TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS IV: DESPAIR

Despair, inseparable from the first stage of exile, can be analyzed, and then it would probably appear as resulting more from one’s personal shortcomings than from external circumstances.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

To maintain a conception of the past in “a sharply delineated, precise form” was a kind of privilege for Miłosz. As he describes in “The Nobel Lecture,” as memory became a “force” in the creative and social struggles of writers in post-war Central and Eastern Europe, it served to protect “us against a speech entwining upon itself like the ivy when it does not find a support on a tree or a wall.” It follows that the more a regime attempted to repress the writer who then proceeds to forcefully connect literature, memory, and reality lived in exile, the more the writer, as Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” “blurts out his dammed-up feelings of anger, his observations and reflections, considering this as his duty and mission.”

Of course, the writer also enters a host of new problems in exile, not least of which is a consequence of destierro and destiempo (i.e., Józef  Wittlin’s concepts of temporal and spatial displacement, as explored in the second part of this essay series) in that “knowledge of everyday life in the country of his origin changes from the tangible to theoretical.” The tangible may remain in memory, but it is pinned to a certain stasis, almost fossilized. Through acts of memory-work, a dynamic element can be injected into the spatial determinants of the memory, and social frameworks can be pursued towards deeper and more oblique references. Theoretical abstraction may result due to the unavoidable distance of real exile, but this result conflicts with the atmosphere of Miłosz’s adopted country of the United States, in which, as he explains in “On Censorship”: “Bluntness, brevity, and brutality of expression, as well as simplified ideas, are prized because they can be conveyed by the most obvious and tangible ‘facts’ without involving any complicated reasoning.”

Accordingly, the other half of the “Paradigm” Miłosz constructs in “Notes on Exile” involves the understanding that, “Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.” Coming up against the many obstacles of exile, which ultimately force energy inwards towards the theoretical, the exiled writer must not only battle the threat of his own forgetting, but also the willed (even violent) forgetting born of the disinterest and disinheritance that Miłosz saw plaguing the United States and the West. For in the exile’s experience, “that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.”

These experiences lead the exiled writer to several modes of despair, all of which are based in relations with the writer’s native land and the collective, and of which there are three main causes: “loss of name, fear of failure, and moral torment.” Loss of name again reflects a perspective Wittlin outlines in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile”: “The fact that not only our ambition but our creativity itself has in exile no wide field of radiation and must give up the aura in the past surrounding our names may be favorable for our work, but more often it hampers us.”

As Miłosz explains in “Notes on Exile,” this despair over loss of name is only one of many results of displacement from a specific community, where a “writer acquires a name through a complex interchange with his readers, whether he appeals to a large audience or to a narrow circle of sympathizers.” The soft borders that delineate his professional and institutional relationships have now shifted into a painful anonymity. For according to Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia, such writers in exile “carry the memory of oppression but also of their social significance that they could hardly match in the more ‘developed’ West.” Alleviation of the weight of such memories is achieved partially for the exile through the view that such fresh humiliations are “proportionate to his pride, and that is perhaps a just punishment,” thus reflecting again Miłosz’s mandate that exile accepted as a destiny necessitates the debasement of self-delusions. Indeed, engaging in personal memory-work along social and religious frameworks, there is quite a bit of exploration of pride in Miłosz’s essays. In “Saligia,” for example, he examines writerly pride and literary background in parallel to a concern over moral torment as regards name, and states, “I had enough superbia in me for it to carry me beyond nay mere authorship.” Further exploration of this concern for loss of name will be featured in the next essay in this series.

Previous essays in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS III: THE PARADIGMS

He was aware of his task and people were waiting for his words, but he was forbidden to speak. Now where he lives he is free to speak but nobody listens and, moreover, he forgot what he had to say.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

In The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz qualifies the persistence of motifs of suffering and martyrdom after the war by pointing out that, “Polish writers . . . had come a long way from Romantic concepts of ‘holy martyrdom’; they resented those patterns, the strength of which they felt themselves, and reacted with devastating self-ridicule.” This “self-ridicule” can be seen in the sections of “Notes on Exile” examined in the first and second parts of this essay series. In “Paradigm,” Miłosz utilizes a similarly ironic perspective by explaining that in his homeland, the willed exchange between the writer who understands his “task” and an eager audience was blocked by the state; and now, in the new country, the freedom the exiled writer can utilize is offset by a lack of audience and a forgetting that exerts a stronger influence than memory.

