, based on meditation (“dhyana” in Sanskrit), to China. Unable to pronounce “dhyana,” the ancient Chinese were left with “channa” or “chan.” The Koreans who encountered “chan” embraced it, but when they brought it back to Korea, it was “son” or “seon” that remained. Some time later, the Japanese sailed to China. They also liked this teaching, but it was easier for them to get their mouths around “Daruma” and “Zen” than “Bodhidharma” and “chan.” Zen, therefore, is the incorrect pronunciation of an incorrectly used term. But this didn’t bother Jack Kerouac, JD Salinger or the philosopher and practitioner Bruce Lee. It doesn’t bother me either. I must have heard it said a hundred times that Westerners will never understand the true meaning of Zen. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to have as deep a knowledge or understanding of Zen or any other teaching as Bodhidharma or either of the two Suzukis. And I certainly don’t want to know as much as the gurus who write leaflets on topics like “Zen paradoxes for the everyday, for business and for Christians,” “Zen and moral sex” or “Zen and black holes.”

Perhaps the origins of any new tradition or teaching are related to mistakes, misunderstandings and misconceptions. Perhaps mistakes are the drivers of progress and discovery. In any case, perfection is boring. It’s sterile. It’s the veneration of the predictable and universal. It’s ideological and ordinary tourism.  What’s considered to be perfection, like the Mona Lisa, Niagara Falls or the Taj Mahal, draws the crowds.

I know some people who consider the English language to be perfection. I don’t know where they got that idea from. Until I heard that I had always thought that I knew English quite well. For three years I was the international programs coordinator for the Lithuanian Writers’ Union, where I had to work with several dozen foreigners. I understood them and they understood me. I wrote them letters and I received letters in return. We dealt with the transport, accommodation and translation problems of poets taking part in festivals and we drafted legislative proposals on copyright to submit to the European Parliament. In my spare time I read articles on popular science—about what happens inside the Large Hadron Collider, gravitational waves, quantum mechanics, and so on and so forth.

Last autumn, I was thinking about starting a PhD in literary criticism, to expand my horizons and to do a bit of digging in the field of semiotics. There were two entrance exams, one of which was an English language exam.

It wasn’t hard to outline in Lithuanian the general direction of my studies, but once I began learning the terms in English I had to print off several dozen pages of notes on the essential differences between, and characteristics of, the theories of Algirdas Julien Greimas and Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifier and signified, and also—for a bit of variety—the basic principles laid down by Louis Hjelmslev and Yuri Lotman. I had imagined that, by the time the exam came around, all this linguistic information would somehow be compacted in my head as one single narrative.

But when the English language exam started, there was no sign of any questions about linguistic semantics. To start with there was a listening test: an audio recording of some writer talking about her elderly mother and other social problems. The fact that she considered something that wasn’t really a problem to be a problem annoyed me. So I found it hard to concentrate on listening and the choice of possible answers provided in the test didn’t tally with my point of view. Then there was a whole series of exercises where I had to choose the right article or put the verb in the right tense. (I would love to know where all these elaborate verb forms are used—in the Punjab? Monty Python? The Falkland Islands?) I got 70% but the idea that I didn’t know the English language all that well was only getting stronger.

There’s this myth in Lithuania that, since the British don’t have any state language commission, everyone talks and writes English any which way they please. And all forms of broken English are legal and deserve our respect. Well, yes—who hasn’t heard Indian, Jamaican, Russian, American or Scottish pronunciation? In a certain way accents and loan words are valuable assets. Until you send your scientific article to an English-language journal, that is. Then the publication’s editor will return the article to you with the recommendation that you hire an English-language editor. Be aware that your personal attempts to enrich the English lexicon and English syntax won’t impress anyone.

The Lithuanian national character is lacking in certain areas. For example, a large proportion of Lithuanians turn a blind eye to corruption, drive while surfing the Internet on their phones, exercise too little and will bust a gut in their attempts to speak English without an accent and more correctly than a BBC newsreader.

During the Soviet occupation, when Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians spoke Russian in Moscow, their Baltic accent immediately gave them away. In this century, however, I’ve heard so many Lithuanians speak English fluently (i.e., better than me), with hardly any trace of an accent. And even when some English speakers of Lithuanian origin still have a bit of an accent, it soon disappears. Because Lithuanians are stubborn: they won’t rest until their English is perfect.

Once on social media, a writer and professional translator I know, Aleksandra F., who translates into and out of English, made fun of the way some Lithuanians start questions in English with the word “maybe.” Instead of asking “Would you like some tea?,” they tend to make the question even more refined and say “Maybe you would like some tea?” I played this over and over in my head for ages, trying to remember whether I had actually said it or not. “Maybe, yes” (pronounced in my giveaway Baltic accent). And maybe I am that person who will carry on using all my tell-tale linguistic signs of imperfection even if I know it will get me a lower mark on the exam, and maybe I am that person who simply won’t deign to answer the question if I deem it unworthy of a response.

