Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beautiful Soul: An Excerpt

Certain ideas of Europe closely held by a reader. The American configuration: hostility, curiosity, indifference, contempt, fascination, prurience, a persistent sense of inferiority, lewd speculation, exploitations, saturation, colonization. We are new and they are old. Except for history and the conditions of history's procreation, America owns the New. She dreams of a new Old World in which her own hidden history lies embedded like prehistoric gases awaiting miners to bring about their detonation and release. A Europe of babies and old men and women and nothing in between. Europe of scholars, bearded men with peyes and spectacles, picking up fallen books from bombed-out shelves and kissing them as one does a dropped infant. Europe the furnace of horrors, untold accumulated sedimentary beauties of history heaped and strewn and doused with coal oil in the ashy fields of Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, the once and future Lithuania, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Hungary. Burned: the Paris of the East and the London of the East and the Venice of the East. Not burned: New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago. As the line between the two Jerusalems smolders, incommensurate fires burning in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, fire of the citizen, fire of the subject. One stands or sits down in these reflections, quite at home. In search of a path of resistance to the downward drift of entropy and forgetfulness: dream, reverie, reflection are her methods. Above all, as though distracted, she decides. She does or does not turn the page, does or does not pick up a ballpoint pen with which to carefully underline words, phrases, clauses, sentences, whole paragraphs; does or does not grip the pen close to the tip so as to create marginalia: five- and six-pointed stars, asterisks, a word or two, or the most eloquent marks of punctuation: question marks, exclamation points, while a simple period marks her nota bene. In so doing she emends the quiet of reading, brings greater proportions of noise to particular rows and blocks of black signals, oblique semaphoric signs. Other paragraphs, pages, and chapters are passed over in silence: the reader leaves no sign of her passage. She looks in from the outside of her own experience as half-understood text written by collectives of anonymous authors: her Jewishness, her whiteness, her femaleness (not to her own satisfaction achieving womanliness), her status as an immigrant's child, her relative prosperity, her PhD. Tearing off strips of paper in her mind (in reality motionless), she says: It is a fact that more men survived than women. It is a fact that the killings of and by men are better documented than the killings of women. It is a fact that the widespread rape of women, then and now, has been poorly and inefficiently documented. It is a fact that some women collaborate or try to collaborate with their oppressors, even their murderers, in continual attempts at the survival of themselves and their children. It is probable that Sophie never had a choice; it is certain that Sophie was fictional. It is probably that such concepts as “agency,” “personal morality,” “mercy,” “justice,” “mere decency,” “humanity” have been put under such extreme pressure by the events of the past century that they are no longer fit to be used. It is probable that our appetite for news of these events is inversely proportionate to our appetite for what is called “reality.” It is likely that a patina of something we dare not call “nostalgia” clings to our collective memory of these events. It is a fact that old men who have been soldiers in a war speak of wartime as the best, the only real time in their lives. Subtract “best” from “real” if you like, it makes no difference. To describe is to affirm, to tell a story is to say, You should have been there. The wind rose, rain swept in: you should have been there. I miscarried my first child after seven months of pregnancy: you should have been there. I dropped out of the life I knew into someone else's life, a placeholder life: you should be here. Stuck here in someone else's idea of Europe, an American woman with an American child, secure and comfortable and never for a moment free from fear of losing all security, all comfort. There are certain activities that occupy the entire foreground of one's capacities: movies, music, reading, writing—while leaving the dark background to metabolize, metasticize, to grow tentacles, so that when you put down your pen, your book, your instrument, you emerge into the dazzling matinee sunlight and find that the background has seized your life and you will never be quite the same. As when you stand by the graveside of a loved one, your grandfather for example, and think, “The stage is set,” and “The coffin is being closed,” and “Here I am at the graveside of my grandfather,” and “Here I am heaping a shovelful of dirt onto my grandfather's coffin,” and “Inside that coffin under the earth I put there my grandfather is lying with his eyes closed, wearing a watch, wearing the same suit he married his second wife in thirty years ago,” and none of these thoughts are to the purpose or affect in the slightest the real work going on in the background, the work of being alive inside a wound, pain dimmed by the narcotic haze of self-consciousness. You did not choose this wound, you did not give it a name. It's only a background from which you emerge, like a paper doll cut from a newspaper. The shape of the doll does not affect the news, the contents (front page, advice column, obituary, editorial, book review, advertisement), and yet it is inseparable from them. That is the essential story: daughter of the daughter of a survivor, herself a kind of survivor, once married to a kind of perpetrator, my father, my fathers. Everything else is symptom. So why pursue it? What could be more absurd or pathetic than a paper doll straining to read herself? Yet I am so compelled. I remember, I owe, a debt unpayable. I go forward, to wring blood from stones.

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