Le mal du pays

February 7th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

“Have you never seen a man leaning on the edge of a bridge, looking at the water, with a lion behind him? Well, now, thanks to this painting, you have.” ~ Magritte, in explanation of his painting (above), Le mal du pays

Generally, the construction mal de followed by a noun translates to some ache or discomfort, but like the exact relation of the noun to the ache, the role of the preposition de varies: we might say we’re airsick (mal de l’air), or that the fact of being “in the air” is making us sick — sick from the air, or of it, in a manner of speaking — and in much the same way mal de mer (seasickness) follows, though mal des transports is at once more general and more specific. When one has a toothache (mal de dents), one is not sick of one’s tooth (or back, throat, head, stomach: all body parts can avail themselves both of this construction and mal à), but one can blame the tooth for the discomfort much as one does the plane, the ship, or the roads.

The real trouble starts, as ever, with more abstract concepts. Having le mal du siècle is not having the ache of the century, as it quite literally looks, or even being sick from or with the siècle in general. Here the century is a sort of metonym for the world at large, hence: world-weariness. Having le mal d’amour is, naturally, being lovesick: sick with or from, but probably not of love. In one of her most famous songs, the chanteuse Barbara follows this phrase with “j’ai le mal de toi,” which should be read as I am sick not of but, again, with or from you. In such cases — unlike all the preceding ones — the implication is absence. The cause of discomfort is not the noun provided, but its lack. Which brings us to the title of this post. Logic, it seems, would ask us to read le mal du pays as being sick of a country — let us say, hypothetically, the one we’re in — rather than sick from the one we miss, though logic and language are rare bedfellows, much less logic and colloquialism. When we’re homesick, which comes first: dislike of where we are, an almost allergic bristling, or longing for where we aren’t, and its remembered ease?

Where am I?

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