Departures and Returns

It is, at once, 1933 and 1968 and 2020

Heather Rubinstein, "Notice that each / require that / six-foot / feet away," page 23, From the book, to the book: collaging as translation, in isolation, during a global pandemic. 2020, 3.5 × 4.75".

Someday, and for those of us in a country incapable of reasoned, collective care that day will have to be a matter for personal calculation, it will have been a year since the current conjuncture began. What I will remember of its beginning is the people leaving. 

Boxes piled on the sidewalk, pets and children circling their owners, bags of cereal and fruit exposed to the sun. Cars pulled into hydrant spaces, trunks open, whatever guilty furtiveness there was belonging to the people like me watching from upper-floor windows. What was happening? Some experiences can only be felt through fantasies, and for me then it was fantasies of abandonment, from the tame to the terrifying. It is a Soviet apartment block in 1962, and the party nomenklatura are packing up for their dachas. It is an American suburb in 1975, and mom or dad is leaving to find themselves: we’re not sure when they’ll be back, honey. It’s the end of a coming-of-age film where the car recedes into the distance toward independence: oh, what that kid will find out. His lordship is off for hunting season and the servants have been left in charge of the townhouse. The lifeboats are being lowered; the crew’s revolvers are drawn to keep us away.  

Envy, a feeling of helplessness, and shame at being left behind, at not even really having the choice to leave, nowhere really to go and no way to get there: I couldn’t find the right scenario to explain or entertain my mood but felt the need for one, because I wanted to figure out why this all seemed so natural. Of course, people would start to leave, and of course, you’d know who it was almost in advance. There would’ve been discussions behind closed doors and fairly rough risk-analyses and then packing, none of which I heard, but the results felt inevitable anyway. That everything would go quiet and you’d immediately habituate yourself to being walled in, that no one would apologize for leaving because why be sorry for a foregone conclusion?—it all shouldn’t have felt as familiar as it did. Everyone had been ready to either go or be left behind. In a day or so it was pretty much over. What I couldn’t yet understand was how prepared I’d been for this dispersal, how much I’d already understood about it. There had been another fantasy under operation, another scenario, predating the pandemic but activated by it: getting out in time. 

On one of those days, whichever one was the last day of the old world, I took to reading. It was not so much an escape as a way of maintaining contact. I had began to worry that my memory of the city was starting to atrophy. It wasn’t long before I started to think of places just outside my neighborhood the way you remember scenes from past travel—that street or that restaurant, so locked in the moment you knew it that you’d be surprised to know it still existed. What I had at hand was Uwe Johnson’s 1600-page novel Anniversaries [Jahrestage], a four-volume historical epic published from 1970 to 1983 by Suhrkamp and newly translated in full by Damion Searls in two solid bricks for the NYRB Classics series. It had been sitting unread, and now reading it would be a way to pretend that time was a luxury rather than a burden of constant panicked wariness. More importantly, I had heard that much of it took place within walking distance of my apartment. Trapped inside, I could reconnect with the city, which had so quickly become something like a memory. (The fantasy of novel-reading, so old, so durable: keeping you safe while exposing you to adventure, movement, risk; all the more appealing when risk could be indoors, too.) 

What ensued for me was a particularly delirious reading. To start with, Johnson gave me back the city. Anniversaries sutures together the present and past of Gesine Cresspahl, single mother and East German émigré, rising employee of a large midtown bank and Upper West Side resident, who from August 1967 to August 1968 finds herself tape-recording the conversations she has with her Americanized daughter about her family history—and, in a more occult fashion, carrying on spectral disclosures to her “scribe” and “Comrade Writer,” the Uwe Johnson that is her silent interlocutor. At first, for me, it was simply a matter of exactly that: there it all was. Gesine rents a two-bedroom apartment at 243 Riverside Drive, heads each weekday up the steep incline of 96th Street to the IRT station, shops on Broadway. Along with her daughter Marie she is familiar with the various Riverside Park curios, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th, the Fireman’s Memorial at 100th, the statue of Lajos Kossuth at 113th. To all of this Gesine gives the wry attention of the hesitantly naturalized New Yorker, not sure quite how she ended up here, not sure how long she’ll last. History washed her ashore along the Hudson and might pull her away again. “In 1964,” she remembers, “the business of being homesick for New York while still in New York started.” 

