Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.

10 comments

  1. Thank you for this post Simone. It has certainly touched many people.
    Reading Goethe’s words “Kennst du das Land” brings a sweet melancholy. Your thoughts made me realize there is a universal longing to return to places of our youth or younger days — California and Germany for me — especially when they were very happy times.

  2. Appreciate your last week’s blog. I am transplanted by choice, but true there is this feeling of loss and longing. When walking, I listen to music, the songs that I grew up with that can easily make me walk an extra mile. Nabuko and Mignon are on my list. Years ago, SF Opera had Nabuko.

  3. Ja, ich kenne das Land, in part because of your eloquent essay. I’m glad your heart goes out to today’s millions of refugees in a way that most American hearts do not.

    Many many thanks, Simone,

  4. I can add two more names to your list of writers who were exiled from their countries. Both suffered greatly. The first is Ovid, a leading writer of the Roman Empire, who was exiled from Rome, never to be allowed back. The second is Dante, who was exiled from his beloved Florence during the Rennaissance after political activity in which he fell afoul of the ruling party. He missed Florence terribly but was never allowed to return.

  5. Thank you Libby for a wonderful story. Yes we all respond to life in our own way and for some people rebounding is not possible. I noticed that Irl paired this blog with “Musicians without borders” which in many ways is its antithesis.

  6. After reading Simone’s beautiful blog about loss and longing, I couldn’t help but think of this special woman I was privileged to watch yesterday, in a short film, at the SF Jewish Film Institute Festival.

    She escaped to the woods, but her family did not. They were shipped immediately to Auschwitz. Eventually, she was found and sent to Bergen Belsen. She vowed that she would survive. And, that she did. Now, she lives in a nursing home in Israel, and is in her 90’s. She loves Purim. She says it is a holiday of joy. Every year the nursing home has a costume contest for Purim. The woman in the film had won for the past three years.

    Her granddaughter brought her this year’s costume. She dressed up as a chicken, with a fluffy feather boa, a ridiculous hat, red and white striped socks, and a shirt with feathers for a tail. Off she went down the hall with her walker and dressed as a chicken.

    Of course, no one could top that, and she won for the fourth year in a row!

    She said, “Everyone must have something, however small, to make he or she happy.” Purim makes her happy. She also loves looking at the plants and birds outside of her window at the nursing home.

    A young man from Berkeley, actually, made the film. He had been living for awhile in Israel and grew to love this woman, whose name is Anny. He named the film, “Spring Chicken.”

    As always, I was stunned that anyone who had been through all that she had been through, could find any kind of joy. She must feel loss and longing sometimes. But, she has also found a way to find happiness. Bravo, to this sweetheart of a human being!

    I also learned from “Loss and Longing,” that not everyone can overcome the losses, even people with great talent. Everyone of us responds to life in a unique way.

    Much love to each of you, and thank you, as always, Simone, for another seriously wonderful insight in “Simone Says.”
    Libby

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    1. To Mandsi Mpahlwa
      I understand your feelings perfectly. I think of myself as adapted to a country where I was not born. Yet I too feel the nostalgia and longing when I listen to the aria “Connais tu le pays ” by Thomas. So I understand how hearing Mahler might cause it too.

  7. Beautifully but sadly stated as we humans are constantly moved from place to place and re rooted in communities where our best selves did not flourish. Too often survival is the first guidepost of these changes and yet future generations from each family tree often are the beneficiaries that their ancestors will never see but would sure kvell with the successes garnered in the aftermath of their re locations.

  8. I lived in Russia from 2010-2015 where i served as South African Ambassador and while there was exposed to a television channel called Intermezzo from which my love and knowledge of classical music was greatly enhanced and by this i make no pretence to be an expert. It was from this channel that I had heard from conductors and classical musicians that “you could not play Gustav Mahler’s music without being affected by it”. Indeed in listening to some of Mahler’s works you always get to a point of being absorbed by a distinctly nostalgic element in his music. Thus, reading your “Loss and Longing” blog opened up a new angle on Gustav Mahler when you cited him among a group of people who had been exiled from their home countries and was left wondering whether this provided the answer to this observation that has been made about his music.

    I am a black South African who was also exiled at some point in my youth during the struggle against Apartheid in which I was a participant but thankfully my exile was short lived. I am thus acutely aware of the overall impact of being exiled on one’s life and persona and, as such, i remain unsure as to whether i have fully overcome it, hence your article resonates so well with me.

    You may or may not be able to respond to my point of curiosity about the comments I have referred to on, and my personal experience of, the music of Gustav Mahler but your depth and breadth of knowledge, further magnified in reading “Musicians without Borders”, makes me keen to hear your comment on this aspect.

    I presently live in Maputo, Mozambique, where I also serve as South African High Commissioner.

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