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The Russian Album
By Michael Ignatieff
Picador Copyright © 1997 Michael Ignatieff
All rights reserved.
THE BROKEN PATH
Dwell on the past and you'll lose an eye. Ignore the past and you'll lose both of them.
OLD RUSSIAN PROVERB
No one I know lives in the house where they grew up or even in the town or village where they once were children. Most of my friends live apart from their parents. Many were born in one country and now live in another. Others live in exile, forming their thoughts in a second language among strangers. I have friends whose family past was consumed in the concentration camps. They are orphans in time. This century has made migration, expatriation and exile the norm, rootedness the exception. To come as I do from a hybrid family of White Russian exiles who married Scottish Canadians is to be at once lucky – we survived – and typical.
Because emigration, exile and expatriation are now the normal condition of existence, it is almost impossible to find the right words for rootedness and belonging. Our need for home is cast in the language of loss; indeed, to have that need at all you have to be already homeless. Belonging now is retrospective rather than actual, remembered rather than experienced, imagined rather than felt. Life now moves so quickly that some of us feel that we were literally different people at previous times in our lives. If the continuity of our own selves is now problematic, our connection with family ancestry is yet more in question. Our grandparents stare out at us from the pages of the family album, solidly grounded in a time now finished, their lips open, ready to speak words we cannot hear.
For many families, photographs are often the only artefacts to survive the passage through exile, migration or the pawnshop. In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time. I never feel I know my friends until either I meet their parents or see their photographs and since this rarely happens, I often wonder whether I know anybody very well. If we are strangers even to our friends, it is because our knowledge of each other is always in a dimension of time that my grandparents' culture would have considered inconceivably shallow. In the world of both the rich and the poor of even a century ago, one knew someone as his father's son, his grandmother's grandson and so on. In the Russian style of address, first name and then patronymic, this kind of knowing is inscribed in the very way one names a friend or relation. To a Russian, I am Michael Georgevitch, George's son, a self rooted in a family past. In the non-Russian world I live in, I am known for what I do, for how I am now, not for the past I embody. Looking at someone's family album is a way towards a deeper temporal knowing of another. But nowadays, a frontier of intimacy has to be crossed before these photographs are shown even to friends. Within the family itself, photographs are not really icons, hovering presences on the wall. Styles of inheritance are now individual: we are free to take or refuse our past. Children have as much right to refuse interest in these icons as they have to stick to their own opinions. Yet the more negotiable, the more invented the past becomes, the more intense its hold, the more central its invention becomes in the art of making a self. Eventually there are few of us who do not return home one holiday weekend, go to the bottom drawer, pull out the old shoe box and spread the pictures around us on the floor.
Father has his arm around Tereze
She squints. My thumb
is in my mouth: my fifth autumn.
Near the copper beech
the spaniel dozes in the shadows.
Not one of us does not avert his eyes.
(Louise Gluck, 'Still Life')
From its beginnings, photography was recognized as a new source of consciousness about the family past. As a contributor to Macmillan's Magazine wrote in 1877: 'Anyone who knows what the worth of family affection is among the lower classes and who has seen the array of little portraits over a labourer's fire place will perhaps feel with me that in counteracting the tendencies, social and industrial, which are every day sapping the healthier family affections, the sixpenny photograph is doing more for the poor than all the philanthropists in the world' (quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography). In democratizing the privilege of a family portrait gallery, the sixpenny photograph deserves a place in the social history of modern individualism. With the coming of the photograph, poor families had a new kind of inheritance: sixpenny tokens coded with the signs of their genetic legacy. If they could not bequeath property, they could bequeath the history of the handing down of the curve of a lip, the shape of a forehead, the set of a jaw. In giving silent presence to vanished generations and in diffusing this presence throughout the whole culture, photography has played a part in bringing the problem of personal identity to the centre of cultural concern. The awareness that we must create ourselves and find our own belonging was once the privilege of an educated elite and is now a generalized cultural condition. For in helping to constitute identity in time, photography also poses the problem of the freedom of the self to make its own present. To look at an old photograph and to discover that one has inherited the shape of one's eyes, to hear from one's parents that one has also inherited a temperament, is both to feel a new location in time but also a dawning sense of imprisonment. The passion for roots – the mass pastime of family history – represses the sense of suffocation that family photographs can engender. That is one reason why the old photographs get consigned to the old shoe box at the bottom of the drawer. We need them but we do not want to be claimed by them. Because they bring us face to face with an inheritance that cannot be altered, photographs pose the problem of freedom: they seem to set the limits within which the self can be created.
