March 2011

Elizabeth Bachner


Prickly and Heartbroken: Reading "An Exclusive Love"

I’m reading An Exclusive Love, and I keep looking at the picture on the flyleaf. The author has pale skin and dark hair. I think she is very beautiful. She looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with, if we knew each other. I don’t know why I can’t stop looking at this picture.

I’m reading two suicide memoirs at the same time -- An Exclusive Love, and Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. The Scholem book has a few pictures inside, but none on the back. On the back is the best jacket copy I’ve read on a book in years: “At once prickly and heartbroken…” Yes, that is exactly how Gershom Scholem seems, how he must have felt, thinking back on his complicated relationship with a friend who died in 1940 at age 48, a friend who had stayed in Europe instead of coming to Jerusalem. I have this fantasy that between now and whenever I die, which I’ve decided won’t be at my own hand, I’ll just stay in bed reading Scholem’s books on Jewish mysticism. I’ll eventually start learning Hebrew, like my real-life friend who is a beautiful young Walter Benjamin scholar, who is even less Jewish than I am. I’m Jewish on my dad’s side, the half that makes me not really Jewish at all.

The author of An Exclusive Love, Johanna Adorján, has a Hungarian-Jewish dad and a non-Jewish German mother. Her paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, a glamorous couple who fled Budapest for Vienna in 1956 and settled in Copenhagen. During the war, Adorján’s grandfather, Istvan (called Pista), was sent to a concentration camp. Her grandmother, Vera, hid out with false papers and her infant son. The details of how the couple survived the war, how they reunited, and how things really were, are murky. It was in 1945 that Vera started to talk about suicide. She was 25, lovely, talented, fluent in three languages, with a child. Her parents had been killed, her husband was in the camp, she was living in an apartment in Oktogon, in the Pest section of Budapest, which was intact except for broken windowpanes, and she started telling friends, “If he doesn’t come back, I’ll take my own life.” He came back, starved and bearded. In 1991, Pista was in his eighties, terminally ill. Vera was 71 and healthy. On an almost-random day in Copenhagen, when Johanna Adorján was twenty, they killed themselves by overdosing on pills. They died together in their bed, holding hands.

The memoir is a mix of interviews, historical reconstruction, detective work -- a granddaughter’s almost-innocent search for her grandparent’s true biographies, her imagination of what it was like inside their world on their last day. It is kind about their choice towards death. It is not prickly, but it is delicate. It is heartbroken, but not necessarily about the Holocaust. Not necessarily about Vera and Pista, who had each other. Adorján has many questions about her grandparents, some of them unanswerable. But this memoir is not, in the end, about those questions. Actually, it’s a delicate, heartbroken plea. A plea to be special to someone, that way.

Adorján interviews her grandmother’s close friend, Erzsi, now old and frail, who wears red lipstick and smokes like Vera did. Erzsi scrutinizes her “as if to make sure that [she] can bear the truth,” then says: “She wasn’t a happy woman. Deep down inside she was very insecure. She thought nobody liked her... No one but Pista.” Adorján puzzles over this -- how a woman like her grandmother, the gorgeous, accomplished wife of a doctor, could feel like that.

“The deepest feeling known to me,” she writes, “is the sense of not belonging… I don’t know where it comes from… No one loves me, no one can love me. This is my deepest conviction and at the same time my greatest fear, and if I follow that idea to the end it leads me to the feeling more familiar to me than any other: I am all alone. It is as if Erzsi had given me a treasure. What extraordinary news -- my grandmother felt just like me? I’d like to call everyone I know, here and now, and tell them: I’m not crazy after all. I’m only my grandmother’s daughter. She had it too… And suddenly I also understand my grandmother’s great love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and ultimately conditional. Prove that I am wrong, prove that I am worth loving, and then I will always be with you, I will follow you even into death. Suddenly I can imagine why she didn’t want to live without him, why she died with him.”

There’s heartbreak, and then there’s heartbreak. Husbands are shipped off to be tortured at labor camps, wives are murdered, soldiers and civilians the world over are forced into war, but then, also, people leave each other. People who are safe -- who could pick up the phone and have dinner together, who could hold each other tonight while they fall asleep -- decide never to see or touch each other again. It happens all the time, and you would think (what with human mortality, with how easy it is to lose someone for real) that it would happen much less. And it feels wrong to grieve about that, with things worse than death going on. I keep reading and rereading Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Sometimes I think he’s talking about love, and sometimes I think he’s talking about obsession and mental illness. Why suffer so much when everyone is safe and healthy, when no one is being tortured? (From Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, another book I can’t stop rereading: “‘Today’ is a word which only suicides ought to be allowed to use; it has no meaning for other people.”)

Barthes asks, “Is it not indecent to compare the situation of a love-sick subject to that of an inmate at Dachau?” It is indecent, right?

