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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Le Fin de Summer of Stein

"Writing is a means of knowing, and in literature knowledge is derived through form.  New knowledge can only be obtained through new forms.  Yet such a process requires distancing oneself from one's readership, not selling books and setting of on a path that Joyce exhausted years ago.  The more one experiments with form the more one distances oneself from functional writing, and from the possibility of selling books.  It wouldn't be much of a dilemma, however, if I hadn't presently such a need for money."              Hermann Broch

"The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget—that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress."  Kundera, Testaments Betrayed

The Nazi's interned Broch in 1938 for producing subversive work.  In his cell he began the devastatingly beautiful and prophetic magnum opus The Death of Virgil.

In this symphony of language Cesar tells Virgil "The welfare of the Empire demands slaves, and they  have to accommodate themselves to this fact. . . should they rebel against this. . . like Crassus I should have to let thousands of them be slain on the cross, as much a warning to the people as to divert them, and in order to make them, who are always ready for cruelty and fear, realize with fear and trembling, how impotent the individual is in comparison to the all-commanding state."

"'The literature of Hermann Broch could be understood,' wrote George Steiner, 'in view of the totality of his ideas and works, as an incessant metaphor of translation:  translation of the present time  into the time of the final days, of classical values into contemporary chaos.'"  Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, José María Pérez Gay (trans.) Eduardo Jiménez Mayo, The Unfortunate Passions of Hermann Broch  

In Testaments Betrayed Kundera discusses the nearly 70 years Europe lived "under a trial regime."    He gives  many examples.  I mention one:  "The most exquisite flower of the century, the modern art of the twenties and thirties, was even triply accused:  first by the Nazi tribunal as Entartete Kunst, "degenerate art"; then by the Communist tribunal as "elitist formalist alien to the people"; and finally by the triumphant capitalist tribunal as art steeped in revolutionary illusions."   I recognize this moment, these accusations, and I am particularly drawn the writers who emerged from this war and continued to create:  Beckett, Kundera, Appelfeld, Broch and Stein.  Over sixty years later I hear the same accusations of work I respect or am in the process of creating myself.  Continuing Cesar's project of flaying slaves, gatekeepers and collectors control the discourse today.

Kundera concludes:   "If we don't want to leave this century just as stupid as we entered it, we must abandon the facile moralism of the trial and think about this scandal, think it through to the bottom, even if this should lead us to question anew all our certainties about man as such."

In Beyond Despair, Aharon Appelfeld, a child survivor who fled to live in the forest writes:   ". . . with the Holocaust.  Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology.  Thence comes the need to bring it down the human realm. . .to attempt to make the event speak through the individual and in his language, to rescue the suffering from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, and to restore the person's given and family name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him." 

This is the very project I've taken on with A Woman's Body Was Found There, Urban Nizhóní and my current work on the traffic in Navajo slaves and Indian Art.  People often say certain subjects have been exhausted, and writers obsessed with these subjects (slavery, genocide, or the relevance of the novel) are continually forced to justify why we continue to devote ourselves to these areas of inquiry and form (oral history and written literature).

When I embarked on this summer of Stein I made a plan in my notebook to address literary ideals, the hard and fast economics of making a living as a writer (a painter and textile worker), and the professionalization of the arts (through servicing city programs and social services) controlling the grant cess pit.  My identification with Stein, Beckett, Kundera, Appelfeld and Kafka seems obvious as a Navajo writer when paralleled with our recent genocide and continuing persecution.  I see our recent path in these works.  I see possibilities for our future, with our own relocations to strange cities outside the protection of the sacred mountains, and my fear we may experience our own metamorphosis into hateful creatures, enemy diné, for whom humanity is a distant memory.

"There was no doubt that the war dulled, distorted, and I do not hesitate to say so, corrupted the soul, but at the same time it also brought powers of dedication and self-sacrifice from the depths, and mainly archaic feelings that over the years, had been covered beneath a thick deposit of rationalism."  (Appelfeld, Beyond Despair)

Last week Ms. Niki Lee and I went to see Sarah's Key to celebrate my birth.    

My initial desire to see the film lay in my interest in Kristen Scott Thomas' work, especially her dual language acting.  The content was a bonus.  In my years of reading about the war, the Nazi persecution of artists and intellectuals, and the response of Jews before, during and after the Nazi program against them I knew little of this particular round up.  I knew mainly of our own.  When we left the theatre I continued to think about Julia's (Scott Thomas' character) devotion to her writing, to the questions inside, to her inability to take the place laid for her in this contemporary age.  When a younger writer, who knew nothing of the round up asks, "What can we do about it now?  You want to give them back their flat?"  Julia answers, "Yes.  Why not?"  This is the same question I am asked by over three quarters of the people I interact with.  Julia, the writer, makes the only choice, as a writer, that she can.  This choice is an artist's choice.  The same one Beckett made as a member of the resistance.  The same one Kundera and Broch made as they fled.  The same one Gertrude made when she remained and recorded her and Alice's life in Wars I Have Seen.
Appelfeld continues:  "The naive faith that a man was free, to be judged by his intentions and acts, everything that we include under the rubric of 'humane rationalism,' crumbled and turned to dust.  In the penal colony other standards were set.  The mystery within you was crime and punishment at one and the same time."

Again, I arrive at Gertrude's saints and their pursuit of the mystery within.  A quest artists face and grope at, sometimes with grace and at other times inelegantly, but always with a feverish perseverance incomprehensible to many.  There is no way to put a figure on this pursuit, but we are, every one of us, asked to pay our way in today's world, to pay our rent, to pay our grocer, and to pay our doctor.  To pay in money we must access in some way, not often compatible with our pursuit of the mystery within.

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.