Saturday, 22 November 2008

Domain 2

My mother, my grandmother, my mother's brother

Grandmother and mother's brother disappeared in the war. My mother came back and found the whole family gone. Transylvania was early on the deportation and extermination list. Dead, said the neighbours back in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca). Vanished. As had every item that had once belonged to the family. Everything had vanished. Did the neighbours take them? She thought so. She returned despising them. Once back in Budapest in 1946 she set to work and married my father.

This is probably the earliest photograph I have of her, though there is another I will put up that must be of roughly the same time. Skimpy as it seems I offer this bare narrative for now because the time I want to recall is some years later, when I knew her as my mother. What, after all, is a child to do but think of its mother as mother and father as father? The child's terms of reference are necessarily narrow. Parents, to him, are functions and presences. This post, like the previous one and those to follow, is about her as function and presence, as a figure in her domain.

I like the word domain. Brief definitions:

▸ noun: a knowledge domain that you are interested in or are communicating about ("It was a limited domain of discourse")
▸ noun: territory over which rule or control is exercised ("His domain extended into Europe")
▸ noun: the set of values of the independent variable for which a function is defined
▸ noun: people in general; especially a distinctive group of people with some shared interest
▸ noun: a particular environment or walk of life

It's the second definition I am interested in, the territory over which rule and control is exercised. What are rule and control? They are what we seem to need in order to keep the threatening and ravenous at bay. How are they exercised? How are they asserted, wrested, defended?

I don't want to talk about gender roles in general. I feel I possess no authority to do so and would prefer to think of it in the terms specific to our family as I knew it.

In any case, there she is, in the photograph you have not yet seen, that I am keeping to the last, sitting at the table of the kitchen that was undoubtedly her domain in the second sense of the meaning. The room was hers to rule and control. It was not the only room of course. In the last years of her life she spent more time in the house than any of us. She had chosen the house, the colours in which it was decorated, picked the items of furniture and decided what to grow in the garden. My instinct would be to say the whole house was her domain, the two centres of power being bedroom and kitchen. Not that we knew anything of the bedroom, and in any case, it is of the bedroom as room to retire to that I am thinking, rather than of anything remotely sexual. Pain, exhaustion, sheer irritation, might take her there. We did not often venture there. The kitchen was, as kitchens generally are, a more communal place, but it was still her realm.

We had no idea what our father's realm was. If he had one we never saw it, felt it, or heard much about it. His place was out there.

Out there had been her place too, her natural place. As I said earlier she was an independent spirit who had trained to be a photographer. I could imagine her being a Diane Arbus or a Lee Miller. She had the curiosity and social boldness of the former and the courage and energy of the latter, as well as, what seemed to me then, and in a difererent way, still does seem now, an air of necessary glamour. Until she became desperately ill we rarely saw her without her full body armour of lipstick, mascara, powder, nail varnish and highlighted beauty spot. Her fingers were fascinating (there is a poem about them). They were exceedingly long and she could bend them right back without using the other hand. She was like a Javanese dancer, the nails sharp, red, curved. She had modelled jewellery in a jeweller's window. The jeweller draped necklaces over her fingers and she sat there very still while customers considered the price.

She was, in such ways, a fully autonomous sexual being. Not that we would have put it like that, but children are not stupid or insensible. That was a different kind of domain, one over which she seemed to exercise firm control. Firm but, as I began to feel once I was in my teens, not entirely calm or secure. She flirted and liked to appear knowing and daring. I half heard conversations in which she seemed to be hinting at knowledge beyond me, but I had a suspicion that this was bravado. Thinking back now I even wonder whether she wasn't rather prudish and shy and terrified of something. I wondered, and still wonder, what happened to her in Ravensbruck and Penig. Had she been raped or brutalised? She never spoke about any of it so there is no knowing, but there seemed to be something explosive and nervous about the whole bravado performance. In any case there were times when her actions were distinctly wild and weird.

She was her own domain in certain respects, in that the world at home revolved around her. She emitted powerful beams of guilt and ardency. Her love for us could never be repaid, that much was clear. It was the Jewish mother pattern without, ostensibly, a mother who was Jewish. After all we had been strictly told, several times, that she was not a Jew but a Lutheran; that she had been a political prisoner not a racial one. Her own domain she might have been, but always, in everything she did, it was apparent that it was a bruised domain, one whose defences had some time or other been broken and shattered.

There was nothing I could with any certainty call normal in this, so I cannot bank the sense of it in my deposit account of gender knowledge. On the other hand there was nothing much else to go on, so put it down as a wild shot. How little we base our knowledge on, I often think. How great a part is played by imagination and desire, the desire, above all, to rule and control domains of our own. Much to be said here, but in another post.


Cambridge talk was fine. I might put a link to it once I am sure of the text. It was fine for saying. It's always different for reading.


Background Artist said...

