An Excerpt from The Memoir Prize 2021 Grand Prize Winner: Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, by Gint Aras. The full Relief by Execution: A …Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen by Gint Aras
I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.
Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.
I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.
This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.
I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.
Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.
What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.
Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:
- Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
- Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
- Will the individual please stand up?
- What must be done in order to count beyond one?
- Where is the past?
- Where is the future?
- If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?
Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City
This is about a 24 minute video of me answering moderator Amy Danzer’s questions following my reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois on February 18, 2016. Yes! That gorgeous bookstore in the background is right here where I live. It’s worth visiting just to see the decor (and to buy a bunch of books, obviously).
In this video, I answer questions about why I’d want to write a literary fugue, what place setting plays in my writing, how art helps with trauma, and what audience I had in mind while writing.
Enjoy, and do share.
Also, be sure to check out my fledgling YouTube channel. It’s sure to grow as I gather more videos.
Among the challenges I faced trying to sell my novel, which took about a decade, was that my title, The Fugue, refers to something obscure. I actually fought with this title for a long time, and I came up with other ones, some of them embarrassingly bad. Obviously, no alternative title satisfied (for reasons I think most readers will—even without learning what those titles were—understand if they investigate the novel).
Still, I want to say some things about my title. Just the other day, at a library, a woman looked at a Fugue postcard I had given her and asked, “How do you pronounce that?”
This is how: /fjuːɡ/ Listen here.
What does the word mean?
One reason I found the title attractive was that the word has multiple meanings, and I explore all of them in the novel. I’ll guess most people will associate the word with music, primarily a polyphonic composition technique. Here’s how a character in the novel—she’s a teenage music student—understands a fugue:
Lita knew what a fugue was, a composition of usually two strands—voices—of music that borrowed short melodies and phrases from each other. It was like a game where melodies played side-by-side and pretended to be each other, or sometimes even became one another. They could weave together like braids or plaits, then split up and come back together again.
There’s also this educational You Tube video called What Is a Fugue? It really explains why these kinds of compositions are fascinating.
One of my favorite musical recordings is this one here, Ashkenazy playing Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues. While listening to that music with a friend in my Manhattan apartment back in 2000, I wondered out loud if it could be possible to write a work of literature on the principles of a musical fugue. Soon enough, I tried my hand. Whether or not I succeeded remains to be seen.
Of course, the word has other meanings. It’s a synonym of flight. That’s to say an attempt to escape, to flee a threat. One fate of those in flight is displacement. The Fugue deals with an entire community of displaced persons and their children.
The last meaning is difficult to discuss without a spoiler, so I’ll say little about it. When I was taking psychology classes in Urbana, Illinois, I learned about conditions known as “transient” or “dissociative” fugues, or “fugue states”. This National Geographic article tells of a contemporary case, and this book presents fascinating case studies. These days people think of the psychological states as forms of amnesia, but I’ve heard arguments that they are forms of schizophrenia or identity disorders. One thing seems common: in all cases, the person suffering from the condition has endured a horrifying trauma.
The book launches next week. I hope you check it out.
I was very moved by some of the responses that I got to (trigger warning!) my republished version of Baptism Party. If you have not read that essay and have stumbled on this post at random, know that, as a memoir of my abusive childhood, the piece is very difficult to read and might remind traumatized readers, especially those who experienced life with an alcoholic, of their past.
For obvious reasons, many of the responses did not appear in the comment sections. They came directly to me from subscribers to the Good Men Project, readers who have been following me since the publication of Finding the Moon in Sugar and also former students. The majority were from people who suffered at the hands of a narcissist, or who grew up with pervasive intoxication either at home on in their community. What shocked me—it actually rattled me up—was how many readers quoted this part of the essay:
Children of narcissistic alcoholics will tell you they inhabit the homes of their childhood about as often as their dreams, as so many of their dreams, in daytime as in sleep, are the stubborn memories of childhood. At times when I must return physically to the house, I always enter twice, initially through a sequence of vivid memories and images. As they play out, I construct a fortress of introversion around myself. It does not matter if I am simply dropping off borrowed jars or coming into a full-blown party. Each time I enter, I brace for an assault, though I can never be sure what kind.
I had not really spoken to any “children of narcissistic alcoholics” prior to writing this. Sure, I had read books, attended some meetings, and I had spoken to a variety of therapists before writing the essay. I had also heard stories from people at work. But I can’t say that I wrote that paragraph believing I had gotten to the heart of something. Quite frankly, I thought I was taking calculated liberties.
If you are among those readers who took time to write and say, “That’s exactly how I feel,” know that I was deeply moved. What’s shocking is that so many of us feel something private and sinister while we exist inside that “fortress of introversion”, however we dress it up, but if we could lift our heads out for a moment, we’d find ourselves in a community we didn’t know we had. Realizing this helped me quiet the voice in my head, so similar to the one I write about, the one that criticizes me constantly, bellowing: “Why the hell are you writing this self-indulgent horseshit? No one cares. Grow up! Get over yourself!” (Doesn’t that remind you of anyone?) It’s so much easier to tell that voice, “Take a look at these letters I’ve received. Take a look at this group of people that has no idea what they share, and with how many!”
There are more of us than any of us know. We are invisible even to each other as we sit lonely in cafes or ride the bus to buy soap and toothpaste. Your responses have given me enormous energy. I’m encouraged to continue writing about these important issues of abuse, trauma, self-realization, social confusion and all the close toxic cousins. Thank you so much for all the well-wishes, the sympathy and your expressions of vulnerability. That is all I can say. I feel it is not enough.