Well, yes. It was a lure. I was initially reading for details that incited and soothed my instinct toward homesickness, captivated by Gesine’s accounts of commuting, walking, shopping, the bottled-up anger of a humid late-summer subway car, the rancid smells of a playground. Direct therapy for quarantine, like reading travel guides; a substitute for the walks I’d normally be taking every day, as far, on a good day, as Gesine’s own building. But with an extra pull, particularly when Gesine’s accounts of the constant police sirens of late-1960s Manhattan unrest collided with the constant ambulance sirens of 2020’s emergencies. In this way I was drifting into the mixed pleasures of pure referentiality. (In the future, someone once told me at a conference on literacies-to-come, every text will be multi-media—no denotation without its accompanying sensory reproduction. It was 2005, the pivot-to-video was years away still, there was a hush of awe at the thought.) My mind snagged on similarities.  

Anniversaries is, of course, only partly a New York novel. Much more of it is devoted to Gesine’s reconstruction of the family history that produced her and the national traumas in which that history takes place, and is set in a different place and time. She is born in 1933 in Jerichow, a fictional town near the Baltic coast of Mecklenburg, only days after the Reichstag fire. It is a life that might have been entirely otherwise. Her father Heinrich, a veteran, master carpenter, and SPD member, had emigrated to Britain in the 1920s and had planned to stay. He is lured back to Germany when, on a brief visit to Travemünde in 1931, he sees the youngest daughter of a successful merchant and decides to court her. That this will mean tying his fate to Germany is not yet apparent. At first he is able to bring his bride Lisbeth back to his workshop in Richmond, but her homesick resistance overcomes his planning; she returns to Mecklenburg pregnant, and Cresspahl, unexpectedly bereft without her and yet still hoping to reverse the situation, follows her back. He is a socialist, observant and canny, not deceived by the course of events but by his belief he can evade them. Even after Gesine’s birth he has hopes to make his child English, leave what he knows will be an inferno, escape; he thinks he is biding his time, will be able to fit through the door again with wife and child before it closes for good, but what he cannot bring himself to acknowledge is that while you are waiting, the conditions to keep you in place are hardening.  

So the novel’s preoccupation is historical foreknowledge, its strange inevitability. “Was it possible in early 1933 to see what was coming?: a question common to Gesine and her comrade narrator. Properly understood, this way of formulating it betrays something self-protective. Maybe, Gesine wonders, her father was unable to predict what the Nazi rise would mean; maybe he was caught by contingency. But at no point does the novel itself picture Cresspahl as caught unawares by broad historical tendencies. In 1938 he starts preparing for war, quietly hoarding oil, steel, candles, fuses, preparing hiding places for them; later, after the British hand Jerichow to the Soviets and he is made mayor, he lays contingency plans for his inevitable trip to a prison camp. To the question, was it possible to know? the novel seems to answer: one always knows. What you don’t know is the timetable as it pertains to you. It’s not that you don’t know what’s coming, it’s that you don’t know its schedule, and you’re apt to think you’re a day ahead of it. That you can stay a day ahead of it. 

So as the spring went on, it was Gesine’s Mecklenberg, its descent into fascism covered by the stubborn durability of some kinds of daily life, that became closer to me than her in-the-process-of-vanishing New York. In the novel’s Jerichow, I was learning detailed lessons about economics in emergency times, when the money-fiction begins to fray and maintaining oneself in the midst of tenuous supply lines involves daily negotiation. I was reading about the pregnant delays between the authoritarian self-immolations of national deliberative bodies and the effects they have on local governance, about the stuttered momentum with which borders move to total closure, about how adherence to fascist rule can seem partial, scattered, and even comically awkward until, in what seems like a single day’s shift, it doesn’t. Meanwhile in my New York, city officials studied parks as sites for mass graves; an election was canceled and then reinstated; and civilian traffic washed away from the streets, leaving isolated the hard substrate of militarized police surveillance, prowling with a purposeless malignity, that remained. (Gesine, as 1968 opens, reads the Times to note the NYPD’s purchase of five thousand helmets, the adoption of “Vietnam-type military helicopters”; notes as well the separation of this story from its other coverage.) Analogies buzzed. 

