Sunday, May 17, 2015

The threat within ourselves

Inside the front cover of a paper back copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice –faded yellow with its spine held together by sticky tape – someone has scratched out the first initial of my older sister’s name and changed it to a younger sister’s initial.  The book was presumably a hand-me-down for school.

Underneath my sister’s name, my father has written the words: GEKKEN EN DWAZEN SCHRYVEN HUN NAMEN OP DEUREN EN GLAZEN, which translates into ‘People who are silly and mad write their names on doors and windows’.

My sister gave me the book recently.  She’s going through a phase where she wants to rid herself of all negative energy and the words on the front cover of this book exude just that, at least they do for her. 

For me these words are intriguing and given I do not have many examples of my father’s handwriting, they’re a treasure.  However much I might disagree with the sentiment they express. 

When I was little I wondered what these words could mean.  How could it be such a stupid thing to write your name down on the front of your books?  Or maybe my father was having a go at those who write their names on trees and walls and fences, graffiti artists and the like. 

They do more than inscribe their names, but certainly the mark or tag of a graffiti artist seems to be an important part of their work.

 I still write my name in the front of my books, mostly as a territorial thing.  I claim this book as my own.  Not that it helps the book to stay in my possession. I am an inveterate book lender and even though I once tried to keep a list of all books borrowed out to others so that I might remind the borrowers in the fullness of time they have my book, I forget to fill in the list.  It’s incomplete and then I forget where I put it. 

So my books with my silly name in the front cover are scattered all over in other people’s libraries. 

As long as they’re loved, I say. 

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Freud conference yesterday.  The two main speakers from Germany spoke about fundamentalism, fanaticism and religion to a large audience. 

The topic was daunting, not least because during the introductions the conference organiser told us that ‘for reasons of security for this particular conference’ they would lock the doors during sessions and a body guard would protect the premises at all times. 

She told us this in case we decided to go outside during the breaks.  She told us this in order to remind us that should we go outside during one of the breaks we should return at least ten minutes before the proceedings resume so that we are not locked out.

Moreover, the conference organiser told us to keep our nametag on at all times. 
‘If the guard sees you without your nametag, you will be escorted from the building’.
I call this overkill.
Some said it was necessary.  Maybe it was.  A duty of care, one person told me during the break.  Maybe again it was, but it also created an aura of the enemy, the ‘other’, the one lurking outside who might at any moment enter with a machine gun or hand grenade to attack us in our seats or to take us hostage. 

And so we experienced the effects of terrorism first hand, albeit at a distance.  After all, terrorism is designed to terrify.

This contrasts with other injunctions from government spokespeople and the like who say, go about your business as usual and don’t be afraid.  Be alert, but unafraid.

The conference made me more afraid than I might otherwise have been but even though the threat of terrorism is real and there are good reasons for all of us to pay attention, the greatest fear I reckon lies in ourselves. 

Our own tendencies to look at life in terms of the black and the white, insiders and outsiders, clashes of identity.

During the breaks I managed to speak to many people, some old acquaintances, others new, but always I had the sense – as I so often have at conferences – that we are ships who pass in the night. 

Some of these people I saw last year at the Freud conference and I will see them again in a year at the next Freud conference. 

Conferences like this one that happen every year have the quality of Christmas family get togethers. 

Not everyone in the family comes, but there are enough of us who get together, along with a few extras, occasional friends or extended family members, to create a strange tension. 

It reminds me of the energy my sister talks about from the front cover of her book. 

The pride and prejudice of it all. 

I suspect my father’s words might reflect his own difficulties in acknowledging his identity.  He was proud of his name, the same name as that of his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father going back through the centuries. 

But he could not wear his name with the confidence he might have liked, given his decimation through war and family trauma, and so he could not tolerate the idea that his children should wear their own names with pride.  

Especially not his daughters.

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