Trauma in a Benevolent Monastery
Liv was an award-winning novelist from Amsterdam and could recite Shakespeare’s sonnets in English while she made the crème brûlée. She had come to PAF, an artist residence in Picardie, to finish her latest autobiographical novel, based on the story of how her grandmother had survived the Holocaust. Lie early, lie often, was the gist of it. Upon moving to Amsterdam from Berlin, early in the Nazi years, the grandmother had promptly sought out the German embassy and explained that a clerical error had occurred. ‘My passport is marked Jewish’. ‘You poor woman, let’s fix that right away’, said the bureaucrat to the beautiful liar. And thus she had survived.
Liv sometimes consults with her dead grandmother, awaiting signs from flickering lamps and odd rumblings in the heater that might indicate approval or disapproval of various jobs and boyfriends. This made me trust Liv.
The artist residence is a former monastery in a tiny French village on a hill. I had been mostly avoiding talking to anyone but Liv was kind and persistent. She heard me singing in the ballroom, she said. She thought at first it was a recording and wanted to hear more. I tell her “it’s the acoustics here— the acoustics bend the sound the way a slimming mirror bends the light.”
To pass the time while avoiding the amazing people I had been reading “The Body Keeps The Score,” a book about PTSD treatment methods. Liv ordered a copy and began reading it too, to be friendly. “This theater therapy is already very popular in Amsterdam,” she told me. “In fact I was present and participated in such a workshop when something very strange occurred. I am not sure what you will think of it, but if you remember, my great uncle had two death certificates. One said that he had died in Auschwitz and the other said that he had been a suicide. The method of the theater therapy was to have different actors, volunteers from the audience, agree to play the roles of the participants in the trauma, rearranging the past to resolve the lingering pain. One of the actors, who did not know the backstory, raised his hand, ‘I want to clarify something about the circumstances of my death— it was not a suicide’, he said. When I talked to him about it later he said it had been a statement prompted entirely by intuition. Of course my sense of things was that it had possibly been a momentary possession, perhaps by the trauma itself”.
I thanked her for her candor and explained my reasons for lingering in Europe after my tour. My original plan to obtain an artist’s visa in Berlin had been derailed by a series of nightmares in which my dead Czech relatives cried out “murderers!” in a room full of ashes. Now it appeared I would also not be able to obtain dual Czech citizenship due to an inability to feign nationalist feelings. “It is so important to lie to bureaucrats” she said. “Lie as much as you can. You must quiet your conscience on this matter”. She poured me some wine. It came from the seashore and tasted of salt and sea air.
On the way to London from Paris I had seen a celtic paleolith, a horse carved white out of green into the chalk cliffs just where the train came out of the Chunnel. When I arrived in London to play my show I immediately asked my host about the carving. It turned out to have been a recent addition, a copy of ancient art put up by nearby residents to lure tourists to their village. It was not named Gwynnnhrdllyfyndyng as I had hoped. I told Yann, the head of PAF residency about the horse over dinner one night.
“We should build one!” he joked.
“We should perhaps build a second Eiffel Tower” added a socialist game designer.
“A reverse Eiffel Tower” joked a philosopher, “dug into the ground.”
“Perhaps the deepest hole in the world” Yann added, “You could sing from the bottom of the deepest hole in the world.”
“Like a canary in a coal mine” I added. I laughed and laughed and sighed.
“If Putin does decide to take Eurasia and complete his empire,” Liv and I were talking late at night over poppyseed cake, “I would probably come here to PAF to hide out. They say there may be a tunnel from the monastery to the village. There is plenty of room for a vegetable garden.”
“Yes we could eat the peacocks!” I laughed. White peacocks wandered the grounds of PAF. “We’re on a hill, we could see for miles. We could see the fascists coming through the fields."
Over dinner one night Yann accuses me of stalinism because I hate murder-ballads. “The artist’s duty is to give enjoyment. Anything else will choke your muse, it is an unnecessary constraint on the subconscious.”
“Art IS culture,” I say. “We are cultural workers. We should create a culture worth living in.”
The long banquet table begins arguing the question. All the anglophone artists agreed with me and the Europeans all agreed with Yann. I remember but do not mention the medieval church in Burgundy where I performed a few weeks earlier. It had lost all its original stained glass windows to stones thrown by a French Revolutionary mob— they considered the windows to be decadence and waste.
The next morning I woke to Facebook messages asking if I was alright. There had been terrorist attacks in the night at Bataclan, a music venue in Paris, a massacre. The timing of all the inquiries seems funny. A month earlier, my cousin was murdered in a school shooting: a common occurrence in America, it went largely unremarked. I learned of that event while sleeping alone on a rooftop in Barcelona. I watched the streetlights turn off and went on as if everything was normal.
In France, reacting to terrorism, I dutifully marked myself Facebook ‘safe’ for this trauma on the world theater. Nevertheless, heavily armed police inspected PAF the next day for no apparent reason. Maybe they wanted to feel useful, maybe they wanted to make a show of diligence. Maybe they wanted to see the secret underground ballroom and inspect the whiskey collection.
Over dinner Marie-Laure remarked that a villager she spoke to in the bakery earlier that week had asked her if PAF is a cult. The philosopher smiles and says “Yes we are a cult, but largely benevolent.”
“BenEHvolent,” I sing operatically and he echoes me.
“BenEHvolent.” The philosopher does not have the operatic training that I do but the word still sounds wonderful bouncing around the old wood and stone.