06 November 2010

Being There

I am reading Eat, Pray, Love. I haven't seen the movie; I like to have read the book first because, being a librarian, I start with the premise that the book is always better. (Sorry Hollywood.) Sometimes I enjoy the movie very much, as it turns out. Still, I find that having read the book seems more fair to the author's point of view and that the movie should be judged against the book and not the other way around.


I am at chapter 24. I find that I am moved by a passage in which the author (the book is written in the first person) describes her progress in learning to speak Italian. She is speaking with her tutor and they are exchanging idioms. She is teaching him "I've been there" as an American way of saying "I sympathize with what you are feeling." Being a word-geek, I liked taking that moment with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, to contemplate the nuances of this phrase. It's an exercise we should take from time to time.

"I've been there," has a couple of manifestations: simply saying "I've been there" is a way of saying "I have walked along in the same unmarked path of grief, sadness, discouragement, or pain and I am letting you know that up ahead you will pick up a trail again. Up around a big bend on the trail, you'll finally come to a road and it will lead you back to a big sunny place." Thankfully, we don't have to say any such awful, bulky, ponderous thing. We just say "I've been there." The American person we are addressing then understands that we have felt pain similar to theirs and adds in all the rest of the meaning. Isn't commonality of expression a wonderful thing?

Sometimes, in lighter situations, we say "Been there; done that." Or even "Been there; done that; bought the T-shirt." The first meaning that we have had a similar experience, the second meaning we have done it more than once, or done it in such a big way as to have earned a sort of membership.

Ms. Gilbert's tutor is, at first, mystified by the idea: you've been where? The phrase suggests, in his practical approach to English, that there is a physical place. And, in a way, she explains, it is. It may be a place in your head, but it resides somewhere that both speaker and listener understand.

The tutor then offers his own version: "I have experienced that on my own skin." Like a burn or a scar, Ms. Gilbert clarifies. How wonderfully expressive! Instead of a geographic image, as in the American version, Italians offer the place as themselves in an equally present and physical (and painful) metaphor. The difference is fascinating. In the American version, one sympathizes with the lost feeling, with the sufferer's environment of separateness. In the Italian version, one experiences the personal, visceral pain as a trauma to the body.  What does this reflect about how each of us sees the world?

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