Unfamiliar Tongues: Eliot Weinberger's Travels in the Republic of Letters

David S. Wallace examines the many facets of Eliot Weinberger.

Unfamiliar Tongues: Eliot Weinberger's Travels in the Republic of Letters

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways) by Eliot Weinberger. New Directions. 64 pages.The Ghosts of Birds by Eliot Weinberger. 10.11.2016. 240 pages.

OCCASIONALLY I FIND MYSELF in a bookstore, flipping through a volume that comprehensively treats a subject I never knew existed. It might be a history of color pigments in painting or about the languages of jungle communities in Ecuador. A consideration begins: Where does this fit into my mental library? Will I ever have time to read this? Is it useful? Would it be it fun? I seldom find out.

What do we look for when we read for pleasure? To see ourselves through the eyes of another? To laugh, challenge ourselves, release our minds from everyday troubles, find beauty in the ways words combine? Maybe it’s even appropriate to say that we don’t know exactly why, and that that’s for the best: when reading becomes an instrument, we surrender the pleasure of play for something more dutiful — a task, a routine, an objective. But in a cloud of unknowing, we remain free to discover.

The search for that free play is a constant in the work of Eliot Weinberger. Weinberger is a translator, most famously of Octavio Paz, and an essayist, and his body of work has accumulated through the years into something remarkable. One has a sense that Weinberger’s work has always existed slightly on the margins, and it’s not hard to imagine why this might be. I don’t say this as a criticism. Over time, Weinberger has become known for his unclassifiable prose, a mode in the twilight between prose poetry, amateur philological essay, and literary criticism.

In Weinberger’s newest book, The Ghosts of Birds, his opening essays dive into early accounts of Adam and Eve from Georgian and Ethiopian sources, Old Irish romance, explorers of the American West, Zoroastrian fragments, and a wide variety of Classical Chinese texts, just for starters. Weinberger’s deep erudition shows on the page with both the force and the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But beyond this display, there is beauty and strangeness in the fragments Weinberger has plucked from half-forgotten texts. Consider one short Odyssey-like episode from the Voyage of Máel Dúin, which Weinberger includes in his essay “Islands in the Sea”:

They came to an island with great flocks of sheep divided in two by a bronze wall. On one side the sheep were all black, on the other the sheep were all white. An enormous man was sorting the flocks. He would take a black sheep and throw it over the wall and it would turn white. He would take a white sheep and throw it over the wall and it would turn black. The men were afraid and did not land.

Though sourced from a saga of medieval warriors, here it reads like a surrealist fragment: there’s no fixed significance for the color-shifting sheep, and no commentary from Weinberger about what it might mean, but the passage is pregnant enough to set the mind running with possibilities. Weinberger’s best essays feel like portals into places or times of which you may have heard, vaguely, but which surprise you with their specificity. Although Weinberger is usually classified as a nonfiction writer, his work is marked by the appearance of the enigmatic, the magical, and perhaps even the “exotic.” This emphasis can make the boundary between the informational and the imaginative pleasingly difficult to discern.

In some of Weinberger’s strongest essays, a wide variety of information is synthesized around a particular thing, as in “A Calendar of Stones”:

The Aka of northeast India venerate their ancestors, who inhabit yellow stones.

Sir Walter Raleigh claimed that Amazons, the warrior women of the Orinoco, would trade the Spaniards plates of gold for green stones.

It is said you’ll sleep much better if you go to bed with blue stones.

When Orpheus played his flute, the stones arranged themselves around him.

The essay wanders through Kabbalah (“A stone is hard and endures; therefore it is in flux”), D. H. Lawrence, Japanese poetry, the Jains, as well as more obscure points of reference. No particular thesis is advanced, but the pathway that can be traversed across all these points is surprising.

One signature of Weinberger’s creative work is this commitment to the eclectic. In our increasingly hyper-specialized world, “eclectic” can seem like a belittling adjective, but it reflects a lofty aim: Weinberger truly attempts to think universally about literature. Reading him sometimes feels like traveling across a map that’s still studded with sea monsters, as in “The World.” Drawing from a mysterious list Weinberger dates to the second century BC, the essay enumerates places supposed to exist in the outer regions: “the Forest of Thorns […] the Backwards-Facing Doors […] the place of Sands, called One Eye; the Gathering Ice, called Abandoned Wings.” It’s never stated who is doing the supposing, but the list prompts an implicit question for its reader: how well do we know the world outside of our familiar surroundings?

