Interpretation of “Letter” by Socratis Malamas

What follows is my translation of a song titled “To gramma” (The letter) by Socratis Malamas (Σωκράτης Μάλαμας):

First I provide the original lyrics, followed by my translation, and then some comments:

Το γράμμα

Δε θέλω πια να σκέφτομαι τα ίδια και τα ίδια
Σα να'ταν όλα ψέμματα, στάχτες κι αποκαΐδια
Θέλω ανοιχτά παράθυρα να με χτυπάει αέρας
Να'χω το νου μου αδειανό
Να'χω και πρίμο τον καιρό

Δε θέλω πια να μου μιλάς για όσα έχεις ζήσει
Δε χάθηκε κι ο κόσμος πια το τζάμι αν ραγίσει
Θέλω να'ρθεις και να με βρεις να κάτσεις να τα πούμε
Πως νιώθουμε παράφορα
Πως ζούμε έτσι αδιάφορα

Δε θέλω να πικραίνεσαι
τις Κυριακές τα βράδια
Χωρίς αυτή τη σκοτεινιά
τα χρόνια μένουν άδεια

Θέλω να φύγεις να σωθείς να πάψεις να γκρινιάζεις
Να ξεχαστείς στη διαδρομή ποιος ήσουν και πώς μοιάζεις
Έτσι θα σ'αγαπώ πολύ και θα σε βλέπω λίγο
Σα μια γυναίκα μακρινή
Που αγάπησα πριν φύγω

Δε θέλω να πικραίνεσαι
τις Κυριακές τα βράδια
Χωρίς αυτή τη σκοτεινιά
τα χρόνια μένουν άδεια
To gramma (the letter)

I don't want to think the same over and over
As if they were all lies, ashes and embers
I want open windows to feel the breeze
To keep my mind empty
To also have the time as guide

I don't want you to tell me all you've been through
The world does not end even if the glass is cracked
I want you to come find me and sit for a chat
How do we feel passionately
How to we live so dispassionately

I don't want you to be saddened
on Sunday nights
Without this darkness
the years are left empty

I want you to leave to save yourself, to stop complaining
To become forgetful on the path about who you were and how you looked like
Thus I will love you a lot and see you a little
Like a distant woman
Whom I grew to love before leaving

I don't want you to be saddened
on Sunday nights
Without this darkness
the years are left empty

Socratis Malamas sings about a letter. Who is the author and who its intended recipient? What does the author try to accomplish? And which are the recipient’s woes? I believe this is a monologue. The person is trying to escape from their own obsessions, to let go of the past, and to accept the present for what it is.

[ Read/watch: On learning and being present ]

In the opening verse, Malamas, speaks in the first person. All those bothersome thoughts that keep playing in a loop need to be rendered irrelevant. They must be treated as lies, or, better, as ashes and embers—a metaphor pointing to their transient nature. Embers die out as the fire subsides: so must the long-obsolete mental burdens we carry around.

Malamas then addresses the self as a “you”. The “I” has already broken free from the shackles, while the “you” represents the part that clings on to the past. This “you” continues to rave about what has transpired and what they have lived through. Central in those moments is a certain sense of failure, represented by the cracked glass. There is no undoing such irreparable damage. The “you” regrets that moment and their guilt makes them suffer. This is why the “I” wants to empty the mind: to put an end to all those scenaria, all the what-could-have-been. They do not exist.

The comparison between passionate feelings and dispassionate living is not a contradiction. Both are consistent with the idea that we keep our undivided attention in the moment. When you utter “I love you”, the emotion pertains to the here-and-now, to the exact experience. Not the ambitions, not the longer-term plans, not the “what will others say about it”, and certainly not in relation to what your past self could have done. What occurs, what is in the present, is the feeling, which is passionate. When we live moment-by-moment we do it with aloofness, for we are not fastened upon constructs of either the past or the future. We have already cleared the room, freed the mind from such concerns. Experiences can then be savoured in full.

What about those “Sunday nights” that bring sorrow? Why are the years left empty without their darkness? I think emptiness is at the root of the sense of dread and helplessness we feel once we recognise the disconnect between our actuality and the figments of our imagination. In other words, we accept moments of loneliness for what they are, without dwelling on the fact of our loneliness—it is what it is. Insisting on the “what if” and the “have to” contradicts the reality: it builds up tension, engenders incentives to be someone else, sets up insurmountable obstacles, and makes us feel worthless as we move to the sidelines. Hence the sense of feeling lost which brings sadness. To those who are ever-present, darkness simply is; years are not left empty.

Do yourself a favour and venture on the path, forgetting who you once were and how you used to look—none of those considerations matter.

Which brings me to this wonderful reference to the “distant woman whom I grew to love before leaving”. We can only expect this emotion to have been genuine: a passionate feeling, as I already noted. Yet the person did not latch on to it: they left. Why leave behind someone you love? That is not the point. The real issue here is whether you accept the fact that when conditions are such, you must move on, else you develop obsessions about a state of affairs that has ceased to be. The memory remains, yet the woman is distant because one learns to remain aloof from the fray and not give in to superficially sweet delusions.

Let me then comment on the legend of Laodamia. This was a young woman who married Iolaos, the prince of a small community in Thessaly (modern-day central Greece). The couple were in love. Iolaos had to join the Trojan War on the side of the Achaeans. Such are the duties of a prince. As the soothsayers had foretold, the first to set foot on Troy would die on the spot. None of the leading figures dared to venture forth. Iolaos took the initiative to break the standstill. And died… History records this act as one of selflessness: Iolaos was posthumously renamed to “Protesilaos”, the “first of the people”. Back at home, Laodamia could not live with news of Iolaos’ death: she loved the man, not the symbol made out of him. Symbols persist, but the man was dead. Laodamia thus created a simulacrum of her husband and dedicated her life to it. She could not move on; she could not accept that Iolaos had become “distant”, to re-use Malamas’ lyrics. Laodamias’ father lit a fire to dismantle the effigy, in hope that his daughter would come to terms with reality. To his surprise, Laodamia jumped into the flames and burned to death.

While we can interpret the story as one of eternal love, I hold that would do us a disservice. There is no denying how Laodamia felt about Iolaos. Her love was sincere. The gist is that she anchored her life in the past, in an imaginary world that would never correspond with her actuality. It is not the fire that killed her, but the powerful delusions that denied her the experience of the present. She was dead inside. The rest was a formality.

The “distant woman whom I grew to love before leaving” is neither limited to love nor to a certain woman. It hints at our resilience, at the lightness which characterises our conduct, when we have mastered how to let go.