Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ignorance : Η 'Αγνοια

So, one of the first books I read (in full) in Greek was a book I could not read in English at that precise time because it was translated from the French into Greek before it was translated into English. And that book is Milan Kundera's Ignorance, or Η 'Αγνοια του Μίλαν Κούντερα.

I read it in Greek in December, 2001 and it became available for English readers after that. I think early 2002?

I still only have a Greek copy of this book and often want to quote segments of it to friends and I'm forced to do a rough translation in order to do that. Which is frustrating.

So, reading my first entire novel in Greek, not a Greek novel, but learning about Greek. I read the Greek to learn about nostalgia, a Greek word.

From Kundera's Ignorance:

Στα αρχαία Ελληνικά η επιστροφή λέγεται νόστος. 'Αλγος σημαίνει πόνος. Νοσταλγία είναι λοιπόν ο πόνος που προκαλεί σε κάποιον η ανικανοποίητη λαχτάρα της επιστροφής.

Στην αυγή του αρχαιοελληνικού πολιτισμού γεννήθηκε η Οδύσσεια, το θεμελιώδες έπος της νοσταλγίας. Ας υπογραμμίσουμε: ο Οδυσσέας, ο κατεξοχήν άνθρωπος της περιπέτειας όλων των εποχών, είναι και ο κατεξοχήν άνθρωπος της νοσταλγίας. Πήγε (χωρίς να το πολυθέλει) στον πόλεμο της Τροίας, όπου έμεινε δέκα χρόνια. Έπειτα θέλησε να γυρίσει γρήγορα στη γενέτειρά του την Ιθάκη, αλλά οι μηχανορραφίες των θεών παρέτειναν την περιπλάνηση του, στην αρχή για τρία χρόνια, γεμάτα από τα πιο αλλόκοτα γεγονότα, κι έπειτα για άλλα εφτά χρόνια, που τα πέρασε, όμηρος και εραστής, κοντά στη θεά Καλυψώ, η οποία τον ερωτεύτηκε και δεν τον άφηνε να φύγει απ' το νησί της.

Στην πέμπτη ραψωδία ο Οδυσσέας λέει στην Καλυψώ: «το είδα και καλά το ξέρω, η Πηνελόπη αντίκρυ σου, όσο κι αν δεν της λείπει η φρόνηση, σου υπολείπεται και στη μορφή και στο παράστημα... Κι όμως, εν γνώσει μου το θέλω και το επιθυμώ, απ' το πρωί ώς το βράδυ, σπίτι μου να γυρίσω, να δω κι εγώ τη μέρα της επιστροφής». Και συνεχίζει ο Όμηρος: καθώς μιλούσε, «άρχισε να δύει ο ήλιος, έπεσε το σκοτάδι· προχώρησαν οι δυο τους στο κοίλο βάθος της σπηλιάς, κοιμήθηκαν μαζί, και χάρηκαν μαζί φιλί κι αγκάλη»


The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: añoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one’s country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called “homesickness.” Or in German: Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee.

But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element. One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English) makes a distinction between two terms: söknuour: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimprá: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving, Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe (“I yearn for you,” “I’m nostalgic for you”; “I cannot bear the pain of your absence”). In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there.

Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m’ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s’ennuyer is weak, cold — anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).

The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the birth of the Odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Let us emphasize: Odysseus, the greatest adventurer of all time, is also the greatest nostalgic. He went off (not very happily) to the Trojan War and stayed for ten years. Then he tried to return to his native Ithaca, but the gods' intrigues prolonged his journey, first by three years jammed with the most uncanny happenings, then by seven more years that he spent as hostage and lover with Calypso, who in her passion for him would not let him leave her island.

In Book Five of the Odyssey, Odysseus tells Calypso: "As wise as she is, I know that Penelope cannot compare to you in stature or in beauty ... And yet the only wish I wish each day is to be back there, to see in my own house the day of my return!" And Homer goes on: "As Odysseus spoke, the sun sank; the dusk came: and beneath the vault deep within the cavern, they withdrew to lie and love in each other's arms."


Anonymous Andrea said...

That is one of my favourite prose pieces of all times, and I haven't even read the book yet. I had issues with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but maybe I'll give Ignorance (or rather, the German translation) a try, just because the reflection on nostalgia is so beautiful.

1:24 am  
Blogger kathryn said...

Hi Andrea:
You'll find lots of fascinating musings in Ignorance; my copy is full of segments I've underlined.

What are your issues with The Unbearable Lightness of Being? His newer novels are very different.

3:12 pm  
Anonymous Andrea said...

I liked the philosophical parts in TULoB a lot (like the various word definitions), but I couldn't handle his way of telling the story.

I completely flipped when he more or less gave away the ending about one third into the book; and the way he kept drawing attention to himself, or rather to the narrator, by pointing out that the whole story was really only a novel and the characters were just people he invented rather threw me off. It's been a while that I read the book, so I might be remembering this wrong. I do recall issues with the storytelling, though.

You think I might enjoy Ignorance more?

5:27 pm  
Blogger kathryn said...

Ah, interesting points, Andrea. He doesn't really offer a straight narrative, where you forget yourself in a story. You know that there's something that needs to be understood and that everything is a means to that end. Still, I do recommend Ignorance. (And Identity and Slowness). :)

11:11 am  
Anonymous Andrea said...

Yes, it felt like I was being yanked out of the flow of the story every now and then, "just" so he could get his point across. It was weird.

I'm putting those on my to-read list, thanks for the recommendation! :-)

2:35 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home