A great deal of attention has been paid to the development of “global literature” in recent years, yet the discussion of this phenomenon rarely graduates beyond vague platitudes. In her influential book The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova invites readers to consider the growing network of literature as a struggle in which literary cultures vie against one another to accumulate capital, though of course they do so under a pretext of non-competition: everyone prefers to think of literature as a free, depoliticized space, even as writers hide their intense anxiety to be consecrated in Paris or New York. One of Casanova’s key ideas is this friction between center and periphery: the center accumulates resources and techniques for writers, and the periphery takes these lessons and feeds new information and perspectives back into the center. (For instance, the work of Faulkner becomes famous in Paris, and later becomes a model for Latin American authors, whose work is then sent back to Europe for recognition.) The way this exchange occurs is through translation, which Casanova highlights, summing up the power dynamic:

Translation therefore stands revealed as an ambiguous enterprise as well: on the one hand, it is a means of obtaining official entry to the republic of letters; and, on the other, it is a way of systematically imposing the categories of the center upon works from the periphery, even of unilaterally deciding the meaning of such works.

In this context, Weinberger’s work is puzzling: is he in the center or on the periphery? At times his essays feel like a microcosm of this world system, as multiple traditions have been translated and laced together within his work, often from very marginal sources. These fragments “speak” to each other with results that are illuminating, but potentially fraught as well. Does Weinberger risk becoming the dreaded “decider” of the meaning of these literatures, even as he brings them into our vision?

Readers of English are fortunate to have access to what is quickly becoming the central language in world literature, but this may come with its own lapses in vision. Speaking of readers and writers at the center, Casanova writes, “They are blind almost by definition: their very point of view on the world hides it from them, for they believe that it coincides with the small part of it they know.” After all, how far do most readers really travel outside the boundaries of their familiar literatures? The average Anglophone reader may add, say, some French- or Spanish-language literature, or a few Russian doorstoppers to their normal diet. But just as often she might feel that she’s already struggling to keep pace with the literature of her own language. Even Casanova’s study is largely confined to works from European languages. The farther we travel from our “center,” the more aware we are of the sheer depth and breadth of world literature — not just works we’ve heard of and haven’t gotten to, but works from centuries past that we didn’t even know existed. Weinberger’s essays are a kind of survey, demonstrating the lost wealth of literary time. Even if we ourselves don’t become readers of Sanskrit, we become more aware of the immense possibilities.


The Ghosts of Birds is divided into two sections. The first is “a continuation of the serial essay An Elemental Thing,” Weinberger’s previous collection, which crystallized his impersonal, world-roving style. If there’s anything resembling a structural theme underlying these pieces, it’s Weinberger’s fidelity to sources. The jacket text (rarely a reliable source itself) of An Elemental Thing gives some insight: “the only rule, according to the author, is that all the information must be verifiable.” This somewhat slippery formulation seems to indicate that every fragment and fable can be sourced to some primary text. If a man is transformed into a tiger, we at least know that someone once thought he did so. The idea of the absolutely “true” is left in suspension.

Much of the currently popular “creative” nonfiction depends on reimagining known quantities — subjects we’re well familiar with, but presented as fragments or collage, a casual dialogue, or with cute footnotes attached. Weinberger’s breadth of reference presents unique problems in reading. Though I’m fascinated by Weinberger’s essays, sometimes I feel bored when they linger or meander, like in “A Journey on the Colorado River,” a piece based on John Wesley Powell’s notebooks, which at times seems like it is approaching a real-time depiction of the 1869 expedition from which it’s sourced. It can feel frustrating to be presented with long agglomerations of facts without finding an intuitive way to connect them to what we already know. Perhaps because of his desire to collect interesting information, Weinberger’s narratives often lose energy. An Elemental Thing was more successful in this respect, with a careful pattern of linked pieces that created a unique harmony. Ghosts of Birds’s first section can feel a little like outtakes from that book, loose strands that don’t clearly build into anything greater. But even when stranded in the folds and years of Weinberger’s journeys, an overlong chapter like “Colorado River” can still offer brilliant sensations:

A vast chamber carved out of the rock, a little grove of box-elder and cottonwoods at the entrance; a deep, clear pool of water, bordered with verdure at one end. A thousand feet above, a narrow, winding skylight […] The rock is full of sounds as though it were an academy of music designed by an unknown architect and built by storms.

