Translator’s Note: I am fascinated and horrified by the amount of mindless anti-Americanism one comes across these days. Obviously, it comes as no surprise when one experiences this in neo-Nazi Russia, where national chauvinism is official policy but it is more annoying to come up against this in Europe, where they should know better. It was therefore with particular pleasure that I read this intelligent article on the subject by a a Russian American.
Don’t Look for Fools in America
7 August 2009
Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel
My colleague Lev Rubinshtein recently published an article [in Grani] on the subject of “mother country” and found that we were thinking along the same lines as I was in fact considering this opening for my piece: A certain German chancellor, when asked if he loved his “heimat”, replied that actually he loved his wife… Don’t get smart with words, in other words. However, if it is in someone’s nature to get smart with words or concepts, and if he’s feeling bored and can’t think of anything else to do with his (not so great) brains, he will almost always wind himself up into a state of hatred for the alien or love of the homeland.
I recall how a group of Russian writers once paid a visit to Israel. One of them snorted that Israel is a historical mistake, another made some senselessly rude remark about émigrés. To cut a long story short, they went there, behaved like louts, and left. Even if we allow that our writers were maybe taken somewhere unsuitable (which can happen on any trip to any country), they probably deserved to be taken to that very place and find themselves talking to the people there. Conversely, there was no need for the locals to get upset, they should have known what sort of people they were dealing with.
And it’s the same with America. Brighton Beach, oh dear! It’s simple really: don’t rush off to Brighton Beach, go to Harvard or Stanford instead, sit in on a lecture or two or give one yourself. Don’t go to McDonalds. (Why are they crowded with customers? Why be a masochist and remind yourself of what you hate, as you belch after your burger.) Don’t watch Hollywood films…
The fact is, we love to hate. Americans are dumb, Americans are uncultured, and so on and so forth. Rubbish, all rubbish. America has the best universities, the best libraries, the best scientists in the world (including some Russian ones), and publishes books – wonderful literature – in unheard of edition sizes. Therefore, when on your daily round you come across a dumb American (or Russian, or Irishman, Czech, or Frenchman), you should perhaps guess that possibly the clever ones simply don’t have the time for you.
Hark to the words of archpriest Alexandr Sheman, whose “Diaries” get quoted in the most varied circumstances and on all sorts of issues – not without reason: he has an unusually clear, deep, and kind mind.
“People have for centuries run to America in search of an easier life, not realising that – at bottom – life there is far harder. Firstly, because America is a country of great solitude. Each is alone with his fate, under a great sky in an immense country. Once there, any “culture”, “tradition”, “roots” seem suddenly small and the immigrant, whilst hysterically cleaving to them, at the same time realises somewhere deep down inside that they are illusory.
Secondly, it comes about because this solitude demands from each person an existential reply to the question “to be or not to be”, the answering of which requires effort. Many personal collapses ensue. In Europe, the man in free-fall always lands somewhere, but out there it’s a free-fall in bottomless space… On the other hand, it is precisely this opportunity to encounter one’s own fate that attracts people to America. Having once tasted it, one can no longer just be a “Finn” or a “Frenchman”, be, in other words, determined once and for all. One has already undergone the painful liberation from such.”
I don’t read Live Journal and I don’t read the comments to my writings there; I’m not mad. But rumours get back to me. There’s a sick old man in St. Pete, who believes he’s a literary critic of some sort and spends his years in convulsions of hatred outpoured… Weird way to spend his time. My little verse
In the towns and capital
Of the countries to which we go
You see it stamped upon their faces:
Fellow-countryman – and know it’s so
is about just such people as him, about the people of whom Nabokov said that they had “outraged faces”.
I am neither a Russophobe nor a Russophile. St. Pete isn’t filled with only clinical idiots: some of my best friends live there, so I go back there for long periods every year (ever since I went to work in America). But that is not the point. The point here is people who are ready to offend, ready to render instant categorical judgements – the knives my hoodlum compatriot keeps ever ready to fling.
The English adjective “judgmental” defines someone who always has a condemnation ready. We all know such people: before we’ve even finished saying something like “I saw a film last week…”, this person interrupts, saying: “Saw it. It’s crap.” End of conversation. Actually, the conversation had not started. Note too, that “Saw it – crap” is returned far more commonly than “Saw it – wonderful”. But it usually quite simple: “not crap” always defines the speaker because if anyone or anything else is “not crap”, then that rather leaves the speaker out of the limelight.
But how can anyone make judgements about a country in which he does not live, about which he knows only from hearsay, from television, or from impressions gained during a quick tourist trip? Maybe one should not be so ready with one’s judgements. Maybe one should not be so quick off the mark with one’s feelings? People hate that which they do not understand. Actually, it’s even worse when they hate what they do understand – for example, strength and wealth. But the nature of the hatred for America goes deeper than that. Alexander Shmeman can help us again
“I am convinced that it is not America’s strength and wealth that gives rise to this hatred. Deep down, and precisely in the irrational depths, this hatred is given rise to by the fact that America is different – from all the rest of the world. And because America is different – it is a threat. By the merest contact, America changes and in a certain sense decomposes any perception, any way of life. And the essence of this threat is not just that America brings another method to bear, proposes change (which always gives rise to resistance) but that America proposes change as an entire way of life. Everything is at issue all the time, nothing remains constant, self-evident and therefore soothing.
It is therefore paradoxical that Americans do not at all talk of “revolution” whereas Europeans and now the third world have placed this word at the centre of their discourses. This is so because by “revolution” Europeans understand the replacement of one system by another. In other words they put the system, “ideas”, first. An American, however, starts by not believing in any system and therefore, in his revolt at “ideological” revolution, is revolutionary by his very nature… And that is what others, rich or poor, civilised or not, cannot understand or assimilate.”
In yet another sections of his “Diaries”, Alexander Sheman sings of America’s open spaces, of the country’s mysterious essence where all are “at home” and no one is not. He quotes this poem by e.e. cummings as conveying, in his opinion, the ringing solitude that shines out from behind the lightness of laughter and verbal intercourse. I have translated it. [Original restored].
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain