a Kind of Refugee / 17.02.2023
Sorry for the long silence.
Silence has meaning when it falls between two events. Without a frame, it is just a lack of information. How could you know when I’m sitting in the dark, disconnected? Or that the power hasn’t gone out at all for nearly a week?
Maybe I’ve been sick with Covid, tired of sitting around at home but struggling to think clearly. Maybe I’ve been translating a long essay written by a brilliant Ukrainian—to share with readers abroad but also to engage with the thoughts more deeply. Maybe I was offered the job of my dreams and ultimately didn’t perform it. Maybe I still managed to zoom onto a screen set up in the Ukrainian Diaspora Museum in Kyiv to talk about Moshe Feldenkrais and his method—as part of a modest public program, the echo of an exhibition we’d been planning since 2020 that didn’t happen last year.
Kyiv feels like the capital of a country at war. I see men, and occasionally women, in uniform whenever I leave the house. Usually it’s one or two, probably on a brief leave or on assignment to buy or repair something. I see vehicles painted dark green or camo-patterned driving amidst civilian traffic.
Noah writes that his American medic friend “got blown up again, but a chest tube later he's recovering. Guy has more lives than a cat.”
As I’m lying in bed, resting, the phone rings. The last time Kevin called it was to tell me about the load of medical supplies he was sending to Ukraine and did I have any special requests from the US? Now without chitchat he says: “One of my ‘kids’ was badly injured and can you go check on him in the hospital in Kyiv? Oh and another American was killed. We’re working on getting his body back to the States.”
Having Covid during war is confusing. When people are getting blown up left and right, with assignments appearing unexpectedly and daily news reports that the russians are pressing along the entire front, it’s hard to sense how the virus has compromised my capacity to act.
I don’t know how to tell you about the war in my country that’s become less tangible and more urgent because the action is happening somewhere else. I can’t see it or hear it or smell it. The habits of thought and ways I’ve been used to communicating fall short.
“Somebody said that words lost their sense,” Stas writes about last spring 2022 in Facebook, “but I thought and still do that words acquired meaning and you could no longer just throw them around or juggle them.”
Below someone commented about being near the front line: “There every word (and gesture, and sound) has great weight. I think this is because in a state of such heightened tension, we take in a maximum of information. And so embellishment and ambiguity have no place here. And there is no place for extra words—because all your neural pathways are already on fire.”
I’ve never been to the front. But spending time with people who have conveys something without words: an understanding that war and all the irreversible physical destruction it entails is real. The only thing you can do with the russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory, advancing on our positions, is kill them.
“Horror is no different from a dream.” This thought—the title of the essay I translated— took several months from the first reading to sink in. Horror fills you with emotion. Emotion clouds the senses, occupies the nervous system, and you exclaim, “How horrible!” It feels like you’re doing something because emotion does not exist without physical movement.
Horror, like dreaming, draws you away. Action requires a cool acceptance and assessment of the situation at hand and mental space for thinking. How did the russians get here? Thinking militarily you trace the route on a map, with a mind to how to stop them, blow up a bridge, destroy a train track, make it impossible for them to bring in more troops, supplies, ammunition, weapons.
Nobody asked them to come. These forces bent on destroying Ukraine are crossing the border by russian will. How did they come to this? Thinking politically requires scrutinizing history and culture.
Larisa Venediktova’s essay suggests a way to think about the russian culture that is driving this war as an extension of Soviet shame culture. Looking back on her youth in the USSR, she reflects on the particular quality of Communist shame culture and finds its analogues in contemporary russia and Germany. She concludes that looking outward to social norms for moral guidance instead of to your own conscience guarantees this war will never end.
How can you tune the ability to hear your conscience without speaking frankly about the brutality that we encounter and the real, often inglorious, ways in which people, we, respond to it? The memory of extreme violence, hardship and loss during World War II was conveyed to me by my elders who lived it through their physical presence. I grew up in the painful disconnect between that unspeakable heritage and the contrived happiness of life in the American suburbs.
I remember an image, hardly a story, relayed by one of my parents at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ house in a small American mill town: a sack of women lying in a field. The field was in Germany. The time was either during or just after the end of WWII. The person who witnessed it was my grandfather. It’s a horrible image. We can imagine what it might feel like to be one of those women inside the sack (summer, hot, suffocating). We can imagine some men hassling those women into the sack and tying them up, roughly. We can imagine the threat hanging in the air around what awaits those women or we can imagine what was already done to them.
What’s missing is the line connecting this image to me. Where and who was my grandfather in relation to those women in the sack? Knowing my grandfather I cannot imagine him being one who put those women in the sack. Knowing myself I cannot imagine with confidence that he would have risked approaching the sack, freeing the women inside and ushering them to safety.
Something important is lost when we perceive history as a series of images (or events) rather than deeds. Images can elicit emotion. In the best case they spark questions, perhaps discussion. But conscience responds to and learns from deeds.
PS Actor Volodymyr Kanivets, whom I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in numerous performances in Kyiv over the past 15 years is now serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He is raising money for a vehicle for his unit. You can contribute (by credit card) here: https://send.monobank.ua/jar/9JRsbMghBE
PPS While my translation is in search of a publisher, here is the long version of Larisa Venediktova’s essay “Horror Is No Different From a Dream” in the original Ukrainian: https://tanzlaboratorium.org/zhakh/
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"Something important is lost when we perceive history as a series of images (or events) rather than deeds."
I will go one further on this: something important is lost when we perceive history as a series of images, or events, OR deeds: something is lost when we do not think of history as a set of *choices.* Someone is choosing to aim at our ambulances, instead of at our Position 0. It is not a secret where Position 0 is--ours, or theirs. We choose to aim at their soldiers. They choose instead to aim at our hospitals, our humanitarian vehicles, the homes of our grandmothers.
Never apologize for silence! Your posts bring home the devastation being inflicted. We need to hear. We may be ravenous for real life news- - but not at an overly burdensome cost to you. We have the luxury of drinking. Some of your friends can only gulp, gulp, gulp. That translation moved me to subscribe. Take care.