Sex through plate glass

While reading about various Catholic saints on Wikipedia today (don’t ask), I skimmed through the entry on San Juan de la Cruz, the Spanish mystic and poet. I couldn’t help but be amused by the analysis offered therein of San Juan’s famous poem “La Noche Oscura”:

Dark Night of the Soul narrates the journey of the soul from her bodily jail to her union with God. It happens during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties she meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas.

Not that this is necessarily wrong (it’s certainly the orthodox interpretation and the one San Juan de la Cruz himself gave to justify himself to the Inquisition), but it’s definitely the interpretation of someone who’s only read “La Noche Oscura” in stilted translation and not someone who has read one of the most erotic poems ever written in the Spanish language (which is no mean feat; after all, this is the language about which Heinlein once said “the Spanish language is so beautiful that much of its poetry sounds best if the listener does not understand the meaning”). As always, I’m reminded of one of the favorite sayings of the late, great Bill Bonds:

Reading poetry in translation is like having sex through plate glass: you can more or less see what’s going on, but you won’t feel anything.

3 Responses to “Sex through plate glass”

  1. Curt Says:

    Well, you know, they did the same thing to the Song of Songs. How exactly is it scripture again? And as for Ecclesiastes, well…Solomon must have been blinding his devotees with some sort of light.

  2. shonk Says:

    In support of my point, I note that the Spanish-language article, although it also hews pretty closely to the orthodox line, at least acknowledges the use of the imagery of “amor profano” in the poem.

  3. Curt Says:

    Interestingly, I’m currently writing a paper about practically that very point in the context of the first sonnet of the Canzoniere by Petrarca. As widely talked about as the collection is, it is less acknowledged than perhaps it should be that the first sonnet sets the whole thing up as an indirect sort of Augustinian confession and penitence (indirect in that they don’t seem to have been originally written in that spirit, but the seemingly much later-written first sonnet frames it as a demonstration of what an idiot he was when young, his “youthful errors” is his tactful expression). But a find the whole idea of that sentiment expressed in the form of a sonnet inherently odd, being as the form was basically invented for songs of seduction or daft rhapsodies about love. Just like the Divina Commedia in which the belle dame sans merci becomes the spiritual guide to heaven, it’s practically the essence of the mixing of the sacred and the profane. I was going to cite San Juan de la Cruz as another good example, but it’s generally pretty irrelevant to bring up links between a writer and later writers unless one is specifically talking about the writer in question’s influence.

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