Category Archives: Reading

Hatred, Bosnian Style

Having been out from under the beneficent yoke of academic tutelage for a little while, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out what to read.

This has and has not been what you’d call a problem – not having multiple syllabi to guide me has hardly cut down on the number of books I buy, but it has more or less obliterated any semblance of An Approach to Literature.

At first I reveled in this, bouncing from Arlt to Zamyatin and everywhere in between.

AtoZ

But I realized after a time that as in life, so in reading lists – I needed to get some structure STAT or things were really gonna start unwinding. So I decided to focus my efforts, and after considering a few methodologies, I settled on a geographical approach.

First up is the Adriatic – the Western Balkans, plus some northern Italy, maybe an Austrian or two for good measure, since despite their distance from the actual sea, they did exert a bit influence at one time or another over the area. I’ll probably reach down into the Ionian for some contemporary Greeks and Sicilians, too, just to round things out.

Adriatic             photo_11110_landscape_large

So, if anyone has any Yugoslavian/Austrian/Greek author recommendations

(besides Aleksandar Hemon), I’m all ears.

Anyway, the Adriatic to start. Specifically Bosnia, because I’ve always found the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (which arguably provided the catalyst for the First World War) to be one the most interesting points in European history. What I know of it boils down to a string of facts. But recently I’ve become more interested in the stories that surround or transcend the various groups of facts that I know, the implications of the facts for the people who have to deal with them or the life they created, the impact of those facts on people’s psyches and on culture in general. One of the places to turn for this is literature, which is one of the reasons I developed my reading lists geographically – in the hope that maybe I can get a general sense of what life or some various fractions thereof are like in these places that have, in the course of voracious-news-consumption-modern-life, become places on the map where “victims” and/or “threats” are reported on by CNN.

Gavrilo-Princip

Anyway, realizing that I have no real idea what life must have been like for Gavrilo Princip, the “Yugoslav nationalist” who shot Ferdinand and his wife, I started with a man of Princip’s place and age: Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslavian writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ivo-Andrić-2

Ivo Andrić

Andrić was born in Travnik, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1892, about two years before and a hundred miles east of Princip. Back then, the whole area was “united” under the Ottoman Empire, though everyone – Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Crotas, Albanians, Macedonians, etcetera – knew who one another were and had been and would be again. Living side by side, often within the same “ethnicity,” were (are) Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For some people, religion meant more than origin or language – for others, political worldview trumped any kind of ethnicity. This is the same in many places, of course – those of us who celebrate difference (like the US [ostensibly] does) consider it a strength of a country or region. But the cheek-by-jowlness of the mix in Yugoslavia seems more interesting because of the volatility involved – the volatility, and what Andrić called “the hatred.”

TheDamnedYardIn his collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories, I hoped to get a feel for what early 20th century Bosnia must have been like. While there wasn’t that much insight into what might have compelled Princip, man, what a world Andrić paints. Myths and legends from the days of yore, rivalries and grudges centuries in the making, medieval rituals and modern thought carried out throughout the country, from tiny village to small town to big city. 

Underneath it all, though – and this is the beauty of literature, the very reason why I read it – are things I recognize about my own life, my own circumstances, and my own prejudices. In particular, the following excerpt from “A Letter from 1920.” Andrić was very specific about his settings, so the fact that this was from 1920, a year and change after WWI officially ended, when Bosnia was licking its wounds and half-optimistically-dreaming-about and half-mortally-fearing-for the future, is rather important. It’s narrated by a man who runs into a childhood friend in a train station in the middle of the night, and from whom he gets a letter several weeks later. The friend is an emigré, a European who grew up in Bosnia but fled for a doctor’s life in France after WWI – was in the middle of fleeing the night he and the narrator ran into one another. Their meeting was strained, and the letter he wrote after was an attempt to clear things up. What follows is part of that letter, the crux of his explanation of why he couldn’t stay in Bosnia, why he felt compelled to abandon his homeland:

TrainStation

“Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast…it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief and elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them color and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions – so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which Bosnian man lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the very best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in greatest numbers at places of worship – monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier, while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, then come to blows and hate each other to death.”

KostaHakman1 KostaHakmanSlikar HakmanMujerAcostada

Three by Kosta Hakman.

I don’t want to say too much about this (shocker, I know) and risk spoiling it, but I can’t help but emphasize again that first sentence I bolded – “virtue itself speaks and acts through hatred.” How much like jihad and Fundamental Christianity and anti-choiceism and uber-American-nationalism does it sound to make a mortal sin out of something you don’t agree with?  Andrić implies that there is another way to do things. I don’t know whether he thought people could change – he, or at least his letter-writer, certainly seems to think that Bosnia hatred is endemic – but for me, it’s enough to pause and wonder, how much of what I consider virtue is based on hatred or even dislike of that virtue’s opposite? I’d like to say none, but am I really as breezy as I like to think I am?

How much of what we consider good is rooted in opposition to what we consider bad?

How open to different opinions/lifestyles/worldviews are we really?  

Where do those judgements come from? Are they legitimate?

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PS – There are some who say, apparently, that Andrić’s work is being dusted off and employed for anti-Muslim purposes. This I find very unsettling. It seems to me that, as this passage indicates, the vitriol he felt for his native country wasn’t directed at any one group of believers, but at the whole lot of them. If anything – and being the good Communist he was, this isn’t a stretch – he disagreed with people of all faiths, and used the various faiths of his homeland as vehicles by which to examine or expose the ridiculousness, the futility, the inherent malevolence of blind allegiance to anything.

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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Promiscuity Amongst the Stacks

I know that got your attention.

library_love

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Especially if you went to a college with a massive subterranean library that housed floor after floor of narrow aisles of teetering bookcases overflowing with archaic tomes that people rarely used.

These Ecoean / Borgesian libraries are the gathering fields of knowledge, both rarely-updated-Wikipedia-in-print type knowledge, and good old fashioned carnal knowledge. Doing it in the stacks was one of the college experiences you didn’t want to not tick off the Unofficial College Experiences To-Do List.

But, alas, I’m not here to talk about sex. At least not today.

I’m talking the way I used to read. I’m not sure “promiscuous” is quite the right word, because I wasn’t indiscriminate about the books I took home with me, picked up on a Friday and spent the weekend with, fell in passionate but short-lived love with, devoured in bed, stayed up all night with on the couch, clutched at in the reclined front seat of my car, and passed out under after too much whisky.

No, I had my standards, alright: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway,  Faulkner, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Foucault, Beckett, Joyce, Kant, Freud, Mailer, Proust, Bellow, Updike, Salinger, all the dead and dying white men you could think of (and just enough Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Bishop to impress some feminist-leaning dates). I was very consciously working my way through a very traditional conception of a Western literary/philosophical canon. It was an elite group, in my mind. Well-connected types. $5k a night types.

But still, really, I read for notches on my belt. I couldn’t shut up about what I’d read, either – not so much about their contents or implications or characteristics that made them unique from one another, but simply that I’d read it. I bragged about reading a couple novels at once, about how tired I was from staying up all night to finish off some slim, well-structured, kind of kinky South American novel, how my mind was being blown by this succession of Russians I was into, how I was breaking the bank to support this constant flow of new, strange books. I built cheap, crappy bookshelves and displayed my conquests in them for everyone to see. As Dylan sang to Mr. Jones (and though I didn’t know it, to me, too), I was “very well read, it [was] well known.”

And like a stereotypical male jerk, I forgot about them as soon as I was done with them. Those bookshelves may as well have been full of uncut pages a la Gatsby for how much what was on those pages meant to me (no wonder I liked ole Jay so much back then).

I’d remember their names and their general physical characteristics, like their size and weight and the feel of their paper in my hands, but about their interiority I’d retain almost nothing. For the most part, I’d absorbed almost nothing. I wasn’t interested in what was inside, beyond what it felt like in the moment and what it could do for me and my image afterwards. I went through some of the best literature ever written like so many B movies – a cheap thrill to get my mind off things. At the time, of course, I thought having read a lot of books made you great at reading. I thought I was being attentive, that I was engaged in something profound. I thought that quantity meant something – to me, yes, but especially to others. I thought if I got to some magic, unknown number of books read, I’d feel like I was alright. As if once I’d read everything of importance there was to read, I could, through osmosis or simply enough repetition, create that kind of magic myself. I thought that if everyone else knew how much I’d read, they’d be awed, and that awe would translate into something meaningful. I was operating under the assumption that someone else’s awe would make me a good writer.

And I was an effective narcissist. I had just enough natural talent – polished with charm and oiled with the fear of the shame of being found out – to come up with flashy arguments for well-researched papers to make decent grades. I acted the earnest student – I was an earnest student – and very openly fell in earnest-student love with my teachers. When I pushed things too far, I would cobble together what fleeting memories I had of  those week-long flings and one-night-stands, leverage that love to the hilt, and stay in good standing.

Anyway, over the last several years, my approach to reading has begun to change. I was hesitant to admit, when I first began to suspect it in my mid-twenties, that I’d mistreated so many good books, disrespected so many good writers. What did it say about me that I’d wham-bam-thank-you-ma’ammed my way through The Brothers K and In Search of Lost Time? It meant I was a shallow jerk, obviously. A fact which a lot of people, I imagine, were on to long before it ever occurred to me…

But, thank Godot, I’m beyond that now, or starting-to-get. I still have the temptation to tear through novels and Read It All, but the motivation for doing so is changing. I know now that no amount of reading is going to make me a Great Author. It might help me with my writing, but it’s not going to do it for me. It’s not going to substitute for learning how I write. There are, of course, innumerable lessons to be learned, and the more I write, the more I realize this, and the slower I read. I have less time to read the more I write, yes, but I also take longer per page. It’s as if the perfectly obvious idea, usually as subtle as a flying mallet, finally hit me and I realized that these books were labors of love and genius, and that in fact I had to pay attention if I wanted to learn from them. And so over the last three or four years, it seems like I’m just discovering how to read. I dislike that expression, “I know less now than I did XX years ago” (if that’s true, what have you been doing with yourself?), but the sense of it is apropos.

And it’s extremely exciting. Looking back on my teens and early twenties, when I was so sure I already knew all there was to know and just needed to ingest more quantities of it, I see a closed-off, static, rigid mind. I remember being discontent, I remember that feeling of inadequacy and spite that under-girded my arrogance and my desperate, pathetic attempts at mattering – to myself, to everyone, to anyone. And now it’s as if the whole world is opening up, and there are so many good books and there are so many possibilities.

It’s a shame that I more or less missed out on all those books I tore through back then, because I’ll never have time to reread them all. Some of this ability to “understand” literature (whatever that really means) has been somewhat retroactive and I’ve realized things about Anna Karenina and Don Quixote upon recalling them that I wasn’t aware of at 16 and 20, but most of the stuff from back then is gone from my memory bank. But I also realize no one cares whether I’ve read all those books or not.  When I remember that nobody cares – and not just about what books I might or might not have had occasion to read – I’m a lot better off. Then I can do the thing, whatever it is, for the sake of doing it. Nobody cares that I ran X miles, or surfed at X beach, or met such-and-such author at X coffee shop, or meditate X minutes a day, or work out X times a week, or write X words, or take my girlfriend to X for dinner, or go to Y with my friends for kicks.

Nobody cares!

And when nobody cares, I care a lot more about doing the thing than having done it. And I become more interested in what other people are doing – not to care or compare what others have done, but because if they’re doing it, it might be worth doing myself. And then I’m just a little tiny part of this big ole interesting world trying to add some color to the mosaic, instead of an insignificant nothing existing painfully outside of it and waiting impatiently to get on top of it by hook or by crook.

And that, for the time being at least, is my secret to life.

It occurs to me that a lot of this is probably a simple result of growing up and getting a little older and getting a little more perspective on myself and the world around me. I read everything now – well, not everything, I still have no-50-Shades-type standards, but Grunberg, Soroush, Thiong’o and McGuane made up my last book order – and the wider I read, the more beautiful and wonderful and approachable the world seems. And while I may not get back to all the books I read back then – especially the philosophers (spare me the Germans especially, these days) – perhaps I’ll reread some of them. Come to think of it, Faulkner read Don Quixote “every year, as some do the Bible.” He said, “the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes.” What a testament to the richness of these books, right, that Faulkner eschewed contemporaries to revisit only them? How wonderful to know that those old friends and lovers, to whom I gave pieces of myself without even knowing it, whose memories sometimes jar me from sleep and leave me to stare heartsick and nostalgic at the dark ceiling – how wonderful to know that all I have to do to taste that particular flavor of perfection once again, or to sample some as-yet-unknown promise of untold rapture, is to rise from bed and tiptoe across the room to the bookcase and slip out a book – a book that, these days, is sure to reassure me that all of life’s secrets and all the assurances I’ll ever need that life is just as it’s supposed to be are here and now, in the ground beneath my feet, in the pen in my hand, waiting for me in that warm bed that I stole out of for a little bit of cold, old comfort.

To which books do you “return as you do to old friends”? Or do you prefer to always read something new?

What’s your current secret to life?

***hat-tip collegecandy.com for thepic***