Technology, or new media, or google, or somebody, has helped take the mystery out. There are plenty of blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers in the Caucasus. And I actually recognize a lot of what they describe, though I’ve never been near there. There’s a certain post-Sovietness that seems to be common to where I was (from September 2002 until January 2004, I lived in a small, ethnically Buryat-Mongol town in Eastern Siberia).
I can look forward to the same old exhortations to drink, the same condescending and infantalizing behavior by those who know me, the personal questions from strangers, unasked-for honesty, aggressive dogs, and mini-celebrity status. The same catechism of questions, even, persisting unchanged over thousands of miles of the previous Evil Empire. How much do teachers make, are you looking for a wife, is our vodka better than yours, how do you say kaif in English.
I am a sucker for what you might call political pathos. A large group gathered peacefully for a common purpose will reliably bring a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. I’ve noticed the tendency for at least ten years. It’s a curious sensation: it’s longing, and happiness, and hope, but it’s mixed with a feeling of great loneliness and distrust: I mistrust the group and its aims, and I mistrust myself, and my own feelings. I feel like I want to be one with the group but I feel completely cut off on the other hand. There’s a certain exquisiteness, like a sensual tickle or a painful exercise session. But it’s a feeling I don’t like to sustain for too long.
I suppose I could trace it back to church meetings and religious summer camps from my childhood. But the occasion doesn’t have to be religious, or political: I also get it at concerts, at parties, even, in the right setting, at a lecture or discussion. And I don’t have to be present at an actual gathering either, nor do have to be in agreement with its purpose, I can even be revolted by it, and all the same I will be carried along, and left with an inner core of coldness and non-committal feelings. I nearly wept at the end of The Battle of Algiers each of the three times I saw it, and each time my feelings of ambivalence towards the movement and the events celebrated in it only increased: in the same proportion as my emotion. It’s as if I have the urge to leap into the sea, and I can only barely hold myself back. There is a roiling, tumbling chaos of water below me, and I want to dive in, even though I am fearful of and sure of being smashed and torn apart in it.
I had read W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo in a copy that was missing four or six pages, in the first part of it, about Stendhal. The hole was in one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, and I was curious to know what I had lost. Today I got another copy out of the library, and it had all its pages, and I reread the Stendhal section, and was surprised to find that I seemed to recognize all of it. I couldn’t tell what was missing. Everything I saw I seemed to have seen before. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe: Sebald is a continuous, viscous substance, that reforms itself over any gaps that appear in him? Is there such a thing as counter-vertigo, the sensation of not changing position, while things about you are objectively moving? It was uncanny.
There are three, maybe more, but at least three, kinds of rereading: I read something at two different times in life, both times leaving myself open to what the thing has to tell me. I learn how I have changed, I learn how the thing is layered, I learn how the times have changed, or pressures formerly on me are missing. I reread something to see what I have missed, as in the case of Vertigo, something doesn’t add up, I look to fill in a gap or make up for something. And also I reread because I am looking for a specific thing or trying to answer a specific question, and then my question changes, and I go back with something else in mind and change the weight I throw on the parts of the thing I see. It is a question of angles, the different ways of seeing the one object, that somehow don’t interfere with each other, or exist on separate planes.