THE TRUTH ABOUT ALMOST DYING.

The May Harper’s contains an unsettling essay by Mark Slouka called “Arrow and Wound” [perhaps available here]. After an allusion to a visitor’s seeing the aged Tolstoy “scoop a double handful of violets from the wet earth, breathe in their aroma with a kind of ecstasy, then let them fall carelessly at his feet,” Slouka describes in richly imagined detail (based, of course, on Dostoevsky’s own account) the experience a young Dostoevsky underwent when with of his fellow subversives he underwent a mock execution that shook him to the core and changed him into the wrathful conservative we are familiar with. He then describes a parallel experience that befell the Czech poet Seifert, who was seized by the Germans after the Prague revolt that began exactly 58 years ago and taken out to be shot. Seifert claimed in his book Všecky krásy světa [All the Beauties of the Earth] that while waiting to be shot he had no remarkable thoughts; he found a little bread and cheese in a pocket and shared it with a friend, he looked at a public toilet in the distance and remembered an obscene picture of a woman someone had drawn in it that had fascinated him as a boy, he wondered what people who weren’t being executed were having for lunch. After it was over, he forgot all about it, and didn’t think of it again for years.
“Whose version do we believe?” Slouka asks. “I suspect that the romantics among us (as well as the more conventionally and narrowly devout) side with Dostoevsky. And perhaps the rest of us do as well. How could a person not be touched, altered, by such an experience?… What of Seifert, then? Do we write off his amnesia as denial, debunk him with a pinch of Freud?… I think not. To do so, it seems to me, would be to assume that consciousness can be teased apart from its retelling, which it cannot…. It is also to forget a more intriguing and complicated truth: that we in some measure shape the events that befall us just as surely as we are shaped by them.”
He now goes in a direction that I will not reveal, since it would spoil a beautifully prepared surprise for those who read the full essay (which I hope you will; the issue is still on the stands). At the conclusion, he returns to his main theme:

Every retelling is inevitably a distortion, but that does not mean it is without value. We can’t help but tell the truth. Although we will never know what Dostoevsky experienced that December morning in Semenovsky Square, we can, from his retelling, with its particular fingerprint of stresses and omissions, learn a great deal about him. Although we will never know what Jaroslav Seifert really thought or felt standing against that wall (although he himself may no longer know—indeed, may never have known), we can see, with perfect clarity, what he wants us to believe he thought or felt. Nothing reveals us as clearly as our attempt to shape the past. Retrospection is, by definition, reflexive.
What our inadvertent self-portrait reveals, if we study it closely enough, is that our consciousness, rather than being shaped by a particular event, predated it. That we were, in a sense, anticipating it. That, to recall Kafka’s haunting insight, “the arrows fit exactly into the wounds” for which they were intended. Dostoevsky experienced what he did in Semenovsky Square because he was Dostoevsky. Because he already carried inside him, like a patient wound, the “cursed questions” he would seek to answer the rest of his life. Seifert, the poet of the quotidian and the small, thought about the things he did because he was Jaroslav Seifert, the man who, thirty-five years later, would write a book called All the Beauties of the Earth. Because, like Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, he gathered the things of this life, and let them fall at his feet. The experience, in other words, was already prepared for him by the time he got there. As it is, to some extent, for all of us.

I suppose both sides in the Truth in Blogging debate can find ammunition here. The adherents of “alibis and consistent lies” can point to “We can’t help but tell the truth” and say “You see, that’s what I’m trying to tell you: it doesn’t matter how ‘accurate’ my words are, they tell the truth about me and how I see the world.” I, on the other hand, am struck by the extreme nature of the experience described by such different people with such different attitudes towards it, and I am intensely interested in how the experience of knowing you’re about to die is described by someone who was there, who felt it, and the fact that different people felt different things simply adds to the interest. I don’t believe you can accurately imagine such an experience, any more than you can imagine combat or giving birth without having been there. True, most things that bloggers write about are far less extreme in nature, but it still makes a difference to me whether you are writing from knowledge or from imagination. I have no desire to constrain what people write about, and I can thoroughly enjoy a completely invented description (I’ve written them myself); all I ask is that you give me some hint so I can know what I’m reading and respond accordingly. There is a difference between fiction and history, despite the easy and fashionable contempt of some who consider themselves above such petty concerns.

