St. Sava Reconstruction Fund

9 May

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As some might know, New York’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Sava, was pretty much gutted by a fire on Easter Sunday.  The church was built as an Episcopalian church in 1855 and was a New York City landmark.  Full story and more photos here and from the WSJ.

To contribute to the church’s reconstruction fund please go to the church’s site here.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Οὐκ ἔστιν ὧδε.”

5 May
Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich

I’m reposting this story “The Man Who Flew Like  Bird,” by Belorussian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, first printed by The New York Review of Books back in the fall.  It might seem a strange piece for an Easter message.  But if you’ve got the guts to wade through the mud — perhaps a cliché, if so forgive me — of muddy, Russian hopelessness, through the Vanya-Karamazovish Russian cerebral suffering, that of a culture that seems incapable of not giving even the most materialist, anti-transcendental thought a religious cast, and how that inexorably leads to psychotic break, then you’ll find the subtle element of heroic Russian hope and Resurrection all the more moving.

Христос Воскресе

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The Man Who Flew Like a Bird

Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Jamey Gambrell

November 19, 2015 Issue

Introduction

On October 8, the Nobel Committee announced that the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature was being awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer and journalist whose body of work is unique both in scope and in genre.

The bare facts of Alexievich’s biography reflect the nature of her greater subject: the memory, aspirations, tragedy, and fluid historical identity of Homo sovieticus. She was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine that lies at the eastern edge of the Carpathian Mountains, about 85 miles south of Lviv, and a mere 150 or so miles from the borders of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, respectively. The city was annexed by the USSR only a few years before her birth in 1948. Her mother was Ukrainian and her father Belarussian. She grew up in Minsk, Belarus, where she studied journalism, developed her own exceptional voice, and became a Russian writer.

Over the course of several decades and numerous books, Alexievich has pursued a distinctive kind of narrative based on journalistic research and the distillation of thousands of firsthand interviews with people directly affected by all the major events of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. She has uncovered the unknown but crucial work that Soviet women did in World War II, recounted the memories of children caught up in the “Great Patriotic War,” documented the realities facing soldiers in the Soviet-Afghan war, which were kept from the Soviet public, and recorded the experiences of those who lived through the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In her most recent book, she deftly orchestrates a great chorus of diverse voices to chronicle the human toll—emotional, physical, economic, and political—of the collapse of the USSR, a country that once made up a sixth of the world’s land mass.1 Alexievich’s oeuvre comprises nothing less than a history of epic proportions, which she has called “Voices of Utopia.” This undertaking has brought the writer many awards and accolades from Western European countries in particular, and from Russia, where her books have been printed and reprinted many times; she is a well-known critic of the Putin regime. In her home, Belarus, however, under the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko, she has been subject to the same political censorship and pressure as many of her colleagues (as Timothy Snyder pointed out in the NYR Daily
2). For over a decade she lived in various European cities, because it was not safe to return to Minsk (though she did in 2011), and her books have not been published in Belarus since 1994.

In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy called Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings…a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” “By means of her extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices,” the Academy went on to say, “Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era.” As she writes:

I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced. This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such multitude of real details. We quickly forget what we were like ten or twenty or fifty years ago….

I’m searching life for observations, nuances, details. Because my interest in life is not the event as such, not war as such, not Chernobyl as such, not suicide as such. What I am interested in is what happens to the human being….

Svetlana Alexievich’s interest in what happens to the human being is evident on every page of her writing. Among other things, her work testifies to the immense power of compassion to create understanding of our fellow human beings.

The text below is from a collection of more than a dozen tales of suicide that Alexievich published in Russia in 1994 under the title Zacharovannye smert’iu (Enchanted by Death). In the introduction she wrote that she sought to “distinguish…the lonely human voice. They all sound different. Each one has its own secret.”

—Jamey Gambrell

Archive of Svetlana AlexievichSvetlana Alexievich

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The Story of the Man Who Flew Like a Bird:
Ivan Mashovets—Graduate Student of the Philosophy Department

From the account of his friend, Vladimir Staniukevich, graduate student in the Philosophy Department:

…He wanted to leave unnoticed, of course. It was evening. Twilight. But several students in the nearby dormitory saw him jump. He opened his window wide, stood up on the sill, and looked down for a long time. Then he turned around, pushed hard, and flew… He flew from the twelfth floor…

A woman was passing by with a little boy. The youngster looked up:

“Mama, look, that man is flying like a bird…”

He flew for five seconds…

The district police officer told me all this when I returned to the dormitory; I was the only person who could be called his friend in any sense. The next day I saw a photo in the evening paper: he lay on the pavement face down…in the pose of a flying man…

I can try to put some of it into words… Although everything is slipping away… You and I won’t make it out of this labyrinth… It will be a partial explanation, a physical explanation, not a spiritual one. For instance, there’s something called the trust hotline. A person calls and says: “I want to commit suicide.” In fifteen minutes they dissuade him. They find out the reason. But it isn’t really the reason, it’s the trigger…

The day before he saw me in the hall:

“Be sure to come by. We have to talk.”

