LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2009 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 55, No.1 - Spring 2009
Editor of this issue: Gražina Slavėnas.
Dr. Dalia Staponkutė is a Lithuanian professor living in Cyprus and Vilnius. She has published a book of essays, Lietumi pieš saulę and is raising two Cypriot-Lithuanian daughters.
From Lietumi prieš saulę (Rain Versus Sun) Vilnius: Apostrofa, 2007.
Translated by the author.
Presumably people are drawn to islands by an inner need for exile, or by an illusion of a more remote vantage point from which to view the world. On an island you can start over and discover everything anew, although knowing that there are no guarantees of successful beginning or, especially, of fulfilment. An island is a white shore that is washed by chaos, on which a new history is continually being written with reed stalks – one that is unfailingly ephemeral and that is never comparable to the rich History of a Continent. An island has no history. Its fate is reminiscent of a woman selling her body, whose daily existence and quality of life is dependent on the generosity of transient conquistadors. Ruined, trampled, forever being abandoned, and destitute over the course of centuries, she, at the same time, retains her innocence, is refined, tranquil, and self-possessed. Remaining afloat, having no center – no megapolis – the island doesn’t feel the pull of gravity, its own provinciality, or the traditions characteristic to mainlanders. There is no link between an island and the mainland. The only link is the seabed. The sea-bed joins what it separates. Beyond the point where sea-bed grows into island, life takes on another, noncontinental tempo: it appears unreal, random, dual-sided, long and serene. As if life were taking place “parallel to me.” As if it were a faithful guide; a proud, rapacious, gibbous-beaked gryphon; perched on a promontory, ever-watchful and ever-watched, owl-wise and serene. Amid the silence of the island, life is amplified, the body finds repose; the mind becomes patient and desirous of events that never take place. The island’s stillness torments the mind, an inexhaustible patience obtained on an island steels the mind, and the dearth of events forces it to fabricate. The mind does not like emptiness and a lazy tempo. But on the island time passes slowly and is as painful as a needle puncturing a bicep, as heavy as the floor of the ocean, and as dreary as the daily rounds of its inhabitants.
When you give the island more than ten years of your life, you feel how deeply the islanders’ traits have etched themselves into you – they are like a cliff face encrusted with petrified sea-salt. Alongside the expatriate’s Northern countenance, a new one begins to take shape – a leathery, tensile Southern one, similar to a ruptured icon whose two halves no longer match, either in color or form. There is no popular theory that solves the crossword puzzle of multiple cultures that is found in each individual. In the best of cases, such a person brings to mind a work of art, a collage containing a multitude of perspectives and symbols that coincide and disperse at the same time. Just as in the case of an island. And that’s why islands feel little nostalgia for any art. Nevertheless, at the same time they are an indifferent and welcoming place.
Each islander welcomes several travellers every year: archaeologists, anthropologists, tourists and adventurers – all are taken in as guests. The reality of an islander is to have no friends and numerous guests. When one becomes accustomed to relating to travellers, relations with friends become deformed, and friendships simply disappear. The number of guests grows, while that of friends diminishes. The single, honest and, at the same time, unctuous islander’s manner of relating is by way of hospitality. You take someone in, host them, bid them farewell and never see them again. This fragmented lifestyle causes a sense of betrayal and foments an inner conflict and a bilious appreciation for other cultures and their values. The island makes your senses sharper, and by no means only the pleasant ones. It magnifies the senses, but itself remains static and stony, with its suspended South European smile. It seems, that the island’s natural environment, untouched by the processes of urbanization, almost abdicates its self-protective instincts and snoozes calmly under its blanket of dust brought by the winds. Everything – furniture, politicians, the TV screen, the surfaces of swimming pools – quietly assent to the dust’s presence. Even young shoots of the tiny academic environment show no signs of new energy. The universities that have no academic traditions become tiny models of anarchic, unstructured curricula and intellectual coquetry. Generators of ideas take refuge, briefly, on the island and emigrate shortly thereafter. A student is “condemned” to the island’s routine, thoroughness and a pedantic attention to insignificant detail. The island does not provide enough space or encouragement for his intellectual flights and the “little” perversions of student life. This is the price to pay for the possibility to emigrate. The island’s youth enter local universities to nurture in themselves the character of Odysseus or Columbus – always ready to fly the coop in search of their genuine homeland. Nostalgia for another homeland is the islander’s daily reality, interwoven with action and habit. The islander inherits this nostalgia not from parents or grandparents, but from the air and sea. No one on the island is interested in genealogical trees, and no other place is as prolific in its production of Odyssean travelogues. The island’s Greeks refer to those with a creative bent as poets (it would seem this is an ancient tradition). It is true, that one can earn the title of poet here without necessarily writing verse or by writing just about any kind of poetry. I was amazed to learn that half my neighbours in Nicosia are published poets, among them are employees in the mayor’s office, housewives, kebab sellers and pupils. Such a large number of poets can only be explained, perhaps, by a relaxed approach to language, or with the language’s lack of completeness. And what about the dialect? Is it not the mores of a vigorously eclectic culture? To be a poet for an islander seems to be as ordinary as to have the gift of speech... They say poetry is not some kind of literature, but an intention... That’s why there is no good or bad poetry, only good intentions. Not long ago I was given a gift by an attractive middle-aged housewife with waist-length black hair, eyes from a Byzantine icon, wearing a reddish cat’s style bow around her pretty neck. She presented me with a small collection of her banal verse – about flowers, spring and love. On its blue cover – the requisite red rose. The rose of sincerity. I thought this must mean, precisely: “I want to be a poet.” Such an image of the “poetic” provokes a polite and forgiving smile, but it can cause appreciation no less than tomes of “serious” poetry. When, the following day, I praised her stanzas politely, she, with great pride and in complete seriousness, asked me not to address her by name, but as “Madame Poetess”...
We also have an elderly man, our local sage and self-proclaimed “Teacher” (daskalos in Greek). I wouldn’t have heard of him were it not for my colleague from the U.S. – a woman obsessed with spiritual growth – who brought him to my attention. She said to listen to him, and he will “enlighten” me. Daskalos recited poetry in very broken English to a group of oddball client-followers from Western countries. They were reminiscent of a horde of downtrodden disciples – in shorts, sandals and T-shirts, carrying dusty knapsacks, looking drawn, their skin weather-beaten and scorched from the intense sunlight. Daskalos holds readings under a sparse lemon tree near his house. He plays a scratched-up, irritating recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A musical backdrop is essential for certain interpretations of poetry. Daskalos’s stanzas allude to all possible variations of love, but most of all to sacred love. It’s hard to say if it really is a balm for the soul. I felt sorry for his listeners, I felt out of place. Feeling drowsy from the intense heat, I fell asleep with the others there. Poetry and extreme heat do not go well together. Daskalos repeated: “I cannot address to you, my love, therefore I address you, love.” As if it was a magnificent line from Derrida. I realized the same thought, if repeated in differing contexts, rejuvenates itself. In the context of an island though, the thought stays as immovable and narcotizing as the slowly passing time. On an island, thought is meditation. In the end, it is only amid the silence of the island that one feels that a thought can be relaxing and can avoid being capricious and envious. It has no other purpose here than to kill itself while silent. Sometimes I wonder, what is the value of scholarly anthropological texts written about islands. Without vitality of thought there is no truth here either. The islanders are not fond of reading, and they often lie. In some places, the lie is looked upon as having greater value than the truth. The lie means variety, and variety is more interesting than truth. More reliable. Truth changes, variety remains constant.
This is how an anchorite monk living on Troodos mountain would also think... He chortled at the memory of a young German anthropologist who, he said, was determined to survive a year with him, but left after a month because he couldn’t bear the stench of boredom. The ascetic’s entire property consisted of some rabbits, chickens, cabbages, basil, mint, olive trees and a hut assembled from stones. There is no sign of a well in his abode. He takes and carries water from the springs at the foot of the mountain, on his shoulders, and uses it only for the most basic life-sustaining, not for such “vain” things as washing the body. On a rocky island, water is dear and holy. “And, are you holy” I asked. “Holy is he who cares for others, but as you see, I only care about myself – I am probably divine,” he joked…
As time goes by, the realities of an island stop being annoying and strange, though one cannot stop oneself from thinking about it while living here. The island is a place of agony. The Greek word agonia is equivalent to “struggle.” At times, it seems as if someone forced me onto an airplane, but, on the way, decided to throw me into the island’s heat. I was left to walk, breathe, eat, work and struggle... That’s probably how one feels on an island – accidental and ready to leave and, at the same time, rooted and obliged to stay. In this manner it dawns on me, finally, that a homeland is a concept much more spacious than I ever thought. It’s not even a concept really, but a process that simmers inside me and doesn’t come from some kind of “elsewhere.” The homeland lives inside me as a personal mystical cosmos. Like an island. But I would never feel this with such clarity if it were not the place where I live out my fate, if it were not the birthplace of my children, in whose heads there is a different geographic consciousness than the one native to me. How strange it is that our heads and bodies are so close to each other and related by blood. The world forgives itself for some of its mutations. Without them there would be no variety – just as there would be no little lies. The searing heat and the silent cold – everything in the world is divided like this, and the transgression of lines condemns to painful silence.
Nicosia, September 2004
To the town where I live
I’ve got many names and a tangled history, which occupies my center as a giant Hephaestus of rough glass shards masterfully joined together. The massive sculpture-mount bears a modern name: the Poet. A poet is a haystack of cold weapons in my heart. Not even a nameless vagabond, a scruffy cat, a stray dog or a global dove would dare to look for a snug berth in the Poet’s bosom. A poet in a postmodern province is a cutting-edge loneliness resting on a rusting pedestal and covered in thick dust. These are not the only symbols that speak to my peculiarities. Once upon a time, I was famous with my “Venetian flower,” a perfectly circular ring-wall with defensive petal-shaped turrets. Mediterranean civilizations have a deep knowledge of erecting walls with great precision. They sense a place like a lover’s body. They hem in the lover’s body so that from the inner side it stays confined, and from the outer – any temptation is forestalled. The ring grows ever tighter until it cracks. The closest rings – the family circle, the first nurturers, the loved ones and dependents – are the tightest ones and cause the most pain when they crack. The others – the looser surroundings of the wealthy and destitute; torturers and sycophants; geniuses and hopeless fools; architects and archaeologists; photographers and historiographers; barristers and bookkeepers; doctors, and doctors with Jewish surnames; depraved priests; Brits, Arabs, and Russians; bland suburbs, cul-de-sacs, faux mansions, strips of shops, sterile shopping centres, languishing taverns and prospering fast-food outlets; blue flags with little yellow stars – these rings detach easily without causing confinement. They are like the threads of a diffuse contemporality – days that appear and vanish, obeying the rotations of the Sun.
In my part of the world, the sun rises and sets with suddenness, as if it jumps into the sea. And when darkness is over, it leaps back, launching itself from the bed of a comfortable wave. I often identify with the sun, because I am overwhelmed by it. I heat up like a skillet, like the valley of Mesaoria (which in Greek means “land in-between mountains”). I heat up like a tiny droplet that bursts into a revolution. I have no wide squares adequate for fomenting uprisings, or monuments to illustrious revolutionaries. My symbols of battle are as comical and pathetic as garlands of plastic olive branches. I am myself a never-ending battle without victory wreaths. I am Chora. That is one of my given-names. That’s what the locals call me. I am really fond of the name Chora, especially with its popular postmodern interpretations. Etymologically it bears witness to an all-embracing generosity and motherness. I’m generous and mad like a middle-aged mother. A mother in her middle-age with a pseudonym… Middle Ages are the period of my prosperity, and in them I wish to stop dead, hoping to preserve within me the eternity of youth. My ambition causes cracks in the ring that most bound me. I split in two. Now I have two faces, two halves: the Northern one – concealed in the images of the past, a welcome abode for domestic ghosts – and the Southern, a noisy and frenetic crossroads of foreigners passing through. Soon I realised that this two-facedness provides me with a sense of security and the mastery to withstand the incursions of other cultures, the cunning of Eastern politics, and the stress of survival. My faces act and study each other. There are seasons when I observe myself in the mirror of the clear sky for months and do nothing but scan my most hidden thoughts. I know that in the reverse side of the sky is my other face, but it is just that I never know which one to trust at any given moment.
Perhaps the secret of eternal youth and vitality lies in not-knowing, in a holy duality, because these resist existential sleep and the rush to reinvent one’s self. Eternity exists, but its secrets unfold to each one of us in a different time and manner. I suspect that the source of my eternal youth is found in the tension between my two faces, two histories, the intimate sense of the substitute. I always wanted to find myself in a place where I can lead more than one life. I wanted a space for my faces. My own island, perhaps. An island is the best place for fantasies. On an island… gloriously alone… together with my faces. In truth, other than this obvious double-facedness, I contain nothing else special. I try to add more meaning to it. For this I decorate my empty spaces with icons. Each age leaves its color in its icons, and the iconographer – his talent, his heart or his ineptitude. Most of all, of course, I adore my iconographic image of the Middle Ages. The truly rich colors of the age and the golden light melting the frames bear witness to mastery and experience. Nevertheless, experience and light are not things to be accumulated. They are never the same and certified. I think that experience is the sense of knowing that you have a gift, which might never reveal itself. I gathered the icons into two sunny rooms beside the remains of a Catholic Church. My fragile Catholic towers, over the course of time, were converted to heavy Byzantine domes. These then were turned into the sharp turrets of a mosque and finally, to charming ruins.
I never thought I would love ruins. I must admit that they compose my most authentic part. For me they are untouchable, powerless and as transparent as the soul of a child. Without them I wouldn’t have my faces. Ruins remain when man leaves and retreats – a sad act. However, they do not look doleful, but rather – majestic. The longer they stand without a human touch, the more majestic they become, as if they were an eloquent rebuke to those who have left and retreated. No one really notices ruins except the sky – the only eternal cupola. Crowned by the sky, they seem holy. In my part of the world the sky is golden, like the background of an icon. There are moments when I’m tempted “to sell my kingdom” and shove off to the nearest Five-finger mountain, which I gaze at nostalgically every day through my windows. They tell me that it is home to the ruins of the Sinai monastery, which are a wonder of the world, and that there – if one braves the vipers and thorn-bushes – one can catch a glimpse of a truly Biblical landscape, which, they say, can change your life.
The invisible ruins of life, unfortunately, feel sadder than crumbling, derelict walls. This means that we can go on thinking that God is sadder than the church, and life sadder than afterlife, reason than consequence, original than duplicate, a live image than a photograph… It suddenly struck me that only now did I understood the irony of the poet Cavafy – the ‘bugbear’ of his age – towards photography. “Photography, what a dreadful word,” he wrote. He said it not just because of his poetic confessions, that he would often meet the “embodiment” of his homosexual love in photographs, not in reality. In a Cavafian understanding, to photograph would mean to suffer. Photography, in its deepest sense, is an act of suffering in the name of beauty. To find beauty through suffering, to see beauty in suffering, to cause beauty to suffer, to suffer beauty, to suffer before beauty, to suffer for the sake of beauty, to beautify suffering… Always for beauty, even amid ugliness – for beauty’s sake. There are never any “not-beautiful” photographs, only too little suffering, as in icononography. If, in a certain sense, the mission of beauty is to create bliss, it means that the photograph, as the repository of beauty, always makes a stronger effect than the real image. Is the picture more real than the real image? This I don’t know, and I have almost no pictures since I have yet to find my photographer. Nobody is attracted to my ruins and my contrasting faces. In me one will not find consistency, harmony or completeness, not a single block, building, or sidewalk that is flawless and camera-friendly. I am hopelessly unphotogenic. One can only call photogenic a few of my details: the lonesome palm trees, cats and the shiny diamond smiles of local people. The strangest is that it’s precisely in photographs that I lose the characteristic traits of my geography – I become neither East nor West. My face is a city without a homeland.
I have no map. In cartographic terms, I am a formation. On a globe, I only start to emerge as an inscription on the blue, like a light spray emanating from the Mediterranean Sea. Funny, that many of my streets have the exact same names. The creators, it seems, lacked the imagination and patience to dig in ancient chronicles with lists of names and choose some for my deceptive, curving roads. The locals decided, cleverly, to bury any notion of charting my surface, my veined portrait – they say that you can locate anything on a body as slight as mine by intuition. They also say that it’s impossible to lose one’s way in me because you’ll always hit a wall. I have a dividing wall, a harrowing death zone, which I call the “abyss” between my faces. I am deceitful, and one of my faces knows next to nothing about the existence of the other. In the contest between my faces I am forced to use my wits, playing them against each other, extending bridges of friendship between them; I convert Turkish liras to Greek pounds, and use them to buy euros. In their honour, I hold feasts in the death-zone, I turn death into an art, from art I create a new history, from new history – new accusations against reality… It’s untrue that one can’t lose one’s way in me, and it’s precisely because of the wall that I’m constantly getting lost in myself. I forget about my own cul-de-sacs, and when I get trapped in them, no measure of intuition will lead me out. These are the moments when I feel a need to turn far back – into the romantic retro era of black and white, which suited me thanks to its rhythm of traffic, stylish hats, white fans, plissé dresses, low-heeled shoes, heady encounters on verandas festooned with silky blossoms… Looking back, I imagine it as an epoch when I was loved more or even, perhaps, I was truly loved, when I bestowed on all the most erotic evenings on Earth. I’ve kept the velvety softness of my evenings – I nurture these as they are one of life’s joys, a counterweight to the ever-mounting rise of the midday heat.
I am most beautiful at dusk. One needs to draw, photograph and versify me when darkness is falling, beneath the most eloquent stars of the Universe, beneath the brightest moon on Earth. One needs to imbibe my evenings. At dusk, one can even touch me. That is when I am most outspoken and prepared for more outspokenness. That twilight is my most precious aura, dear foreign hunters of my groves with feathered hats. The black velvety dusk with white-glimmering contours of life objects, and not the death-zone, walls, or two majestic faces in the searing midday sun is my true charm and the picture for those who want to see and find meaning between the names: Lefkosia, Nicosia, Levkosha, Chora… Names are given by intuition that equals perennial twilight.
Nicosia, May 2005
The Mothers’ Silence
Whether I like it or not, in this our present age of intercontinental peregrination, I, a migrant, a multilingual mother, and a person who wanders across cultural spaces, strain my travel-worn mind as I brood on the issue of monolingual parents and their multilingual, “mixed” offspring. I could even say it is a sort of drama, one in which my personal experiences have ended up playing a not insignificant role. At the same time, I am taken aback at the mountains of variegated feminist writings in which so much space and mental energy have been devoted to the topic of women and men; to their never-ending argument; to the misery of sexual solitude; to sexual discrimination; to people’s sexual anxieties; to the voice of the feminist ego; meanwhile, there is only an eerie void when it comes to taking a proper inventory of the dialogue between a mother and her child, where a serious and analytical one is needed. In the literary-linguistic plane, there is barely a whiff of such dialogue: it seems that it’s not a simple matter, or perhaps it is an unrewarding task to move it from the cozy web of everyday sensuality and place it under the light of linguistic discourse, thus turning it into a weightless abstraction. Mothers do not elaborate much when it comes to their children (not even the mothers gifted with “voice” and imagination), or else they do so only on the level of everyday life, not in any fundamental manner. (And even when they speak about them on that humdrum plane, they are usually mistaken). Mothers have children; often, paradoxically, without grasping that they have them in totality. At this point, I am itching to insert a mention of Henri Bergson’s idea of vital impetus, or élan vital, about life as a coherent system: one cannot conceive of a hand as anything other than a body part, for example. And, one probably cannot conceive of a child as anything other than a part of a mother’s body. If we pursue this line of logic and take it a bit further: one probably cannot imagine a child without its mother’s native language. This element seems to be so crucial that without it a pall of doubt is cast over the integrity of the “system,” its ties, its relatedness, its essence, and, finally, its traditions and values. Perhaps it might be too crude to touch upon the notion of death here – as if the bond between mother and child were severed altogether without the native language – but in reality many losses are indeed suffered in such situations.
