Friday, February 6, 2009

Dark Stew of Bedtime Reading

It was late at night, past midnight. For a fiction workshop I’m taking, I read several pages of
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski. Earlier this day I also read an article from spiked, an on-line publication, by Frank Furedi, “After Gaza: What’s Behind 21st-century Anti-Semitism?” about contemporary European reactions to and public conversations about the Holocaust, and also about the forms that anti-semitism seems to be taking in Europe. Just before reading the Borowski pieces, I read an article in The New Yorker about doomersphere and dystopian writers called “The Dystopians: Bad times are boom times for some.” We are most certainly in or headed for bad times, although perhaps not entirely if the occurrence of some bad things will provide the catalyst for more reasonable and rational things to happen.

So, here I had this dark stew of bedtime reading comprising the Holocaust story (what happened to Jews and other Third Reich-deemed misfits in bad times in Europe), the prophecies of these dystopian academics, and the evident presence in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) of anti-semitism that according to Mr. Furedi in part seems to be working on holding the Jewish people responsible for what happened to them during the mid-twentieth century genocide because of actions Israel is taking today. My response: I wanted to crawl into bed with each of my children and hold them close to me and feel fortunate that this is all in the past or far, far away from us. Only, we are in potentially dystopian times and I am Jewish enough to have qualified to be a passenger on one of the transports Borowski describes, and for reasons explained brilliantly in the spiked article, many people in the world may not feel too fondly towards my kind right now, so perhaps something like this could happen again?

I am an anxious person to start with, but every time I read Holocaust literature, I start to picture me or someone in my family getting carted off. When I was little, it was my father and mother. Now, it’s me and my children and my husband. Why am I so worried? Why am I so paranoid? No one in my family that I know of was even in the Holocaust, I don’t live in Europe or Germany, and nothing bad has happened to me in the States because I’m Jewish except for the occasional derogatory remark, ethnic slur, or misguided ignorance and unfair stereotyping here and there. Yet, I can’t help but take what happened somewhat personally. If their reaction is it all similar to mine after reading about Holocaust, how must African-Americans, for example, feel when they read literature from times of slavery or watch footage from the 1960’s of civil rights violations? Or even today, watching on YouTube a defenseless Oscar Grant get shot and killed? How do they not feel frightened and distrustful all of the time of white people, of their government, of law enforcement officers, all of the time?

So, yes, I want to go and feel my children safe and sound next to me. To hold each one of them against me and kiss their soft, delicious cheeks, stroke their still baby fine-hair, to hear and feel them breathing calmly because who knows, they could conceivably find themselves trampled to death on a transport, or if they survive the transport, they could be separated from their dad and me once we arrive. How terrified they would be. How utterly terrified. How brutal. Perhaps I should give up my religion, and any religion. Is any religion worth dying like that for? I do not and would not deny who I am, but sometimes I question belonging to something that may target me for a most unnatural and agonizing death. That same something, though, makes me stand by this part of my identity; to ever reject it or attempt to hide it would feel like self-hatred and cowardice.

I also wonder why I am so lucky. Why me? Why my family? Why my children? (Although for now I will not burden them with the angst of their extreme good luck and fortune.) I want to go forth and enjoy each day, hour, minute and second of my life, of them, of literature, of food, of films, of art, of recreation, of my lovely home, of family, of friends, of any beautiful place. I resolve to do this, to not take my children for granted, to not take those things enumerated just one sentence ago for granted. And for the time I take to breathe in and hold my peacefully slumbering children, I will not, just as I have so many other times, ignore the preciousness of life, of my life, that has been so starkly laid out before me this night.

But, really, when has such starkness changed anyone for longer than a relative moment? For how long do the roses smell sweet after one has resolved to stop to smell them? When does one lapse into not stopping to smell them at all? How long do I give myself before my son’s humming gets annoying, before I start wishing that my other son would stop flopping his body with a thud onto the floor, before I lose my patience with my daughter’s insistence on both choosing her shoes and not wearing any at all. I feel this feeling of fortune, of luck, and I try to live my life according to that, but I always lose that sense and then I gradually return to complaining again on a cold night about how poorly the heating works in my house or to feeling sorry for myself because an essay I wrote got rejected from some publication or another. What do those rejections matter when that transport could be me? When that transport is someone else right this minute as I have the leisure to write this? When it’s millions of people? And then, there’s the fact of this person’s suffering that is supposed to make me a better person, or rather, I am supposed to make myself a better person because of someone else’s suffering. And perhaps, I am a better person than I was or would have been had I not considered the suffering of some unfortunate Zimbabwean relative to my own suffering, which is, really, none at all.

How can we just go about our everyday lives when there is so much suffering that is going on? How can we be certain that we are not next? I am not using this is an excuse to do nothing. To say, well, all of that is insurmountable so I might just as well get my reality tv on and be blind to it all. I suppose we just need to live our lives as ethically, tolerantly, and charitably as we can and remember not to ever take our extreme privilege for granted. But, is that enough?

(photo, entitled Cottonteil Muromachi's Dystopia, by flickr user rocket surgery)