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Old Faithful - Jennifer Allen

First published for the Artes Mundi 6 exhibition, Cardiff, 2015


Old Faithful


Omer Fast might hear an echo in Gary Shteyngart's memoir Little Failure (2014), an unusual coming of age story. Shteyngart's antagonists are not only his overbearing parents but also his own identities, which file by chronologically, only to crash into each other: Jewish, native Russian Soviet, immigrant American, diehard New Yorker.


Fast – an Israeli-American who spent his childhood moving between Tel Aviv and New York, between Hebrew and English, between solidarity rituals in Israel (military service) and in the US (customer service), only to end up living in Berlin among the remains of the geopolitics of the last century – could likely relate to competing identities, if not the ability to understand the same story in different languages and from clashing cultural perspectives.


Yet there is a stronger link. In Shteyngart's stack of memories lies a needle – so slight, so precise, so sharp, so devastating – of trauma: an essence of Fast's oeuvre. As Shteyngart compactly recounts, his maternal grandmother was a girl when she attended the funeral of her baby sister, who died by falling out of her crib. The burial only compounds the catastrophe. "For the rest of her life, Grandmother Galya is haunted by the fear of being buried alive. For the rest of her life, my mother is also haunted by the fear of being buried alive. Being a modern man, I take this deeply ancestral fear and turn it into something more practical: I am afraid of being buried within a sealed metal container such as a subway car or an airplane." (1)


This passage shows how trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next, although the offspring are born decades after the original event. They inherit, not the trauma, but its memory, along with a kind of warning system of anxiety, fear and panic, set off by similar circumstances. Researchers have suggested that trauma may also have a physiological impact, modifying the brain structure, behaviour, DNA, even the sperm of offspring. (2) What Shteyngart adds to these findings – and what Fast revives in his works – is that the ancestral memory not only repeats itself across time but also adapts itself to changing surroundings. Unlike the carefully-preserved heirloom inherited perfectly intact, the symptomatic traces of a traumatic memory may be modified, even modernized, as they are handed down from parents to children: from deep soil to mass transportation.


A compulsion to repeat marks many of Fast's works, from the loop to the storyline, which often catches his characters in a hall of mirrors, although the artist does not always focus on the transgenerational trauma of one single family. In his early video Spielberg's List (2003), Fast went to Cracow to explore the filming of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) in the city, only to discover that memories of the Holocaust had been repeated in time deliberately and adapted in space unwittingly. For the sake of historical accuracy, Spielberg reconstructed the Cracow-Plaszow concentration camp, even using fake Jewish tombstones as paving stones to mimic the Nazi terror. The spatial adaptations are less intentional, more uncanny. Surely the Hollywood director did not mean to mimic the selection process at the death camps when his team organized a casting call to find local Poles to play extras in his film. Yet when the extras explain to Fast how they were chosen – and how others were rejected – their recollections become an eerie double of history, thriving in a very different, very distant guise. The extras are not Jewish, but one perceives how an otherwise innocent movie audition could trigger a traumatic memory of the Holocaust – just as a seemingly innocent subway ride can trigger Shteyngart's ancestral fear of being buried alive.


There is yet another element, which turns up in Fast's works and in Shteyngart's chronicles. For the author told a slightly different version of his maternal ancestral fear during a talk with his colleague Aleksandar Hemon last January at the Chicago Humanities Festival – a version that uncovers the memory of Nazi genocide. "My mother has an entire album that's 'Uncle-So-and-So, 1943, family buried alive, photos.' You know, that's not, you know, your Cape Cod summer vacation album that many Americans have – it's a shocking book…" The rest of his anecdote will sound more familiar. "They were all buried alive, and my mother grew up with this constant fear of falling asleep and people thinking she was dead and being buried alive that way. So that's the next generation. The generation after that, for me, is I'm scared of subway cars because I'm scared that I'll die in one of them if the train gets stuck of between stations." (3) Towards the end of his memoir, Shteyngart has a panic attack in a Moscow subway car, but this attack turns out to be about his own trauma: his father hitting him brutally as a child. In fact, the memoir both ends and begins with a panic attack about this repressed memory, which the writer then recovers in the course of the book.


What is going on here? That question – and a similar confusion – arises in Fast's works, too. As the traumatic memory repeats and adapts itself, it produces doubles: not fake or real, not false or true, but accurate and uncanny, persistant and transformative. If the storyline sounds somehow inconsistent, that's a telltale sign of trauma. In Spielberg's List, it's often hard to tell the difference between the Hollywood film and the Holocaust, especially when older Polish extras, who must have witnessed the persecution of the Jews, recall the past, near and far, in Cracow. In a similar way, tourists confound the film locations with the actual historical sites – Spielberg's fake reconstruction of the Cracow-Plaszow concentration camp with the nearby remains of the original camp.


Shifting to the war in Afghanistan, Fast's Continuity (2013) is even more striking since this film focuses on the trauma of one family. We meet a provincial bourgeois German couple, who pick up their soldier son at the train station, only to repeat this ritual over and over, again and again, with a seemingly endless series of "sons," ostensibly hired by the couple to act out a soldier's homecoming. Did the missing son die in Afghanistan? Is he still there, waiting for leave? Or missing in action? Does he even exist? Whatever the experience of the doubles, they tell war stories, adapting them to the couple's needs and to their peaceful surroundings, which seem to be haunted by, or perhaps booby-trapped with, traumatic memories that appear and disappear like mirages. A lone blue-green eyeball suddenly bobs in a red wine glass; a camel wanders in a German pine forest; an Afghan family and a German solider pop up near the couple's Christmas tree. Much like panic attacks and their triggers, these images remain perfectly, terrifyingly, real while creating a sense of conflicting realities.


