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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A little etymology goes a long way

There's a big word in every small one trying to get out!

Take the word "to tantalise" which refers to Tantalus, son of Zeus, who was punished by his father for a certain catering faux pas, to stand in a pool of water that drained away when he bend down for a drink, and then refilled itself to his chin when he stood up straight. He also had a branch of figs hanging above his head which the wind blew away every time he reached for it.

This imagery was tantalising enough for Schopenhauer to ruminate about human life and its endless cycle of wanting, satisfaction, boredom, and then wanting again. Human life, Schopenhauer thought, eternally revolves around the axle of need followed by satiation. Are we contented by the satiation? Alas, only briefly. Almost immediately boredom sets in, and once again we are propelled into motion, this time to escape from the terrors of boredom.

And what is the most terrible thing about boredom? Why do we rush to dispel it? Because it is a distration-free state which soon enough reveals underlying unpalatable truths about existence - our insignificance, our meaningless existence, our inexorable progression toward deterioration and death.

Isn't etymology tantalising? Enough to pour yourself a drink from your own tantalus. I wished I had owned one of those things when I lived in New Guinea as my haus boi, who answered (sometimes) to the name of 'Get Up', kept helping himself to my whisky. When I questioned him about it, he said something which, on reflection, may have sounded like "Why don't you get yourself a tantalus?"