If you must know, Paul Rogov is from Minsk, Belarus, lives in southern California, and will blog for you about war, art, and trauma. But he’s not giving up his biography. Not that it’s important. With narratives populated by men with Saussurean scars, failed fathers, and gawky boy soldiers disfigured by adrenaline, how much could any individual’s biography matter? If, as Kierkegaard describes, we become ourselves through our actions, then Rogov’s characters determine themselves, and their relationships, through their traumas—self-inflicted or otherwise. “Trauma unites people,” explains Rogov, the third author featured in the “The New Xорошо,” as he weighs in on spirituality, femininity, and the impossibility of shooting heroin like a gentleman. ~T.M. De Vos
In “The Fallen Years,” and in “The Situation with Timmy J,” there is a sharp divide between veterans, who are “marked,” and everyone else, who is “pure.” The former seems to take a view of whether the men who come home are actually heroes that is ambivalent at best; the latter is more blunt in polarizing Timmy J as either a “hero” or a “loser,” most likely both. How generalizable do you think this experience of “coming home” is for veterans in general? Have they, or have they not, become heroes?
I am interested in this idea of being marked or unmarked, either physically or metaphysically. Do human beings have an essence? Or does believing that human beings have an essence the problem? Kosinki’s “The Painted Bird” comes to mind. So does the Cain’s mark in the Book of Genesis. Granted, those are very different kind of marks, but as far as the stories that you mention go, the idea of a divide, or gap between those who are “marked” and those who are “pure” is problematic. Being considered pure is also a way of being marked. Consider how people elevate things to some sacred status so that their necessary illusions can seem detrimental to upholding the semblance of what is normal.
I think there is a socio-historical context specific to every war. There are certain features that all wars have in common, but not all wars are the same. The context of each specific war, the logic behind the justification to fight it, whether it is ambiguous or less ambiguous, informs how a particular society views the veterans who are coming back home.
In “The Fallen Years,” about one particular kind of experience in Afghanistan, there is an encroaching presence of doom, though also a fear that the soldiers on the ground feel haunted by the legacy of a prior generation’s war efforts. Soviet soldiers had a strong cultural memory about the generation of veterans that fought in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany; and, as the war in Afghanistan went on for as long as it did, there was an indescribable sense of frustration. Many back home did not know what the war was really for. Some said it was to protect the borders, some said it was to help the Afghanis with their revolution, but the story was never clear-cut. It kept changing as the war progressed. People back home continued to live their lives for they had their own trials to contend with.
But who would have predicted what happened during the Soviet-Afghan war? It is considered, by some historians, to be the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam.” The Moscow Brass arrogantly thought there was simply no way that a country like Afghanistan could ever defeat the “eternal” Soviet Union. And yet the Soviet Union, a superpower, despite glasnost and perestroika of that decade, was approaching its demise.
The will to fight on was not just plain stubbornness or mere puppetry in the theatre of politics. It was rooted in ideology and the idea of the Soviet hero. Countries with a strong sense of nationalism to some extent, perpetually drink the poison of their own self-exoticization; that poison is drunk willingly or unwillingly, both publicly and in silence.
What happens to a soldier during war and what happens to a veteran when they return home are certainly interrelated, but fighting a war and dealing with the effects of a war are also distinct predicaments that can be examined in their own right. Why do some veterans come home and want to return to combat? They want to be there for their brothers, which is a powerful narrative that fortifies a reason to fight.
I do not think there is a generalizable story for veterans. It’s important to understand that for Soviet veterans it was one way depending on who you were and what you did. In the case of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, if one was in the 173rd, it was a different war than for those of the 82nd or for the Rangers or for Airborne, or for the RA. That should not be overlooked.
