En Route to Gurs

In summer 2013, I took a trip with Tony Craze, my father and a fellow-writer, to Gurs, the site of a former internment camp near Pau, France.

We are now writing a book about the trip, On Passage, which is composed of a series of meditations on passage: for each stage of the trip, we both write about a moment of our journey, and then reply to the other's text. It is a conversation in fragments. Slowly, we are building up a patchwork of intersecting meditations on the theme of passage. Below the fold is an excerpt from one of my more recent entries. You can read an earlier excerpt here

Excerpt from On Passage:

Traveling is never a question of ticking the boxes, but of either realizing the boxes don’t need to be ticked, or else seeing that it is between the boxes, in the passage, that the real journey occurs.

I guess I have always had something against boxes. 

When traveling, the procession of tick-boxes reminds me too much of the press-ganged tour-takers, quickly shuffled from one wonder of the world to the next. Site seen? Tick. Next!

In everyday life, equally, ticking boxes always feels like the stuff that I have to do to get to what I want to do: which is luxuriate in life itself, free from checklists, to-do lists, and instrumental tasks. In the worst moments of my existence, life feels like an unending list of boxes to be ticked, and life itself disappears in-between the cracks. 

There are boxes, of course, and they do need to be ticked: home and hearth must be attended to. On better days, though, it is still between the boxes that life occurs: not in the endless mundane practicalities of our journey, that will take us from car, to train, to bus, to car, and back again, but in the moments around the boxes—that sudden change of atmosphere in ourselves as we realize our train isn’t coming; the way the noise of the bus changes the landscape of travel, and makes certain types of conversation impossible, forms of speech that the train slyly encouraged. 

What I dislike most about boxes, though, my real j’accuse, is that they mislead me. I see the temptation in myself to just tick boxes, and forget anything else exists. I see the box ahead (get to the hotel), and everything else dissolves around it. Life becomes an obstacle course, and my spirit withers.

Part of our bonding, on this journey, must be through ticking boxes together: making it to Gurs and back (alive). Most of the time though, our bonding occurs here, taking a coffee by the side of the train station in Tarbes, the minutes ticking away, as we talk gently, or else share a silence. 

I write these words from the edge of Houston: my second motel in a week. This form of life—anonymous motels, solitude, the ease of leaving rooms and knowing that one will never return to them—suits me. I have never spent long enough doing this to know for how long I could keep taking the walk down the hall to get a bottle of Coca Cola, or stocking up on cashews and bananas to keep me going through the night’s writing. 

Wherever this is, this yellowed room by the edge of the airport, it can hardly be called a home. 

You mentioned that part of our preparation for this trip was reading an essay by Arendt, Gurs’ most famous detainee, We Refugees, which she published in 1943 in a tiny Jewish periodical, The Menorah Journal. It begins with a vicious satirical portrait of Mr Cohn, who is 150% German, 150% Viennese, 150% French, and 150% despised by them all.

Arendt writes of the desperation of assimilation, in a world in which to be stateless, as Arendt will later note in The Origins of Totalitarianism, is to be in a worse position than an imprisoned criminal, who at least can ask the law to answer. 

In fleeing to America, the Jews that Arendt writes about lose their selves, and:

“A man who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult—and as hopeless—as a new creation of the world. Whatever we do,whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire not to be Jews.”

Neither assimilated, nor Jew, but another category, defined in negation: not Jews. In a world of totalitarian states, the stateless peoples found themselves bearing the mark of their identity like a destiny, even as they tried desperately to remake themselves. 

The other approach, if another approach there is, would be to bear one’s name. This is not an answer of rootedness; Arendt was always hostile to nationalism, and subjected the Israeli state to a withering critique. It is, indeed, not an answer at all, but a question: what passage brought me to where I am, and what life does that open out towards? What, on the basis of what I can know about myself, can I become?

In passage, just as when writing, this question can be explored. Every time I move country it is not to adopt a new identity (impossible | hollow | brittle), but to pare down myself a little more. Each movement causes a series of minor deaths; moments and achievements gained in one place, now rendered useless. 

