Lágrima (I)

20 Apr

The song ‘Lágrima’, by Amália Rodrigues, appeared on the 1983 album of the same name, which featured lyrics exclusively written by Amália and set to music by the guitarrista Carlos Gonçalves. ‘Lágrima’ was the closing song on the album; its lyrics also appeared, alongside Amália’s other poems, in her book Versos (1997). They are as follows:

Cheia de penas
Cheia de penas me deito
E com mais penas
Com mais penas me levanto
No meu peito
Já me ficou no meu peito
Este jeito
O jeito de te querer tanto

Tenho por meu desespero
Dentro de mim
Dentro de mim um castigo
Não te quero
Eu digo que te não quero
E de noite
De noite sonho contigo

Se considero
Que um dia hei-de morrer
No desespero
Que tenho de te não ver
Estendo o meu xaile
Estendo o meu xaile no chão
Estendo o meu xaile
E deixo-me adormecer

Se eu soubesse
Se eu soubesse que morrendo
Tu me havias
Tu me havias de chorar
Uma lágrima
Por uma lágrima tua
Que alegria
Me deixaria matar

[Full of suffering
Full of suffering, I sleep
And with more suffering
With more suffering I awake
In my breast
Already lodged in my breast
Is this habit
The habit of wanting you so
I have my despair
Inside me
A punishment inside me
I don’t want you
I say that I don’t want you
And at night
At night I dream about you

If I consider
That one day I will die
In the desperation
That I have at not seeing you
I lay out my shawl
I lay out my shawl on the floor
I lay out my shawl
And let myself fall asleep

If I thought
If I thought that when I died
You would have to
You would have to cry
One tear
For one of your tears
How happy
I would be to die]

In considering the song I am drawing upon ideas articulated by Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. I do so partly because these thinkers provide a useful vocabulary to attach to the expression of grief and partly because I wish to situate this exemplary instance of fado practice within the wider theories explored in Fado and the Place of Longing. Lacan, in his commitment to Freud, provides a useful connection to theories of mourning, remembering and working-through. Barthes, meanwhile, offers a vocabulary which is explicitly derived from the analysis of texts, whether written, visual or aural. Here, I find his theories of the visual field – as set out in his late work on photography, Camera Lucida – as relevant as his comments on music.

Lacan and Barthes are quite different thinkers with divergent agendas, but their theories do overlap at important places. For Lacan, the ‘Symbolic Order’ is that represented by society’s attempts to impose logic, structure and consistency upon the inconstant qualities of nature, a process carried out first and foremost through language. Against this is posited the ‘Imaginary’, those aspects of the subject’s quest for a wholeness that is always unattainable but always desired, as in the ‘Mirror Stage’ of Lacanian theory. The third Order, the ‘Real’, is that which cannot be symbolised and which exists beyond our attempts to explain inconstant nature. It is inconstant nature itself, which yet, paradoxically, always ‘comes back to the same place’. The Real is that which irrupts into the Symbolic as trauma. Its connections with trauma, jouissance and death distinguish it from the more comforting Imaginary. The writings of Barthes that I invoke here are those in which we find a breaking through of one (often ecstatic) mode of signifying into another, a rupture in the Symbolic Order that calls to mind the momentary glimpse of the Lacanian Real. The major examples of this type of Barthesian thinking are the concepts of plaisir and jouissance, of the geno- and pheno-song, and of the studium and punctum of the photographic image.

What is notable about the lyric of ‘Lágrima’ is what it has to say about absence, how, for the vocal subject, the object of desire does not exist because of a refusal to recognize her. The subject posits a possibility for the object of desire to exist by hypothesizing a recognition – the recognition that the object of desire will mourn her after her passing – that will in turn betray a desire, the object’s hitherto hidden desire for her. The price to be paid for this bringing-into-being of the object and the object’s desire is, here, the subject’s ceasing-to-be, her death.

What are the ‘pleasures’ suggested in the song? Or, rather, what are the signs of what Lacan calls ‘the pleasure of desiring, or, more precisely, the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure’?  In short: despair, unrequited love, the dream-world and death. What is moving and pleasurable for the listener are the lengths to which this subject will go to achieve that jouissance which, Lacan reminds us, is in actuality suffering and pain. What is the significance, in Lacanian terms, of the subject’s inability to perceive herself as fully constituted, or rather to see herself as constituted around a lack which she can only resolve by propelling herself from the Imaginary of fantasy to the Real of death? Or should one read the song less literally, as a song about the giving-up of oneself to the Other, an ‘inevitable’ love sacrifice or coming-into-symbolic-being?

