June 19, 2021 § 1 Comment

I. Homeward

What does it mean to long for something? What is the strong tidal pull it exerts on our emotions? Like desire it reflects the need to fill an absence or lack but unlike desire, it is not forward looking and does not seek what it never had. If we can distinguish them, longing is almost always directed to the past, to a part of ourselves we have lost—a place, a person, an experience: home, homeland, family. In almost all descriptions of longing, we find it associated with a sentiment of loss, an emptiness that gnaws at us and seeks compensation, repletion. Homesickness is a kind of longing, it is the absence felt by weary travelers, unhappy students, or the world’s displaced persons. It is also the experience of immigrants, settlers in a land that is not yet, and may never be, a home.

The idea of longing is common in literature. One of the earliest and best known examples is found in the lengthy and perilous voyage of Odysseus back to his home in Ithaca, where Penelope has been waiting faithfully during his ten-year absence. Ithaca——his home, his wife, his bed—is what drives him to risk his life and the lives of his crew during their journey of return. Similarly, in the Aeneid, Aeneas and his weary soldiers leave Troy in search of a homeland in Italy, one that does not yet exist but for which they, hopeful travelers, still yearn. Eventually, this good and pious man founds the home he never had in the city of Rome. 

Claude Lorraine - Setting Sail.
Musée du Louvre

The primordial tale of longing in the West is, of course, the Fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve cast out of their original home to live their lives as eternal exiles in a world in which they will know fear, shame, suffering, and want. That wish to go back to the garden has been a recurrent theme for centuries in the Western cannon. But there are examples in other literatures as well. The Tale of Genji is, in a sense, an encyclopedia of longing and loss, the yearning for home and a return from exile.

Tango, too, is an art of longing. In song, it reflects the pang of nostalgia felt by those who had washed up on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, both the displaced gauchos of the pampas who had come to the city in search of work, and those recent arrivals from Europe, who landed in Buenos Aires during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the case of the gauchos, the exodus reflected the loss of a way of life, the hard, roughscrabble life of the open plains. As the verdant, unenclosed grasslands were gradually fenced in to form large estates or turned over to the production of soy or wheat for export to Europe, these men found themselves out of work and unemployable. They had little inclination for the sedentary life of the farmer and were largely unsuited to urban life and its occupations. 

“In practice, this [the desire to modernize the country] connected perfectly with the enclosure of the pampas, which then were common lands grazed freely by the independent gauchos who moved with their herds. With their disappearance, the pampas could be fenced and divided into the great estates (or estancias), which would increasingly be devoted to producing the rich red beef for which Argentina would become justly renowned” [2].

Unlike the gauchos, the European settlers were largely fleeing poverty. They were able to take advantage of Argentina’s generous policy of immigration established by the 1852 constitution, which actively encouraged foreign workers to establish a life there, even promising them land on which to farm [3]. 

Consequently, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, roughly from 1870-1900, there was a massive influx of immigrants from Europe to Argentina. The population of Buenos Aires increased from around 250,000 to over two million. Most of these men—and they were almost exclusively men—came from Italy, primarily the regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and Lombardy, but others arrived from Spain and parts of Eastern Europe. By  1869, 24% of the population of Buenos Aires was Italian [4]. All of them came to the country in search of work and most of them settled in the bustling port of Buenos Aires, for Argentina was now a major exporter of meat and produce to Europe (England primarily), and the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor was great [5].

The newcomers from Italy brought with them not only their memories of a homeland but its rich heritage of opera and the experience of a sophisticated musical tradition, elements of which were later introduced into the musical structure of tango. How was this influence felt? How did it make its way among the populace, especially those, the men and women of the crowded conventillos, who would have been most exposed to the tango at the time? For María Susana Azzi, the medium was the music of the street:

Although many people could not afford to go to the Colón Opera House, opera strongly influenced the tango. Organ grinders played tangos along with arias from operas in the streets of Buenos Aires. Most of these street musicians were Italians. “Lucia de Lammermoor,” “Traviata,” “Rigoletto,” “Sonambula,” “Otello,” “Don Pasquale,” and “Trovatore” were also titles for tangos, of which the author was Arnaldo Barsanti. And the Italian influence is present in the tango in the lyrics, the song, [the] singers’ gestures, the drama and the suffering soul [6].

Poor and alone in a large, unfamiliar city, working as laborers in warehouses and the city’s slaughterhouses on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it is not hard to imagine them looking back wistfully at their distant homeland and its traditions. They had given up a way of life embodied in home and family, a world impossible to duplicate in their adopted land, for they had left behind wives, sisters, mothers, friends and family. Compounding the problem, the immigrants were mostly young men in a city with a disproportionate number of men. Of those who had been or became musicians, it is not hard to see how this sense of absence would be reflected in the words and music of the songs they produced. 

Tango has always seemed to be incontrovertibly about longing and loss rather than desire (a theme often found in the form of sexual betrayal and abandonment). But what is so striking are the references to the longing for a place or time. Often it is simply a neighborhood, or barrio, but it can also be the longing for home or family, most often in the person of the mother; or a distant land from which the singer has been exiled.

“Tango had certainly broken out of the barrio—but it remained at its heart the expression of an urban experience of solitude, of nostalgia, and loss” [7].

Sometimes the lyrics of early tangos express remorse for a youthful love affair or the loss of home and family, or a wayward life lived on the margins without the warmth of maternal love. In an early tango canción, “Yo también como tú,” sung by Carlos Gardel and recorded in 1929, the lyrics by Diego Larriera Varela emphasize the longing for a distant past in a place one has left behind:

One of the best known tangos of longing may be “Sur,” recorded by Troilo (among others) with lyrics by Homero Manzi. It is a song that intimately weaves together a lost love and the neighborhood of the singer’s youth. “Sur” expresses a longing for a past that cannot be regained and the place associated with that past.

Sur – Poesia de Gotan

From a certain perspective, and notwithstanding the often ribald nature of some of the earliest lyrics, loss and longing have been predominant in tango. It is explicit in lyrics such as those above and implicit in many others, where it assumes different forms, not so much the longing for a lost arcadia but that of a more innocent or, at least, a happier past in which love and contentment were still possible. This is not surprising if we look at the tango within its cultural moment, the time of its earliest expression, when it was only just becoming an acceptable form of popular music and dance. (Borges condemned the later sentimentalization of the tango and felt that it betrayed the ethos of its origins. He felt the only true tangos were those that reflected the ceremonial drama of knife and cape, the world of the gaucho, the compadre, and the violence of the street. He praised the tangos that celebrated masculine pride and honor. For him, the themes of love, abandonment, sorrow, and sexual betrayal represented a softening of the spirit of the earliest tangos. For a further discussion of this see, Borges and the tradition.) The lyrics of tango, of course, reflect its social origins and the milieu in which it flourished—which was the world of the arrabal and the conventillos, and, as Borges often reminds us, the brothels. This was the world of lonely immigrants, young men far from home, and the lost and aimless gauchos who had settled in the capital after their life on the open plains had been destroyed. Both groups had been uprooted from a place and a way of life to which they could never return. And this sense of remorse, uprootedness, longing, and loss has colored tango—in all its manifestations—since its inception.

“Para mi el tango es amor.” Juan Lencina.

Does this mean that tango is inherently nostalgic? From our current perspective, should we view it as an expression of a forgotten past, a form of nostalgia for a lost cultural moment, an attempt to recreate an environment of longing? To a certain extent, it is all three; the tango of today is an attempt (even if not always openly acknowledged) to engage with its past, whether it be the Golden Age of the 1940s and early 50s or before. In a sense, one must engage with its past. Unlike other social dances, tango is unequivocally something more than the sum of its parts. And it has been this way at least since the mid-twentieth century, when it became a featured cultural element of porteño society and a component of the foundational myth of Argentine history. Those who have lived through tango’s formative period and recorded their impressions, the dancers and musicians of its “classical” period, speak about it as something other, as something more than a dance. Whether it is described as a feeling, or a philosophy, or a way of life, it has always been perceived by its practitioners as both a cultural phenomenon and a kind of personal quest. Although such commentary is often amorphous or vague, it points to something that lies at tango’s core, even when unnamed and undefined. All of the old milongueros speak of this. If it was a way of life for many of them, it was so for a reason—and I suspect it was because it gave meaning to their life in ways that other endeavors could not. And if tango has often been described as addictive or obsessive, there is clearly a reason for its magnetic pull as well, for the compulsion is to always dig deeper into the wellsprings of the dance. Rarely does this have anything to do with technique per se, at least not for the social dancer. So what is it at its core, this something that can never be satisfied, never be assuaged, the thing that continues to give us hope as it pulls us deeper into the maelstrom? 

