i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

6 thoughts on “i grok ‘bouleversant’

  1. I can recall two separate instances of having to pull off the side of the road for not being able to see through tears because of the Barber Adagio. We have a CD with nothing but versions of it now.

    • Ah, yes! That’s one sign of bouleversant music — when it forces you to pull to the shoulder, weeping. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” does that to me, too.

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