Wednesday, 23 June 2010


I’ve been reading the story of a boy who grew up an only child, in a household where his parents ignored him, and were indifferent to his concerns. The main emotion they seemed to express was irritation at the way he impinged on their lives.

The boy had no friends: at school he was considered a massive under-achiever, despite being of high intelligence and quick wit. His main interactions, apart from with teachers, were with a bully who beat him mercilessly; and with a girl towards whom he expressed himself in the only way he could: with hostility, aggression and anti-social behaviour. Typical behaviour, in fact, for an abused child, but there was no evidence he was ever actively abused.

Instead, he was ignored. He did what any introspective, isolated child would do: he invented an imaginary friend. His imaginative life became a substitute for the real world, thus exacerbating his isolation. In his daydreams, he’s a spaceman or a dinosaur, both of whom live in a world without (other) humans. His imaginary friend is a wild animal, not a person.

What chance does such a child have? What sort of adult do you suppose this child would grow up into? Perhaps the answer lies here:


click to biggify

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Never shall affection die

Leave Me from Daros Films on Vimeo.


Dear, when I am from thee gone,
Gone are all my joys at once.
I loved thee and thee alone,
In whose love I joyed once.
And although your sight I leave,
Sight wherein my joys do lie,
Till that death do sense bereave,
Never shall affection die.

Monday, 21 June 2010

And the rain runs

But before going on with such explorations, a return to someone I’ve written about before here. Ilse Weber, a Moravian Jew, musician, writer of songs and plays for children. She was sent to Terezín, or Theresienstadt, and took it upon herself there to play with and for the children. She had two of her own: Tommy was with her in the ghetto, but his older brother Hanus had been sent to Sweden, and was living there in safety.

The song Und der Regen rinnt is about Hanus, far away across the high mountains and the deep sea, where he is spared the sight of sorrow and misery, and never need walk in the “stony alleyways” which perhaps refers to some local feature of Terezín associated with the transports.

Because their paths were not to come together again. Willi, her husband, was selected to be transported to Auschwitz. Ilse elected to go along with him, with Tommy. On arrival, Willi was put to work and Ilse and Tommy were gassed. Willi survived the war, as of course did Hanus.

(Note how sehnsucht returns, and here it definitely does have an object.)


Une der Regen rinnt

Und der Regen rinnt, und der Regen rinnt …

Ich denk im Dunklen an dich, mein Kind.

Hoch sind die Berge und tief ist das Meer,

mein Hertz ist müd und sehnsuchtschweer.

Une der Regen rinnt, und der Regen rinnt …

warom bist du zo fern, mein Kind?


Une der Regen rinnt, und der Regen rinnt …

Gott selbst hat uns getrennt, mein Kind.

Du sollst nicht Leid und Elend sehn,

sollst nicht auf steinigen Gassen gehn.

Une der Regen rinnt, und der Regen rinnt …

Hast du mich nicht vergessen, Kind?


And the rain runs

And the rain runs, and the rain runs …

In the dark I think of you, my child.

High are the mountains and deep is the sea.

My heart is weary and heavy with yearning.

And the rain runs, and the rain runs …

Why are you so far away, my child?


And the rain runs, and the rain runs …

God himself has parted us, my child.

You are not meant to see sorrow and misery;

you are not meant to walk in stony alleyways.

And the rain runs, and the rain runs …

Have you not forgotten me, my child?


You can listen here to the song sung by Anne Sofie Von Otter, whose remarkable story is told at the Grapes 2.0 link above. That recording, together with the words and translations in this post, come from the CD Terezín/Theresienstadt, also featuring Christian Gerhaher and Daniel Hope.


I’ve been considering the mental states of nostalgia, saudade and Sehnsucht, all of which seem to be local versions of various aspects of melancholy. Sehnsucht is the title of a poem by Goethe, set to music by Schubert, which our choir was planning to perform next weekend, which planted the seed in my mind. The poem goes like this:

Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!
Allein und abgetrennt
Von aller Freude,
Seh ich ans Firmament
Nach jener Seite.
Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,
Ist in der Weite.
Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
Mein Eingeweide.
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!

