Tuesday, 24 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 2

Hovering is a psychological as well as social condition. The feeling is not unknown generally. The history of humanity is one of migration, settling, then more migration. Whether the migration is defensive or aggressive is almost secondary in the long run. The fact is people move and ever faster, ever further now than they have ever done. The process of identifying with a place, a state, a language, a history, or a group of some sort whether religious or ethnic or kin, involves a complex and troubled negotiation between conflicting forces. The places we cling to are in the imagination as much as in time and space though we welcome the confirmations of time and place when we can get them.

I doubt that my mother's death was an entirely physical matter. Her thoughts and feelings, her patterns of behaviour, patterns we recognised as idiosyncratic, were likely to have been ever less secure in time and place. Her experiences (which might be broadly generalised as belonging to a type, albeit not a very broad type) and her ways of dealing with them (which were as unique as any individual's must be) produced the condition in which she found herself.

Her hovering began early, in fact it began long before she was born. Here is a list of the major pogroms since the middle ages:

Pogroms in Europe, Russia and Middle East from Middle Ages 
(Jews murdered, expropriated, expelled or fled) 

1011        Cordoba
1033        Fez
1066        Granada
1096        France, Germany
1189        London, York
1276        Fez
1348-51   Chillon, Basle, Stuttgart, Ulm, Speyer, Dresden, Mainz, Hungary
1465        Fez
1490        Hungarian pogrom
1506        Lisbon
1648-57   Ukraine
1686        Hungary, Buda Massacre, anti-Jewish laws
1768-69   Ukraine
1819        Würzburg, Denmark, Poland, Latvia, Bohemia
1821        Odessa pogroms
1828        Baghdad massacre (Islamic)
1839        Meshed, Persia
1840        Damascus (Islamic)
1859        Odessa
1867        Barfurush (Islamic)
1881-84   Russia, Kiev, Warsaw, Odessa continuing into 20C
1911        Tredegar Riot, Wales
1917        Russia
1918        Lwow
1919        Argentina, Poland, Hungary

(Even as I tabulate the above I am aware that there will be those, even some quite nice 'those' who are securely, almost unconsciously,  thinking or feeling, Damn Jews, always presenting themselves as a special case. They think the world owes them a living. Briefly to address their concerns, I am not presenting this. I am exploring a state of consciousness that I have decided to call hovering. These are not excuses: they are, as far as I can ascertain, facts that lead to perceptions. I don't expect the reader to feel obligated to me because some time back my unknown ancestors have been persecuted. I am not claiming monies or territories, nor am I expecting to be treated more leniently than anyone else. I don't think I myself have been at all persecuted, on the contrary I consider myself extremely fortunate, but I suspect - in fact I know - I am here because others not only perceive they have been persecuted, but actually have been.) 

What the table does show is that Jews have always lived with the possibility of persecution and migration. Hovering is the given condition.

My mother was born in 1924, to a Hungarian Jewish family in Transylvania who would themselves have been born in Hungarian territory during relatively liberal times, have survived the first great war then faced the persecutions following Hungarian defeat, first as Jews, then, once Transylvania was ceded to Romania by the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, as part of a Hungarian minority in hostile territory. In 1940, under pressure from Hitler, their part of Transylvania was returned to Hungary. This  saved them from the excesses of the Romanian fascist Antonescu only to drop them into the laps of the increasingly fascist Hungarian state whose functionaries were eventually to deliver them to whatever death awaited them. We don't even know what and where. We know nothing.

Having come to Budapest at the age of sixteen to work as apprentice to a photographer, despite considerable brio and extraordinary firmness of purpose, my mother will have hovered with ever less assurance of time and space.

(And then the camps and then the rescue and then the bombed city and then the vain return home to find her family and all property vanished, and then marriage, and then hyperinflation, and then political absolutism, and then children, and then revolution, and then flight, and then England, and then the operations,... blah-di-blah and other stuff I will not dwell on if only because it is generic and I am determined this should not become a sob story. I am not the right person to be doing any sobbing.)

That load of data above? I didn't even fully identify with it, not in a mouthy way. It was white noise in the background, something to do with the Chagall's yellow room but not in an easy causal way.


Back in the Sixties, the Welsh Jewish poet, Dannie Abse, wrote a poem titled 'Even'. Dannie lived - and still does live - in Golders Green, a partially Jewish suburb in North-West London. The poem begins with a verse about watching Jews pass his gate on their way to synagogue on a Saturday. The second goes on:
Dressed like that they lose their charm
who carry prayer books, wear a hat.
I don't like them, I don't like them,
and guilty fret - just thinking that.
He goes on to wonder whether he is just 'another / tormented, anti-semite Jew?' before watching the Christian pass the same gate on a Sunday and deciding that he doesn't like them either. It is the pathology of religions he rejects in the last verse, regarding believers as 'zealots of / scrubbed and excremental visions'.

Zealotry is one thing but those 'scrubbed and excremental visions' might well belong in the yellow-lit Chagall-room, so I will need to return to them in due course.

But I have felt as Dannie felt. I have seen the uniforms of zealotry and inwardly shuddered, either because those wearing the uniforms were temperamentally inimical or because they suggested the kinds of ghosts that might haunt a yellow room, I cannot tell.  They were certainly disturbing in exactly the way ghosts are disturbing. Nobody wants ghosts, especially zealous ones.


The Chagall painting above shows lovers flying over a town. How easily an image becomes a cliché, a form of sentimentality. I take sentimentality to be an emotion supposedly directed at someone else but really directed at oneself; harmless in small doses - perhaps even humanising - but when indulged, a mixture of self-pity, self-love and self-loathing. Sentimentality is bad medicine.

When first conceived and painted, those lovers were not sentimental: they were celebratory and improbable. They are not just hovering but drunkenly sweeping along leaving the town behind, heading for a properly furnished world of symbols. The yellow room is below them. The yellow room is the point that is actually hovering in time and space, perfectly still for now, but later transferred to other locations, maybe Paris, maybe, later still, Israel. They themselves are moving on to a world in which the small yellow room is just a memory.

I'm moving too fast and I am still not covering the territory, not one-tenth of it. Sometimes I think - and fear - that I am like those flying lovers: too high and too fast to grasp the slower meaning of things. But speed may be my gift. For what it's worth.


dritanje said...

I'm finding it fascinating, the concepts of hovering and 'the assembled self' as well as your excursions into historical and personal past. Perhaps at least partly because I am finding out things about my own forebears that I did not know before, but also drawn to your images, that half light that has a faintly familiar feel to it though I have never understood why...
I do hope you go on,

Dennis Tomlinson said...

Chagall has always appealed to me, and I see the danger lurking on the edge of images that might at first glance seem simply joyful. After seeing The Promenade in an exhibition I wrote a poem concluding with the words 'still he swings surely/ his bride through all peril'.

The pictures I saw in the Chagall Museum in Nice reached beyond the Jewish experience: he could be the painter of the persecuted.

George S said...

I will go on later tonight, Morelle.

Dennis - Indeed the Jewish experience should not be regarded in isolation. I only take it as subject here because it is, by inheritance, mine. And I am sure - at least am very hopeful - that Chagall speaks to the human condition at large.