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.

Women are the future for a man, what Mendelsohn calls a ‘destination’; the object of desire for a gay man is an unending solipsistic past, a closed circle. In this version, gay desire is a stalling of history; the gay man is driven, hopefully and hopelessly, to find the new thing, to know something other than himself. In an interesting reversal of the Freudian assumption the woman here is not so much returned to but aimed for as different, whereas gay desire is deemed to be an incessant, obsessive delving into one’s personal history. Gay desire is the desire for the past, and the desire for the past that wants to pre-empt, to foreclose the future. ‘Children are the secret weapon of straight culture,’ Mendelsohn writes later in the book: ‘They have the potential to rescue men from inconsequentiality. Fatherhood has the power to confer authenticity on men; it can be what saves them from eternally being boys themselves.’ If men need to be rescued from inconsequentiality, the future can’t be that alluring for them.

What kind of history do we want, history that enables us to live in the past or history that enables us to live in history without living in the past? History as refuge or release, inspiration or consolation? These were Mendelsohn’s questions in The Elusive Embrace, a book eloquently perplexed by a boy’s appetite for boys, a boy’s appetite for family history, and a boy’s appetite for the languages of the oppressor. As Mendelsohn kept intimating, in these questions we could read, for ‘history’, both history-writing and sexuality. Mendelsohn wanted to know – it is his favourite verb in both books – what the desire for history, especially personal history, could be a desire for; and he wanted to know what it was about the lost, the absent, the haunting that recruited him so effectively. The Lost, like most memoirs to do with the Holocaust, can’t afford to talk too much about sexuality because it would run the risk of trivialisation, or prurience, or complicity; but without saying so in so many words, The Lost, like its predecessor, sees the getting of historical knowledge as akin to erotic encounter.

Mendelsohn gives as his epigraph to The Lost a quotation from Proust, for whom the tangle of desire and knowledge comes out of sexual jealousy. In The Captive, where the quotation comes from (‘When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells’), Proust writes in excruciating detail about the way the desire for knowledge of other people is born of exclusion. This desire is insatiable: we can never know what we need to know about the lover because it is not knowledge that we want but possession, a captive to release us from our urgent burden of curiosity. The real torment begins when wanting turns into wanting to know. When ‘What can you know?’ becomes the question rather than ‘What do you want?’ sexuality and the writing of history become daunting and obsessive. Desire becomes more violent and vengeful, and history-writing becomes more aware of – and more dismayed by – its necessary limitations. Knowing is often more elusive than wanting.

Once you start describing sexuality as being about knowing people, both oneself and others, unanswerable questions begin to obtrude on one’s experience. You begin to ask yourself questions like ‘Do I really know X?’ rather than ‘Do I enjoy his company?’ You begin to wonder whether having a relationship with someone will be good for you rather than whether you want to have sex with them, and so on. Instead of taking risk and unpredictability for granted in sexual relations, the eradication of doubt becomes the abiding preoccupation (lovers begin to want the certainty of trust; erotic pursuits are then more to do with safety than with shock). There is something about the quest for knowledge about other people that makes us frantic. History-writing, as Mendelsohn both shows and tells, can be a struggle to hold oneself together. Mendelsohn wrote most powerfully in The Elusive Embrace when he described the ways in which the boys he wanted got away from him, either through his loss of desire, or their indifference. The Lost tells a similar story, but the wanting is exclusively a wanting to know, and the objects of desire, so to speak, have become the six members of his family missing from the family record.

The Lost is both an attempt to reconstruct what happened to Shmiel and his family and an inquiry, more affecting because always understated, into what might make someone like Mendelsohn embark on such a gruelling quest, a quest in which the little that is known beforehand is already too much. What Mendelsohn knew of his great-uncle was his name, a few photographs, and the phrase ‘killed by the Nazis’. It is the achievement of this subtle and patient book to bring this ordinary, terrible phrase back to a certain kind of life.

In Mendelsohn’s account it is as if the historical imagination, like the erotic imagination, is stirred by a kind of recognition that never quite knows what it is recognising, but can’t let go of it. There is a desire to have one’s desire quickened, however terrible the consequences. Mendelsohn knows that what he wants is going to horrify him. But imagining or – in his phrase – ‘envisioning’ their fate is the only solidarity, the only connection available to him now. There is a photograph of his great-uncle and another man, taken before the war, that Mendelsohn mentions at the beginning of The Lost: it is an emblem of his quest. It shows

two young men in World War One uniforms, one of whom I knew to be the 21-year-old Shmiel while the identity of the other one was impossible to guess, unknown and unknowable . . . Unknown and unknowable: this could be frustrating, but also produced a certain allure. The photographs of Shmiel and his family were, after all, more fascinating than the other family pictures that were so fastidiously preserved in my mother’s family archive precisely because we knew almost nothing about him, about them; their unsmiling, unspeaking faces seemed, as a result, more beguiling.