The professional symbolism, responsibility, and status of the writer in exile can be considered within these two different situations. Because the first situation (in the homeland) fostered the writer’s responsibility while prohibiting free expression, a reciprocal process of identification was at work between the writer and the state that imbued the writer’s position with responsibility, worth, and threat in the eyes of both his audience and the state itself. This occurred regardless of whether the state was sponsoring the writer or instead considered him a necessary part of the system but still weakened his social importance through censorship and other modes of manipulation and discourse.

Yet that which in his country is regarded with seriousness as a matter of life or death is of nobody’s concern abroad or provokes interest for incidental reasons.

As Miłosz continues his sparse explication of being “forbidden to speak” in the section entitled “Commentary on the Above,” questions arise as to what can be defined as “reality” within the bounds of literature written under regime pressure. Certainly an attention to the present that somehow delves beneath ideology and propaganda is necessary (if not already ambitious enough). But what about attention to the past, to an exploration of memory, however tenuous and problematic the truth value thereof may be? If a certain mode of memory can constitute a common level of “reality,” when considering the bounds of censorship at work that chased Miłosz even in exile, it is necessary to cite some of the Communist regime’s abuses of memory, beginning with a point from another of Miłosz’s essays called “Speaking of a Mammal”: “The successes of Communism among the intellectuals were due mainly to their desire to have Value guaranteed, if not by God, at least by history.” This resulted in a situation in which writers, “With resistance, but at the same time with relief . . . subjected themselves to a discipline which liberated them from themselves.”

Part of this “liberation” was from the realm of collective memory and social frameworks of memory that had been infused with centuries of literary texts. However restrictive this realm might have been – indeed exemplified by Miłosz’s criticism of a persistent Polish Romanticism – this collective memory entailed a freedom to explore the past that was manipulated by the regime through its maintenance of official historical discourse and its ideological insistence on Socialist Realism.

An oppressive political regime’s awareness of the social power of memory and its accompanying abuse spurs from an understanding that memory, according to Misztal in Theories of Social Remembering, “functioning as organized practices designed to ensure the reproduction of social and political order, is a source of ‘factual’ material for propaganda.” In the Polish case under Communism, it also spurred from an awareness of the depth of Polish memory culture that necessitated manipulation. For as Ricoeur formulates in Memory, History, Forgetting, “too much memory, in a certain region of the world, hence an abuse of memory; not enough memory elsewhere, hence an abuse of forgetting.” And thus certain layers of collective memory were abused and manipulated, the end result being that, for instance, according to Miłosz in The History of Polish Literature, “critics had to avoid the too intricate problems raised by [the Romantic authors’] thought and their art.”

There may have been a certain amount of relief in not having to confront such problems, but that in turn affected the opportunity (and obligation) of authors to deal with then-recent Polish history, as the newly crystallized narratives of collective memory were in turn obviously affected by this ideological manipulation. As the Communist regime set up its own official historical and contemporaneous narratives – about the Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army, for instance, or the glory of the state’s workers – it sought to legitimize itself and dominate the national and collective modes of memory. As Ricoeur makes clear, “it is on the level where ideology operates a discourse justifying power, domination, that the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized.” In such attempts at legitimization, narratives are manifested through what Ricoeur identifies as “enforced memory” and take the form of “stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, [while they] feed the discourse of flattery or of fear.”

Such ideologization of memory, narrative, and identity compromises both literature and the purpose of the text itself, but in exile the writer is able to search for other means of freely exploring collective memory. This can be seen in Miłosz’s ABC’s, which utilizes the traditional Polish genre form of alphabetical order as a framework for short prose pieces on various details and memories. This exploration can especially be seen in “Notes on Exile,” which both feeds off and contributes to a paradigm of exile while serving as a model for the author’s covert memory work (as well as for further contemplation by a reader “in exile”). The fragmentary semi-narratives of “Notes on Exile” thus become the centerpiece of a negotiation of memory in the exile paradigm, which challenges the regime and the groups from which the author has been exiled as well as the mnemonic communities encountered in the new land with whom the exile must interact.

Previous essays in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

FORGET

Forget the suffering
You caused others.
Forget the suffering
Others caused you.
The waters run and run,
Springs sparkle and are done,
You walk the earth you are forgetting.

Sometimes you hear a distant refrain.
What does it mean, you ask, who is singing?
A childlike sun grows warm.
A grandson and a great-grandson are born.
You are led by the hand once again.

The names of the rivers remain with you.
How endless those rivers seem!
Your fields lie fallow,
The city towers are not as they were.
You stand at the threshold mute.

– Czesław Miłosz (translated by Jessica Fisher and Bożena Gilewska)

TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS II: USAGE AND ACCLIMATIZATION, OR, DESTINY AS MEMORY

Exile accepted as a destiny, in the way we accept an incurable illness, should help us see through our self-delusions.

