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Remember Passing

Tuesday 7 January 2020

By Jo Mrelli. Published on the website Protocols.

Dotan Moreno, Grounding, 24x32cm, watercolor, ink and pencil on paper, 2019

Characters:

TGOT: Translator Gone Off-Track (in that she writes in the language she should be translating from)
SOS: State of Self (in the 1990s)
Pierre: a documentarist

Act I

TGOT to SOS: One day you are contacted by someone who makes documentary films. A man called Pierre. It’s the 1990s. These are years when Jewish is a word you try to forget. This must be said right away, because although Pierre’s film, for which he contacts you, has nothing to do with Jewish, or at least doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Jewish, your encounter with him and his film takes place at a moment when Jewish is a word that, for you, seems always in the way. Of course, you keep pushing it aside. When you look at it, it tells you things that you have heard too many times. Sometimes you look at it head-on. Sometimes you say: Ok, I’ll give you some time, go on, speak. I’ll give you, say, ten minutes. Or an hour. If it’s really interesting. Like when the cat comes for caresses. You say: Ok, I’ll caress you for, say, ten minutes, will that do? Of course, it never does, but then you can tell the cat: Hey, don’t complain, I’ve got things to do. So you try to go and do your thing, but the cat always comes back, because you can never caress her enough. Same thing with Jewishness. You can never give it sufficient attention for it to leave you alone.

Of course you can’t caress the cat for hours, even less for a day.

Jewish has a way, though.

Sometimes, it’s a whole day. When it’s more, it’s likely to spiral. You can’t know how far it will go. Anyway, you get out of it. Eventually you move on to doing whatever it is you have to do. It’s essential, but it can’t take all of your time, your energy, attention. It’s like your t’ai chi friend Joe says: You can’t think about your heart. You shouldn’t anyway. You have to think around it. It’s not good for your heart if you think about it directly.

Is Jewish your heart? Is it the heart of you? Not exactly. Not not exactly.

Should you think about it enough so that it melts in the air, vanishes?

Or should you stop thinking about it altogether? Let it do its work.

Risky.

So you see it this way: it’s essential, central, whatever. But there is life; life doesn’t care if you’re Jewish. It just doesn’t. It will carry on, doing its thing, whether you’re Jewish or not. It will do just as if you weren’t. Jewish is something that leaves life indifferent. But somehow, anything and anybody else, it doesn’t leave indifferent. (Indifference is something you long for, as a country you’ve never visited, or as a fruit you’ve never even seen, let alone tasted.)

This is true in a way. Not in all ways. Some things that are true have a way of becoming untrue once spoken. You have grown accustomed to that. It is a phenomenon that may have something to do with what you are trying to think about, in a kind of dim-witted but obstinate way.

It is a strange thing, when you think about it, to “try to think about” something. Where you come from, thoughts are thought to come to you, not you to them. Later, you learn that you can go pursue them. Strangely, this is not something you learn in school. But you learn it anyway. Then you have to learn again how to let thoughts come to you. Then you learn how to pursue a thought by letting it come to you.

Jewish is like that. When you look for it, you can’t find it. It pops up again when you intend to ignore it. You come to realize that this is something that is common to all words spelled with capital letters, as applied to humans. It makes you weary. Sometimes it almost makes you weary even with life.

You live in a place where Jewish is quite well tolerated; it has been like this since before you were born. Not that long before you were born, really, but it has taken a while for you to realize how little time 16 years is. So, for the time being, you can say Jewish or not, and it makes very little difference. Which is not the same as no difference, but close enough, especially given the fact that indifference is a plant that doesn’t grow here.

Then there is haunting. The old ways haunt the new ways. The old Jewish haunts the new Jewish, and also the not-Jewish. The old not-Jewish haunts the new Jewish and the new not-Jewish. Haunting, really, is in a lot of places, in a lot of ways. So, you were born in haunted times, in a haunted place. Toleration is there, but it’s haunted.

They don’t call it toleration anymore. You wonder why.

And as you already noted, toleration, anyhow, is not the same as indifference.

They might not have a word for it anymore.

They have tended to discard assimilation as a word for it.

Or integration. Although not altogether. A shift of meaning, or of use, is not the same as to discard.

From the ethical/legal/religious-turned-medical metaphor (almost not a metaphor at all) through the organic to the mathematical.

The unspeakable: ingestion, digestion.

Make one with two.

Make two into one. (Make many into one.)

Make the outside inside.

Make the fragmented and the lacking and the broken and the fissured into fullness, unstained, untainted.

But haunted. No way around it.

You think: Passing would be a good word for it, now.

The forgetting of the spell.

The concealing of the spell.

SOS: Passing is your word. Not mine. I wouldn’t think of a word like that. If I did, I’d feel a lot better though. It would very much clear the air. But it will take time before I learn that word. It will take time before I learn about the spell, about the haunting, about the concealing.

TGOT: Passing is my word. I took it somewhere. Let me give it to you. Let me pass it on to you. And let me say this: We have been passing, although we didn’t decide to. And things are better, for us, when we don’t. They are better for our sanity, if not for our comfort. And they are better for those who aren’t allowed to pass.

