Je est une autre*
I feel strange, adopting the designation of “other,” but it is the most concise way I can thing of to describe how I feel in the world, outside of “I am, but…”
I am Jewish, but I’m an atheist. My identity as Jew has always been a large part of my life. I lost friends because Christian parents forbade their kids from hanging around me. I was ridiculed through high school by an anti-Semitic French teacher who encouraged the class to play along, and whose best friend was my counselor (who was also Jewish) who never believed me. As a child I was obsessed with the Holocaust. BUT…When I was in grad school in Los Angeles I lived near a large Orthodox community. The sexism and suppression of women I saw there frustrated me. Later, I read a book by Amos Oz titled A Tale of Love and Darkness. It’s a memoir of his childhood and youth growing up in Israel with his Eastern European (Ashkenazi) immigrant parents. The book is amazing, but one of the strongest impressions I got from it was a disdain for the émigrés amongst the younger, Israeli-identified generation. Oz described a feeling amongst the more established Israelis that the survivors and refugees somehow brought the oppression of the Nazis on themselves. As an Ashkenazi and the descendant of survivors, after reading Oz’s book, I feel alienated from the alleged “homeland” too.
I’m Polish, but the Poles were just as enthusiastic about slaughtering Jews as the Germans, so my visits to the very catholic Polish Heritage museums tend to be quite short.
I’m an academic, but come from a working-class background. At in my graduate program at UCLA, my colleagues came from academic and professional families and were all able to project what I call the “professorial persona.” Calm, collected, with a sympathetic reserve that maintains the authority dynamic with students (and other academics,) they seem perfectly poised to enter any conference, interview, colleague interaction with aplomb. Not me. My dad was an auto mechanic who was a smart, thoughtful man who never got beyond the eighth grade and my mother married right out of high school. I dropped out of high school. As a historian, I am wide open with my heart on my sleeve. I express my enthusiasms without reserve, like popular culture, and bring my dog to school with me. He’s a corgi with no dignity whatsoever. I can do the persona for a while, but can’t sustain it.
I’m an art historian in a studio art department. While the studio programs get budgets of thousands of dollars a year, art history gets $1500. That’s it. My colleague (who does the persona to brilliant effect) and I are surrounded my MFAs who think their degrees are equivalent to ours, but never researched and wrote a 200+ page dissertation. Because this is a studio art department, even the university forgets that we have doctoral degrees. When we participate in university events, every other professor with a PhD is called “doctor,” except us. How sad is it to have to remind the university you work for which degree you actually have?
I know that my depression plays a role in this feeling of being not part of things, in seeing other people as smarter, more in control and more professional than I am. In Dreams of Speaking, Gail Jones mentions Camus and the fact that we see everyone from the outside, without knowing the turmoil that goes on within. I remember a television comedy show where a gaggle of businessmen were mulling around a courtyard asking each other in they knew what they were doing and nobody actually did. Even as a child I was convinced that my classmates were smarter, more mature or just better overall people than I was. I wish I knew why.
But this song by Pomplamoose makes me feel a little better.
*When Arthur Rimbaud wrote Je est un autre, he believed that the poet was a vehicle for the spirit of his epoch, to become a “seer” who lets a poem develop on its own without interference of the conscious mind.
*** I do not who to attribute this photograph to. If you know, or if it’s yours, please let me know.