– Miłosz, “Notes on Exile”

To home in on the kind of acceptance of exile Miłosz encourages in the “Usage” section of his essay/prose-poem “Notes on Exile,” consider Zygmunt Bauman’s statement in “Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi” that you can compare identity only to a jigsaw puzzle “in which quite a few bits (and one will never know exactly how many) are missing.” If a belief in destiny relies on a self-constructed narrative in which one is continually fulfilling that destiny, routes of individual and collective memory must be traced in order to investigate circumstance and causality while affirming the present course. This selective memory involved in narrating the puzzles of identity is the basis for the short, almost aphoristic form of “Notes on Exile.”

Recognizing exile as destiny also means that precedents have been sought and incorporated, as the very use of “destiny” requires the identification of temporal parameters while use of “exile” entails knowledge of examples outside one’s experience (i.e., historical, national/ethnic, literary, etc.). Accordingly, the Adam Mickiewicz epigraph for “Notes on Exile” casts a long shadow over the essay:

He did not find happiness, for there was no happiness in his country.

Mickiewicz’s lines serve as an anchor for the Romantic paradigm of exile and its foundational effect on Miłosz’s imaginative and mnemonic balance. In his essay “The Costs of Zealousness,” the author works out the memory of this weight:

My imagination did not serve up fictitious plots, nor did it seek an outlet in words, but it filled an ordered space, expressing itself in fantastic drawings and maps of nonexistent countries. I experienced my escapes as a necessity and a defect; I would probably have given everything I had to be like everyone else, an equal among equals. My discovery that in retreating to my own space I was behaving exactly like a Romantic poet was arrived at under the influence of Mickiewicz’s and Słowacki’s poetry, probably no earlier than my sixteenth year.

As the Romantic exilic paradigm exerted influence on Miłosz’s early spatial and geographical conceptions, these acts of escapism provided a glimpse of the “destiny” that would become enabled in his real exile. Of course, viewing exile as a certain destiny for all writers – not just those who passed through Polish Romanticism or lived under Eastern European postwar regimes – has been recognized as a common legacy of Modernism. In “Ethics, Consciousness, and the Potentialities of Literature: Teaching Narratives of Exile,” Johannes Evelein points out that, “The modernist writer…is the proverbial stranger in his own land whose strangeness is a precondition for and source of literary creation.” This literary exile, which entails a certain self-conscious posturing as well as linguistic modeling (i.e., at the root of all alienation and thus of exile itself is language), only heightens real exile in what Evelein describes as a “doubling.” The double-exile begins with “the forced banishment of the modernist writer, be it in Nazi Germany, Communist Poland, or dictatorial Chile, whose modernity had manifested itself already in a voluntary posture of exile,” and then “merges with forced expatriation, internal and external, metaphorical and physical, inner and outer flight coming together, weaving the writer’s fate, guiding his or her work.”

Experience of these layers of exile spur on Miłosz’s mandate in “Usage” that accepting exile “should help us to see through our self-delusions.” The pronoun “us” at once crystallizes exile around an inclusive center of which the author and text are part (and which can include other exilic precedents) while reaching out to the reader in an allusion to the concept of universal exile (i.e., inevitable alienation through birth and language). The reference may also be to the specific regime Miłosz was exiled from (or went into exile from, depending on how we understand the power dynamics at work in his biography), and thus be directed at readers who may have been under the delusion that a degree of exile, whether internal or external, was anything but unavoidable for so many writers in postwar Poland and Eastern Europe. The concept of internal exile is especially relevant in the mode of Polish collective memory reflected in the Mickiewicz epigraph. As Eva Hoffman points out in her essay “New Nomads,” “For a patriot of an occupied nation, it was possible to feel radically exiled within that country, as long as it did not possess the crucial aspect of national sovereignty.” Although Hoffman is referring to Poland under the Partitions, a similar equation can of course utilize the extenuating mechanisms of Socialist Realism and censorship in Poland during Communism.

Miłosz’s explicit desire to combat self-delusions also situates the exiled author’s use of memory as one of process and inconsistency, in turn necessitating a reevaluation of historical contingencies and literary legacies in order to reconcile the subject’s former delusions of a more static identity. Such memory-work focusing on specific circumstances (e.g., social background in Lithuania, the “Polish Complex,” political Romanticism) must confront the very facts of real exile in order to accomplish the difficult debasement of delusions through the recognition that, according to Bauman, “‘belonging’ and ‘identity’ are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable.” Miłosz refers back to this problematic seeing through of self- delusions later in “Notes on Exile” in the “Despair” section:

Exile is morally suspect because it break’s one’s solidarity a group, i.e., it sets apart an individual who ceases to share the experience of colleagues left behind. his moral torment reflects his attachment to a  heroic image of himself and he must, step by step, come to the painful conclusion that to do morally valid work and to preserve an untarnished image of himself is rarely possible.

