Disentangling Ukraine From Our “Narrative Lines”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
(from “The Sermon on the Mount”)
“Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/
Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden.”
(T. S. Eliot; from, “Four Quartets”)
“… all that is seething below is an ever-present potentiality of consciousness.”
About a year and a half ago, I accompanied my Japanese wife on a business trip she made to Kiev. My interests were touristic and a bit genealogical. My mother’s parents were Ukrainian Jews who had emigrated from Kiev to Brooklyn, New York around 1919. (Her mother had died before I was born and my grandfather, one of the quietest and gentlest people I’ve ever known, passed when I was 14, with never a meaningful verbal conversation between us, not counting spirit-talks…. I was glad to be raised in a secular home, respectful of different religious traditions, without any impositions from my mother or my Sicilian-Catholic father; free to find my own way.)
It was my first trip to Kiev, and somehow I felt “at home.” It is (or was then) a splendid city of many parks and golden-domed, Eastern Orthodox churches. I fell in love with three different women–and that was in the first 10 minutes, while checking in at our hotel (praise beauty and nobility of spirit wherever it is found!). Applying my usual dictum—learn the essentials of a language and use them as soon as possible—I would say “thank you” in Russian (spasibo—easy!) or Ukrainian (dyakuyu—not so easy!). Invariably, Ukrainians were happy to hear me sputter either one.
I only knew a little about the history of Ukraine, so I happily joined a walking tour of the city, and learned a bit more. Then I joined a second tour, and learned a bit more again; on the second tour, the young guide was eager to sign us up for a “pub crawl” later that evening. It would cost a lot more, and I wasn’t interested. She also pointed out, in passing, a fine house where Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin, had lived for a while. I wanted to know a lot more about that, but she… wasn’t interested.
I like to walk, and it was easy to walk around this beldame of a city—built and re-built over the centuries. One weekend I ventured onto the city center’s main street—closed to all but pedestrian traffic. There were street artists, and small groups had gathered to donate appreciations into violin cases, balalaika and guitar cases. A quintet playing American jazz attracted the largest crowd—about 2-score enthusiasts, including a ruddy-faced boy of 3 or 4 years who delighted everyone because he could not stop clapping his hands, laughing and dancing!
The day of our departure, I ambled over to the elegant St. Sofia Church, with its double golden domes. Two walls converged at the entrance of the church, and on the walls on that day—perhaps for some time—there were pictures and explanations in various languages of the Holodomor.
The word means “Hunger-extermination.” I had learned something about it from textbooks, but not enough. Wikipedia sums it up thus: “Killing by Starvation was a man-made famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1932 and 1933 that killed up to 7.5 million Ukrainians.” Most Ukrainians blame Stalin’s policies of collectivization, the destruction of the prosperous agrarian Kulaks who had kept the populace well-fed and relatively content, reaping the harvests of the rich, “black earth” of Ukraine. Not a few blame the Jews who commanded powerful positions in Russia’s Communist-totalitarian government, army and secret police.
Eight years after the Holodomor, Romanian storm-troopers, allied with Nazi Germany, marched into Ukraine, rounded up Jews, and killed 30,000 of them in Odessa. No doubt, there were Nazi-sympathizers in Ukraine who abetted the murdering.
The problem with history is the problem with politics is the problem with Life. Not that it is so full of outright lies—which can be discovered, exposed, and opposed. But that we live in what C.S. Lewis called “shadowlands,” where we wander and get lost amidst nebulous landmarks; take detours we didn’t even know were there. Hard truths are hard enough to decipher, but half-truths can drive the best insane.
Of course, the great artists have always known this and have sounded the alarms. If only the witches had spoken plainly, not in riddles, not in half-truths, Macbeth might have eluded the pitfalls of his destiny. Hamlet is not sure he can trust his father’s vengeful ghost, and spends half the play pruning his doubts—and missing opportunities to save himself. Sophocles’ Oedipus gets half-truth after half-truth by his questioning… until he must tear out his eyes rather than face the whole truth revealed.
In the United States, we still nurture the myths of our plain-spokenness, our frontier, neighborly barn-raising character. We sing our myths at our ritualistic sports events, and in the assemblies of our public schools, churches and synagogues. Of course we have our troubles, we aver, but look at all we’ve done! So we like to tell ourselves… and we insist that others hear us out—no matter where they are, no matter their own customs and language. We drone our “truths” into them! We drone them into ourselves and our kids!
We get all tangled in our “narrative lines”—the way the story is supposed to fit together. A favorite narrative line is that Hitler was evil incarnate who mesmerized the Germans and World War II was all about killing Jews. Of course, saving the Jews was never an issue when we were actually at war with the “Huns.” That all developed as a post-mortem rationale to explain why America had to get involved in a war between the empires—Britain, Germany, the USSR, Japan, France, the Netherlands, etc. We like to forget—it’s rarely mentioned in polite discourse—that we fought Germany in the First World War to save the British Empire; that Wilson’s “14 Points”—on the basis of which Germany agreed to an armistice—was sold down the river by Lloyd George, Clemenceau and America’s Henry Cabot Lodge–with the punitive “Treaty of Versailles” which saw German kids starving in the streets while Americans enjoyed their flapper girls and jazz age in the 20s.
9/11 and Pearl Harbor are droned into the American psyche as savage acts of betrayal and some have monotonously drawled about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, citing the nearly 3,000 Americans killed in Hawaii as justification for the nearly 200,000 killed in the nuclear holocausts. And some, with a bit more half-truthful history, will note the Nanking Massacre, when Japan killed about 300,000 in that Chinese city in the 1930s. But, they neglect to mention the fact that the US was the principal supplier of oil and scrap metals to Japan at that time. It was only after it looked like Japan would be successful in establishing a puppet state in China that we decided to embargo their supplies—thus forcing the Japanese either to lose their army in China or attack at Pearl Harbor and Southeast Asia. (And, not incidentally, giving us a casus belli for declaring war on all the Axis powers.)
“History is an agreed-upon myth,” Napoleon declared. (That and the fact that an army marches on its stomach are two of the truest things he ever declared!)
Lies and half-truths are whizzing about our heads like drones now; we’re entangled in our meshes in our “narrative lines.” We send our killer-drones abroad, but the American psyche has been droned for decades with misinformation and disinformation. Most of our war movies depict war as a glorious, necessary sacrifice. Battle scenes are invariably played with swelling music (brilliantly satirized in “Apocalypse Now,” with a Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”!) Would that we could hear the real sounds, smell the real spilled guts of it, feel the searing pain!
Can the “naked ape” ever advance to a higher level of consciousness? Can we honor peace-mongers the way we now honor fatuous warmongers like McCain, Lindsay Graham, the Clintons, the Bushes, Kerry, Cheney, Cameron, Obama, et. al.?
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings,” the Bard proclaims. Not in our stars, but in the way we think. Here’s Jung on that matter:
“… consciousness is always bound to the narrowest circle. What would happen if an individual consciousness were to succeed in embracing at one glance a simultaneous picture of all that it could imagine is beyond conception.” How much energy we waste getting tangled in our own and others’ “narrative lines”! How pitifully our Western “logical systems” deceive, going from A to B to C to Z, linearly, while the Universe strains to have us clap our hands, laugh and dance!
I am not against Logos, of course, any more than Jung was in his “Foreword” to D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. In the mundane world, we still must know when to turn left or right at the traffic light, we must “know a hawk from a handsaw.” But, how much “potentiality” we are missing because we cannot sit quietly with ourselves for an hour a day; or enter “a discussion between two spiritual wholes.” For, “The attainment of completeness calls for the use of the whole. Nothing less will do.”
As I was walking out of St. Sofia’s church, a small woman in her 60s accosted me, wanting to talk. She struggled with English and I struggled to make myself understood, to ask simple questions. I conveyed that my maternal grandparents had come from Kiev, and I learned that her name was Valenkina and she had lost two children. She was plainly dressed, un-cosmeticized, far from beautiful, yet… beautiful. She gave me a little icon from the church—a two-inch oval frame with a picture of the Virgin Mary and her son—both hallowed and ornamental in the manner of Eastern Orthodox iconography. It was a wonderful gift because a stranger gave it to me with no thought but to give.
And I thought: had the karmic wheel turned a little differently, we might have grown up friends in Kiev. And somehow this woman reminded me of my mother. And I felt like, through this good stranger, my mother was blessing me on my journey.
Gary Corseri has published novels, poetry books, and the e-book literary anthology, Manifestations (editor). His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere, and he has performed his poems at the Carter Presidential Center. He has taught in US prisons and public schools, and at US and Japanese universities, and his work has appeared at Counterpunch, Village Voice, The New York Times and hundreds of periodicals and websites worldwide. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.