The Old Ennui

If you are not a Sinatra fan, you should be, especially if you love music. Frank Sinatra was an amazing singer. When he was young, his voice sounded like it had been purified with Southern Comfort and then dipped in honey. In his later years, when the voice kept changing, he lost his youthful smoothness, and his register slid down deeper and darker, he always made it work for him and found ways to reinterpret songs he had sung hundreds of times.

A saloon singer in the 1955 film, "Young at Heart."
A saloon singer with the blues in the 1955 film, “Young at Heart.”

Understanding that Sinatra interpreted songs as much as sang them is a good way to cultivate an appreciation. His most enduring gift was actually not his voice but his immaculate phrasing. He would intentionally sing ahead, or behind, the beat so that you really felt the words. Very often, when he sang a tune, he owned it, so that afterwards you’d always think of it as a “Sinatra song.”

I never got much of a kick out of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”, until I heard Sinatra’s version from the 1954 album Songs for Young Lovers, which by the way, is considered the first “concept” album. It’s the intro that got me. How he sustains the note for the word “leaves,” how lures you into the song, and then when it takes off, he breaks up words, puts pauses in them (“It would bore me teriff. . .fflickly too”) in a way I’m not sure any other singer could get away with.

One line in the intro goes, “When I’m out on a quiet spree,/Fighting vainly the old ennui . . .” That last word comes from old French, it was first used in 1732 and mean annoyance. The meaning we assign to ennui today is different.  Merriam-Webster defines ennui as “a lack of spirit, enthusiasm, or interest.” Listlessness, apathy. There’s even a sort of existential ennui, or intellectual boredom brought on by a dearth of stimulation.

Ennui is a form of dukkha or suffering, one of the three marks of life, which Prof. Trevor Ling* calls “the Buddha’s analysis of human existence.” Ling says that for the Buddha suffering meant “the unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain, its malaise, its inherent ‘ill’-ness.” These are things that everyone feels at one time or another.

In the song, it is the sight of a “fabulous face” that brings the singer out of his malaise. In real life, we shouldn’t expect someone or something to cure our boredom, or be the cause that allows us to enjoy life. We have to find it deep withing. Furthermore, boredom is an illusion. Nothing is really boring, we just think it is. Boredom is just a label. I suppose the same is true of happiness and joy. But a sense of joy, feelings of satisfaction, a sense of humor – these are effective tools in the battle to win over suffering.

I mentioned that Cole Porter was the composer of “I Get a Kick Out of You” (1934), and he was a man who endured a lot of suffering in his life.  In 1937 both his legs were crushed when a half-ton horse fell on him. He developed osteomyelitis, or bone infection, and he experienced chronic pain for the next two decades.  He fought the pain with humor.  Doctors eventually had to amputate the right leg, but before that he gave his injured legs names: the left was Josephine and the right, the one he lost, Geraldine (“a hellion, a bitch, a psychopath”**).

Three months after surgery on my left leg, in which a rod was inserted into the bone, I am still experiencing chronic pain that occasionally leaves me listless, apathetic, and because I haven’t been able to move around much, bored.  Understanding that boredom is nothing but a mental judgment, learning Cole Porter’s story and capturing his spirit of facing suffering with humor, helps greatly.  Without being able to tap into joy and laughter, my current existence would seem like an endless, agonizing perdition.

That’s how I fight – not vainly, but valiantly, I hope – the old ennui.

And sometimes, but not suddenly, I hear this fabulous voice:

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970

** John Lahr. “King Cole The not so merry soul of Cole Porter.” New Yorker July 12, 2004