So to sum it up, for some time now people have been able to say Jewish or not (to say, be, make, Jewish or not) with very little difference, but not no difference. For some time, with a break.

From the break comes the reminder that things were not always as they are.

From the break comes the injunction that things are better than they were.

From the break comes the promise that there won’t be another break.

A promise of happiness for ever and ever after.

From the injunction comes the knowledge that there will be many more breaks.

From the promise comes the omen that many more breaks will have many more faces.

From the break come unbelief and distrust.

And the infinite, indefinite, demand of proof.

And the impossible proof of the future.

(Ob es Zukunft gibt?)

And the ominous promise of a future ever after with happiness.

And fusion.

And the memory loss of the promise of love.

(Do you remember the lovely Italian village with the brown-red, earthenware Madonna on the simple graceful square up the few steps, and the long sumptuous old stone terrace delimiting the back of the village, overlooking the lush valley below, along the narrow street, the untenable forgotten undying promise of love, of happiness, before all there was left was lover lover lover lover come back to me?)

SOS: This is your memory. Not mine. But I know what you mean.

TGOT: You try another way of doing things. You are young; trying is what young does. It’s trying, but it’s the life of young, young life. Thought a few years in the land would unhaunt. It would do to unhaunt. It didn’t go well.

You kind of overdosed on Jewish. Your own, and the way to deal with it, the proper way, the mandated way, the official way. The only possible way. You kind of looked around for ways, and there you almost OD’d. Undiagnosed, but nevertheless. You left to withdraw on your own in a new city, a strange one, far away from the land, as far away as was available, as you could think of. It was a strange city, to you, but really, you were the stranger, so imagine going around saying the city’s the strange one. You withdrew from all things Jewish and, in the process, taught yourself not to act surprised at anything. Blasé, they call it here.

It worked more or less. When you meet Pierre, it’s been more or less ten years. It’s ten years after you started living here, in the strange city that you pretend to find unstrange, where nothing surprises you. You speak the language. This helps. Maybe it helps a lot. It doesn’t help enough. Because the reasons why you speak the language, the reasons why you can pass as native, are the reasons that make you haunted.

You speak the language. This helps. Maybe it helps a lot. It doesn’t help enough. Because the reasons why you speak the language, the reasons why you can pass as native, are the reasons that make you haunted.

Sometimes it’s almost as if you had completely forgotten Jewish. You feel you might be able to relax a bit, allowed to unwind. But Jewish has a way of always coming for caresses at unexpected times, like the cat. Yes, you speak the local language, you speak it almost without accent, but Jewish, not being an accent (for Jewish, let it be clear, is not an accent either), comes back almost unnoticed. Sometimes, you would prefer an accent.

Sometimes it comes back, Jewish does, because of something someone says. A joke, a stupid joke that leaves you startled. You have to start forgetting all over again.

Sometimes it’s a question about politics in the land. Before you can say you are not an expert, you find yourself playing the expert. The look in the other person’s eyes tells you you’ve been played.

Sometimes it’s a remark about the way you look.

(Sometimes you do long for the accent. That or a skin colour, an actual one, clearly recognizable. Of course, you know it would not actually make life easier. Although you’re an undiagnosed OD-followed-by-lone-withdrawal survivor, you’re not an idiot. But there are times when easier, or simpler, or smoother is not what you’re looking for. Although there are times, most of the times maybe, when they are exactly just what you’d be looking for, like almost anybody else.)

Sometimes, fluidity is what you long for. Indeed, there was a time when you learned the word fluidity, and you felt a strong longing for it.

Water, these days.

SOS: Water, fluidity, these are your metaphors. In my days, water is a metaphor of abundance, not of longing. Fluidity is the luxury of life in a consonant world.

I hear that in your days it has been metabolized into the parlance of armies and governments.

Fountains. Wells.

Faucets. Hoses.

A metaphor for something whose adequate form is that of abundance, but that you might be allowed to taste from only once or twice in a very long while, just because life is like that. You want to get a taste of everything, especially what will never be yours, and the crazy thing is that you do, mostly.

Fluidity is one of these things.

TGOT: Granted. So, although you don’t yet have the word for the situation Jewish puts you in, you realize that it is something akin to what some call passing. (Passing qua thirst that has no name.)

SOS: Ok, I’ll take passing as a word if passing can be something you do unwittingly.

TGOT: Yes. This is important. It was all decided before we could have a say in this. And many of us didn’t.

It is as if passing had been organized on a massive scale since, well, a more radical solution was deemed impractical after all.

But passing comes with a price, especially when it is offered on instantaneously large scales, and in replacement of another solution, first envisaged and put to practice, then deemed impractical after all.

SOS: It comes with a price? You bet! Sanity was the price we paid!

No, really. And when you say it comes with a price, you mean, of course, that it comes with a set of prices.

TGOT: Yes.

A set that keeps unfolding along with the privileges associated with belonging,

and which can be bestowed on those passing (as belonging).

