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October 05, 2006


on St. Catherine,
I saw a beggar
sitting crosslegged
in a doorway,
as if in meditation,

and then
he began to cough,
a terrible dry
wracking cough
that made me shiver
helplessly from
my spot across the street.

Later I passed
another man,
lying on his side,
bare to the waist,
with half an arm;

the other was
arranging pennies
in a careful grid
on the sidewalk
in front of him.

Wow, yes. This is so beautifully written. Do you ever suspect that something happens just so you can witness it? Your writing is a gift. I feel it does justice to what it witnesses.

Hüzün: It matches my mood exactly. I'm sure the Russians have a word for it, and the Serbs, and the Poles, and the Japanese.

And, in praising "Snow" for its evenness of tone, you've sold me on it. Evenness is a virtue I value in writing, maybe it's something I overvalue.

One more thing: I remember a wonderful autumnal photo (all burnished color) you took many months ago, maybe this time last year or two years ago, of these very same park benches. The photo was a bit blurry, and it made me think of Brahms. In any case, it made such an impression on me that I made it a point to look for those benches when we walked across the park (though I didn't mention it at the time). Ah, I'm rambling.

This was a nice visit Beth, thank you.

One of the things I've learned from having a camera for the past two years is just how many things don't lend themselves to photography (well, not at my skill level, anyway). Fortunately, we still have words. Like your last three paragraphs here, all the life they capture.

How beautiful this is, Beth. It's interesting to read about melancholy being poetic in Islamic culture and it makes me realize that I think that is often true of Finland and Russia amongst their artists, musicians and poets, at least 100 years ago and earlier.

Poor homeless souls. I shiver to think of winter as you have in Montreal, and I experienced the first three decdes of my life. But here we do have the dark and melancholy rain for many months.

I'm currently reading Pamuk's Snow and yes after reading your post, hüzün is just the word to describe the atmosphere of the book. Interesting post, thanks.

I might have to go pick a copy of Pamuk's book right here in Budapest, where I am getting reacquainted with another version of that huzun!

Hmm. Venice in November evokes something similar, I think. (Not the California Venice, where you'd never know it wasn't midsummer anywhere else.)

I'll try to be alert to these moments, Beth, thank you.

Beautiful post, Beth, thank you.

Beautiful, Beth. Especially fit in with this dreary, three-day typhoon we are having, everything grey, moaning, and not quite real. The Japanese would call "hüzün" "awaré" or "mizu no awaré" and the Germans, "Weltschmertz" (Rilke's poetry, in German, radiate Weltschmertz. It never quite comes across in English). I often wonder why English doesn't seem to really carry this sense. Maybe English is just too confident and "down-to-earth"? I've often wondered why all the times I've been in Japan and Germany I've always seen in others and felt in myself this pervasive Hüzün, but never in the States. (while at the same time I've always wondered why I've always felt a fresh sense of "newness" and openness in the States, while never really in Japan and Germany. My mother and I were just talking on the phone this morning about how we both miss that disarming directness of Americans).

Could it be that a sense of Hüzün develops when you experience the sorrow of losing a war? Why there seems to exist a greater sense of this melancholy in the south of the United States? Is it like growing older, when you've experienced loss and can see the tracks of your mistakes? Or like walking in a forest when, after being disoriented, the mist parts and for a moment you can see what you have just walked through?

"Could it be that a sense of Hüzün develops when you experience the sorrow of losing a war?"

I find that very insightful. The optimism and openness that characterizes the US is possibly related to this fact, that this is a country that has never received a devastating challenge to its idea of "greatness." We haven't had to pick our way through utterly bombed out cities recently. Even the English, who have experienced such devastation (and the appalling loss of life of both World Wars), are like us in seeing themselves as winners. And that affects the way the people talk about their place in the world, and it affects the way their leaders talk to them.

And this, as you say, is possibly why the South, more than elsewhere in the country, has that heavyness, that sense of beauty mixed with exhaustion, that is often missing from other parts of the country. It is why Faulkner couldn't be Californian.