I was at a talk recently about organ trafficking. The speaker, Nancy Scheper-Hughes of UC Berkeley, showed pictures of starving, sick-looking inmates at a psychiatric facility in Argentina, Montes de Oca. They were hunched in the fetal position. One had a fresh nephrectomy scar on the side of his body -- when a nurse was asked how he’s gotten that scar, she replied, “He hurt himself.” Coffins were piled up casually alongside kitchen supplies. “It is like a concentration camp…” she said. “They take their corneas and their kidneys and the valves of their hearts.” There are still atrocities committed all over the world today, acts of violence and violation -- that is the point. But on the other hand, maybe there really is something extra sad and horrible about someone you love and miss choosing not to see you, when you are both safe and healthy, when it would be easy. Maybe there is a more-than-metaphorical annihilation in that.

According to The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart, written by a doctor and a poet who are brothers, the ancient Jews believed the heart was the organ that people used to communicate with their creator. It provided the Hebrew prophets with a “turbulent, bloody, tactile” metaphor. The Egyptians saw the heart as the part of the human being that could ascend to heaven, carried by a winged beetle. And even today, hearts, like beetles, are literal and metaphorical too. They are real organs, actually bloody. Beetles are real insects that live and die. Sometimes the feeling, “I want to die,” crosses into an actual suicide, a physical act, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since we all die, but our acts can be preserved historically, our work can be preserved, all of these differences between what is literal and metaphorical, direct and allegorical, real and unreal, seen and unseen, human and inhuman, known and unknowable start to get mind-blowingly confusing. Especially with the atrocities of history in mind, and the atrocities of the present, in mind.

How can we understand a true act of death, an act with organ failure and ugly smells and a mess and grief-stricken survivors and a body count, that is based on an idea? Vera thinks, “I don’t want to live without him.” Barthes writes: “In the amorous realm, the desire for suicide is frequent: a trifle provokes it. For the slightest injury, I want to commit suicide... The notion is a light one -- an easy idea, a kind of rapid algebra which my discourse requires at this particular moment; I grant it no substantial consistency, nor do I foresee the heavy décor, the trivial consequences of death… It is a phrase, only a sentence, which I darkly caress but from which a trifle will distract me.” It makes me think of a line in a Giorgio Agamben essay, from Potentialities: “(W)e can see a moral risk implicit in every act of interpretation, in every confrontation with a text or discourse, whether human or divine. This risk is that speech, which is nothing other than the manifestation and the unconcealment of something, may be separated from what it reveals and acquire an autonomous consistency.” Most suicides lack the neat story of Vera and Istvan’s -- the easy explanation of “I don’t want to live without him.” And even this suicide has a darker, harder backstory. The Holocaust. What happened, or did not happen. Its neatness, its ease, may be an illusion.

“Is it typically Jewish to kill yourself when you have survived the Holocaust -- so then you determine for yourself how you want to die?” Asks Johanna Adorján. “Or is it typically Hungarian?”

“I remember a quotation from Nietzsche,” she writes, “that I once heard in a religious instruction at school, or an ethics class, and never found anywhere later. Or it could have been Sartre. The gist of it was that at any point in life there are always just three possibilities: you can do something, you can do nothing, or you can kill yourself.”

So Johanna Adorján has opted to do something, to write a delicate, heartbroken book. The book is a contribution to existential philosophy -- was it Camus who wrote that suicide was the only important philosophical question? He had a point, it is at least one important question. We didn’t choose to be here, and of course one option is to get out of here. Sometimes the body is our only tool for protest, sometimes we have to give our life to escape. The book is a contribution to history, to a powerful and impossible analysis of the legacy of Nazism on the way we view the meaning of human life. It is also a contribution to another branch of philosophy -- the philosophy of lovesickness, tackled best by Barthes. It’s surprisingly hard to find any rich, honest writing about how we can understand romantic obsession and romantic rejection, even though these experiences are nearly as common as death.

We hear, psychologically, about suicides: “He was very sick.” We hear painstaking distinctions between clinical depression and sadness. There’s controversy about how psychiatry -- a profession that once classified freedom-seeking slaves as mentally ill -- should officially distinguish “major depression” from “normal grief.” But what if I am upset when I hear about Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire? What would be “normal” to feel when I think about what happened to my relatives during the Second World War, or to strangers during that war? What should I feel when I learn about how asylum-seekers are treated today in my own country? And then there is lovesickness, which is not inevitable in the way death is inevitable. The rejecting lover, still alive, could change her mind. Barthes, in one of his frequent references to Goethe’s Charlotte and Werther, writes, “Reasonable sentiment: everything works out, but nothing lasts. Amorous sentiment: nothing works out, but it keeps going on.”