And as the privileges become more and more definable along the lines of

the blunt difference between,

on one hand,

a group of individuals who can be shot at at close range for a variety of reasons, significant

or not,

by any regular citizen

or by anyone passing as such a citizen

and, literally, for any or no reason at all

by citizens belonging to the group called police,

and, on the other hand,

a group of citizens,

or of people,

or of humans,

or of quasi-humans,

or of super-humans —

because really,

where does Human start and where does it stop ?

And where does the obsession with defining Human

and setting boundaries to the Human

start and stop? —

who are protected and blessed

although they may be haunted and spelled,

who are defined by something unnameable

call it their liberties,

call it their privileges,

call it I’m free.

And call this public or collective —

although it is anything but collective,

or if it is,

the collective that is thereby defined

and that defines those it includes,

is one that is selective,

one that selects those it includes,

or integrates,

or assimilates,

along lines that may seem arbitrary,

and in many ways are,

but that entertain their own logic,

paradoxical and obsessive,

insane.

This

— do you follow me ? —

means that there is really no passing at all.

Or if there is, it means, in turn,

that any harm done to those

passing (as belonging)

is not only punished by law,

as it should be,

but is punished in many other ways

than law:

ways lawful or unlawful

that blur the distinction between

lawful and unlawful

and tighten the border

between category number one

and category number two.

So there’s the haunting

and there’s the spell.

SOS: You sound crazy right now.

TGOT: Yes, well.

But, to go back to what we were saying,

Jewish is not an accent.

And although it used to be a color, albeit unidentifiable

and therefore obsessively tracked down

(what color do you most wish you could see,

if not the one that you feel you might not be equipped to see?

And when you see yourself as the Colourless,

what bloodshedding,

what crazed ritual of ripping off fantastic plumage

would it take to make you a peacock?)

in those years, it is like passing.

Interlude 1

TGOT: Now, many years later, I am remembering this. I am writing it for you in a language that is neither my nor your mother tongue. I am writing to put an end to the passing, so that the haunting stops. I am here to give back to you your accent and your color.

SOS: You are Translator losing control over her working tools, losing the ability to discriminate between source language and target language.

You are Translator going off-track, writing in the language you should be translating from.

TGOT: It takes what it takes.

Translator can’t have just One, needs Two, and Many (like anybody else, really). But needs to keep sight of One, at least while alive. Sanity has a way of conflating itself with life. Translator needs to be dwelling between One and Two. Needs to make Two out of One, while not losing sight of One. Has this thirst that comes from Once you learn a language you can never unlearn it. You are never One again, and you can’t have One. (No one is One and no one has One, but Translator less than anyone.) Translator needs to clarify different from same and then dwell on the line between different and same. But gone out of control, can’t have undifferent. Can’t have different either. This takes work. Threatened by One, torn by Two. One might say Translator has a thirst for dissonance.

SOS: I know what’s happening to you. I’ve heard about it. What is happening now, many years later, is that the language that you translate into won’t be translated into anymore. You have come to the point where you realize that the language you translate into — “your language” — is now reluctant to be translated into, a reluctance that verges on refusal pure and simple. It has been rejecting too many words and too many ideas for too long now. It has now become intolerant of many words and many ideas. An intolerance that verges on allergy, pure and simple.

TGOT: Where tolerance had taken the late form of passing, intolerance must give way to what some now call revolutionary love. This takes work, not rest. And it requires a taste for dissonance.

Act II

TGOT: So one day, a filmmaker comes to see you. His name is Pierre.

There is something heavy about him,

and there is something fluid about him,

and there is something smooth about him,

and there is just enough rough about him to make him not dull,

just enough that his good education can tolerate,

just enough to make him not overly arrogant,

not any more than average men.

(white men, rich men, free men,

men unburdened by history,

knowledgeable men, sane men, innocent men,

men who can afford the luxury of candidness.)

To show that although he comes from a “good home,”

as they say here, as they used to say here

(as Proust might have written,

the entomologist of good breeding

and of propriety,

we will return to him),

he is free of his own movements,

doesn’t feel grounded by his pedigree,

remains hungry for life, curious

of other people’s lives, eager

to look around, listen, discover,

think and talk and

understand.

He is friendly, likeable,

an artist.

Annoyingly sane,

kind and lighthearted.

(You watch him, you

try to learn from his ways,

as you do a lot these days.

You look at people, you try to understand from their ways,

how they do it,

how they live,

how they manage to do it —

their thing, whatever it is,

not fussing about it.)

SOS: Pierre is a documentarist. He is working on a new project: filming people’s feet. What people’s feet tell about them, the stories attached to them, like shadows in old tales. Memories, fears, hauntings. Histories.

He says people’s feet are more eloquent than their eyes. Feet are where the body connects to the earth, willingly or unwillingly. That the body is carried by such small surfaces, so vital and yet so despised, fascinates Pierre. It is much easier to discipline your face than your feet, he says. They remember stories of pain, of anguish, they tell of ancestries, of hidden records. Their aches are dismissed. They are humble. Walking, running, dancing, they do so much, and unless they call for attention, in work or illness, we don’t give them the credit they deserve, he says.

He says people’s feet are more eloquent than their eyes. It is much easier to discipline your face than your feet, he says.

