The Joy of Being Sad


Oh, my pain

Without your bitter mourning

I could not sing as I sing

In my embittered corner

Oh, my love

You are now what I suffer and cry?

In the end, I now adore

It is for you I sing fado!

- “Fado da Saudade” (“Song of Saudade”), Amália Rodrigues

There is perhaps nothing that the modern human tries to avoid as much as pain and sorrow - drowning in comforts, and accustomed to having food, clothes, and everything else just a click away - the pain seems like an uncomfortable intruder, and as soon as it appears it is drowned: with substances, pain killers, sex, or any other over the counter numbing solution.

However, that way is not the only way, and minimising pain and maximising pleasure is not the only motto to live by. Traditions and cultures around the world have developed intricate, aesthetic, and elevating ways to celebrate sorrow. Celebrating sorrow may appear as an oxymoron, but celebration of sorrow and "being happy in one's sadness" is where complexity of human spirit and emotion shows - it reveals the side of human that is satiated with life, the part of human that avoids definition, analysis, and reason. For after all - isn't the human that one being that so loves this life that he does not want to part from it, yet so tired of it, that he does everything to escape it - by working, smoking, drinking. The simultaneous love of life, and the weariness of it, seems to be the universal human condition, and the heritage of entire humanity would perhaps, be far less, without a human being existing exactly between these two - seeking to extend himself, to self preserve, to be eternal, yet also seeking to disappear, to self destruct, to fall into oblivion.

From Courtly Love, to German & English Romantics, to melancholy evening ragas, and taqsims, troubadours, sorrowful ballads of Scandinavia and British Isles, the heavy Russian realism novels full of both sorrow and meaning - this sentiment was cultivated and it offered redemption.

 

The Evening & Melancholy

Marines of the Ottoman Navy painting, The Vanmour School

"Saudade is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present." – "In Portugal", Aubrey Bell

The word "melancholy" has its roots in Greek - µέλαινα χολή, "mélaina cholē", which means "black bile", in Arabic it is known as سَوْدَاء "sawdā", and in my native language, we call it "crna žuč" - and it is the humour responsible for the melancholy feelings. This bile is also said to be most active at the sunset and in the evening - that's when the feelings of nostalgia, of "desire for something that probably does not exist" appear.

Sunsets are the liminal part of the day. The Sun is neither in the womb of the Night and neither is he born - at the sunset they merge into each other, and the undefined time of the day is set upon. To call it day would not do it service, and to call it night would not do it either. It is also the time of the day by which the work of the day is complete, and yet it is too early to begin with the matters of the night. So what was for the humans to do?-


Apparently - in many cultures, they saw it fit to gather together and sing. To explore how and why it happens in every culture would probably be fit for a book, but a few examples will suffice for us to recognise this sentiment.

The Portuguese word "saudade", mentioned in the very beginning is said to have the roots in the Arabic word "sawda". The saudade is tightly connected with the Portuguese musical style called fado - a melancholy style that has the Portuguese guitar and emotional lyrics as its dearest friends. In my own country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, musical style called "sevdah" has the same origin, and a very similar meaning. To "fall in sevdah" is to fall into this feeling, "sevdisati" is to yearn for someone or something - it is an inexplicable feeling of nostalgia. Usually behind the feeling is the idea that the human being is cursed with the sentiment that no matter what is happening, and that no matter how much is accomplished or done, that there's always "something" missing, and yet that "something" escapes definition. It is impossible to pin it down, but it is "something". Ivan Turgenev, in his "Fathers and Sons", expresses this feeling: “Why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for example, or a fine evening or conversation with people we like, why does it all seem to be a hint of some limitless happiness existing somewhere else rather than a real happiness, the kind, that is, we possess ourselves?

Sevdah or sevedalinkas were often performed in urban areas, and very often it was during the evening gatherings that people performed this type of music - these evening gatherings were known as "Akšamluci". It is not a song for daily listening, but rather requires a specific mood or atmosphere. The famous description of the sevdalinka comes from a folk joke, that says that, if you were to ask a Bosnian child: "What is sevdalinka?", the child’s answer would be "Well, that’s when dad’s singing, and he cries!

When a person is "in sevdah" - they do not desire to feel better or to be cheered up, it would feel like an offense - instead one seeks to explore that feeling, bury themselves inside of it, and be "happy in one's sadness", as the article on fado reports, a Portuguese man told: "You’re sad and you want to be sad,” he said. “You’re at the office and people are trying to cheer you up, and you say ‘Don’t make me cheerful. Today is my pleasurable sadness day." (X)

Going further East, to Yemen - there one finds "Al Ghina Al San'ani" - The Song of Sana'a - the rich musical tradition of Yemen that is also part of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This tradition dates back to 14th century, and is performed during afternoon gatherings, samra marriage evenings, and other similar events. This type of music is often performed in the window-lined room at the top of the house, and during this gathering, the performers usually chew khat - a slightly psychoactive stimulant leaf. The lyrics as well as music are often improvised - and single performance may extend for as long as the atmosphere allows. Instead of being used to dumb feelings - the psychoactive stimulant is used to make them stronger, similarly how, in Bosnia, there is a love of strong alcoholic spirits (among Muslims as well), usually taken from a small cup, and without an intent to get overly drunk - rather just to stimulate the feelings, remove inhibitions, and have analytic brain grow quieter, and allow the sawda - the black bile to speak; pure, raw, feeling without interference of anything else.

By the time song, or evening is finished, the discomfort, the pain, subdues - as song may be about a love that has betrayed or gone away, about death, loss, or just general life weariness. Indulged and shared, it offers catharsis - the pain is not dwelled on or overly psychoanalysed, rather the feelings are felt, and given to music and wine to cure - or perhaps it is Dionysus who transforms these boundaries breaking feelings into a transcendent experience.

 

The Pleasurable Sadness


When a human being arrives to this world - he or she, arrives to know; to know joy, to know sorrow, to know illness - and all of it is finally, the knowledge of life, and one's own Self.

Guarded and protected from pain and sorrow - a human cannot experience the fullness of life. Feelings and emotions are the water - the nourishing component of life. Whether we laugh or are sad, tears may appear on our eyes - the nourishing waters of our livelihoods. Overly protected, a human is not just protected from the bad, but from the experience of life itself. To truly feel alive - one must allow everything to come - only then the wealth, the abundance of life is shown, and known.

Existing between many dualities, and finding a unity between them, human is also a being that can immerse, but also detach, and look at things as an observer. When the evening comes, and song conquers the mind - this duality too, is broken - for one is deeply immersed in the feeling, so deeply that it takes over one's being entirely, yet, one is a little removed, detached from one's self - without worrying too much about tomorrow, or yesterday, or what people may say. The music takes over, one is consumed by it, yet one can also see the own self being consumed - both object and subject, both experience and the experiencer. It offers an opportunity for self-oblivion and self-indulgence at the same time, and who among humans can resist the unity of the two great pleasures?

 

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