The book’s second section is a miscellany, including more traditional essays that originally appeared in The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, among other places. These pieces present Weinberger’s deep knowledge with less opacity, and give greater insight into his methodology and tastes. In an essay on the I Ching, Weinberger compares two new translations, noting that each author offers a huge variety of interpretations for the same hexagram. Weinberger writes, “None of these are necessarily misinterpretations or mistranslations. One could say that the I Ching is a mirror of one’s own concerns or expectations.” This feels true of Weinberger’s own cross-cultural borrowings.


Weinberger is also a translator, and it’s nearly impossible to read him without considering the alchemical way in which works move from one language into another. His essays are, in a sense, another kind of translation — call it a translation of the energy he finds in other texts. As a companion to The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions has rereleased Weinberger’s most well-known book, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. It’s easy to see why 19 Ways is a popular book: it provides a basic service that readers of translations often long for — multiple translations that can be compared side by side. In this edition, that amounts to around 30 versions of the same four-line poem by T’ang poet Wang Wei. The book makes clear the number of difficult, converging factors the translator must take into consideration. For instance, Classical Chinese has fewer grammatical markers than English, and as a result any line can be translated in a remarkably large number of ways. Weinberger begins with the Victorian stiffness of the earliest English translation:

So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
And in their reflection green mosses appear.

and moves forward through time. The book shuttles between withering criticism (“Wang could have written the equivalent of casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses had he wanted to. He didn’t.”) and helpful commentary on cultural differences (“a Western conceit, inimical to Wang’s Buddhism that empty = lonely”). The book reinforces something that we’re often abstractly aware of, but perhaps don’t always have time to notice — that translation practices are deeply dependent on the cultural context of the translator. Although he castigates other authors for inaccuracy, Weinberger praises Gary Snyder’s relatively free translation:

Empty mountains:
no one to be seen.
Yet — hear —
human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
enters the dark woods
Again shining
on the green moss, above.

Weinberger celebrates this version as “a reimagining of the poem,” writing that, “because of Snyder’s lifelong forest experience […] he can see the scene.” Not quite an exact criterion, but the results don’t lie. Accuracy is everything, until it isn’t.

This embrace of the spirit before the letter links Weinberger to his most important predecessor, Ezra Pound. Weinberger’s translation practice, like Pound’s, suggests both the risks and rewards of a free approach. There’s an intense interest in the facts, but also a willingness to invent if it becomes necessary — a scholarly awareness, but not the scholar’s desire for a strict correspondence. The same goes for Weinberger’s nonfiction. By reframing the material of his essays as his own, he avoids certain arguments about fidelity of presentation. The free play of the imagination can always wriggle out from academic rigor.


Fitting for the rogue archivist, Weinberger has a cantankerous attitude toward the state of contemporary literature. In an earlier book, Karmic Traces, Weinberger wrote:

The other day I wanted some information on a writer who died ten years ago: the library had two hundred full-length critical studies and thousands of articles; an Internet search listed seven thousand web sites where the writer’s name appeared. I decided to direct my curiosity elsewhere, and tried to remember someone who had been completely forgotten.

One result of this excess of all things is that if you are a fanatic of any given subject […] it is more than likely that your fellow enthusiast has not read the same books or seen the same films. You have nothing to talk about together. This lack of a shared knowledge or a common ground […] is unprecedented.

The desire to “remember someone who had been completely forgotten” is a revolt against the tyranny of our contemporary state of information access and aggregation — or, more simply, against a way of reading that is embodied by the internet. According to Weinberger, the unstoppable drive to produce, consume, and then discard information creates a situation in which we are constantly bathed in data but unable to either process its bulk or to use it to make meaningful connections with others.

In our era of trending topics and information silos, Weinberger reminds us of the sheer volume of literature that has been produced in the past, the vast resources that could be available if we were to extend ourselves a little farther. In an interview in The Quarterly Conversation, Weinberger remarked that he doesn’t really understand the writing school adage of “write what you know,” preferring to reach toward what he can imagine:

I’d rather talk to the kind of people I know than read about them. I’ve always preferred books that take me to the other worlds out there, geographically or historically or imaginatively. It’s a way of trying to see what is right here.


