His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Literature”

When knowing Greek literature saves you

Bust of Euripides. Source.

Bust of Euripides. Source.

I recently read Plutarch’s Life of Nicias, Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War, and at the end of it come a few fascinating lines that show how knowing Greek literature, and knowing it by heart, may turn out to be a savior, so long as you happen to be at the mercy of others who also value it! A win for the humanities!

Here is the passage (29.2-3), my translation adapted from Bernadotte Perrin’s (LCL, Plutarch, Lives, 3, pp. 308-309), with the Greek below.

2 … Some [captives] were also saved for the sake of Euripides. For the Sicilians, it seems, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, craved his poetry [mousa]: learning by heart the little samples and morsels that visitors brought them from time to time, they would happily share them with one another. 3 In the present case, at any rate, they say that many [Athenians] who reached home in safety kindly greeted Euripides and told him, some that they had been set free from slavery for thoroughly teaching what they remembered of his works, and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they would get food and drink for singing some of his songs [melos]. It is not surprise, then, that they say [the Sicilians], when the Caunians’ ship was pursued by pirates and about to put in at the harbor [of Syracuse], at first did not allow them and kept them out, but when they asked if they knew any songs [asma] of Euripides, and [the Caunians] declared that they did, they allowed them entry and brought the ship in.

2 … ἔνιοι δὲ καὶ δι᾽ Εὐριπίδην ἐσώθησαν. μάλιστα γάρ, ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν ἐκτὸς Ἑλλήνων ἐπόθησαν αὐτοῦ τὴν μοῦσαν οἱ περὶ Σικελίαν: καὶ μικρὰ τῶν ἀφικνουμένων ἑκάστοτε δείγματα καὶ γεύματα κομιζόντων ἐκμανθάνοντες ἀγαπητῶς μετεδίδοσαν ἀλλήλοις. 3 τότε γοῦν φασι τῶν σωθέντων οἴκαδε συχνοὺς ἀσπάσασθαι τὸν Εὐριπίδην φιλοφρόνως, καὶ διηγεῖσθαι τοὺς μέν, ὅτι δουλεύοντες ἀφείθησαν ἐκδιδάξαντες ὅσα τῶν ἐκείνου ποιημάτων ἐμέμνηντο, τοὺς δ᾽, ὅτι πλανώμενοι μετὰ τὴν μάχην τροφῆς καὶ ὕδατος μετέλαβον τῶν μελῶν ᾁσαντες. οὐ δεῖ δὴ θαυμάζειν ὅτι τοὺς Καυνίους φασὶ πλοίου προσφερομένου τοῖς λιμέσιν ὑπὸ λῃστρίδων διωκομένου μὴ δέχεσθαι τὸ πρῶτον, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπείργειν, εἶτα μέντοι διαπυνθανομένους εἰ γινώσκουσιν ᾁσματα τῶν Εὐριπίδου, φησάντων ἐκείνων, οὕτω παρεῖναι καὶ καταγαγεῖν τὸ πλοῖον.

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An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org

Italian with the poets II

Here’s an easy passage from Petrarch, 232, lines 12-14. Before these lines, Petrarch has given exemplars of damage and destruction wrought in individuals too heedless in their anger: Alexander, Tydeus, Sulla, Valentinianus, and Ajax.

Ira è breve furore; et chi nol frena,

è furor lungo che ‘l suo possessore

spesso a vergogna et talor mena a morte.

Vocabulary:

  • ira anger
  • furor(e) madness
  • nol = non la [ira]
  • frenare to restrain
  • spesso often
  • vergogna shame
  • talor(a) sometimes
  • menare to lead
  • morte death

From Conan Doyle’s “Lot № 249”

https://i1.wp.com/img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/t0/t534.jpgI recently got a used copy of Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, ed. Henry Mazzeo, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1968). I’m about a third of the way through it and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “Lot № 249” (pp. 61-93), first published in 1892, is so far, and will probably remain, a favorite. (Text online here.) Here are a few especially fine lines:

