Chronicle of an unplanned trip – Part I: We interrupt our normal programming…

March 15, 6:00 PM – SM calls me at work. He had some problems at work in the last few days, so I assume he is calling to talk about it

"My mother called," he says. SM always talks to his mom or to his sister about things that upset him. His mother probably had some reassuring piece of wisdom to share with him.
"What did your mom say?" I ask.
"My Grandma died. They found her today in her home."
"I am so sorry," is all I can say.

That was the beginning of a week-long interruption of our fairly uneventful life. In the following days we flew to a place I’ve never been before, for the death of a woman I’ve never met in person. It turned out to be a longer and more adventurous trip than I expected. Traveling through space was just a small portion of the experience (although it took two days to get to our destination). We moved across time and cultures. I witnessed the emotional journey of people I love trying to cope with Sarah’s death (the ups and the downs; laughing to tears at the memories; crying at the sudden awareness that she is not here any longer for us and she won’t come back). I learned about the procedures we use to sanitize death, making it at the same time much cleaner and much more disturbing. I had to face the paradox of human death: it’s so certain and yet finds us so thoroughly unprepared.

If it lacked the raw pain and devastation associated with the death of a loved one, Sarah’s death was a powerful reminder that there is more to life than our incessant running around stressed out and out of breath. Questions that are usually left at the bottom of our consciousness, ran rushing to the surface: what is the meaning of our existence, what should we do with our life, what is the experience of dying, what death does to the people who survive, what is left of our existence after death. Death is the most extreme and terrifying experience of irreversibility. The awareness that our own death awaits us at the end of the road shapes our lives even if we deny it and try to forget.

When people die, those who knew them keep them alive by telling stories. For a short period, the rushing and background noise of worries and thoughts subside and we allow ourselves to listen. Stories are triggered by a word, an object, a picture, a document, a newspaper clipping, a chain of shared memories in which each story leads to the next. Forgotten events and secrets are discovered in a scrapbook or in a letter. Time warps and leaps back and forth.

This is how I learned about Sarah: by listening to the continuous narration of people who knew her. Sarah was not there in person but she was taking up residence in our mind: our constant conversation about her filled the absence with a surprisingly vivid representation of her. People talked about her and at the same time they talked about themselves: about the pieces of her forever stuck in their soul. The Sarah we were experiencing was not the same person who was here in the flesh a few days earlier, but was not less real.

All the stories about Sarah and her family play as an accelerated course of popular American history and create a complex a network of events, relationships, causes and effects. By looking at the life of another person is easier to realize how our lives are shaped by our time, family history, and external events we don’t control. Perhaps our own choices make a difference in our life. But when we look back at our past, things are just as they are: an organized series of irreversible events leading to us on this day.

Later, the same Wednesday

6:10 PM – SM hangs up. I think how we never got around to visit Sarah. SM had not seen her in more than 20 years and I’ve never met her. Our life had been too narrow to include her: in the last 10 years we had either too little money or too few vacation days to travel to Michigan, or so we told ourselves. Deep inside, we both know that the true reason has little to do with money or time. SM’s family moved progressively away from small town Alpena, first to Ann Arbor, then all the way west to the San Juan Islands, near Seattle. They moved away from their past and their family history; Sarah–fierce, independent, hard, and passionately attached to her place–was left behind. Sarah visited them West a few times, then the contacts became fewer and farther apart. Except for Emma, who traveled to Michigan every year during the summer to stay with her mother.

9:30 PM – Back home, we start planning for the trip. K, from the Bay Area has already reserved a rental car at the Detroit airport. We find tickets on Southwest to fly to Detroit in the morning and SM makes a reservation for an hotel by the airport. In Seattle, Emma has already bought her Seattle-Detroit plane ticket. SM sends an e-mail to Brent: we won’t make it to his New York City wedding on Saturday. SM is sad about it, even more than I am. A lot of people from our University of Oregon days that we have not seen in years would be there. I check my work schedule for next few days, cancel meetings, and send e-mails. SM does the same. In about 1 hour we have made all the necessary arrangements for the trip. In different circumstances, inertia, procrastination, and excruciating planning would get in the way and our day-to-day duties and routines would trap us. But today, everything seems almost too easy.