The photographs in a family album bring us closer to the past and yet their acute physical tactility reminds us of all the distance that still remains uncrossed. As such, photographs have done something to create that very modern sense of the past as a lost country. My first impression of that sense came when I was very young. I was watching an interview on television with an old black man who was supposed to be the last American who had lived under slavery. In a whisper, he told how he had been born in what must now be Liberia and how he had been enticed onto a ship with promises of corn fritters growing on trees in a land where you never had to work all day. I can remember thinking that if this tiny man with his faint voice and papery skin were to die, the past of slavery, the chains and the chanting, would slide away from me like a cliff subsiding into the sea. I still cannot shake off the superstition that the only past that is real, that exists at all, is the one contained within the memories of living people. When they die, the past they hold within them simply vanishes, and those of us who come after cannot inherit their experience, only preserve the myth of its existence. We can mark the spot where the cliff was washed away by the sea, but we cannot repair the wound the sea has made. In my lifetime the last of the people born before the Russian Revolution will die. My father is the very last of that generation, aged four in February 1917, just old enough to remember the bayonets glinting like glass below the window of the house in Petrograd on the morning the soldiers stormed to the Duma and said they had had enough of hunger and war. His memory just bestrides this abyss dividing everything before and everything after the revolution. I in turn am the last generation to know his generation, the last to be able to plumb their memory, to feel the presence of their past in the timbre of their voices and in the gaze they cast back across time. Already I am so far away from what happened, so much a Canadian born of this time and place and no other, that I feel fraudulent in my absorption in the vanishing experience of another generation. Yet so swiftly does time move now that unless I do my work to preserve memory, soon all there will be left is photographs and photographs only document the distance that time has travelled; they cannot bind past and present together with meaning.
I am a historian and historians are supposed to believe that they can transport themselves in time to recapture experience swept away by the death of earlier generations. In even the most rigorously scientific history, there is a resurrectionary hope at work, a faith in the power of imagination and empathy to vault the gulf of time. To do their work at all, historians have to believe that knowledge can consummate desire – that our dull and patient immersion in the records of the past can ultimately satisfy our desire to master time's losses. The historical imagination emerges from loss, dispossession and confinement, the same experiences which make for exile and migration. It is roused when the past can no longer be taken for granted as a felt tradition or when the past has become a burden from which the present seeks emancipation. It is a sense of fracture or a sense of imprisonment that sends historians back to the archives, the memoirs, the tape-recorded voices. Yet this relation between loss and the imagination is full of irony. History has less authority than memory, less legitimacy than tradition. History can never speak with the one voice that our need for belonging requires. It cannot heal the hurt of loss. Our knowledge of the past cannot satisfy our desire for the past. What we can know about the past and what we want from it are two different things.
Photographs of ancestors seem to capture this irony precisely. In the family album, my grandfather seems almost real, almost on the point of speaking. But his clothes, the frock coat, the hands held down the striping of his court uniform, mark him as a historical being irrevocably distant in time. The more palpable the photograph renders his presence, the more sharply I realize that the gulf that divides us involves both my mortality and theirs.
That it is my death which is in question, and not just his, becomes apparent when we look at photographs of ourselves. They awaken a sense of loss because they work against the integrative functions of forgetting. Photographs are the freeze frames that remind us how discontinuous our lives actually are. It is in a tight weave of forgetting and selective remembering that a continuous self is knitted together. Forgetting helps us to sustain a suspension of belief in our own death which allows us time to believe in our lives. At the end of his life, the French writer Roland Barthes gave a talk to an audience much younger than himself, and thought out loud about the hope – and the passion for life – that forgetting makes possible: 'In order to live, I have to forget that my body has a history. I have to throw myself into the illusion that I am the contemporary of these young bodies who are present and listening to me, and not of my own body weighed down with the past. From time to time, in other words, I have to be born again, I have to make myself younger than I am. I let myself be swept along by the force of all living life – forgetting' (Nouvel Observateur, 31 March 1980).