TGOT: He asks you if you will be part of the project.

You say ok,

although you’re not sure. You like the idea.

It’s just that you don’t like your feet.

You wonder why.

You wonder whether they might have something to tell you.

Your are jobless, you wander in life, painfully.

Time is something you have,

if nothing else,

in those days.

How does one make art with feet? Pierre asks.

Shoes, ok, he says, Van Gogh, and Guston’s feet, right.

Tremendous. The heaviness. The deformity.

But how does one film feet?

You’re not sure if he expects a reply.

SOS: He says: Even nowadays, when art doesn’t separate the high from the low, supposedly, whatever you make the subject of your art, you give it a status of nobility. Ok, that’s ok.

But this is not what I want. He says: People are so sensitive about their feet,

they tell me, I don’t like my feet, they are ugly. They’d rather keep hiding them. A lot of them would. He muses: This is probably true only for people who have not been trained for summer leisure, wearing sandals, walking barefoot on beaches and the like.

Women who aren’t young and men who aren’t rich. People of any gender who are not healthy. He films people’s feet while the feet’s owners speak. He records their stories while filming their feet.

He says: Some are sedentary feet; their stories are about wandering. Some are wandering feet; they have stories about dwelling in one place. He says some feet still tell of the wonder felt by the small child’s discovery of walking.

TGOT: He made contact with you through U.,

the Palestinian mutual friend who occasionally works as his assistant.

She feels you should be part of the project.

She says, somewhat pompously,

but with her usual congenial kindness,

that your story deserves to be told in the film.

What story, you wonder.

You ask her what story she has in mind.

She says: You’re the one for whom the connection to the ground seems to be a problem. Then she adds: I don’t know, it’s a process, it will appear in the process, you’ll see.

And as you have some curiosity left, some hunger for something new, unexpected,

you say ok.

It’s the life in you.

There is so much of it, you have inherited such a quantity of it from the survivors.

This is incomprehensible to many: so much life, along with hurt, such eagerness to live, ever so inchoately. This is the grandfather in you, willing you to live. The one you never knew.

So you agree to meet Pierre.

Maybe, starting with the feet, this will help unhaunt the whole body.

Of course, the first time you meet, you tell him how you don’t like your feet. Look at them, you say, they don’t look like feet at all. But many people have said this to Pierre, since he started the project. He’s unimpressed. He just smiles.

You smile, too. You are used to self-satisfied men dismissing women’s dismissive statements about themselves, or about anything at all, really, as neurotic. (Strangely enough, though, they don’t mind women being dismissive about their own minds, or abilities, or accomplishments. But they feel that when women dislike their own bodies, this is neurotic and unfair. As if they had nothing to do with women’s neuroses. And with unfairness.) You don’t mind.

You look at Pierre with your dreamy eyes. You look at your feet with your worried eyes.

It is not that I don’t like them, really, you say. They are my feet. They serve me well, or well enough, I guess. Mostly. The thing is, they make me uneasy. They seem to be asking questions, you say, looking up again, with an embarrassed smile.

They are Jewish feet, you say.

SOS: He frowns. Then he says, smiling: This, or they, seem to call for attention.

TGOT: You think, this smiling has to stop. His and yours.

Yes, they do, you say, looking at your own feet again.

Your feet are still in your shoes.

SOS: Keep talking, Pierre says, minding the business of getting set to film my feet, still in my shoes. Framing them with his camera, his camera on a stand (a “foot,” they say in French). Keep talking. I’ll tell you when to stop, or when to dwell some more on something you are saying. Exploring. Just talk about your feet. What do they make you think of?

TGOT: Finally, you take off your shoes. Pierre looks at your feet and acknowledges that there is something strange about them.

SOS: They are not like any other feet he ever saw or filmed, he says, smiling.

TGOT: Here, what did I tell you, you say, with a pang in your heart.

SOS: There is no reason not to like them, he says, but indeed — he hesitates, then goes on, smiling — there is something uncanny about them.

TGOT: Might there even be something inhuman about them? You ask.

You feel guilty for asking. This is slippery.

Artistically speaking.

And otherwise, of course.

This is becoming strange. Perhaps you should just quit, here and now.

His smile widens. No, he says. I wouldn’t say that.

SOS: Ok, let’s start, he says. This is only for my own record.

You should feel relaxed and say what comes to your mind.

What comes to your mind when you think about your feet?

Or when you look at them? Try not to be judgmental, he says.

TGOT: You say: I have hollow feet. My feet don’t rest on the ground, not completely.

They are not very flexible.

The rest of my body is pretty flexible, you say.

I was trained as a dancer, but my feet are not.

This is why I didn’t become a dancer, you say.

SOS: He says: Didn’t you know this when you decided to train as a dancer?

Didn’t you know it would keep you from becoming one?

Why did you do it anyway?

TGOT: You say: I did. But I liked music, I liked movement, I liked using my body in ways that were not dictated by necessity. I needed it to be allowed to find unexpected angles between limbs, and torso, and hips. But I would get tired when I danced, I would always get tired a little too soon. This was because of my arched feet, my hollow feet. The reduced surface, minuscule now, and yet you can achieve both stability and movement, the gratuitousness of it, but I would always get tired a tiny bit too soon.

(Gratuitousness: another exotic plant. Risk: an all too familiar plant.)

(You don’t know yet that you will come to like your feet, that this awkward feeling towards them won’t last forever. Some time later you will discover the Art of Walking that will make you feel grateful to your feet.)

SOS: Go on, Pierre says, his eye in the camera eye.

TGOT: Ok, you say. So look, here in France, the whole thing around having one’s feet on the ground, that’s important. It’s huge, really. They say that here, they say it a lot: to have your feet on the ground. The idea is important. But there is more to it.

You say this in French, because this is happening in France.

SOS: Do you feel that? Pierre asks. Do you feel people talk a lot about having their feet on the ground?

TGOT: Look, you say, you asked me what this makes me think of.

SOS: Ok, he says. Sorry. Keep talking.

TGOT: There are other phrases, you say.

To have earth under your soles.

To have earth sticking to your soles.

You say: This is what people say here

when they want to talk about having a strong connexion to the land,

about belonging to a family that has strong connexions to the land,

going way back in time.

People who know where their ancestors came from,

which part of France,

which province, which pays, in the old parlance:

Brittany, Provence, Burgundy, Guyenne, Picardie.

Ma famille est du Limousin.

J’ai une maison dans le Berry.

They know from the names,

from the family names,

narratives, oral traditions,

they just do.

They have family houses, relatives.

Only the poorest don’t.

And people here are not as interested

as Americans are

in genetics.

They know.

They think they do.

They seem not to care, but they know.

And they think it’s important.

(Not everybody realizes, like Proust did,

how steeped in imagination this all is.

Names, landscapes, houses: art.

Bodies: art.)

You say this

although this is long before the overwhelming trend

of tracking your genetics on the internet.

And even decades later,

that trend is not as overwhelming here.

Because there is the imagination, the names: noms de pays, noms de personnes.

Yet this relative lack of interest in genetics does not tell of actual indifference,

as they know,

or they think they know — they think they are this and that.

Just as Americans think they are white,

the French think they are rooted.

(They forget that Mortagne, that most French of all small towns,

was named after a colony of settlers from Mauretania

in the 2nd century CE. Don’t remind them, the sleepwalkers.)

So it is on the basis of rootedness

or unrootedness that they discriminate,

sometimes unknowingly,

unwittingly.

Interlude 2

SOS: You have got to be joking. Of course color is important to them.

TGOT: Yes, the color of others. But they don’t think they are white. They indeed don’t want to be called white. They indeed don’t want to be called at all, named at all, by others. They claim for themselves, exclusively, the right to name. The privilege of naming, of describing. Themselves or anything, anyone, really.

Once they have named, they find it difficult to unname. This is why they find it difficult not to see difference anymore, once they have imagined it, once they have given it shape. And if they manage to unsee difference, it causes them such painstaking efforts that it bids the condition that you remain indifferent. They need either difference or indifference, but they don’t know how to be indifferent to difference. This is why it takes you so long to figure things out, ever so little.

Once they have named, they find it difficult to unname. This is why they find it difficult not to see difference anymore.

Of course there are those who don’t share in the privilege of naming but who share in the privilege of using the names. Some of them ferociously cling to that privilege, but there are still many who don’t think about it, in those times.

SOS: They used to have means to protect themselves from the appeal of naming. But these means were taken from them, little by little, patiently. Sometimes good-heartedness, or pain, or cluelessness, or a dreamy disposition would leave them immune to the seductions of naming. Sometimes they had a sense of poetry that protected them. And there was the call of revolution, it wasn’t a bad word here, then. It wasn’t so bad you might lose your work or your life over it. Its appeal outweighed the appeal of naming and it did a great deal to neutralize the toxic powers of names (it was more grammar than names). But then they foolishly traded it for those very powers.

TGOT: You remember when you were in 12th grade, you sat next to a beautiful and sad girl, you befriended her; she had a shy and friendly smile, you were shy and friendly as well, so you often sat together in class, but she never talked and somehow you couldn’t figure why. You just thought it made her mysterious. One day, in history class, she leaned towards you and asked you, whispering, what century we were in. You felt a kind of vertigo. You felt you were the white one, she was the dark one. Sometimes you think about her, you wonder what became of her. Will she ever know the lesson she taught you?

So let’s agree to call those who indeed don’t want to be named the Unnameables.

And those who don’t have a say in this, the No-Says.

Jewish being, these days, a bit of both. In between.

And Jewish being into genealogy for reasons akin to the reasons why the French are into patronyms and toponyms. It is exposed to the same dangers. And, as we already know from Proust, evocative names for people and places are beautiful as poetry, but poetry is beautiful only because an image can be replaced with another, and yet another, indefinitely.

Act III

— Don’t you know where your family comes from? Pierre asks.

— Of course I know, you say. I know. In broad lines, I know. But the connections have been made tenuous. (You hesitate to carry on. You think of this man you used to love, when you saw him again after many years and he looked at you with soft eyes and said: Still uprooted, are you? This is when you realized you had been caught up by tropological existence.)