That evening I knocked on his door several times, but he didn’t open it. Through the wall I could hear he was there (our rooms are adjacent). He was pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll drop by tomorrow.” Tomorrow I talked to the policeman.

“What’s this?” The policeman showed me a vaguely familiar folder.

I leaned over the table:

“It’s his dissertation. There’s the title page: Marxism and Religion.”

All the pages were crossed out. Diagonally, in red pencil, he’d written furiously: “Nonsense!! Gibberish!! Lies!!” It was his handwriting… I recognized it…

He was always afraid of water… I remember that from our college days. But he’d never said that he was afraid of heights…

His dissertation didn’t pan out. Well, to hell with it! You have to admit you’re a prisoner of utopia… Why jump from the twelfth floor on account of that? These days how many people are rewriting their master’s essay, their doctoral dissertation, and how many are afraid to admit what the title was? It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable… Maybe he decided: I’ll throw off these clothes and this physical shell…

Behavioral logic didn’t lead to this, but the act was committed nonetheless… There’s the concept of fate. You’ve been given a path to follow… You rise to it… You either rise, or fall… I think he believed that there is another life… In a thin layer… Was he religious? This is where speculation begins… If he believed, it was without intermediaries, without cultish organizations, without any ritual. But suicide is impossible for a religious person, he wouldn’t dare violate God’s plan… Break the thread… The trigger mechanism works more easily for atheists. They don’t believe in another life, aren’t afraid of what might be. What’s the difference between seventy years or a hundred? It’s just a moment, a grain of sand. A molecule of time…

He and I once talked about socialism not resolving the problem of death, or at least of old age. It just skirts it…

I saw him make the acquaintance of a crazy guy in a used bookstore. This guy, too, was rummaging around in old books on Marxism, like we were. Then he told me:

“You know what he said? ‘I’m the one who’s normal—but you’re suffering.’ And you know, he was right.”

Art Resource‘Marx as Prometheus’; engraving, 1843

I think that he was a sincere Marxist and saw Marxism as a humanitarian idea, where “we” means much more than “I.” Like some kind of unified planetary civilization in the future… When you’d drop by his room he’d be lying there, surrounded by books: Plekhanov, Marx, biographies of Hitler, Stalin, Hans Christian Andersen stories, Bunin, the Bible, the Koran. He was reading it all at once. I remember some fragments of his thoughts, but only fragments. I reconstructed them afterward… I’m trying to find meaning in his death… Not an excuse, not a reason… Meaning! In his words…

“What is the difference between a scholar and a priest? The priest comes to know the unknown through faith. But the scholar tries to comprehend it through facts, through knowledge. Knowledge is rational. But let’s take death, for instance. Just death. Death goes beyond thought.

“We Marxists have taken on the role of church ministers. We say we know the answer to the question: How do you make everyone happy? How?! My favorite childhood book was The Human-Amphibian by A. Belyaev. I reread it again recently. It’s a response to all the utopians of the world… The father turns his son into a human-amphibian. He wants to give him the oceans of the world, to make him happy by changing his human nature. He’s a brilliant engineer… The father believes that he’s uncovered the secret… That he’s God! He made his son into the most miserable of people… Nature doesn’t reveal itself to human reason… It only entices it.”

Here are a few more of his monologues. As I remember them, at least.

“The phenomenon of Hitler will trouble many minds for a long time to come. Excite them. How, after all, is the mechanism of mass psychosis launched? Mothers held their children up crying: ‘Here, Führer, take them!’

“We are consumers of Marxism. Who can say he knows Marxism? Knows Lenin, knows Marx? There’s early Marx… And Marx at the end of his life… The halftones, shades, the whole blossoming complexity of it all, is unknowable to us. No one can increase our knowledge. We are all interpreters…

“At the moment we’re stuck in the past like we used to be stuck in the future. I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!

