As a writer, I put a lot of stock in language and the power of words. I went to school for four years with the express purpose of learning how to better use those words and that power. I don’t dare to imagine I’ve become a master of language by any means, but if nothing else, that education enabled me to think critically and deeply about the English language.
How is it that these words have so much strength? I am able, through the use of words – whether as vibrations in the air, ink on a page, or pixels on a screen – to transmit thoughts from my mind into yours. It’s an incredible thing, but even then, it has its limitations. We need those words to have meaning, and sometimes, meaning fails us, at least in our own language.
For an example, a musing on emotion that’s been on my mind quite often, lately: What do you call a nostalgia for something you never had?
I don’t know how universal a feeling this might be. I know I’m not alone in the experience: You can look up that very question and find others searching for an answer. I imagine I’m not alone in the sources for that feeling, either. Songs are a big factor, whether folk melodies or sea songs like I talked about some weeks back, or even very modern, heavier tunes with history as a focus.
My roots in New England do give me some connection to the history and culture of sailing and seafaring, but I hope you’ll forgive me when I admit it’s only a vague, geographic link; I did not grow up in a coastal town, did not experience family members plying their livelihood on the waves. Why, then, do I feel such sadness – such grief, such loss – from songs like Stan Rogers’s “Free in the Harbour?”
I have always lived, naturally, in a modern world, and in a country that is not directly plagued by war. There is no conflict which has called me or any member of my family to take up arms and fight and die in the name of God. So when I listen to “A Lifetime of War,” what is it in Sabaton’s instrumentation and lyrics – telling the story of a war fought centuries ago in a nation I’ve never been to – why does it feel like such a personal story, even in a language not my own?
What word can we use, what power can we lend, to explain such wistfulness, such longing for a thing we have never known, a thing we never could know?
There is a Japanese term, mono no aware. It translates literally as “the pathos of things,” or “an empathy toward things.” More meaningfully, it embodies the concept of an awareness of the impermanence of the world: the temporary nature inherent to everything, the knowledge that experiences and objects cannot last. There’s an emotional element that’s part of the idea: a sadness at the passing of these things, and a deeper, gentle sadness at the simple reality of the concept itself.
The Welsh word hiraeth has no direct English translation. It’s a word deeply centered in the experience of being Welsh, in the culture and history – and the loss of those very things – of Wales and her people. It’s been likened to some sense of yearning, a desire to return to a past that can’t be reclaimed. Translated literally, its closest meaning would be “long gone.” In this very word, I find again the sensation I seek to name: a profound sense of something lost, something once valuable and important that I no longer possess. I’ve never been to Wales.
The Germans, who have many useful words for concepts English has left unnamed, refer to the emotion of sehnsucht. This, too, has imperfect translations: longing, desire, craving. Psychologists have researched this meeting of conscious thought and subconscious feeling, trying to identify its core, trying to determine if it is a uniquely German experience or a more universal aspect of humanity. The research has been inconclusive, as it seems likely that culture plays its part in how we consider ourselves and our position in the wider world. But the sehnsucht is there, it seems: an ambiguous sensation of desires that will never be sated, of ideals for a world we cannot create.
And the Portuguese call something by the name of saudade. This is, perhaps, the closest word for the sensation we cannot name, and yet the broadest in how the word is used. Saudade is a type of music, a style of writing, a foundation of artistic endeavor. It is a melancholy, an aspect of love, a type of sadness, an almost incomprehensible mixture of feelings. It is a historical experience, grounded in the rise and fall of Portugal as a world power, and the identity Portuguese speakers struggle to find in a modern world. It is a universal idea, a longing for something that cannot be found – for something that, perhaps, never existed at all, except in the mind of the sorrowful soul who goes without.
I don’t mean for this blog post to be depressing, because the feeling itself isn’t entirely a bad or sad one. It’s bittersweet. There is a great sadness in the recognition of something lost, something that cannot be regained, something that you never had and never will. But there is something powerfully good in that realization, as well. The humanity of that feeling, that longing, is a reassurance.
And just as every sadness has its joy, if we can feel the sorrow of a loss we never experienced, so too can we feel the wonder of triumphs not our own.
We can turn again to Stan Rogers: I’ve never been part of anything even similar to the sinking and raising of a ship, but I feel the elation and pride of “The Mary Ellen Carter” as surely as any of the sailors in the song. And I’m sure that if you listen, you’ll feel the same.