To keep these worlds distinct and my memory intact, I did what I hadn’t since my early twenties: I started to keep a diary. I was living in the diurnal. Not that I was alone in this, of course. The chronicle, the journal, the attempt to claw back some temporal distinctions from the procession of sameness that life was becoming, this was all around. A diary is a desperate pact with a future reader; as an adolescent, her father in a Soviet-run prison, Gesine keeps one for him as an act of faith in his return. My own Diary of a Plague Year was laconic and rudimentary. (Wednesday: trip out to buy milk, nuts, ice cream. Burning sensation from smell of bleach. Impulse to burn clothes on return. Thursday: did not go out.) Cognitive neuroscientists were interviewed and spoke of dopamine squirts, adaptations to perceived threats, depressed affect and chronometry: subjective time slows when we are scared, when we are bored. Which all made sense in an airlessly experimental way, but ignored what seemed like the desire inherent to the phenomenon: I wanted to live in days, I was willing it. Even my own reading of Anniversaries was part of this sheltering intention to move—as Gesine puts it—“from one square of the board to the next, punctually advancing in time. Divided into 366 chapter-like entries, each devoted to a single day of Gesine’s late-’60s life and usually accompanied by snippets of her morning’s half-fond, half-hostile reading of the New York Times, the novel mimicked my own preferred rhythms. Some of this was the reassurance of repetition; I was looking for things that were staying the same, the biological grounding of waking, eating, sleeping. “Repetition,” Gesine thinks, “spares consciousness, starves it. More of it, though, had to do with control. 

Daily time is the time of vigilance. Scanning the horizon, trying to catch the threat right before it becomes inevitable, at the last possible moment when you’re free to react. The housecat, confined, wary, alternately bored and panicked: the spirit animal of quarantine. 

But not just quarantine. Anniversaries was tempering me, in my slow progress through it, into the knowledge that daily time is the time of political emergency. That half-holding-on to the familiar while sensing the approach of a limit or tipping point; the mounting of evidence, the logarithmic sensation of quantitative additions becoming qualitative distinctions. The sorites paradox in reverse: how many more grains of sand will it take to change a heap to a mountain? In Anniversaries, Gesine reads the death notices from Vietnam every day as 1967 drags into 1968, carefully tracks the city’s murders and rapes, notes the little tonal shifts in the threatening Soviet noises aimed at Czechoslovakia. Online in spring 2020, I scanned infection and death charts daily; the trend lines always stopped mid-action, about to rise, drop, flatline. Everything became a trend line, an arrow. At some point these little pieces of additive evidence will depict a completely changed situation— gradually, and then suddenly, with one spark. But until that point it is all still contingent, the future still indeterminate. In the short view, that of days, Gesine is free, uncertain, alert, always about to act. In the long view, that of years, her father is trapped. It is possible that, were she able to see that long view for herself, she would be too. I preferred the limits, and possibilities, of the day. 

In April and May, there were only truncated, evasive walks. I avoided going as far as St. John the Divine, which Gesine and Marie call St. John the Unfinished. Gesine explains that it will remain so as long as Horace Donegan is bishop of New York, and as long as the suffering of Harlem remains unaddressed. “Those,” she comments, “are two different dates. 