In light of this passage, we may cite Józef Wittlin’s ideas put forth in his essay “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile” as another precedent for Miłosz’s text: “Exile, where he is unknown, may offer him an excellent opportunity of confronting his own opinion of himself with what he really represents.”

A theme similar to “exile as destiny” can also be found in the section of Miłosz’s “Notes on Exile” entitled “Acclimatization:”

After many years in exile one tries to imagine what it is like not living in exile.

The past and the present are conflated in this desire and inability to imagine. Because even though remembering not living in exile may be an option, the present has exerted such weight that the memory no longer suffices, and the exiled author is in effect destiempo (Wittlin’s term for a “a man deprived of his time”) in regards to pre-exilic experience. Social frameworks of memory fail and, accordingly, the exiled author forgets how to locate himself effectively in the pre-exilic collective. Memory becomes too weighted with the act and distress of exile, reflected in Miłosz’s comment in his Nobel lecture that, in reference to Nietzsche, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” So although the emphasis in this section of “Notes on Exile” is on “imagining” and, by extension, on the present and future, total “acclimatization” is not possible. For the exiled writer cannot even locate himself in a contemporaneous collective through his imagination, and there can thus no longer be any delusion that exile is anything but an imperative component of his identity and an extension of his personal mnemonic tracking. Exile as destiny is thus affirmed.

Meanwhile, Miłosz is injecting a fair amount of irony into “Notes on Exile” here. After all, as Paul Friedrich points out in his essay “Binarism versus Synthesis: Eastern European and Generic Exile,“ “Exile discourse tends to be ironic: generically, what is meant differs markedly from what was intended…Exile also illustrates dramatic irony, ‘the irony of fate,’ and, for that matter, all other forms of this powerful trope.” This “irony of fate” calls to mind another “note,” this time from Miłosz’s “Notebook:”

Energy should encounter resistance; resistance keeps it in practice, rescues it. If, however, energy comes up against a gigantic smooth wall on which there is not a single rough place, not even a crack, this is more than resistance; it is too much. Energy then turns inward, consumes itself, and a person asks himself, “Could it be that there is no wall? Could this be my own delusion? Could it be that all this is my own fault and I should adjust to it?”

There is a confrontation with both destiny and delusion (not to mention a fair amount of absurdity) in these lines. For if the wall is exile, how can the exiled writer dissect that monumental and blockading experience while hoping to acclimatize to it but through a negotiation with the memory of everything that has led him to face such a destiny?

Previous essay in the “Two Centers – on Memory & Exile in Czesław Miłosz’s Essays” series:

TWO CENTERS – ON MEMORY & EXILE IN CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ’S ESSAYS I: THE (POLISH) ESSAY FORM

He did not find happiness, for there
was no happiness in his country.

– Adam Mickiewicz

There is a tremendous human presence in Miłosz’s essay collections such as Visions of San Francisco Bay, Beginning With My Streets, and To Begin Where I Am, and diverse characters bolster the author’s reflections on the uses of space for memory. You read of friends, family, anecdotal protagonists, other writers, nearly all long gone: Gilbert Brognart, Grandmother Miłosz, Pranas Ancewicz, Robespierre, Nicola Chiaromonte, Zygmunt Hertz, Marek Hłasko, Robinson Jeffers, Lev Shestov, Sorana Gurian, Meister Eckhart, Ortega y Gasset, Kazimierz Wyka, Aleksander Wat, Anna Świrszczyńska, Buster Keaton, Herbert Marcuse, and Cyprian Norwid all rub shoulders in the social frameworks of memory found in these essays. Such figures guide the exiled author’s contemplation of space back to the streets of Vilnius, the libraries and living rooms of Warsaw, the rocky shores of California, and the specific pages of favored books before ultimately returning him to the pages of the text at hand.

Miłosz constructed a specific milieu with its own accompanying mode of collective memory in certain of his essays, employing a strategy based on the creative dilemmas of exilic experience as well as on engagement with Polish historical experience through memory. As he determined his own multilayered exilic displacement, Miłosz negotiated how spatial understanding in his memory had been skewed, and there is thus an attempt at reconciliation through a literary turn to collective memory. The author in absence, in exile, traverses borders, identifies centers and peripheries, and enacts return in order to create his own and others’ presence in the essays.

Miłosz in the Planty Park, Kraków

The tension between his public recognition as a renowned poet and as the author of The Captive Mind, for instance, or even The History of Polish Literature, is something Miłosz struggled with at various points of his career. Analysis of his poetry is generally more common with treatments of Miłosz’s writing, but the intersections of exile and memory are most numerous in the essays, where the autobiographical and biographical, memory and history, tradition and criticism generate a dense, analytic dynamism. Yet these essays are full of openings, contradictions, and opportunities to explore the borders between memory and imagination, the personal and collective, and the spatial and temporal.

It is these openings that prove most fascinating when looking at any author’s essays. In “The Essay as Form,” Adorno points out the “intellectual freedom” exemplified in the essay, which “does not let its domain be proscribed for it” and “reflects the leisure of a childlike person who has no qualms about taking his inspiration from what others have done before him.” The latter point is especially relevant in view of Miłosz’s use of biographical sketches in his ABC’s, for example, not to mention his many essays that focus on the writers important to him (such as Simone Weil and Dostoevsky). For Adorno, the essay form inspires both utility and resistance, and “reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creatio ex nihilo on the model of an unrestrained work ethic.” There is a mnemonic understanding supporting the essay form here that reflects the core of Miłosz’s style, which interweaves recollection with sensory localization, the local and universal, and the function of literature and art in a world perpetually in the throes of crisis. At the same time, this essayistic “intellectual freedom” is, according to Adorno, fundamental to the form, which feeds off chance and play and stops when it feels its own context has finished.

The indeterminacy of the essay form accommodates the fragmentation of exilic experience, which it uses to its advantage in order to project a degree of coherency while remaining open. The essay, as Adorno identifies, “is radical in its non-radicalism, in refraining from any reduction to a principle in its accentuation of the partial against the total, in its fragmentary character.” Tension between partiality and totality lends itself to this openness, and the essay as Adorno promotes it does not aim at a closed system, but instead takes up the cause that what is fleeting is indeed deserving of study. This potential thematic frivolity in turn reflects the nature of memory appearing with a trigger and disappearing without a recognizable trace, and thus the form marks as forgetting not only everything that has been left out, but also the origins and routes of the mnemonic elements chosen for inclusion. As the essay brings disparate materials of recollection together, according to Adorno it “does not try to seek the eternal in the transient and distill it out; it tries to render the transient eternal.”

The essay’s formal openness and transient tension can be traced back to the very root of the word, according to Jan Kott, who writes in his Introduction to Four Decades of Polish Essays (a collection more intriguing than it sounds): “The French word essais comes from the verb essayer, to assay, to test, to try.” The essay-as-test uses its author’s memory to generate energy, a personal basis of extreme import. Kott continues: “In this testing of the world the touchstone…is one’s own destiny, one’s own skin, like a hand that refuses to trust the eyes and feels the irregular surface of the wall.” Essayistic “testing” thus encourages the author to engage his or her surroundings, often with a primacy given to sensory interpretations balanced with larger trajectories of experience wherein, for instance, the dynamics of memory and contemplation of exile may be fleshed out. Similarly, Józef Wittlin points out in “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile” that, “an essay is nothing but an attempt, and an essayist is a writer who only tries to do something…And we know that the distance from the attempt to the final execution of an idea is very long.”

This conception is the basis for the style of the “Polish essay,” which, according to Halina Filipowicz in “Fission and Fusion: Polish Émigré Literature,” resembles more an “intellectual diary” that melds the autobiographical with the intellectual. Indeed, historical experience has solidified the functions of the essay in the Polish canon, as Kott points out, writing in 1989 that, “it is in poetry and the essay that the experience of the last decades has found the most Polish and at the same time the most universal image and reflection.” Kott goes on to explain that, “it is not by accident that so many Polish poets of the period have cultivated the essay as a genre of equal importance in their creative work.” This perspective is surely referencing Miłosz as well as other noteworthy poets with intriguing essayistic output such as Zbigniew Herbert, Stanisław Barańczak, and Adam Zagajewski.

The essay form was appropriately flexible yet durable enough to give strong voice to the Polish experience of the 20th century, and with so many Polish essays portraying, for instance, the reality endured under partitions and totalitarian systems (however coded those portrayals may be), the form has been determined capable of providing “testimony about this world through a personal story, inscribed just as the blows of a whip make marks on the skin.” The encounter of the individual with such specific history produces the certain density as well as the dark modes of humor typically found in the Polish essay, and the individual-collective confrontation contributes to the importance placed on memory in the form. As Kott posits, in such texts, “the memory of history makes itself felt perhaps more often and certainly more clearly than it does in the reflections of writers from happier countries.”