  • “Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.” (62)
  • “…but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men — men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.” (63)
  • “They knew each other very well–so well that they could sit now in that soothing silence which is the very highest development of companionship.” (63)
  • “There’s something damnable about him — something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him. I should put him down as a man with secret vices — an evil liver.” (64)
  • Of a textbook of anatomy: “…plunged into a formidable, green-covered volume, adorned with great, colored maps of that strange, internal kingdom of which we are the hapless and helpless monarchs.” (65)
  • “With his firm mouth, broad forehead, and clear-cut, somewhat hard-featured face, he was a man who, if he had no brilliant talent, was yet so dogged, so patient, and so strong that he might in the end overtop a more showy genius.” (66)
  • “What a chap you are to stew! I believe an earthquake might come and knock Oxford into a cocked hat, and you would sit perfectly placid with your books among the ruins.” (75)
  • “He has spoiled my night’s reading, and that’s reason enough, if there were no other, why I should steer clear of him in the future.” (77)
  • “Bellingham’s face when he was in a passion was not pleasant to look upon.” (77)
  • “…as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.” (80)
  • “With his fat, evil face he was like some bloated spider fresh from the weaving of his poisonous web.” (84)
  • The story’s closing line: “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” (93)

In addition, on p. 63 is the usage of “liquor” as a verb (= to drink liquor): “I don’t liquor when I’m training.” (For some other examples, see the OED s.v., mng. 6, where it is said to be slang.)

Conan Doyle is known, of course, especially for the Sherlock Holmes stories, but there’s more to his œuvre than that, and this story merits Mazzeo’s selection and reprinting in Hauntings, as well as, perhaps, your reading.

Some online sources for classical Arabic poetry

I posted this page a few weeks ago that lists several easily accessible (older) books for studying Arabic poetry. In case anyone interested has missed it so far, now they are informed. Many of the sources have Arabic text, but there are also a few translations. Enjoy!

Mark the music

From an enquiry in the OED on the word “savage” I was led to a line from The Merchant of Venice, which in turn led me to the broader context in Act V of the play. Here is a delightful part of Act V, sc. i about the effects of music.

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 1.31.56 PM

The image above is from this edition, which exhibits such fine typography that I thought it worth giving as such, rather than retyping it; the same text can be found in the original-spelling edition from Oxford, p. 506, and here it is in modernized orthography (from here):

JESSICA

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

LORENZO

The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

I don’t know that this is one of the better known parts of the play, but it deserves to be.

https://i0.wp.com/www.artdaily.org/imagenes/2012/12/04/dallas-2.jpg

Orpheus mosaic from Edessa (dated 194 CE)

Proust II

The next paragraph from À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, pt. I. Read on! As always, your responses to the passage are welcome in the comments section. And as an addendum to the previous post, here is the famous Summarize Proust Competition from Monty Python, which I neglected to mention there!