These are old questions, taken up for centuries by thinking people. Yet somehow there are still spaces -- psychiatric, journalistic -- where the questions are ignored. Or maybe the psychiatric questions are the right ones. Is someone like Werther, who wants to actually die because a girl doesn’t want him back, just a sicko, a victim not of love but of mental illness? Is it a sign of being nuts to become an activist, driven by fury about everyday atrocities that everyone else seems to just accept? In thwarted longing, as in social injustice, there’s the feeling that it could be different, if we knew some right action to take.

“I myself cannot… construct my love story to the end,” writes Barthes, “I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others…”

Benjamin’s suicide was so different from Vera and Istvan’s, in many ways. He died in 1940 at the French-Spanish border. He was with a group of other people who had “no nationality.” They had spent a harrowing night on an unknown road, sometimes crawling along on all fours. When they reached the Port Bou police station, they were told that a few days earlier, a decree had been issued forbidding people without nationality to travel through Spain. Exhausted and afraid of being sent to the camps, Benjamin overdosed on morphine. According to Gershom Scholem’s book, Benjamin had spoken of suicide for at least a decade -- his plan was to take his own life rather than go to the Nazis. Years later, rumors surfaced that he was actually murdered by Stalinist agents. The manuscript he carried with him, maybe another masterpiece, was entrusted to a fellow refugee who lost it on a train.

Different stories with the same ending -- a human being dies, and then no longer exists. But have the events of history changed what it means to die? Have they changed what it means to love?

The Verso Book of Dissent: from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad came in the mail. It’s a book of statements by people who decided to do something, instead of to do nothing, or to commit suicide. In some cases, speaking out or writing was their action. Others took up arms or participated in uprisings. The young Iraqi journalist Muntazar Al-Zaidi threw his shoes at George W. Bush at a press conference. “I am free,” he writes, “but my country is still a prisoner of war… Maybe that shoe was the appropriate response when all values were violated. When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people.” Appropriate response. I like this phrase, the questions it conceals about what is and is not “normal,” acceptable, sane.

Vera, healthy and 71 years old. Some women would want to stay alive, to spend time with their children and grandchildren, to find new love, which happens even for widows. Some would choose doing something, or doing nothing, over suicide.

Her last day -- the day she took care of some minute things and (drawing on instructions from a book on how to commit suicide) died on purpose like Wagner’s Isolde -- might be completely different from the way her granddaughter invents and imagines it for her memoir. Johanna Adorján knows this. She knows she’s inventing the hows and the whys. She writes the book anyway, which is a good thing.

Scholem in Jerusalem to Benjamin in Berlin, 1931, nearing the height of their disagreement about Benjamin’s Marxism: “Stand by your genius, which at present you are so futilely trying to deny. Self-deception can lead too easily to suicide, and the honor of revolutionary orthodoxy would, God knows, be too high a price for yours. You are endangered more by your desire for community, even if it be the apocalyptic community of the revolution, than by the horror of loneliness that speaks from so many of your writings. To be sure, I am willing to stake more on that horror than on the metaphors you use to cheat yourself out of your vocation.”

The Verso Book of Dissent is beside my bed. I flip to 1940, the year of Walter Benjamin’s death, and there’s an excerpt from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." “To articulate the past,” he writes, “does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory that flashes up at a moment of danger… In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” I flip to 1991, the year that Vera and Istvan died. There’s a two-line quote from the founder of the Kenyan Green Belt movement, Wangari Maathai, who has been jailed twice for her activism on behalf of poor, rural women, who has been badly beaten by the police and had her offices shut down by the government, who was born the same year that we lost Walter Benjamin: “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.”

There’s a scene in An Exclusive Love where Johanna Adorján decides to try internet dating. She really isn’t interested, but a friend talks her into it. She goes on J-date. She’s never had a Jewish boyfriend. She whittles 130 responses down to two men she actually meets. One has lied about everything -- his age, his nationality. The other, Sasha, “really did look as nice as his photograph. He was also the age he had said he was, and it was even true that he was a journalist. The fact that nothing came of it was for reasons that can’t be resolved in advance.”

When Walter Benjamin starts to write about suicide in his diary, around 1931, Gershom Scholem connects this willingness to die to being fulfilled in love, “his feeling that basically he had lived his life in fulfillment of his greatest desires.” Benjamin wrote about the “three great love experiences” of his life: “In my life I have become acquainted with three different women and three different men within me. To write the story of my life would be to present the rise and fall of these three men as well as compromise among them.” Love was not connected to his readiness to die by suicide -- it was an issue of money, and danger. (1939: “As things stand, among the various danger zones into which the earth is divided for the Jews, France currently is the most dangerous for me, because here I am completely isolated economically”)

Adorján’s foray onto J-date has me thinking about myself. Internet dating is something I’ve decided never to do, something that is not “me,” like cosmetic surgery or suicide or stealing people’s purses on the subway, a thing you don’t need to experiment with before deciding you don’t like it, because you don’t believe it’s right. I think I’ve had three great love experiences so far too, like Walter Benjamin, at least I think it was three. None of them were Jewish, not even the dad’s half, and even though I am not religious in any way, I have thought about this. Unlike Benjamin, and more like Young Werther or Roland Barthes, I’ve been the same with each love. There hasn’t been any rise and fall of any different parts of me. The men are tall and brave and thrill-seeking and glacier-climbing, they snowboard and run. They disappear into the wilderness, they drive fast, they have late-night gigs in dark clubs, and I don’t do any of those things. Nothing came of those relationships, for reasons that can’t be resolved in advance.

