Sunday, 22 October 2002

Before last week, I had never seen an animal being butchered. I somehow didn’t expect it to be so conveniently built. If you keep its legs perpendicular up while you’re working, nothing falls out, but if you want to get something out you only have to cut a couple tubes. The skin slips right off, whole, and makes a rug, so the floor doesn’t get bloody and the meat doesn’t get dirty. The blood also won’t shoot out, if only you wait long enough after you kill it before cutting, but collects conveniently, so you can spoon it right out. The appendix is easy to find, and easier than anything else to cut out and throw away, since it’s only attached on one end, and the intestines make very useful sacks for boiling meat and blood in. I expected myself to be disturbed, watching it, since the last time I saw anything nearly as grisly was my freshman year of college, when I couldn’t watch a set of heart and lungs getting cut up; but I showed disappointingly insensitive, this time. I wasn’t quite capable of touching it, and didn’t join the others (including a five-year old) in a piece of raw liver. But I only felt a little discomfort watching it getting cut up, and that was probably only because it was a sheep. If it had been something less sympathetic, it wouldn’t’ve bothered me at all, I’m sure.

For example cows, I don’t like, and I like them less the more I see of them. They are willfully stupid and small-minded, suspicous creatures. They are completely unaware of how awkward they carry themselves, they are even proud of what they consider is their grace, although they’re always inadvertently blocking roads or stepping on dogs. They love to act superior and snort at me. But you can see they’re really terrified, they’re incapable of hiding the fear in their eyes.

Goats are an entirely different story. They are clearly intelligent, and they don’t bother trying to impress me. I’m not enough of a threat for them to even bother. Their eyes are very cold and cynical, and they burst out laughing from time to time, absolutely without warning, and without changing their facial expression. I find them very disturbing. I understand completely now why they are associated with satire. They seem to understand everything they see from somewhere higher up, and from there everything here seems small and everyone who bothers about such small things is almost too ridiculous to laugh at. They have a local reputation for intelligence as well. One goat I know never used to butt anyone, until the daughter of the woman who owns her got married to a man who turned out to be an unemployable drunk, who she now has to support in addition to her mother’s family, since the mother has gotten fired from her job as cook at the school where I work. Every time, nowadays, the daughter turns her back on the goat, she does her best to knock her down.*

Goats carry themselves well. Even though walking by they look goofy and unbalanced, like breakfast rolls on four trotting toothpicks, I don’t feel I have the right to laugh at them. They have such an elevated, calm attitude, somehow. I still don’t see why they’re supposed to be lusty, they seem just the opposite, entirely spiritual, to me. Their dung is very tidy: hard, nearly perfectly round, small, in tiny piles, out of the way of traffic, unlike cows’, which is the most untidy, wide, shapeless stuff, and they spread it all over the roads.

I’ve surprisingly easily adapted to life here, although, of course, as everyone keeps reminding me, it’s not winter yet. But I don’t want them to hear me complain, because it’s humiliating how they treat me, like I was the weakest, softest creature. I imagine they want to pride themselves on their own endurance, so they constantly apologize for all the inconvenience I must be suffering. I don’t know what kind of life they think I had at home, but once I even received instructions on how to boil an egg. I think the other American here told them about powdered mashed potatoes. Even the things they consider the most awful, like the toilets all being outhouses and there not being running water, I don’t think much about them anymore.

No one here believes me, either, that I don’t miss home. I don’t, and I’m not sure what there is to miss. I brought some tapes with me, and some books, and that seems to be all I need of home. What friends I would like to see I have, I think, carried with me here, and the same goes for the places I feel especially strongly about. I seem to have a lot on tap, internally.

Not that I feel completely at home here, of course. Although I have ceased to notice, I’ve noticed, some things that quite struck me at first. Dirt roads, I realize now, I had never seen in real life. For the first few weeks I would feel like I was watching a movie, when I saw a car in the distance at the head of a cloud of dust. Also, the ditch I cross through every day on my way to school is filled with trash – since there’s not much trash collection to speak of, and no public trash cans, people just toss everything in there they can, tires, bottles, paper, iron rods, cans, and I’ve seen a car door and a cow skull lying in there among everything else. On the road I take to the center of town there are three railroad car bodies lying there by the side of the road, here where we are forty miles away from the nearest railroad.

