Schönheit and Böse and Henry James

"... and it struck him that if he had never done anything very ugly, he had never, on the other hand, done anything particularly beautiful."
The American, Henry James

Here I'll make some observations about the German language, but in an absolutely non-academic way. Nothing said to me in German is ever clear, but lately I find that I have more intuitions about what is being said. Whether this is a better understanding or a more severe misunderstanding is hard to say. I'll record some thoughts all the same.

I thought of my Granny the other day while watching the two older girls squabble over something as they played. Whenever my siblings and I would argue or pester one another Granny would say, "Don't be ugly." I never use "ugly" this way, but I should. It takes the beauty vs. ugliness conversation out of a superficial dimension and places it in a moral one.

(And if only I could include a recording of Granny saying "ugly." She's got a beautiful, deep, and textured voice and when she says the word she lives in it for a minute. It's just scary enough to make you sure you don't want her to ever describe you that way again.)

It seems to me the German language does something similar with the word "schon" (translation: beautiful.) In instances where in English we would say "good" or "nice" the Germans say "schon." 

At some point in my liberal and feminist education I began to view "beauty" as a word with strictly negative connotations. It was a tool that society would use to prevent me from achieving more worthwhile goals. It was a burden. I must constantly strive to be beautiful but not so beautiful that it would look like I was trying. And not just beautiful. I had to simultaneously fight against beauty standards and pretend to ignore them. It's an exhausting word.

But if my actions can be ugly, then they can also be beautiful. And I'm grateful to Granny and the German language for liberating this word for me.

The German word "böse" (translation: evil) has a similarly flexible usage. I learned this last week, once again, while watching the girls argue. Salome was angry because Nele had accidentally scratched her. Salome retaliated by squeezing Nele's leg. I tried to explain to Salome that she didn't have to hurt Nele back. Salome claimed she didn't understand. (In her defense, the english translation of my german explanation would go like this: When Nele makes for you pain, you must not always also pain give back.) Fortunately Verena was around the corner to help us out. When she asked Salome why she had hurt Nele, Salome replied: "Weil Ich böse sind." 

This initially alarmed me because the only way I knew to translate this phrase was "Because I'm evil." And the thought of sweet, darling Salome calling herself evil was very disturbing. Later I learned that "böse" can also be used to describe anger. This made me think of all the things that I consider evil. Let's use ISIS as an example (because the refugee crisis here is all anyone can talk about.) Thinking of ISIS as angry instead of evil serves the dual purpose of humanizing them and making their conflict seemingly easier to solve. Because evil feels other-worldly, mysterious and permanent, but anger is something we all understand. And something that can be changed.

So while beauty has become a bigger word, evil becomes smaller. All in all, not a bad couple of weeks. Additionally, I've reread The American by Henry James because I remembered that I enjoyed it in high school and that it had something to do with an American starting over in Europe. The quote I started with was at least part of the inspiration for these thoughts, so I include it but without further comment; except to say, I hope to do something one day that my Granny would say was beautiful. She's a wise woman and I would be happy if I pleased her.

'Til next time,