e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Time in Need

I heal wounds, mend rifts,
fulfill dreams, right wrongs; but who
helps me when I’m lost?

Odes to Joy

Having looked at laments, I thought I’d investigate the opposite – poems, songs and music celebrating joy. A quick surf around the web shows there are a lot of them.

Dictionaries define joy in terms of intense gladness, happiness or rapture. ‘Rapture’ is closest to what I understand by it – for me it includes a feeling of being uplifted. I don’t find it surprising that many of the poems applauding it are religious and that it’s often described as one of the benefits of meditation.

Several websites give long lists of poems and songs about joy and related emotions. Fabulous – so many people familiar with and inspired by this wonderful feeling.

In the West, one of the most famous pieces of music is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. It’s a setting of a poem of the same name by Friedrich Schiller, about the possibility that all men may become brothers.

The music has been adopted as the European Anthem by both the Council of Europe and the European Union. In theory the anthem has no lyrics, but there are in fact a number of verses in various languages. They express joy in the idea that Europe’s unity in diversity will last forever and contribute to world peace – all very worthy but not leading to great poetry IMHO.

On a more intimate scale I’d like to share one of my favourite poems by William Blake.

Infant Joy
‘I have no name:
I am but two days old.’
What shall I call thee?
‘I happy am,
Joy is my name.’
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee!

What is a lament?

A few days ago I did a post in which I labelled the book I am a Chechen as a lament.

This made me think about laments – what are they? The Oxford Dictionaries Online gives several definitions but the one nearest what I meant was ‘a song, piece of music, or poem expressing grief or sorrow’. Some other dictionaries add ‘regret’ as a lament-mobilising emotion.

There are poetic laments everywhere. The Bible is full of them, not only in the book called Lamentations but also in the Psalms and elsewhere. In ancient and traditional societies epics like The Iliad and Beowulf usually incorporate at least one at some point in their narrative. Modern versions may be online – see A Mathematician’s Lament.

The song type is popular in opera, particularly sung by the soprano or mezzosoprano. Performance by women is generally more common than by men – is this because women have more to sorrow over or because they feel the emotion more often, or does the habit have a technical basis – women’s voices fit the music better? This is a speculation for another post.

In pure music, pibroch, the classical music of Scotland, is full of laments for the dead and I don’t doubt so are other musical traditions.

Is a requiem a kind of lament, I wonder? It contains fine poetry and is usually set to music. But a true lament is sung or said for the benefit of the living; a requiem is for the dead.

Not all laments are about death. Other kinds of sorrow can be treated in this way. Loss of homeland (a common theme for the exiled, like Ibn Hamdis, a Spanish Arab of the middle ages) of states of mind (e.g.The Land of Lost Content contained in John Foulds Keltic Suite), or reputation – as Cassio in Othello

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!

.
Lament is not nostalgia, though it has many things in common with it. It’s stronger and more central the the lamenter’s life, and probably more universal.

I let Shakespeare have the last word: not only with a list of things lamented, but with a reminder that there are ways of overcoming them and getting back to looking on the bright side.

Sonnet 30
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The Supermarket of Ideas

Recently, during lunch with some friends, the conversation turned to health matters and to complementary therapies in particular. Several of those present had seen Richard Dawkins on TV. They were incensed at what they described as Dawkins’ arrogance and lack of understanding of the ideas he rubbished.

Listening to the discussion I came to the conclusion that Dawkins had, as so many scientists do, missed an important point about explanations.

I am a scientist by training. I like science and prefer scientific to non-scientific explanations. But I would never claim that what I prefer is in any way righter or better. In our modern society we have a choice of explanations, medical traditions, rationalisations etc and it is my contention that individuals follow the ones they like. Their choices have nothing to do with correct, proved, practical etc.

I know people, even confirmed anti-sciencers, who talk about evidence and cite so-called statistics in support of their views. In reality they are only supporting their personal preferences.

Personally, I don’t think this matters. Most of the human race has lived out most of its varied lives, as successfully as necessary, with a hodge-podge of odd and contradictory explanations for the way the world is.

The big advantage we in the modern world have is that these ideas are now all available to everyone via libraries and the internet, and, not surprisingly, people pick and mix them according to their individual taste – a bit like in a supermarket.

This is freedom of thought and speech: freedom of information and ideas. People have risked prison and even died to bring it about.

Anyone, be they scientist, religious fanatic, complementary therapist, whatever, who makes categorical statements about one set of ideas being right and others being wrong, is not making a reasoned, rational statement. They are making a political one – and a dangerous one at that.

So I’ll keep right on browsing through the Supermarket of Ideas and pick the ones I like off the shelves.

Haiku for any year

Each year takes the same
time to travel a year;
it is we who speed up.

‘I am a Chechen’ by German Sadulaev

I picked this book up in my local library, realising, when I saw the title, that I know nothing about Chechnya except that it fought a war with Russia. I now know very much more.

At first it seems a confusing book: part personal memoir, part history, part folklore and very much anti-war polemic. However, despite the author’s claim to be ‘mad’, it’s easy to follow the different themes.

Above all it is a lament. The losses and the ‘might-have-beens’ pile up. Some specifically written about – dead friends, bombed villages; some suggested – lost simplicity, useless achievements. While much of the world rejoiced in the fall of Communism, Sadulaev and his friends discovered “One day we woke up in another country.”. He compares this to the previous deportation of Chechens under Stalin, but implies that in some ways the loss is more permanent. The motherland was still there for the deportees, but for him she is gone forever.

It’s a very personal book, but at the same time deals with universals. It gives some of the clearest descriptions I’ve read of the horrors of war – and they are the same for all victims in all places. The importance of family, love of land, the games of childhood giving way to the ambiguities of adulthood reminded me of these things in my own life, which has been much less dramatic that Sadulaev’s. I frequently felt the ‘that’s so true’ moment of recognition that one gets from a good book.

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