10 January 2012

The Scourge of Internet comments

Prof Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log (one of the blogs I read the most) has a fantastic explanation of why he usually disables comments on his posts. Vogon poetry is invoked. Passive voice is explained. And so on. I don't bother closing the comments on this blog because, luckily, not enough people read it to leave soul-sappingly stupid comments.

09 January 2012

History Through a Glass, Darkly

On my grandfather, E. Jarosław Semianów 

[This is a true sketch of my grandfather's life, and a meditation on how hard it is to establish even the most basic facts in history. It's more than five thousand words--far too long for a blog post--but here it is.] 

One summer in the mid-1990s, I was standing in the closet-sized vestibule in my grandfather’s stuffy apartment in a village in southeastern Poland. His cheeks flushed and his breath slightly off, my grandfather grasped both my shoulders tightly and said something to me, something important. After this laying on of hands, the old soldier shuffled away, his rounded back receding into another dim and faded room.
He died in 2005 after a decade-long struggle with depression. I knew him less well than I should have, and the later memories—senility and deafness increasingly robbing him of his ability to perceive the world around him—have fogged happier recollections from childhood.
Like the dead in Hades in the ancient epics, our deceased forebears can be brought back but only as shadows of their living selves. In our time, they are not lured by the promise of sips from a bowl of sacrificial blood but by the rustling of papers in an archive or the whirr of data being retrieved electronically. I am looking at two pages of typescript, which draw the contour lines of a place in history but populate it very sparsely. It is factually detailed — dates, places and even sections of the Soviet-imposed penal code are cited precisely — but beyond the facts there is no self-reflection, no outward emotion. I am not sure whether this ritual will work. I feel guilty because the time to have done this research was years ago when interviews would have allowed me to capture these intangible details. Time flows swiftly in only one direction and swimming against the current is possible for just a little until you grow tired, having nothing to hold on to, and you are dragged downstream again. Most of history is written in the rushing water and the howling wind.