“The Russian likes to remember, he does not like to live.” Chekhov
Living is fraught with uncertainty. Living is fraught with peril. Living is nothing if not a stew of ambiguities. Living demands effort. Living is work. Living is always poised near the cliff of annihilation even on a sunny spring afternoon of a near ideal temperature. Living is fleeting, always charged with the dynamic bodily necessities of tomorrow and the day after. Living involves real other people who are endlessly disappointed and disappointing and who are never quite what they seem, so we are always shaking our heads over what poor judges of character we have been
I think that I may be more Russian than I have ever realized.
The one who remembers fashions the memories according to his nature, his predilections, his whims. Viridical memory may be an oxymoron. Memory can smooth or exaggerate bumps and lumps, as suits its purposes. Memory is gossamer. Memory can counterfeit pleasures and pains and passions so perfectly as to make them pass for real, even to the point of supplanting other claimants to the mantle of reality. Memory is a vamp and a tramp. It helps weave the dreams that live us. Memory is a river whose shifting banks we are so that we can choose its course until it drains into the sea of conceit and deceit.
Who can fault the Russian for preferring to remember what never was around a warm campfire rather than to live? Yet live he must and does and so must we and do we. Liking is another matter. We too must live, so we must douse the insidious perfections and perfidies of memory with the light of day, moonlight or starlight, whichever obtains. We must back away from the sentimental features of memory, from the self-aggrandizing features of memory. We are always the heroes and heroines of our own remembering, however much it may embarrass us so that we try to hide it.
If we surreptitiously rule our remembering, it is still the case that necessity rules living. Trip and fall, the earth rises up to slam you. If you are lucky, your bones can withstand the impact without breaking. If a bone breaks, there is a new hurt that takes up residence. If you get a fever, you will shiver and then sweat as it breaks. If your eye falls on someone you desire, you might be successful in your suit or not, with more or less agony, with a thrill that might last for a longer or shorter time,
You may be poor and you may go on being poor. You may find yourself in the midst of injustices you can do nothing about or injustices you might be able to change a little bit, if only you had the gumption to try. You may be young, but you will age, slowly, surreptitiously, until enough time has passed so that you are partly, then fully cooked into an old age that can be seen with a single glance at you. You will die and the world will go on as if you had never lived at all. The destination is clear and some awareness of it clings to us like a burr, like a patch of tar.
And what of forgetting? There is a vitality born of despair, as in the blues, music the muzhik never knew, although the notes were there. Souls being crushed remorselessly can not help but moan. Since memory is a slithery selective imp, to remember is always to forget as well. Some things are left in and some things are left out, perhaps waiting for some commissioned spirit to recover them as a mixture of tragedy and comedy Or not. And then there is vodka which looses and does variegated mischief with the tongue even as it numbs the spirit. But a numbed spirit is still spirit, although it may do evil knowing that it does or not knowing. Grievance, failed grief, is a snake that lurks and lives in so many stories, in so many edifices of memory.
We can remember things that we never knew. When drunken Cossacks surrounded my grandparents’ house, with my father as a very little boy in it, and demanded with murderous intent to know if there were any Jews there, my grandmother Rachel, who was blonde and blue-eyed (as I am), whom I never knew, answered with complete self-possession in the midst of her terror, “No, only God Fearing Orthodox people.” So my father lived and I got to come to be and here I am in the midst of it all, remembering and living.
I may be more and less Russian than I think I am.