Two times: the diurnal and the eschatological. Quarantine life was forcing them into immediate juxtaposition. Anniversaries was making clear that the daily time of political emergency is always also matched by an irreconcilably different time in which it is already too late for purely individual salvation. On the one hand, Gesine’s day-to-day New York life, comprised of its routines both stifling and cushioning, progressing unit by unit, a life lived in the preterite: we walked, we ate, we slept. On the other, a German backstory accelerating quickly if unevenly through scenic flashes and a queasy past progressive: the new laws were taking effect; the war was coming; the borders were closing; the camps, barracks, airstrips were being fitted out. The people—willingly, for those who had means; unwillingly, for those targeted by the state—were disappearing. Between those two temporalities, there is nothing—no remaining collective or civic rituals of any meaning or duration; everything is improvised, horizonless. 

What was becoming apparent in my reading, slow as I was to understand anything in my panicky dulled state, was that Anniversaries offered a structural parallel: two slowly forming, complementary refugee tales, staying and leaving. In one, Heinrich Cresspahl finally abandons the idea of leaving Nazi-controlled Mecklenburg, transforms his house into a survivalist’s compound, goes to work for British intelligence providing information about the local airbase; his wife commits suicide, or so it seems, on Kristallnacht. (Anniversaries; juxtapositions.) In the other, his daughter ponders the expiration date of her American period, when it too will become unsafe, when she will need to pick up and go. The apartment is rented, her possessions few; she lives in a state of readiness. “I was trying to show,” Johnson’s narrator tells her, that you’re preparing for your departure. Reassuring yourself that not everything you’re leaving behind is essential.” 

Gesine has also a reasoned daytime voice, which I marked in the margin: “It’s not right to leave New York, not even for a single day. The day, the time in which the world might open. It is the reason to stay. But the thing about escaping is that it feels silly, or premature, or unbearably difficult, right up until it doesn’t. 

I am a child of a refugee, and a child of a refugee always knows that they owe their existence to getting away in time. At one point in the past a decision was made that did not involve me but that concerned the conditions of my very possibility. There are some consequences to this that belong to the sphere of political psychology. The first is wariness. A refugee heritage means a disturbed connection to the past and a watchful relation to the future. (Gesine lives in the future—the future of her next departure, her next flight. It is what she has borrowed against. Every lovely or merely placid day has been stolen from it.) In contrast to the fantasies of the prepper, who prefers to imagine the sovereignty of perfect self-sufficiency, there is the knowledge that displacement is by far the likelier scenario. The second is irony. My mother’s family fled westward from Nazi-occupied Soviet territory at an opportune moment of wartime chaos to finally wind up, after years in a displaced-persons camp and thanks to the lottery of international postwar resettlement, in the Midwest, in wide, flat, fertile plains as distant from any ocean as the steppe they had left behind. (A similar kind of fate has Gesine always finding the same littoral spaces, from Baltic Mecklenburg to Long Island Sound or the Jersey shore: marshy, reedy, pelagic.) These landscape recurrences seem, if not fated, at least figural. The third is a heritage of guilty noncomprehension. To understand the desperate calculations of those who left, to grasp what was being forsaken, to understand also their luck, is as impossible for the heirs of flight as it is obscurely necessary. Anniversaries is one of the great novels of single motherhood and childhood precocity, but on this subject maternal instruction has its limits; Gesine, a translator by training, has nonetheless to tell Marie: “You don’t get it at all. The result of these almost epigenetic traits is the feeling of being caught between two irreconcilable truths, the impossibility and inevitability of repetition. All that cannot happen again. That will all happen again.  

Why didn’t I leave? The actual, material answer is that I had nowhere to go. But once the initial wave of panic and envy passed, I was able to recognize, if not a reason, a justification: I was curious. Curiosity is why, Gesine tells her daughter, the bulk of Jerichow’s inhabitants in the autumn of 1945 decide to stay put when the British hand the town over to the Soviets. They are interested to see, as her daughter puts it, “how the bill came due”; it is a curiosity resulting from collective complicity in the disappearances they cannot not have noticed. I too wanted to know what would happen. What happens from here? How would the metropolis of capital look without the adornment of a full population willing and able to serve it? At night, just over the trees starting to bud, I could see the lights of one of midtown’s new supertall hedge fund storage units, mostly empty, and hollow in places to bend gently with any adverse wind. It has immunity. In a parody of aesthetic or divine consolation, it whispers to capital: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Others, who lived in the old world and acquiesced to it, who lived free in the shadow of its carceral institutions, may just be damned. That is, unless you have a way out. 