There is, I think, a dimension to fighting that is universal, of course—true not only in war, but in also in life. The idea of an internal mark, a pivot in the soul, of a psyche, of an individual, that oscillates between the divine and the profane, is one of my primary concerns. To what extent, or under what circumstances, does a person’s actions reflect the core of who he or she is? Good people can sometimes succumb to doing evil; people who are considered evil can also write poetry or give candy to children. But most of us live our lives somewhere in between good and evil and, like trying to determine quantum phenomena, we can’t seem to find ourselves in one place, at one particular velocity. Can we untangle ourselves from own ethical enmeshment with other people’s marks? When we say a person is “good” what do we mean? Kierkegaard said that by what we choose, we become who we are—that we are the very product of what have done; yet that there is something fundamentally “marked” or “pure” in a human being leads to unsatisfactory conclusions. It is an inscrutable mystery.
Becoming a war “hero” is an amplification of the issue. Many veterans will tell you themselves: the real heroes are the ones who never came home.
There is a strong sense of the inevitable cycle of combat—the Soviets leave Afghanistan, the Americans come in—and no one really “wins” or changes much. Is it possible to occupy a country without brutality?
Nothing changes, nothing remains the same. That is the paradox. We continue to live, though keep revisiting the paradox often.
I’m not interested in war cycles, or even historical cycles, as much as I am interested in cycles of thought or cycles of behavior that, in some cases, can break and produce something new and in essence, lead to redemption. There is a set of coordinates behind the world one finds oneself in that seems to suggest things have always been a certain way or that things are precisely how they are supposed to be. When one falls in love, for example, one comes to suspect that one shares a destiny with another person. It might not be forever, but it could be for a lifetime, for a miracle has happened. Someone that was not there before is suddenly very present. The normal cycle of things, or the world as it was, is broken; it and we are longer the same.
I am suspicious of people who hold onto the idea that “nothing ever changes.” What is being in love, if not the manifestation of change? Change is important, I think, and it is greater than us because it would occur without us even being here. Nations cannot fight wars without being changed; and, we cannot fall in love without being altered.
I write of love and war because I am reminded of the Romans. They, too, were preoccupied with their identities, with love, with sex, with war, and with their destinies. I am also motivated by the idea of the revolutionary couple: two people conjoined by a higher purpose, by something greater then themselves, who love each other, though are not lost in each other, and fight for a cause. In my view, it is one of the only ways to “win” in life: to have a sense of purpose that is tangible to the individual person, coupled with the vitality that only the gift of love can provide.
As far as if it is possible to occupy a country without brutality, one only need to read history to learn the answer. Occupation is brutal even without killing. Colonization, slavery, mechanized confinement does things to the soul, teaches it things the soul should not know, or things it did not realize it was capable of knowing.
One of the most vivid scenes in “The Fallen Years”—perhaps even more so because it is only summarized in retrospect—is the rape, torture, and murder of the Pashtun woman by Gregory’s comrades. Not much time elapses between this brutal scene and our first meeting with these young men, all awkward youths who want to be treated as heroes. Do you see this brutality as an unnatural reaction borne of war or as a natural, unchecked outgrowth of male aggression towards women?
I don’t think there anything “natural” about unchecked male aggression towards women. Rape and torture, use of extreme force, in war or in peacetime, are essentially a will to power; these evil actions are methods of “partitioning” a dehumanized subject from a particular system, not only from their own agency, but also from their right to live. These brutal interruptions, these moral offenses, like rape and torture are transgressions against everything sacred about life. Going to war does not necessarily mean torture and rape will occur, but the likelihood is much higher. There are reasons for this and there have been many books on written on the subject. Amnesty International has documented crimes against humanity, including certain acts committed by Soviet soldiers during the war in Afghanistan. These acts are known, though it is difficult for people to accept who fought there and did not commit them. Situational/institutional forces play a key role in the perpetration of war crimes, so does ideology. Attitudes towards what a war is about, a self-consciousness of one’s role within it, conformity by the soldiers themselves, assists in the process of dehumanizing of the Other, which goes into effect as a moral mechanism within the individual consciousness of a potential perpetrator.