But the general sense here, indeed, is that there is no doubt. This is one big feature, for example, of George W. Bush's language. It is devoid of doubt, even on the very largest issues, *especially* on the largest issues. Everything is certain, everything is possible, everything is in control, and victory is assured.

And without doubt, there can be no "aware," no "hüzün."

Oh, but Butuki and Teju, it IS here. Hüzün is right here in California, right here where I live.

The tule fog arrives in November and covers the Central Valley in impenetrable gray, causing crashes of cars and delays at airports. The ghosts of the first inhabitants, relatives of the Wintun, get caught on the marsh reeds, singing a song that is lost in the whispers, broken by the occasional snap of the tail of a coho salmon that, once again, swim upstream here to spawn after nearly a century.

And the ghosts of their cousins in the foothills whisper in the gray pines.

The descendants of these people, few and scattered and lured by the impossible riches of casinos and even more impossible solace of alcohol, surely know all about hüzün. We try to erase their memory as we formerly tried to erase their persons in all kinds of ways but until every tule reed is paved over by developers, until every ghost pine is replaced by invasive weeds, there will be whispers and eyes to see and hands joined in longing. (Needless to say, the dominant culture is not remotely aware of any of this, mostly unaware the descendants are still here at all unless they pay a visit to a casino. The rhetoric of certainty and the rhetoric of victory is a powerful narcotic.)

Pica, yes, of course you are right. That was my being blind to the other voices in American society... Native Americans, African Americans, Hawaiians, Aleuts, Inuits, Hispanics, Asian Americans... the list goes on. Of course they all know about hüzün, don't they. I don't know what Native Americans call it, but African Americans do have the word "the Blues", don't they? A special, purely American blend of hüzün at that. Perhaps the Hopi call it "Koyaanisqatsi"?

In any case, here is evidence of my own arrogance.

"Pica, yes, of course you are right. That was my being blind to the other voices in American society..."


In fact, the deepest sense of melancholy I grasp in New York comes from the knowledge of the many who inhabited this space before me. The Native Americans, whose presence has been erased from the city, or the African Americans, who comprised twenty percent, all of them enslaved.

Beth, seems like you captured the spirit of hüzün well, in your words and the small forlorn photo. This weekend here in central New England it doesn't appear at all that winter is coming. The sky is stunningly blue against the colorful treetops and it's that warm Indian summer that lulls you into thinking it will always be so - before cold, gray-brown November hits like a mugging. We'll stay drunk on this illusion awhile yet, ignoring hints in the chilly nights until we're forced to see our own breath in front of our faces.

I've often wondered about that lack in literature in English -- it first really struck me in reading German poetry, that Goethe and Heine and Rilke had a key they could move into, a very softspoken, almost childish voice of wistfulness, usually in very simple rhyme and meter, and English had really nothing like it. The closest thing was maybe Wordsworth, "She dwelt among the untrodden ways" & so forth, but there it feels a little precious. Middle and Old English poetry had it, which is one reason I love it so much, but by Shakespeare it has pretty much vanished. The end of Joyce's story "The Dead," maybe a few of Yeats's poems, "Adam's Curse"? No accident maybe that the counterexamples that come to my mind are Irish :-)

hüzün, huzn. Once my love and I catalogued the words for it in as many languages as we could, and the bittersweetness now of that memory is as convincing a definition as any i've come across. Istanbul's hüzün is so often mediated through music--Sezen Aksu has a song, Istanbul Hatırasi (memories of Istanbul) that always makes me think of that passage of Pamuk. And while the place is changing now very rapidly, it's still there in the corners. Somehow more intimate defeats become bound up in the greater melancholy of the city's past. And not just lost wars--Teju's comparison to New York's lost voices is apt, because the hüzün that struck me most there was in an exhbition of photographs from the 1955 riots, when many of the remaining Greeks and Armenians were finally driven out.

Dude just won the Nobel! A well-timed post, Beth. You should stick some Technorati tags on this sucker and see if you get any hits.

Have done, Dave! Thanks!

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.