At a Loss for Words

I’m told there are words in Romanian (“dor”) and in Portuguese (“saudade”)—those two outposts in the geography of romance languages—that cannot be easily translated. The concept is a combination of longing, yearning, loving, and missing, wrapped up within melancholy and/or nostalgia, but not exactly any of those things and more precisely all of those things and then some. To see the consternation on the faces of native speakers when they fail at trying to put the idea into words is testament enough that there are some realities for which there are no easy conversions.

Of course this does not mean, as only the silliest of linguistics students likes to parrot, that the hearts and minds of those peoples are deeper, larger, and more poetic than ours. It just means that a concept we are fully capable of experiencing ourselves has never been uniquely nominated in our tongue. Why that’s the case, I don’t know; English has its own set of peculiarities and untranslatable ideas.

But the point I’m interested in is the juxtaposition of love and sadness. Here’s my theory:

  1. Love is transitive.
  2. As such, love requires an object to spend itself upon.
  3. If the object of love is removed, the current is blocked, dammed.
  4. That blockage results in pain.
  5. That pain we call sadness.

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Ruin and Possibility in David Gordon Green’s Joe

How many of our triumphs in a long and confusing life are accountable not to the things that we do, but to the things that we ultimately cannot do? How much larger is a soul for the many unmarked feats, the unnoticed evidence of furious battles fought against the self, just to hold back, to tamp down, to remain and endure when all would warrant otherwise?

Medals, trophies are given for action, not inaction. But it seems a terrible injustice to call the agonies suffered in attempts to retain basic decency “inaction.” The malgre lui who ultimately cannot do what everything inside him says that he should is a quiet, but nonetheless valiant, warrior. They also serve who only withstand and remain.

Such inner turmoil is at the center of David Gordon Green’s latest film, Joe. Among the many fine directors today, Green has consistently impressed with his signature vision, featuring intense sojourners in fraught landscapes. His premiere effort, George Washington—about the burdened lives of children who cover up a crime—was widely appreciated, as were his subsequent movies, All the Real Girls, a love story set in a small Southern town, and Undertow, about a young boy chased by a murderous uncle. Green wrote all of these efforts, but his current offering is based on a novel by the late Mississippi writer, Larry Brown.

In the film, Nicholas Cage has one of his best outings as a man with a past suggested to have been so violent that he’s always one burnt cigarette away from exploding into a rampage. He has to manage himself carefully, isolate himself thoughtfully, from interacting too deeply with others.

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An Hour Upon the Stage

Among the variety of strange notions that we get into our heads, one of the most common is the sensation that we’re being watched. For no apparent reason, we begin to glance around us, not really expecting to find anything, and yet compelled to look anyway.

“It’s nothing,” we say, and turn our attentions back to the task at hand.

It’s also one of the tell tale signs of a transient madness, to believe that something is stalking us—lurking near, slipping from tree to tree. When we’re upstairs, we hear footsteps downstairs. Even the not-so-mad have bouts of paranoia, suspecting that we’re being talked about, that others have some secret agenda that bodes us ill, or possess some furtively-gained knowledge that they have no business knowing.

The shades go down further, out of a fear that at some vulnerable moment, we have left them up too far—that in a careless bit of morning, or a negligent trace of night, we have left ourselves exposed, not for long, but for long enough. The guilty soul cowers at the unspoken, unspeaking threat of an apocalypse that will reveal it for what it truly is.

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Beauty’s Victory

I go on binges. For days, weeks, months—well, usually not months—but days and weeks anyhow, I get taken by something and it will be all that interests me for a while. I’ll plunge into Faulkner for a time, then breach, crest, and fall into Graham Greene.

Things don’t stay all that highbrow, either; I’m as apt to watch Duck Dynasty marathons as I am to read books. Then again, I might forswear all such pursuits and go into serious training to beat the last five folks who’ve registered their bragging rights on the gym treadmill.

I was well into an Anthony Burgess tear not long back before I got pulled off on another line. This time it was Nabokov. It started around Christmas and picked up when the holidays were over.

After Lolita (and the movie version), Pale Fire, The Defense (that movie version too—called The Luzhin Defence) and Pnin—which you have to re-read and ask yourself why you didn’t see X before, or notice Y—I stumbled upon an essay in the March 2014 edition of First Things by David Bentley Hart, entitled Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret.

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Memory: Jubilee and Knell

A friend mentioned a line from Hannah and Her Sisters the other day: “But in the morning, I forgot that I was happy.” That might not be the exact quote; it might not even be the right movie; but the line goes something to that effect. At any rate, we both laughed; the wit needs little explanation, which is the definition of that device. The quality of poignancy lies in a thing’s ability to be absorbed; poignancy can be understood as aptness to such a great degree that it has seeped through to touch the heart.

Still, while I know what it means, I believe the sentiment has more than one application. For example, I myself work the other way around. Rightly or wrongly, for good or ill, I have a constitution that rallies when the day breaks. My spirits rise with the sun. Night is the time in which it does not pay for me to think too much. I am a restless, imperfect sleeper, and prone to spectral thoughts as I toss to and fro. Let the day come, and I can leave them with the bedclothes.

But the line speaks to more than days and nights, happiness and unhappiness, and the variations of quixotic moods. The operative word is “forget.” That’s the part that translates to all occasions. Whoever we are, whatever we are up to, we cannot remember.

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