Posts Tagged ‘Swift’

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”.

The sternness of Swift and the swiftness of Sterne

It was Joyce who suggested that Swift and Sterne should have exchanged names. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine two authors more different in temperament and in outlook, and reading Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy back to back – as I did not so long ago – is quite an eye-opening experience.

Gulliver’s Travels is a most troublesome work. It is very funny, certainly, but it cannot be taken at face value: were one to do so, the book would be insupportable. In that final part especially, the earth really does open at our feet. If we are to take Gulliver’s voice as the authorial voice, then this final part would emerge as nothing less than an incitement to genocide.

The problem is that there are so many different levels of irony, we never know where exactly the author stands. This book is often regarded, quite absurdly, as a children’s book; it clearly isn’t, but neither is it adequate to class this merely as “satire”. Of course, there are elements of children’s fantasy; and one cannot deny that it is, indeed, satirical. But more than either, it is a most sobering and disquieting examination of the human condition.

I think it safe to say that Gulliver becomes mad by the end, but what is more problematic is the extent to which Swift shared Gulliver’s madness. What is unmistakable is the sheer blind rage in the writing: even granted that the rage is in Gulliver’s voice, and not necessarily Swift’s, it is hard to imagine anyone writing something so powerful without sharing, at least up to a point, his character’s perspective. We often praise a work for the author’s humanity, but there’s little humanity here: here, human beings are mere yahoos, fit only for extermination. I have read nothing that so powerfully and unremittingly conveys so intense a sense of disgust: it’s a bit too much to take at times.

Of course, there are many levels of irony. In the last part, it’s the Houyhnhnmns (horses) who are civilised and endowed with reason, while humans (yahoos) are debased and bestial. Gulliver soon comes to love this hippocracy, and is heartbroken at having to return to the land where mere humans, yahoos, held the reins of power. And when he does return, he feels so strong a sense of disgust at the very thought of humanity, that he recoils at the very idea of putting on a shirt that had been worn by another human (yahoo). Yet, he is at the same time wearing clothes made of yahoo-skin (human skin). The stench of burning flesh and the spectre of extermination camps never seem far away here. Indeed, this is the one point upon which the Houyhnhnmns, for all their reason, seem undecided: should the yahoos be exterminated?.

Gulliver (though not necessarily Swift) views Houyhnhnmns as perfect beings. All their thoughts and actions are governed by “reason”. And yet, perhaps inevitably given this, they show no particular affection for their offspring; and neither does death or bereavement occasion anxiety or grief. Is this what it means to be perfect? And, since they are all governed by the same “reason”, there is never any dissent, never any disagreement or controversy (except for the vexed question of whether yahoos should be exterminated). This is surely the most advanced form of totalitarianism: everyone polices their own thought to such an extent, that a thought police isn’t even required to enforce conformity. Yet the only alternative Swift gives us to this is the vile bestiality of the yahoos. And all this is couched in terms of the most violent rage and fury. Could it be that Swift gives us an overplus of disgust in order to, as it were, inoculate us? – to show where disgust with fellow human beings inevitably leads us? Or did Swift share in this disgust himself? The trouble is, I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive.

In the midst of all this, it might seem a bit perverse to mention Swift’s humour. But one must – for Gulliver’s Travels is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And this in itself adds to the disquiet, for even as we are laughing, we ask ourselves how we could possibly be laughing at this. Of course, it may be said that the entire book isn’t dark – that it becomes progressively darker, until, by the last of its four sections, it’s almost unbearable. But there are elements of this darkness even near the beginning. For instance, when Gulliver first discerns Lilliputians walking over him, he feels a curious urge to pick up as many of them as he could and dash them to the ground. He controls himself at this point, but even here, there are elements of him that are at best questionable. Nonetheless, one cannot but laugh at the passage where Gulliver in Laputa sees scientists engaged upon extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and putting these beams into hermetically sealed jars to be released on sunless days. Immediately afterwards, Swift tells us of scientists who analyse human excrement to discover the thoughts of whoever had produced it. After all, it is well-known that at no time are humans more thoughtful than when expelling waste; and these scientists have discovered how to read the thoughts of people by chemically examining this waste. On the evidence provided by this analysis, people may be tried for treason, imprisoned, or even executed. Oh – if only Stalin had thought of that one!

Gulliver’s Travels is without doubt one of the most extraordinary books I have come across, but I did find it unnerving. After that, it was with some relief that I turned to the warmth and geniality of Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is known as a bag of tricks. Indeed it is, and a very funny one at that. It starts, famously, not with the birth of the hero, but with his conception. (At the moment of conception, his mother asks his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock, and, not surprisingly, this puts him right off!) The only real incident happens when the infant Tristram, pissing out of the window, is accidentally circumcised by a falling window-sash. There is a missing chapter, with the next chapter telling us why the last one had to be taken out, and relating what had been related in therein; there are blank pages so we may write in for ourselves a description of Widow Wadman (the reader is told that he may make it “as like your mistress and as unlike your wife as your conscience will permit”); there is a black page to mark the death of a character; there are chapters on noses, on buttonholes, on the significance of names; there are digressions within digressions within digressions – indeed, one of the digressions is actually on the subject of digressions; and so on. There are the silliest gags – made all the funnier by the very elaborate set-ups. And there are gags and double-entendres so smutty that even the Carry On team might have been embarrassed. All in all, it’s tremendous fun – still the greatest and the funniest and the most outrageous of all avant-garde novels. But it’s also more than that, I think.

It’s a very humane work. The characters may behave in an absurd manner, but, unlike Swift, Sterne likes people, and he allows us, the reader, also to like them. Uncle Toby and his manservant, Corporal Trim – two of the greatest comic creations – spend all their time recreating past battles in their back garden, and are yet the gentlest of people imaginable: Uncle Toby, quite literally, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And beneath all the clowning is an awareness of the passage of time, and of the transience of it all. In this sense, we may even think of this as a sort of forerunner of Waiting for Godot: there, too, we have the mad and frantic clowning against a backdrop where absolutely nothing happens – not even an occasional accidental circumcision. But instead of the bleakness of Beckett’s play, we have here a warmth and geniality. There is no cry of despair behind the humour, and a somewhat sad acceptance rather than despair at the sense of time passing. This sense of time passing is perhaps best exemplified in a marvellous passage where Sterne (as his alter-ego Tristram) muses that since it has taken him some five years to chronicle but two years of his life, he finds that the longer he writes and the further he gets into his narrative, the more there is for him to write, since the pace of the narrative can never catch up with the pace of life itself. In effect, his narrative is going backwards in time, and will never catch up with the time of writing. But before we are allowed to reflect on the sadness of this, Sterne is off again on one of his mad jokes: there is no time for reflection in what – as Sterne tells us at the very end – is the biggest cock and bull story ever devised.

This is one of those rare books that I felt rather sad at finishing, mainly because I enjoyed Sterne’s company so much. And I really did need this after Gulliver’s Travels, which, great book though it certainly is, isn’t one that I expect to be returning to shortly. I can understand, though, why Orwell chose it among the half dozen or so of books that meant most to him. On balance, though, it is Sterne rather than Swift I think I tend to turn to.