In a word



I love that wonderful concluding line from James Joyce’s classic short story The Dead . “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” To write like that would be very heaven.

But what a peculiar word to our ears is swooned. And, excuse me, but did men’s souls swoon too? I had thought that was something only fey Victorian ladies did in the very worst examples of popular literary romances.

So I checked up on the word to discover that swoon or uowne, suun , means “a state of unconsciousness”, which is thought to be a descendant of the Old English geswogen , meaning “in a faint” and related to a lost Old English verb swogan , “to become unconscious”. Mmmm. So it can be willed then, as in all the best . . . well . . . “true” romances.

The verb swogan can also mean “to choke” or, in Low German swogen , “to sigh”. Relatives include swooned and/or swooning. Thought you should know that. Then men such as James Joyce, with his Jesuit education, would be familiar with the concept of the soul as feminine. Those minimalist Puritans in particular saw the soul as feminine and . . . insatiable, “consonant with the supposedly unappeasable nature of women”. As if!

It was almost de rigueur in past times for any women worthy of her gender that she swoon , or faint, to order. So to speak. Indeed many a Victorian house had its very own fainting room, containing a dedicated fainting couch, where ladies could me made feel more comfortable during bouts of “hysteria” and faint or swoon with ease. Such couches had an arm on one side to allow falling rapidly, if gracefully, into a reclining position.

But there was a more practical explanation for the prevalence of swooning among ladies of another era. The reason had not so much to do with their possession of an ethereal sensibility unsuited to this world as bodies cramped by corsets. Such prevalent swooning/fainting fits were, it seems, due to restricted blood flow.

Which is not to suggest for a moment that such women were not also the possessors of an ethereal sensibility. As indeed is the case too with so many of their 21st-century sisters, even as they balance precariously on heels which, from afar, appear every bit as tall and thin as Dublin’s Spire.