July 17, 2003

Paul Berman

I'm almost done with "A Tale of Two Utopias", a history of the children of '68. It's strange to read about a period of time I lived through, seeing parts of the rest of the world writhing as it did. In 1968, my family was in Las Vegas. My dad had just retired from the Air Force. Wanderlust struck and we moved to Florida. Wanderlust struck again and we moved to Australia in '71.

All these years, I've read and searched independently for my bearings, flinging myself out very far, very wide. Only after all that, can I read such a history without being utterly lost without the familiarity of the context to grasp this tale of cultural/political history.

And I realize just how off page I am from mainstream intellectuals, those who contributed to this history. All my coordinates are different, my wiring arranged differently.

Berman describes Vaclav Havel's history, Page 224:
"...Not Havel. He grew up in a wealthy bourgeois home in Prague that gave him what he calls 'a heightened sensitivity and aversion to various manifestations of social inequality.' He considered himself a socialist, only he was one of the few who insisted on drawing the proper line between socialism and Communism. Socialism was for him, as he has written in his Summer Meditiations, was a 'temperment, a noncomformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated."

Ok. But I think of the polititcal direction of the left as a communitarian impulse, a paradigm of family. Aversion to philistines... claro que si. I'm not sure what his interest is in the wretched and humiliated... this could be perverse as well as altruistic. Noncomformist? It's hard for me to buy the idea of his non-conformism that is derived from socialism... isn't this... social, isn't socialism conformist even in the most innocent and elementary sense of the term?

There's little time to flesh these thoughts out right now... but here's a fragment of a letter to a young artist that seems relevant here:


"Feeling like an outsider now is a theme in my life."

As a friend once used to say: "That's called 'welcome to the club' ". I grew up with that feeling. There's some comfort in meeting a fellow traveller, a flash of recognition in an alienated world. A tip of the hat in an Eastwood film, and the undercurrent that what makes us feeling different from everyone else will keep us feeling alone, even as shared with compadres. I waver between the idea of ultimate isolation and the recognition that we are all, as Westerners, feeling the same feeling. We are all Odysseus, longing for home. (Have you read the llliad and Odyssey yet?, Homer's primal story is important for people like you and I.) Here's one story about how this was driven home for me:

One day during a Winter vacation in undergraduate school, I decided to visit my mother's side of the family. They live in Sydney, Australia... after immigrating from the Philippines in the early seventies. I wanted to plug into the family, to reinforce the feeling of home and belonging. The arrival was dramatic. My grandfather was a classic patriarch. I met him in the mid evening in his bedroom. He was in bed, the night stand lamp was the only light on, rendering a dramatic scene. I went up to him and took his hand in traditional form, pressing the back of his hand to my forehead, kneeling. He asked: "Why are you here?" I responded, "To be with the family, Papang". He then said the words I'll never forget:

"I forgive you for being half American."

Jeeeeezuuuus! That just demolished me. My grandfather had harbored an antipathy for who I was, who I am? For all these years, I thought I had been in the bosom of family... and I wasn't? I had reverb from the first time I had be struck so: When my folks divorced within few weeks of my high school graduation. Shortly before that, I remember thinking: "Now that I'm about to leave home... I can always feel the anchor of my family, no matter where I go, my folks will be there for me." How clueless I was. Am. Or to be charitable to myself, how unreasonably hopeful I am.

For the days of the vacation that followed that announcement, my grandfather, who had hauled himself up from poverty in Manila to become a lawyer, a teacher and a small time politician, dressed out my strange pardon. Typically, after dinner, Papang would hold forth. He lectured about the real history of the Philippines: how the battle of Manila Bay was a farce, how Americans replaced Filipino culture with Yankee culture, how they resented that they knew more about American history and spoke better English than Americans themselves. At another party, he held forth about a comparison and contrast of the West versus the East. The former was about the individual, the latter was about the family. Societies based on the family unit don't need governments per se, look at China. They have enjoyed six thousand years with one government after another... the patron of each family takes care of things. If one family member has trouble, the others buck him up. But for the West, you're on your own. My uncles were called forth to testify: "We immigrated to Australia over the States because here, it's 'Put a Shrimp on the Barbie, have a nice day, Mate.'... the social system is protective here. In the States, the opportunity to succeed is also the opportunity to fail... you live with a lot of anxiety there. " For my grandfather, the appearance of my Yankee father was a threat of individualism.... solvent to the glue of family.

As the days of that vacation passed, I also saw the darker side of family. My grandfather was imperious. He would lose his temper at any slight... and would invent one if none were handy. He would demolish an uncle for no reason, in full view of the others in the family... perhaps for them all in particular. As he was polishing off his lecture series, I began to realize that I was a Yankee, deep down in my core. I valued my individual freedom too much to construct my portion of family... in those terms, at least... especially when I saw that by its' very nature, any and every effort would never be enough. The tribal chief's job of familial construction would never be done... and worse, the imperative of family bonding was so great that it was justified to demolish individualism where ever you find it, with an urgency that scared me. I didn't get what I came for... or maybe I did and I realized that I didn't want it the way I found it. I was in the early stages of my elaborate art education then, the third year of architecture school. And this revelation helped me see the world more clearly. At least, it helped me order it in a way that made sense, and in a way that would extend from politics, to city planning and ultimately, theory in our art world.

Posted by Dennis at July 17, 2003 11:19 AM

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