The trash ditch is apparently a stream for two months during the summer, and dry the rest of the year. That brings me to one thing I do miss, large bodies of water. Until I lived in Moscow, the year after I graduated from college, I had very little idea of my landscape needs; until, that is, I couldn’t fulfill them anymore. In the four places where I had spent any significant length of time: Arlington, Annapolis, Shennandoah, and Hawaii, I regularly encountered wooded hills and flowing water. In Moscow, though I came by the river often enough, the woods I met were flat, and when I did meet a hill from time to time, it was generally in the city and I was on it, in a bus. There, and in Chicago the following year, I realized how good it was to have inclines, and especially to see them in the distance. Here, on the other hand, there are plenty of hills about, some wooded, and very good hills too, as good as Hawaii or the Shenandoah. They remind me of patient shoulders, ready to carry whatever load, if you just give the word. Very calming. But there is little water, and the “river” in town is the most depressing thing. It flows twenty yards away from its banks on either side.

There’s no real point in going out specially to visit it. In fact I would rather avoid it. The only times I see it are when I go to the local datsan, or Buddhist monastery, about an hour’s walk away. I’m not as impressed with Buddhism as I thought I’d be. I always expect a lot of religious institutions and religious people, and they almost always disappoint. For two reasons: it seems to me, first, that the inner life is aweful, and the way that religious types speak about it is right. They are serious about what is most serious, without trying to dominate it. For instance, at the datsan, you are supposed to go everywhere you go in the track of the sun. That means if the exit is north-east of you, you go all the way around the datsan to the south-west until you get there. It makes sense to me that you would want to do something like that, and that you would find a meaning for it. I respect that no one here wants to explain it in psychological terms. They take it the way it comes: as something about the world, not about the people themselves. In the same way, I avoid walking through triangles, I wear certain clothes based on the powers they can give me during the day I anticipate. But the second reason, the reason I expect a lot and why I am disappointed, comes from my own inability to take seriously what I feel should be taken seriously; I feel that anyone capable of it must be a very special kind of person, a stronger or wiser breed, different from me, and I continually discover that they are no different, and often stupider and weaker.

One student I met at the datsan impressed me, however. He used to be a gangster, he says, until he gave it up and came to the datsan. Explained that it was karma that brought him, as well as me, that nothing ever happens without its being karma. In that kind of karma I already half-believe, except I think of it as someone in me who knows what he’s doing all the time, and causes me to do things I don’t know what I’m doing them for. This student, however, couldn’t explain to me how in the world turning a yellow metal cylinder could possibly count as praying. There is much more about Buddhism that seems ridiculous to me, although I had had such high hopes, it had seemed as if it had so much to teach me. For example, there are debates: will the next Buddha come on a white elephant, or a white tiger? That question seems completely alien to what I take to be serious about the religion. One person explained to me that this might be a symbolic expression: that the tiger, for example, may symbolize a cat. Or the habit of bringing offerings of wrapped candies and 10-kopek pieces and rice to the statues in the datsan. If the gods like candy, and are capable of unwrapping it, why can’t they also go fetch it themselves? If they can?t unwrap it, they certainly can’t go and spend the money. Where will they boil the rice? In addition, so much of the datsan seems oriented towards the superficial inquirer. Everything is we believe x, y, and z, nothing is a, b, and c are true for the following reasons. Apart from the one student I spoke to, with who I found I agreed on a few subjects already, like that learning is (or is like) recollection, and that having a lot of money is not any easier than not having it (provided you have food and so on).

I did hear a nice story during one discussion of Buddhism, however. One student finished his preparation period, and went into a cave for a long time and meditated. He meditated for years and years, and decided he was ready. He left the cave, and the first person he met on the road from the cave was an old man, holding a large iron rod, half again as tall as himself, and thick as his leg. He was scraping and scraping away at this rod with his fingers. The student asks, after watching the old man for some time, “What are you doing?” The man replies “I am making a toothpick.” The student decides he is not yet ready, he returns to his cave. He meditates there for several more years, decides he is ready. He goes out, and the first thing he sees on the road is a bird, who is flying, over and over again, in a circle towards a large stone, larger than several men, which he scrapes with his wing at the perigee of the circle, and flies up and around again for another pass. He asks a man, sitting and watching the bird, what it thinks it is doing. The man says “He wanted a flat place to land, and has decided to make it there.” student decides he is not yet ready, and returns to his cave. He stays there for many, many years, and finally, after a long time making sure he is ready, he again departs. The first thing he sees on the road is a dog, suffering terribly. He has an open wound in his side, and worms are growing in it, and eating him alive. He wants to save the dog, but he can’t scrape out the worms without injuring them. So he kneels down, closes his eyes, puts his mouth to the wound, in order to take the worms into his own mouth, so he won’t injure them. But his tongue touches, not worms, but cloth. He looks up, and sees the Buddha standing before him. The Buddha says “You have shown me that you have achieved enlightenment, realizing that even these, the smallest, most disgusting of creatures, worms, feeding on another creature, deserve compassion. I was with you in the cave, all the time you were meditating, I was with you on the road, I was the old man scraping the iron rod, I was the bird and the man who explained the bird’s behavior to you, and I was this dog you saw, I was the worms in his wound.”