I think, in some ways, what you are asking is whether or not a good person is capable of doing such despicable and heinous things. I am inclined to say yes, but not because there is something intrinsically evil within men. I think, in the case of Soviet-Afghan war, the level of brutality is well-documented. When I did the research for the novella, I was appalled by what I discovered. When American forces arrived in Afghanistan, they were confronted by many Afghanis who were missing an arm or a leg because the Soviets had stuffed explosives into children’s toys. There is an entire generation of maimed children, in fact. It is an empirical fact on top of the fact that the Afghanis lost over a million people. There were massacres, and there were tortures. One needs only to go to the Amnesty International archives to learn more about what happened there.
Does that mean the Soviet cause for their war was evil and the American campaign is just? No, and I don’t think there is an easy answer. We are talking about two different wars. War does things to the psyche. Anything can happen in war, even what happened to the Pashtun woman in that scene. That scene was difficult for me to write: I cried. At first, I did not know if I should even keep the scene or if I really had to “go there.” After thinking about it more, I decided the scene should stay because I am firm believer that human beings are capable of the acts that Gregory’s comrades perpetrated. I kept it. As far as the time frame goes, you bring up a good point. How do these awkward boys commit these acts, in what seems, at least narratorially, such a short amount of time? There is time dilation in “The Fallen Years,” however. Time is one of the themes in the story—not only evil actions of men, but the consequences of having varied perceptions of history and time.
In a similar vein, Logan comments towards the end of “The Situation with Timmy J” that veterans, specifically Timmy J, simply lack the ability to navigate “an indifferent civilian world where Western women had so many choices and so much power and men were simply fools.” There has been a great deal of discussion lately about declining male achievement that contrasts starkly with the dramatic increases in women’s pursuit of higher education and historically male-dominated professions. What do you see as the choices available to Western women, and what is the nature of their power? How much does women’s power and agency drain from men’s?
I think that a man feeling threatened by a woman’s autonomy and power is a miserable way of seeing the world, and it is ultimately a false dilemma. The truth is: we, in the West, regardless of our gender, want to exercise our autonomy and become, if not free, at least, less enslaved. I think about all those women who in their youth tried to develop profound relationships with men, only to find out those men did not fully appreciate them, nor understand what they wanted out of life, misheard them, were not listening, or did not let those women fully blossom. A woman wants different things, depending on what her values are.
That said, in tandem with the coming renewable energy revolution, I believe there is a kind of women’s renaissance taking place. In contemporary literature, for example, many women are producing innovative work. There are more women, I think, doing the innovation than men. Women authors right now are embracing the opportunity to say things that were simply not said before. They are wielding their intellectual and spiritual power, and there is a kind of renaissance at the cultural level taking place for not only women, but also for the men who love them.
I was talking about this with Rufi Cole, a few weeks back. Women who wish to cast off the chains of patriarchy go through a “Luther moment.” They not only reject the enslaving system that oppresses them, reject the patriarchy (in Luther’s case, the Pope and the Church), but then go ahead and form a new theology based on their personal relationship to their higher purpose. That means that what is sacred to a particular woman becomes recontextualized; the principle of self-determination comes to the fore as the guiding ideology behind her subjectivity.
I am strong admirer of testimony and personal epiphanies. If a woman goes through that moment of discovery when she is, in effect, saying, “Wait, this wrong. I am being held back; this is not right,” she protests. She then could, in effect, cut all ties with the people, elements, or behaviors that inhibit her from determining the course of her life and the future of her happiness. Only from that deadlock, of there not being a choice in the course of a woman’s life, is there a possibility for a personal miracle, where her autonomy comes to the fore, and the woman becomes who she wants to be. Women today are creating their own languages, their own means of expressing ideas in whatever structure gives them form.
Logan’s comments are really quite naïve. He feels threatened by women’s choices because he lacks choices himself. He has his own demons to fight, I think. Whereas the idea of childhood was invented in the 18th century, and the idea of adolescence in the 19th century, the idea of the emancipated woman is relatively new. If men don’t understand what women are trying to do, perhaps they should learn what feminism is really about, rather than have preconceived notions about what effect it has on masculinity. After all, Western women were not even considered individuals until the late 20th century. And yet sadly, a lot of men still don’t “get it.”