If it is knowing almost nothing that is so alluring, then the quest for knowledge would seem to be about dispelling desire, relieving oneself of the burden of it. There is a certain kind of nothing, a certain kind of (elusive) object that seems to single us out, that invites our curiosity whether we want it to or not. Mendelsohn is mindful of the fact that, in the ordinary way of things, victims of the Holocaust, and members of one’s family who were victims of the Holocaust, are not supposed to be ‘alluring’, fascinating and beguiling. But he doesn’t want to use the tragedy of the Holocaust to disguise the complicated pleasures of knowing about, or at least finding out about, the lost. It may be that we can only bear the knowledge of terrible things by getting erotic pleasure from them. These things Mendelsohn is at least willing to let us consider in his engrossing, unmelodramatic book. ‘We go to tragedies,’ he writes in The Elusive Embrace, ‘because we are ashamed of our compromises, because in tragedy we find the pure beauty of absolutes.’ Mendelsohn is uncompromising in The Lost about both the limitations and the exhilarations of his project, about the fact that it was because he was so attracted by the glamour of his great-uncle’s (imagined) past that he could face discovering so exactly what the future might have held for this once successful man.

Reclaiming the story, or such facts as were available about his lost relatives, reveals to Mendelsohn just how unreclaimable they are; the more he knows, the more he knows how little his knowledge can tell him and the more he realises that what people have to live through has few of the consolations that a story about them can offer. ‘Part of my aim,’ he writes,

since I first began to pursue what could be known about my lost relatives, had been to try to learn whatever scraps of details about them might still be knowable, what they looked like, what their personalities were like, and yes, how they died, if anyone could still tell me that; and yet the more I talked to people, the more I was aware of how much simply can’t be known, partly because the thing – the colour of her dress, the exact path she took – was never witnessed and is, therefore, unknowable now, and partly because memory itself, of those things that were witnessed, can play tricks, can elide what is too painful or be trimmed to fit a pattern that we happen to like.

What he finds himself reconstructing, essentially, the more he finds out, are the gaps in his knowledge. Knowing what he knows about these people undoes his confidence in the value of narrative coherence, of trying to get the story right. There is a difference between the (unknowably) many things that are never witnessed – both the unseen and the unnoticed – and the memories that are re-remembered for their pleasure. Even if this past could be known in the way Mendelsohn had wanted to know it, what, he keeps wondering in various ways throughout the book, would he be left with? What would it be for his quest to be successful? Once he knows as much as he knows about these people killed by the Nazis, what has he got; and if accurate reconstruction of these events is both unavailing and unavailable, what are the satisfactions being sought? The Lost is free of the usual facile and sentimental optimism of the those-who-are-ignorant-of-the-past-are-doomed-to-repeat-it kind. Where knowledge is not possible, acknowledgment will have to do. Mendelsohn intimates in The Lost that the great thing about becoming disillusioned about certain kinds of historical knowledge is that the disillusionment frees you to make certain kinds of acknowledgment. You can see what the issues are without having to overstate either the problems or their solutions.

One of the things Mendelsohn wants to acknowledge at the end of the book is that these lost relatives are not, and never were, fictional characters, even if the only life they can have now is in the memory and accounts of the living. In fact, he concludes, they may need to be rescued from the reconstructions they will now be victimised by. ‘There is so much that will always be impossible to know,’ he writes, ‘but we do know that they were, once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths, and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purposes of a good story, for the memoirs and magical-realist novels and movies.’ Like our erotic objects of desire, the one thing we resist about the dead is the reality of their lives. We have to do what we can, Mendelsohn suggests, to prevent the dead becoming objects of fantasy – as the Jews were to the Nazis – because this makes them infinitely manipulable. The most dangerous story we tell about ourselves is that people are knowable and therefore manipulable in fantasy. We should be doing whatever we can, Mendelsohn believes, to keep other people specific. Whether or not they would then still be of interest to us – or rather, what kind of interest they would have – he doesn’t say. But the implication is clear: our history-writing is, by definition, non-specific, and we prefer it this way because it protects us from too much emotional impact. It is when we begin to think of the past as a manipulable object that it becomes irrecoverable. The accessible past becomes a contradiction in terms, memory as kitsch.

