on 26 August 2012
The curate famously found his breakfast egg good in parts. I am afraid I had the same reaction to this volume to which the Levis devoted, I do not doubt, considerable effort.
(1) The front cover nowhere indicates that this is a SELECTION from the Pensées, not the whole work.
(2) The back cover says that the translation "is the only one based on the Pensées as Pascal left them" whereas we simply don't know how he left them (see the commentaries in the latest serious French edition in the Pléiade series, by Michel Le Guern).
(3) The inroduction contains much of interest. But it contains one snag. Prof. Levi says that Pascal could never have completed his Apology because its aim clashed with his view of divine grace, according to which "religious belief was of no avail in the furtherance of salvation...bestowed arbitrarily by God". But can it really be that Pascal had set out on a fool's errand? He was by all accounts a highly intelligent man (perhaps not quite as intelligent as a Professor!). The problem of writing an Apology against the background of their doctrine of grace was actually discussed by the Jansenists. Would Pascal really have missed such an obvious point? Or perhaps he knew he could not actually convert anyone, but he could remove their hostility to religion and persuade to live a better life. This seems a more plausible interpretation of Pascal's aims in the Pensées.
(4) Prof. Levi implies in the Note on the Text (first sentence) that we have few manuscript fragments in Pascal's hand. This would raise experts' eyebrows in France. On the contrary it looks as if we have over 700 fragments in Pascal's (awful) handwriting as against some 115 in another's hand.In addition, as I say above, experts do NOT now agree that the text used by the Levis is better than what is known as the Lafuma text (which Krailsheimer translated in the 1960s).
(5) The translation itself is, well, full of surprises. I'll give only a few examples from the Pensées:
fragment 45: a comma went missing: it ends "of preparing the machine to seek God through reason". But the "machine" is simply the sum of our bodily instincts and emotions: it can't use reason. What the French text says is :"to prepare the machine, to seek (God) through reason" (i.e. a separate action)
fragment 115: includes the phrase "If respect required only to be directed at those sitting in armchairs..." whereas the French says "si le respect éait d'être en fauteuil", i.e. "if you could show respect without getting up from your chair..."
fragment 123: a porrly constructed sentence:...Montaigne...innocently asks what, and for what reason, people find one". The first "what" has no function in the sentence.
fragment 480 includes the phrase "anyone can achieve everything" whereas the French text says: "la coutume peut tout". Eh?
Revision badly needed - and a more ample selection of the Pensées.