We must also ask in what ways we can map musical meaning onto such a reading. One way might be to suggest that the lyrical structure of the poem has encouraged a musical arrangement which, in its simplicity, provides a drive towards emphasis on key lyrical moments. As Barthes notes of classical French mélodie:

What is engaged in these works is, much more than a musical style, a practical reflection (if one may put it like that) on the language; there is a progressive movement from the language to the poem, from the poem to the song and from the song to its performance. Which means that the mélodie has little to do with the history of music and much with the theory of the text.

(Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in Image-Music-Text, tr. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 186.)

Applying Barthes’s notions of studium and punctum to ‘Lágrima’, we can attempt to sonorize these occularcentic figurations in an attempt to construct a theory of listening. For Barthes the studium is the cultural ‘participat[ion] in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’, while the punctum is the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’. In a sonorized version the studium is the song text, the instrumental, vocal and lyrical setting which, within a few short bars, confirms this as a typical fado, albeit of the modernized fado canção style. Into this text are then studded a number of puncta, which can be identified as follows: the first syllable of ‘penas’ in the first line, echoed in the repetitions of the word in the subsequent three lines; the third syllable of ‘desespero’ in the first line of second verse, again echoed; the interplay between ‘considero’ and ‘desespero’ in the third verse. The fourth verse holds back from delivering its punctum, waiting, according to standard fado practice, for the repeat of the final phrase; when it comes (and we can detect in that word’s double meaning an echo of Barthes’s idea that the voice ‘caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes’), it does so as the entire phrase ‘que alegria me deixaria matar’.

I interpret these as puncta mainly due to the vocal articulation audible at these points and with the repetitive pathos to be found in these over-emphasized words and phrases. While it would be possible to describe this process merely as a succession of emphases without resorting to Barthesian terms, I am keen to anticipate a connection established in Fado and the Place of Longing between photography and fado texts, as I believe that one of the things these texts do is to participate in an ongoing ‘study’ of Lisbon(ness), in which the oft-hymned city is both studium and stadium of memory. While ‘Lágrima’ makes no explicit mention of place, I would maintain that it inherits a sense of place due to numerous connections between text and context; the ‘Lisbonness’ of fado, here, is a state of mind which may be cognitively inaccurate but is mythologically and psychologically vital.

Barthes has saved us the effort, to some extent, of converting his theory of seeing to a theory of listening by speaking elsewhere about the interplay of the pheno-song and geno-song in vocal music. However, what is less stressed in ‘The Grain of the Voice’ than in ‘The Pleasure of the Text’ and Camera Lucida is the sense of the cut that the ‘invasive’ element (punctum, jouissance, grain) inflicts on culture. Barthes writes of ‘the deep laceration the text of bliss inflicts upon language itself’  and, in a sentence that might equally be a definition of the Lacanian Real, of ‘the place where the death of language is glimpsed’. This cut is also a cutting-off, or fencing-off, the creation of ‘a site of bliss’ that is simultaneously a site of loss. As Catherine Belsey puts it:

The beautiful satisfies, Lacan argues, to the degree that it does, not by representing the real, nor by avoiding the drive, but instead by pointing to the lost real, while at the same time fencing-off any possibility that we might come too close to the Thing. Made objects offer a kind of satisfaction when the signifier encloses absence and at the same time offers pleasure.

(Catherine Belsey, Culture and the Real: Theorising Cultural Criticism (London and
New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 72)

Lacan himself provides us with another metaphor of enclosure when he claims that ‘it is obviously because truth is not pretty to look at that beauty is, if not its splendor, then at least its envelope’. Going further, he says that the beautiful ‘stops us, but it also points in the direction of the field of destruction’ and, later, that ‘the appearance of beauty intimidates and stops desire’. Bearing this in mind, is it possible to think of fado as representing a safe (and beautiful) way of (re)encountering trauma, of encircling the Thing? As Nick Cave observes, ‘the peculiar magic of the Love Song … is that it endures where the object of the song does not.’ Fado provides a place (street, alleyway, museum, theatre, text, envelope) to (re)visit the traumatic. It is one of those musics that subscribes to the Aristotelian principle of catharsis, purgation and abreaction to which Lacan also refers. The single tear that the singer of ‘Lágrima’ desires is both the tear that will cleanse or purge and the tear (cut) that will rend.


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