Friday, December 30, 2011

9 A Latvian Latvia for Latvians? Mimesis or Alterity?

Each actor, when asked to play a role, will play it his or her way. Thus, each Latvian actor, if asked to play The Bear Destroyer (Lachplesis), will do it differently. The same goes for the reenactment of any role, say, in an opera. This role playing is what is called miming, mimesis of an original presented by the creator of a story or the “Creator”.

However, when an actor becomes something entirely different than the character presented by a writer/creator, if the actor becomes a turn-coat vis a vis the character, then this is known as alterity. Thus, Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde or Mr. Hyde becomes Dr. Jekyll. Such a switch also describes a split personality. The story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was originally written (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. Lewis Carroll, who wrote “Alice in Wonderland”, a story famous for  the invention of many curious characters, one being the Cheshihre Cat , sees the cat mimicing himself by leaving behind himself a grin even as he himself disappears.

The terms “mimesis” and “alterity”, I take from Professor Michael Taussing’s work by that name. I was especially taken by the chapters in the book on the Cuno (also Guno, Kuno) Indians of Panama , who according to Professor Taussig in spite of many and frequent exposures to cultures other than their own managed to stay the same, did not change in their fundamental character, and did not become turn-coats vis a vis their ancestry.

In the Cuno culture, it is the men who mimic their western occupants, soon learning to dress as their occupants, while the women remained the guardians of the ancestral values, especially through their skill at making appliqués, the famous mola blouses .  The Cuna men to our day remain protective of their women. However, the key to maintaining the Cuna community is (to quote from Wikipedia) “a Saila (pronounced "sai-lah"). The Saila is traditionally both the political and spiritual leader of the community; he memorizes songs which relate the sacred history of the people, and in turn transmits them to the people.

Now the Saila for the Slavic and Baltic/Latvian people was traditionally know as Ivan and/or Janis/John. Unfortunately, unlike among the Cunos, where their Saila retained the power of life and death in the community, among Latvians, their John or Johns were savaged, killed and humiliated, by the religion of the oligarchs. Left with no place to run and hide—the forests being largely destroyed by the middle of the 19th century—the Latvians were left with little choice but to “westernize” or lie themselves into an alternate existence. This “lying into” another make-believe creature is fanatically defended (a characteristic of the convert) as “real” (rather than virtual). This is a widely shared Latvian characteristic. Any subliminal guilt associated with the denial of the culture of their forebears is hastily covered by prejudice, re: once anti-Semitism and now anti-Russianism or anti-Slavism, a feature quickly exploited by the real occupants of Latvia: the romanizers, which includes everything and all characteristics that are described by the word “West”.

If the reader has followed my blogs, he-she can see how the “westernization” affected and manifested itself through this writer’s family and his experience and eyes. The brightest playing cards in this “game of transformation” belong to AB and Emilija.

First, there were my grandfathers, ‘westernized’ men, who came (about 1740) to “westernize” demoralized Latvians through bringing them into their Herrnhuter community. Second, there are the women: a) my paternal grandmother, also famous for her work with yarn and needle, but eventually brought low by their “westernized” counterparts. The road traveled by the “westernized” or romanized counterpart is clearly seen by the process of alterization experienced and performed by my godmother Emilija Simsone Benjamins, who changed from a woman with soft features into a harsh, stern, steely, managerial looking magna-tes.

Much could be written about the metamorphosis of the mimetic faculty into an alternate and alternizing character. The excuse for the submission of tradition to something entirely different is summed up in the statement so common in urban liberal democracy, re: change: .

Having gained his “million”, AB buried himself ever more in work, became extremely “fat” (went on cures to Germany to heal his ‘heart embraced by fat’), and wished that he could divorce Emilija. He did not do the latter on the advice of his lawyers, one of who was my godfather, a “senator” of Latvia’s Supreme Court, because then he would lose his amassed ‘million’ in the hands of his 2nd wife, Emilija. Whether AB had originally been willing to so “alter” himself, I will never know, but he had no doubt taken the chance that he may die of the effort. The ‘heart embraced by fat’, perhaps a psychological consequence of losing his sovereignty over his person, was a consequence of his succumbing to the “wealth virus”.

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