I encounter precisely this situation on a daily basis, and I see how it affects the linguistic relationship between mothers and their children. I have in mind concrete instances – ones such as my own – which have seen Lithuanian women and men, single and married, migrating perennially, or because they are on some sort of mission, having landed in their chosen, or promised, no-man’s-lands, drawn there by the wiles of sex tourism, or a better class of work, or the lure of the Cinderella myth, and so forth. For the majority of these people, the sudden change in their relationship to their mother tongue and their assimilation into a different linguistic environment seem to proceed quite painlessly, leaving only a faint trace, like a mild rash that comes from rubbing skin against stubble. In this process, time and place become not foes but dependable co-conspirators. But the new linguistic space and the time lived inside it present a real threat to the dialogue between mother and child – to its mystery, content, and intimacy – along with a challenge that is not easy to face sustainably. The migrant mother often ends up sacrificing her child to the foreign place, which gradually replaces the mother and, like an authoritative guardian of language and culture as well as a strict and systematic teacher, welcomes its new “pupil.” Which is when it dawns on you: mother, place, and language are organically intertwined elements, parts of the chain of life that, once broken, can never be forged anew. A migrant mother’s every step is marked by sacrifice and loss. Moreover, by allowing a foreign language to exist between her and her child, she is doomed to a stony silence.
I have never witnessed a gloomier scene: a mother sitting silently amid her children who are twittering away in a foreign language; or, a mother whose vocabulary in her adopted tongue consists of a subtotal of five words, muttering something along the lines of: “you-me-come-give-hand.” “Mummy, are you by any chance a mummy?” mocks the snotty child of a Lithuanian mother and a Greek father while she, during a lively Greek conversation, keeps strangely mum. Who is this “mummy”? How does she feel? Can she play with words? What can she – a mute – offer other than infinite and unyielding boredom? The mother is passive, alone, and self-contained, but the environment, with its sounds and colors, is a fast-paced, magical, Harry Potter-like kaleidoscope. Children born outside the space of their mother’s native language or their mother’s homeland “disavow” their mothers as soon as they learn to walk. Children, even little pip-squeaks, manage to jump across the chasm separating their mothers from their locale with such alacrity that the mother from a strange land ends up stranded on the other side before she can even manage a gasp. If she wants to keep pace with her offspring in a foreign linguistic environment, she has no choice but to become a child herself – spry, receptive, and tomboyish. Surrounded by the echoes of Syrtaki rhythms, all hopes of suckling the child on its mother tongue come to nothing. The Great Mother archetype, that is to say the mother’s thirst to dominate her child linguistically at any cost, is common only to romantics and anarchists. But even such a trait would not be enough to save these mothers from the verdict of silence because it is the place-cannibal that, in the end, decides the child’s language.
Such mothers – these silenced ones – are multiplying and, along with their ever-spreading silence, we hear more and more aggressive chatter about globalization, which brings the world to heel; one might say it is a sort of revenge on the muted mothers, or perhaps it is the outcome of their silence. It is believed that globalization helps mankind in the fostering of humanist feelings and in the promotion of tolerance of the other: your pain is my pain. Alphonso Lingis, whom I like to refer to as a philosopher of anthropology, offers enlightening reflections on the matter. His works, out of patriotic sentiment it would seem, are being translated by Lithuanians, who are genetically close to him; Greek professors on the other hand, upon hearing his name, flash a polite smile of ignorance. It would seem as though even the most intriguing texts dealing with the phenomena wrought by globalization are not read globally. They only pique one’s curiosity in that space where one has at least the tiniest reference point. Or, more precisely, only that which is local is global. Which is why to ignore the phenomenon of the maternal language would probably mean doing injury to globalization or, at least, – to its bright side (we know that all global processes have positive and negative outcomes). I see that the only possible way out of this confusion lies not in a negation of language, but in shuttle translation. Translation is something that’s not limited to linguistic technique; it absorbs the entire body, and even more than that – it requires a historical approach to the body. Lingis calls this “historiographic thinking”: conceiving oneself as a product of history, translating from outside to inside, and from inside to outside. If not, then perhaps the growing migration, the exchange of women as commodities, the epidemic concept of globalization would not have any meaning other than the return to a lifestyle that resembles the primordial coexistence of tribes, whereby inert values are overshadowed by natural forces or capital, and the mother’s tongue is cast aside as a trinket, replaced by more practical things, by intimidation, and by mental stagnation. Globalization, as an inexhaustible stream of both life and hazards, is rather more reminiscent of a force of nature, which is why simply being born or giving birth within such a force means almost nothing other than pain. But to be able to see oneself as an integral part, let us say, of a system of symbols, let’s call it place, and to create your own space within it, to infuse it with life and defend it with the zeal of a romantic anarchist is perhaps the only way of reducing this pain of motherhood and of avoiding silence, so that one might obtain a voice. Saddest of all is that mothers have no time for this undertaking, and that the biological clock ticks louder and more annoyingly than any inner callings, since a woman’s body is cyclical – always waxing and waning – and therefore easily worn out, and its language is stronger than Language itself.