“I proposed a new dissertation topic to our professor: ‘Socialism as an Intellectual Mistake.’ His response was: ‘Nonsense.’ As if I could decipher the Bible or the Apocalypse with equal success. Well, nonsense is a form of creativity, too… The old man was bewildered. You know him yourself—he’s not one of those old farts, but everything that happened was a personal tragedy for him. I have to rewrite my dissertation, but how can he rewrite his life? Right now each of us has to rehabilitate himself. There’s a mental illness—multiple, or dissociated, personality disorder. People who have it forget their names, social positions, their friends and even their children, their lives. It’s a dissolution of personality…when a person can’t combine the official take or government belief, his own point of view, and his doubts…how true is what he thinks, and how true is what he says. The personality splits into two or three parts… There are plenty of history teachers and professors in psychiatric hospitals… The better they were at instilling something, the more they were corrupted… At the very least three generations…and a few others are infected… How mysteriously everything eludes definition… The temptation of utopia…

“Take Jack London… Remember his story about how you can live life even if you’re in a straitjacket? You just have to shrivel up, sink down, and get used to it… You’ll even be able to dream…”

Now that I analyze what he said…follow his train of thought… I can see that he was preparing for departure…

We were drinking tea one time, and out of the blue he said:

“I know how long I have…”

“Vanya, what on earth are you saying!” my wife exclaimed. “We were just getting ready to marry you off.”

“I was joking. You know, animals never commit suicide. They don’t violate the course…”

The day after that conversation the dormitory housekeeper found a suit, practically brand new, in the rubbish bin; his passport was in the pocket. She ran to his room. He was embarrassed and muttered something about having been drunk. But he never ever touched a drop! He kept the passport, but gave her the suit: “I don’t need it anymore.”

He’d decided to get rid of these clothes, this physical membrane. He had a more subtle, detailed understanding than we did of what awaited him. And he liked Christ’s age.

One might think he’d gone mad. But a few weeks earlier I’d heard his research presentation… Water-tight logic. A superb defense!

Does a person really need to know when his time will come? I once knew a guy who knew it. A friend of my father’s. When he left for the war, a gypsy woman prophesied: he needn’t be afraid of bullets because he wouldn’t die in the war, but at age fifty-eight at home, sitting in an armchair. He went through the whole war, came under fire, was known as a foolhardy fellow, and was sent on the most difficult missions. He returned without a scratch. Until age fifty-seven he drank and smoked since he knew he’d die at fifty-eight, so until then he could do anything. His last year was terrible… He was constantly afraid of death… He was waiting for it… And he died at age fifty-eight, at home…in an armchair in front of the television…

Is it better for a person when the line has been drawn? The border between here and there? This is where the questions begin…

Once I suggested he dig into his childhood memories and desires, what he’d dreamed of and then forgotten. He could fulfill them now… He never talked to me about his childhood. Then suddenly he opened up. From the age of three months he had lived in the country with his grandmother. When he got a bit older he would stand on a tree stump and wait for his mama. Mama returned after he’d finished school, with three brothers and sisters—each child from a different man. He studied at the university, kept ten rubles for himself, and sent the rest of his stipend home. To Mama…

“I don’t remember her ever washing anything for me, not even a handkerchief. But in the summer I’ll go back to the country: I’ll repaper the walls. And if she says a kind word to me, I’ll be so happy…”

He never had a girlfriend…

His brother came for him from the countryside. He was in the morgue… We began looking for a woman to help, to wash him, dress him. There are women who do that sort of thing. When she came she was drunk. I dressed him myself…

In the village I sat alone with him all night. Amid the old men and women. His brother didn’t hide the truth, although I’d asked him not to say anything, at least to their mother. But he got drunk and blabbed everything. It poured for two days. At the cemetery a tractor had to pull the car with the casket. The old ladies crossed themselves fearfully and zealously:

“Went against God’s will, he did.”

The priest wouldn’t let him be buried in the cemetery: he’d committed an unforgivable sin… But the director of the village council arrived in a van and gave his permission…

We returned at twilight. Wet. Destroyed. Drunk. It occurred to me that for some reason righteous men and dreamers always choose these kinds of places. This is the only kind of place they are born. Our conversations about Marxism as a unified planetary civilization floated up in my memory. About Christ being the first socialist. And about how the mystery of Marxist religion wasn’t fully comprehensible to us, even though we were up to our knees in blood.