II. The Space Between

“For in this dance the people do not move. Desire moves. Eros is a verb” [9]. 

Not all longing looks homeward. Tango is often described as a form of communication between two dancers, a dialog, a shared interpretation of a piece of music through an improvised succession of steps. The dance proceeds through the ebb and flow of movements, which reflect the music around which they are centered. But there is a third, intangible, element that completes the partnership and helps connect the dancers, and that is longing. It is what binds the dancers to one another and to the dance. 

In a somewhat different context, poet and classicist Anne Carson, discussing a fragment by Sappho, writes of the essentiality of a third element between lover and beloved, without which eros is impossible. Traditionally, that third pole around which the lovers triangulates has been a rival, an impediment of some sort, the wedge that drives them apart so they can be more forcefully conjoined. The rival is the intermediary through which the lover must pass to reach the beloved—an obstacle, as well as the motive force that allows longing to run free. And when that sense of longing, that absence at the core is gone, eros becomes impossible, and dies.

“The third component plays a paradoxical role for it both connects and separates, marking that two are not one, irradiating the absence whose presence is demanded by eros” [10].

Tango serves to hold that absence always in tension; it is the condition to which we yearn but never quite achieve without destroying the thing that makes it worthwhile. This is part of its “addiction,” the compulsion so many dancers have spoken of and which keeps them circling around the dance floor, always returning to repeat the cycle of longing. In a way, we yearn to achieve the perfect dance, the one that cannot be bettered, which will always and ever be an impossibility. But if we are anything, like all lovers, we are hopeful. Aspiration of this sort is also a way of saying we strive toward a kind of perfect union with our partner. 

“I was deeply nostalgic for an era that I had never known in a country that was not my own” [11].

In addition to the music, and the dance itself, there is a third vector of longing here, which is more firmly directed at the past. For in a sense, we also seek to achieve the conditions of the tango at the moment of its greatest cultural impact, the Golden Age of cafés and clubs and live orchestras, tango’s formative years, when an entire city was caught up in its embrace. To an extent this is mirrored in the structure of the milonga and the observance of its protocols, which have been carried down from generation to generation as essential elements of the transmission of tango. We can never recapture the past, but we can try to duplicate some of the conditions of that moment. In a sense, every milonga today, no matter where it takes place, is an attempt to do just that. The fact that the world has moved on technologically, socially, and economically simply highlights the anomaly of such traditions and their strength. Tango, the milonga itself, is a kind of formula developed over several decades and culminating in a lost Golden Age, the period of its greatest popularity and refinement. We can never return to that edenic paradise of tango’s years of glory but we still have the formula that allows us to reproduce it structurally. 

Nostalgia perhaps. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet we can see how these three desires, these three attempts at satisfying longing turn us into perpetual seekers, goaded like Sappho’s lover, to remain always in pursuit. There is a question worth pursuing here. Can the effort, the struggle for mastery and control in tango be seen as a form of longing for a present-past that always eludes us, and which enfolds everything the dance and its music imply? Not a physical but a psychological space, which tango inhabits historically and conceptually. More importantly, it is a condition that is always held in abeyance, suspended between the immediacy of the moment and the promise of the music. It is a longing for what we do not yet have and can never have. It is the promise of every tango ever danced.

1. Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems and Fragments, trans. by Michael Hamburger (Penguin Books).

2. Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes, Tango: Sex and Rhythm of the City (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), 14.

3. Ibid.

4. Maria Susana Azzi, “Multicultural Tango: The Impact and the Contributions of the Italian Immigration to the Tango in Argentina,” International Journal of Musicology 5, 1996, 438.

5. Gonzalez and Yanes, 12, 14.

6. Azzi, 448.

7. Gonzalez and Yanes, 79.

8. Gonazalez and Yanes, 79-80 for lyrics and translation.

9. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015), 17.

10. Ibid., 16.

11. Brian Winter, Long after Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina (NY: PUblic Affairs, 2007), 171.

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