There are some things like articles, for example, which perhaps are important only to native speakers of English. I’d love to know whether there are any Brits out there who would get confused if they heard someone say “Go to hell.” Would they ask where exactly—to a hell or the hell? Generally speaking, as far as foreigners are concerned, when it comes to English articles, it’s all relative: just like electrons in the latest explanations of quantum mechanics, they’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And all language matter is just an empty form. It’s just the confusion of a student when confronted with the signifier and the signified (and the fear of getting them wrong and making a fool of himself), then later coming across Derrida’s differance and difference, at which point making a mistake is no longer quite so frightening because the two things are practically the same anyway, especially since there are so few people who can make a proper distinction between the two. Everything is complicated but at the same time it’s simple, if you have read Buddha’s “Heart Sutra,” according to which “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It’s more difficult to learn non-academic, everyday principles by heart than a foreign language or an incomprehensible poem.

The truth is, for normal people, all poetry is a foreign language. All philosophy is a foreign language. All reality—seeing things as they really are—is a foreign language. If you have been gripped too tightly by reality, ontology or poetry, you may then find it difficult to switch back to everyday conversations.

I really relate to people who don’t understand poetry. Most poetry leaves me cold too. I don’t understand Rilke, either because I never matured enough to reach his level or because some of his ideas jar with the poetic forms he used. When I read his poetry, I become a reluctant patient suffering alongside the philosophy imprisoned in his poems. Give me boring old Husserl any day. A poem is so full of ideas that they rub up against each other until they blister. It’s as painful to observe as seeing a traumatised athlete, face distorted in pain, trying to cross the finish line, so that the result—even though it’s bad—still goes down in Olympic history and is recorded in the family archives.

But the paradox is that I remember those traumatised, unpopular sections more often than the popular ones.  Because it is the works of those writers who I feel close to, who I better understand, that I master more quickly, finish and put on the furthest shelf, where they rest for a few years until the time comes to check up on them.

Whereas those writers who I didn’t get on with, whose language stuck in my throat, come back to haunt me in semantic nightmares. With silent rebuke they ask me to check whether maybe I just hadn’t used the right code to decipher them.

Not only are there writers who are genetically foreign to you, whose verses you automatically reject on gut instinct, there are also entire cultures whose cuneiform scripts are deemed worthy only out of respect for their mummified remains. And then there are living traditions from the furthest frontiers of the world, which cannot be commented on because of political correctness and the spirit of humanism. And the funny thing is that these borders are moving, sliding across continents. Often it will turn out that some peripheral point from beyond the Arctic Circle has reached Paris, London, or even your own ego.

When I was a teenager, a couple of years after Lithuania regained independence, brimming with enthusiasm I set out to study English. Every time I came across a new word, I would assiduously look up its meaning in the dictionary. I got through a whole pile of novels by South African writers that my English teacher lent me from his personal collection, accumulated during the Soviet era. It was dominated by writing about third-world social injustice, racial problems and the rotten bastards who were exploiting capitalism—it was mostly English reading material of this kind that found its way to the Lithuanian countryside during the Soviet occupation. Later the school library received old copies of National Geographic, greatly expanding my outlook and my vocabulary. Then I discovered it was possible to find cheap Penguin Classics in Vilnius. The highpoint of my studies was finishing Dickens’s Hard Times. I learned thousands of new words, most of which I never needed again. Unpacked and unravelled, they are now dozing somewhere in my subconscious. After toiling away all that time with texts and dictionaries, what has stayed with me is the ability to understand narratives, instructions, and information notices.

Later, I started to write poetry and I tried to read English poetry. I realised that I didn’t understand what was poetic in English. Why are some banal pronouncements (at least if I translate them word for word into Lithuanian) considered to be classic poems that scale the heights of great literature? After suffering at the hands of poetry books, I realised that, however many new English words I learned, I would never overcome the barrier to English poetry. For example, when I read these lines by Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour (…)

I pretend to recognise them as poetry. This happens to me all the time. It’s as if I know all the words but can’t see anything behind them. I can console myself with the fact that it’s not just me pretending though. Almost all the classics, in all the languages of the world—from Homer, Dante and Goethe to Pound, Eliot and Brodsky—are based on a collective pretence. All great poetry is a matter of tradition, rites, and a fear of emptiness.

Religions are also as alien to me as all other museum values: the classical and the traditional. Zen teaches us to get through life without holy scriptures, without teachers, without statues of Buddha. Without the burden of languages and without the obligations of poetry. Without appropriation (of authorship), lust, or attachment. If you want to write, you have to make a hole in the wall built by the classics and break out. But don’t ever rush into celebrating the rewards that you’ve plundered.

In those rare moments of certainty when I feel so free that I can write down something that those sceptical inner demons of mine consider important, I realise that poetry is an erroneous retelling of things that have not been understood.

And, fortunately, nothing more than that.

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