Photographs do not always support the process of forgetting and remembering by which we weave an integral and stable self over time. The family album does not always conjure forth the stream of healing recollection that binds together the present self and its past. More often than not photographs subvert the continuity that memory weaves out of experience. Photography stops time and serves it back to us in disjunctive fragments. Memory integrates the visual within a weave of myth. The knitting together of past and present that memory and forgetting achieve is mythological because the self is constantly imagined, constructed, invented out of what the self wishes to remember. The photograph acts towards the self like a harshly lit mirror, like the historian confronted with the wish-fulfilments of nationalistic fable or political lie. Look at a picture of yourself at four or five, and ask yourself honestly whether you can feel that you still are this tender self, squinting into the camera. As a record of our forgetting, the camera has played some part in engendering our characteristic modern suspicion about the self-deceiving ruses of our consciousness. Memory heals the scars of time. Photography documents the wounds.
So it is not only the dead ancestors who seem as distant as stars but even the younger versions of ourselves who take up our positions in the family album. It is this double process of loss, the loss of them, the loss of oneself, which the struggle of writing tries to arrest.
His pursuit was a form of evasion.
The more he tried to uncover
the more there was to conceal
the less he understood.
If he kept it up
he would lose everything.
He knew this
and remembered what he could –
always at a distance,
on the other side of the lake,
or across the lawn,
always vanishing, always there.
(Mark Strand, 'The Untelling')
Yet loss is only one of the emotions awakened by exile and dispossession. There is also the 'syncopal kick', the release of stored energies that Vladimir Nabokov describes in Speak Memory as being one of exile's least expected gifts. It was exile that made Nabokov a writer; it was exile that turned the taken-for-granted past into a fabled territory that had to be reclaimed, inch by inch, by the writer's art. Just as in the moment of flight exiles must grab the treasures that will become their belongings on the road into exile, so they must choose the past they will carry with them, what version they will tell, what version they will believe. From being an unconsidered inheritance, the past becomes their invention, their story.
Once the story has been handed on from first to second generation, the family past becomes still less a fate and ever more a narrative of self-invention. For someone like myself in the second generation of an émigré tradition, the past has become the story we write to give weight and direction to the accident and contingency of our lives. True, we cannot invent our past out of nothing: there are photos and memories and stories, and sometimes our invention consists mostly in denying what it is we have inherited. Yet even when we disavow it, we are inventing a past in our denials. The problem of invention is authenticity. In the second generation we are free to choose our pasts, but the past we choose can never quite seem as real, as authentic, as those of the first generation.
In my own case, I have two pasts. My mother's family, the Grants and the Parkins, were high-minded Nova Scotians who came to Toronto in the last century and made a name for themselves as teachers and writers. They were close to me as a child: as close as my grandmother's house on Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto.
My father's past is Russian. My grandfather Paul Ignatieff was Minister of Education in the last Cabinet of Tsar Nicholas II. His father, Nicholas Ignatieff, was the Russian diplomat who in 1860 negotiated the Amur-Ussuri boundary treaty that defines the border between Russia and China in the Pacific region to this day; in 1878 he negotiated the treaty bringing the Russo-Turkish War to a conclusion; and in 1881 he was the minister who put his name to the special legislation against the Jews.
My grandmother was born Princess Natasha Mestchersky on an estate near Smolensk bequeathed to her mother's family by Empress Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century. In her family she counted a chancellor of Russia, a general who put down the peasant rebellion of Pugachev and the first modern historian of her country, Nicholas Karamzin.
Excerpted from The Russian Album by Michael Ignatieff. Copyright © 1997 Michael Ignatieff. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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