• Autumn Term
  • Essay Title: “Death by Water: The Fiction of Drowning in Mid-Century Translation”
  • Mark: Flagged for Further Consideration

We find this paper to be a perplexing piece. It contains moments of clarity and scholarly care. It reveals an obvious familiarity with the material it chooses as its subject. It is in many ways an ideal effort by a student in whom we have had much hope. On page 12, the student chooses eccentrically to re-translate a well-known line, a line we might note is only tangentially related to the point at hand: “It is honeyed and decorous to die for your fatherland.” We might forgive such quirks, but in this case, one indiscipline seems to have opened the floodgates. Thereafter, with increasing frequency page by page, we uncover bits of autobiographical detritus among the scholarship. There is a conscious sense that the student is saying something out of the corner of their mouth. Their insistence that academia represents an “imperfectly secularized fragment anxious over its own obviously declining reputation and standards” hardly seems fair to our faculty. And in what way for instance is this little aside germane, besides as a dubiously useful exercise in ad hoc reader response theory? We quote the text briefly: “Arnold’s line about the ‘unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea,’ if aurally hitting the slap of the thing, fails on the order of language. The adjectives are out of order and misconceived: the peculiar thrill of the sea’s brine is only felt upon submersion (as I have felt it three times in my life, once below a pastel green verandah while I dove for the mottled mauve of old bottles) and in that sense absolutely distinct from the idea of the ‘unplumb’d’ and especially the ‘estranging.’” Are we really supposed to think the student has only been in the ocean three times, and, even if so, what does this information have to do with Victorian poetry?

Sometimes, such autobiography seems even more out of place, if also now and then less abstract. Why, again, on page 13 does the student feel the need to inform us, with sudden and unprepared earnestness, that they were born on a boat in the Adriatic? By page 22, this admission, brought up again in the intervening portion, has apparently become worthy of a full treatment. We quote for the record and for the faculty a section of the prose, including a tail bit of the scholarship which it chooses to interrupt: “Tanselle and McGann give two types of rejection of this theory, which, in any case, vanished by the early 2000’s with the rise of preferential monosemy in the mode practiced by Sharpe, Bloom, and Bogbuilder. Some years before that point, I recall that an early Sharpe text—his now-prophetic Ambiguous Pornographies (1989)—was on the cabin shelf of the Don Juan, where my mother endured a day of watery labor in bringing me to deck upon the harsh Adriatic noon. I recall, too, that her doula (a mute Sino-Senegalese woman of fierce religion and varied hobbies) kept bringing in bitter lemonade and that my father could be heard yelling in his bad French for sugar. At the time, I was embarrassed over the whole affair (even more embarrassed in early adulthood when my peers peered ironically at me if I mentioned the circumstances of my birth), but now it amuses me to think she might, with the sudden lucidity of some types of pain, have looked at the spine of old Sharpe there on the shelf and had his name burned through her into me.” We present this passage without further comment, besides to specify that it does not even have the obscure dignity of hiding out in a footnote. We intuit that, having mentioned pregnancy and birth and having reminded us of Sharpe’s early diversions into the so-called “erotic,” the student could barely hold themselves in control. Hereafter, the paper’s peculiarities become considerably less decent. The long discursus upon the integrity of hair to a woman’s beauty, drawing supposedly on Classical sources but only directly citing Apuleius, might have been forgiven if the student had told us what point was being made and also had limited their analysis to female head hair. Some observations are so coarse that we will not quote them here; we refer the faculty attention in particular to pgs. 28, 32, and 34. Likewise, the narrative which starts towards the end of the paper and which describes the student’s attempts to find a certain book, never named, in the university’s library before becoming a frankly lubricious account of their apparently reciprocal sexual overtures towards the library desk clerk—without this we could have done, and we are forwarding it to the library staff for further investigation on their end.

Further consideration is needed in general. We are forestalling a mark on the paper until certain details are cleared up. We hope that the student’s declaration of intent to voyage toward Antarctica on a dhow is merely another of their misplaced, and certainly unappreciated, jokes.