What Can You Know?

Adam Phillips

  • The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
    Harper, 512 pp, £25.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 725193 3

‘Tell me who you desire and I will tell you your history’ has become the shibboleth of post-Freudian autobiography, in which the lust for personal history has overridden the other, older kind of lust. Since everyone has a history it is now assumed that everyone has an autobiography in them. In this new solipsism we don’t want other people, we want to ‘recover’, ‘acknowledge’ or ‘mourn’ our losses; it is not new bodies we are after but knowledge of the only past that really matters, the individual past, from which much is expected. People become interested in autobiography, Freud implies, when they lose confidence in sexuality, when sex becomes a problem, the implication being that if we could have the right kind of sexual relations then the past wouldn’t bother us quite so much. Doubts about sex are doubts about the future.

This might seem a trivial account of autobiography when set against the transgenerational horror of some people’s family histories, until one realises that Freud doesn’t make everything sexual, he makes everything, and particularly sexuality, a reconstruction of the past. The important thing here – and in all forms of history writing which, like Daniel Mendelsohn’s, have been affected by Freud – is not that everything is ‘reduced’ to sexuality, but that everything is subsumed by memory: desire for the past has all the urgency and ingenuity once accorded to sexuality. Sexuality matters because it is one’s history at its most cryptically encoded. Family history shows up in one’s most intimate exchanges with other people. The lost – the literal and more figurative losses from one’s past – are never, in this view, quite as lost as one feared, or indeed hoped.

‘Some time ago, when I was six or seven or eight years old,’ Mendelsohn begins The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, ‘it would occasionally happen that I’d walk into a room and certain people would begin to cry.’ These people were his old Jewish relatives in Miami Beach, and they would cry because he reminded them so much of his great-uncle Shmiel, who died in the Holocaust. ‘Oh, he looks so much like Shmiel!’ they would always say, as though he was not quite himself; as though for them he was a reminder, a living piece of family history. What was different about him was that he was strikingly similar to someone else, to one of the lost. Sameness and difference, perhaps unsurprisingly, became quite important for Mendelsohn, and so did finding out what Shmiel was really like. The Lost is the story of Mendelsohn’s return to Bolechów, the town in Poland where Shmiel grew up and eventually died; and of his recovery, as far as was possible, of what happened to Shmiel and his wife and four daughters. Who one looks like in the family is the history one has before one has a history.

One of the remarkable things about Mendelsohn’s first book, The Elusive Embrace – which, like The Lost, was a kind of memoir – was the way it made connections between Mendelsohn’s growing up as a gay Jewish boy in America, the son of second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, and his early passion for knowledge about the past, for both family history and languages. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and the whole business of knowing about and imagining lost people and cultures, of speaking unspoken languages, has been his abiding obsession. The Elusive Embrace is the story of a boy who wants both to get closer and closer to his family of origin and as far away from it as possible; and in this sense it is a representative story, both about the difficulties of leaving home, and the added difficulties of leaving home when the adults in the family had recently been made to leave their homes, in Mendelsohn’s family’s case by the Nazis. As the child of immigrants fleeing persecution one has to recover from homes having been taken away. And from languages left unused. Mendelsohn is as interested in the robbers as he is in the robbed. ‘Hebrew does not really interest him,’ Mendelsohn writes of himself, beginning in the third person, ‘it is too close to what he already knows. Everyone he knows is Jewish; Jewish is what this flat Long Island neighbourhood is. Hebrew is not different enough. Already he has decided that he wants to learn the languages of the pagan Egyptians and Greeks and Romans, the oppressors of the ancient Hebrews.’

Since for the young Mendelsohn so-called sameness was at once taken for granted and partly rejected, and difference was the draw, his own homosexual desire was a mixed blessing. If it is difference that makes you feel alive, what is the hunger for sameness a hunger for? In The Elusive Embrace Mendelsohn describes homosexual desire in terms of its losses, as though what is lost or elusive for the gay man is the new, the complementary experience: gay desire is too knowing, and too knowing about the past. ‘If the emotional aim of intercourse,’ he writes,

is a total knowing of the other, gay sex may be, in its way, perfect, because in it, a total knowledge of the other’s experience is, finally, possible. But since the object of that knowledge is already wholly known to each of the parties, the act is also, in a way, redundant. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many of us keep seeking repetition, as if depth were impossible . . . when men have sex with women, they fall into the woman . . . It is gay men who, during sex, fall through their partners back into themselves, over and over again.

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