The Meaning Bleeds Out

Repeated enough, words lose their meaning. We’ve all heard an empty “I’m sorry” or a dry “I love you too.”

I got a rude reminder of this phenomena watching a YouTube video:

I’ve probably heard Giuseppe Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” a hundred times. I sang it in a choir before I ever learned a word of Italian. It is still a popular song in Italy; something of an alternate national anthem since Verdi’s contemporaries drew a parallel between the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and the long Italian struggle for unity and independence from foreign domination.

But for the first time in my life I managed to stop and actually pay attention to the words:

Va’ pensiero sull’ali dorate;

Va’ ti posa su i clivi, su i colli

‘Ove olezzano tepide e molli

L’aure dolci del suolo natal.

Di Giordano le rive saluta,

Di Sionne  i torri atterrate.

O mia patria, si bella e perduta

O membranza, si cara e fatal.

My English translation (not quite word for word):

Go, Thought, on golden wings,

Rest upon the hills and knolls

Where in soft, gentle waves

Breathe the sweet airs of my native soil.

Greet the banks of River Jordan

And greet too Zion’s towers, all destroyed.

O my homeland! So beautiful, so lost.

O memory! So dear, so doomed.

The song is based on Psalm 137, in which the survivors of the sack of Jerusalem of 586 BC sit in exile by the banks of the Euphrates weeping for a home to which they can never return, asking how God can be silent during such a catastrophe.

The poet, Temistocle Solera, chooses smooth, flowing words which could be used for any fond memory of home, until he comes to atterrate (razed, in ruins), a choppy, dissonant word, and you realize this is not just a group of travelers pining for home, but refugees and prisoners of war for whom home no longer exists.

Verdi’s undulating melody is meant to imitate sobs and wails, but the effect is only achieved when sung soft and slow.

All that didn’t stop the choir to which I once belonged from singing Va’ Pensiero like a bit of fascist camp*. At least we had the excuse that we didn’t understand Italian. But what about the pop versions of the song by Italian celebrities? Don’t they understand the words coming out of their own mouths? Don’t they see the ugly contrast between their tone and venerable words?

For them, the words are as meaningless as they were for me when I first sang it ten years ago. The song has been repeated so many times over the last century-and-a-half that the words are worn out, used up, bled dry.

It is not just the Italians, everyone does it. Take the first verse of the United States National Anthem, read the words as if for the first time, and ask yourself: have you ever heard any singer teeter on the knife-edge of fear and hope the lyrics imply? Has any Superbowl celebrity performer ever captured the ambiguity and implicit challenge of the final question: is it “Does the flag still wave over the free, brave nation?”, or “Is the nation under the flag still free and brave?”

Or, for that matter, take any oft-quoted line of Scripture or any traditional prayer.

All cultural icons bear the risk of getting the meaning sucked out of them, from texts to rituals to holidays to entire religions. Being a cultured, educated person means shaking off the stupor and coming to old things with a renewed wonder. That is both the key to preserving what is good, and consciously reforming or updating what needs to be changed. The alternative is boredom, cultural poverty, and barbarism.

* In case you were wondering what “fascist camp” is:

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