During a university lecture on the works of the novelist Gustav Flaubert, one of the students, not very fluent in French, was reading an English-language translation of Madame Bovary, half-concealed, under the table. The lecturer spotted it and said to him ‘Please put that book away. It has nothing whatever to do with the literature of Flaubert.’
Nothing whatever to do with it? The translator would not find that remark very complimentary! Yet the lecturer was right. There is something about a translation that removes the essential spark of the original. What we write, is conditioned by the language in which we write it. When we write, or speak for that matter, the message is not just a product of the words, it also reflects the culture in which our language has grown up and developed. That culture will have much to do with our country, our history, our way of life, art, music and, of course, other writers.
We look at a work of literature, and through it to the ideas, images, spirit communicated, and if it is right, the truth of what is written is immediately apparent, pertinent, proper and appealing. If we look at the translation, we can see in broad outline what is meant, but the ‘truth’ of it is lost – instead of pointing true north, the compass needle is pointing just a little bit off course.
Translations apart, of course variations in the compass reading can be stimulating, provoking us to a different way of thinking, a fresh approach, we say, or a new way of looking at things. And nobody has exclusive rights to the way a thing ought to be. I have a lamp hanging here in the room where I am working. To me, it hangs at an odd angle, and I am thinking ‘how much better it would look if it hung like this, or like that’, but that is, of course, subjective. My wife says she likes it hanging as it does, and of course we are both right!
Sometimes the slight divergence in the compass reading takes the form of putting us off our work. A shop assistant gave me the wrong information this morning, then immediately realised his mistake and corrected himself. ‘I’m not with it this morning!’ He might as well have said ‘I’m not pointing due north!’
But what happens when the compass needle swings violently one way or the other? What happens when some errant and powerful magnetic force comes within range of my compass, causing the needle to give me, not just a small variation in the reading, a different perspective, but a severe, a brutal deflection, pointing towards perversity, so diverting me that truth is no longer in sight?
We have had some very distressing instances of that happening recently. Prison guards who abuse inmates are not, I believe, inherently evil. I believe their compass has been compromised by some greater force, leaving them discredited and dishonoured by their perverse actions. I believe that the harmonious music they were previously making by their lives and actions, has been subverted and replaced by some jarring discordant sounds. I’m not sure where this perversity comes from – I hope that the enquiries and Courts Martial will determine this, to ensure that it never happens again, that the original music will again come to the fore.
One thing is for certain though. These people, by their actions, are more diminished than their victims. John Donne in the seventeenth century reminded us of our responsibility towards, and relationship with, society:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend‘s or of thine own were: any man‘s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
And Freemasonry? What should be our part in this? Well, we have enough signposts. Take the explanation of the three movable jewels in the first degree lecture, specifically the third one:
The infallible plumb rule which, like Jacob‘s ladder, connects heaven and earth, is the criterion of rectitude and truth. It teaches us to walk justly and uprightly before God and man, neither turning to the right nor left from the paths of virtue. Not to be an enthusiast, persecutor or slanderer of religion, neither bending towards avarice, injustice, malice, revenge, nor the envy and contempt of mankind, but giving up every selfish propensity which might injure others ...
Freemasonry can teach us to be better men and women. We only need to watch the compass needle, to make sure the plumb rule is upright, to keep listening to make sure harmonious music is still playing.