Monday, 1 December 2014

Lost allusions

Thinking further about my yesterday's experience I realise that another reason for my emotional disturbance is an acute sense of lost allusions, the lack of common cultural ground, the paucity of mother-tongue immersion. I have in all these years deliberately avoided Russian diaspora, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Russian emigrants of all generations have been suspicious of each other; I have heard slander about most of my former compatriots, and I can just imagine what has been said – perhaps is being said – about me behind my back. In every Russian diaspora there are factions and groups; in Stockholm there are several Russian Orthodox parishes that don't recognise each other; there are mutually exclusive societies and associations. I never wanted to be part of it so I preferred not to join. Then, as any diaspora, it is highly heterogeneous, and I see no point in socialising with anyone merely because we happen to come from the same country, but with whom I wouldn't socialise back in Russia. Also I made a point of becoming personally and professionally integrated in Sweden, in all things Swedish. It never occurred to me to get involved with the Slavic department, because I had never been a Slavic scholar and had neither interest nor competence to become one. I did attend Slavic conferences and other events, but only when topics interested me for my own professional goals. I also tried to become involved in various communities, from the parish to charity work to Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange, and abandoned those for various reasons.

The gains are obvious: I would have never been where I am now if I hadn't invested in my professional career. But the losses only became clear to me obliquely. I would go back to Russia to speak Russian and to immerse into what had been my element since I was a child: intellectual talk with common denominators, where allusions didn't have to be spelled out. As years went by I started to notice that I wasn't any longer atuned to my friends' framework of mind. I didn't understand their references; sometimes, their language felt alien. I wasn't able to keep up with new literature, new thinking, new worldview, new gossip. I wasn't one of the gang anymore. Some of my Slavic scholar friends caught up and passed me in their knowledge of contemporary Russia. For them, it was their study object. I could never make my country of origin a study object. And I had to keep up with my own study objects.

The allusions got irretrievably lost. There is no point throwing out literary quotations if your conversation partners have no idea what you are talking about. You cannot explain every joke. Finally, you give up. I have read about emigrants who forgot their mother tongue, or perhaps suppressed it. I hope I haven't quite forgotten Russian although I have fewer and fewer occasions to speak it, and sometimes I ask myself whether I should persist at all. I even speak to myself in my two other languages. I read Russian literature, classic and modern, but I cannot write professionally. So much of my grown-up vocabulary has developed in the other languages.

What happened yesterday was a rare occasion of shared allusions. Everybody laughed together, everybody recognised and remembered (I am sure there were people who didn't, but we can ignore them). I was brutally and painfully reminded of my voluntary isolation, of severed ties, of my cultural luggage that will die with me, unclaimed.


Pani Zorro said...

I’m new to this blog, but have read your book “How Picturebook Works”, just writing it as a sort of short introduction and an awkward way to say „hello”. There is something in this text about lost allusions that triggered memories from my childhood. I’m bilingual, half Polish, half Russian, but more Polish, than Russian (born & raised in Poland); an amazing „slavic theory of unequal halfs. I had many arguments with my Russian father years ago, as a teenager. Now I almost know: there was a language gap between us, not a generation one. Polish and Russian are so similar and so distant. We were cheated by appearances. In fact, I think that the word of images was the only one that we more or less shared on the same ground.
Best from Warsaw,
Monika Obuchow
/University of Social Sciences and Humanities/

Pani Zorro said...

"How Picturebooks Work", of course, sorry. I was too fast.

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Tnank you for your comment, Monika. I believe it is a feeling many people share.