Archive for March, 2019

A sense of longing

The internet is so full of banalities attributed to various luminaries – some of these banalities so simple-minded and so poorly articulated as to be thoroughly embarrassing – that I try never to introduce a quote into this blog without mentioning its source. However, try as I might, I cannot find a source for the following quote that is widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Maybe Nabokov never said this – who knows? But I’m quoting it nonetheless because, at the very least, it isn’t banal; and, further, it is so well articulated that one could easily believe that Nabokov had actually said it; and, most importantly, the state of mind it describes – “a longing with nothing to long for” – is one I find fascinating.

There is, it seems, a similar word in Portuguse – saudade. And its import is rather well described by singer-songwriter Nick Cave (and in this instance, I can pinpoint the source, as a friend of mine, who is a fan of Nick Cave, pointed this quote out to me):

‘The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. ‘

  • Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song”

Once again, the longing is “inexplicable” – inexplicable because, as with toska, it is a longing with nothing to long for.

In doing a Google search on saudade, I find that it is believed by some to be characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian people. I am not sure about that. For while it is certainly curious that some languages have a word for this and others don’t, this vague sense of an intense longing for that which cannot even be named seems to me common to all people, of all times. At least, I know of no culture that hasn’t, somewhere along the line, expressed what I understand to be toska, or saudade. This inexplicable yearning seems almost the hallmark of Romanticism, but the Romantics did not invent it. How can one not find it in, say, the songs of John Dowland? Or, say, in Twelfth Night (which, sadly, is too often presented on stage as little more than a knockabout comedy), in a passage such as this?


Why, what would you?


Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

For whom is Viola longing? Not Olivia: neither in her real person, nor in her assumed role, does Viola love Olivia. Perhaps it’s an expression of her love for Orsino, whom she secretly loves, but this seems unlikely: although Viola has indeed fallen in love with Orsino (“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”), he is too self-absorbed and too insignificant a figure to be a worthy object of such ardent lyrical pining. No – this yearning has no object that is nameable: it is indeed the “unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul”.

In ages more religious than ours, this longing was often (though not always) identified as longing for union with God, and, indeed, presented as such. But we found, much to our surprise, that even when belief in God declined, this longing didn’t. Generally, this longing had to be tied to some identifiable object for it to make some semblance of narrative sense, and that object, usually, is one’s beloved; or, more usually, one’s lost beloved. That seemed to make sense. But the whole point of this longing is that it doesn’t make sense. Thus, all too often, we come across longing the intensity of which far transcends its ostensible object. Is the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, or of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, longing merely for the girl who rejected him? Would the longing of Tristan and Isolde be stilled if they were to get together, marry, and settle down as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde? The very idea seems absurd. But if their longing seems to be for more than merely union with their beloved, what precisely are they longing for?

This is a mystery at the heart of things that the Romantics, far from smoothing over, actively embraced. The popular conception is that they embraced this mystery in reaction to the rationalists of the 18th century who had rejected the very concept of mystery, but nothing ever is so simple as such broad-brush summaries may suggest: each age is so multi-faceted that any such sweeping statement can very easily be demonstrated as absurd.

However, there is good reason for the 18th century to be thought of as the “Age of Reason”: more than ever before, and, perhaps, more than ever since, the universe was seen as perfectly ordered, and all effects traceable to causes. What could be more ordered than, say, a Bach fugue? Or a Haydn string quartet – even those of his Sturm und Drang period? But it will never do to constrict great artists by such pat formulae: even in the Age of Reason, there were artists subverting it. In Gulliver’s Travels, say, Swift presents us with a society ruled entirely by reason – the land of the Houyhnhnms – but which is, for that very reason, a monstrosity: as Orwell commented, it is a state of totalitarianism so advanced that the Thought Police isn’t even required; and this perfection of reason, paradoxically, drives Gulliver mad, and fills him with a genocidal rage.

