Anna Tchernakova

TEST DE PLACEMENT

© 1996

I.

No matter how scared and lost I am, I am always fastened by a safety belt - the one of my limits. Falling into the eternity of meanings and virtualities, I still possess a simple and quick knowledge about eating, sleeping, being tired and being sick. The pain I feel when hitting my toe is the same as Plato’s, three thousand years ago. I am to strive to dissolve my physical nature, but I am still to succeed.

Thus all main existential questions are those coming out of the relationship between my body and the outer world.  In-corporation and death. Defense and dissolution. Causes of pain.

In the middle of inconsequent causeless time it is I who constitutes the only event, for I have “before me” and “after me”.  The meaning exists utterly when something is framed with the beginning and end.

Does it mean I can speak only of the “self” that died? Am I killing and sloughing it off while attempting to analyze and describe?  (Dostoevsky in The Adolescent: “I re-thought myself while writing down what had happened to me.”)

It is traveling that erects a road. No routes are set up before the march begins.

II.

A body is a space; space, similarly, is a body.  That’s why their relations can be described as exclusion/inclusion.  Therefore, only borders are significant.  The story happens between boundary making and boundary-dissolving.  A body strives to incorporate a new space. Incorporating (or swallowing) is a method of making the space vanish.  I constantly jar myself moving in the darkness of an unfamiliar room.  Every corner reminds me about the space, which seems to be so hostile and sharp.  I start to move safely and smoothly as soon as my body learns the room’s configuration.  Then I lose the room, because I stop noticing it. The room becomes a continuation of me, having disappeared as an independent space.

In its turn, the space struggles against the dissolution.  Hostility and sharpness are its armor.  It ambushes my body, trying to destroy it, when I least expect it.  This battle for existence is precisely the existence of the space.  Our encounters injure us both.  I don’t know how badly wounded the space is after colliding with me. 

When I am speaking a language other than my native, I am unwittingly producing or destroying meanings.  Am I responsible for inadvertent meanings I am producing or destroying while living in a space other than my native?

III.

An irrevocable departure, a complete withdrawal. I always need a loss, a separation to perceive the space. There are always pain and betrayal in a strange dependency: to lessen the pain I have to increase the betrayal.  If I try to lessen the betrayal, I increase the pain.

IV.

My departure wasn’t a departure from home; on the contrary, it was a departure towards home, the only way to get it.

Twenty-century Russians are homeless by definition. Their home, destroyed during the revolution and civil war of the twenties, became a ghost, whose substantial reality is unquestionable, but can’t help anyone to stay warm and safe. 

For those who left Russia, a loss of home was blatant and irreversible, despite all dreams, intentions and some cases of successful assimilation.  To substitute for the loss, the Diaspora created a metaphysical abode, a kind of tabernacle or memorial park, where the absence of an actual place in the world was legalized by the availability of an eternal one.

Those who stayed inside the country were cruelly taught that nobody should have any other dwellings except for a one huge happy collective home. They, too, got used to living in a metaphysical rather than real environment. In their case, it was a metaphysical communal apartment, where the absence of private place was redeemed by the safety of sharing responsibilities, and one kitchen and bathroom with leaking pipes were apportioned to all the inhabitants. 

Meanings and things, soaking in Russian kitchens, formed a bog.  I remember myself starving to find a firm land to stand on.  Only foreign languages, like grit spread over the mire, were indissoluble in this watery spiritual interdependence. That’s why everyone speaking another language was under suspicion.

For a Russian intellectual the knowledge of a foreign language was not a qualifying requirement. All the last answers for all essential questions were thought to belong exclusively to the Russian culture. The last generation of poly-lingual intelligentsia was born before the October revolution.  Later, even dissidents felt uncomfortable with other than the Russian way of thinking; and simple inability to communicate ideas in a foreign language as fully and unrestrictedly as in Russian helped to support the myth of the Russian Truth. That’s why dragging an inconsolably miserable life in Russia has been considered more morally appropriate than leaving this miry land looking for happiness in other worlds.

V.

I wanted to build my own home (to incarnate the metaphysical into the tangible reality of a roof, four solid walls and a fireplace). I had no idea about digging a well or putting together a girder and floor joists, and couldn’t imagine the endless emptiness of prairies, waiting for me in North America.

Recently I discussed a home-building problem with one of my friends.  We agreed that in overcrowded spaces, overwhelmed with ages and stories, like Europe, everything that happens to a person is partly dissolved in the ambience. Though milder than in Russia, people in Europe, too, are metaphysically melted together. Nobody is ever left alone with life; there is always a back-up - a mesh of past and present other people’s loves and animosities, betrayals and rejections, losses and tears.  In North America the space is void and too vast to be easily filled.  Events are bare; they occur rigidly and definitively.  One has to brave the fate and ride life solely, looking for solace in the tragic pride of a conquistador.

In Europe the language is inherent to the space. It takes part in the event, consoling and lightening it. Even more, the language influences the existence and structure of the space. Words, appearing like light irresponsible sounds, change the order of stones. 

In North America the language is alien; it wasn’t born by the space, it was adopted. The connection between the space and the language dangles, and the event tends to slide into the gap.

