Sirens and Muses
Yesterday was Yom HaShoa, Holocaust remembrance day. At ten in the morning the air-raid sirens wind up and blast a call across the whole flat face of the country. Every Jewish citizens stops and stands in silence. Broadcasts cease. Cars freeze in the middle of freeway lanes. Buses empty out onto the street. A nation spends a moment in contemplation, utterly undistracted.
Renee and Roger, longtime friends of my grandparents, were visiting from Paris. Naturally, the conversation turned to the Second World War, and the two of them told their separate stories of running from the Nazis in occupied France. One hid in a monastery, the other in a Catholic girl’s school. Roger’s father was gassed at Auschwitz. Renee’s mother was cached away in the evergreen forests. It is these living memories of that unimaginable suffering and brutality that maintains the fervent historicizing of the Holocaust in the world’s Jewish communities. In one or two more generations, when all of the survivors have died and even the children of the survivors, who witnessed the traumas of their parents, have passed away, the holocaust will begin its slow and inevitable decay into just one more famous tragedy of human history. The story will be gruesome and the scale impressive, but the event itself will be sapped of contemporary relevance. People will know about the holocaust, but it will no longer signal their own tragedy, the tragedy of their family and their people. Sooner or later, holocaust remembrance day will become yet another picnic holiday.
From this perspective, I think of all the other huge and horrific crimes of human history, now sapped of salience and half forgotten. One could while away an entire life mourning the atrocities of the past, one by one. It is the destiny of such an arrogant, amnesiatic species as humankind to forever repeat its mistakes, each misstep taken in a new and hypnotizing dance above the graves of our forgotten fathers. In the meantime, we struggle to keep some memories fresh in the trumpeting of our battle horns; my five year-old cousin hears the sirens and remembers last summer’s war.
Been writing lately. Wrote my first Hebrew poem on Friday. Fits and starts. One of my problems is, I can’t figure out what the writing means to me. Self-expression is an empty phrase, a color of breathing in the bon ton. I admire folks like Snyder or Walcott who write to codify the sensed and unsaid, and those who write to change hearts and minds. When W. writes her stories, they read like dreams, a slow and selective digestion of the past. That is also what I love in Calvido’s fables, his reference and his synthesis. Since I began writing in Ann Arbor, most of my talented friends’ work has been visceral exhibitionism, an innocuous breed of self-destruction. I can’t pull off any of these styles consistently.
In looking forward to my visit home, I predict everyone’s questions and try to figure out what I’ve learned in Israel. A lot of Hebrew, some local culture, but mostly I have learned what I am not. I am not an archaeologist, not a cynic, not a visionary. I am not an athlete, not a historian, not courageous. I am not unsatisfied. I aspire to everything. I am often satisfied with aspiration. I can’t figure out if these are flaws or virtues. Without a definite goal, a person’s character traits seem neutral. Only the goal can transform them into impediments or advantages. I feel like my fantasy of the next six months is playing out on a series of kinetoscopes, flashes of this or that project, this or that summit, this or that poem. My inability to settle on even the most short-term goal is becoming seriously inconvenient. I spend all my time looking for options and very little effort in trying to actualize them.