Monday, September 7, 2015

The Muse of Kinship Libido

First generation Americans—the children of immigrants—are haunted. Though they walk in the New World, their souls belong to an Old World they’ve never seen—an ancestral world that no longer exists. Ancestors wander into memory, dream and family story, telling tales of war and persecution, of hunger and deprivation, of lost parents and dead children, of ordeals and miracles that brought them to safety.
—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
“Self Portrait with Ghost”
Italian Immigrants at Ellis Island

Two Worlds
Gratitude for language—the German my parents spoke
the Dutch they kept their secrets in, the Italian I forgot
the sorcery of Russian—those lullabies
my father sang, his mother sang to him.
Gratitude for English—my oak grove, my oracle, my mule—

 Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
“Give Thanks for Poets”
Venice Canal Scene

A Jungian Conference, Encounters, Traditions, Developments: Analysis at the Cultural Crossroads, has brought us to the Old World—Italy. The conference was in Trieste.  We are now in Venice. I sit in an apartment which was built as a convent in the 16th century. Boats slip past our windows on the green gray waters of a side canal. The haunted magnetism of Venice, its golds and umbers, its bridges and gondolas, its labyrinths of medieval streets and canals, its smells and sounds, tug at my senses. And yet, there is the story of Trieste, unfinished. As is so often my way, living in two worlds as I do, I am in one place, reflecting on another. 

Trieste train station

The Muse of Kinship Libido took possession of me at the Trieste conference. She sang to me in many experiences and many languages. This was the Third European Conference on Analytic Psychology, though it is the first one I’ve attended. The first two were in Eastern Europe—Vilnius, Lithuania and St. Petersburg, Russia. The focus in Trieste was on culture and trauma. There were 250 participants from 37 countries. Eastern Europe was well represented. We Americans were blessedly a small group, outnumbered by those who spoke the languages of our ancestors. There were also Asians, South Americans and a spirited group of Israelis. 

There was the joy of seeing people from far away who feel like kin. Israeli analyst Henry Abramovitch, for example. Henry contributed a fine chapter to the book I co-edited with Patricia Damery, Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way. He is a friend in the written word and I was glad to see him in the fleshly world. He gave a wonderful opening talk about working clinically with people from different cultures. In his joyous and engaging way he encouraged us to work not across culture but through culture.

I always feel the tug of kinship when I’m around Israelis. My immediate family fled Europe to settle in America, but many of my kinfolk went to Israel. Hearing Hebrew always stirs me with kinship libido.

Most people at the conference spoke English.  But a special grant supported translation for the Russians. There is now a large group of Jungians in Russia, thanks to a number of Jungians from Western Europe who have travelled there to do training and analysis. The Russians brought youth and enthusiasm to the gathering, and the mellifluous sound of their language.

I sat in a discussion group listening to Russian being spoken, and it suddenly hit me like a rush of waters—this language is engraved on my soul, though I don’t speak a word of it. My father spoke it, some. More often he sang the Russian lullabies his mother had sung to him. His parents, whom I never met, were refugees from Russia and later refugees from Germany. They didn’t survive the war. I told the group that the sound of Russian resonates deeply in me,  as well it should since my family name is Russian.

German sang to me all over the conference. I even spoke a little myself. It carries the numen of childhood and home. The song of the Italians carries me back to early childhood when my family lived in Italy, and their language was mine. Now it tugs at me but I can’t bring it back.

I love English, but I’ve gotten stranded in it. Why didn’t I keep up my German, my Italian? Why didn’t I learn Russian? My other mother tongues kept licking me all conference long, stimulating forgotten yearnings. And though I was among so many strangers from so many places, I felt among kin in some intimate primordial way.

Refugee Reality
But always I am also
in that other life—refugee reality—
the Nazis have confiscated home

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “Many Houses Ago”
in The Little House On Stilts Remembers 
I came to Trieste because I wanted to tell the story of my grandmother, the painter Emma Hoffman, here, in the Old Country. Hers is a refugee story, and I carry the intergenerational trauma which my friend and colleague Sam Kimbles has called a “phantom narrative”—a ghost story shaped by collective trauma, which turns life experiences into the form of our dread. In Trieste I was surrounded by many variations on the refugee theme. Strangers became kin. We understood each other’s life stories. My Oma’s story resonated with so many similar stories. Tamar Kron, an Israeli analyst who gave a powerful talk on The Dreams of Palestinians and Israelis in a Time of War, in the same session as my talk, Self Portrait with Ghost, told me the quick version of her ghost story. Her people fled Austria. I heard similar stories from many Israelis.

Jan Wiener, one of the conference organizers, told me that her Austrian Jewish family fled to London in 1938. Her father liked to joke that the GB sticker—for Great Britain— on the back of their car stood for “Geworden British”— became British.

Among the refugee ghost stories were the stories of refugees now seeking safety all over Europe, from genocidal horrors in Africa and in the Middle East. In my discussion group a Russian woman spoke of the enormous ocean liner that had docked right in front of the hotel we were in. She imagined climbing aboard, a refugee from the cold of her native Siberia. A German said she had a different response to the ship, which was called Costa Mediterranea. It made her think of all the refugees flooding Southern Europe. She wondered whether the Italians were doing as the Greeks were—housing refugees on an ocean liner. There was a frisson of deep feeling in the group, whose members are haunted by the unbearable suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, and the difficult politics that has aroused.

Costa Mediterranea

Literary Kin
Birth and death are the ultimate bookends, and between them a muddled narrative unfolds…There crop up moments, experiences or places which in retrospect we recognize as markers…
Jan Morris, in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Joyce in Trieste

For me, many of those markers on my life path are writers who influenced me early on—James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke. If I ever knew I’ve long forgotten that all of them lived and wrote in Trieste, or in Rilke’s case, just a few miles up the Adriatic Coast, until I read Jan Morris’ poetic prose about Trieste. Joyce wrote parts of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses in Trieste. Morris, writing of the large, prosperous Jewish community in Trieste, comments: “Joyce had many Jewish friends in the city, and when he came to write Ulysses, which was inspired by Trieste almost as profoundly as it was by Dublin, he called it an ‘epic of two races.’” Joyce was in one place, remembering another. So was Mann, who wrote portions of Buddenbrooks in Trieste, in which he portrayed his German hometown, Lübeck. Those great works were among my earliest literary muses. And Rilke, who has been my companion and muse since the beginning, heard the voice of his terrible angel at Duino Castle. He was in the grips, I learn from Morris, of that terrible North Wind of winter the Triestians call the Bora, which causes all manner of physical and emotional malaise.

These writers were in Trieste in the last years of the 19th century (Mann) and the early years of the 20th century (Joyce and Rilke). During that time, I’m not exactly sure which years, my young grandmother was sent away from her home town, Berlin, because her family disapproved of her suitor. She was sent to Italy, to Florence, to study painting. She sat for hours in the Accademia copying paintings by Titian and Giorgione. I remember particularly her copies of portraits and self-portraits. Here’s one by Gorgione very like one we had in our home, of which my little brother commented:  “He looks like a she.”

Giorgione, portrait of a young man

Oma would go on to paint many portraits and self-portraits, reflecting on the passages of her life. Both Titian and Giorgione painted profound self-portraits. So did Oma. My talk, “Self Portrait with Ghost” is about some of those, and my poems in response to them.

Library of Savoia Hotel, Trieste

So it was here in the city of my literary influences—Trieste, with all the resonances of tristesse and melancholy evoked by its name— in a lovely 19th century style hotel my Oma would have appreciated, not far from Venice whose painters so influenced her, that I called up her spirit to sing her a song of her life and mine, my poems to her paintings, my soul to her soul. Her spirit filled me, and I could see her story resounding in the faces of the audience, her difficult life journey, her individuation, the gifts she gave her family and her world. When I was finished a young German woman arose and said: “Your Oma is not dead. You have brought her to life for us all, here.”

And now it’s time for me to return to Venice.

Venice Canal

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Naomi for sharing your beautiful reflections. It was great to reconnecting with you and other Jungian friends from SF, a kind of reviving my soul in the Jungian spirit. Many thanks and Blessings

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