Comments

  1. Based on your vituperative comments at my place, I’d say I struck a nerve. Basically, if you can’t distinguish between truth and fiction, nor find the truth in fiction or feel a need to have pointers and guideposts laid out for you, then you lack the powers of discrimination necessary to enjoy the written word. Joy probably doesn’t loom large in your worldview anyway.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, and have a nice day!

  3. One remains curious about who exactly was insulted by what. Which of the paragons of bloggery parodied last month are you defending? And for goodness sake – why?
    On a more personal note… who are you? Anonymity is a cloak for the perverse.

  4. Really, fp, I’m disappointed in you. I have created a perverse fiction, a sketch of a personal encounter remarkable for its lack of specific content but gracefully decked out with linguistic signifiers and a light touch of premodern jargon.
    And somehow it matters to you whether the object of my “vituperation” is “fictional” or “real,” in fact you want actual names, because you believe online public journaling, “blogging,” must hew to some measure of “truth” as distinct from “fiction.” You see a need for rules and sense some people are breaking them. Please. Get with the times, my friend. These concerns of yours are touchingly passé. “I” am “language hat”; this is all a performance. Applaud it if you will; reject it if you must. It’s immaterial. You are but another signifier.

  5. “Linguistic signifiers.” We be laughing our asses off over here! Hey, check out this article…
    http://s13a.math.aca.mmu.ac.uk/Chreods/Issue_10/Olwen.html
    …what do you think?

  6. I like it — thanks!
    (Of course, how could I not like something that starts:
    Question: What do you get when you cross Derrida with a member of the Mafia?
    Answer: Someone making you an offer you can’t understand, or refuse!
    )

  7. I’m just wading in the shallow end of the pool as re. post-Modernism. Doesn’t mean I don’t have preconceptions and strong opinions. Just means I’m more likely to change my mind now than later when I think I know something about it.
    Something that concerns me is what I see as a casual dismissal of TRUTH. Seeking and finding truth are conceits I favor.
    Communicating that truth is also important to be. A strong and consistent voice – an authentic persona – is important in written communication I think. But I think a person’s voice can change between works. Fiction is a great place for a writer to exercise creativity in this regard. I think blogs may also permit this change in attitude, style, message, and tone from post to post or thread to thread.
    It helps to be schizophrenic.
    But Frank the engineer epresses himself differently from Frank the social activist expresses himself differently from Frank the satirist expresses himself differently from Frank the analyst certainly expresses himself differently from Francine.

  8. Yes, yes … the interesting thing about D. is that, starting with his imprisonment at Omsk, he came close to death on a monthly basis. Epilepsy joined with a weak constitution seems terrifying. More terrifying than the mock execution, mainly because illness and the weak constitution of D. serve no grand social or Hegelian historical purpose that this author seems to presuppose. He does not consider accounts of death related to coarse and what are truely “ill” actions.
    Let me supply an example: if I were to go out and contract an illness, say a venerial disease (suppose I am a follower of de Sade and I want to prove my libertine values), can I bear my wounds to history and say about my disease, “Here were arrows destined to fit these wounds”? No, no, people turn away. And you should turn away. For what is historical or special in such actions? Anyone can contract disease, but not everyone can kill themselves in front of a firing squad. So when Dostoevsky had countless seizures, one of which killed him, his stand at Semenovsky Square is remembered as his closest contact with death.
    And again, rightly so. I must find that quote from Thomas Mann in Der Zauberberg .. ah, yes. My fictional friend Settembrini speaks for me:

    Illness is definitely not elegant, and certainly not venerable — such a view is itself sickness, or leads to it. [...] [praise of illness] comes from an era of superstitious contrition, when the idea of humanity was demeaned and distorted into a caricature, a fearful era, when harmony and health were considered suspicious and devilish, whereas infirmity in those days was considered as good as a passport to heaven.

    In the above context, Hegelian history and “what I believe I really feel” or “how close I came to the pall of death” fall under the heading of praise of life, and any embellished descriptions of illness fall under the praise of death.

  9. Yeesh, how things have changed here in ten years! Here’s the Hat saying he is a persona and what he says here is a performance. Now that may have been true at the time, but because he can’t (in the long run) lie, we now know not only his name, but who he is.
    It’s funny, in its own way, that “You can’t lie” and “You can’t tell the truth”, though contradictory, are both truths.

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