NOSTALGIA AS DISEASE AND MUSIC
So, why do I write my blog? There are not that many persons who read it. It produces no income, no contacts and contributes neither to debate, nor change. When I, as usual, am sitting on the train to Växjö with a new day at school approaching, I realize that my blog writing has turned into a craving, reminding me of times I have dedicated to running. While taking up some kind of exercise I have generally done so quite reluctantly, though it does not take long after I have become addicted and reluctantly skip my daily drill. Nevertheless, a few days of interruption generally make me terminate the routine. The last time I ran was in Paris a few years ago, when I every day jogged a few laps in Jardin des Plantes. Now I have once again become lazy and far too chubby around the waist. I assume that blogging in a certain sense has replaced my running and turned into a compulsion. At the moment I am unable to give it up, though I know that my craving for blog writing soon will cease. I have also convinced myself that blog writing is a healthy mental exercise ‒ keeping my English and Swedish alive. The cogs and wheels of my rusty brain are lubricated and turn around better than they used to do. That is at least what I assume
Looking around I find that several of my fellow travelers are sitting with sound equipment plugged into their ears. Since I find myself in the train´s "silent department" ‒ sounding as if I have ended up in an establishment within some kind of mental institution ‒ I guess people around me are not talking to someone over their mobiles, but are listening to music. My imagination is spinning, a blog takes shape. Something about the music - maybe "Music as solace and escape"?
My thoughts about jogging took me to Paris and from there to the battlefields outside Verdun, which I visited several times during my time in France. Within a month a hundred years have now passed since the First World War began. On February 18, 1916 the bloody slaughter at Verdun was initiated through a German attack on the French defense lines. During a year, huge armies surged back and forth between the trenches, while fertile vineyards were turned into a moonscape and thousands of stinking, unburied corpses were churned down by mortar fire until they became part of the viscous mud of No Man's Land. That the fighting "surged" was an unfortunate choice of word, the soldiers crawled and stumbled under heavy mortar fire through barbed wire and often waist-deep muck. In their maddening battle for eight kilometers of land, more than half a million Frenchmen and almost half a million Germans lost their lives.
Together with my youngest daughter, I once walked through Fort de Douaumont´s underground labyrinths, where French and German soldiers during various periods had been locked up for months, while bomb blasts and gunfire uninterrupted roared above ground and made the fort's massive concrete walls shake and vibrate. First it was a French fort, then it was conquered by the Germans and finally taken back by the French. For most part of the Verdun battle, the besieged soldiers were trapped inside the sinister fort, often suffering from hunger and thirst. It is said that in want of water they licked the damp walls. Occasionally everything exploded in slaughter and mayhem when enemy forces rushed through the dark passages, lighting them up with flashes from flame throwers that burned their adversaries to death.
While I observe my fellow travelers where they sit wired to various electronic devices, I am reminded of the fact that even down in Douaumont´s hell there was singing and music. It is often like that wherever humans are to found, even in war and suffering. Perhaps the soldiers in Douaumont had brought with them some of the newly invented phonographs, or they were playing harmonicas and accordions, for sure they sang. If they were French, perhaps they sang the newly composed patriotic song of Verdun:
Et Verdun, la victorieuse,
Pousse un cri que portent là-bas
Les échos des bords de la Meuse,
Halte là ! on ne passe pas...
Plus de morgue, plus d'arrogance,
Fuyez barbares et laquais,
C'est ici la porte de France,
Et vous ne passerez jamais.
Les ennemis s'avancent avec rage,
Énorme flot d'un vivant océan,
Semant la mort partout sur son passage,
Ivres de bruit, de carnage et de sang;
Ils vont passer... quand relevant la tête,
Un officier dans un suprême effort,
Quoique mourant, crie : À la baïonnette
Hardi les gars, debout, debout les morts!
And Verdun, the victorious,
gave up a roar that echoed
along the banks of Meuse.
Halt! You will not pass!
More morgues, more arrogance.
Flee barbarians and lackeys!
For this is the gateway to France
and you will never pass.
The enemy advances with fury,
a huge tsunami born of a troubled sea,
an onslaught bringing death along its path,
drunk on clamour, butchery and blood;
they are almost breaching the walls ...
When, with a huge effort,
a dying French officer is raising his head and shouts:
Fix your bayonets! Courage, comrades,
rise up, stand up for the kill!
Music evokes both positive and negative emotions. It may unite soldiers in love for their country, inciting them to fight in its defense. Not least it favors what has proven to be most effective in every war, namely strengthening the bonds within ranks, rousing anger, as well as disgust and contempt for the enemy. Fiery tones, stirring marches and grandiose, chauvinistic words that deprive opponents of their human dignity, turning them into alien creatures that we are commended to abhor and eradicate. The enemy is a threat to us, to our country and families. In Douaumont the French sang their songs and the Germans theirs:
Deutschland ist ein schönes Ländchen
Frankreich denkt, wie kann das sein
doch wir holen uns ein Endchen
an dem schönen grünen Rhein
Ach, es fällt uns ja so schwer
über´n Rheinstrom zu geh´n
weil die Deutschen da gewappne
wohl auf Posten, Posten steh´n
Monsieur Louis, siehste wohl
du kannst geh´n
Germany is a beautiful, small country.
France confirms that this is true
and states: "We should steal ourselves a bit
of that beautiful, green Rhine.
Alas, but for us it will be far too difficult
to cross the waters of the Rhine
where Germans are standing armed,
already posted, on their guard they stand "
Monsieur Louis, hope you got the message
be on your way!
Among the worst things that that may befall a combatant army is when its soldiers begin to nurse compassion for the enemy. When soldiers comprehend that the men in the trenches on the other side of No Man's Land suffer as much as they do from lice, fleas, rats, cold, humidity, boredom, fear of death, rotting feet and arrogant officers. When mutinies spread after the senseless mass slaughters of 1917 there could among rebellious French troops be heard songs banned by the authorities, chants proclaiming sufferings common to both French and German soldiers:
Non, non, plus de combats!
La guerre est une boucherie.
Ici, comme là-bas
Les hommes n'ont qu'une patrie
Non, non, plus de combats!
La guerre fait trop de misères
Aimons-nous, peuples d'ici-bas,
Ne nous tuons plus entre frères!
No, no more fighting!
War is a slaughterhouse.
Here, like over there
men have a country.
No, no more fighting!
War creates too much misery.
We love, even the people over there,
enough of killing between brothers!
And as a constant nagging pain behind all the misery of war there was always the homesickness, or nostalgia as it was called, from the Greek νόστος "homecoming" and ἄλγος "pain". Among the U.S. troops soldiers sang:
I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don´t want to go in the trenches no more,
where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar
Take me over the sea, where the Alleyman can´t get me.
Oh my, I don´t want to die, I want to go home
I want to go home, I want to go home
I don´t want to visit La Belle France no more
For oh, the Jack Johnsons they make such a roar.
Take me over the sea, where the snipers can´t get me.
Oh my, I don´t want to die, I want to go home.
Jack Johnson, "the giant from Galvestone", was the first African-American to become a heavyweight champion and he was thus providing his name to the heaviest German bombs. Whizzbangs, were German field artillery grenades. Alleyman was the American version of the French Allemands, "Germans".
The word "nostalgia" was introduced in 1678 by a young German doctor in an effort to describe what he considered to be a deadly affliction affecting young soldiers:"A homesickness so strong that it produces disease. Nostalgia can break down the body and cause death. It can turn a thriving youth into an empty mask, or a sobbing child." It was military doctors who tried to diagnose nostalgia and find a remedy for it. At first the disease was mainly identified among young Swiss mercenaries in France and Germany. An explanation to their vulnerability was that many of them were recognized as strong, healthy shepherd boys coming from high Alpine valleys where they had become used to healthy air and wholesome living. Eventually, they succumbed to the bad climate of Europe´s unhealthy lowlands. While searching for causes of nostalgia among Swiss soldiers music was soon identified as a major culprit. When Swiss shepherds herded their cows, they sang a tune, which could also be played on horns. It was called Kühe Reyeh in German, or ranz des vaches in French. This melody´s effect on people and beasts was reinforced by the high, thin mountain air and the breathtaking sceneries, after they had left their highlands the memories of the tune haunted poor soldier boys during their suffering in Germany´s and France´s waterlogged plains.
Accordingly, a simple melody became a painful instrument that drilled itself into soldiers' minds and poisoned their entire organism. The sound of the tune created fixed ideas about a quick return back home or an inevitable early death among strangers. Kühe Reyeh was accorded the strange power of generating fever epidemics that could enfeeble entire regiments, it inspired attempted suicides and desertions was spreading at an alarming rate. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was fascinated by the importance of the Swiss herding calls and mentioned Kühe Reyeh in his musical articles for the Great French Encyclopedia:
"This song so loved by the Swiss that under penalty of death it has been forbidden to play it for the troops since it causes them to melt away in tears, desert or die [...] It reminds them of their land, their old amusements, their youth and life and awakens an intense pain at the thought of the loss of all of this."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the first who came to associate the deadly disease of nostalgia not only with homesickness, but also with a mental state that had to do with time ‒ an impossible desire to return to the past, a longing for things and incidents that can never return or be recovered. The meaning of nostalgia gradually moved away from a mere longing for a family or home region to a kind of selective memory that picked out and reshaped past times into a vanished fairy land. A feeling that may arouse bitterness, but also result in a voluptuous wallowing in memories of a Neverland that only exist within dreamers´ heads.
