Seeing as I am approaching the final weeks of my Europe trip, I thought I would take some time to reflect on how the past three months or so have passed.
I realized immediately upon arriving in France that I really should have been preparing to speak French before leaving. I had almost made it a goal to not deal with French before arriving there– what a mistake on my part! The paranoia of not being able to speak the language was compounded by the notorious attitude of Parisians. Even my host family did not seem to take kindly to me. I had to realize that “that’s just the way they were,” my host family at least: impersonal, somewhat superficial, difficult to get to know, and somewhat uninterested in me as a person. I was to realize by the end of the trip that the Parisians are just like this, but not knowing this per se upon arrival, I couldn’t help but feel ugly stares coming my way wherever I went (and I think they actually were). I’m sure they could read my hesitance like an open book. But by the end, I had come to a better point, a much more autonomous point. From various correspondences with others, Parisians and non-Parisians, I realized that there was something about Paris that just engendered scowls on everyone, whether it was the FedEx man, the barrista, or just the people riding the metro. They all seemed to have the attitude of, “Well, if that person is a jackass to me, I’ll just be a jackass to them.” For me, playing this game was impossible, and it weighed on me. Upon arriving in Vienna, I was so amazed at how kind everyone was! I think this because I had become so accustomed to people not smiling! It really is astonishing. I don’t want to generalize about France because I think Paris is probably a special case; and I also don’t want to generalize about Parisians, especially since my preparation to be there was somewhat lackluster, and so my opportunities for exposure were very limited. It’s so hard to convey to a stranger that I am not just there for petty reasons, that I love their literary and philosophical history, and that I have a genuine interest for learning the language. With the few elder-writers that I met, I could convey these, and we warmed up to one another quickly. But when the majority of people on the street don’t even really care about this heritage, the raw and rough reality of a big city sets in pretty quickly! Loneliness and all…
That said, the experience in Paris was surely unforgettable. Perhaps especially for the feeling of a deep loneliness that I was challenged to move through. I certainly realized how important my friends and the people in Iowa are to me; as time goes on and we all drift our own ways, I know that this must be the case; but I know it will be a challenge for me to deal with the fact of this drifting apart. And yet, in so many ways, I have been drifting apart for so very long– perhaps I started drifting away from them long before they started to drift away from me. Or rather, at the same times, in different ways. Time!
In Paris, I met many wonderful people along the way: countless room-mates shuffling though, class-mates, poets and elder-writers, random strangers and tourists. I spent nearly one or two nights a week staying up all through the night, which isn’t necessarily a habit I’m proud of, but it proved for countless ecstatic moments of reading and writing. I realize after the fact how vapid some of those experiences and subsequent writings are. But they were crucial at the time, I know. One thing that matters to me in life is to live on the edge of what I know is possible, and pushing my mind and body to the limit has always been a part of that. I definitely learned the extent of my sleep deprivation habits, what they do to me and how to understand them. But more than all that, I realized that I truly do enjoy the French language, and that it wasn’t just on a whim that I came. I’ve realized that learning a second or third language is a life-long and daily practice. I’m glad to have had a “booster shot” at the Sorbonne that’s given me the confidence and ability to at least read with a dictionary in a somewhat fluent way. Even if I can never speak like a native, I can read their literature. That’s what mattered to me to begin with. I know now that it’s within my power to make that happen, if I truly want it.
On a more intimate level– and this is something I’ve really only realized in the last few weeks– I’m realizing how pointless and petty some of my emotional and depressive dramas have been. Included with all of that: the emotional whining of some of my writing. I’m tired of living that way and replicating/reproducing feelings of suffering as if I were on some crusade to inscribe some contrived anguish in everything. I’ve started writing less, because I don’t want to do that anymore. I kept telling people in Paris that I had to write to “keep sane.” But that was a lie, I think; or if it was the truth, it needs to change. I don’t want my writing to be a crutch, especially not something that keeps me mired in problems that could be surmounted with a simple deep breath. On my last day in Paris, I ran across a book by Ajahn Chah called “Living Dhamma.” I’d never heard of him before, but he struck the deepest chords within me. He reminded me of the importance of meditation and of the Dharma in general in my life, something I’ve been neglecting for some now (and for the sake of what? “writing”?). But as I said in a recent post-card to a good friend and fellow Buddhist, “Why suffer any longer?” There are so many steps a person can take to redirect negative energy, to transform suffering. One has to realize that defilements are liabilities– this is the hardest thing I’m learning, as I try to kick various ugly habits. Returning to the breath is the surefire way with the least baggage to “remember” our core of peace. I’ve lost track of this way (“Way,” maybe) for a while now, although of course it has always been there.
I am excited to return to nature and to share campfires with close friends. I’m excited to remember the silence of the soul and to dig deeper in. For me, I see the Paris journey as a necessary diversion. I think life comes down to what we are willing to devote ourselves to. For too long, I thought that I was devoting myself whole-heartedly to writing; but now I see that my intentions there were too petty. What matters is a clear mind and a strong spirit, as well as a healthy body not shackled by intoxicants and addictions all the time. I am still a writer, and will still write, but less to write than as an extension of my own quest for peace, less as some grab for attention. I realize the tunnel-vision on suffering was just an excuse, a grab to try to be “profound.” It was never a game, because it had profound effects on me. My life is still intertwined with my writing. But now I know that I come first, and have to come first. That’s the only way that the writing can come first, anyway.
I thought I would conclude this personal post with the list of books that I am currently carrying with me as I travel through Eastern Europe. It’s a snapshot of where I am and have been these last three months, and, if anything, attests to the ongoing test or joy of living. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Georges Bataille – Le Coupable
Jean-Luc Nancy – L’Adoration
Phillipe Sollers – Une Vie Divine
Paul Celan – Grille de Parole
Don DeLillio – Point Omega
Jean Baudrillard – The Agony of Power
Jacques Ranciere – On the Shores of Politics
Friedrich Nietzsche – Man Alone With Himself
Vladimir Nabakov – Terra Incognita
Ajahn Chah – Living Dhamma
Tomorrow, I leave Vienna to go to Krakow, where I plan to fulfill one of the main goals of the Europe trip: a visit to Auschwitz. I’ve realized that this is part of a long journey that I’ve been on for a very long time. I am reading Celan’s work (“Grille de Parole”) in the bi-lingual French-German, and preparing for an essay/talk I want to give on his work. My next post here should be a summary of my initial findings, in the context of the question of the conference I am writing the essay/talk for. In many ways, I can’t wait to be there, but in other ways, I am so reluctant. I will be there, and it will be what it is. Confrontation with the one moment in history that we humans can never forget. More to come…