Continuously plying the same route, Lithuania-Greece-Cyprus, I meet dozens, no, hundreds of Lithuanian girls who have become the wives of foreign men and the mothers of their children, and who have never really spoken any other language than their mother tongue. The biological clock hurries them along: sadly, the time devoted to children and husbands is irretrievable! “And how do you talk to each other?” I ask one long-legged beauty queen at the airport. And she, flashing a pearly white smile, answers: “Who needs language? I have fingers, sometimes I have to sketch things if they’ve gotten convoluted... But anyway, listen, on the home front you know... silence is golden, and in bed, well, we make enough sounds.” Or, one Greek acquaintance related the impressive story of his trip to “The Land of the Penguins” (which is how Lithuania seemed to him from his bird’s eye view in the airplane) to propose to his chosen one, armed with only a single declarative sentence in English: “I love you.” The woman of his dreams knew no more English than he did. After experiencing cultural and intestinal shock from Lithuanian “hospitality,” his feet – clad in his southerner’s shoes – frozen, hiccupping from the robotic I-love-you proffered in any and all situations, he nonetheless hauled his woman away with him. His scheme fell into place: the couple married, settled in the land of the Greeks, had kids, and are still living together in their mystical linguistic circumstances. Their children don’t speak Lithuanian; the mother speaks no Greek though she’s picked up a smattering of English... I know hundreds of stories like theirs. Yes, feelings can mean more than words, more than the person herself knows about them, but I am left wondering how one expresses them without language? Language likes to torment, but not suffer and, during the course of time, it takes its own back – it outwaits and takes its revenge on the Little Mermaid for her beautiful legs, turning her inner world to permafrost. Mothers who are unable to talk to their children in their native language feel a piercing nostalgia, one for which there is no analgesic, just as there is no possible return of the good ship Motherlandia.
What is most interesting is that in those mixed couples, language not infrequently ends up receding from erotic play, (if it didn’t recede, there would be no such couples, because the partners involved would all die – not of pleasure, but of laughter). An intimate word uttered in an unfamiliar language is lifeless, resting on the lovers’ bed like a fallen petal; the sweetness of familiar words and meanings does not seep into the body’s erogenous zones, and wordless petting is transformed into nothing more than a demonic raving of the flesh. At first this can seem fascinating, because different races of people are attracted to each other just as strongly as they repulse. Nonetheless, without the plenitude of language, the union soon begins to deform; if the couples’ caresses aren’t accompanied by rich erotic phrases, their love becomes as deserted and harsh as an arid land. And yet... how outdated my musings on this subject seem when one considers that such couples and such relationships are multiplying. Their offspring, though born out of a wordless convergence, swim like fish in the waters of multilingualism, choosing their language not according to mother-knows-best, but according to their being in the here-and-now. And it is precisely in this manner that the concept of the cosmopolitan reaches its fulfillment – an inhabitant of the world for whom the mother tongue is not a prima donna. This also creates new ramifications for contemporary family bonds: for children, the maternal or paternal feelings found in their immediate environment can be and, not infrequently, are of greater importance than the caring feelings of their biological parents.
As I observe the agonia (the battle to the death) of my native language on my children’s lips, I behold the image of my own vanishing... And I must have faith in theories of translation and seek refuge in the contemplation of global realities. Practice alone does not suffice, because it is depressing. It is not enough to live without thinking about how to live in the new situation. Thought without practice is doomed, like unfinished hardwood that ends up serving as mere fuel. Theories, like religions, like promises of love, deform the image of reality to a certain extent, though they can help both to explain and to get through life’s inevitable, unmerciful, and cruel losses and betrayals. What’s interesting is that even in our disavowal (of our native language, I mean), we yearn for soothing and familiar phrases, whispering them in prayer.
Nicosia, November 2004