Looking forward, looking back

Technology, or new media, or google, or somebody, has helped take the mystery out. There are plenty of blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers in the Caucasus. And I actually recognize a lot of what they describe, though I’ve never been near there. There’s a certain post-Sovietness that seems to be common to where I was (from September 2002 until January 2004, I lived in a small, ethnically Buryat-Mongol town in Eastern Siberia).

I can look forward to the same old exhortations to drink, the same condescending and infantalizing behavior by those who know me, the personal questions from strangers, unasked-for honesty, aggressive dogs, and mini-celebrity status. The same catechism of questions, even, persisting unchanged over thousands of miles of the previous Evil Empire. How much do teachers make, are you looking for a wife, is our vodka better than yours, how do you say kaif in English.

Just in the past couple days, I’ve started to dwell on old memories and think of things I hadn’t thought of for a long time. The memories seem to come compulsively. In certain moods, I have difficulty keeping violent images, thoughts of violent harm to my body, getting sliced to ribbons, getting hanged, or shot, or punched, I have a hard time keeping representations of harm to myself out of my mind. There’s a force to the thought that is very like the force the thought is of, the same contempt for my own integrity. These memories have the same compulsive feeling to them. But I can’t be sure what to do with them. I’m not revolted at them, nor am I really pleased by them. There’s a curious lack of affect to them. They’re like a dull movie, or more exactly, like someone else’s memories.

Soon after I moved into a new home in October of my first year, I got pneumonia. My host family was sure I had gotten it from running around without a hat off. My habit had been to walk around the hills in the afternoons, I stopped that because of the weather, soon after. There were lots of things to find. Over a hill, one hundred feet away from my door, there were no dwellings, no civilization for miles. But it was like civilization had walked through, taking mile-long strides, its hands in its pockets overstuffed with junk, dropping bits of garbage everywhere without taking notice. Once I found a dry stream bed filled with children’s shoes that may have been there since the previous winter. Abandoned vehicles, a sofa, a filing cabinet, a tire. Or a window frame, or piles of rotting documents, or a lonesome boot in the middle of a flat, empty plain.

I had lost my hat somewhere I can’t remember where. Looking back I was a little out of control. I can remember walking for it seemed almost an hour to the local temple, outside of town, and nearly fainting on the way, because I had forgotten to eat. At any rate, this was after I had been in my new home for two weeks or so, I went on my usual afternoon walk, it was cold and windy, I thought my hood would be protection enough. It may have been but a couple days after I was running a temperature and feeling strange. I was sent to the clinic. I remember not wanting to take that advice, but it turned out to be good.

I had trouble understanding the doctor because her face mask made it impossible to read her lips. She gave me antibiotics, told me to rest. I remember being asked how I was feeling, I told them my brains were boiling. I was giddy, and laughing. I had a temperature of 104 but I felt great. Exhilarated, grinning, dancing in the front hall. I only stayed home a week or so, then was back at work, But I remember one teacher telling me it looked like I had really grown up, she couldn’t say how, but I really looked older. Later she said, no I’d just lost weight.

It’s a persistent memory, the feeling of the fever, the light glow I had, like I had witnessed some kind of glorious event, but only at a distance, and happening to someone I wasn’t all that close to, so the effect wasn’t very strong but it was still in that genre. The taste of the memory somehow lingers on the back of my tongue. From that point on, however, I felt at home, I got used to the repeated questions, the stares, I even began to speak more fluently. I started to make friends and feel content. It was as if the sickness was a gate I had to pass through, a staging area while I switched horses, on my way to another stage of life.

Politics and self-abandonment

I am a sucker for what you might call political pathos. A large group gathered peacefully for a common purpose will reliably bring a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. I’ve noticed the tendency for at least ten years. It’s a curious sensation: it’s longing, and happiness, and hope, but it’s mixed with a feeling of great loneliness and distrust: I mistrust the group and its aims, and I mistrust myself, and my own feelings. I feel like I want to be one with the group but I feel completely cut off on the other hand. There’s a certain exquisiteness, like a sensual tickle or a painful exercise session. But it’s a feeling I don’t like to sustain for too long.

I suppose I could trace it back to church meetings and religious summer camps from my childhood. But the occasion doesn’t have to be religious, or political: I also get it at concerts, at parties, even, in the right setting, at a lecture or discussion. And I don’t have to be present at an actual gathering either, nor do have to be in agreement with its purpose, I can even be revolted by it, and all the same I will be carried along, and left with an inner core of coldness and non-committal feelings. I nearly wept at the end of The Battle of Algiers each of the three times I saw it, and each time my feelings of ambivalence towards the movement and the events celebrated in it only increased: in the same proportion as my emotion. It’s as if I have the urge to leap into the sea, and I can only barely hold myself back. There is a roiling, tumbling chaos of water below me, and I want to dive in, even though I am fearful of and sure of being smashed and torn apart in it.

I felt it again today. Today the weather was strange, it was a double-minded Oregon day that didn’t know whether to storm or shine. There was hail, rain, snow, sleet, wind, and bright sunshine. You could be standing hunched over in a downpour in your doorway while the roof of your building behind was getting a light sprinkling; across the street you can see hail bouncing off the parked cars, and down the block, the sun is shining and people are walking their dogs and smiling at one another. It was also the Oregon kickoff meeting for the Obama campaign. I nearly didn’t go. If I hadn’t come up with such transparent excuses, I wouldn’t have gone. But I made it too easy for myself to see through, and I shamed myself into going. I showed up, I stood and nearly cried standing still, just seeing the crowd, maybe 700 people in all, more women than men and probably as many young as old. It was difficult to stay standing, watching alone, but something in me made me behave rudely to those who tried to speak to me. I think if I had talked to them I might have cried. All very strange emotions, but again, that underlying mistrust at the emotions I was feeling, and dislike of their power over me.