This is what they meant when they said we don’t have a connection to the ground, to the soil, you see. In my case, they would have been right. I don’t know why they thought we deserved to die for it, but in my case at least, if not in my grandparents’, it’s true I wasn’t connected to place. My grandparents did feel strongly attached to the places where they were born and raised. They felt strongly they belonged there. Or rather: This was their life, their language, their place. How could they question it? How do you question your language from within the language? History had to work extra hours to unsettle that.

They have strong memories; they feel nostalgia. They are humans, you say.

(You would like to check in Pierre’s eyes whether this is absolutely clear to him. But this is all too slippery. His eyes remain fixed on the camera’s eye. So you carry on, ever so tentatively.)

But they want to live and like most people, they have this idea that one should be able to live quietly, undisturbed, that living shouldn’t be too painful or too much of a strain. In some people, this idea is so strong that they will take many risks and go through many strains to make it come true, to find a place where they can live peacefully and do their thing, undisturbed. So they up and leave, and they start anew somewhere else. If nothing comes in the way, that is. But when does nothing ever come in the way?

That is the way it has been happening, you say. You talk about the German grandparents who had to leave Germany. They knew very early on that they had to, you say. Richer Jews, it took them longer. Poor people didn’t trust their sense of belonging as much as rich people did. They didn’t have a sense of entitlement that would have led them to think they couldn’t be hurt. The richer Jews could take refuge in the delusion that they were protected by their social status and high culture and good ways. They so passionately believed in higher culture. The poorer Jews knew better. Their bodies knew better: They had bad legs, bad feet. Bad manners, poor culture. But they had a sharp understanding. And they knew how to grow things. You should have seen my grandmother’s vegetable garden, you say, fondly. She learned how to grow things when they were hiding with farmers in the South of France. And she was good at it! That’s were they learned how to speak French, hiding in a farm, helping out.

— I see, Pierre says, his eyes in the camera’s eye.

Talk more, he says, about this soil under your soles thing.

— I would rather talk about the language, you say. But you humor him.

This was a trope, that they had no soil under their soles. That each generation up and leaves. This begged, some people thought, the question of loyalty. It begged the question of alikeness, of shared experience. Ultimately, it begged the question of humanity. But, you know, my grandparents still miss Germany. I always thought it was strange, but it isn’t. They miss the language, and the ways. These were the ways they knew, they are so deeply German. Today still, to this day (this is in the 1990s — your grandparents are still alive), they consider Germany to be the most — indeed, the only, really — civilized country in the world. The thing is, my mother, you say, she always says French is her mother tongue. Although she is actually bilingual, she only considers French her own. And she never spoke a word of German to me. But she would not have learned French as her first tongue if she hadn’t been saved by those farmers. She might not have lived at all. But even had she lived in another way, if she hadn’t had to be brought up in hiding, French would not have been her first language. So, it is by the same accident that she was saved and brought up in French. A lucky accident that she was saved. And a strange accident that she was brought up in French, rather than in German.

— What about your father? Pierre asks.

You wait a little before you reply. You feel a kind of dry eagerness in his voice that you don’t like. He looks up from the camera and smiles. He asks you if you would like to take a break. He can make tea for you, if you’d like. You think you should be offering the tea, as this is your home. But you say, yes, I’d like tea very much, thank you. He goes to the kitchen and prepares tea while you rest and ponder. Only now do you realize what you are trying to think, to say: that your connection to your mother tongue, French, which is so unquestionably immediate to you, is marked by arbitrariness. The arbitrariness of your existence was never much of a question for you, and you learned very early on to live with that. Perhaps this awkward obstinacy of yours has something to do with that. But becoming aware of the arbitrariness of your mother tongue, strangely, quietly shakes your world. You ponder this while you sip the tea Pierre has just poured for you. He patiently sits and waits, ready to resume shooting. He also put a cup of tea on a stool near him, he sips from it once in a while. When you start talking again, he puts his eye in the camera’s eye again. This is how it’s done, at that time.

You switch to the present tense, because of Pierre’s sense of urgency, as you perceive it.

— My father, you say, is told by his mother that he has to leave Morocco when he is still a youth, after his father dies, just before Independence. They speak French at home. They are acculturated into the colonial ways. This is why they are easy prey to colonial propaganda, all of it. My grandmother is convinced that they will all have to leave Morocco eventually. She, too, is caught up in tropological uprootedness, I guess. She pushes him out as soon as he turns 18. For them, too, French is an accident. My grandmother still is multilingual: Arabic, Haketia, French. My father speaks mostly French, he can only say a few sentences in Arabic. No Haketia.

— Don’t all colonized people experience loss of this kind? Pierre asks.

His question irritates you.

— This is what I am trying to tell you, you say. When the colonized don’t perceive themselves as colonized, when they are not counted as colonized, they lose their minds. Of course they do, you say.

