The Lives of Others (title borrowed from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 2006 film)

IMG_2507“On land the dirt remains, the smoke trails/from the footprints of torched houses, a burnt taste –/this is the blackened bread of memory.” Stephanos Papadopoulos, The Black Sea

Back in New York, at the end of a year that also  began in New York (I had hopes to post before the turn of the year…). The idea to start a blog a year ago came out of conversation about what had been happening in Greece. The intensity of what was happening, at the rate it was happening, left me feeling unraveled and less-than-articulate; a colleague at NYU said, “start a blog.” I didn’t expect it to be as challenging as it was. To speak “in the moment” or “in the ruin” as I’m trying to express it in essays, is a paradox, an attempt to shape what is also unshaping me. The need, too, to make sure I was getting in facts as the unraveling was taking place, made the writing sometimes oppressive. The lyrical essay on the other hand has its fact-less freedoms — the self’s otherness being more liberally at play in the midst of its obsessions & disorientations — what is that “I” in the hybridity of bi-culturalism and various national belongings, where is that “I” as it travels between, and in, space and time?

Just off the plane at JFK I noticed the passport control officers. A woman briskly ushering people with US passports into one line and others into the other line. An elderly Pakistani man greets those of us going into the line for US citizens saying, “Welcome home.” I find this incongruous at first; he speaks in an accent, is clearly of another heritage and ethnicity (I ask where he’s originally from & he says “Pakistan”), and yet he says “home” smiling pleasantly, as we enter a country that greets us with the embrace of belonging even if we don’t, founded and built on an ideology of inclusiveness as it excludes those unable to abide by those assumptions.

The homeless in Athens is a new and still-shocking reality in a city that was until very recently one of the few (one of the last?) in Europe where modest incomes provided sustainable living conditions inclusive of basic health care. It is different in New York where the homeless have long been “a feature” of late capitalism’s brutal inequalities. My daughter describes a couple in Union square, two men, who she sees regularly who don’t or cannot use a bathroom, our bodies finally our first and last home and the spaces they inhabit resonant of our abilities to belong or not.

Part of last semester was spent teaching an American Lit survey at HAUniv, we used Nina Baym’s edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and spoke of cultural inclusions and exclusions, how its discourses will create oppositions — in Greece, one group of “others” is the immigrants, those without papers now unapologetically relegated to “camp facilities” outside the city. Greece is still small enough and our current mess specific enough, that we are able to put names to the corruption and dysfunction. As a friend in Athens said, “Corruption here still has a name and a face,” which has made the tragedy of economic austerity the more unforgiving. As we go into a 6th year of recession, key people who first signed on the troika’s requirements, who promised that such would lead to growth, are silent or absent — George Papandreou himself is teaching a course at Harvard on economics and politics which is analogous to having a surgeon who has lost patients teach Surgery 101. So we are focusing less on the roots of causes, speaking instead of those others now Othered as scapegoats, the kind of rhetoric that has brought Neo-Nazis into the parliament.