All of these elements of the essay form can be found in Miłosz’s texts, and one can pick up on his thinking as regards both the form and the melding of exilic experience with memory in his “Notes on Exile.” Here Miłosz writes that a literature of nostalgia, which entails the writer revisiting his childhood by which “a distance in space often serves as a disguise for a Proustian distance in time,” is only one method of coping with exilic experience and its accompanying threats of despair. He clarifies his formal aim by initiating a move away from a literature of nostalgia and sentimentality, the genre of the realistic novel, and “certain styles” that he does not venture to name. Miłosz continues honing in on an affirmation of the essay (and poetry), writing that, “the condition of exile, by enforcing upon a writer several perspectives, favors other genres and styles, especially those which are related to a symbolic transposition of reality.” This aim of a “symbolic transposition of reality” situates the essay as an apt form for dealing with the challenging experiences of exile as well as the detailed yet always distanced substances of memory in both “happy” and “unhappy” countries.

DIASPORIC INTIMATIONS (A FRIENDLY CONVERSATION)

In the late twentieth century, millions of people find themselves displaced from their birthplace, living in voluntary or involuntary exile. Their intimate experiences occur against a foreign background. They are aware of the foreign stage set whether they like it or not…Inability to return home is both a personal tragedy and an enabling force. This doesn’t mean that there is no nostalgia for the homeland, only that this kind of nostalgia precludes restoration of the past…I will speak about something that might seem paradoxical – a “disapsoric intimacy” that is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarization but is constituted by it. Diasporic intimacy can be approached only through indirection and intimation, through stories and secrets. It is spoken in a foreign language that reveals the inadequacies of translation. Diasporic intimacy does not promise an unmediated emotional fusion, but only a precarious affection – no less deep, yet aware of its transience. In contrast to the utopian images of intimacy as transparency, authenticity and ultimate belonging, diasporic intimacy is dystopic by definition; it is rooted in the suspicion of a single home, in shared longing without belonging. It thrives on the hope of the possibilities of human understanding and survival, of unpredictable chance encounters, but this hope is not utopian. Diasporic intimacy is haunted by the images of home and homeland, yet it also discloses some of the furtive pleasures of exile.

– Svetlana Boyn, The Future of Nostalgia

“Any kind of intimacy requires a strong framework of memory, right? No matter how transient or precarious that relationship remains. So what happens to those relationships when you’re attempting to forget, as you claim you are?”

“Well frameworks of memory and intimacy are nothing but tentative abroad, that’s for sure. And I’ve lost plenty. You left your camera in that cab in Seoul and didn’t even try to get it back, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as what can be lost. Sometimes these kinds of mnemonic frameworks, when you’re on a plane, they parachute casually down between the tectonic plates, you watch them go. Some are never anything but unnamable and can never be translated where you wind up. The rest are beaten into submission on that mediocrely-tuned brass snare of mine.”

“And who leaves whom?”

“Usually it seems that – sure, I’ve done a lot of exiting and losing – but more often those framework objects, they just up and leave the foreign one day, you know? It’s an annual theme, ‘so long, so long.’ And there’s rarely not a national border at play. They’re called by fear of regret, preordained familial guilt, moments when there’s little left to wait for. Another one just left this past Thursday, actually.”

DP, BS, JW, JT, SM, AG, AP, AR, CF, SG, GW, CL, ER

“Well can these frameworks be grounded in something other than flesh and bone? In text, for instance? Text is easy, no matter the lack of comprehension, blatant ignoring or, on the other hand, undeserved attention. But whether it’s a fixed number of characters, initials flashing round your skull, or author names standing in for those who’ve left or not yet arrived – like that time you bought The Pleasure of the Text on a snowy Sunday in Pittsburgh in hope it’d offer some congeniality – can any of that be sufficient? Or is a written framework just too thin or digressive to begin with?”

“That’s been said plenty – the failure repeated, the poorest of imitations; the endless writing, endless reading, endless writing about reading; you read this, you post this quote, you take it all very seriously; there’s too much text, we need no more, etc. Ultimately, you know, the only text worth producing is the kind you’ll forget. And your friends’ names become only email addresses, rarely to be written out in full again.”

“Let’s leave all that for a second. This diasporic intimacy, can that guard against nostalgia? I would think it depends on the mix of remembering and forgetting that the intimacy is constructed with.”

“Well it’s not even memory that constitutes the power of those diasporic frameworks. It’s the tactics of forgetting – these lethatechnics you hear about but which are hard to get a grip on. Those have proven the strongest stops on nostalgic paralysis, on the doomed pursuit of restoration, day in day out.”

“Really? I know you don’t like ice cream as much as your typical Krakowian, but aren’t there other local pleasures to pursue?”