Quant au professeur Cottard, on le reverra, longuement, beaucoup plus loin, chez la Patronne, au château de la Raspelière. Qu’il suffise actuellement, à son égard, de faire observer ceci : pour Swann, à la rigueur le changement peut surprendre puisqu’il était accompli et non soupçonné de moi quand je voyais le père de Gilberte aux Champs-Élysées, où d’ailleurs ne m’adressant pas la parole il ne pouvait faire étalage devant moi de ses relations politiques (il est vrai que s’il l’eût fait, je ne me fusse peut-être pas aperçu tout de suite de sa vanité car l’idée qu’on s’est faite longtemps d’une personne bouche les yeux et les oreilles ; ma mère pendant trois ans ne distingua pas plus le fard qu’une de ses nièces se mettait aux lèvres que s’il eût été invisiblement dissous entièrement dans un liquide ; jusqu’au jour où une parcelle supplémentaire, ou bien quelque autre cause amena le phénomène appelé sursaturation ; tout le fard non aperçu cristallisa, et ma mère, devant cette débauche soudaine de couleurs déclara, comme on eût fait à Combray, que c’était une honte, et cessa presque toute relation avec sa nièce). Mais pour Cottard au contraire, l’époque où on l’a vu assister aux débuts de Swann chez les Verdurin était déjà assez lointaine ; or les honneurs, les titres officiels viennent avec les années ; deuxièmement, on peut être illettré, faire des calembours stupides, et posséder un don particulier qu’aucune culture générale ne remplace, comme le don du grand stratège ou du grand clinicien. Ce n’est pas seulement en effet comme un praticien obscur, devenu, à la longue, notoriété européenne, que ses confrères considéraient Cottard. Les plus intelligents d’entre les jeunes médecins déclarèrent – au moins pendant quelques années, car les modes changent étant nées elles-mêmes du besoin de changement – que si jamais ils tombaient malades, Cottard était le seul maître auquel ils confieraient leur peau. Sans doute ils préféraient le commerce de certains chefs plus lettrés, plus artistes, avec lesquels ils pouvaient parler de Nietzsche, de Wagner. Quand on faisait de la musique chez Mme Cottard, aux soirées où elle recevait, avec l’espoir qu’il devînt un jour doyen de la Faculté, les collègues et les élèves de son mari, celui-ci, au lieu d’écouter, préférait jouer aux cartes dans un salon voisin. Mais on vantait la promptitude, la profondeur, la sûreté de son coup d’œil, de son diagnostic. En troisième lieu, en ce qui concerne l’ensemble de façons que le professeur Cottard montrait à un homme comme mon père, remarquons que la nature que nous faisons paraître dans la seconde partie de notre vie n’est pas toujours, si elle l’est souvent, notre nature première développée ou flétrie, grossie ou atténuée ; elle est quelquefois une nature inverse, un véritable vêtement retourné. Sauf chez les Verdurin qui s’étaient engoués de lui, l’air hésitant de Cottard, sa timidité, son amabilité excessives, lui avaient, dans sa jeunesse, valu de perpétuels brocards. Quel ami charitable lui conseilla l’air glacial ? L’importance de sa situation lui rendit plus aisé de le prendre. Partout, sinon chez les Verdurin où il redevenait instinctivement lui-même, il se rendit froid, volontiers silencieux, péremptoire quand il fallait parler, n’oubliant pas de dire des choses désagréables. Il put faire l’essai de cette nouvelle attitude devant des clients qui, ne l’ayant pas encore vu, n’étaient pas à même de faire des comparaisons, et eussent été bien étonnés d’apprendre qu’il n’était pas un homme d’une rudesse naturelle. C’est surtout à l’impassibilité qu’il s’efforçait, et même dans son service d’hôpital, quand il débitait quelques-uns de ces calembours qui faisaient rire tout le monde, du chef de clinique au plus récent externe, il le faisait toujours sans qu’un muscle bougeât dans sa figure d’ailleurs méconnaissable depuis qu’il avait rasé barbe et moustaches.

A little Proust’ll do you

There are sites or blogs for daily Talmud reading (see a consideration of the practice here), daily Bible, etc., and the reasoning, of course, is that a cycle of daily (or even weekly) readings will give you in relatively small snippets, not so large as to be indigestible, the whole of this or that text after a given period of time, assuming you possess and practice our all too absent quality of consistency. Whether you’re looking for spiritual direction, memory polishing, or simply a structured way to get through books, it works, assuming you can muster the discipline to keep at it. It’s also good for language practice: exposure to new words and forms along with frequent reinforcing of the commonest words, phrases, and forms. And for most people, “language in action” is rather more fun than looking at vocabulary lists and paradigms of nominal and verbal morphology. So how about a little Proust for French practice?

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

Marcel Proust (1871-1922; ici en français) is most well known for his long and unfinished novel À la recherche du temps perdu, published in seven parts from 1913-1927 (first English translation 1922-1930). There are websites (for example, here and here) on Proust and the novel, and I heartily recommend Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to the Remembrance of Things Past — I’ve not read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change your Life nor Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. — and for an early estimation, see Edmund Wilson’s here. The French text, either in HTML or PDF, will be found here hosted by the University of Adelaide, and also here; it is from the latter that the text below has been taken. Some readers may also be interested to know that Proust’s manuscripts have fueled a notable amount of study (see, for example, here [abstract only], here, and here).

I’m hardly ambitious enough to start calling this series “Daily Proust” or the like, but I do want to make it a regular appearance here. Each reading will only be a paragraph or two in length. It will be immediately obvious that I am not beginning with the novel’s first part, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). The outline of the narrative, such as it is, of the novel can be had from the books mentioned above and some of the websites, but that is not really the point of these serial reading selections. Here the goal is simply getting to know and savoring Proust’s French and stimulating (in French) some philosophical reflection.

