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Interpretation of “Tiger” by Psarantonis

“Psarantonis” (Ψαραντώνης) is the nickname of Antonis Xylouris (Αντώνης Ξυλούρης). It literally means “fisher-Antonis” and runs in the family. Presumably some ancestor was a fisher by trade or had the nickname. It is common in Greece to pass nicknames down through generations.

But that is not why I’m writing this. Psarantonis interprets “The tiger”, which is a performatively brilliant piece of art though also deserves our attention for the profundity of its lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV1CwUQl-pM.

What follows are the lyrics in Greek, followed by my translation and philosophical commentary.

Η τίγρη

Έχω μια τίγρη μέσα μου, άγρια, λιμασμένη
π' όλο με περιμένει
κι όλο την καρτερώ,
τηνε μισώ και με μισεί, θέλει να με σκοτώσει
μα ελπίζω να φιλιώσει
καιρό με τον καιρό.

Έχει τα δόντια στην καρδιά, τα νύχια στο μυαλό μου
κι εγώ για το καλό μου
για κείνη πολεμώ
κι όλου του κόσμου τα καλά με κάνει να μισήσω
για να της τραγουδήσω τον πιο βαρύ καημό

Όρη, λαγκάδια και γκρεμνά με σπρώχνει να περάσω,
για να την αγκαλιάσω
στον πιο τρελό χορό,
κι όταν τις κρύες τις βραδιές θυμάται τα κλουβιά της,
μου δίνει την προβιά της
για να τηνε φορώ

Καμιά φορά απ' το πιοτό πέφτομε μεθυσμένοι,
σχεδόν αγαπημένοι,
καθείς να κοιμηθεί
και μοιάζει ετούτη η σιωπή με λίγο πριν τη μπόρα,
σαν τη στερνή την ώρα
που θα επιτεθεί
The tiger

I have a tiger inside of me, wild, hungry
who always awaits me
and I always expect her
I hate her and she hates me, wants to kill me
but I hope she will become friendly
as time goes by

She has the teeth on the heart, the nails on my mind
and I for my own good
fight for her
and the goods of the world she makes me hate
so that I may sing for her my deepest sorrow

Mountains, ravines, and cliffs she pushes me to cross
to embrace her
in the craziest of dances,
and in her cold nights when she remembers her cages,
she offers me her hide
to wear her

Sometimes from the drink we fall drunk,
almost in love,
each to get some sleep
and this hour feels like the calm before the storm
like the final hour
when she will attack

Humanity has a complex relationship with apex predators through its myths and symbolisms. On the one hand, these animals are feared for the indubitable threat they pose to unsuspecting, reckless, insolent, or cocky humans. On the other, they are exalted as the embodiment of noble values: they adorn crests, flags, and the paraphernalia of anything that involves social status. Reverence of this type is an act of objectification. The animal qua image of power does not engender any genuine respect towards the species it represents, nor towards its habitat or the ecosystem at-large.

The object tells us a lot about the objectifier: humans revere the apex predator only when there is a power structure involved in which they are the weaker part. An allegory for social status. Otherwise our kind is quick to toy with such animals, hunt them for parts of their body, and the like. Hypocrisy; hypocrisy writ large.

Psarantonis’ tiger is not a heraldic construct. It is a being of another sort, one that has an intimate, albeit not straightforward, relationship with us. As the peerless hunter she is, the tiger remains a lethal threat to our human protagonist. Yet she also functions as the power impulse which provides the impetus for great deeds. Furthermore, this big cat, the mightiest of the panthers (“panther” is of Greek origin: it is the hunter of everything, i.e. apex predator), is not fearless: there are moments where she remembers her cages…

What is this mighty animal, anyway? I think it encapsulates our self: the subjective narrative of our selfhood.

[ Read/watch: On selfhood ]

How we conceive of our self has profound effects on our condition. At the one extreme, it can send us down a destructive spiral of negativity where we live on the sidelines. At the other end of the spectrum, it propels us to the greatest heights as we traverse mountains and then travel through uncharted paths. This peculiar “tiger” can make us hate everything this world has to offer, yet it also has the capacity to partake with us in the craziest—perhaps the most ecstatic and sincere—of dances. We are presented with two extremes. The permutations between them substantiate the spectrum of values we can associate with our own mental image.

Sometimes we lose our resolve. Those are the moments when the tiger reminisces about her captivity. It is not necessarily a trauma, an actual event in the past during which she was held captive. Our mind can set up obstacles that are not there. It can either aggrandise an experience or even exaggerate a mere doubt, weaving a whole story around it. When the tiger evokes the image of the cage, when she renders it present, when she clings on to it and doesn’t know how to let go, she no longer is the indomitable panther we are familiar with. She grows insecure and needs to put up a facade, exemplified in the reference to us wearing her hide so that we may look like a tiger when, in fact, we dread ever being challenged to prove that we actually are one beyond the appearances.

What will the tiger do without us? She has nowhere to hide when she is insecure. What can we possibly be without her? We lack the drive to scale those cliffs alone. Fate binds us. We are one.

The tiger within symbolises the love-hate relationship we have with our self. Here the tiger encapsulates the subjective narrative of selfhood that we develop: at times overly confident, at others extremely fearful. While the human protagonist stands for the underlying organism that contributes to this narrative.

Unlike smaller predators whose size makes it more practical to be domesticated, a tiger can never be turned into the equivalent of a house cat. Just imagine her jumping to greet you in excitement. Clumsiness alone can prove lethal. She thus retains the potential of being dangerous to us, even when she joins us for a round of drinks, dances with us ecstatically, and sleeps by our side.

We learn to befriend our tiger when we turn her insecurities into an antipode of her aggression. One must face their fears and acknowledge their fragility. Pretences to the contrary are hubris. A misplaced sense of entitlement or confidence can only bring calamity. There has to be a virtuous balance in how we think of our self and how we behave. We shouldn’t have to go to great lengths to please our impulses, nor be dragged into the murkiest depths by our doubts.

The fear of fear is a mentality that forces us into submission: the cagiest of cages. It essentially is a dogma, as we make a value judgement and are then not willing to entertain the notion that our disposition towards it may be misguided. Overthinking never leads us anywhere because our humanity conditions us into a state of relative ignorance. If we wait to figure out everything before we act, we will be waiting forever to no avail. By the same token, our nature gives us the means to act with a degree of purpose without completely giving in to impulses. If all we do is react to stimuli, if we only ever choose to accommodate the tiger’s whims, we lose sight of who we are. We eventually make a fool out of ourselves; a fool who will sooner or later face ruin.

[ Read/watch: Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism (well, check all my presentations in this series) ]

Do we ever break free from the tiger’s grip? In a sense, no. We will always have impulses, needs, and desires that surface contrary to our volition. Does she ever go on the prowl without us? No, we are always together. Her insatiable appetite is what underpins our curiosity to explore this world. Can we overcome the love-hate relationship we have with her? Yes, when we find the virtuous balance between the extremes, when we reach that state of tranquillity where we simply take our presence for what it is.