15 September 2005

Books and crosscultural hunger

Having run to poet Marina Tsvetaeva for relief during the worst days of Katrina (see second item from last Thursday), I can't help wanting to share more from her with you. The specific book is Jamey Gambrell's Yale University Press edition of Tsvetaeva's Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922. I quoted last week from her surreal account of her train trip back from the Crimea to Moscow just after the October Revolution. Soon after her return to Moscow, her husband Sergei Efron goes to the south of Russia to join the anti-Bolshevik forces. Soon travel is impossible and the two are separated for four years, during which Tsvetaeva and her two daughters face lethal realities on both the economic and the sociopolitical levels. Somehow her ability to write survives; maybe it even sustains her. In any case, one daughter also survives but the other dies of starvation.

Here are some words from the year 1919, the absolute worst year, when even the bannisters to their attic room are burned to stay warm:

Oh, if I were rich!

Dear 1919, it is you that has taught me this cry! Before, when everyone had plenty, I still managed to give; and now, when no one has anything, I can't give anything, except my soul—a smile—sometimes a bit of kindling (out of frivolity)—and that's too little.

Oh, what a field of action exits for me now, for my insatiableness for love. Everyone bites at this bait—even the most complex—even I! At the moment, I for one definitely love only those who give to me—who promise and don't give—it doesn't matter!—just as long as they sincerely (and maybe not sincerely—who cares!) want to give for a minute.

By whim of hand and heart, this sentence, and therefore the whole meaning, could have turned out differently and it would also have been true:

Before, when everyone had everything, I still managed to give. Now, when I have nothing, I still manage to give.

All right?


I give, like everything I do, from a sort of spiritual adventurism—for the smile— mine and the other's.


What do I like about adventurism? The word.

Notwithstanding her stubborn loyalty to her husband Sergei, the reality of Marina includes a hunger for intellectual and physical intimacy. This hunger gets several labels from scholars, biographers, and contemporary observers, including Sergei (one obvious label for several of her relationships is adultery), but it is part of Marina and is not hidden in her writings. There's a bit of a hint in this incident, I think: in a visit to a rural grain requisition point, she makes the acquaintance of a young blond soldier to whom (in her own mind) she gives the nickname Stenka Razin after the folk hero who led a rebellion during the time of Catherine the Great. "Stenka" is the first to speak:

"The priests, rats' tails, every one of 'em, wrecked everything, and now they're taking God to the gallows. God isn't responsible for the priests' belly. And people themselves, father says, are to blame too: they didn't respect the priest and so he stopped respecting himself. But how can one respect him? I know that kind inside out, Miss. Who's the number one thief: the priest. Gluttony? The priest. Sinner? The priest. When he gets drunk—but you're a lady, so it wouldn't be decent to spell it out."

"Well, what about monks, hermits?"

"No use talking about the monks, you know yourself. They talk about fasting, but their tongues lick meat and milk thoughts off their lips. Crack open his skull and you won't find nothing but smoked and marinated what-have-you, girls and cherry liqueurs. That's all their is to their faith! The monkish life! The saving of souls!"

"But in the Bible, do you remember? With one righteous man I can save Sodom? Or haven't you read it?"

"I ain't exactly read it myself, I have to admit. When I was a youngster I spent more time chasing pigeons, getting up to no good with the boys. But my father—he's a great churchman." (Becoming inspired.) "Wherever you open that Bible there—he an rattle off a dozen pages in a row with his eyes shut...

"I wanted to say something else, comrade, about the monks. Nuns, for instance. Why does every nun make eyes at me?"

I think to myself: sweetheart, how could one help but....

He, getting worked up: "Prances, dances, her eyes like wells. Where are you pulling me with those eyes, anyway? How could you be praying all the time after that? If you have mischievous blood—then don't go to the monastery, if your blood's prayerful—then keep your eyes down!"

I involuntarily lower my eyes: a moralizing Razin. (Out loud.) "Tell me about your father instead."

"Fa-ather! My father's a great man! What do they write in those books? Marx, for instance, and the Gracchus brothers. Who ever saw them? I bet they're all foreigners: your tongue twists just saying the names, and there's no patrimony. [Confusing the words for fatherland and patronymic, to Tsvetaeva's poetic delight.] Three thousand years ago—and behind seven seals and seven blues seas, across three score lands, in the fourth, it's not hard to pass yourself off for great. But maybe they're just made up? That guy (a wave toward the wall Marx) ... shaggy old Long Beard over there—did he really exist?"

I, without blinking: "They invented him. The Bolsheviks up and invented him. On the road from Berlin—you know? They thought him up, put a jacket on him, and beard, fluffed up his mane, and pasted him on all the fences."

"You're a brave one, Miss."

"As are you."

Finally: a few of her words about love itself:

The complete concurrence of souls requires the concurrence of the breath, for what is the breath, if not the rhythm of the soul?

And thus,for people to understand one another, they must walk or lie side by side.

... You say: "How can I love you? I don't even love myself?" Love for me is included in your love for yourself. That which you call love, I call a favorable disposition of the soul (body). As soon as the least little thing goes wrong for you (problems at home, the heat, the Bolsheviks)—I no longer exist for you.

Home is all "problems," the heat—comes every summer, and the Bolsheviks are only beginning!

Dear friend, I don't want it that way. I don't breathe that way. I just want a humble, murderously simple thing: that a person be glad when I walk into the room.

If by some warp in the universe, I were to be able to meet Marina Tsvetaeva, what would I do, beyond devouring her poetry? Would I try to introduce her to Quakers? Certainly, despite my inability to think of any Friends meeting that would be an obvious congenial home for her. (I love her descriptions of being in Orthodox services.) What if she tried to draw me into her world? One thing I can say from my present vantage point. I would do everything I could to keep her from the end she chose: suicide.