Here is the text, the beginning of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur:

Première partieAutour de Mme Swann

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann, avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbrouffeur que le marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé, selon son expression, « puant ». Or cette réponse de mon père demande quelques mots d’explication, certaines personnes se souvenant peut-être d’un Cottard bien médiocre et d’un Swann poussant jusqu’à la plus extrême délicatesse, en matière mondaine, la modestie et la discrétion. Mais pour ce qui regarde celui-ci, il était arrivé qu’au « fils Swann » et aussi au Swann du Jockey, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait ajouté une personnalité nouvelle (et qui ne devait pas être la dernière), celle de mari d’Odette. Adaptant aux humbles ambitions de cette femme, l’instinct, le désir, l’industrie, qu’il avait toujours eus, il s’était ingénié à se bâtir, fort au-dessous de l’ancienne, une position nouvelle et appropriée à la compagne qui l’occuperait avec lui. Or il s’y montrait un autre homme. Puisque (tout en continuant à fréquenter seul ses amis personnels, à qui il ne voulait pas imposer Odette quand ils ne lui demandaient pas spontanément à la connaître) c’était une seconde vie qu’il commençait, en commun avec sa femme, au milieu d’êtres nouveaux, on eût encore compris que pour mesurer le rang de ceux-ci, et par conséquent le plaisir d’amour-propre qu’il pouvait éprouver à les recevoir, il se fût servi, comme un point de comparaison, non pas des gens les plus brillants qui formaient sa société avant son mariage, mais des relations antérieures d’Odette. Mais, même quand on savait que c’était avec d’inélégants fonctionnaires, avec des femmes tarées, parure des bals de ministères, qu’il désirait de se lier, on était étonné de l’entendre, lui qui autrefois et même encore aujourd’hui dissimulait si gracieusement une invitation de Twickenham ou de Buckingham Palace, faire sonner bien haut que la femme d’un sous-chef de cabinet était venue rendre sa visite à Mme Swann. On dira peut-être que cela tenait à ce que la simplicité du Swann élégant n’avait été chez lui qu’une forme plus raffinée de la vanité et que, comme certains israélites, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait pu présenter tour à tour les états successifs par où avaient passé ceux de sa race, depuis le snobisme le plus naïf et la plus grossière goujaterie, jusqu’à la plus fine politesse. Mais la principale raison, et celle-là applicable à l’humanité en général, était que nos vertus elles-mêmes ne sont pas quelque chose de libre, de flottant, de quoi nous gardions la disponibilité permanente ; elles finissent par s’associer si étroitement dans notre esprit avec les actions à l’occasion desquelles nous nous sommes fait un devoir de les exercer, que si surgit pour nous une activité d’un autre ordre, elle nous prend au dépourvu et sans que nous ayons seulement l’idée qu’elle pourrait comporter la mise en oeuvre de ces mêmes vertus. Swann empressé avec ces nouvelles relations et les citant avec fierté, était comme ces grands artistes modestes ou généreux qui, s’ils se mettent à la fin de leur vie à se mêler de cuisine ou de jardinage, étalent une satisfaction naïve des louanges qu’on donne à leurs plats ou à leurs plates-bandes pour lesquels ils n’admettent pas la critique qu’ils acceptent aisément s’il s’agit de leurs chefs-d’oeuvre ; ou bien qui, donnant une de leurs toiles pour rien, ne peuvent en revanche sans mauvaise humeur perdre quarante sous aux dominos.

Reactions to the passage here are especially welcome, so please post them in the comments below!

A poem by Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah

Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah (1889-1988) — his last name is sometimes spelled Naimy in English — was born of Christian heritage in Lebanon in the village of Baskinta. He was educated early on in Russian Orthodox schools and later spent around twenty years in America (1911-1932) where he was closely associated with Al-Rābiṭah al-qalamiyyah, “The Pen League,” whose most well-known member was Kahlil Gibran. Nuʿaymah later returned to Lebanon and to this day is considered a luminary of Arabic letters. He is known for The Book of Mirdad, which, I confess I’ve not read yet, but when I was first learning Arabic I studied closely his short story Sāʿat al-kūkū (“The Cuckoo Clock”), of which, as far as I know, there is still unfortunately no English translation. Finally, I will say that there is available here a paper on Nuʿaymah, in particular his views on America and the west, which (despite some irksome typos) is worth the half hour it will take to read it. Nuʿaymah’s work is often of a mystical and pantheistic bent, and whether one is moved by his general philosophical approach or not, there are probably some good hints and reminders for everyone in it, almost all of it in very fine language (at least in Arabic).

This poem comes from a collection titled Hams al-ǧufūn (The Whispering of Eyelids). An English translation of it by Roger Monroe (along with the Arabic text) will be found in Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974). Here I offer my own translation, not because there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned one, but as an exercise for myself and because there’s often merit in variety of renderings. I include the Arabic text in transliteration so that those who don’t know Arabic or its script can at least have some idea of the poem’s sound patterns, notably the line-ending -a/āk.

daḫala ‘l-šayṭānu qalbī fa-raʾá fīhi malʾak
wa-bi-lamḥi ‘l-ṭarfi mā baynahumā ‘štadda ‘l-ʿirāk
ḏā yaqūlu ‘l-baytu baytī fa-yuʿīdu ‘l-qawla ḏāk
wa-ʾanā ʾašhadu mā yaǧrī wa-lā ʾubdiya ḥarāk

sāʾilan rabbī ʾa-fī ‘l-ʾakwāni min rabbi siwāk
ǧabalat qalbī mina ‘l-badʾi yadāhu wa-yadāk

wa-ʾilá ‘l-yawmi ʾarānī fī šukūkin wa-‘rtibāk
lastu ʾadrī ʾa-raǧīm fī fuʾādī ʾam malʾak

Satan entered my heart and saw there an angel,
And in the blink of an eye a quarrel intensified between them.
One said, “This house is mine!” and the other answered back,
I watching without movement,

Asking my Lord, “Is there in all that exists a Lord like you,
Whose hand, and yours, formed my heart?”

Till today I see myself in doubt and bewilderment,
Not knowing whether the Cursed or an angel is in my mind.

A few remarks: The first line about Satan entering the heart may be a reflection of Luke 22:3 (Εἰσῆλθεν δὲ σατανᾶς εἰς Ἰούδαν τὸν καλούμενον Ἰσκαριώτην), John 13:2 (τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα παραδοῖ αὐτὸν Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου), and/or 13:27 (εἰσῆλθεν εἰς ἐκεῖνον ὁ σατανᾶς). The phrase at the beginning of the second line may hark back to 1 Corinthians 15:52 (but the widely propagated Smith-Van Dyke version differently hasفي لحظة في طرفة عين, which strikes me as rather unnatural). In the last line, the word Cursed is an old epithet of Satan in Arabic. The theme of conflicting influences or presences in one’s mind or heart (two words are used in the poem here: qalb in lines 1 and 6, fuʾād in line 8) is, of course, not unique. I’m not in a philosophical enough temperament at the moment to muse on the subject much, so I’ll leave the poet’s words with you for you to have the opportunity to do so when it suits you!

On missing

One way to review the course of your life is by considering the relationships (think of the Beatles’ “In My Life”) — familial, professional, romantic, &c. — that grow and then perhaps die away (only a very small few escape the latter fate, I think). Naturally, not every person with whom we have relationships will ever be missed — some we’re quite happy to be rid of! — and not every time we miss someone occurs thanks to the dying away of a relationship: this latter case may arise merely due to a physical absence of proximity — even when we can still communicate, but sometimes not even that is possible — that has come about due to a confluence of events putting one person in one place and circumstance, one person in another. And there are, too, times when relationships are thought to be dead or moribund, but there is in either party or both of them a palpable sense of loss, be it a loss of habit, of mere company, of mutual sharing and service, of present and future memory, of sex, or of something else still. Look up the word “miss” in your dictionary and you’ll be reminded of its various meanings, but the one in mind here is “to feel — not merely to notice — the absence of someone.” By nature, that someone is a loved or desired someone, else you would not miss them in the first place!

In English we say, “X misses Y,” where the agent X feels the absence of Y and that relationship is construed with X as subject and Y the object in the predicate (type I), but in some other languages, a different construction is the used, with the missed person (or thing) as grammatical subject and the person experiencing the emotional sensation of that person’s absence in the slot of (in)direct object, that is, the person affected by the agent’s being missing (type II). In terms, then, of the English example above, this comes out as “Y is missing to (the detriment of) X.” Languages with this construction include, but are certainly not limited to, French “elle me manque.” Some languages actually have both constructions, as, for example, Latin with the verb carere (type II) over against desiderare and requirere (both type I), and German “ich vermisse dich” (type I) or “du fehlst mir” (type II). (Ancient) Greek constructions with ποθεῖν would be type I, but with the adjective ποθεινός type II, and Arabic اوحشتِني (awḥaštinī) type II, but (from the same root) استوحشتُ لكِ (istawḥaštu laki) type I.