In English:

Only one who knows this longing
Understands what I suffer!
Alone and separated
From all joy,
I look to the vast horizon
On every side.
Oh! He who loves and knows me,
Is far away.
I feel dizzy, and it burns
my insides.
Only one who knows this longing
Understands what I suffer!

Goethe’s idea that nobody else could know what he’s going through is central to the idea of Sehnsucht. The feeling itself is not, unlike nostalgia, associated with yearning for anything in particular, unless it’s a time before the Sehnsucht came on. It’s an idiopathic condition, in that respect.

Germans even seem to be convinced that only Germans suffer from Sehnsucht, since they’re the only ones who have a word for it. That sounds to me like a version of the old canard about Eskimos and their snow vocabulary, and about as convincing. What’s wrong with the word “yearning”? That’s an emotion that doesn’t require an object, as any teenager knows.

Melancholy itself, in the sense in which we now use it, is also similar to that free-floating form of yearning. So, also, is the Portuguese saudade, which I’ll look at later.

There is also a setting of the Goethe poem by Tchaikovsky, and a piece for piano by Robert Schumann. Here’s a performance of the Schubert setting:

Saturday, 19 June 2010


Apparently Swiss mercenaries in the 17th and 18th centuries used to miss their homeland so much they often succumbed to a form of homesickness, or nostalgia, which could lead to desertion, disability and even death. To help prevent this happening, they were forbidden from singing songs from home known as Kuhreihen, which although they were simple melodies played by cow-herding Swiss, were so melancholic as to bring the condition on.

The Wikipedia article on nostalgia has a hilarious sentence:

“Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home.”

One of the few cases in those days where medicine hit the nail on the head, I suspect.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


This week, it was revealed that Afghanistan is sitting on such a huge pile of mineral wealth it could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” – an element expected to play a major role in the development of electric cars.

God certainly is a joker, you have to admit. First he makes Saudi Arabia into the Saudi Arabia of petroleum, then he turns Afghanistan into the Saudi Arabia of lithium.

The one consolation is that there is competition. In an article in the New Yorker back in March, Lawrence Wright wrote about Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries, which is sitting on half of the world’s known reserves of lithium (incidentally, a similar amount to Afghanistan, which in March was “unknown reserves”). And what were the people of Bolivia starting to call their country, according to Wright? The Saudi Arabia of lithium, that’s correct.


See the phrase used in this abstract here. Full version only available to subscribers.


Monday, 14 June 2010


The Union of Belgian Optimists held their first-ever congress last week in Brussels. One of the speakers was the cardiologist to the King, Professor Pedro Brugada, who spoke about optimism as an antidote to stress, and all that that entails.

"It's difficult to remain optimistic if you're surrounded by people who see things in black," he said. "That's why I find it important to support movements like this which put optimism into society, and offer a counterweight to the overwhelming melancholy."

It may not occur to him that "overwhelming melancholy" is the only really sane response to the world. It clearly doesn't occur to him that for a melancholic, the presence of an optimist is the very last thing likely to bring relief.

On the other hand, he is a doctor of the heart. He surely must know what he's talking about.

Sunday, 13 June 2010


Two flavours/scents I can’t abide are cloves, and lavender.

The new toothpaste, Crest, has the distinct flavour of cloves, which is odd as that taste is associated with toothache.

The shower gel, meanwhile, has a nasty, acrid, piercing top-note of lavender.

My bathroom hates me.

UPDATE: It turns out that the active ingredient in clove essential oil is eugenol, and that harsh top note in the lavender fragrance is probably camphor, and both are hepatotoxic, which means they're bad for the liver. So that, boys and girls, is most likely where my dislike for those two compounds derives from. Isn't that interesting?