Everyone sat down at the table. They poured me a glass of homemade vodka right away. I drank it…

A year later my wife and I went to the cemetery again…

“He’s not here,” my wife said. “When we came the other times we were visiting him, this time it’s just a tombstone. Remember how he used to smile in photographs?”

So he had moved on. Women are more delicate instruments than men, and she felt it.

The landscape was the same. Wet. Dilapidated. Drunk. His mother showered us with apples for the trip. The tipsy tractor driver drove us to the bus stop…

English translation © 2011 by Jamey Gambrell

  1. 1

To be published in 2016 under the tentative title Time Second Hand by Fitzcarraldo Editions, London.  

  1. 2

“Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices,” October 12, 2015.  

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“April is the cruelest month…”

1 Apr

Apriles

Tsarouches’ Apriles

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.”
And Roger Cohen’s weird hallucinatory piece in the Times, “A Time of Bullies”:

Every Jew of the second half of the 20th century was a child of the Holocaust. So was all humanity. Survival could only be a source of guilt, whether spoken or unspoken. We bore the imprint of departed souls.

The silence that descended was the silence of the lost. It seems to me that I was raised in silence and that I was far from alone in that. Language could not accommodate such a volume of ashes. Death’s German mastery lingered. The new European prosperity was an epilogue to the unspeakable, its disguise.

Beneath the gleaming postwar surfaces there lurked the indelible stain of barbarism. A human stain, the bruise of complicity in all its shades.

After a while I wanted to understand the things unsaid in the rush to build on the ruins. The covered-over came after me. As a child of the repetitively displaced, I was perhaps a natural target for smothered memory. I wanted to understand where I came from. I wanted to understand my mother’s madness. Never should it be forgotten how onerous it is to forget.

There were clues along the way.

I stand with my then-wife Frida Baranek at Auschwitz gazing at the entangled piles of spectacles left behind by the gassed. Glasses removed for a “shower” form a labyrinthine mound of wire. Frida’s grandmother and most of her maternal family from Poland were killed in the camps. Raised in Brazil, she has never seen this residue of mass murder. Yet her gravity-defying sculptures from the tropics resemble nothing so much as this living tangle of metal.

Some feeling had passed from her murdered grandmother — of the weightlessness of life, of sightlessness, of imbalance and collapse. What it was, at the end, to crumple naked into a cold wall and scream.

My own family skirted the Holocaust. I am not strictly a child of the Holocaust — perhaps a stepchild. They fled the Russian pogroms of Lithuania for the sun and gold of South Africa. My parents left the ravages of apartheid for the tolerance of England. I bounced back and forth in infancy between London and Johannesburg, before being educated at bastions of British privilege, Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford.

Yet — that old Jewish thing — I never quite belonged. I left England and sotto voce Jewishness to become an American and full-throated Jew in New York. I settled in Brooklyn just in time to see the Twin Towers come down, watch the papers flutter like confetti over the East River, and inhale the acrid-sweet smell of burnt flesh below Canal Street.

Ashes again, vanishing in the air, motes of darkness.

Hatred, fomented in the name of utopian illusion, returns. It is unbearable for some to accept Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity” out of which no straight thing was ever fashioned. The essence of liberalism is acceptance of our human limits and our human differences. It is acceptance of multiple and perhaps incompatible truths. In Europe and America, liberalism is threatened today. Anger rises. Bullies have workable material.

When societies leave many people feeling excluded, they grow volatile. Belonging is a fundamental human need.

In the United States we tend to think of immigration as new opportunity and new hope. That is the bright star of movement and displacement.

The black sun is loss and forgetting, losing an identity to craft another. It is the enormous effort of rebuilding a life far from the familiar — the cherries of Lithuania, the firm yellow peaches of Cape Town, the certain moments and certain pleasures that once inhabited Aleppo or Homs.

The Holocaust was an uprooting, an eviction and an effacement executed on a scale never imagined. For Jews, belonging ceased. My parents, bearing the subliminal shame of Jewish survivors, tried to assimilate in Britain. But my mother was a transplant that would not take.

Hollowness: spaces between the wires, empty spectacle frames and shattered glass. My mother looked for an anchor in a strange land. Her mind raged like an infernal machine, or folded into inertia.

My young cousin in Tel Aviv who took her life, an Israeli unable to establish her own borders in a Jewish state of uncertain borders.

The horror is endlessly refracted.

I feel a great unease. We have embarked on the 21st century with the painful yet essential knowledge of the last one slipping from us. Last month, some American Jews cheered a dangerous demagogue.