Politicians and chauvinists resurrect images of a lost world where brave barbarians reshaped Europe with swords and battle axes, or nationalist havens with hard working peasants and acquiescent workers striving in harmony with benevolent capitalists to recreate a “people´s home”, purged from foreign-born parasites. During yesterday´s elections to the European parliament we witnessed the deplorable effects of such buffoon rhetoric.
Meanwhile, soldiers, sailors and others who find themselves far away from their native lands sing and cry about their happy homes and the relatives they left behind, especially at the time of the great family holidays:
In the silent night,
I´m standing at the ship's wheel.
After a long and tiresome day
they placed me on guard
under heaven´s starry multitude.
I hear the distant echoes of
swallows´ wings as they carry them back
towards the North, to light and spring
Please, bring my greetings home
Greet my father and my mother,
Greet the green pastures,
Greet my little brother.
If I had wings,
I would fly back to you all!
Swallow, flying home!
Greet them all from me!
Little swallow, though weak and small,
day and night, night and day,
you strive towards your goal
with rapid wing beats.
Swallow, think of me!
Oh, if I could fly home with you,
to where the meadows stand green.
Oh, swallow hear my prayer.
In the early sixties Göingeflickorna, the Göinge Girls, a ladies´ choral group from my native place sang this song dressed in typical folk costumes. The tune was originally a Danish cabaret number written in the early 1920s, but became part of the Göinge Girls´ tearful, nostalgic repertoire, together with other songs with names like My Childhood´s Church Bells and Dearest Mother. The Göinge Gils eventually ended up as being "skull labeled" by the state owned Swedish Broadcasting Service, in those days the only radio station in Sweden, meaning that their songs could not be aired through Swedish radio. The reason given was that Dearest Mother was overly sentimental. However, an outcry from radio listeners forced the radio management to change its mind and Dearest Mother was later selected as "Best Tune of 1961". This was far from being the first time that a nostalgic melody was banned from the airwaves in a European country.
After his fiancée had left him in the early 1930s the Hungarian composer Rezső Serres sat down by his piano and created an utterly depressive tune, his mood was worsened by the fact that so far no publisher had wanted to issue any of his music. However, Szomorú Vasárnap, Gloomy Sunday, became an instant success all over Europe and was soon called The Hungarian Suicide Song. Translated as Gloomy Sunday and turned into being more of a love song than it was in the original, the song soon became a plague in England. After a string of suicides in connection with its broadcast over radio had been published in the press, BBC finally banned the tune. Rezső Seress was apparently also affected by his controversial song. Soon after achieving his success he wrote to his ex-fiancée and asked for reconciliation. However, several days later he received shocking news from the police. His former fiancée had poisoned himself, beside her lay a copy of Szomorú Vasárnap. Rezső Seress committed suicide in 1968.
The most famous recording of Gloomy Sunday is probably Billie Holiday´s version from 1941. A more or less verbatim translation of the Hungarian text would obviously be something like this
It is autumn and the leaves are falling
All love has died on earth
The wind is weeping with sorrowful tears
My heart will never hope for a new spring again
My tears and my sorrows are all in vain
People are heartless, greedy and wicked...
Love has died!
The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning
Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music
Meadows are coloured red with human blood
There are dead people in the streets everywhere
I will say another quiet prayer:
People are sinners, Lord, they make mistakes...
The world has ended!
A text that is more tinged by the tragedy of the passed World War and bleak forebodings about the one that was coming up, than by unanswered love. On Youtube there is a scene from a Hungarian movie where a beautiful lady, played by Erika Marozsán, sings the song in a Budapest nightclub, with a German Wehrmacht officer listening attentively.
Poland has a tango, Last Sunday, which was composed in 1936 by a certain Jerzy Petersburski and performed by the artist Mieczysław Fogg. It´s tragic lyrics tell a story about the parting of two lovers. This tango is also said to have caused an wave of suicides and was accordingly called “The Death Tango”. However, its tragic notoriety is not so much based on the unfounded rumors that it inspired suicides, but the fact that it was often played when Jews were led to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. The tango is still very popular in Eastern Europe and was for example performed in Schindler´s List, in Krzysztof Kieślowski's movie Three Colours: White and in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun. One of the photographs prresented below depicts how Hans Bonarewitz after a failed attempt to escape in 1942 is brought on a cart to his execution, preceded by Mauthausen´s concentration camp orchestra.
After being lost in my writing and googling I lift my head and look around me. Perhaps some of my fellow passengers are engrossed in a trip down memory lane, though hopefully not listening to depressive, but beautiful, tunes like Gloomy Sunday, maybe they are cheering up their Monday morning with pleasing potpourris of fifties rock or Swedish dance band music. Soon my school day begins, I already long for home.
A magnificent book describing the living hell of Verdun is Horne, Alistair (1962) The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. New York: St Martin´s Press. I learned a lot about nostalgia from a Swedish book: Johannisson, Karin (2001) Nostalgia. Stockholm: Bonnier Essä. You can listen to Jerzy Petersburski´s tango on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-hg58QQmdc