Interpretation of “Mal du Départ” by Nikos Kavvadias
Nikos Kavvadias is one of the preeminent Greek poets of the 20th century. Many of his works have been decorated with lovely music. I think those do not detract from the value of the underlying poetry.
Mal du Départ is French: it means the “illness of departure”. It is the original title of the poem, even though its text is in Greek.
Kavvadias was a sailor by trade. He drew inspiration from his travels to develop the imagery and symbolism we find in his poems; expressions which encapsulate different facets of the human condition.
What follows is the original poem, my translation, and some further comments on what meaning I derive therefrom.
The song version of Mal du Départ was originally performed by Kostas Karalis (Κώστας Καράλης) with music by Yiannis Spanos (Γιάννης Σπανός). Here is the entry from the 1970s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWbq3GSMSr8. And this is a more recent one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu1n71vLyE8. I prefer the latter as Karalis’ voice is more mature—a master at the peak of his art.
Mal du Départ Στίχοι: Νίκος Καββαδίας Μουσική: Γιάννης Σπανός Θα μείνω πάντα ιδανικός κι ανάξιος εραστής των μακρυσμένων ταξιδιών και των γαλάζιων πόντων, και θα πεθάνω μια βραδιά σαν όλες τις βραδιές, χωρίς να σχίσω τη θολή γραμμή των οριζόντων. Για το Μαδράς τη Σιγκαπούρ τ' Αλγέρι και το Σφαξ θ' αναχωρούν σαν πάντοτε περήφανα τα πλοία, κι εγώ σκυφτός σ' ένα γραφείο με χάρτες ναυτικούς, θα κάνω αθροίσεις σε χοντρά λογιστικά βιβλία. Θα πάψω πια για μακρινά ταξίδια να μιλώ, οι φίλοι θα νομίζουνε πως τα 'χω πια ξεχάσει, κι η μάνα μου χαρούμενη θα λέει σ' όποιον ρωτά: «Ήταν μια λόξα νεανική, μα τώρα έχει περάσει» Μα ο εαυτός μου μια βραδιά εμπρός μου θα υψωθεί και λόγο ως ένας δικαστής στυγνός θα μου ζητήσει, κι αυτό το ανάξιο χέρι μου που τρέμει θα οπλιστεί, θα σημαδέψει κι άφοβα το φταίχτη θα χτυπήσει. Κι εγώ που τόσο επόθησα μια μέρα να ταφώ σε κάποια θάλασσα βαθειά στις μακρινές Ινδίες, θα 'χω ένα θάνατο κοινό και θλιβερό πολύ και μια κηδεία σαν των πολλών ανθρώπων τις κηδείες.
Mal du Départ Lyrics: Nikos Kavvadias Music: Yiannis Spanos I'll always remain an idealist and worthless lover of the long journeys and the azure seas, and I will die on a night like all other nights, without crossing the faint line of the horizons. For Madras, Singapore, Algiers, and Sfax ships will proudly depart as always, and I, bent over a desk with nautical maps, will perform additions in thick acocunting books. I shall stop talking about long journeys, the friends will think I have finally forgotten them, and my mother will happily say to whomever asks: "it was a youthful craze, but now it's over." But one night my self will stand before me and as stern judge will ask for a word, and this worthless hand which shakes will arm itself, take aim and fearlessly fire at the culprit. And I who so desired to one day be burried in some deep sea in the distant Indies, shall have an ordinary and very sad death and a funeral like most peoples' funerals.
The poem speaks about unfulfilled desires pertaining to one’s modus vivendi. The poetic “I” dreams about long journeys in distant lands but is ultimately pressured to lead an ordinary life.
The happiness of the mother represents social institutions and the roles they define. It is expected of a good lad to get a decent job, then a worthy spouse, and everybody shall live happily ever after. But dreamers cannot find comfort in such a state of affairs. It is a conventional brand of happiness that does not account for the subjectivity of the person.
The idealist lover of alternatives does not care if society at-large draws pleasure from predictability. To the adventurer these are the trappings of an unbearable actuality. Conformity is where dreams go to die.
The poetic “I” is worthless because of its failure hitherto to muster the courage to turn its back on the future that was prepared for it. What is the point of making your mother, friends, and this impersonal “society” happy, if it leaves you dead inside? Why toil over thick accounting books when all you ever wanted was to chase the horizon? Why can’t others just stop being opinionated about the life choices of another? Where is the difficulty?
Societies behave like organisms. They have a propensity to ensure their survival which, in this case, comes through the preservation and proliferation of their institutions. The “good lad”, the “worthy spouse”, the meticulously mapped course to the simulacrum of happiness… These are all institutions: beliefs that are codified into norms and/or laws which dictate what an agent of action is, which are the desired outcomes, and how those may be achieved.
The struggle for survival is what protects forms from the entropy that brings about formlessness. Though it is a crude mechanism that lacks judgement. It is not governed by wisdom and thus is devoid of an understanding of the bigger picture; a picture which otherwise hints at the potentiality of a new outcome.
[ Read/watch: Who can be a philosopher ]
The idealist embodies such a potential. Their aspirations provide conduits into possible worlds; worlds which the organism that operates on instinct alone is deeply afraid of and has trouble tolerating.
We do not pursue our dreams because of the false sense of duty towards others. But also due to the baseless belief that there will be a second chance. We think we can placate the mother and the friends in present time and, somehow, the universe will conspire in our favour to reward us for our heteronomy, for this decision of others to be determined by others.
There seldom are second chances in life. Such is a pernicious delusion. Either you follow your dream, even if its fire shall burn you or stay put at whatever role others have prepared for you.
It is not just society that fears the unknown and prefers to fall back to the certainty of its routines. All organisms have behavioural patterns of this sort. We are not different. While the inner voice of the lover of long journeys speaks of exploration, we are biased in favour of the immediately realisable.
There has to be a reckoning. We cannot simply ignore our wants. They won’t go away. They never do. It is at that moment when we can decide to perform what essentially is a leap of faith. We may land on a safe spot and live through a new beginning or find gruesome death then and there. No-one really knows. Sometimes it is a risk worth taking. It may even be the only sane option.
As for what mother and friends think… They will have to manage.