A Fortnightly Review.
Landscapes of Silence: From Childhood to the Arctic
by Hugh Brody
By TOM LOWENSTEIN.
WHAT HAS BEEN lost is largely unsayable. But it is nonetheless possible to dwell within that silence and to realize that on the other side of this silence there was speech, freedom and knowledge. The same silence nonetheless separates a surviving generation from that of its dispossessed elders.
The Inuit are not unique in having lost the words that would express what they could touch and know. It is the experience of countless small societies which have succumbed to the demands of the mega-nation.
The old world that lies behind the sometimes violent insistence of power does still exist in uncertain memory. But it exists in the silence that understands that the modern world, its demand for uniformity and conformity is still always present, even when members of a small society can no longer enunciate its own prior realities. And behind our conformity to the demands of contemporary nationhood – and there’s money, opportunity and a wealth-promising future in this – lies an older reality which has perished with ancestors who once knew and worked with all that was necessary in the world they were born into.
It is a frightening, albeit a self-imposed challenge, to be reviewing a work which in some respects parallels my own experience. By which I mean only to say that previously unbeknownst to me, Brody outlines his post-Holocaust Jewishness with exploration in both an Israeli Marxist kibbutz where I also worked in 1960 and in Arctic communities — Brody in Canada, the reviewer in Alaska. This is not to say that Brody claims that his sensitivity to his own modern ethnic history was a necessity for the exploration of Inuit dispossession. It is rather that his experience of the Jewish tragedy was a component of the work he did among native Canadian people.
Brody is far from telling us that all sympathisers with Inuit history must have previous knowledge of another, in this case, anti-Jewish violence, but rather that he entered Inuit history with this particular biographical component. And as an anthropologist, he records the impact of this both as a participant, a valued activist and as a student. In other words, the experience of Inuit dispossession was, and continues to be, an aspect of what a dominant culture represents. What he experienced was something he knew and was a part of him.
Much of the first part of this book is autobiographical. Not because Brody is more than usually interested in himself but rather to demonstrate that the person who thus grew up was carried into his Arctic research, and that he as a person was not the ‘disinterested’ anthropological observer, but one who took part in what he describes: the autobiographical component demonstrating his fraternity with his ostensible subject. I say, ostensible, in that the writer in thus projecting himself is as much the object of his thought as the people among whom he lived. In other words, Brody is talking about himself as one of ‘them’, and they are all of us too. In particularizing both Jewish and Inuit histories, he writes about the impact of present mega-cultures on politically subordinate small societies.
But there remains one particular parallel. And this resides in a kind of silence. The young Jewish boy, Hugh, is kept, perhaps protected, from historical reality by the refusal of traumatised people to express, except in whispers, what the dispossessed knew at first hand. And an equivalent silence is also ‘heard’ by Inuit. In recognizing this silence, Brody identifies what may no longer be touched, because it no longer exists as a valid social reality. An unbridgeable and painful gap separates the present which must be accepted and a past which can’t be reclaimed. The intervening silence points to, but cannot precisely describe, what lies behind. It is sensed and it is a part of the present. But it leads nowhere. The damage has been done.
This remains hard to describe. Whereas the earlier autobiographical material in this memoir contains charming and beautifully written vignettes of a boyhood on the outskirts of Sheffield and the minutiae of exploratory life in nearby Derbyshire – fish, bird nests, birds themselves – which represented a kind of life-line, later in the book, Brody reveals that he was asthmatic and subject to allergies. He nonetheless portrays himself as a vigorous, knowledgeable but quite lonely protagonist. His portrait of his mother is frighteningly vivid, while her mother whispers truths difficult to believe which themselves exist in the same uninterpretable silence which accompany Brody’s natural historical self-education — so the two media collide and mutually identify.
The kibbutz passages are thus prepared for. And there, Brody encountered another paradox or ‘contradiction’ which was impossible for an English eighteen-year-old to resolve, and which is still only resolved by state violence: i.e.the fact that the leftist children of Holocaust survivors settled on and continue farming land that been improperly acquired from previous, now dispossessed, Arab owners. The paradoxical truth of this uncertainty is vividly presented by a pacifist kibbutz member who recognized the problem, while continuing to live with the ‘contradiction’ (his word) of his life in Israel.
There follows a logically connected passage first on the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, and on the life, in a Sheffield suburb, of Brody’s mother. None of this is encouraging. First, because the political and military triumph of Israeli self-assertion which, to thoughtful semi-outsiders, represented the undermining of confidence in the meaning of survival. And second, because such survival was a national and ethnic imperative.
And then, equally compelling, the existential pain of Brody’s semi-assimilated Viennese Jewish mother who struggled with issues both of not-being-Jewish-enough, in comparison with family and compatriots who perished (her insistence on that word, suggesting murder and martyrdom), and not being wholly assimilated into UK society. To the feeling of belonging nowhere is added consciousness of a ‘them and us’ phenomenon.
This intervening and intangible space is one that has been experienced by Jews for millennia. Indeed, the issue of not properly belonging is at the heart of the Jewish relationship with a perfect God. Human imperfection must always, perhaps especially for the most pious Jew, be separated from the absolute represented by ‘God’. Brody’s agnostic mother presumably thus experienced an issue that was quintessentially Jewish. But that made it no less painful. Nor are these issues confined to Jews. Their predicament nonetheless highlights an experience shared by much of humanity. On board a ship sailing from Haifa to Piraeus, post his kibbutz time, Brody identifies an unspoken relief on departure from Israel. To be Jewish implies a species of displacement and self dissatisfaction that no amount of piety can resolve.