Visiting Auschwitz on his way to Bolechów, Mendelsohn finds the concentration camp too much of a ‘symbol’. ‘I thought, as I walked its strangely peaceful and manicured grounds . . . [that] it had been to rescue my relatives from generalities, symbols, abbreviations, to restore to them their particularity and distinctiveness, that I had come on this strange and arduous trip.’ What troubled Mendelsohn in The Elusive Embrace about his own homosexual desire – that the particularity of the men he desired seemed to dissolve as they were endlessly replicated – becomes in The Lost quite explicitly a problem about the writing of history. Language, though, is a – if not the – medium of repetition, so there is a sense in which Mendelsohn is asking of language something that it cannot do. Language and memory, and language as memory, necessarily set limits to particularity, and these limits protect us from what we would rather not feel or imagine. Mendelsohn wants the kind of particularity that writing, however good, can never give; language estranges us from an immediacy we may not be able to bear. Rescuing one’s relatives from generalities, symbols and abbreviations – if it were possible – would be more than most people could take, though acknowledging that may be of use. We suffer most, Mendelsohn sometimes intimates, from the ways we have of avoiding our suffering. He wants his history-writing to be a way of talking about this.

The Lost continually plays off historical fact against individual memory, academic research against felt experience. This is not a new thing to do, but Mendelsohn does it with unusual perspicacity. He discovered in the Holocaust Encyclopedia, for example, that in the first mass liquidation of the Jews in Bolechów some were ‘tortured for 24 hours’. He asked a very old lady in Bolechów what

‘being tortured for 24 hours’ might mean. She told us that the Jews had been herded into the Catholic community centre at the northern edge of the town, and that there the Germans had forced the captive Jews to stand on each other’s shoulders, and had placed the old rabbi on the top; then knocked him down. Apparently this went on for many hours.

Generalities, symbols and abbreviations can be horrifying enough; the stories, in detail, Mendelsohn finds virtually unbearable. Hundreds of Jews were shot in mass graves, as everyone knew, but one of the surviving villagers told Mendelsohn that ‘the earth continued to move for days after the shootings, because not all of the victims were actually dead when the grave was filled in.’ The noise of the gunfire was so terrible that the old lady’s mother, as they sat in their house, ‘took down a decrepit old sewing machine and ran the treadle, so that the creaky noise would cover the gunfire’. The closer he gets to the lived experience of these events, the more intimate they become, the more intimacy – in its various senses – becomes Mendelsohn’s subject. Our prizing of closeness – both our intimacies with others, and the sympathetic intimacies created by certain kinds of historical writing – may be an addiction to hatred or fear, or to both. What makes us think, or why would we want to think, that the more we know about people the more we will like them? ‘It is a matter of recorded fact,’ Mendelsohn writes, ‘that many of the most violent savageries carried out against the Jews of Eastern Europe were perpetrated not by the Germans themselves, but by the local populations . . . the neighbours, the intimates, with whom the Jews had lived side by side for centuries.’ Many people find this incomprehensible, or, as Mendelsohn puts it, ‘strange – not least the Jews themselves’.

But, as Mendelsohn points out, family members, everybody’s first intimates, are usually something of a problem: ‘Being so intimate,’ he writes, ‘having too much access to what goes on inside those closest to you by blood . . . will sometimes have an opposite reaction, causing family members to flee one another, to seek more – we use the literal and figurative terms interchangeably, these days – “space”.’ Interspersing the account of his journey with biblical commentary, most notably on the Cain and Abel story, Mendelsohn makes a sober case for the savagery of family life. It is a seemingly obvious point, but apparently an easy one to forget, that family members have the strongest of mixed – or even opposing – feelings about one another. This may tell us less about human nature than about the dangers of assuming human relations have something to do with knowing oneself and others. When knowing is what you spend your time doing, this is what you get, the need for more ‘space’, Lebensraum. If you get too close to the historical record you begin to think of closeness as both the problem and the point.

Along the way, as Mendelsohn travels to a great many countries and meets many remarkable people – the book is packed with extraordinary encounters between people with a shared history that they are more or less able or willing to acknowledge – he tries to formulate this issue of distance, where the personal and the historical overlap. For Mendelsohn it is not so much about getting the distance right as conceding that the regulation of distance is what is at issue. ‘Proximity,’ he ventures at one point, ‘brings you closer to what happened, is responsible for the facts we glean, the artefacts we possess, the verbatim quotations of what people said; but distance is what makes possible the story of what happened, is precisely what gives someone the freedom to organise and shape those bits into a pleasing and coherent whole.’ This is the conventional view, and indeed the way many men think of their lives: you get the best version when you get away. What makes The Lost unconventional is the way Mendelsohn comes to suspect that this very freedom to organise and shape is complicit with so many of the things he fears most: the tyrannies of exclusion, the manipulation of material. However well drawn the characters, however good the story, we are always aware of what has been lost in the making.