Oblivion - Olvido, Pirandello & Epicurus of SamosTuesday, January 15, 2008
Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.
Fragment II, Epicurus of Samos
I have had a Mexican made Astor Piazzolla record (Real LPR-2025) Oblivion/Olvido since the late 80s. I never bothered to read the brief liner notes. I never knew that the music (very lovely it is) was from the sountrack to Marco Bellocchio's 1984 film Enrique IV which was based on a play by Luigi Pirandello. Of Pirandello I know next to nothing except I saw Vittorio Gassman perform at the Vancouver Playhouse some monologues (in Italian) from his plays in the mid 80s when Gassman visited Vancouver. I never saw Henry IV, and should have as both Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale are in the cast.
Last year my friend Marv Newland, a city animator (of the classic kind) called me up enquiring about Astor Piazzolla's milonga Oblivion. It was only then that I noted the double name of my record and that olvido is not at all an accurate translation of oblivion. I have been thinking about the problem since. It came back full force when I used the word oblivion here a few days ago. I searched for the Epicurus quote (above) in my Man and Man: The Social Philosophers Edited by Saxe Commins & Robert N. Linscott(Modern Pocket Library 1954).
I remembered Ramón Xirau who introduced me to Epicurus in 1964. Xirau, who spoke the languages of all the philosophers (ancient Greek, Latin, German, English, Italian, French, etc), always stressed how many words and concepts in Greek, as an example, had no exact translation. Ancient Greek nous could only loosely be translated as soul/spirit.
Perhaps a good example is the impossibility of translating into Spanish, in few words such sentences as:
1. I was being tailgated when I was suddenly rearended.
2. The professor, in the beginning of his lecture, gave handouts to his class.
I think that the best idea of oblivion has to be the Epicurean concept of death as seen in fragment II. Olvido in Spanish simply means a state of forgetfullness. There is no one word in Spanish for oblivion. I have not been able to nail down if Piazzolla himself (who spoke good English) gave his lovely composition the double name.
If anything I remember that Xirau taught his class in English and in Spanish and when he impressed on me Epicurus's idea of death he must have used the English word oblivion.
In the play a man falls off his horse and believes he is the Holy Roman Eperor Henry IV (lived at the time of the Norman conquest). The Countess Matilda and others, including a psychiatrist, try to cure him of his amnesia/madness. Some years into his disease he confesses to some of his caretakers that he is not mad and knows who he is but simply comes to the conclusion that we all wear masks and we are all crazy so therefore he is not insane in the least. The film has an ending that twists Pirandello's version. I will have to find this film to verify which meaning Piazzolla had in mind, oblivion or olvido.
The photograph above is a seascape I took from the ferry to Port Townsend, Washington using Kodak Infrared film and a Widelux, a swivel lens panoramic camera.