Some lend a hand in their own deprivation, out of ignorance, out of foolishness, out of a longing for the horizon, which they confuse with whatever the horizon brings forth. When they do, they don’t even know how much they lose. They are haunted, they transmit the loss, unnamed, and the haunting, unless some sort of unhaunting takes place. It takes many rituals for the unhaunting to take place. Not everybody knows the rituals. Not everybody even knows that rituals are required.

You see, in the old languages, there is room for them. Language accommodates them, people like my family. But the colonizer’s language, although it names them, can spare no space for them. It doesn’t give them space. It isolates them. This is why people around them, in the colonizer’s space, feel or believe that something about them is lacking. But it’s the people around them (the Unnameables, as we have named them) who lack a language willing and able to accommodate them. And you see, Pierre (you say his name for the first time, it feels like a transgression, you wonder why), how many pretend not to see differences. But they do, of course they do. They think that this is a difference in the No-Says, but really, it’s the lack in their language.

This shapes Jewish, and, more generally, No-Says. Some more, some less.

Interlude 3

TGOT: I am proud of you, now.

SOS: Don’t patronize me.

TGOT: No, really. You should add that the invisible powers that filter the language from its possibilities don’t like to see the shapes that result from this impoverishment, because it indicts their impoverished language and it indicts them for it. And anger, even fury, tend to make the invisible powers become visible, or perceptible, when they are being indicted.

So as their language is being filtered from the possibility of accommodating difference, and at the same time filled with phrases of injunctions and promises, the Unnameables, in an effort not to go mad (but this is a sign that they already are madder than mad), try not to perceive difference, or not to show that they do. But as it is, I’m proud of you.

Epilogue

TGOT: You go on:

This is what my feet’s strange shape makes me think of, you say. My strange feet are the feet of a North African farmer in the Tafilalt who came to town only to discover the irruption of the world in the guise of a language; and they are the feet of a German refugee in the south of France. One was robbed of her language, the other was given a language along with life, against those who would have robbed her of her very humanity, along with her life. The language that I was brought up to see as my own is only mine because it is both an oppressor’s language and a rescuer’s language. (The oppressor crossed seas to pose as rescuer, while the rescuer just remained where they were and helped by chance, perhaps even slightly reluctantly. But they helped.)

You pause again.

Pierre remains silent. He films your feet, still. You wonder how to find a gracious end to this, to what you’ve said. You wonder how to exit from the talk that exits you from the comforts and discomforts of passing. You wish you had some feedback from Pierre. You fear he may be bored with what you say. You fear he may feel that you are trying to teach him something he already knows. He may feel you mean to lecture him, to demonstrate to him. You feel awkward. Awkward is something you often try to avoid, in vain. Now you’re in it. You fear Pierre might regret asking to film your feet and asking you to speak to him about what looking at your feet makes you think of. You think he might have thought of a lighter kind of intervention. You think maybe he thinks, Damn it, I was done, I had all the material I needed for my film, now this. This throws everything out of balance. What do I do now? What now? You think, maybe he will just ignore this. He might. He should. He doesn’t have to edit it into the film, after all. You think, he insisted, he wanted, he said, to give it a try. Now he’s stuck, and you’re embarrassed. You have embarrassed yourself, as you so often do. You should have stuck to: I don’t like my feet. I have nothing to say about them. I don’t want to be filmed. I’d like to see your film when it’s done. Stuck to neurosis.

So, to go back to the question this all started with, you say with an embarrassed smile — one that the camera won’t catch, as it is focused on your speechless and quirky but somehow eloquent feet — this is what comes to my mind: My grandfather used to call me a luftmensch (he used the word in a slightly different way than what it actually meant; a little less derogatory than in the Yiddish really, and with some sort of tenderness, although women had, and have, even less business than men being luftmenschen).

— Ok, hold there, Pierre says. I get this. I know what luftmensch means. Me, for instance, my family is from Lorraine — a family from the upper bourgeoisie of Lorraine — they made tons of money from the steelworks.

— So, your grandparents might have been the employers of my high-school friend’s father, you muse.

— Yes, he says. They were capitalists, bourgeois, he has an apologetic shrug, along with a sweet smile.

He looks a bit like a teddy bear, really. He says he makes the beds every morning — the double bed where he sleeps with his wife, the kids’ beds. He says it’s important, for an artist, to make the beds. What you understand from this is that he means that practical work, like house chores, keeps you down to earth. Again, for you, it’s as if he were speaking a foreign language. You are good with languages, but a foreign language will be a foreign language, one in which some connections are necessarily lacking. You understand what he says, but not having, at that time, the experience of living as a couple in a quiet and easy, and actually loving, manner, as is obviously the case for him and his wife, of having children, of the father making the beds, you understand the words without connecting to their meaning other than in a rather superficial way.

So when he says I get this, you know that he doesn’t. How could he. You think about Cath and Barthélémy, your friends from the village in the south of France, just a few kilometers from where your mother was hidden during the war. You think how the language they use doesn’t feel as unconnected to you, somehow. Although they are grounded, in so many ways, in more ways than Pierre, really, and you’re not, in so many ways. While this guy, Pierre, who is an artist, who understands in some way the idea of luftmensch, who comes from a well-off and educated background, who has traveled the world (you guess), speaks and acts in ways that you can’t really make sense of.