I’ve already hinted at a Beatles song above, but of course there’s a lot more music of various genres and time periods that hangs on the sharp sensation of another’s absence, whether whole songs, like Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” (check out the version from the Dylan/Cash sessions!), or just a line or two, as from “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing\\Many many men can’t see the open road.” From Dylan, among those that immediately come to mind are “Girl from the North Country,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and, of course, “Tangled Up in Blue” (“But all the while I was alone\\The past was close behind,\\I seen a lot of women\\But she never escaped my mind,\\and I just grew\\Tangled up in blue…. So now I’m goin’ back again,\\I got to get to her somehow.”). Aside from memories themselves making someone missed, there are even things, things looking backward or things looking forward, that may stoke the reminding flames of another’s existence to us, as is reflected in some lines from “Boots of Spanish Leather”: “I might be gone a long ol’ time\\And it’s only that I’m askin’\\Is there something I can send you to remember me by\\To make your time more easy passin’?” Of course, for the singer, the prospect of those boots and the past is all he’s left with by the end of the song.

Allow me a little excursus: while neither directly nor solely tied to the theme of missing, it does have some bearing on it. Do the people for whom songwriters or poets have written love songs, songs of forlornness, or songs of departure come to mind, more to self-referenced existence, during the performance of those songs and poems (not to mention the initial writing), even years later when that loved one is absent, departed (relationally), or dead? It’s hard to imagine that they do not, but for them as well as for those who hear songs or read their poems, the characters in some lyric narrative may be played by different actors at different times; that is, when someone sings or hears some line like “As long as I love you, I’m not free” (the line is from “Abandoned Love”), the “I” may be the same, but the “you” may have some altogether other referent! When we take part in music, poetry, or other literature, we interpret it and even endow it with meaning according to our present circumstances, the current concoction of our memories and experiences, and those circumstances are, of course, also part of a broader net of human memory and experience (such as the song we’re hearing or the text we’re reading). This is something Gadamer (1900-2002 — apparently his philosophy is good for longevity!) points to in Truth and Method (1960):

The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion. (ET, p. 304).

For the Teutonophiles out there, here’s the original:

Es macht die geschichtliche Bewegtheit des menschlichen Daseins aus, daß es keine schlechthinnige Standortgebundenheit besitzt und daher auch niemals einen warhaft geschlossenen Horizont. Der Horizont ist vielmehr etwas, in das wir hineinwandern und das mit uns mitwandert. Dem Beweglichen verschieben sich die Horizonte. So ist auch der Vergangenheitshorizont, aus dem alles menschliche Leben lebt und der in der Weise der Überlieferung da ist, immer schon in Bewegung. (4t ed., p. 288)

So, while the original person for whom or about whom a song, poem, &c. was written will probably never be out of the author’s memory nor will the person first closely associated with some text or song in the memory of a hearer or reader whenever one comes to any such memory-inducer, that doesn’t mean that their “you,” “she,” or “he” will always reflect the same other person.

While thinking on this theme, in my mind I happened upon the line from the book of Jeremiah, “Rachel, weeping for her children, refused to be comforted, because they are not” (Rāḥēl mǝḇakkā ʾel-bānéhā mēʾănā lēhinnāḥēm ʿal-bānéhā kī ʾēnénnū, Jeremiah 31:15), which was also used to notable effect in an episode of Moby Dick‘s plot. Existentially speaking (and speaking at least partly from a notably selfish viewpoint, which is in any case the commonest way most of us have a viewpoint about anything, whether or not we consider ourselves overly selfish!), those people we miss “are not,” that is, from our own perspective we sometimes cannot consider them other than not here, not around. We are obviously not denying their existence in the bald essential sense, although philosophically even that might be considered: how far do I exist to someone who is not thinking of me, in whose presence I am not, but if I am in someone’s presence actively (not necessarily in conversation) or even if I am being missed by that person and not in their physical or even conversational (including phone, email, etc.) presence, to them am I not in some degree more existent from the perspective of their own view?

These are just some admittedly scattered musings. Feel free to sharpen, polish, or expand them with your own reflections in the comments.

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