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Eugene Ostashevsky

A Conversation with Eugene Ostashevsky

A Conversation with Eugene Ostashevsky

The title of your recent lecture was “Poetry and Multilingualism.” Can you tell us about The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, and whether you think of it as multilingual poetry?

Well, the Pirate is, maybe, a novel that consists mostly of poems. It has two protagonists, a pirate and a parrot. It is a book of several parts. Part One keeps asking about the similarities and differences between the pirate and the parrot, which is a bit like that question in Alice in Wonderland: “what is the difference between a raven and a writing desk”? And that question ultimately goes back to Plato, to the comparative procedure that gives rise to Platonic Forms. But with the pirate and the parrot, the added difficulty is that they are also the same. They are both PRT if you take the vowels out. So it’s like Jewish Plato. Anyway, Part Two consists mainly of pirate songs. There’s a chantey, there’s old school hip-hop, there’s a song my father used to sing to me when I was little. Because pirates party. Part Three is about skepticism. I am comparing the way parrots were taught to speak in Persia with the skeptical experience of al-Ghazali, a Persian philosopher in Bagdad. Al-Ghazali in a way went farther than Descartes, because he doubted not only learning and the senses, but also reason. His solution to the problem—nothing is provable, therefore trust God—is a total copout. In Part Four, the pirate and the parrot get shipwrecked, which is, like, a metaphor for immigration. Most of it is devoted to arguments about the effects of particular languages on the thought patterns of the speakers of those languages. It is thus about, or perhaps against, translation. This is one way of summarizing the book. It is probably the most pretentious way. In real-life terms the book is about the pirate and the parrot, about how they do and do not communicate, how they do and do not understand each other, how they do and do not love each other. More than one person has said that it’s about marriage. The philosophy stuff might even be something I read into it . . .