VI.

I want to fit in; I am open, attentive, and porous.  I am giving my entire self to the new space as an arrival gift.

VII.

I live in a strange city. Its identity is obtrusive and at the same time elusive. Two languages play pranks on the area and its inhabitants, constantly renaming what has been already renamed. Every episode exists in two versions in two parallel spaces, when jumping from one to another is just a mundane exercise. Here equivoques take the place of definitions, and mis-translation together with mis-interpretation is a normal way to describe reality. Two cultures, the English and the French, distorted by centuries of remote existence, emerge from behind each other, composing an inseparable monstrous whole. When in the middle of the conversation my bi-lingual neighbor switches from French to English or backwards, he doesn’t remain the same person. His voice, his gestures, and his smile - everything drastically changes.  He wears languages as masques. I can’t figure out what his true substance is. 

The traveling becomes my permanent state of life for there is no place to drop the anchor; neither the native language, nor any other point of reference lasts.  I am roaming inside dictionaries, hunting for a non-existing word.  My floating “self” as the summit of a pyramid hovers over the triangle of languages. I don’t belong to any of them. Russian is forgotten.  French is deceptive.  English is insufficient.

People inhabit my body with their bodies and voices.  Language is a space between me and the other being.

At the beginning this space is fluctuating and fluid; it covers the world as a veil or a perfume. Then the perfume turns out to be a net with hidden fisherman’s hooks. An injury is always sudden; after the pain calms, I realize that I can’t move anywhere any more. I can, if I am ready to cut open my stomach.

Silence also creates a space. If there is reciprocal silence, which is acknowledged and lived as such from both ends, the space turns out dense, heavy, opaque, eternal, and dead.  Its hard substance throttles me and I raise my hands to try to shove it up.  No word would be able to cut through the silence.  That’s precisely what is the silence - an abundance of words you are deprived of saying.

VIII.

Writing in a language that is not the mother tongue pares the process to its essence. The physical action of choosing the right expression, paging the thesaurus again and again, makes the world heavy as if it were etched in stone. Though the desired precision is inevitably missed again and again, in the long-term language game of the lost and found it doesn’t matter, as far as the text starts to breathe. I always feel when it happens, but I can never explain why. 

Similarly, living in the foreign space peels off my skin to the bones. Thus I am standing in the middle of nowhere, a skeleton under the numbing wind.  All questions I am asked there are the ultimate ones.  Am I overcoming the experience or the experience is overcoming me?

IX

Now I have discovered that I was deceiving myself.

While thinking to be a detached observer, deep inside I wanted to be accepted as a participant.

While looking for a private home, I was longing for a new metaphysical abode.

While imagining that I was in love, I was performing the arrival rite of transferring the substance between me and the space. While undertaking an allegiance, I was hoping to protect myself from being betrayed. 

I plunged into the new space as if it were a watery marsh, similar to my native one. I thought sharing language meant sharing blood, and took an endeavor to adopt an extrinsic culture as fully and unconditionally as my own.  Although I eagerly left behind what had been indigenous to me, unaware, I have obstinately kept picking up similar things in the outer world.  In spite of all my efforts to be fused into the space, I remain an indissoluble alien.

The genuine disciple of two enduring myths, about happiness elsewhere and final justice, I boldly flew towards the new space.  Dreams blinded me; the post-modernist skepticism didn’t hamper me from trying to presuppose, pre-arrange the world according to my plot and sense.  Through the lenses of my interpretations I wasn’t able to discern reality.  Till their terminal collapse I did not realize that mirrors had been welcoming me, not the space.

Mirrors don’t approve the existence; on the contrary, they are the abysses where existence lapses.  Because there is no firm line between ambience, and myself and our border fluctuates as that of the water and sand on the shore, I can be everything, everywhere.  Mirrors separate me from the pervading medium with my reflection; they are the only sites where I am appallingly absent.

X.

Space, confronting my movements and violating my borders, teaches me mimicry. To bear the weight and pressure, I have to allow the world to imprint on me its implacable edges and relief. This looks like my surrender, but it is a sophisticated method of resistance.  My resemblance to the place eliminates the friction, and I will be able to easily skip away. 

Mimicry is the first step in separation and betrayal.  At the same time it is the way of making interior matrices of the spaces that I am leaving.  It is not the space that accepts or excludes me; it is I who always gets off.  Hence I learn that in spite of the permanent farewell, nothing will be ever lost for I carry all I love inside me.  Separations and exile are just a rehearsal before the main irreversible detachment, whose coercion is ebbing away as I am getting prepared.

XI.

My harmful habit to conclude by making up a meaning has kept me soliloquizing.  I have been trying to find a lesson in every shift of my life.  Now it’s time to acknowledge the end of the narrative. The linear structure of Exodus has been replaced by a database. The story has been broken into thousands of elementary events happening at the same time.  There is no meaning, nor connection, and everything is inconsequential.

The end of the narrative leaves everything equally meaningless-meaningful.  It is sad, but it gives the preeminent freedom to move the cursor.

Montreal, summer 1996