Friday, October 19, 2007

Fun for Freudians.

In this dream, I am in my last day of sight-seeing in a truly gorgeous place, a seaside place with an enormous Academic-Mayhem-style hotel and a frightening elevator that leads to an equally frightening train that then winds up a mountain (making many stops) until it reaches a summit affording views of unparalleled sublimity. It is possible that, as I wake up in the hotel for this last day of sight-seeing, I have been dreaming within my dream; there are strata of strange realization and pleasure that I now cannot place and suspect must have been happening a further layer in.

I am traveling with a female friend, someone I know well, though now I don't know who she was. We begin our ascent of the mountain, so that we rapidly leave behind the shore of this impossibly limpid water that now seems to be not a sea but a lake, perhaps some kind of Alpine lake, its bottom covered in stones. And it's possible that we're ascending toward yet another lake, that a hanging crater is part of the scenery toward which we're venturing. I am, as I am, terrified of rapid ascent because I am terrified of the prospect of falling. Some way up the mountain, we pause at a depot and there is time to look around. I have left my camera behind, or am carrying it but not using it because I need both hands to hang on to railings. We begin again.

When we re-descend (and what happened to all that meantime?), whales appear in the body of water at the mountains' base (mountains': I can see now that we have been traveling along ridges and through a range). Whales! One dives and surfaces and beaches himself but is somehow still safe. The whales are like whales but they are also like enormous catfish, enormous trout, enormous friendly fish, enormous like the funny dolphins I will see on lampposts if I make it to the Embankment when I'm in London this weekend.

When we swap passengers and I begin the ascent again, this time with another friend, I am my usual earnest know-it-all self, always wanting to make sure that my companions don't miss anything. Last time, I tell him, we saw whales: they were everywhere. We stand together and peer over the railings as we make the beginning of the ascent, and I point out their shadows, their dark forms, undulate over the stones at the bottom of the water's bed.


Last night at dinner, it happened again, though differently than it usually does.

Someone with whom I had only talked briefly before last night's dinner looked across the table at me, as we ate our dessert, and said, "What is your ancestry?" "I'm German and Polish," I replied. "Have you ever done any genealogical work on your family?" he asked, also inquiring about when my ancestors emigrated.

By this point, I knew darned well what he was thinking; it's actually happening more frequently now than it did when I was younger. At my left elbow, I could feel the air around my friend change, because he too knew what was coming: it formed one of our first conversations, nearly two months ago.

"I haven't," I said. "But I've thought about it a lot, especially lately." Complicated things followed: I don't know how I would go about starting this kind of research; I don't know whether any part of my family would have kept (or been kept within) records; I'm not in touch with anyone from my extended family, and I doubt that any of them would have been able to tell me anything useful anyway: if what I hope is true, it was covered up pretty skillfully generations ago, and the generations I know aren't likely to have attempted a discovery.

"You should ask the Mormons," my friend said.

I turned in my seat so that he could see my cocked eyebrow, because this sounded like the beginning of a joke. "Which Mormons?" I replied.

"The Mormons," he said, proceeding to tell me that, as far as he knows, the Church of Latter-Day Saints is known for being able to track down all manner of genealogical data for pretty much anyone who asks for it. "And so they'd follow through, and what you'd find out is that in the seventeenth century, your family lived in Lithuania--"

"Right," I said, interrupting him. "And what I'd finally find out is that I actually am Jewish." And I got ready to tell our companion across the table that that's the one reason I would actually undertake genealogical research--to prove, once and for all, that what I believe (and want to believe) about my family's past is true.

But before I could get any further than the word "Jewish," our companion said, with utter certainty, "Oh, you are." Because that is, of course, where his questions started in the first place; he just took us a more roundabout way than people usually do. "There's a whole group of Jewish people in South Africa [from which he hails] whom you look exactly like."

"Yes, I told her she was within days of meeting her," my friend agreed. "Or rather, I just assumed it."

I've lost count of the people who have believed this about me over the years. I've also lost track of when I became one of them; I think that it was right about the time I entered graduate school. I still discount what feels like some sort of bizarre instinct that I barely know how to name and that disturbs me by its very existence and persistence--is it a race instinct? and how troubling does that sound, even stated tentatively? But it's there nonetheless, one of the strangest and most inexplicable things about me. Maybe the time is arriving when I should stop simply living with it and instead get to work.


It's a strange morning, is what I'm saying.