I also had the privilege of hearing, as old Buryat tales, handed down from a genuine Buryat grandfather, the story of King Midas and his donkey ears, and the story of the old Roman and the fasces. This, it seems, is one limit of oral tradition, especially in modern times, when so many people travel and are educated in different places from where they come to live. Interestingly, the woman who told me these stories didn’t even consider they might not be original. They were a little changed: King Midas had horse ears and wasn’t given a name, the rumor of his ears spread “from yurt to yurt”, and the Roman man was a Buryat woman, who instructed her daughters to bind themselves together, in place of his sons. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to her that Buryats didn’t have kings, so they couldn’t have a king with horse ears. Regardless, she also told me a very popular Buryat story, the national myth. It seems one day three brothers came to Lake Baikal to fish. The two older brothers, in some way I didn’t understand, offended the youngest, who went off to fish by himself. When he arrive at the place where he intended to fish, he saw three beautiful women bathing there. One by one, they put on feather cloaks and turned into swans, and flew away. However, he stole the cloak of the third and hid it, so she couldn’t fly away, and he forced her to marry him. She bore him thirteen sons, two of whom ran away, and the eleven remaining became the eleven Buryat tribes. After bearing the thirteen sons, and after they had all grown up, she found her feather cloak, which her husband had kept all these years. She asked him if, after having done him the service of bearing all these sons, she could leave and rejoin her sisters. He refused, and stood in the door of the yurt, blocking it. But then as now, every yurt had a hole in the roof where the smoke could escape. So she put her cloak on, and flew out with the smoke, out of the yurt. As she was escaping, her husband lept forward and grabbed her feet. His hands were so dirty they stained her feet black, and that’s why swans have black feet, to this day.

Buryats, I had thought at first, weren’t, culturally, much different from Russians nowadays, except in the most superficial, brittle, sense of culture: that they had statues of Buddha meaninglessly sitting on their bookshelves instead of icons, that their weddings weren’t in churches but in tents at homes, that they tied rags to trees and threw money and candy around when they were feeling religious. Now I’ve begun to see some differences that feel more real to me, that would probably go under the heading of national character sooner than under culture. The differences are difficult to describe, but it’s quite clear to me when I’m dealing with a Russian, and when with a Buryat. There’s more respect for authority among the Buryat, and they keep their feelings to themselves more easily. In Moscow, I was often invited to other people’s houses, and into their lives, quite easily talked on deep topics, quickly made close friends with very different people. Here I’ve only been invited over to a Buryat house once in two months, and the woman who invited me over later backed out.

Though their own sense that they are different is of course necessary to their having and maintaining a separate existence, it still irritates me how importantly they refer to their traditional culture, especially since they always have in mind these dead, stale bits of life, the tourist attractions, the parts of their life they feel sufficiently distant from to have ceremonialized, the rote everybody learns as rote. Meanwhile their lived lives become more and more a cheap imitation of the life city Russians lead. They speak Russian, dance to the emptiest Russian music in the lifeless way the Russians dance, watch Russian tv programs, organize their schools according to the Russian models. Their ambitions are directed towards succeeding the way city Russians succeed, in the city, and they even give their children high grades, so that they can go to Russian universities in a higher proportion than the Russians do.

This is what, it seems to me, is the real problem of globalization. It’s not that picturesque costumes and “interesting” music disappears, although that is also too bad. If local culture were only replaced with another, completely living, centralized one, that would be fine. My ancestors having abandoned their parents’ European life for the surrounding American makes no loss for me, nor, I think, did it for them, because I have a full life with the full resources of American life, which are fully available to me, and were for them. But here a local way of life is turned into a suburb of a way of life with its center elsewhere. The local life only stays on in hardened forms, while the space of living spiritual food it used to provide is taken over by imports, themselves spiritually empty, the worst and most easily exported forms of the life which is associated with the greater power. What was living becomes only traditional, something to show tourists, and its replacement is the leftovers and scraps of the dominant way of life. The worst part of this is it isn’t a change enforced from above. The most ambitious children abandon a way of life that seems to have no future for one which belongs to the dominant power quite naturally. Even if they return to work for their people after being educated elsewhere, they can’t help but contribute to the destruction of their parents’ life. Which is all too bad, but irreversible, it seems to me. Also I wouldn’t have been able to come here so easily if people weren’t so eager to grab on to my, international, language, and hoist themselves up with it.

These kinds of thoughts never entered my head, or at least never stayed for long, the last time I was in Russia. I came to Moscow with my head full of the Brothers Karamazov and Joyce’s Ulysses, and threw myself into what was, for me, the sensual life, and found spiritual meaning in it. I was more open and sincere with more different types of people there than I have ever been, and I paid even less attention than I usually do to concrete questions broader than what is this person here like, where can we come together. The abstract broad questions I still pursued, though less than in college, but quietly and privately. This time I’ve come with my head full of Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, which inclines me to look around at rather than live in, and to try to fit what I see into larger contexts that are still concrete. I?m still not used to it, so what you see here are my first stretchings out into these areas, which need to be forgiven like any first efforts.