Travel is always full of great indignities and little deaths: people who don’t recognize what you were, who refuse to accord you respect (in moving, who you were is dead already), and lost possibilities (women you could have kissed, prizes you could have won) that wither on the vine as you pass by into autumn. 

Later that summer, after our trip to Gurs, I will be in Lisbon, and there will be exhibitions commemorating the city’s role in World War II. Last port of hope—along with Marseille—for the communists, jews, and faded aristocrats, all filling up the port’s cafes and hoping to hitch a lift on the last ships out of Europe before the continent turns off the light.

People reinvent themselves fantastically. Paperwork is available for a price. Men promise tickets to Brazil, take your money, and promptly vanish. Grand old Viennese families are selling off family heirlooms for a song. Others sit, bitter and resentful, unable to accept that their status in life—all those houses and goods taken away, all those endless stately dinner parties, deathly dull, and endured for nought—is now lost; they drink long into the evening on a tab that will know no closure. 

In the photographs of the era that I will see in Lisbon, the post office and telegram office are always packed. One call. One note. Might be the difference between death and deliverance.  

I prefer this hotel, anonymous and quiet, to my life in Berkeley, at least as it was over the last few weeks that I stayed there. Life there began to seem like an impoverished domesticity, as living alone so often does. One can cook for oneself, yes, but who shall be there to eat the daube and drink the bourgueil? 

One of the roots of my continuing sadness in California is that I have never found the friends who like to spend a long evening at the dinner table, drinking and talking until the early hours. It’s California: there are so very many boxes to be ticked tomorrow, and daube is too rich for these palates. My studio, as much as I love it, has increasingly come to resemble a haunt: a place that doesn’t feel free, but a reminder of everything that is absent. 

The hotel is better. It proclaims itself to be only what it is: minor geometric variations in the position of the television and microwave differentiate one hotel room from another, but, aside from that, it is anonymous, and I can write.  

What links writing and travel is the element of the test. In traveling, can you slough off your heavily earned distinctions? Those marks that, like aristocratic titles in the Lisbon of 1941, mean nothing in this new world. Can you accept that some parts of yourself will have to die (has already died), in order for you to live? In this process, of paring down, building up, and paring down again, I like to think a certain self gets honed. 

What is this self? It’s a test. It’s not certain. Ultimately: the wager is that there is a self which will endure, that is continuous, and cannot be knocked down as easily as houses and aristocratic titles. That’s not assured. Some experiences destroy even that self, as Jean Améry will write. But that is the enjeux. The wager.

So it is with writing, for me, which feels like a constant voyage through my selves and my worlds, with little sense of where I might end. If there is a home, for me, it rests in two things: 

In the voices I hear, on bad phone lines and in brief emails, from the friends and family that I love, and that root me in the world. Losing my friends would be a real loss, not like a house or a title. 

In a pen and paper. In the fact that, whatever is happening to me always has a double side: which is that I can write it down, and reflect on it. This is my saving grace, and I use the term advisedly. In so many situations, from boring parties to unbearable moments in relationships, from places where I am scared to places where I feel I can’t breath, some part of myself says, “this is such wonderful material.” 

Writing is freedom insofar as it is the indetermination of all these experiences: I hold them up, under my pen and paper, and examine them. 

I often wonder if there is an ethics of these moments. Is writing ethical? For houses and aristocratic titles, writing proudly has no ethics. It should be no respecter of decorum, and only a blockhead wrote for social advancement. 

I have no final answer to this question of the ethics of writing. We are in Weber’s sad fallen modern world, and my writing clashes against other imperatives—ethical and political—enough for me to know there is no true answer to the question.

One element of an answer, though, I would like to suggest. Something holds together my two loves, my friends and my writing. It is a question of freedom. To both, anything can be said, and accepted, and that acceptance does not lead to an easy relativism, but emerges out of love: out of a delicacy and tenderness towards the world, and towards each other. 

Sometimes, when I am in an argument with my partner, I try to write out what happens as if it were a novel. That movement to fiction, that removal, often allows things to become softer. Without recrimination, to say how the world is, and still, to love it.

On this trip to Gurs, I feel like I am heaven. I am in passage. I am writing about it. I am with someone I love, to whom I can say anything.