Wanting to know what will happen is also wanting to know to the full what we have been implicated in. The curiosity is linked to a sense of deserved retribution. What do I have coming? What do we have coming to us? Stay and find out. 

These were partly confusions, in a labile moment. I was on the one hand feeling merely personal guilt at not having spent years arranging some kind of refuge, on the other, assigning social guilt to those affluent or unencumbered enough to have one. I was envying where I condemned, and yet justifying my remaining as some kind of virtuous willingness to be punished. At some level this was neurotic; I was finding myself gripped by the fantasy of “getting out in time,” trapped in the temporality it offered me and resenting it all the while. But I was beginning to experience, on a level collective enough to hit with an entirely new force, how the fantasy of flight, the desire to flee and the terror, guilt, and strange satisfactions of not being able toand the kind of narrowed time-horizons intrinsic to these decisions—was an individual response, however frantic, contradictory, and ungeneralizable, to a dehumanization that is laid bare and thus becomes intolerable. And, in a further twist, that impulse to flight is exactly the individual response such dehumanization aims to produce. 

One moment in my reading kept tugging at me. Among Anniversaries’ border-crossers is Gesine’s mother Lisbeth, who in 1932 flees her life in England to return to Mecklenburg. It is ultimately a fatal decision, but it isn’t simply done out of careless homesickness. It is, as Gesine imagines it much later, her mother’s flight from an unbearable political recognition, spurred by her new husband’s explanation of their hand-to-mouth British existence: 

He also tried to explain to her what had stuck with him from Labour Party meetings; that the unemployment was caused by England’s declining exports in every major branch of industry, and that a mechanism was at work here. He also seemed to think that the British policy was to sacrifice their own workers to concerns about the exchange rate of the pound sterling. She didn’t like hearing that. It meant that her situation depended on economic laws and actual people, not on fate. Now she felt trapped.  

It’s what the pandemic was daily exposing while simultaneously providing an obscuring epidemiological alibi: there is a mechanism at work here, and at its core it isn’t viral. It is a stage of the state on its way to producing only terror, when it encourages the spectacle of flight— because flight proves the subjection of the ruled to the only decisions, individualizing ones, it allows. Some are locked up. Others are permitted a restricted binary: stay or go. This categorical difference is in this country a distinction of race, and possessing the choice to stay or go provides you no immunity from its guilt. Leaving gives you no power to evade your implication, even if it seems instinctually to do so; just staying is no effective defiance of it. What you decide to do today will only further the eschatology in which you’re stuck. Either way the collective is shattered. The reduction to leaving and staying is not a flaw in the order of governance (even in the order of public-health governance); it is its purpose. Death is comparatively only an incidental outcome to the project of ensuring a continually alarmed populace, reduced to the choice to leave or stay. Better leave people to their own decisions to disperse or hide than imagine systems of mutual obligation. At times I thought: if this regime doesn’t care for refugees, it is because it prefers to create its own. 

Moments of political possibility, or clarity, occur when mere names acquire a refreshed repertoire of images. In the novel’s entry for February 2, 1968, Johnson records mother and daughter discussing the photograph of the extrajudicial execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém as it was printed in that day’s Times, above the fold, top right. Now, Marie explains, she has a picture; when someone in her mother’s story gets shot—summarily, as a reprisal, as an act of state; there are many scenarios and alibis for political murder—“I’ll know what you’re thinking about and I’ll think about it too. It is an act of analogy, with analogy’s potential flaws. But it is also a moment where an abstraction gains concreteness and seems to enter the present, becomes possible. Now, I think, having watched families load up and drive off, apartments get emptied, the streets fall into a deranged silence: now I know what the abandonment of the collective looks like. Not a revolt, but a vast mutual disintegration. Possessing the image feels like a kind of sortilege. It says: this is now going to happen, again, and even more drastically; it is just a start. You too are a potential refugee. Your state is saying to you: disperse! Or suffer the consequences.  

Here, with analogy, one enters tricky territory. Occasionally, trying to self-soothe during some random moment of incipient panic, I’d think to myself: this isn’t that, or isn’t that yet. The senile incapacity of one state isn’t like the hypertrophy of another. Or is it? Analogies were, after all, proliferating wildly. A celebrated critical theorist compared college faculty acquiescing to online instruction to those who had pledged loyalty to fascist regimes. Treating that argument with as much sympathy as I could muster, I thought, well, at a time in which the social is being rearranged overnight, groping in the dark for analogies will happen, and some people will grab the wrong handles. 

But it is not either/or.  Anniversaries centers on the need to locate analogies while remaining skeptical of them, as a way to push through that impasse to something like certainty. Johnson’s novel is an act of breathtakingly complex comparison; it holds the German story from the 1930s to the 1950s aloft with one hand, a year of American unrest in the late 1960s in the other. To be a 35-year-old socialist, a refugee from East Germany working in a Manhattan multinational bank in the department responsible for discreetly offering loans to the fragile reformist government of Czechoslovakia, while the government that has sheltered her enacts a brutal racism of fire and immiseration at home and abroad: these things make Gesine an omnidirectional ironist, ideologically restive, seeing connections everywhere while being wary of them at the same time. Can the deaths from the bombings of Coventry and Lübeck, to the latter of which her father may have contributed secret intelligence, be compared or weighed together? Can implication in the racial capitalism of the 1960s, as a resident alien, be equated to implication in totalitarian murder in Mecklenburg, as a child? Or: is the abandonment of collective life in a pandemic at all like the freezing of civic life in the transition to fascism? Is 2020 another 1968? Should the image of well-off families fleeing the city really have made me think about the emigration of the fortunate, the prescient, the desperate, from other deadly regimes? Some things are a little alike, but that doesn’t mean they are the same. 

The answer may be completely otherwise. Nothing is entirely like anything else, but some things may be the same thing. Maybe it is time to bring back, not analogy, but typology. A delirious way of reading, for delirious times. Typology would say: arguing about the likeness of different historical conjunctures finally results in skepticism about historical explanation at all. Analogies between instances separated in time are never entirely convincing, yet refusing any likeness is never entirely satisfying, because it so often feels defensive, a way of not listening to resonances. The result is a dispiriting stasis. Typology invites us instead to look at the old stories as speaking of us, right now, not in partial dissimilarity but as encoding a latency that the present is bringing into new fruition. It invites us to see the past as offering an essence to be tapped, not a comparison to be parsed. It tells us: what happened in the past is. Then it was the case, and now it is too, because among other reasons then caused now. It is, at once, 1933 and 1968 and 2020and more yet to be revealed. (Anniversaries: tuning into the same historical frequency, one that is always there to hear if you want to listen.) Each repressive measure, each unjust death, was figured by earlier ones and in turn prophesies the next.  

This is a feverish kind of historical sense, but it isn’t mysticism; if anything, it merely acknowledges a fact about recent collective recognitions. The fantasy of escape, after all, was active even before the pandemic. It had been the subject of anxious jokes in person and worried, angry proclamations online since 2016: I’m ready to go, start planning, get out before it all goes down! It was a state of readiness that couldn’t quite yet believe itself. If it seemed at all overblown then, just an analogy, it doesn’t any more. Typology tells us that the feeling of historical recurrence, even when embarrassed—maybe particularly then—is a way being alive to our immense vulnerability. Apocalypse, the end of worlds, is always in the offing. Historical distance gives no cushion or immunity. It is the kind of knowledge that explains why typologies, secular and otherwise, have often been a resource of the dominated and insurrectionary. So when apocalypse is in the wind, when people begin to think of leaving, the old question arises of what those who remain are able to do in their absence, what prophecies they can enact now. 

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