Then a new memory pops up. You are reminded, somehow, of M., the American lover, who would say, don’t live like a refugee. Like an ethical injunction. You think it came from a rock song he knew. He said that he took it as some sort of motto.

— I always thought to myself, you say, but who lives like a refugee if they have a choice? Then, you chuckle, I thought, better not say this. Obviously, it was meant in a deeper way. Obviously it meant something like don’t settle for less than you deserve, or for less than what you really want from life, something like that. That was long ago, you know, you say, talking to Pierre, when refugees were a distant reality, either in time or space. An abstract reality, for us, the privileged kids, privileged in a way our parents couldn’t have been. Our parents’ reality. You know what I’m talking about, you say, before realizing there is no way he knows what you are talking about.

When you say this, actual refugees are still a relatively distant reality, either in space or time. Not for long.

— Go on, he says. His eye still on the camera.

— We had empathy, you say. We felt the anger, the injustice. But we didn’t feel threatened.

You repeat: We didn’t feel threatened.

For a split second you wonder what you are trying to say. For a split second you don’t know what you are trying to say. Then you know again.

— The naked swollen bodies, the emaciated faces, weren’t going to irrupt into our lives, you carry on. We weren’t happy, and we had to understand why. The emaciated faces that made us feel the injustice of the world didn’t interfere with that most capital query.

Suddenly you feel weary. You would like to stop talking now. You probably should.

But you go on.

— So they, you say — the wide-eyed faces — didn’t keep us from believing in an unspoken, unthought, inchoate way, that nothing really bad would ever happen again in real life, that is, in our very own lives, nothing really bad like being a refugee or causing anyone to become refugees. So, “don’t live like a refugee” could actually be the form taken by a kind of luxurious ethical injunction of the kind rock ‘n’ roll would deliver. After all, it would have made no sense for a white singer to sing, “I wish I knew how it feels to be free.” Or maybe if the song were, in an embarrassingly straightforward way, about being in prison. But the existential weight of it, that would have been lost.

— I’m not quite sure I follow you here, Pierre says. I would take issue with what you are saying. But go on, please do.

— All he could have sung, at best, you quickly add (you feel you’re off track now, you’re trying to find the way back on track), at least in those years, would have been I’m free. But that had been done already. There was a song that was called that, that went I’m free. Actually there were several. Some sung by white singers, one by a Black singer. They didn’t sound, or feel, the same, in any possible way. And to sing I’m free, anyway, is very different from I’d like to know what it feels like to be free. Sung by the Black singer, I suppose I’m free is filled with the intoxication of life indifferent to anything else than itself. Or with the newness of new freedom, which although incomplete surely must be intoxicating. It made freedom an elemental quality of life. Sung by a white singer, it is meant as a fresh and provocative statement, one that challenges the listener: Are you free, too? Will you not be free, like me? So it’s something of an ethical injunction, too.

— Yes, Pierre says, but kind of an obnoxious one.

— I agree, you say. So when a younger band felt they needed to come up with a new ethical claim, as they weren’t able to find anything more radical than the implicit and provocative “Be free (like me),” they found a negative injunction, one that certainly could compete with the obnoxiousness of the earlier versions: Don’t live like a refugee (and it went: Everybody’s had to fight to be free). So, you say in a silly triumphant voice, with new stamina, this fuses the injunction with the luxury of pontificating.

And there was something else, you say, somewhat hurriedly.

I suspect that if he doesn’t stop you now, you will become unstoppable. You should stop now. I look at Pierre. I wish he would stop you. He doesn’t see me. I know he would like to talk about A working class hero is something to be. But he understands that you’re after something.

— We thought — or rather, we felt, you say, as there was really no thinking involved at all — that all the possible actual suffering had been experienced for generations to come by the generations of our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, all the suffering that could be allotted to any said group at any said time, had already been spent on our parents and grandparents. There could be no more suffering for us left. That was one thing. And the other thing is that it gave us a duty of being happy. The duty of happiness was incumbent upon us. It was incumbent upon us to be happy. Don’t think it didn’t weigh on us. We were busy trying to figure how to do that. It took all or most of our energies. And the anguish that we might not succeed was unspeakable. But it was nothing compared to the anguish that almost overwhelmed us when we discovered, much later (much later than we should have, perhaps), that although we had been brought up as partaking in the tradition of the oppressed, we were now integrated, in many ways, in the customs and institutions of the oppressors. To have gone through this process in our lifetime…

— Yes, Pierre says. He stops the camera. This is what made it so easy to sell you the passing, and the emigrating, and the sovereignty business. In my case, he says, the problem came from growing up in a capitalist family, in a minefield district. In Lorraine. A bourgeois family, within which some collaborated and some were resistants. Let me tell you the story. Should I make some more tea?


Jo Mrelli is an independent scholar, poet and translator (not necessarily in that order) based in France. She has translated Judith Butler, Joan Scott, Amira Hass, Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, among many others. As an independent researcher, she was program director from 2010 to 2016 of the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. She published a number of texts, two of which were translated into English. This is her first attempt at writing directly in English. (She quite likes it, really.)


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