The woman Serozha (of “The Fallen Years”) brings home, and eventually marries, struck me. She seems to make a fetish of his trauma, which is another kind of objectification. This reaction is a sharp contrast to that of Aliya, Timmy J’s wife, who rejects him when he refuses to talk about the things he did in Afghanistan—because, to quote, “it was about not knowing what a person is capable of.” How powerful are the effects (or even the imaginings) of things someone has done thousands of miles away, to strangers? What kind of connections, if any, do you see between femininity and trauma?
To fetishize trauma poses its own set of issues. Trauma is one of the few phenomena that have direct influence on a person’s being and his or her life that is not determined by DNA. I find it a bit strange to automatically assume there is only a connection between femininity and trauma, however, as if trauma does not in some way, at some point, affect everyone, man or woman.
The woman Serozha marries in “The Fallen Years” is not exactly a paragon of mental health, I think, and clearly neither is he; they are both twisted, and in some ways, they are even meant to be together, if that were at all possible. It seems she perceives something noble in him, despite the fact that he is clearly a tyrant. I don’t think it’s just some naïve hope, either. She literally feels irrationally bad for him; and, this pity becomes magnified in her mind, so that she inevitably concludes she wants to take care of him in order to feel useful. That is not the only reading of that relationship, of course. I’d be interested in what others have to say on the matter, too, for it is a strange scene.
The point I try to get across is that trauma unites people. When two people both experience something extreme, whatever it is, they are united in that experience because they were both there. One can, I think, even be empath enough to sense or feel someone else’s trauma.
The effects trauma has on people should not be underestimated. The effect we have on others should also never be underestimated. As human beings, aside from fear from death, we are basically afraid of two things: one, that we are somehow inadequate, and secondly that we are more powerful than we even imagine. Timmy J’s wife wants to know what it is that Timmy J did during the war, but his refusal to speak about it produces a lack, which Aliya fills in with the inexplicable. This movement is not uncommon. Where there is a lack, there is a need to fulfill. It sounds esoteric, but it’s true. Timmy J carries a burden and Aliya is afraid she will be unable to carry it with him because things become strikingly real for her; she cannot trust him because he has fundamentally changed and become disintegrated; there is little that can be done for him to become reintegrated, at least within the scope of the story.
Now, is there some mysterious connection between femininity and trauma? I don’t know, but if there is I’d like to see it tested empirically. I doubt one could locate trauma that way; yet, trauma is universal. It is not an exceptional case, it is the rule. Femininity is one aspect of being. It is a construct, a mode. If femininity and trauma are connected, in some Freudian sense, it would alter how we see as society view women. All of us are thrown into the world. It was not our choice. What femininity is, however, what it is supposed to be or is or isn’t, is learned. Trauma, I think, is more primordial in its implications as a phenomenon than the constructs of femininity and masculinity. It rattles the zero-point core of the soul.
I heartily enjoyed Logan’s rant in “The Situation with Timmy J” against “the people in his life whom he thought sold out, went on anti-depressants, played the Americana game with its houses and its travels and its tattoos and its pop songs and douche-bag talk and marriages and divorces and singles-scenes and speeches about preparing food, and teaching abroad in Asia, and going to New York, and getting a DVD, drinking wine, thinking happiness was a right and that one could actually become somebody.” It’s such a damning reminder of the banal things people do and how, no matter what we do, we’re still capering around obediently in the little roped-off areas where we’re told to travel or dance or love or rebel.
I just finished reading Citrus County, in which John Brandon makes the very brief but very salient point that corporations own rebellion now, that establishments are selling antiestablishmentarianism because people like to feel that they’re rare and original, and you can sell them products if they believe it will cultivate that image. So what do we do? Is it possible anymore to fashion one’s life, or even make a choice or two that’s not on the grid or ingesting the Kool-Aid or any of the other tired metaphors for complicity?