11:00 PM – SM and I talk more about Sarah. Last time SM went to Alpena he was 23 years old. He is 45 now. SM asks: "What does it mean to visit her only now that she is dead?" What make us lose contact with significant people in our life? Why don’t we pick up the phone any time we think about someone we haven’t seen in some time? I know so well that feeling of paralysis that sometimes gets over us when we think about somebody we miss. I play in my mind all the actions required to call them (go to the computer, open up Address Book, look up their number, pick up the receiver …), then something stops me, I turn back and get to the next thing. It’s almost to preserve the memory of them without tainting it with the reality of a new contact, the fear or laziness to have to recreate a connection that has not be there for a while. Stupid, I know. Worse: mean, because it denies others the recognition that they still exist for us, we miss them, and we enjoy their presence.

(More to come)

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Kitsch, Propaganda, and the Denial of S–t

(Also titled: My all too real existential angst as eruditely expressed by Milan Kundera)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is obsessing me lately. I wonder why: I had not read or thought about this book in years. Yesterday, I took the English copy we own from the bookshelf and started reading it.

[My Italian copy got lost when I sold my house in Padova. At that time, I was still a student in Oregon and I didn’t have time or the money to go back and clean up my stuff before selling the house. The friends who rented my apartment until few months earlier were kind enough to take care of the house sale as well as to pack what was left in my home and give it away. This is how I lost, among many things, my book collection.]

The copy we own looks like a used book, and has a dedication: "March 1st, 1995. To S., A.," which means that this is the first present I gave my husband for his birthday. Usually the first gift I give to friends and lovers is a book, and it’s not a disinterested present: it’s an attempt to communicate something essential about myself to them.

[For many years, the book I gave as first present to people I cared about was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Before that, it was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis expresses something very deep about how I feel, too, but I’m not sure that I have ever given it as a present. As in all of Kafka’s books, there is something excessively personal and revealing in The Metamorphosis. Last time I read it, I ended up sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve always had this unsettling feeling to be the reincarnation of Franz Kafka.]

Back to the Unbearable Lightness, I realized that my obsession had to do with the description of totalitarian kitsch in chapter six, The Grand March. In typical Kunderian fashion, Kundera starts by talking about shit.

The fact that until recently the word ‘shit’ appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in a unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes anything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

ceci n'est pas une pipe

Then, Kundera goes on to describe totalitarian kitsch.

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politician and all political parties and movements.

Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the real of totalitarian kitsch.

When I say "totalitarian," what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm o kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); (…).

And here is the quote I was desperately searching, which describe Sabina’s style as a painter (where is the search button in a book when you need it?):

"In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her painting to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through."

A lot of science fiction has dealt with this type of unsettling feeling: that reality is not what we perceive; that an unbearable truth is hidden from us by an illusory and reassuring lie (think The Matrix; We, the amazing novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and many many others). This is one of the main reasons why I love sci-fi.

This is also how I feel. I feel as I inhabit a double reality. On the one hand, I see the nice, reassuring, positively spun truth of the political/corporate propaganda, where people who can make decisions are doing a good job, thinking big, taking responsibilities, and acting fairly while we work happily for the common and greater good. At work, we are paid well, our benefits are good, people leaving the job have found "a better opportunity" elsewhere, and we all march together towards the corporate ideal of perfection.

On the other hand, I cannot get rid of the fastidious realization that things below the surface are not always the way they seem. Through the cracks, I can see unintelligible truth of mismanagement, failures and wrong decisions never addressed, personal responsibilities never accepted, favoritism, and unfair treatment. Nobody wants to hear it. Not the people who can do something to fix it and not even the people who suffer from it, because accepting this realization is painful and would force us to make difficult choices. I wish I could avoid it, but I can’t; I don’t have any choice than seeing what is in front of my eyes. I can see too clearly cracks in the orderly and neat picture revealing a messy and chaotic world underneath, and I feel trapped.

Perhaps I’m just making it too melodramatic. "This is life, my dear, and you should just be able to deal with it." Perhaps I’m too much of an idealist. "Stop thinking about fairness and justice and just do your work. This is a contract, pal, not an utopian revolution."

In the end, Kundera says, there is more to kitsch than totalitarian kitsch. Kitsch is a touching, human reactions to the harshness of reality, a salvation from the inconceivable realization of loneliness and death.

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

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