In the Egyptian Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had an instinct for symmetry, for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame, for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space, for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonate with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them. Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more approximate comprehension of the objects, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension. What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total correspondence.
I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand. Sometimes we communicate better with someone who does not speak our language or who lived in another era or lives in another continent than we do with a coeval compatriot. But a good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another struggling to approximate a shared vision. Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and conceal our meanings from each other. Yes, conceal also. Indeed, as Steiner explained in After Babel, the differences between languages may be a result of a human need to differentiate a group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality. There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses, and to insist on differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables. While Steiner acknowledges that much of communication is miscommunication, and that translation appropriates and distorts the original language or meaning, he concludes that the misprision ultimately adds something to the original and that without the admittedly imperfect mechanism of language (which itself is a translation from inner to outer), we would have no culture, no community at all. Translation or solipsism. Most of the people who deny language its ability to communicate are still talking and writing. They have failed to follow up their assertions with their ultimate conclusions, and have therefore led us astray. The same can be said about the way we are told we should operate when it comes to differences and correspondences. We are to ignore differences and deny correspondences. Leaving us precisely where?
Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, we insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond superficial and erroneous external, physical differences). On the other hand, we insist that it is impossible to understand the other, that there are no universals and there is no shared sense of value, and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be actually treacherous. Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the reality or the importance of the physical world, on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it, the human brain and its sensory apparatus, and, finally, between one human brain and another. At once we are trying to strip away differences that might cause conflict, justify hierarchies or discriminations (resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity) and to deny that these newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, differences) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no resentment or hate against the “other” anymore—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatsoever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness.