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?

OLIVIA

Why, what would you?

VIOLA

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”.

15 responses to this post.

  1. I thought the Russian word Nabokov was describing was “poshlust”.

    Reply

    • “Poshlust”, as I understand it, is different. In his study of Gogol (which i can’t quote directly as I don’t have it with me right now) he describes it as a sort of banal, fake, philistine view of refinement and sophistication.

      Reply

    • Posted by Di on March 11, 2019 at 1:37 pm

      No, poshlust, or poshlost, is the word that means banal, philistine, etc.
      The word here is toska.
      However, I don’t know where Nabokov wrote this. I’ve seen the quote several times though.

      Reply

  2. It is from the notes to his translation of Eugene Onegin, specifically referring to the word ache in the eight line of the 34th stanza of the first chapter.

    X X I V
    I have remembrance of another time :
    in chary fancies now and then
    I hold the happy stirrup
    and feel a small foot in my hand.
    Again imagination seethes,
    again that touch has kindled
    the blood within my withered heart,
    again the ache, again the love !
    But ’tis enough extolling haughty ones
    with my loquacious lyre :
    they are not worth either the passions
    or songs by them inspired ;
    the words and gaze of the said charmers
    are as deceptive as their little feet.

    Fantastic how Nabokov remains a great writer even in something so small as annotating.

    Reply

  3. It certainly is a masterpiece in my opinion. I think it gets a bit too much attention for how supposedly bulky and pedantic it is, but reading through it one can find as much insight into literature as in the best of Nabokov’s lectures.

    Reply

    • I found it very readable and enjoyable (both volumes), although Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin is not my favorite. I much prefer Roger Clarke’s translation.

      Reply

      • I have looked into Nabokov’s translation, and I didn’t get the impression that one could read it as poetry. I don’t think that was Nabokov’s intention in the first place. He wanted, instead, to give as literal a version as possible. Having read some pages of it, I don’t think I could read the whole thing for pleasure, although, I imagine, its literalness is invaluable for those of us who don’t know Russian, but who would like to know precisely what Pushkin had written. The annotations, on the other hand, seemed to me (admittedly having done no more than skim through them) well worth reading, and only it’s excessive price put me off! However, having read (and enjoyed) a few poetic translations, I think I really should fork out and get myself Nabokov’s annotations.

      • His translation is very literal, and yes, you’re right, very useful if you want to know exactly what Pushkin wrote. And who doesn’t?! Eugene Onegin is beautiful without extra information, but fascinating with annotations. There is this website called bookfinder.com, where you can search on ISBN and the country where you live, and it will search the cheapest option including delivery. I think you’ll find it useful.

      • Thank you for that. I don’t know that site: I’ll have a browse later tonight.

        I must admit I’m a bit biased when it comes to translations of “Eugene Onegin”, as a good friend of mine made a translation of it a few years ago (this is the review it got in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jul/03/featuresreviews.guardianreview20 ) Tom is very appreciative of Nabokov’s annotations.

      • That’s interesting! I haven’t read Tom Beck’s translation. Most Russian literature has been translated quite well and published lovingly into Dutch, but Eugene Onegin is an exception. Sadly. But I appreciate Alma Books’ effort to have Pushkin’s complete works published in English.

  4. Posted by Linda on March 11, 2019 at 7:44 pm

    Beautiful essay. Thank you.

    Reply

  5. Posted by alan on March 11, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    “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.
    Your friend Tom Beck in his introduction to his translation of Eugene Onegin quotes someone quoting Aldous Huxley pointing out that Mozart’s music seems gay but is in fact sad, and here you are quoting Nabokov but apparently without intention quoting Nabokov on Eugene Onegin.
    The mind works in mysterious ways.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Natalie on March 16, 2019 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you for another fascinating post. I am compact of toska and poshlust, alas!

    Reply

  7. Lewis’s definition of sehnsucht… “unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

    Lovely post.

    Reply

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