Mot juste

Driving past a church in Chennai a couple of days back, I saw one of those rolling displays which shows a verse from the Bible. At that time it was showing a verse from Zechariah (2.8): ‘He who touches you touches the apple of my eye’. This is, of course, the origin of the phrase ‘apple of my eye’.

The interesting thing about this display was that it would alternate between an English display and a Tamil display. I was curious to see the way this phrase would be translated into Tamil. The translator’s choice delighted me: he used the word ‘kanmani’, which means ‘darling’, but literally means ‘jewel of my eye’. It was such a perfect choice of word that something in me burst into applause.

I feel thrilled when someone uses just the right word or the right phrase – what the French call le mot juste. Sometimes I even feel turned on! I remember driving down the Pacific Coast several years back to Hearst Castle with some friends and friends of friends, and I mentioned in passing how much I loved it when people used language accurately, when one of the girls corrected me and said ‘You mean, use language precisely‘. I always fall for that kind of woman :-).

That’s one reason I like Shakespeare so much. He uses really difficult language, and many people often ask me how I can read his works. I tell them I’ve gotten used to the language, and then they ask me how I managed to get started in the first place. Well, when I was first reading Shakespeare, I would play a little game with myself. I would read a particular play and stop abruptly after a particular dialogue. Then I would cover the next character’s dialogue with my hand, and ask myself, given this circumstance, given the personalities of these characters, if I was in the shoes of this next guy who has to speak, what would be the best thing I could say?

And I would take a few seconds to actually make a list of 3 or 4 retorts, rebuttals, pleas or arguments (as the case may be). Then I would move my palm away and look at what Shakespeare made the character say. And it would be so beautiful, so perfect, so — mot juste — that it would take my breath away.

For instance Antony and Cleopatra, which was the first Shakespeare play I read in its entirety. There’s a scene where Antony comes to Rome from Egypt (where he has fallen heads over heels in love with Cleopatra) to meet with Octavius Caesar, who is unhappy with Antony’s reveling in Egypt while there is crisis after crisis in Rome. Antony and Octavius are equals. In this scene, one of Octavius’s men, Agrippa, puts Antony in a tight spot in front of the best and brightest of Rome by suggesting that he marry Octavius’s sister to cement the alliance:

Agrippa: Give me leave, Caesar…                     (Agrippa begins hesitantly; he has obviously been put up to this by Octavius, but needs to make his request seem reasonable)
Octavius. Speak, Agrippa.
Agrippa. Thou hast a sister by the mother’s side,
Admired Octavia: great Mark Antony
Is now a widower.
Octavius. Say not so, Agrippa:
If Cleopatra heard you, your reproof
Were well deserved of rashness.                          (Octavius sets the mood phenomenally here. He says this in jest, but it immediately puts Antony on the defensive, because now he has to defend himself against the general impression in Rome that he’s been playing the fool with Cleopatra while Rome has been struggling.)
Antony. I am not married, Caesar: let me hear
Agrippa further speak.                                             (Antony rebukes Caesar quite sharply as deserved, getting back some leverage here. But how else could he have reacted anyway?)
Agrippa. To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts
With an unslipping knot, take Antony
Octavia to his wife; whose beauty claims
No worse a husband than the best of men;
Whose virtue and whose general graces speak
That which none else can utter. By this marriage,
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
And all great fears, which now import their dangers,
Would then be nothing: truths would be tales,
Where now half tales be truths: her love to both
Would, each to other and all loves to both,
Draw after her. Pardon what I have spoke;
For ’tis a studied, not a present thought,
By duty ruminated.                                                        (A masterly speech by Agrippa. He praises Antony, he praises Octavia, and he praises the fruits of prospective marriage between them. He knows this marriage will touch Antony where it most hurts him, but seeks to cast it in the light of the ‘greater good’, thereby trapping Antony. I love the last part especially: where he says, I know this is outrageous but I have thought about it long and hard before speaking it out, so give me some respect.)
Antony. Will Caesar speak?                                         (Antony wants to know the extent to which Caesar is willing to take responsibility for this idea from Agrippa. He would have to be much more careful in responding if it turns out to be Caesar’s idea and not Agrippa’s.)
Octavius. Not till he hears how Antony is touch’d
With what is spoke already.                                        (Caesar is likewise trying to bait Antony to find out if he has crossed the line by suggesting this marriage through Agrippa.)
Antony. What power is in Agrippa,
If I would say, ‘Agrippa, be it so,’
To make this good?                                                      (Sheer genius. Antony pushes Caesar to the wire, by suggesting that Agrippa is meddling in affairs that do not concern him and that he has no business talking about, since he is powerless to enforce a decision either way anyway.)
Octavius. The power of Caesar, and
His power unto Octavia.                                            (Thus Octavius seemingly loses this duel by being forced to reveal his hand, that it was he all along who suggested this. However, it was done very cleverly through Agrippa, without the possibility of Octavius losing face. Octavius, by having Agrippa make the suggestion, reserves the right to be appeasing, outraged, angry, calm, forgiving, jovial, or whatever mood best suits his strategy. This would have been impossible if the suggestion had come from Octavius in the first place.)
Antony. May I never
To this good purpose, that so fairly shows,
Dream of impediment! Let me have thy hand:
Further this act of grace: and from this hour
The heart of brothers govern in our loves
And sway our great designs!

And thus Antony loses more than the duel. He has painted himself into a corner, and has to agree. For my part, I cannot see how he could have escaped. His ‘optimum outcome’ was clear but incredibly difficult: to regain Octavius’s favor, while at the same time maintaining his freedom to do as he wished in Egypt with Cleopatra. I have tried many times, but I simply cannot think of how Antony could have managed this conversation better to have gotten out with everything he wanted.

But then again, perhaps only Shakespeare could have figured it out.


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