Judy and I have been attending a Hispanic Mennonite congregation that has been a huge blessing to me. This has been my most sustained exposure to the Spanish-speaking dimension of today's United States. To help me reflect on what I'm learning through that experience, I was eager to read Hector Tobar's Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005). As recently as a decade or two ago, the "Spanish-speaking United States" could have been principally defined as a few specific regions within the USA. Now all that has changed. If the Bloomington-Muscatine Friends Church in Iowa can have a significant Hispanic outreach, our reliance on regional assumptions is shaky. It is this reality that Tobar's book presents clearly and engagingly. This excerpt is a great example:

I am in a two-stoplight town in the Alabama hill country, in the heart of the Bible Belt and Crimson Tide football mania, listening to an old-fashioned, heated argument between Cubans like the ones I've heard in Little Havana in Miami, but the moment very quickly loses its sense of strangeness and cultural dissonance. This is what America is like now—North America, I mean, the United States. The craziness of cubanos and mexicanos and guatemaltecos can find you just about anywhere. Juan's smile turns a little mischievous as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, searching for something stuck between his driver's license and his Alabama gun license. It is picture slightly larger than a postage stamp of a line of marching rebels on horseback, the portrait of Che Guevara looming behind them. "He was brave, he had his ideals," Juan explains, gripping his crotch to say this is what Che had—cojones. He never backed down from a fight. This is really a bit much, I think: Che and his saintly gaze are following me everywhere. I am about to tell Juan, "You're a Cuban exile—you're supposed to hate this guy," but Gerardo jumps in first.

"Guevara was a cosmopolitan adventurer," he says with a look of weary disgust, un aventurero cosmopolita.

... I bid the two arguing Cubans good-bye and head out the doorway into Ashland's Courthouse Square, which is empty of cars and pedestrians. I cross the street and look up at the gray dome of Clay County Courthouse. The National Register of Historic Places says it was built in 1900, at the dawn of a century that began with bricklayers and masons crafting the steps of this civic edifice in the center of their town. That same century ended with Spanish-speaking chicken workers and furniture makers building the Catholic Church that rises on the edge of town, on a hill overlooking the forests where, in still other centuries, men with bayoneted rifles marched into battle, and Creek Indian women washed clothes in the river.

My reflections on this passage sometimes turn inward: am I a cosmopolitan adventurer myself? (Or as Stalin might have charged in his last purge, cut off only by his death a couple of months before I was born, a "rootless cosmopolitan"?) Where does this hunger to experience other cultures than my own come from? I don't just want to experience, I want to be inside at least long enough to catch an intuition of what the world looks like from that perspective.

It is not because I don't like my own roots, such as they are. ("Such as they are" = born in Norway to parents that had already actually moved to the USA, a Norwegian father and a German mother. Both had moved to the USA because the war-torn countries of Europe had just proved themselves too tiny and fragile and cramped for their tastes, and in my father's case, many of his contemporary relatives were following the same path. In my mother's case, her growing-up and wartime years had been spent in Japan, and staying there as a German under American occupation was not an option. My childhood reality also included living in Norway and Germany before age 5, and then in four other homes in the Chicago area before leaving home under duress.) I grew up especially fond of my Norwegian roots, and still find that heritage a great source of pride. I haven't entirely abandoned my German roots either, although my mother's own Nazi-dominated childhood has complicated my ownership of those roots.

So where does my endless fascination and hunger for crosscultural relationship come from? I confess, I don't fully know. [But see "Friday P.S." below.] I'm frightened of stretching myself too thin, of visiting and appropriating rather than inhabiting and loving. In my Quaker work I've seen an awful lot of unedifying ingratiation and paternalism in crosscultural settings. At least some of the explanation of this bridgebuilding drive in me might be my suspicion of any boundary that increases the likelihood of conflict and oppression. For me, the great gift of the USA is its cultural mixes and mosaics (the latter a metaphor used in my political science classes in Canada decades ago), and I just want to know my neighbors. Finally, I'm radically skeptical of all political boundaries and nationalisms, which are nothing more than psychological constructs—constructs with lethal consequences.

One more book for tonight, and then it's off to get a late dinner. Here's an example of what those boundaries can do to us as a country, a national community:

Why would talented foreigners avoid the United States? In part because other countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of recruiting them. But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a half-dozen countries over the past year, I'm convinced that the biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy landscape in Washington. In the 1990s, the federal government focused on expanding America's human capital and interconnectedness to the world—crafting international trade agreements, investing in cutting edge R&D, subsidizing higher education and public access to the Internet, and encouraging immigration. But in recent years, the government's attention and resources have shifted to older sectors of the economy, with tariff protection and subsidies to extractive industries. Meanwhile, Washington has stunned scientists across the world with its disregard for consensus scientific views when those views conflict with the interests of favored sectors (as has been the case with the issue of global climate change). Most of all, in the wake of 9/11, Washington has inspired the fury of the world, especially of its educated classes, with its "my way or the highway" foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we're saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, "You don't belong here."

While we like to view ourselves as an open nation, international relations experts John Paden and Peter Singer report that, among other things, the Patriot Act of 2001 has created restrictions on the vetting and monitoring of foreign visitors—including students and scholars attending or visiting American universities—that exceed in scope those in any other Western democracy.

—from Richard Florida's The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent (New York: HarperBusiness, 2005). Florida argues that economically and culturally thriving communities have achieved a confluence of three major factors—technology, talent, and tolerance—and in this particular part of his book, he is ringing an alarm bell about how our national paranoia is threatening the status or the flow of all three of those factors.

Friday P.S.: I'm grateful to theooze.com blog for directing my attention to this Brian McLaren article in Sojourners. As a congenital bridgebuilder, I found it encouraging.

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