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We live inside a tremendously violent system, stranded amid a sea of fake, disfiguring images—a system in which almost everything is made to bow to the power of commerce.
But we are experts at creating distance, disguising our own brutality, covering it over with a mobilizing mythology.
Everything functions, Heidegger said in an interview with a German newspaper, and the functioning drives us further and further to more functioning, and technology tears people away and uproots them from the earth more and more.
I think I understand: all the confusion, despair, and powerless rage, which are this global system’s exhaust products, swept up in a cause, transfigured by a heightened dream of violence, adventure, ancient poetry, a quixotic dream that circles a text, that suckles an interpretation of a text like a baby suckles its mother, perfectly secure and connected, beyond separation, beyond fear.
It is astounding how far some will go for a pure idea—an idea of purity.
In Cambodia, they abolished money and declared the year zero.
“Oh, my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel,” the fighter says into the camera, as he crouches with the butt of his Kalashnikov touching the ground. “In the heart, you feel depressed. The cure for the depression is Jihad. You feel like you have no honor. Oh, my brother, come to Jihad, feel the honor that we are feeling. Feel the happiness that we are feeling.”
* * *
After a long day of teaching and marking papers and riding the subway without my son, I Google street fight videos.
I am drawn to these images, as if by some strange magnetic charge. Something in me is attracted. The promise of some mastery—or is it the release from the need for mastery?
I watch a man get beaten on a highway by three bikers. There is no release, no justice—it’s one against three.
But in the good ones powerlessness becomes power; helplessness is transformed.
* * *
My father is only back in the United States for a couple weeks a year, and I am eager to connect with him.
He takes me and my brother hiking. I try to talk to him about Heidegger. He corrects my pronunciation of dasein. My voice saying words like phenomenology and ontology and the meaning of being sounds foolish in the forest.
It is clear my father doesn’t want to talk about Heidegger.
We walk in silence.
The path climbs steeply for a while, before it flattens out, and we enter a meadow full of wildflowers, surrounded by the seemingly endless blue peaks of the North Cascades.
* * *
I think sometimes about Hitler, his audacity. I think of his idea of a race of higher beings, his idea of transcending ordinary morality.
Those were poetic ideas. In some ways, they still are.
But Hitler, of course, went further. To see real death and real killing in, at once, utterly mechanical and mythical terms. Devoid of human pity. Filled to the brim with a dream of conquest and superiority.
* * *
My father’s uncle was a critic of German philosophy and literature. Reading his essays is still exhilarating. The criticism is really just a vehicle for his own tragic, romantic ideas about life.
He adored Nietzsche, but he had little to say about Heidegger.
Before the Nazis invaded Prague, my great uncle fled to England, where he ensconced himself at Cambridge and earned his doctoral degree.
His brother, my grandfather, stayed to finish his medical exams.
Their mother stayed as well.
I have only one memory of my great uncle. He is wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a jacket with patches at the elbows. He is very tall. He bends down and gives me a quarter.
Sometimes when I am trying to write, I think about him. Sitting at his desk, smoking a cigarette, trying to transform an unspeakable loss into a language that might redeem it for a moment.
* * *
In 1946, my grandfather came to America, and soon he settled in a comfortable neighborhood outside of Chicago where he did everything he could to begin again, to create a humane existence for his wife and their children. He hardly ever talked about the past; all his conscious energies were directed toward the future.
But the world had broken. The brokenness was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, dissolved in the sweet-smelling suburban air.
* * *
When my brother and I visit our father in Phnom Penh, where he works as an AIDS doctor, he is distracted, remote. We go out, and he walks ten feet in front of us along the sidewalk.
When he gets home from work, we sit on the couch in his living room and watch mixed martial arts, which seems to be playing whenever I turn on the TV in Cambodia.
We sit back and watch men hurt each other. Vicariously, we experience our own controlled detonations.
My father covers his eyes when the fighting gets intense.
* * *
Don Quixote’s idealism saves him—not from harm, but from self-awareness. The trauma, however, must go somewhere, and the irony of the novel is that, as readers, we experience it for him, transforming it into laughter, while he remains deep in his chivalrous dream.
No other character in literature moves me as deeply.
* * *
According to the unpublished autobiographical sketch that he wrote so that his grandchildren would have something to remember him by, the worst thing my grandfather had to do as a prisoner-doctor in a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was preside over the execution of twenty political prisoners who’d tried to escape. After they were hanged, he was the one to pronounce them dead.
The story was that he saved lives. I don’t doubt he did.
* * *
In 1982, when I was six years old, I drew a picture of a man and a woman in a rowboat. I couldn’t decide whether to draw a sun or a crescent moon in the sky, so I’d drawn both. I drew jagged waves under the boat, the tips of the waves almost touching the boat but not quite, the boat hovering above the waves. Next to the water, I drew a sign that said Love Lake.
The picture was transposed onto a white plastic plate, which I gave to my grandfather.
As the years passed, I’d always be a little surprised whenever I found that plate in his kitchen cupboard. It was all scratched up, but the drawing on the face of it stayed clear.
He kept that plate until his death, in 2001.
* * *
When I come home from work, my son is inconsolable.
What set him off? I ask my wife.
Hard to say, she says.
I take him into the bedroom and try to soothe him, but I can’t. I hold him on my lap, while he writhes and screams, throwing the back of his head against my chest.
I put him down on the floor, but it doesn’t help. I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself. When I pick him up again, he tries to scratch my face. He pounds my thighs with the heels of his feet.
I feel his screams deep inside my body, an almost unbearable pressure in my chest.
This goes on for almost an hour before I manage to give him some milk. He sucks it right down. Just like that, he’s all better.
Hi, Dada, he says, beaming and blinking his eyes, as if seeing me for the first time all evening.
I feel like laughing.
It’s like he’s come through the deepest nightmare—come through intact. He has a kind of startled lightness about him, an air of gratitude and deep relief. I feel it too, all the tension inside me washed away.
Remember the train that could, Dada?
You mean the Little Engine That Could?
You remember what he says? I ask.
You tell me.
I think I can, I think I can.
I think I can, he says.
That’s right, I say. You got through it, my boy. You survived.
Translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman