Daily Archives: December 5, 2010

savage and obscure

Ah, is one condemned to spend one’s life in savage obscurity? Or can the day be salvaged? The reflections one may make at mid-life… Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (after whom a Boston bridge is named) was 35 when he mused on the midpoint of his life (which in actuality was some two and a half years in the future):

Half my life is gone, and I have let
   The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
   The aspiration of my youth, to build
   Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
   Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
   But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
   Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
   Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,–
   A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,–
   And hear above me on the autumnal blast
   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

I smile when I read “tower of song,” as I am a Leonard Cohen fan. But what takes my notice even more in this poem is its title: “Mezzo Cammin.”

Literature snobs will have twitched an eyebrow by now. Yes, the reference is to the deliciously euphonious opening of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.

“In the middle of the road of our life, I found myself in a dark wood with the right way lost.” And we know where his route then took him: first of all, with the aid of Virgil, through a gate reading “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” – “Abandon all hope, you who enter.” I rather think this is indeed a bit too gloomy and wild, even though Dante’s path took him ultimately to heaven. But there is a pair of words in there that I like especially: selva oscura – “dark wood.”

There is much one can do with that. A person inclined to polyglot paronomasia may think of the obscure self one is still aiming to discover at mid-life. But is the obscure self a wild one? And if wild, is that good or bad – is it better to be uncultured, as thinkers such as Seneca and Rousseau have thought, or is the wild child in the depths one that must be tamed, an id or idiot?

This no doubt is reflected by one’s view of the forest – not just the woods we’re not out of yet, figuratively, but the sort of forest one might paint if one were to paint one. Is it a pastoral Arcadia, or a forbidding, evil place, wherein lurk wolves? A good question, indeed – now that I live in the heart of a city, I enjoy the forest and the idea of the forest, but when I lived in the middle of one, miles from nowhere and with actual wolves howling outside at night (spooky, even if not a real threat to me), its savagery did not seem so noble.

Oh, yes, the savage. The noble savage (like Tonto – you savvy, kemo sabe?) was a romantic image – the human from the state of nature, emerged from the forest and pure of heart. But savage is first of all savage. And first of all, the savage – the person from the forest, selvaggio as they would say in Italian or silvaticus in Latin – was about as welcome as a wolf. Even if in times past the term was used more broadly – I remember reading an old book in which  someone living with New World aboriginal people referred ingenuously to “my lousy savages” meaning just that they were forest people infected with small insects – the pejorative sense was original and always inescapable. Now when we hear savage, we think not so much “natural” as “vicious”: savage as a verb means something on the order of “tear apart”, like ravage but with hissing at the beginning.

(I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the mild mollifying influence of the surname Savage – when one thinks of Fred Savage, who played that cute kid on The Wonder Years, one can’t think of some evil hairy barely human woodland freak. Incidentally, Fred Savage turns 35 in 2011.)

Music, of course, hath charms to soothe the savage breast (no, not the savage beast). Some music may trace the soothing of the breast through in fact becoming more savage. I am put in mind of the movie La Vallée, in which a citified Frenchwoman, lured by the prospect of rare feathers for her Paris boutique, joins an expedition into the heart of New Guinea, in the course of which she gradually sheds her “civilized” persona. The woman discovers free love among the hippies she is travelling with, and she thinks she has found an ideal society in the tribespeople of the forest (with luscious vegetation and, oh yes, killing pigs with clubs – animals were harmed in the filming of this movie) when she arrives at last at the destination, a valley perpetually obnubilated – or, as the title of the soundtrack, by Pink Floyd, puts it, Obscured by Clouds. But it turns out they are not so different from what she thought she was leaving behind.

So at what point is the obscurity cleared? Do you know for certain that you see clearly now? Some forests are not so obviously dark, and yet, even if the route sings as you set forth, within three steps all may change… (Yes, that’s a reference to “La Marée haute” by Lhasa.)

So what routes does our life take in the middle? Are they inevitably obscure, or is there a cure for the obstacles? And where does the word obscure come from, by the way?

Well, to answer the last, it comes from Latin obscurus, “dim, dark, hard to see” – or “hard to understand”. It comes from the ob prefix that we see in obstacle and obviate and various others, added to a root that is related to our word sky: scurus, “covered”.

And what is obscure may indeed by uncovered. But sometimes obscurity is an invitation – to adventure, or simply to one’s own inner exploration: fill the gaps with your interpretations and understandings. Many poems have this effect. I am put in mind of T.S. Eliot, whose poems are often quite recherché but invite more than a simple decipherment. He made his name in his 20s with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” that great poem that one understands better at mid-life and beyond, when one may say “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” and

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Ah, the savagery of the average. Is there any salve for obscurity?