I recommend studying something passionately, yoga, meditation, boxing, falling and staying in love to get off the grid, in order to engage in an emergent system of episodic thinking where the world of rectangles ceases to matter.
“The Fallen Years” suggests that consumerism has more power than war to alter the landscape of a country. You speak a great deal about consumption in your blog, though of a different kind. What are some of the factors that contribute to consumption becoming a compulsion, individually and collectively?
Consumerism ensnares subjectivities; war redacts and extinguishes them. I don’t think I can say anything useful about consumerism. I mean: people shop. That’s the way it is. They shop not only to live, but also to escape from some horrible lie in their lives that they can’t truly live with. We learn the rules of monetary exchange when we are young, and then navigate in our adult lives through the mazes of exchange. We buy things, return them, buy more things, keep them, accumulate things, treat ourselves to things, desire things, buy things for people so they will think more highly of us, offer our input into what needs to be bought for someone else, sell things, save money to buy things in the future.
In and of itself, I don’t think money is the problem, but I do think people quite frequently feel empty whenever they buy something. They might like what they bought, but they are also in it for the search itself, for the thrill of buying itself, for the action of buying. There is mechanism to this emptiness; one learns things happen when one moves money around. We are pushing the pleasure button: buying objects, taking trips, getting caffeinated, getting drunk, loaded, having sex, seeking adrenaline, getting addicted to people and situations. Perhaps, we are seeking a kind of relief that can only come when we have at least some control over something, something that we made happen. This assertion of self-will leads many towards the grave unfulfilled. One wants something more, I think, something beautiful, something good, yet the only thing some people have ever known is how to produce the best causes to produce the best effects—how to acquire X, or Y, or Z, and use X, or Y, or Z in order to produce the effects A, B, or C. Via consumerism, we manage our emotions and outlook. I don’t think we are always guilty of it, but it is always there: we are tempted to give in to the burning need to make things a bit better for ourselves, even if it is embodied in a physical object, a place, a person, or an idol.
Your discussion about spirituality and addiction is painfully honest, measured, and economical in its account of your struggles. Your all-or-nothing approach to a higher power is interesting–logically, it makes sense that a god either exists or does not exist; there cannot be much of a middle ground. It resonates for me with the theme of addiction–so often one is either completely giving in to it or “white-knuckling” it, as you describe that there seems to be no gray area of moderation. Some of these conclusions echo in “The Situation with Timmy J,” when Logan has had his fill of the drugs and carousing and wants life to be a little less sordid again. How does spirituality, in your view, interact with addiction?
I think it’s easy to overlook the prevalence of the problem. It is not only in the free world that the problem persists. We feel pleasure and pain; we contend with the burden of our numerical distinction. At one point or another, we realize that we live in a world that quite often does not give us what we want and this puts moral injunctions and demands on us, some of which are impossible to fulfill.
Some indulge in booze and drugs for relief: to medicate and alleviate the symptoms of a predicament. That predicament, in part, arising from within, as a reaction to political, spiritual and socioeconomic coordinates manifests through routines and behaviors, some of which are pleasurable, some of which are destructive.
Addiction, I believe, is tripartite: a physical allergy fueled by a mental obsession linked up to spiritual crisis. In some senses, it is a death wish cloaked in candy, rationed out to the self: in drinks, in doses, in self-deprecating behaviors, in bong hits, in gumdrops. All that is left is the empty self and its needs. The feeling of godless pain is so deep the predicament can only be described as unfathomable.
To me, the spiritual life is not a theory. Whether it is a map of being, a mode of ethics, a way of constructing truth, whether it is yet another kind of “high” in and of itself, is inconsequential. I know I am battling forces that are invisible. Beliefs about myself, the world, beliefs about how I am and how I am supposed to be.
How can one be happy if one is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? It is almost impossible. I’m not saying routines are not good; I am saying the feeling of being disconnected from people wears one down to the point of near self-extinction, wherein the psyche is so enmeshed in hopelessness that there seems to be no way out of self-pity and the need for more booze and drugs. Using substances in moderation is for those who have not crossed the invisible line, who do not know the level of incomprehensible demoralization associated with the predicament. If one is an addict, one cannot sit in the corner, smile, mingle, and shoot heroin like a gentlemen.
