Monday, September 21, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 9: The Dialectic of Praise and Lament

Now I’d like to turn to another aspect of praise and lament: the unexpected links between these two seeming opposites. We saw in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” that there is a connection between praise and lament. One learns to praise well by describing in detail the pains of life. I would like to take this even farther and say there is a dialectic of praise and lament.  

Like the ode, the dialectical method originated in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle developed a form of dialectic, but this method of reasoning was brought to fruition in nineteenth century German philosophy, particularly in the work of G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel argued that the more an idea or moment in history became truly itself, the more it starts to bend toward its opposite. Eventually, from this conflict or contrast of opposites, a new synthesis is born.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I think there is a dialectic of praise and lament, because in all these poems we’ve discussed there are elements of both. Lament suggests praise, because if we feel the loss of something acutely enough to mourn its passing, then we are implicitly praising it. If it is worthy of being lamented, it’s worthy of being praised.

The other side of this equation is a little harder to see, but I think it makes equal sense. If something is being praised, there is a grain of lament in it, since nothing lasts forever or can be completely possessed. The more we value something and praise its virtues, the more we are setting ourselves up for lamenting it now or in the future.

To illustrate this, I’d like to focus on the final psalm of the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 150. Here is the King James Bible version of the psalm:

Psalm 150

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his Sanctuarie: Praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mightie actes: Praise him according to his excellent greatnesse.
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: Prayse him with the Psalterie and Harpe.
Praise him with the timbrell and dance: praise him with stringed instruments, and Organes.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath, praise the Lord. Praise yee the Lord.

That’s about as straightforward an example of praise without lament as you can get in the Psalms. When it’s sung in English, there is usually only performed with rejoicing and hallelujahs. By the way, “hallelujah” means “praise God.”

Listen to how this psalm sounds in Hebrew, though.

If you’d never heard that piece of music before, would you think it was a hymn of praise, or a lament? It’s not that clear. It's a hymn of praise, but with a mournful tone. 

I think the closer you get to the roots of these two traditions, praise and lament, the more their roots are entangled with each other. If we are aware of that dialectic, whether we’re engaged in praise or lament, we can allow the opposite to add salt to our praises or honey to our laments, as the recipe demands.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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