For Brody there must therefore, somewhere, be an area of freedom. And later, when he travels to Canada he perceives this as a place representing the freshness and natural beauty he valued on the Derbyshire uplands in a bird or a fish.
And here, in passages of disarming honesty, the writer confesses: and in bringing the narrative close to the present, he transforms from observer to participant and part-implicated outsider. And this, in turn, implicates the reader.
All this leads to the book’s climax and its commentary on the destruction of small societies by a master society which has all but obliterated the life-ways of those incapable of defending an inherited coherence. The process of obliteration takes many forms but its common characteristic is both seductive and economically irresistible, though sometimes violent.
One of the many dispiriting elements of social/psychological damage identified by Brody is the exploration of ways that young people inhabit a space in which their very environment has lost its validity. Everything appears more less the same outside the contact architecture of the village. But the beliefs and ways of life they can no longer touch have been rendered invalid by powerful white society which they cannot enter either. This presents them with a space (one aspect of the ‘silence’ identified earlier in the book) in which they can no longer meaningfully operate, or even live. Hence – there are other social/ psychological imperatives – the horrifying phenomenon of youth – principally male – suicide.
Child abuse is one central factor. And this abuse is subtly powerful. For a native boy to engage in sex with a schoolteacher or missionary is one ultimately meaningless, delusionary and altogether temporary means of assimilating with the master culture. The outcome of this is of course lost on the perpetrator, who seeks, in a simple way, an affectless and controlling gratification. But the perversity of such exploitation inculcates the illusion of guilt in the victim who also emerges from the experience as further invalidated, while the perpetrator is left either with the law or with an enclosing darkness, whose secrecy is subjectively soul-destroying while leaving his culture intact. Child abuse thus violates both the individual and the society the native child might otherwise belong to.
That said, such abuse would be less likely to happen if the victim were not already part of a society which has been invalidated already. There are no winners. And in a real sense, child abuse is a violent aspect of the long ostensibly quiet and superficially benign process of acculturation. And it occurs to me that bumper stickers I saw in early 1970s Alaska which read ‘Let the bastards freeze in the dark,’ applied as much to native populations as to the anti oil-pipeline liberals I assumed it to be mainly directed at. But child abuse by dominant members of a powerful culture is nonetheless a symptom of the loss of local power. For such abuse remained an unknown in traditional society.
Returning to the ‘silence’ that Brody identifies as being the experience of traumatised people and their children, this remains an element from which it is largely impossible to escape except through death. The ultimate silence of death is a wished-for refusal of invalidation. And to perpetuate this silence is to collude with its cause and its origin.
Here is another guilt-inducing environment. And to give lands back to people who have always lived on it, and who anyway had no previous system of ownership, is both superficially benign and ultimately absurd. Once the white man had introduced the concept of nationhood, there was no alternative for native people but to collude. But the price they ultimately paid for this act of donation was increased invalidation. This was economically, politically inevitable, but the elders had become the grateful recipients of something that was theirs to start with, only they did not own it in the same sense that westerners owned sawmills, quarries and land. People were glad to have inherited rights restored, but the fundamental damage had been done already. Child abuse by dominant members of a powerful culture is nonetheless a symptom of the relinquishment of local power, and this power also represented belonging.
Most Inuit still live in the Arctic, as people in Brody’s last trip to the far north testified. Some also work on oil rigs etc. and hunt part time. ‘Do you think it was better back then? was one pertinent question, ‘in that time (the early 1970s)?’ This is an unanswerable question. And perhaps this loss of fixed identities makes us all no worse than our ancestors. Perhaps historically different. The question cannot be answered. As Brody writes ‘I could not say….’
This is an autobiographical book and there are two overwhelming and complementary eclats. The first is in a sweep of narrative which is filled with the description of the Canadian Arctic on Brody’s return in 2018. This is an exhilarated and exciting account, filled palpably with both weather and a responding happiness. The power of the writing sweeps the reader into a free and welcoming environment – this welcome reinforced by accounts of adults who were children when Brody last lived with their parents and grandparents. This narrative passage is full of hope and warmth; a generously optimistic counter balance to a history of devaluation.
The second, a concluding narrative episode, is set in recent Berlin, where the inheritance of a decayed looking block of flats comes unexpectedly into the ownership of Brody’s mother, the writer having to cope both with this windfall and the complex, expensive and maybe predatory legal procedures attached to an act of restitution. The issue is both welcome and mind-bogglingly complicated. Together, mother and son travel to Berlin. But it was a return to the sense of loss rather than its healing. As Brody writes ‘We were here… to rediscover loss’; and his mother refuses to speak German, her first language.
This is a beautiful but sombre memoir. The writer belongs both to a vanishing minority and to the privileged ‘free thinking’ western present. What happens next to the people he describes is contained in their devaluation. And it has happened already.
Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009). The Structure of Days Out is serialized in The Fortnightly Review, as After the Snowbird Comes the Whale, beginning here. An archive of his Fortnightly work, including a number of his poems, is here.