I can, I must, I should, I will, I might, I could…

No maybe not!

My prompt for this little exploration is not a questioning of “willingness”, nor a revelation of procrastination, nor indeed a foray into grammatical niceties. I am struggling with learning Thai and occasionally a language subtlety strikes, puzzles and delights! How and why do particular differentiations assume importance in one language and yet are irrelevant in another?

For our English “can” the Thais have 3 different words to denote • an ability to do something, (“she can speak a foreign language”, “is good at maths”), • having a physical capacity, (“he can walk / crawl”) and the most usual: • having permission to do something, (“you can stay out late tonight”).

Far more puzzling is finding that we need a word for some idea that simply does not exist in one language but is common in another. Se débrouiller in French covers a range of uses depending on the context and I would love its equivalent in English but we have an absence. Maybe someone can correct me but it seems that none of our English phrases capture the French notion. Our phrases imply too much or too little.

I conclude that culture is all. To attempt to understand a culture from the use of language can only go so far – something of a party game – yet the reverse works a little better. With an understanding of a culture one can embrace the language in all its richness.

A Thai illustration: I was introduced by a friend to an official with an affectionate, “Grandma”. A young bilingual friend who was with us overheard this exchange and was somewhat horrified that I was not introduced as, “Auntie”. In Thailand and in the Thai language politeness and convention demand that accurate respect is shown in how a person is addressed and that this should also reveal the nature of the relationship between the two people. This is no trivial matter. The stability and harmony of communities depend upon this.

So how to make sense of Grandma versus Auntie? Perhaps my young friend thought me younger than I was? Perhaps my introduction was to signal that I should be granted the greater respect due to age? Perhaps the introduction was to flag that there was a close relationship that would indicate I was a person to be trusted? And perhaps, in a country undergoing dramatic changes impacting on both common values and on relationships, this was a message that I was of the ‘old guard’? I do not know the answer since I was an outsider to the culture and to the language. What I do know is that this tiny exchange had meaning for the others.

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Enjoyment: private or social?

Pleasures can be obtained in company or privately – no question. Ecstasy and spiritual joy can be totally private but a good party is difficult on one’s own…

I question whether our private pleasures on a walk, a visit to a gallery, watching a film or listening to a new piece of music are really so private?

We are social animals, so at the back of the mind is the notion of sharing any private experience at a later time with friends or family, or at least to tell the story, send a photo or, dare I say it, write a blog or post on face-book.

Even if we don’t do this – we often talk to others inside our own heads. They are fully alive in our heads. Sometimes they answer back. Often we manipulate their response to our own liking and prejudice. We discuss matters with these carefully chosen others and – right or wrong – adjust our views accordingly. The filter of our wishes and fears colour our internal debate – yet since the other with whom we talk has a definite place in our psyche, the private interchange of thought and idea is essentially social. The taxonomy of THEE would say, “of course this is simply one aspect of the reality of the psycho-social world in which we live”.

So I suggest that enjoyment, as we commonly understand it, is a totally social phenomenon. Our social nature as human beings depends on community. We may not like our particular communities, and we may not have much in common with the majority of people around us nor share their interests. Yet, however isolated and cut-off an individual may be, however private his enjoyments, he remains a social animal and true enjoyment will depend upon sharing with others.

Curiously this magnifies the enjoyment – others’ observable joy increases our own and vice versa. Without this life would be a miserable thing.

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Nudes and Lucien Freud

Two stimulating but disturbing art exhibitions in London provided more food for thought than is manageable in one head! Mine at least. So I start with just one.

Lucien Freud paints nudes as no one has ever painted nudes before – no eroticism, no beauty, no aesthetics but a scrutiny of the inner person. I use that word not through political correctness but because the painter ignores gender as an irrelevance, despite painting genitals in graphic detail. Sex preoccupies the inner world, but curiously appears rarely in LF’s depiction of the relational world.

No eyes look at the observer – only inward. So too with couples. A lover’s eyes do not rest on their lover – they remain focused on inner images.

So these nudes confront us with our fundamental solitary state in all its rare, exquisite beauty. We are exactly who we are, changing with each fleeting thought, changing through the fleeting or drawn-out moment, and we are alone.

Disturbing? This stark depiction of the human condition provides – bizarrely – encouragement. We face our world, our relations, and our minds alone and unknown. But each painting offers the insight that – despite our stark, relentless solitude – we can and do surround ourselves with pleasures and relationships that soothe, renew and bring joy.

The muscularity is striking of each figure, even when the paunch, the wrinkles or the sagging skin might suggest weakness. The musculature reflects unique inner strengths confirming that pleasures can be found, relationships are to be explored and our nature must be lived.

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Sharing reflections as I watch and see

This blog provides a space to share some thoughts about matters that are important to me. Too much of the time we joke and pass over ‘the important’ from an embarrassment about appearing too serious, too intellectual, too intense or – on the other hand – too trivial and idiosyncratic!

I am a believer in the ability of a small incident to throw light on wider issues. The small signs of the coming storm or the first signs of spring are easy to spot. But what of the less obvious signs? I will share my observations and welcome comments as to whether they do indeed betoken something or are merely transient.

Meeting people on a long train journey is always fascinating – one can laugh and talk and exchange a serendipity of wisdom that is precious and outside of one’s normal routine. It is one of my great pleasures. I hope this blog might invite virtual train journey companions to comment…

My quasi professional blog can be found on my personal website where I raise  “not-for-profit” organisational and social change issues for discussion. Come and meet me there too: http://www.veritygoitein.info

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