Sometimes, when I'm having my morning coffee, I seem to take the mug away from my mouth before I've finished drinking from it. This just happened, which seems about right for today as it's been so far. Sorry about that, Roland Barthes. Fortunately my copy of Camera Lucida is mighty and resilient.

Anyone who feels like saying a prayer for the various clarities I'm seeking these days is welcome to join in. They're legion, I tell you.


What the day turned into:


Blogger KYlitprof said...

My curiousity here? Are the askers usually Jewish? I find interesting the impulse not only to place people in categories "over there," but also to claim people as "one of us." Occasionally, someone from India claims me in that way. Am I distantly descended? Perhaps. There are mysteries and multiplicities in my lineage as in most.

As for prayer, consider me enlisted. (I pray for you regularly, but now I'll be more specific.)

8:59 AM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Not always. Last night, one definitely, one... who knows? I've never been good at trying to tell from names or faces. Back at home, sometimes, sometimes not. The older man who once tried to sympathize with me because he thought it must have been hard to grow up in Indiana (to which I responded, yes, it was, in a lot of ways--but not, for me, because there aren't many Jews in southern Indiana)--yes, that guy was Jewish and definitely wanted to claim me as one like him. My roommate in college? Many of my students? Not so much--just curious.

I didn't know about India--that's a good one.

And thanks, thanks.

9:42 AM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger ttractor said...

This happens to me, too. But it's mostly from people who are trying to classify me as "one of those." And hell, I'm half-Mormon. Yeah, baby, they got the papers on me. You too, I'm sure.

11:57 AM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Yeah, these last couple of occasions have had a "be one of us" quality to them that I find appealing, to be honest.

Which half of you is Mormon? (Heh.)

1:49 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger ttractor said...

I think the Mormon half is the insanely literal minded one. Did I tell you the story of the guy who pulled a knife on me one night when I was walking my dogs? He said "You want me to cut 'em?" I said "No, thank you though" like he was actually making me an offer instead of threatening to slice my dogs open. Um, because that's how I heard it.

My friends who are Jewish (and who call me "the goy" in jest) are always reminding me of my right of return, because of my mother. But I gotta laugh, because the Mormons retro-convert, ie: they post paperwork with god after you die to make sure you play for their team in heaven. Mormons win!

6:40 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Yeah, that kind of figured into the conversation last night--I slimmed it out of this version because we all started speculating about stuff we didn't know anything about, which happens at some point pretty much every night at dinner. (This is what happens when you give a lot of smart people a lot of time off and then feed them good food every night: at some point, generally round about dessert time, they just start making shit up, and sometimes it's even smart-sounding, even though it's probably completely wrong. Once we spent about twenty minutes trying to figure out the relationship of Welsh to Gaelic languages. Everybody had one thing right, it turned out, and so all together we had something like part of the picture. But there was a lot of mess and misremembering clogging things up, as well. It was still a fun conversation to have over fruit crumble and coffee.) I think my friend's suggestion was that Mormons believe that you'll be hanging out with your ancestors and extended family in heaven, so it's important to know who those people are--hence the genealogy. None of us has made any attempt to verify this idea today, and I'm not advancing it as something that any of us actually believed.

6:51 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Poking-Stick Man said...

Um, was Mordecai (brother to Mirah) by any chance part of this conversation? :)

7:16 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

No, it's really going just too far to confess over dinner that I love Daniel Deronda in part because I so utterly identify with its main character. That's the point where it starts to tip over some edge...

7:39 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Gryphon said...

What a curious post to read as I emerge from a day of researching medieval notions of genealogy at the National Library. Genealogy matters deeply, of course, but mostly for the stories it enables us to tell. There's a wonderful gallery in Holyrood Palace, for instance, hung with 89 (of an original 110) 17th c. paintings of the Scottish kings--most of whom are entirely fictitious, though based on medieval historiography. Of course, these days medieval historiography (acc. to Gabrielle Spiegel) is often accused of being 'inauthentic, unscientific, unreliable, ahistorical, irrational, borderline illiterate, and, worse yet, unprofessional'. I think that's a bit harsh. Medieval historians tell wonderful stories, which themselves tell us rather a lot about how the historiographers envisioned their worlds--the stories are true, in a way. So. . . whether you ever find out about your own genealogy or not, you have a good story to tell. And the story surely says something about you (does it change your own idea of yourself, to wonder along these lines?) It would indeed be interesting to do the genealogical research.

12:10 PM, October 22, 2007  

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