In the essay “Changs Dreaming,” Weinberger selects from a wide variety of Chinese texts to make a list of dreams by people named Chang: “It was recorded in the 7th century, in the History of the Chin Dynasty, that Mistress Chang dreamed that the sun entered her body. It was noted that she was pregnant for fifteen months.”

Only occasionally does Weinberger himself appear in the essays (a brief admission of youth spent wandering in Chile’s Atacama Desert, an anecdote of New York City chaos), but the authorial hand is strong in an essay like “Changs” — these dreams might appear less remarkable within their original contexts. The more I read, the more it occurred to me that Weinberger’s art was as much a form of selection as translation. The word “curation” has taken on a weary aspect in the time of boutique shampoo delivery by drone, but it’s helpful to think about what Weinberger might be removing as he makes his choices. The work becomes a mental map of its author, showing you what interested him, what moved him, what made him see the world differently.

But if Weinberger is assembling a kind of treasure trove, by what means were the riches acquired? A writer entering into unfamiliar cultural territory takes a significant risk: the people who are close to the sources of this work are often still around and may have their own ideas about the best ways to present it. The contemporary discussion of cultural appropriation has some purchase here. And distortions in translation are inevitable, no matter how well intentioned a work is.

Commentators on Pound’s translations are fond of quoting T. S. Eliot’s line, as Weinberger does himself in Wang Wei, that Pound’s Cathay marked “the invention of Chinese poetry in our time.” This has been interpreted various ways, but the simplest is probably to say that Cathay invented the Western idea of what Chinese poetry is like. (Though it’s a great book of poems, Pound’s Cathay is famously full of translation errors: a line more like “You came by on a bamboo stick horse” shows up as “You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse.”)

In search of the “true” translation, readers are often driven to the authority of scholars, and for good reason — scholars have devoted their lives to understanding foreign literature. Weinberger is well aware of his non-scholarly status, though in previous books he dutifully included a list of sources. In the tradition of Eliot’s tongue-in-cheek footnotes for The Waste Land, even the index in The Ghosts of Birds is an act of imagination, full of titles of beautiful but dubious origin: Handbook for Making Black Frost, Hymns to the Five Planets, Notes to be Kept Inside a Pillow, Poems Made While Beating the Ground.

Weinberger rejects the premise that we should be locked into the immediate experience of our time and culture — or at least that our reading should remain absolutely free. It’s an attractive claim but one that’s difficult to embrace without complications. What’s the significance of incorporating fourth-century Chinese sages into your own creative process? It’s a blunt question, but there’s occasionally something about the way in which Weinberger marshals peripheral figures around the page that makes me pause. The reader is at the mercy of Weinberger’s peculiar selections, and there are limitations to such emphasis on the “scope” of literature. In the work of another writer, someone who speaks from a particular place and position, you gain the time it takes to feel close to their world: their habitations, relationships, regrets, doubts. In trying to swallow all of literature, you might lose the true communion that a singular work can provide.

It’s worth considering how much knowledge Weinberger can offer us, and how deep it runs, but also it has to be asked: How rigorous are our standards for cultural borrowing here? Claims of fidelity and “nonfictionality” in the work suggest that we’re receiving something authentic from another culture, but it’s unclear that this is true. In most cases, the idiosyncrasy of Weinberger’s fabrications is clear, and he usually presents material with the good faith of someone who is sincerely curious. Yet at times, one feels that the less accomplished essays supply a “shallow” wonder, and a sense that we’re still missing something fuller that could come from knowing the context of the work’s origins. If nothing else, Weinberger’s work brings this problem — this condition — into focus: we’ll never be able to become scholars of every world tradition; we grudgingly take the shorthand, accepting that we’ll never be initiated into all the mysteries.

The Ghosts of Birds leaves us with the sense that we can embrace “books that take [us] to the other worlds out there” while recognizing our limitations as readers. In the daunting, never-ending flow of information, we try to feel at home as often as we can manage.


David S. Wallace is a writer who lives in New York City.

LARB Contributor

David S. Wallace is a writer who lives in New York City.


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