THEN in NOW – NOW in THEN
“Will History Repeat Itself? PCCA 2019”
Conference reflections from a participant’s perspective
The Spirit of the place:
Mass graves, hundreds of names of the missing, relics of Jewish refugee camps, victims and perpetrators on all sides and a dividing zone between cultures till now – this is Cyprus, the venue of the Conference. The buffer zone between the Greek and the Turkish culture became a frozen wound.
There seems to be a movement in its wounded history: In the buffer zone, which separates two cultures, trees are growing in dilapidated houses and plants spread in the streets of this no-man’s land. Frozen history takes on the colour green. People from the different sides join these efforts of life and do “travail de memoire”. By this, the present slowly unfreezes history. The past becomes dynamic.
Mythically speaking, Cyprus/Kypros, is Aphrodite’s island. Aphrodite is the goddess of love. Hesiod described in his “Theogony” how she was born here from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals; her love sprang from a vital loss of somebody else. It is worth mentioning that Aphrodite herself, like her son Eros, is deeply connected to the ambivalence of love and hate. “If you love me you hate me. And if you hate me you love me” (Anth.Pal.11.252), – an experience which seems agonizing at times as expressed in another quote from antiquity: “I can neither flee nor stay.” (Anth.Pal.12.126.6)
- The Scene:
The conference scene unfolded like a Greek tragedy. The strongest tragedy of the 20th century, unbearable, horrific, traumatic: the Holocaust. Bearing the unbearable, courageous women and men were witnesses for their mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers, for their brothers and sisters. For the dead and the living and no less for the kids and grandchildren. Many feelings at the same time were expressed and moved also without words: grieving and sorrow, tears, disbelief, shocks, attempts to bring some comfort, also attempts not to forget the little children who deserve to experience the joy of life; there was also amazement, loss of hope and retrieving it again, stigmatising, fighting and embracing, attacking and recoiling. Like from a choir in a Greek tragedy a fervent cry could be heard repeatedly: “never again!”.A standing picture (tableau), created by the bodies of some participants at the end of the intergroup event, showed the complexity of everyone’s identity and how twisted it might look when complex identities meet. It impersonated the work that had been done. What we saw were extremely twisted bodies, trying in an almost desperate effort to connect. A picture for the sincere efforts which everybody made in the conference, as good has she could, however insufficient it has been.
The Holocaust was also a cultural one. For me, there is a deep feeling, that the Holocaust and WWII destroyed also the German culture. I can feel that we are connected, that we belong to each other, across the borders of nationalities.
The strongest enmity in the conference centred around a German member of a right-wing political party and other Germans. The emotions flew high and kept on this level during the whole conference. I for myself had the following insight – although in dealing with another participant whom I pictured in my mind as right-wing Israeli – : When I moved from the level of ‘political position’ deeper into my phantasies I suddenly understood that my fight against the perceived “Israeli settler” is not only fuelled by my political opinion: it was rather my loyalty to people whom I know, appreciate and like (in this case Palestinians) whom I do not want to betray by talking with a “settler”. To ask the questions of loyalty might be helpful when dealing with stereotypes and perceived enemies – which of course does not mean to ignore one’s own political opinion.
My second insight was in connection with the German participant who belongs to a right-wing party. I understood that in the beginning of the conferences I tried not to talk with him in the socialising part of the conference in order not to be perceived by others as sympathizing with his political party. People might think that I am infected by him.
In the following days of the conference I was able to make a small change in this respect; I could talk to him without being tormented by phantasies of betraying my own political convictions. But this modification lead to another feeling: I became now angry towards some other German participants who could not see his struggle to move if only slightly and did not let him out of the picture of the enemy, of the evil. This reminds me of the ambivalence of love and hate, as represented in Cyprus’ Aphrodite (see above): “…if you hate me you love me.” It seems, rationality does not help much to overcome enmity. A religious term came into my mind in this context: Perhaps this is only possible with a leap of faith? It may sound a bit naïve, but as long as I don’t know better, I take it as my hypothesis.
To be empathetic with each other is a virtue which was followed by most participants during the main settings of the conference, this not always, but probably more than in so-called back-home situations. In large group meetings for examples the staff reminded the participants that there is a group among them who did not speak up so far. Also, participants themselves cautioned others not to interrupt each other or not to change the subject too quickly after somebody spoke movingly about her family’s experiences in the Holocaust.