Each drug or drink offers its own answers, I think; it even has its own set of ethical problems and behaviors. Vodka does several things to me when I ingest it; there is a higher likelihood of it making me feel a certain way spiritually as opposed to say beer, pills, or speed, or heroin. Truth be told: for me, the result is the same. I feel relief; I temporarily escape from a host of problems and reduce them to one problem. The substances are only symptoms of a deeper problem, however: the inability to see beyond the self and think about others, the inability to belong to a group that is working towards something positive, and the inability have a healthy way of looking at things and events that one cannot control.
Some stay in denial their entire lives. Some know they have a problem, yet see no way out and are slowly killing themselves, but don’t care—or pretend not to care. Today, I do not think that way. I have put the gun on the ground; I have put up my hands; I have acknowledged the fact that there is a conductor of the train, and I am not him. I have not surrendered in the sense that I have given up; what I have done is let go of trying to control everything and everyone around me. Vysotsky’s song “Koni Priveredlivye” (Unruly Horses) reminds one of this truth. In my active addiction, I didn’t seek chaos; I became the chaos, become one with it as if I was a force of nature. I attempted to control a chariot pulled by unruly horses, which are heading full throttle towards the edge of a cliff.
And then something happened. I said “Fuck it, I want to live.” I realized I wanted something more.
Fatherhood seems like something that the current generation is absent from—the only possibility of “family” lies with the past generation and, while it’s sweet and comforting, like it is to Gregory, it’s also naive. Something about the current, ruined state of masculinity seems to problematize the nuclear family, leaving men to kick around, get wasted, and get in trouble. Your blog entry from July 9 is a haunting and well-told anecdote about the impossibility of being a father–or a husband. What, in your opinion, is the source of this crisis of masculinity? What is at the crux of these men’s failures as husbands and fathers?
I have seen pain in people’s eyes when they are asked about why they lost sight of what made them happy. I have seen their self-defeating glare, heard their stories; and, yet I have also seen a spark, a thrill in the active, searching eyes of those who are able to make a connection. With anything. With another person. With the world. With God. Something to let them know that they are okay, and are going to be okay.
Those who do not see a way out of their problems, those who are fatalistic and hoard their failures like a miser inspecting hidden jewels, it is these that are vulnerable. They have learned, somewhere from someone, that they are not good enough to be happy, that joy was for other people, not them, that life was merely to be endured, and not lived. I used to think that men remained men because of forces external to them, which contributed to their active pursuit of desperate situations, but let’s get real: some men are truly lost. They are picking up shards of glass off the floor in the darkness. They have forgotten what they are supposed to do in this world, what they stand for, what it means to live and to love, take care of themselves, so that they can help take care of others.
Fatherhood requires spiritual fitness; for it is one of the most enriching experiences a man can ever experience in his lifetime. The sacrifices are many, but so are the rewards. Helping raise a child, rear a child, nurture a child, teach a child—these are not tasks; they are parts of bio-spiritual continuum wherein a man puts his child’s life above his own. Are there men who have a difficult in navigating within that continuum? Sure. But there is a story behind that struggle. The hardcore fact is that men need to stop hurting the boy in themselves if they want to be a good father. One generation is older, reliving unexplored aspects of their adolescence, another generation is coping with the conflicting mores prescribed by the pontiffs of popular culture, and yet another generation is growing up right now, becoming parents, too. I think that’s a beautiful thing. It’s time to move on, I think. Men need to forgive themselves and take charge of their lives. A lot of what they are fighting are ghosts.
I notice that two of your characters have facial scars—Gregory in “Fallen Years” and Kiril in “The Immigrant,” on the left and right cheek bones, respectively, just below the eye. Forgive me if I’m reading too much into these “cicatrices,” but they read to me as highly symbolic, almost shorthand for some of their experiences. Can you talk more about these markings?