“Sure. Just saying that, even forgetting is a pleasure – furtive, as Boym points out, but always resonant. It just depends on how much and how well you can wield it. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind, for example – that’s forgetting as utilitarian pleasure. But you have to keep it balanced and choose your objects carefully, after a lot of mnemonic processing. You have to be really, really careful, in the end. Cause it’s distasteful and inevitable to an extent, and for sure it often describes the ones who stayed behind, how they communicate or, more often, do not. But unless you stay on the move every two years or so max, you become one who stayed behind, and that same tactic can be used with you – for sure it already has! The cycle never ends. And the supposed equilibrium that results from leaving and left? For that to be any use, it must be tipped a little more towards forgetting than memory.”

“How’s that?”

“The remembering cannot subsume you. It’s got to be filtered, monitored. And forgetting becomes the gauge that lets you do this. Forgetting used through practice, method, technique. Not the other way around – memory does not gauge the forgetting. Because it envelopes memory, there’s more power in forgetting – power to shape memory, dismantle it, reject or sublimate it.”

“Isn’t out-of-sight-out-of-mind more a rather pathetic excuse than some kind of tactic? Even if you are just forgetting what was once remembered, rather than ‘forgetting’ what was never fully registered or observed.”

“It’s only an example that can be dropped and adopted again at will, reformulated, whatever. Let’s not think it’s a static solution or anything. And, again, it very much toes the line with guilt and-or laziness. And guilt plays such a big role in memory – constructing responsibilities, contriving duties…”

“That’s what I keep thinking. What about duty here, about putting time into the communication? What about valuing the textual output – all those emails about the relationship of god and capital gains on volatility, Nietzsche and post-1989 lingerie?”

“The ones that sparked so little reply, you mean? Well, that’s not the point. They were efforts put forth. There were desired ends – more exchange, dialogue, in-jokes – more mnemonic material, I guess. But the real ends were accepted eventually, not resented – they were forgotten. At least partially. But it’s almost like there has to be some kind of serious border in place to encourage those exchanges, some transcontinental span to overcome. The border gets to be too much, though, too difficult to send messages across. But you have to keep seeing the potential for such exchanges. And you just have to try not to be a jerk about it.”

“Exactly. But at the same time you can’t help but think – a tactic of forgetting? Why would I want to forget? Forget what? And that’s supposed to be good for me, even pleasurable? Isn’t it a pleasure so unexpected, you’re super suspicious of it from the get-go?”

“Yeah, well, the foreign and the forgetting go hand in hand. Always. But the forgetting we’re speaking of, it’s not based on shame or shirking responsibility or something. It’s based on the same privacy you want to expand through remembering. You have your ends in mind – you want to sleep better, spend more time on music, check out the city, be less hostile or resentful, whatever. And you want some degree of pleasure in evading your memories, in moving forward and accepting other mnemonic frameworks or material. So with a letatechnic or whatever you want to call it for reaching these ends, there is a refusal at work that is even more private, a letting go that is usually unregistered by anyone anywhere. If that’s the way you want to play it, that is. You don’t have to be all nebulous or secretive about it, but not being secretive about it is another story.”

“Maybe instead of ‘shared longing without belonging,’ like Boym identifies, there can be something like shared forgetting with privacy? Cause memory is rarely wholly private, right? Recollection is supported by all of these frameworks, especially when there is some dynamic of intimacy involved, however diasporic it might be. We’ve established that. But forgetting can be an intensely private affair. And in a way, the privacy of forgetting can lead to another form of belonging – you forget one set of frameworks in order to adopt or be open to adopting another, like you point out.”

“Forgetting can be so private, I would think, that it could even become the object of intimacy itself. At some point abroad, you become as intimate with your forgetting as with your memory. And that becomes less a ‘furtive pleasure of exile’ than a joyful potentiality.”

“Exactly. Could these strains of forgetting even become objects of nostalgia, of restorative nostalgia? As if you want to get back to that place of earlier forgetting?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Although let’s not go too far. What you’re talking about could be just a parallel of forgetting – the kind obsession and total presence that is supposed to signify authenticity, but that’s not an automatic association. Considering an ‘authentic’ forgetting is hardly easy. But something that enables forgetting as a surprisingly useful by-product, something fun, more often than not, yes. Cause of course it’s easy to be nostalgic for pleasure, but you have to take it one step further to see the forgetting that was involved in that experience. What were you forgetting that day we sat drinking radlers, watching those mini-ramp skaters at Fabryka? Or when we saw Cleveland beat the Red Sox at Fenway? Cause obviously you can be nostalgic for that, but you can’t really be nostalgic for what you were not thinking about at the time, cause why would you want to be? You couldn’t even recall those mnemonic objects, what was forgotten, or any of those dynamics now if you tried – that’s the point. See, we’re really talking about a practice of forgetting – a lethatechnic that is specific enough to learn and repeat, the way to forget that you want to remember! So that more moments actually worth remembering can happen. That’s what you want to recall and be nostalgic for in some very personal though pragmatic way. Cause when you reach the specifics of your nostalgia – the context, who you were with, the weather, even – obviously that can’t be recreated. But the practice can – the mnemonic practice or the lethatechnic, you have to make that choice. And if you choose to concentrate on the forgetting, there actually is some degree of restoration involved. But it’s not a place that is being restored – it’s a method for challenging the need to belong to any place, for understanding that experience is not just a future bombardment of memory. So it’s not a memory palace you want to inhabit – it’s more like a mobile home in Nebraska and you don’t care if it’s in a tornado path or what, you’re just going to leave it behind for a while.”