One of the things I do my first couple of days in New York is buy junk food I can’t find in Athens. Red licorice Twizzlers. My daughter makes a face as I happily eat the “low fat snack”. I laugh and make note of the logo on various packaging. Under “Nutrition Facts”  I read Twizzlers are “Not a significant source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium.” My daughter says “they all say that.” I say, “.. I think it’s obvious.” My coffee cup tells me to “CAFFEINATE YOUR CONSCIENCE…Our Growers Share Our Commitment To The Environment…” I say these reminders and advertisings are surreal — an invisible “they” is always telling me what’s good for me — as if “they” care. My daughter shares an essay she read for one of her political science classes, Slavoj Zizek’s “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”; it is a potpourri of riffs and interrogations that mixes cinematic instances (The Truman Show, the Titanic, the Matrix) with discussions of the hyper-real, unreal, virtual real and “irreal” (!) in Zizek’s trademark sentences of baroque insight: “Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian despiritualized universe is the dematerialization of the ‘real life’ itself.” But this resonates, “dematerialization” in particular. Coming from Athens where everything is, to borrow a Roberto Bolano term, “viscerally real”. So what is the “desert of the real” I want to know. My daughter explains it to me as she understands it, that our first world perceptions, according to Zizek are “corrupted by Hollywood,” among other media influences and infiltrations. We cannot “see” the “real”, let alone feel it as such — everything becomes Other, in that it is de-familiarized. I guess the danger here is that “the real” or facts and acts of reality — like bodies defecating in the street — are no longer bodies we empathize or identify with, or even “see.” But the alienation can be more subtle, insidious in the ways we justify and excuse it — by how much or how little we see the other in ourselves. Again, thinking of the past year in Athens, the seemingly overnight changes to the city and our lives that included the increase and visibility of the homeless; radio newscasters make regular announcements of ways to help our “synanthropi” (Gk: “syn + anthropi” = with + people). With the exception of the Golden Dawn Nazis there was, and is, a majority that still view the homeless as “ours”. In New York, I watch a woman, maybe she is Haitian, speaking in accented English with French words interspersed in her monologue. She has two large bags of belonging she is wheeling around with some difficulty. She is also cursing. “Paying that money, and I moved in the basement, and still he got the damn nerve.. me in the streit now…” I felt, in another context, in another world? she would be speaking to someone who might help. But she was speaking to herself, and clearly on her own. If I had been less of a coward I would have spoken to her, me in my own bordered space, my otherness.

When Zizek mentions the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix, he uses it as an example of a climax of the “postmodern fantasy” in which everything material becomes virtual. I haven’t seen the movie but my daughter describes it to me with the aside, “the woman reminds me of you 10 years ago mom.” I’m of course curious. “What was me 10 years ago?” She says it was me “wearing black all the time.” I am laughing, thank her for the compliment and tell her I’m surprised she remembers, she was 12. “Her hair’s short like yours used to be and she’s always in black leather.” “Or plastic” I say, still laughing as I’m now detoured into fantasies of an-other “me”, one my daughter seems to remember more vividly, maybe more materially, than I do. She tells me of a bonus-point question on her exam that asked about what kinds of things she would do if she were to found a nation state. She says she wrote of her view of nation states becoming “states” of memory, borderless in the self and its experiences; to remember is also to re-member, to belong.

Such a fraught question, that of belonging, it sends nations to war to defend the borders of one’s belonging, and belongings — it is, I think, very visceral, as visceral as what really (as opposed to virtually) touches us, like what happens to the Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler in von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others”; while Wiesler listens to Georg Dreyman play “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano in the apartment Wiesler is secretly surveillancing, Wiesler surprises himself by weeping. Wiesler risks his life and sacrifices his career when he discovers the Minister of Culture’s (Bruno Hempf) abuses. Corruption has a name and a face, but the lives of others are also, Wiesler discovers, his too.

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About akalfopoulou

Author of two poetry collections, and most recently, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living.
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2 Responses to The Lives of Others (title borrowed from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 2006 film)

  1. Artemis says:

    The USA, “….founded and built on an ideology of inclusiveness as it excludes those unable to abide by those assumptions…” Really? I think the US Pakistani greeter would not welcome these words — but then again, the homeless Haitian woman might agree. Plastic + Leather = Pleather

  2. matia14 says:

    I just came across your blog and like you, I live between two worlds and can identify with a lot of what you are saying…. I grew up in the US as a daughter of immigrant parents…
    In reply to the comment above, I can’t speak for the US Pakistani greeter, but I can only speak for myself… I too, worked at a major US airport and also “greeted” passengers inside US Immigration & Customs… So as a former “greeter” & daughter of immigrants, I agree with the statement: “The US is founded and built on an ideology of inclusiveness etc” …… Just my two cents…..

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