One must penetrate into the country […]. Sharpen one’s eye on the land. Hélène Cixous, Stigmata: Escaping Texts, 1998 pp. 3, 19. What happens when ideas and themes are transmitted between cultures? When I read a book written out of another culture and under conditions I haven’t experienced, how much of what’s going on in it can I really understand? Can I ever fully know what the relationship is of that book to its cultural context? I may have been told that a particular novel presents a radical viewpoint, or that a poet’s style is characteristic of his generation or school. But to some extent I have to take this on trust. ‘Often if you just read poems by someone from another country you don’t know where you are – you’ve got to situate them in their context,’ as the Editors of Modern Poetry in Translation acknowledge (Sampson, 2004b). Conversely, how much of what I write must be perfectly comprehensible to every reader, regardless of context? Can good writing rely on shared cultural assumptions – whether that’s an understanding of the myths of Ovid or of British TV programming in the 1970s – or must it always assume no prior knowledge? To put it another way, can there be such a thing as context-free writing; or is writing which is filled up with local cultural meanings actually more filled up with human meaning, since all humans live at least partly within local cultures?
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