I don’t know how to deal with the idea that I might be a political person. All my life I haven’t been, I haven’t trusted it. I haven’t liked to think about politics, read about it, or discuss it. My brothers are the same way, as far as I can tell. There’s something about it in our family. And yet on the other hand, I feel like I am participating, to the extent that I was able, I was there in part, to do honor to the memory of my father; who is surely much of the reason we don’t like politics. It’s a complicated picture I don’t think I will be able to draw.

It’s complicated not least by my father’s conservatism, which he never wavered in. One of the only times I talked politics with him in the last few years, he defended Nixon, surveillance, and torture to me. I don’t believe Obama stands for anything that he would support. And yet I feel there’s something there in Obama’s campaign, in his rhetoric and the way he makes his appeals, that respects my father the way I respect him, like he would be willing to govern in my father’s name as well, not only in the name of his party and his voters and his prime constituencies. Who knows how far that feeling of mine is reflected in the reality: not me, not least because the reality is not there yet. But there’s something I can feel happening in me, the fear is ebbing. Who knows, maybe next week will find me knocking on the doors that I fled from this week.

Rereading and rejudging

I had read W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo in a copy that was missing four or six pages, in the first part of it, about Stendhal. The hole was in one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, and I was curious to know what I had lost. Today I got another copy out of the library, and it had all its pages, and I reread the Stendhal section, and was surprised to find that I seemed to recognize all of it. I couldn’t tell what was missing. Everything I saw I seemed to have seen before. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe: Sebald is a continuous, viscous substance, that reforms itself over any gaps that appear in him? Is there such a thing as counter-vertigo, the sensation of not changing position, while things about you are objectively moving? It was uncanny.

There are three, maybe more, but at least three, kinds of rereading: I read something at two different times in life, both times leaving myself open to what the thing has to tell me. I learn how I have changed, I learn how the thing is layered, I learn how the times have changed, or pressures formerly on me are missing. I reread something to see what I have missed, as in the case of Vertigo, something doesn’t add up, I look to fill in a gap or make up for something. And also I reread because I am looking for a specific thing or trying to answer a specific question, and then my question changes, and I go back with something else in mind and change the weight I throw on the parts of the thing I see. It is a question of angles, the different ways of seeing the one object, that somehow don’t interfere with each other, or exist on separate planes.

When I was in college, I really enjoyed reading Nietzsche, and then I read him again in the years afterwards, and then just the last couple months I have tried rereading him again. Only now, I have to question what it was I saw in him before. Whatever it was, it seems to me, it is pretty far buried, beneath the pseudo-science, the quick reductionism, the sloppy, authority-based thinking, and the disrespect for the reader. I’m still plugging away at him, and I’m now reading Zarathustra, which I am finding more palatable, sort of a self-help dressed up in opera costume. There’s an interpretation of it I can swallow, though it doesn’t preserve much of his self-importance, or the importance others found in him – these being the two perspectives I think that I fell most in line with, on readings one and two.

Somehow in the relaxation of my standards, I have rediscovered, or allowed myself to remember, what I found or put there, the first time I visited. At a certain point in my life, early in the history of my independent mind, I had realized I couldn’t believe in the god of my father; but I was afraid of causing trouble for myself, and I put aside my failure to believe. I had a number of methods for doing this, none of them fully efficacious. I had to alternate between them, and work at the subject of god from many different angles, to lay it to rest each time I was forced to confront it.

And that multiplicity complicated my thinking and left me alienated from the truth as I saw it and tried not to see it. And it made me dishonest and hypersensitive, and intolerant of fundamental disagreement or dispute, I couldn’t allow that people weren’t victims of a mutual understanding, that there was something they could believe together. And on some level, I saw in Nietzsche a kind of honesty and fearlessness, more important a trust in his own thoughts, thoughts and wild chains of thought that I had had and not let myself possess, that I found very freeing; and then the parts of his thinking I was finding so disagreeable now, those parts I could use my customary self-hypnosis and dishonesty on those to make myself the real object of criticism, for not giving him that space where he could differ with me. Something like being afraid to render a judgment. The fear of being wrong, or of being unable to convince another, keeps you from ever being right, or having your own conviction. The world may be fundamentally multiple, or it might not, but even if it is, the multiplicity fundamentally depends on each part of the multiple being itself what it is, and no other.

I still have trouble reconciling multiple points of view. There’s something that still makes my head spin, only I have the powerful desire not to learn where I think the ground might be. I watched the movie Judgment at Nuremberg this afternoon. I’ve read three books over the last year having to do with Nazi trials: Rebecca West’s Train of Powder, literary-journalistic pieces about the trials together with accounts of other trials in England and the United States; a historical book about the origin of the War Crimes Tribunal in negotiations between and within the great powers and governments in exile and how they came to be in the form and with the aims and under the jurisdictions that they did and had; and then Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which covers a similar trial with constant reference to the Nuremberg trials.

All in all the cumulative effect on me has been to make me feel that I know something of what happened even though I can recall very few details of any single account. It’s like I triangulated a location by looking at a map, out my window, and at a reflection in a sheet of glass, with months between the sightings. But yet I have a feeling of familiarity, I feel ready to judge these works against one another and against reality without having any idea what the reality was. And with that confidence, I can somehow see the characteristics of each of these works more clearly than I did when each was before me, one at a time, separately, in their place in the pile of things I have read and watched in the last year; yet somehow a documented, scholarly account and an impressionistic-journalistic one and a philosophical-polemical one are all on the same level with the dramatized, schematized film version, which seems to me to be as reliable and thought-provoking and fair as any of them, although none of them are even quite about the same thing.