However, there was a notable exception from this general “rule”: in the intergroup I attended, suddenly effectiveness took over the exchange of ideas. Speed became a virtue; who was not quick or determined enough had problems to bring herself in. A minority did not get involved but obviously felt quite uncomfortable with this. The quick and effective management-like style went on, intermittently turning into power fights, but it seemed none of the active group members had any serious interest in noticing the silent minority in the group. Rationally speaking, this might have been in the interest of effectively managing the group. Also, there was a certain competition between experienced participants who had ample experience with this kind of group. On a more emotional note, this might also reflect the weakness of empathy in our human outset of feelings. Empathy seems not to be deeply rooted in us, it appears to be a virtue which is easily shed for the benefit of efficiency and competition. In the situation itself, as I felt it, something important was sacrificed for the sake of being effective: the concern for the other.
Germans were fighting among themselves in the plenary. This was remarkable and partly surprising. One of the battle fields was about possible relics of the Nazi period in contemporary German politics. This fight had been expected in advance as it represented also very important controversial positions in contemporary German politics. A second fight suddenly broke out between individual Germans in the plenary which was less understandable. Could it be that there is a certain connection between the following phenomena: that the German member of the staff who is a German with Turkish roots and Muslim background were less recognised by the participants – and the other staff members – as a German in the conference staff with whom the German participants could identify? Perhaps Germaness is still seen in the classical understanding of “Volkszugehoerigkeit”/ “German blood”?
People repeatedly return to these kind of conferences, whether with PCCA, Ofek, Leicester or others somewhere else out in the world. It seems there is a kind of addiction involved. Which kind and why? I ask myself this question after attending a couple of them myself.
- The Scene:
The Greek word “symbolon” might help for clarification. In the ancient world it meant that you have one half of a knucklebone carried with you as a token of identity to someone who carries the other half. Only together the two halves create a full meaning. For nowadays’ understanding, it might be interesting to see the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious in this light: Alone with your half of the “symbolon”, you potentially have a memory and a feeling of what is absent, what is missing. At the moment when we remember this absent part, we feel joyful and fractured likewise – this both at the same time. The reason for these discordant sensations might be that we are suddenly confronted with what we possibly could be, but also with our painful limits. Experiential conferences like this provoke strongly such desire for that what is missing. The missing seems to be almost within reach. Nevertheless, these insights into the missing tend to fade away after the conference ended.
Here addiction comes in: I might feel drawn to come back to that bittersweet moment of desire. Feeling the missing arouses my desire to reach out for it – with the hope finally to become complete, to become whole. The inner knowledge that this is possible only in very short, in very lucky moments of life might be the reason for a certain “sadness of the soul” which I sometimes feel in or after such a conference.
If I understand myself right, conferences like this became sometimes for me – and probably also for some others? – a place of hope to find the key for uniting with the other side of my own “symbolon”. Where ever we pursue this lacking part – whether in another conference, in other groups or in music or poetry or through traveling or intercultural encounters …or…or… – important is probably only to feel the desire and the lack of something which is there, available and sometimes touchable, but again and again elusive.
Should I follow my addiction and enrol for the next Experimental Conference in order to pursue my desire for the other part of my “symbolon”? Well, there might be no “royal road” how to find best the lacking part in me, which I so much long for. Such a decision probably depends on trust in the persons who run it, on the hope – or the absence of hope – to belong, on the topic: whether it touches on inextricable issues of the legacy of histories and what it means to be human. Of course, also hard facts like my own bank account play its part. Last but not least my unconscious inclinations might not keep silent when such a decision will be taken.
Anyway, the pursuit of one’s own desire for the missing is an addiction which is – for me – a force of life.
Like Cyprus, the “body” of the conference and also my own body showed blistering wounds. It was painful. It seems that sometimes you can touch a place of sensitivity only by feeling in a very elementary way – and you can feel only when you dare to touch the sensitivity of the place, of the group, of yourself.
For me, the Conference was too much and not enough at the same time. Too much: the forever unbearable Holocaust. Not enough: the reflective work on enmity. In any case, there is no alternative to sincere attempts to unfreeze the past – as a way to release the past from its monumental prison and to try to make it more liquid. The present might not remain untouched by this. This we can learn from Cyprus, from the spirit of this place.
At the end of this conference and as a last sentence for my thoughts in this paper stands for me a rather humble insight: “To be in the wrong is always a possibility” (Theodor W. Adorno).
Jerusalem, September 29th, 2019,
Ingeborg Tiemann, [email protected]