“So you’d take the tornado-threatened trailer over a decked-out memory palace? Seems to me you would agree with this suspicion of a single home, then, like Boym mentions?”

“For sure. When you first feel that suspicion it seems unnatural, disrespectful even, to question that ground, allegiance, that need of comfort or whatever. But then you see it more and more in the shadowy discourse you share with other foreigners. There’s empathy, commiseration. Plenty of exasperation and complaining. There’s also excitement at the distance from where you grew up, etc. But one day that suspicion becomes the norm – you have done enough thinking on it, reading about it, even. You have come to see the fluid lines between emigration, expatriation, real and metaphysical exile. You think about alterity, destierro and destiempo, the connection of home and love. Cosmopolitanism utilizes strong threads of forgetting, and there’s the Slavic paradigm of exile, Janus, those essays by Miłosz and Wittlin. All the while the idea of a single home increasingly becomes an anomaly.”

“Or if you’re really feeling arrogant-slash-insecure, even something quaint.”

“Sure, sure. But once that suspicion of the single home becomes natural, it’s even sometimes like you have no interest in talking to others who speak your language. Even if they speak with a Rust Belt accent, maybe especially then! Cause, you know, you’re out, you hear them on the street, their vocal fry singeing the Old Town, ‘oh my god you guys,’ you know. You see their shoes and shorts and sizes and haircuts and Purell bottles. You can spot ‘em and hear ‘em from a mile away. Doesn’t matter if they’re tourists or how long they’ve been here, who wants to talk about travel or living abroad anymore? You become tired of relaying your stories yet again, that spiel of where you’ve been and how you wound up here.”

“Especially when they have that glint in their eye, which can seem way more tragic than an enabling force, yeah? Cause they have no idea how they’ll cope with that fading, after they’re all jaded and fed up, tired of the foreign altogether or of this particular foreign. After they’re tired of being asked for drobne by those horrid Kefirek cashiers, tired of all the broken vods bottles all over the place, people running into you on the sidewalks, that pedestrian ‘Slavic swerve.’ So how are they going to eventually cope with their mnemonic frameworks running weak? They’ll encounter a novice need to forget – forget any notion of home, forget everything irritating here, who’s in Malaysia and who’s in Chile and all those in New York. They have no idea they’ll have to deal with that when the glint in their eye’s still strong. But that becomes the only thing worth talking about at some point, you know? That’s the real enabling force. The diasporic intimacy Boym is positing, the real core of that? It’s forgetting. What can you share in forgetting.”

“Thus the lethatechnics.”

“So ok, what is it today?”

“What is what, today?”

“What are you trying to forget today? What do you want to use those for?”

“Oh, well, today it’s…the idea that you have to ‘catch up’ on yard work. The emptiness of hearing country music on a rainy day. Drinking beer in plastic cups. The horror of opłatki and Wigilia in general. Steel wool. Watching golf on tv. Those beat departure lounges at CAK. Being envious of an eighteen year-old kid’s university prospects. The Dostoevsky I haven’t read. That email from J about how I didn’t seem to like his girlfriend. That whole situation with, ‘why don’t I put this cigarette out on your eye,’ what a mess that was. That J might never read the Kapuściński book I gave him – he didn’t even put it on his Goodreads! How T smacks his lips while eating.  Some $2,000 chair J lets his dogs sleep on. How M shot a deer through the heart somewhere outside Philly and then ate the heart with his new wife and a little balsamic and ended up biting down on the slug, that was a wild email to get. That I missed my cousin’s wedding.”

“Wait wait wait, he ate the heart of a deer he shot? Raw or something?”

WHO IS GOING TO REPROACH CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ?

Who is going to reproach me for lack of precision, who would recognize the places or the people? My power is absolute, everything there belongs to one man now, who once, a student from Wilno, arrived there in a dogcart.

– Czesław Miłosz, “The Wormwood Star”