Reading Levi-Strauss reminded me of Montaigne, who I hadn’t read since college. They both have such an easy range, so subtle and sensitive without sweating about it, a quality I know I need. So I glanced through Montaigne before I left, and decided to take him along, which I’m really glad I did. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets I remembered having particularly liked in college, so I brought them along as well, and started reading them last week. I was extremely irritated with the first one, the first time I read it through. When it was discursive, it seemed shamelessly incoherent, and when it was concrete, it seemed irrelevant to the discursive parts, as well as random and half-hearted, like he only wanted to insinuate that there was something he could make public, if he wanted to, but wouldn’t. But I wanted to make sure the thoughts were incoherent, so I spent a little longer on the first quartet, read it for a couple of days, and started to understand it a little better, that it really was not as arbitrary as it first seemed. I began to follow its movement more closely. It really is well constructed, and though I’m still not sure I follow it, I trust it much more than I did before. I moved on to the second quartet, which I’ve only read once. Its effect on me after the first reading was so powerful that I’m afraid to read it again. It seemed much clearer, and, as I say, very powerful. I’m also reading Henry James’s The American Scene, which is surely the strangest travel book ever written. I can’t describe it. I’m continually surprised by an author as distinct from all others as James is being so different from book to book. I never would have guessed he could write as he does about the character of small towns in New England, for example, although all the familiar James phrases and bizarre sentence constructions, the bemused, patient narrator persona, the gigantic impressions with complete lack of concrete detail are all present and accounted for.

I’ve been reading some in Russian: the Gospels, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. The New Testament I can remember well enough that I don’t need a dictionary, but it seems very different from how I remember it. I don’t know if that’s because the language is different, or because I am. I think I’m very different from who I was last time, but I didn’t expect that the Gospels would seem that much more dignified and serious to me. I thought they were very inferior to the Old Testament books last time I read, although not as bad as Paul’s letters. So that might be the effect of the language. Tolstoy also seems different to me. I can also read Anna Karenina without a dictionary, but that isn’t only because I’ve read it before. It seems even if I remembered nothing from the book, his language is so simple and clear, and his thoughts have no unexpected corners to turn, I would still understand everything, even though there are many individual words I’ve never seen. His language also reminds me of the Gospels, because it’s simple, and also because both are unusual, in Russian, in how often they use participles, which are very rarely used in modern Russian. It makes Tolstoy’s everyday life seem much more serious and universal, that link. Chekhov’s plays, which I’d never read before, I need a dictionary for, but distinctness of the characters and the clarity with which the relations between the characters are presented would make the plays easy to follow even without it. These plays, as everyone but me knew, are very, very good, and are excellent excuses for avoiding work, even after you finish reading them.

My Russian is improving much less dramatically here than it did in Moscow. There, to begin with, I understood almost nothing, worked very little, and lived with people my own age. Here I work much more, and so have less time to simply speak with people, and I live with older people who are less interested in talking with me. But I’ve noticed, speaking of globalization, that scientific and bureaucratic language are more generally comprehensible to me than the language of household things and jobs and children’s songs and jokes. Partially it’s because more foreign words appear in the more complicated languages, but also because the subjects that those languages speak about are more generally shared as well. The gimme questions on the Russian Who Wants to be a Millionaire I can never answer, and usually can’t understand, but the higher level ones I don’t do much worse on than I do on the American version.

While I’m on my habits and present occupations, I have found out I really like to sing, and people like to listen. I’ve found out that not all songs I think are tuneful do well apart from instruments. Midnight Oil is a complete failure without its drummer. But tunes like Scarborough Fair or O Come O Come Emmanuel I never get tired of singing, as I undoubtedly would listening to them if I had recordings. It’s too bad I can’t remember the words to Some of My Favorite Things or Misty, those songs sing quite nicely. When I get back I need to join a choir.

I hope I can write a little more regularly from now on, now I have a start to follow up.

* The husband has apparently been cured of drinking by a local shaman, one who I’ve happened to meet. The same shaman cured another man of drinking two years ago, and he hasn’t touched it since. The mother was fired from her job as the only school cook because she was expected to begin working on Saturdays in addition to her regular five-day weeks, without, of course, any question of a raise in her $40 monthly salary. Never mind that at the other local schools the cooks are paid more and work in weekly shifts. Not surprisingly, they haven’t found a replacement for her, and the children (and teachers) are tired of being hungry all day, so the director has opened negotiations towards her reinstatement.