Some insights to these predicaments might be found in Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière's socio-psychoanalytic study History Beyond Trauma (2004) with its equally equivocal subtitle: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent (4). Trauma defies representation while persisting in memory, in symptoms and subsequent generations. (5) On the one hand, its exceptional nature does not allow it to fit alongside other events, banal or monumental, in a person's life. On the other hand, its life-threatening nature does not allow it to be completely forgotten because it holds crucial information for the survival of the traumatized individual and his or her offspring. The trauma – there, not there – creates a split reality, a desynchronization, akin to an inherited stutter, always tripping over the same words, without being able to articulate them fully, while time marches on. Perhaps a more fitting metaphor for this phenomenon might be a cross between a nomadic exile, moving restlessly without possessions from one place to the next, and a giant black hole, swallowing any nearby meaning, symbols or experiences into its fathomless obscurity. Just as nomads "write" an oral history with the trajectories of their feet, traumas record themselves through an itinerary of symptoms, crossing not only territories but also generations, adapting themselves from one generation to the next, from one place to the next. And just as black holes have a powerful gravitational pull over anything in their proximity, traumas will suck in similar elements – a subway car, a movie audition – to reactivate their memory and the information that has become a key to survival. Davoine and Gaudillière suggest that a trauma will keep on wandering, keep on accumulating doubles around it, across places, generations and centuries, until it is finally symbolized: pushed from the inside to the outside of the body, from corporeal symptoms, including repetitive acting out, to a more abstract and externalized form, such as a memoir or a film. Perhaps that's why we have monuments to honour the dead, although these take care of collective, not individual, traumas.


Humour may be another element of trauma, along with repetition, adaptation and a tension between speaking and silence. Shteyngart seamlessly adds a one-liner to the memory of the Holocaust – the album of the family buried alive is not "your Cape Cod summer vacation album that many Americans have" – while Fast displays a penchant for a slapstick, almost grotesque, comedy in his tragedies. In Continuity, one of the soldier "sons" tells a wartime tale about a comrade's unfortunate incident in Afghanistan, which leads to the death of an Afghan man. As a compensation for the death, his relatives request an Audi from the German army: not to drive it, but to use it for the air-conditioning. Mixing humour with horror is a method of conversion, sublimation, which gives trauma a more acceptable, even pleasurable, collective form to be shared with others – although humour also has an equivocal nature, and laughter is also the absence of language, another kind of stuttering, albeit more joyful. The mixture of horror and humour prevents a full-blown catharsis: instead of tears, there are laughs – a sadness made all the more dense, obscure and impenetrable by its happy coating.


Plus, there is an element of perversion, which Davoine and Gaudillière associate with the repression of a trauma, often in the transmission of the memory from one generation to the next. That wandering nomad, that gravitational black hole, amass not only new experiences and circumstances but also perverted expressions of the original event. It's impossible to comment upon Shteyngart's perversions, but Fast's works are filled with such moments. Spielberg's List – a faint twin of Schindler's List – announces the perverted doubles that Fast will discover in Cracow. How else can one qualify Spielberg's fake concentration camp or even its fake Jewish tombstomes, left forever intact near the site of the real camp: phony yet true to the original event and thus true to to the persecution of the Jews. Continuity gets even closer, as the mother ends up making sexual advances on her "sons". This Oedipal perversion may appear to be more acceptable since she seems to be sleeping with hired doubles instead of her real son. Then again, who knows? Maybe the first was real and asked to be replaced to escape his mother's advances... Nevertheless, the endless series of sons – one always followed by another – suggests that simply repeating the ritual is insufficient. The couple cannot find the perfect son, whether as a replacement for a real son or as a gratification for their sexual desires.


With these elements, Fast takes a very different approach to trauma in art. For artists like Christian Boltanski and Alfredo Jaar, trauma has tended to be marked by a telltale void, a blankness, a suspension of storytelling or an invisibility in their works, which often manifests in a literal manner the impossibility of representation. Or as Adorno infamously noted in 1949, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." (6) While Fast does not write poetry, he gives trauma a more visible, volatile, transformative and, above all, narrative role, driven by its endless doubles. The question is not "Which version is true?" All versions hover around the same unspeakable event, trying to give it a voice.


Dr. Jennifer Allen is a critic living in Berlin.





(1) Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure. A Memoir (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 69.


(2) James Gallagher, "'Memories' pass between generations," Health and science report, BBC News, 1 December 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25156510


(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnm4pvt7_Jg

Since the talk with Hemon, Shteyngart has written yet another version about this trauma:

"And there's my mother in the present day, constrained by fears and anxieties I could never understand, with her photo album labeled 'uncle so-and-so and his family, buried alive, Belorussia, 1941'. No Cape Cod vacation Polaroids for her."

See Shteyngart, "The Powerful Way Writing About Your Past Can Help You Understand the Present," O. The Oprah Magazine (July 2014), http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/Gary-Shteyngart-Memoir-Writing


(4) Françoise Davoine & Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma, translated by Susan Fairfield (New York: Other Press, 2004). For a closer consideration of the Holocaust, see Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust (New York: Putnam, 1979).


(5) Even a traffic accident victim is likely to recollect the moments before and after the accident while the trauma of the impact itself can be retrieved only by the unconscious during dreams. See Siri Hustvedt's account of her car accident in The Shaking Woman. Or a History of My Nerves (New York: Henry Holt, 2010). 


(6) Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society" (1949) in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), p. 34.