And then, there’s Mozart. It escapes me how anyone could fail to find that quality of saudade in his music, but they have done, and, in many cases, still do.  In Cosi fan Tutte, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte took on what was essentially a trivial and rather misogynist little anecdote: two young men, to prove that their beloved young ladies were faithful to them, woo each other’s girls in disguise; and the girls, being but women, and hence, fickle, fall for it. Cue crude, knockabout comedy, cynical guffaws, and all the rest. But, as Shakespeare had done in Twelfth Night, Mozart takes this unpromising framework of a story, and, alongside the comedy (which he does not ignore), imbues it with such profound melancholy, such ineffable longing – such pain at the absence of something that these four young people desire beyond anything else in the world, but which they cannot name – that the base metal of this rather objectionable little anecdote is miraculously transformed into the pure gold of a great work of art that seems to express the inexpressible.

The Romantics, somehow, didn’t get it: they thought it trivialised feelings which should be sacred. Beethoven thought the opera was a slander of Eternal Womanhood, and was immoral. Wagner went further: even the music, he thought, wasn’t up to standard, and Mozart had failed to provide good music for this precisely because he knew the dramatic content was poor. Only in the twentieth century did the opera come back into the standard repertoire, but, just as it was dismissed in the previous century because it was deemed too slight and artificial, it was those very decorative qualities that seemed to appeal to even perceptive commentators: Sir Thomas Beecham, an eminent Mozartian, praised it as “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”.

In our own time, perceptions about this work have changed yet again. We seem to sense that, bursting out of the seemingly ordered framework, there is a tangle of human emotions that no purely rational view of humankind could ever accommodate. And at the centre of this tangle is that anguished longing for something that is not. Mozart, that archetypal Classicist, knew about this agonised longing at least as well as any of the Romantics did. Why should he not? It has, after all, always been with us. Like Viola, we are still calling upon our “soul within the house”.

Journey’s end

Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written, it is believed, very close to each other, and, although one is a tragedy and the other a comedy, they often have very similar themes. One issue that seems central to both dramas is the question of how we should mourn our dead. How should we mourn so that we can honour those who have died, and honour also the lives the we, the survivors, must continue to live?

Twelfth Night is a play I love deeply, but one I find very elusive. More so even than the other plays, it never seems to be the same on any two readings: it seems to be made of that changeable taffeta that Feste recommends Orsino to wear. In one of my earlier posts on it, I made it out to be a very dark play – closer in spirit to Hamlet than to, say As You Like It. Perhaps I was going over the top there, but even in my less lugubrious moods, its darker notes seem to me undeniably present. In the few years after writing this play and Hamlet, Shakespeare went on to write a sequence of intensely tragic dramas the likes of which have not been seen since the ancient Athenians. And there seem to me strong connections between Twelfth Night and these dark, tragic dramas: as well as the thematic overlaps with Hamlet, a new verse of the song Feste sings at the end of Twelfth Night appears in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear. And the final verse of Feste’s song (“A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”) is, as a Shakespearean friend of mine recently pointed out, about as desolate as anything in English literature. Has ever a comic drama ended like this?

Now, I wonder if there is also a correspondence between Twelfth Night and Othello – another of those great tragedies written in this period. In one of his other songs, Feste sings:

O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

“Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.”

Now, Othello, at the most intense point of his tragedy, when he realises what it truly is that he has lost, says “here is my journey’s end”. Was Shakespeare, I wonder, thinking back here on Feste’s song, that he had written only about two years earlier? Of course, the “s” at the end of “journey” in Othello indicates possession, while in Twelfth Night it indicates plurality, but an ear as finely tuned as Shakespeare’s to the music of words would certainly have been aware of the echo. And if this echo was indeed intentional, it seems to me almost unbearably poignant. In Twelfth Night, however dark and melancholy we may take the play to be (and I know opinions vary on this matter), there was still the hope – the expectation, even – that lovers would be united at journey’s end. But Othello, at his journey’s end, has no such expectation: “When we shall meet at compt, this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it.” He has lost not only Desdemona: he has lost his own soul, for ever. For what he has done, there can be no forgiveness, no atonement: nor does he even hope for it.

Whichever way I look at it, Twelfth Night foreshadows Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Which is not to say Twelfth Night is itself a tragic play: it clearly isn’t. But it does seem to me to point towards a traumatic tragic journey, a journey that finds its end only with those mysterious and deeply ambiguous dramas Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – plays which, even after some forty and more years of acquaintance, I still feel I do not adequately understand.