Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On the Beauty of Saying Goodnight

Exercising the prerogative that sole proprietorship confers, I hereby decree Thursday to be the middle of this week, and promise (with the almost infinite condescension commensurate with such greatness) to provide a piece of music for you then.  As to the movement of the day, the Europeans and the great GKC himself give us a precedent in any case; as to the music, it may not be very much better by having been waiting for, but at least it will be—which it isn’t now—and existence, they say, is a good thing in and of itself.

But it is still Wednesday today, and something better than Scottesian fluff seems requisite.  What follows may still be fluff, and may even be redolent of Scott; but if it is either, at least it is also something I’ve wanted to write about.

There is a whole frightful series of words in the English language that the composition books call “complimentary closes” and which are in plain English ways of saying goodbye.  Many of them are not in English at all—“Adieu” and “Auf weidersehen” and “Ciao,” for example; and even “Pip-pip” and “Toodle-oo” have for the American a foreign ring.  The literal translation is often innocent and inoffensive, and frequently expresses an intention of seeing the other again: “Au revoir” and “Auf weidersehen” and (less formally) “Hasta la vista” and the beauteous, weirdly mellifluous “See yah!”  But the other family in the tribe of farewells bears a more somber expression.  “Adios” is cheery enough, but “Adieu” will always sound like something out of a tear-jerker; and “Goodbye,” though combining two of the best thoughts in the language, has a positively horrifying sound.  There is something dangerously final in the timber of a phrase that wishes heaven’s blessing—God’s presence—on a companion.  “God be with you” is, after all, if taken literally, just what one ought to say at a deathbed.  Perhaps it was for this reason that a priest I know called every goodbye “a little death.”

But though it is true, what that priest said, and though it is the month of November, I’ve no great wish to linger in the graveyard.  Dieing isn’t such a terrifying thing; even “be[ing] a martyr, if they kill [you] quick” has its perks.  I suspect that most of us are lazy enough to take heaven on a platter when it’s offered, in despite of our worse nature.

No, death is only frightening when it is seen under the aspect of a closed door; and it is under this very pagan aspect that it casts a shade over “Goodbye.”  If we do feel a twinge of unease at the word, a flicker of deathliness, it is not because we are thinking poorly of “goodbye,” but because we are thinking poorly of death.  The latter sort of thinking can and should be helped; the former—I am not so sure about.

There is no earthly way a closed door can be made into an appealing thing—say, rather, “a door that has been closed.”  A door that is found closed is a spring to the curiosity; you may knock at it, unlock it, or beat it down and discover—whatever lies behind closed doors.  It may be a secret as dull as the Five Red Herrings’ or as deadly as Bluebeard’s or as splendid as Archimedes’; but whatever else it will be, a secret it was and isn’t any more, and delight comes from the lifting of the veil.  That is a door that you find closed.  A door that you once found open, a door that has been closed, is another matter altogether.  You know what special pleasures or better devils lie behind; yours will never be the pleasure of discovery, even if you can recover nature: everything will be stale, and paradoxically, “nothing will be the same” as it was that time when you first encountered it fresh.  No pleasure, even if you do regain your old right to entry; and if you don’t …  Well, that is always the fear, isn’t it?  The fear of being denied—of being shut out—of loss— “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord …’”  Is it after all the shade of death that taints “Goodbye”?  Not the shade of the death of which we first thought, but of that other one?  But the word itself denies such a possibility.  “God be with you” it says—a wish no damned soul gets, in either sense.

Still, I think that is why we are all a little afraid of saying goodbye—not that there is some real, positable, provable logical connections between that word and a state of horror, but because of the horror that the word itself calls to mind: that of separation, that of the closed door.  We avoid it when we can.  We have a thousand substitutes for it (“See yah,” “Till next time!”); we translate it (“Adios,” “Sayonara”); we shorten it almost to oblivion (“Bye!”); we would euthanize it if we could, and since we can’t we euphemize it instead.

I think we should stop using it altogether, and return to more innocent and civilized forms.  “Goodnight” is a sweet word; what ever happened to “Good day?”  Whoever let so useful a form go south?  And what can be done to recover it?

I know of course that there is an ancient, pre-Christian tradition identifying “day” with Good and “night” with Bad; nor would I deny the accuracy of that bifold identification.  Yet there is nothing ironic in our wishing someone a good night; and we scarcely intend the phrase to be paradoxical either.  Rather, it is as if we are recognizing the need for blessing it we our good hopes, in a way that the day doesn’t need blessing.  Perhaps that is, after all, why saying “good day” fell out of fashion: because it sounds banal next to its cousin phrase “good night.”  It is no accident that we dine at night, and hold parties then, and dance: we seek the company and comfort precisely at the time when “thieves and murderers” are at large.  It is no accident either that the night is a time for romance and adventure: both concepts (and they are still clearly related, if not so synonymous as they used to be) include the element of uncertainty, obscurity, and risk combined with a desperate attempt to make cheer under trying circumstances.

There is some sense of finality in a hearty “Goodnight!” but it is not the terrifying finality that hangs over “Goodbye.”  It is the end f a day, not the end of a life; the end of our labors, not of our communion.  If it suggests the closing of a door, it suggests it friendly-like, one family member to another: “Here, close that; keep yourself safe—keep out the dark.”  It is the herald of reast and cheer alike, signaling back to the ancient “rest upon their round” and outward to the musical spheres and onward to the dancing rose.

I suppose everyone has their little bit of Shakespeare that they would blot out if given the chance.  I myself have always thought the last two speeches of The Taming of the Shrew were horribly misguided.  Any director worth his salt—nay, any theater-goer—knows what will happen when Petruchio makes his last speech: laughter, applause, catharsis, apotheosis …  And then to tack on the stale little speeches of Hortensio and Lucentio! for which they will have to wait for the applause to die down! as if we cared, after all that, what they have to say!  No, I shall always hold the play to be over with Petruchio’s last blessed words, with which I leave you now—

And being a winner,
God give you good night!

1 comment:

  1. Given the great variety of things that start on a Tuesday, whyever shouldn't Thursday be found the middle of things? On Special Occasions, anyways.

    If this be fluff, though, at least fluff is thick and warming. One of the differences between "Good Day" and "Goodnight": the former more often than the latter (What a lot of things you do use "Good Morning" for!) is given in irony --- "Good day to you, anywhere but here"; but "Goodnight", it goes with blankets and lull-a-by. It cannot but be sincere.

    And of course, (it's 11:30 pm, here) good-night to you, too!

    (Btw, since I seem, out of the Blue, to have begun using "positable" in what retroactively appeared an obscure way, perhaps we should confer as to what it ought to mean, and how you mean it here, but ... sicut nani inter montanes, not here)