Thursday, 9 August 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch and ending, 13

I want to draw this to a close and wonder about the best way to do it, at least in this format. I have written about myself and my own feelings, about my parents' experience, about the history of anti-Jewish persecutions; I have listed the common anti-Semitic charges, have defended the existence, though not all the actions, of Israel, have tried to show - through factors of population, land area and defence considerations  - why Israel may act the way it does and why its existence should not be denied.  

But Israel is not my chief concern: it is what lies behind the notion of a state, or if not exactly a political state, my own state.

I have returned time and again to Chagall's yellow room and am now wondering whether that room represents a religion, a culture, a residual memory, a state of mind or a condition of the imagination. 

I am unmoved by the religion as such. A God whose first interest is in my foreskin and whose existence is defined through volumes of religious law is not quite a mensch to me. I respect all religions' rituals and customs providing they are humane but regard their religious observances as an aspect of the romantic-absurd. Touch your nose three times before meals and never cut your toe-nails on a Thursday are injunctions one might observe and, after a century or so, they might even get to feeling sacred, but it's still just touching your nose. Time can hallow anything.

A culture? I have not consciously been part of Jewish culture. Not in England. I don't really know it, or understand it, or even feel particularly drawn to it. It's fine, and it is clearly something to do with me, but I'm not sure what. I can see that it involves certain temperamental and sentimental tics but I seem not to have been a clubbable man and have preferred meeting club members - any club - outside the club. How are things in the club? I'll ask and they'll shrug and reply: Nothing changes, but have you heard... It's like finding out what your cousins have been up to. Had we stayed in Hungary it might have been different, but we didn't.

A residual memory? - Yes. The mind knows more than the bones do but you have more chance of changing your mind than your bones. I make no great claims for mine but at times of rising anti-Semitism I get psychological rheumatism. Residual memory is what gets injected into your spine at birth. It is not a predisposition towards law, accountancy, medicine, the violin, the rag trade, or poisoning wells, it's just memory of the kind carried by perfectly normal cells. I don't want to spend too much time with my bones but they do hold up my body. When fascists talk about blood it is the bones they really mean.

I can't speak about a state of mind, though clearly it must be to do with the bones. I don't know the state of my mind and haven't the foggiest about anybody else's. Minds are a mystery. But a condition of the imagination is something one might recognise in oneself especially if one writes. The evidence, like Wren's churches in London, is all about one. The yellow room, I suspect, is one of the conditions of the imagination.


Having written everything above that asterisk it all seems rather strange. It is strange to me to use the word mensch like that. I feel self-consious picking it up. It's like an item of my grandfather's laundry, the grandfather who died - in fact either dead grandfather. I imagine the word mensch sewn into the elastic waistband of their underpants. It feels faintly improper and intrusive picking one's way through ancestral underwear, let alone patriarchal underwear. But it's lying in a corner of the yellow room in an old battered suitcase and someone must own it.

Who to make my peace with? I will be sixty-four in November and I am not much nearer knowing the answer. I haven't even mentioned the Hungarian language, the Hungarian imagination, the Hungarian city, the Hungarian God. I must do that some time. I will do it. 

Then again, I am a writer in the English language and it is to the English language my writing must belong. The English language has fed me, sustained me, formed my thinking and social being, and become the terrain of my imagination. It too is condition; a determining condition perhaps. It is, in my experience, generally a kind, rich, supple condition. I look out of the window above my desk and see the leaves trembling in that cloudy light which, were I Rupert Brooke, I would think of as forever England.

The yellow room does not quite belong in such cloudy tolerant light. Nevertheless, it is here and I have my share and corner in it.

I want to finish up with Les's comments on the yellow room. as I describe it. I don't know who Les is but this is what he says:

1. the yellowness of it is essential to its feeling of intimacy. a warmth, a familiarity, that, whatever its source, whether from the lamp, or a glow enhanced by the wooden floor or the walls, is as much a part of the room as any piece of furniture, or even, its occupant.
2. no matter how many people are in this room at any given moment, no matter how loud the voices, how impassioned the words, the room is never crowded or claustrophobic. in fact, the room always seems to accommodate the right number of people, regardless of how many or how few have congregated there. the room is welcoming.
3. the room is always the promise of a return.

There are few nicer things that could be said of any room. Les is the kindness of the room. I think I'd recognise his spiritual form sitting at the table, as I would recognise some of our dearest friends in Hungary, Jewish or not.


Gwil W said...

There are currently 7 nobles all contending to be the King of Jerusalem.

One of them is Spain's King Juan Carlos - yes the WWF's very own elephant hunter!

Perhaps the 7 kings should all meet in Jerusalem and do something. It has a biblical ring to it.

Anonymous said...

frankly, george, this piece is one of the more mentschlekhkeyt things i've read in quite a while, so regardless of where or how you found the word, you certainly know what it means. and i thank you for this whole series of posts. but i do have a question about milieu. if the yellow room is a refuge, then that seems to entail some notion of repose (the man seated at the window, staring or dreaming at the outside), then to what extent does milieu, with its complexity, its richness of association, entail a notion of performance? as you pointed out in the previous post, this is a room of singing, of human voices, stringed instruments, delicious or delirious noises, etc. one gets the feeling that simply stepping into this room, one could perform the most wonderful, prodigious feats of acrobatics ever seen, even if one doesn't know how to dance. in fact, the woman's smiling upside-down face is an invitation, or a challenge, for something like that. so this room, this yellow room (yellow for warmth, but also yellow for energy), is simultaneously a place of refuge, of rest, repose, contemplation, but also a space of encounter, of wild, direct, physical, perhaps even liberating movement and energy. but all of this, i think, can only be realized in and through the page of writing.


George S said...

Dear Anonymous Les - for all I know I might be living in the yellow room. It's just odd to think tof it . Like everyone else, I tell it as it seems: how it actually is one never knows. But it has been a great pleasure meeting you here - as it might be in the very same room.

George S said...

Gwilym, I am happy to meet them all round the corner at Nick's cafe.

Gwil W said...

What a lovely idea and one of the sanest I've heard in years.