half full

One of the wonderful things about the English language is its amoral pilfering of words from other languages. It’s not often that theft is celebrated, but in this case I love the words that are co-opted into our vocabulary because there is a gap in meaning, to supplement the word trove, or for kicks.

One of my favourites is the Yiddish word kvetch, which is to bitch or complain about someone or something. It has an onomatopoeic quality that suggests the meanness inherent in the act. My trip to New York reminded me of many of these fabulous interlopers, because Yiddish, and other foreign language words, are in common use among the citizens of Gotham. Unfortunately, this kind of linguistic free-for-all is not as prevalent in Ireland*, so while in Manhattan I revelled in listening to the results of the linguistic melting pot.

Another word I particularly like is schadenfreude: to delight in the misfortunes of others. There is no equivalent word in English. In fact, during my musings upon the word today I discovered it does not have a decent antonym. I will have to dig deeper. At the moment I can’t find a single word that means to be happy for the good fortune of others. Benevolence approaches the mark, but does not hit it. Perhaps there is a non-English version that summarises the sentiment.

I’m thinking about schadenfreude and its reverse because when you work in a field that is highly competitive there is a tendency to feel envious about the success of others. Generally, I veer in the opposite direction. I am glad when other people do well. I want my friends to succeed. I want them to be happy. I view the good fortune of others as a blessing.

It’s simple if you like the person. There are times when you might think, “s/he does not deserve such success. I am better than him/her.” Well, life is supremely indifferent to “fairness”. Dwelling upon the injustice that your art is not as well received as others will not advance your craft a whit. It will fuel your desire to kvetch about others. And not write.

At the moment I’m reading David Lynch‘s book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. I enjoy it most when he discusses creativity, how he approaches his films and paintings, and less so when he veers into pseudo-science. It’s a slight book, well-designed, but over-priced for what you get. There are useful passages in it, however. Here’s a section I like:

It’s good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won’t be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will just get in the way of your creativity. You can understand conflict, but you don’t have to live in it.

In stories, in the worlds that we can go into, there’s suffering, confusion, darkness, tension, and anger. There are murders; there’s all kinds of stuff. But the filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering. You can show it, show the human condition, show conflicts and contrasts, but you don’t have to go through that yourself. You are the orchestrator of it, but you’re not in it. Let your characters do the suffering.

It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work.

Right here people might bring up Vincent Van Gogh as an example of a painter who did great work in spite of–or because of–his suffering. I like to think that Van Gogh would have been even more prolific and even greater if he wasn’t so restricted by the things tormenting him. I don’t think it was pain that made him so great–I think his painting brought him whatever happiness he had.

That last line lingers with me.

* I should note that Irish people are very inventive, and playful, in their use of language, and incorporate indigenous Irish words and phrases into everyday conversation to clever and (often) hilarious effect.


  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Maura, but much as I admire David Lynch, I’m afraid I have to take his with a pinch of salt, especially when they involve allegiance to a seriously messed-up cult.

  • brendan

    Sorry – that was me. And I meant: “sorry I have to take his latest observations with a pinch of salt”. The people he’s involved with at the moment are not good.Though in fairness, if anyone reads that book and gets something inspiring out of it, fair play to them.

    • Maura

      I was rolling my eyes at several points in the book because of the unsupported claims he makes throughout regardingTranscendental Meditation. I admire Lynch as a director, and the book is at its best when it deals with his films and his creativity.

  • ben

    I’m pretty sure “happiness in the good fortune of others” is part of the meaning of “danevolence.”It’s one of the many things that make it a richer concept than benevolence.

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