Marks are a kind of shorthand, sure. Kiril’s scar is from a knife fight, yet it represents the sacrifice he made for a woman. He defended a woman’s honor. He has an attitude towards the world because of that experience. That woman’s honor is embedded in his flesh.
The significance of Gregory’s scar on his face is more difficult to determine. He does not have parents, and, I think his mark is more internal than physical because of his relationship to time. I wouldn’t read too much into the marks that you mention. They are undoubtedly there for a reason, but the reason is not baroque, as if like they represent some irreducible element or trace that stays despite what is going on the present. I am interested in scars and markings because I am interested in signs, that is, language; and, physical marks are a kind of language that is a manifestation of certain beliefs.
Gregory’s, Kiril’s, and Timmy J’s alienation is almost palpable, and their feelings of near-exile are so precisely written that it made me wonder about the author’s relationship to that experience. Biographical readings are, I know, not considered a terribly intellectual response to a work, and I try not to overapply them, but I am curious about how your own experience of immigration may have made you especially sympathetic to feeling like an “outsider” or exile.
I’m not a fan of conjuring an author’s biography in order to better “understand” his or her work. That might seem counterintuitive to some people, but I think any story or novel should be understood on its own terms. If one does not accept those terms by a reader, other critical appropriations are there to be utilized—albeit deciphering the meaning and/or meanings of a work through what one learns about the author’s life is erroneous at best. This demeans the fact that the work was actually created. It takes away from a myriad of more interesting readings. It also takes away from what is really at stake in the work, the themes, which should carry weight in spite of the life of the author.
Exile is not a choice. Integrating into a society that one chooses to live in for whatever reason, rather than living in a society in which one is born, presents a host of problems. Some of these problems are resolvable, some turn into complexes, or unravel in some way, and some lead to transformative experiences. For a Russian, I am too American to be Russian. For an American, I am a bit too Russian to be an American. For some people’s eyes, I am not Jewish enough, not Byelorussian enough. These tensions, between being too much of one thing and just not enough of another has created scars in my life, I think; but, there are worse things in life than not having a true home—being unable to love and not keeping one’s word being some of them.
I was intrigued by your discussion of art—as well as consuming political movements—as an escape from nihilism. Of course, you were speaking to a specific era and in a specific place, but I think that the discussion can apply in modern contexts as well. You speak of nihilism as a condition to be escaped–do you mean that these pursuits give a person concrete meaning and purpose, even if they aren’t particularly good, or simply that they distract one from the experience of “the void” and the impossibility of agency?
In that essay about Weimar art, I was examining some narratives conjured in the mind’s eye because of a set of socio-historical coordinates, but you are right: the discussion can be extended to our time as well. Nihilism, the belief in nothing, is rarely truly achieved. There are always beliefs at play within individual psyche, anterior to experience, beliefs in some cognitive map as to what can be found and what is possible to experience. Some people set the bar too low for themselves, do not give themselves enough credit. Some set the bar too high and end up resenting themselves and others because they cannot live up to an ideal. It’s our perception of ourselves as individuals and as species that I question.
What are we doing here? What is at the core of our predicament? What do we believe? Why do we believe? Is there hope? How much do we have to lose before we regain our faculties and cope with the ever changing tapestry of our lives? It is arrogance to believe in results and nothing else. Nihilism to me is not a condition to be escaped. It is an active engagement with one’s own escape itself. It is dialectic of the serpent and the dove; the ongoing war between our impulse and intuition, that war between our higher faculties and the wiles of the reptile brain.
But to be intoxicated by life, to love deeply, passionately, to help others in need whenever one can, to find joy in a world indifferent to your joy, those are the tasks for people seeking meaning to the narratives of their lives. For such people do not say, “Seeing is believing”; rather, they say, “I believe, and now I see.”
T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of The Dimestore World, a poetry collection forthcoming from Patasola Press. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit. Eastern European authors interested in being featured in “The New Хорошо” should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.