Lorca par lui-même
There is a popular series of books in France with titles following the pattern Baudelaire par lui-mêmeor Flaubert par lui-même. Barthes, perhaps thinking of these selections from the works of canonical authors, wrote a literary self-portrait titled Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, one of his most charming books. In Apocryphal Lorca, I laid the ground for my analysis of the uses and misuses of Lorca by American poets in “Federico García Lorca (Himself).” I toyed with using the title “Lorca par lui-même” but thought better of it. Of course, I recognized at the time that we are never really getting Lorca himself, only some version of him that happens to suit somebody’s critical agenda—in this case my own. I was to some degree defining a vision of the author in my own image, as a complex and self-consciously intellectual figure. If, for example, I had viewed Lorca as a naively “folkloric” poet or a mere conveyer of Andalusian kitsch, then my critique of the over-simplifications in his America reception would become pointless.
Despite these efforts to define my position with caution, Lawrence Venuti’s review of my book in the Times Literary Supplement, takes me to task for the construction of a Lorca in tune with my own sensibility and with the exigencies of contemporary literary theory:
Mayhew's opening chapter brilliantly clears away the stereotypical notions of Lorca, but it also registers a sophisticated awareness that his own interpretation is a personal preference informed by an academic critical orthodoxy, at once post-structuralist and postcolonial. Thus he asserts that “‘Lorca’ is a complex author-function,” whose “own vision of the gypsies is already that of an orientalist.” Yet to expect this sort of interpretation from US poets during the Cold War is anachronistic at best.
Venuti also takes issue with a strictly factual statement about American poets: “Their aim is not the scholarly one of understanding Lorca as he really is, or Lorca in the context of the larger Hispanic literary tradition.” In context, this does not necessarily imply any privileged access on my part to the “real Lorca,” or “Lorca par lui-même.” I was simply stating that the creative adaptations of greatest interest to me were part of a search for an “American duende,” not a scholarly attempt to understand Lorca’s in the context of Spanish language literature.
It is gratifying to me to be conceded some degree of sophistication and brilliance. Yet I find it difficult to make sense of Venuti’s reservations. Every academic, including Venuti himself, has theoretical assumptions informed by some degree of “personal preference.” Venuti is a post-structuralist and post-colonial theorist of translation whose thought has inspired my own. Surely he, too, would have to posit the complexity of the “author-function” in a study of this type rather than relying on older notions of authorship. To approach the topic in any other way would not allow for the required degree of nuance. That is not the same thing as expecting translators from an earlier period to share our current theoretical positions.
Venuti views my use of the word apocryphalin the title of the book as an “ominous sign,” reflecting my “canonical” academic vision of Lorca. He seems not to have noticed a few things. In the first place, the word apocryphalis not wholly negative in its connotations, since it suggests the alluring mystery of esoteric texts—sacred books that have been excluded from the canon. Perhaps with excessive optimism, I was expecting my readers to grasp the contradictions inherent in this word rather than simply seeing it merely as a term of opprobrium. After all, I reserve my highest admiration for “translations” that are apocryphalin the literal sense—that is, versions of poems that cannot be found in Lorca’s collected works, such as those by Jack Spicer.
Venuti is also wrong to accuse me of anachronism. Post-structuralist and post-colonialist ideas about literature are not alien to the avant-garde or “postmodern” poetry of the period in question. The decade of the 1960s represents the heyday both of the “New American Poetry” and of French poststructuralism. The richest American readings of Lorca during the cold war do, in fact, reflect a sophisticated understanding of the vicissitudes of the author-function (Spicer), or of the risks of kitsch, orientalism, and sentimentality (O’Hara). The existence of parodies of translations of Spanish Language poetry by the late 1960s (Koch) tells us that some readers of the period were already seeing the boom in translations of Lorca and Neruda with jaundiced eyes. This ironic view, then, is not my own anachronistic projection. Needless to say, post-colonialist critiques like Edward’s Said’s Orientalismalso have their origin in this period. Jerome Rothenberg, one of the founders of the “deep image” school inspired by Lorca, began to develop a de-colonizing critique of the Western canon through the practice of ethnopoeticsmore than ten years before Said’s 1978 book.