Friday, December 18, 2009

Sad Happiness

That seems to be a contradiction, like "soothing pain" or "silent scream" or "lonely crowd".

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski, in an essay I read recently, describes Rilke's Duino Elegies as "an enchanted forest," and that after a while the reader finds himself resembling "a snowy owl flying silently between the dense spruce branches with the utmost facility … with a kind of sad happiness that is, it seems, a proper response to great poetry."

Zagajewski recounts his initial reaction to first reading the Elegies:

Standing in the street filled with the mediocre din of a lazy Communist afternoon, I read for the first time the magical sentences "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels' / Orders? And even if one of them pressed me / suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed / in his more potent being. For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure." The street suddenly disappeared, political systems evaporated, the day became timeless, I met eternity, poetry woke up.

I could relate to that because I had a similar reaction on my first reading of them, where everything ‘disappeared’ … I forgot where I was, and I, too, "met eternity", and for the first time felt real poetry. Those words, those few lines, had the most profound effect on me.  The power of a poet's words, to take you somewhere so far beyond everything you have ever known or experienced, opening up this entire new world of mystery—and understanding.  I remember thinking, at the time:  “I have to tell someone!” 

Tell them what?  And how would I explain it?  "Here—READ this!!"  … and have them look at me with those eyes—you know the kind—and suppose they grab the book from my hands, read a few lines, then shut the pages and hand it back to me, scrunching up their eyebrows and shaking their head, as if I had just showed them an exotic fruit they don’t know what to do with.

How is it that the exact same words that bring such pleasure and meaning to one, for another mean absolutely nothing, like the random, unintelligible scratchings on some unscalable brick wall?

But those words—“sad happiness”—that's like being in an armchair, eyes closed, blocking out everything except the sound of the cello playing music so sad it pulls the being out of your soul.  And yet …  these can represent some of the happiest moments of one’s life, unable to be shared with no one but the shadows of the night, where the very air that surrounds you is one of complete, and utterly undefinable … Happiness.

Sad happiness.  The transcendence of, yet retained envelopment into ... isness.  Where are the words to play that, like the cello plays its musical counterpart?

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