Spanish on the Brain

Hello again.

It is the start of a new school year, and so I am once again buckling down on my home study of the classics. I rarely blog about what I’m reading, but I am reading nonetheless. Sometimes I’m even reading things that are harder to comprehend than People magazine.

But I still love People.

This month my on-line reading group is tackling Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher who changed philosophy.

I don’t know how he did that, but that is what I’m told. I’m attempting to read his Critique of Pure Reason, and I’m finding it to be incredibly slow going. Here’s the opening passage:

Whatever the process and the means may be by which knowledge refers to its objects, intuition is that through which it refers to them immediately, and at which all thought aims as a means. But intuition takes place only insofar as the object is given to us. This again is only possible, for us human beings at least, when the mind is affected by the object in a certain way. The capacity (receptivity) to obtain representations through the way in which we are affected by objects is called sensibility…

It just keeps going on like this and getting more and more convoluted. I struggle through each word, and yet my mind is a sieve, leaving me with no memory of what I’ve just read. While I try to absorb each word of each line of text, my on-line group races ahead in their heated debate over this work. I’ve gotten to wondering if they’re all miles above me intellectually or just full of shit. I’m betting it’s some combination of the two.

I felt it necessary to refer to a YouTube video that someone from Three-Minute Philosophy put together using MS Paint for animation. It’s quite entertaining.

I am not alone in my opinion that this is tough reading. To quote directly from the introduction to my translation: “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, though probably philosophy’s single most acclaimed work, has remained notorious for being obscure and excessively difficult more or less since the day it was published. It has driven some of the finest philosophical minds to despair, or even, owing to the bleakness of its doctrines as much as that of its prose, to the verge of suicide.”

I can’t see myself verging on suicide from reading Kant. More likely, I will put him down and pick up something else.

In fact, that’s what I decided to do last week. I wondered if maybe Kant was so unapproachable because he was German and I was reading him in translation. Those Germans create all kinds of crazy word combinations for which there is no English equivalent, words like zeitgeist or schadenfreude or welzschmerz.  (I can’t remember how to spell that last one, but it’s the one from which Steinbeck derived “Welsh rats.”)

So I thought, “Why don’t I try to read something in a foreign language that I kind of know and see if it’s any easier than Kant?” The only foreign language of which I have any grasp is Spanish, and the last time I studied it was in 1993. I can’t speak it particularly well, nor can I understand it spoken in real time, as opposed to veeeeery slowly. But as it turns out, I can read it.

I bought this book several years ago with the idea that I would re-learn Spanish. At the time I got about two paragraphs in before giving up on it. But I’ve been reading tough stuff for two years now. My brain has been buffing up. So I gave it another shot.

And this shocked the hell out of me: I read it in three days. The entire thing. By the end I didn’t even need the English/Spanish dictionary anymore. It was absolutely insane, like some hidden part of my brain that I had forgotten about suddenly re-emerged. In fact, it re-emerged as some kind of super-brain, because I was never able to read a Spanish novel even when I was studying Spanish.

Unfortunately, this does not mean I can speak Spanish any better. Nevertheless, I feel like a new world has been opened to me because now I know I can read not just English works in their original state, but Spanish works as well.

While this is very exciting, I’ve discovered that being able to read Spanish has not made reading Kant any easier. So the dilemma: which of these do I tackle next?

I’ve never read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, but I do know of its reputation as a fantastic piece of literature and the progenitor of magical realism. And now I feel like I can tackle it in its original form.

I will try to slog through Kant, but I have a feeling I will be turning to Márquez before long.

I want to blog later about some interesting things I learned from Laura Esquivel’s book. I hope I will be able to remember them long enough to write them down. Wish me luck.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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