Eliot returned again and again to meditations on the mezzo cammin; he never left the obscure forest. In his early 50s – 24 years after Prufrock and 24 before his death – he wrote this:

You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you

Yes, the unending river, the eternal now; a human life is a wave form (even at the cataract), and you are not who you were nor who you will be. Life is always the middle of the road (it’s not trying to find you – even if Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders sang it so well when Hynde was 33); it is always obscured, front and back; and there is no self to salvage, for the self that you salvage is by then but a dry relic, as you roll on, a wave of similar shape but ever a wave.

Which brings me around to the title of Eliot’s poem. No doubt by now you know my style and have noticed that I haven’t mentioned it. The poem is “The Dry Salvages.” It takes its name from three rocks off Cape Ann in Massachusetts. Their name in turn comes from French, les trois sauvages. At the root of these marine rocks is thus a forest… but the waves of time have obscured it.


What do you do when you look up to someone? How do you express it? Perhaps you say, “You da man! I’m your homey!” Or perhaps more subtly, or more formally, you give him his due – or her hers. In modern times, we don’t typically think of kneeling before the person, hands clasped together, so that the person may take our hands in his or hers and so accept our fealty. But, then, in modern times, when we pay homage, it is not a real binding commitment as of a vassal to a lord. No, when someone owns our butt, it’s with ink on paper. And we’re not so romantic about it.

But we do romanticize things that have come forth from the middle ages. Ah, chivalry, and feudalism, and all that wonderful stuff – a time of giants, and knights, and a world that might as well have been constructed of felt for all most of us really know of it. And we also use it as the basis for more figurative uses today. So it is with homage: it was first a word for declaring one’s service and fealty, of saying “I’m your man” – of in fact becoming his man, as the hom is “man” as in Latin hominem and modern French homme and the age is is that nominalizing suffix we see in so many different words. And now homage simply means a declaration of respect or reverence, a eulogizing. We may pay homage, but we don’t actually pay.

Incidentally, although we may have a habit of thinking of medieval England when we imagine all that chivalry and so on, proper due needs to be given to the French, who really played a very important role in all that the era is associated with. Aside from giving us much of the historical basis for our Disney-ized modern fantasies – including our modern concept of romance, which was founded in dalliances that led not to a new marriage but rather away from an existing one – the French gave us various pertinent words: romance for one; chivalry for another; and, of course, homage for a third. It also gave us pilgrimage (even if Canterbury’s pilgrims never left England), marriage, and other similar usages in our language.

Oh, yes, that age – never mind the middle ages, let’s talk about the final age. To which language does it owe allegiance? It comes to use from French (which made it thus from Latin aticum); many of our words ending in age came fully formed from French, often quite a long time ago (homage came in the 1200s); the suffix itself also got brought over and even today is used to form new words (pwnage must be about as au courant as one can get).

But while it still is also used in French, it’s ours now, and so are all those words, stolen fair and square and generally modified to suit. Nonetheless, while many of them have an English-style pronunciation (marriage, pilgrimage, language, usage, advantage), some others have retained – or reverted to – a more French phonemics. One such is garage, a comparatively recent borrowing, which is said like “gahr-ij” in England but in the French style in the U.S. and Canada. Another such is homage, which got along well enough for centuries in the same anglicized mould, “haw-mij”, but which more recently has on some people’s tongues taken on some French leanings: perhaps just the initial /h/ dropping off, or perhaps said just (or almost) as if it were French… although it’s not spelled the same as the French word (hommage). Well, if you want to make something more formal and fancy, it never hurts to give it a foreign pronunciation (inasmuch as practically anything is all that foreign to English, the tosspot of languages), especially if that foreign pronunciation is French.

But if that seems a little archaic, well, all sorts of things coming from the middle ages are of course archaic. All those notions of chivalry that put women on pedestals but kept them from doing much, for instance, and of course the obvious masculinity of original reference in homage, too. But that doesn’t mean this word is still sexist – etymology is no reliable guide to current meaning and certainly cannot dictate it. We don’t want to have mistaken ideas of history, but we also don’t want to have mistaken ideas about the present.

We will not, of course, utterly eradicate our fantasies and mythologies about the middle ages. Nor should we; as long as we can separate fantasy from fact, it’s good to have a mythos. It gives us a common cultural base. And not just notions of romance, either, but formative ideas from our childhood – of a world where everything might as well have been made of felt, and there were figures we could look up to, waayyyyy up, friendly giants to pay homage to – like the Friendly Giant, played by Bob Homme.