Post of the month stuff G, above the usual, beautiful and eloquent.

Riffing on the question posed, of rule and control, how are they exercised, is i suppose contingent on the individual ruler of whatever realm is in existence, beginning with our own mind. What makes the mind the way it is, is it logical to assume, will shape out world-view. So we have a monarch at one end, who Kier Hardie said of in 1894, (in relation to the furture Edward VII):

...surrounded by sycophants and flatterers by the score, and will be taught to believe himself as of a superior creation. A line will be drawn between him and the people whom he is to be called upon some day to reign over.

And at the other, people with less advantages in life whose only realm will be one of escape into their own mind, if they are in an opressive reality dominated and/or brutalised by others, as in the camps and in penal and famine days, right across the world.

there was a special report in yesterdays Mail by a journalist who was on the ground in the afghan pakistan borders and went with guides to a refugee camp. Officially Pakistan claims it has not killed many or any civilians, but this reprter met with and said he is in no doubt thousands have been, using American supplied helicopters and planes, with tales from villagers being brutalised by the Taliban and the Pakistan government, making a long term problem by setting the locals against the Americans and British.

I cannot find this on the online version but it was in the Irish Daily Mail yesterday.

Rule and control, in the net age, i think it is great for spreading literate democracy, as it means we can compete with the likes of Peter Hitchen's, who does have a prominent place in the online version of the Mail, along with a raft of comentators. Hitchen's still uses words like *the Queen's subjects* as a badge of honour, and i think this is the nub of it. Prior to the net, we only got the one way address, and i read in the Giardian war poet hand-out last week, the report from 1914 when war was announced. A large crowd had gathered outside Buck house, to cheer at the news, why?

Because we only had the one way address, a news monopoly, in which the rich who wanted the poor to do their bidding, managed this effortlessly, with all the usual tricks of hypnotism and what not. I just hope Obama will be a force for good in the world, as we are at a unique time in history. Wars cannot solve anything, and the problem with Rule and Control in the UK, is they made a massive illegal error by backing Bush, and instead of being open and honest, talking about it, Brown is burying it and trotting out tired out of date cliches about Britain traditionally being a force for democracy and good, seventy years out of date, and not the party Kier Hardie had in mind.

How are they exercised?

How are they asserted, wrested, defended?

On a national level, using the literature of poets and writers as the sales blurb for whatever qualities the seller is peddling, with Shakespeare being the boss, as he seems universal, beyond the narrow jongoistic spheres, a blank canvas on which to project, with a supporting cast of lesser gods, Milton, Blake, Arnold, each poet also a blank canvas we can use to project our own view in the competition of living and dancing in the rink, the patterns we carve, the news we make, the word-view and symbols of whatever it is Poetry purports to speak, through us as we link via the medium of an electronic realm, all cyber-citz with ideas, each of us unique, no barriers of race or religion in the age of humanity as it currently sits, which this poem, i hope will live beyond once we are gone, no more breathing, returned to dust and memory, only our words a reminder of what went on.

There was a village called civilisation Sir
Eliot's ancient village bought for a kiss
through an invisible pane of intelligence
Little remains of: nothing of the owners
eye after s/he auctioned his tongue, part

I from prayer, part stolen, silently wrapped
lustre of a son eying cold the sustenenance
Of oil and the horror of its contract longing
in a poetic soul and sold to the high caste.
There is a village called civilisation sir.

Serene small village, of infants blood sold
twice: once for money and once for love,
Earning its right to measure between what sun
And sibling moon the village accent shone
Reputations frankly bought, falls leavening
Neither truth nor lies, but in the equipoise
sounding classless, a twenty first century voice.

Mark Granier said...

Just read both of your 'Domain' posts George. I like the way you are coming to terms with your past, and your mother's: vanishings, displacements, actions, consequences... I have read nearly all of Levi's work, so I hear the echoes. Very haunting. And moving. Thank you.

Michelle said...

Thank you, George.

Poet in Residence said...

Three beautiful people in sepia, George.
An innocent moment captured on a photographer's plate. We may imagine your photographer, generally they would be quite elderly and very well dressed, probably reek of tobacco; he'd be darting his head in and out of the black cloth tunnel atop the cumbersome tripod, coming out to order the scene and to get some air, darting back in again, coming out again. Never completely happy. Move an inch this way. No, that way. And so on. It must have taken an age to take a photo in those days. I expect a whole afternoon would be set aside for it. It was an almost theatrical performance. The man arriving, or the people going to the photographer's studio, the setting up the equipment, the lengthy discussion with the family about the composition, the seating arrangements, the light source, goodness, it's a wonder they ever got around to taking the photographs. And then you'd probably have to wait a couple of weeks to see the results.
Lovely of you to share it with us, George.
I found the wide-eyed innocence and the crease in the corner very poignant. It made me think of other sharper eyes and creases.