I’m convinced that love, real love, expands you, makes you want to live. What Barthes is talking about is something different, right? And what Johanna Adorján’s grandmother felt -- that “great love, which was so exclusive, so needy, so great, and ultimately conditional” -- was that love, or just despair? And then again, it’s a good moment in history -- my own history, the history of organs, the history of metaphors, the history of the world -- to question my convictions.

I have a book by Brooklyn journalist Mark Jacobson -- The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans -- about coming into the possession of a Nazi lampshade, made from the skin of a human being. He got the lamp in New Orleans, in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Towards the end, he’s at a Jerusalem YMCA, talking to a scholar who says that, during the Holocaust, “people descended from a particular kind of grandparent -- in this case Jewish -- were condemned to death just for being born.” And I think about Johanna Adorján’s glee and relief at finding out that her grandmother felt unshakably unlovable, like her (“I’m not crazy after all… She had it too.”) And I think the scholar at the Jerusalem YMCA has chosen the wrong words -- victims of the Holocaust were condemned to murder and torture just for being born. All of us, all humans, all animals even, are condemned to death just for being born. So were our grandmothers. We have a choice to do something, do nothing, commit suicide, but we will all die somehow in the end. Of course, we’re also all condemned to life just for being born.

Walter Benjamin to Jula Radt, who had married someone else, in one of three farewell letters he put together with the will he prepared in the early 1930s (the other letters were to men, Ernst Schoen and Franz Hessel -- Benjamin decided against suicide at the last minute at that time, but kept these letters and instructions among his papers): “You know that I once loved you very much. And even on the point of death, life has no greater gifts than the ones that the moments of suffering because of you have bestowed upon it.” I love Walter Benjamin. But maybe because I’m not a man, or maybe because I’m not a philosopher, I can’t relate to that at all. And then it’s complicated, the prickly, heartbreaking friendship between Benjamin and Scholem is complicated -- there are different ways people matter to each other, different ways we appear in each other’s life stories.

“Dear Gerhard,” Benjamin writes in 1937, “Although I am not an impatient man I do know hours when I feel rather uncertain we shall ever see each other again… To get back to our reunion, at times I picture it -- if only to be able to cling to its image -- as the reunion in a storm of leaves from trees that stand far apart.” They did see each other again, after eleven years of separation, and it was not only geopolitics -- the fragility of Paris, the shakiness of Jerusalem -- that had pulled them away from each other.

I’m curled up with my cat, reading Gershom Scholem. I wish I could just stay here, and do nothing but read. Do something, do nothing, or commit suicide? I want door number two. The Torah is, to the mystics, “a living organism animated by a secret life which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning,” he writes. They speak about “that which is not conceivable by thinking” or “that which is infinite,” not “he who is” or “he who is not” -- they are not writing about anthropomorphic deities, they are not writing about creatures with hearts. “Like all their spiritual kin amongst Christians and Moslems,” writes Scholem, “the Jewish mystics cannot, of course, escape from the fact that the relation between mystical contemplation and the basic facts of human life and thought is very paradoxical.”

It’s hard, for mystics and non-mystics, to figure out what the basic facts of human life and thought even are, though. What are we doing here? What should we be doing? Should we do something, instead of doing nothing? What’s worth living for? What’s worth dying for? When we turn someone’s life into a book, a true story about them told by a loved one, we can’t always see their secret life, the life bubbling and streaming beneath the story’s crust.

Why do I keep looking at this picture on the flyleaf of An Exclusive Love? It’s something about the difference between a picture and a person, between a story and a person, between a nameable or unnamable deity and a person. When a human life ends, why does the how matter, and how does the why matter? But they do. It’s something about this moral risk, this risk that speech, that storytelling, won’t just manifest or unconceal something that exists. It might make something new, something that feels just as real as the real thing. Agamben explains that the Latin root of the word “term,” terminus (limit, border) was once the name of an anthropomorphous divinity “whose body gradually faded away into a dot firmly planted on the ground.” A divinity who terminated, who shows us something about how we kill or fix or create things by naming them. For the ancients, the heart -- the broken heart, the open heart, the heart concealing secrets -- passed seamlessly from the literal into the metaphorical. It’s the same for us today.