Two thousand years ago Hillel admonished us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

It is incumbent on all the inheritors of the silence of the lost to raise their voices against the barbarians and bullies before it is too late.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Happy Noruz from Justin Trudeau

21 Mar

The idea that Afghans are “economic migrants”…

1 Mar

…unlike Syrians and Iraqis, because Afghanistan is no longer a war zone, is obscene.  What does the barometer for endemic violence, chronic poverty or a people’s desperation have to read for someone to be considered a “real” refugee?

Who gives a sh*t about FIFA?!

26 Feb

Why are FIFA elections “breaking news” on  the BBC, TV5Monde and just about any other pan-European network??!!  Its dirt and corruption is only proof that soccer is the sleazy, filthy, international “bread and circus” of our time.  Who cares?!

MUST SEE interview with Martin Schulz on the BBC

26 Feb

 

Please watch this interview with Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, and the BBC’s Sarah Montague.  Schulz gives a surprisingly angry and impassioned defense of European values, and in the process manages, not just to turn around the original Anglo-centric intent of Montague’s interview (the Brits’ narcissism at just this point in European history is becoming increasingly annoying to me), but to cover, in twenty-four minutes, practically the entire field of the challenges facing the Union.

He expresses his undisguised glee that a Tory Prime Minister is vigorously defending Britain’s staying in the Union.  He shows his hope that British voters’ sensibleness — a quality that we’ve all always liked to believe Britain embodies but that I’m not so sure of these days — will vote to stay in.  He defends Greece: “We make Greece into a massive refugee camp”, while indirectly indicating that Turkey — finally…someone — has a role to play in managing the flow of refugees and that that will be addressed in upcoming negotiations with that country — though how positive those negotiations turn out, with Erdoğan’s Turkey, which has clearly become the region’s most outstanding “rogue regime,” is to be seen; historical precedent would indicate that Turkey will continue to be treated with the same kid-glove coddling that it always has been by the West, no matter how it behaves either internally or externally – all the while sanctioning and villainizing a Russia which, if anything, is maybe a few steps behind Turkey in almost every aspect of human rights violating, freedom of speech limitation, random non-procedural incarceration, random mass murder…just about any of them.

He’s angry at the nationalist selfishness — “egoism” — of Eastern European countries that continue to exponentially magnify the refugee crisis.  (I wonder if Poles and Hungarians and company understand just what backwards post-Soviet societies they’re proving themselves to be through the stance they’re taking on the issue; maybe they weren’t ready for EU membership?).  And he gives credit where it’s due: not just to Sweden and Germany but to Jordan and Lebanon.  (I was kind of happy about the collective Nobel Peace prize nomination for Greek islanders and continue to be proud of their response, generally, to the refugee influx;* but I did think at the time: “Wait a minute… How about Jordan? Or poor little Lebanon – again…the country that can’t catch a break – that has been trying to accommodate what has been a nearly 25% increase in its population in the space of a few years? Why aren’t they nominated?  Because they’re accepting fellow Arabs and that doesn’t count as humane?”) And he expresses his frank assessment that it’s ridiculous – and any intelligent person must agree – to think that closing borders is going to make desperate refugees who are fleeing Daesh or Assad cluster bombs, and who have come this far, just turn around and go back.

Generally, he comes across as the best kind of modern German. I’ve ragged on Germany a lot over the past few years, as the primary force behind what I still think are the unfair austerity measures imposed on Greece and other southern tier countries that only hurt the most vulnerable. But Schulz’s passionate insistence that it’s the “humanitarian responsibility” of Europe, as the richest part of the world, to take in these people, and that if it was a mistake for Germany to invite them in so broadly and unconditionally, ready to shoulder the burden of the lion’s share but hoping that others would help out to some degree, that “it’s a mistake I would repeat,” is an expression of a German moral sensibility – one that comes out of a process of ruthless post-war self-examination – that I find incredibly admirable. More power to him. And them.

************************************************************************** * See also,  Annia Ciezadlo’sBe Like Water: The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.” in Guernica, for some beautiful and moving and compassionate and smart reporting on Mytilene and the refugees.  And if you like, my preface to it in a previous Jadde post.

Ciezadlo is to be credited with digging up the Odyssey quote — below — that I used in my post.  Read her piece.

“But come inside, and when you have had your fill of bread and wine, tell me where you come from, and all about your misfortunes.”
—Eumaeus, the Syrian, to the disguised Odysseus; The Odyssey, Book 14

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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