Friday, December 23, 2011

4 A Latvian Latvia? By Way of Mime or Alterity?

Many readers of my blogs have, no doubt, been sometimes as frustrated as puzzled and have wondered why my blogs tend to be so contrary to what they have been tought or have learned as having to do with being “Latvian” or of Latvia. When I first began writing my blogs, I wrote almost exclusively about the origin of John, pronounced in Latvian, “”Yahnis”.

I knew John to have been an important figure in Latvian folklore and ritual, the latter, expecially by way of the midsummer festival known as Johns Eve.

I was amazed that the origin of the Johns Festival, said by many to be Latvia’s most important annual event (over and above Christmas) was—in spite of the many songs that it came with—actually so mute. No one knew to tell anything about its origins. It sufficed that men and women decked their heads with wreaths of oak leaves and flowers intertwined by grasses and danced around a wooden barrel stuffed with wood and pitch of pine, raised high on a pole nine meters tall.

The burning wood barrel stuck on top of a pole (rather than a bonfire) appeared to be a purely Latvian invention. Such food as was traditional to the festival, was home made beer and home made cheese with lots of caraway seeds.

As I was gradually discovering John/Yahnis, I came to the conclusion that he had some distant but certain relationship to John the Annointer (I dislike the term ‘Baptist’). Since in my youth, I had considered studying “religion” and had briefly imagined myself a priest, I soon came to the conclusion that John was not only a precursor of Jesus (as the NT claims), but that he actually was what Jesus had been before John, poor man, was “neutered” through priestly insistence that he be demoted, after which humiliation, he was sent to a  “heaven” somewhere in the skies.

In my younger days, led by one or another inspiration, I must have read the Bible and the New Testament from one end to the other (I guestimate) up to five times. By comparison, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy and Cervante’s Don Quixote 2x. I was rather familiar with the Orthodox Christian imagery through my fascination with the interior of the Riga Russian Orthodox Cathedral, where at about the age of six, I had first come face to face with a life-size crucifix in a floor to ceiling niche. My mother, distraught over the disappearance of her father upon the entrance of the Soviets into Latvia, had taken me with her to where I had never been taken before.

Karlis Ozols, Latvia’s ambassador to Moscow many years before, had mistakenly believed that his wife’s friendship with Mrs. Tsurupa, whose husband was the Soviet Union’s Finance Minister, would somehow protect him. This in spite that many years before, he had been told in Moscow that if he wished himself and his family to be safe, he better return to America, where he had spent the years of the First World War.

Unfortunately, grandfather was taken with having once been an ambassador and having become owner of a notable estate in Priekule (the one near Liepaja). To make enough money off the estate was not easy. In its early history, the estate had made its wealth off its mill, which used to make wool yarn for Latvians as well as Lithuanians. The practice of agriculture brought a lot of headaches (even though his son Aleksandrs had studied and become an agronomist) with unhappy labor showing its unhappiness by occasionally burning down a hay barn. I remember one occasion when, after I was awakened by anxious voices in the hallway, I looked at the walls and ceiling of my room and saw or imagined seeing on the bare and graying walls reflections of distant flames. The year was 1937 or 1938.

In any case, to return to the theme of mimesis, alterity, and acculturation that informs this series of blogs, I am of the opinion today that Ambassador Ozols was done in by his desire to act (and therefore be) an important man. The obsession brought him to the Lubyanka Prison  cellars in Moscow. Alas, miming wealth is a notorious virus that infects the human brain from about, at least, the middle of the 19th century.

It is the attempt to play the role of a wealthy person that has by 2011 infected the minds of almost every Latvian. There are almost no Latvians, who escape the wealth virus. The virus, shaped like a mind meme, travels throughout the land and kills any potential for alterity.

I should know. I will reserve the story of my other grandfather, Antons Benjamins, the Latvian newspaper tycoon and his second wife Emiliya, for the next blog. The wealth virus cost them both their lives, and ruined many more.

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