You OK?

A letter to Riga from the San Francisco Bay

10 March 2006
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For a European academic in California, the ubiquitous question "You ok?" typifies self-help culture in which everybody becomes a therapist in need of a patient. Activities that ought to be sheer pleasure, like wine drinking or sex, become opportunities for nursing, while an event such as the timely death of a relative becomes a tragedy. But is the critical spirit of the European tradition not the reverse side of the same desire to take care of other people's lives, "The surgical mode of the nursing complex", as the letter-writer puts it?

My dear friends Anna and Jurgis,

Last November, when we were together again in Riga, you asked me how an old European and how, to make things more dramatic, a European-born and European-honed intellectual like myself, could ever have come to settle in the United States, without any obvious need, pressure, nor obligation. To be honest, I hated this question so much that it almost morphed, for the first time ever, into a moment of bad feelings about you guys. Why have European intellectuals become so terribly homey, why do they constantly claim that their small, old, conflict-loaded, and long sterile continent continues to be the center of the universe? Are they just resentment-driven? And is it not obvious that the always one-tad-too-happy European Union was born from the original sin of an inferiority complex larger than the space between the Atlantic and the Urals?

Personally, I am positive that this is exactly the case, so positive indeed that I find it boring and unrewarding to enter the intercontinental quality debate. The one thing that makes me even wearier than that is the good-intentioned project of telling and trying to convince you how good the US really is. After all, I am not a tourist agency. But how about confessing what I actively dislike about California (where, by the way, I have been living permanently for seventeen years now, more than at any other place in my life – so that, right or wrong, I indeed must call California my home)? For, if we jointly manage to understand that we all feel at home where, somehow, we love even what we really hate – then you may finally accept that I must (and will) live here until I die, just as I take it for granted that nobody will ever move both of you out of your beautiful apartment in Riga if it is not, to use a very American expression, “feet first”.

Here is what I most detest about cultivated Northern California. Every evening, I walk form my beautiful office on Stanford campus, which you know from some photos, to the parking lot. It is a walk of about four hundred yards, almost imperceptibly uphill. On most days, I am in a hurry because I like to come home in time for dinner, and I am thinking, above all, about the chores that I should have but did not get done during the previous ten or eleven hours. At times, I also remember the success or the failure of a seminar that I taught, and in the best case, I move in my mind some concept or some sentence that will surface in the writing that I do later during the evening. Nothing special – but I do not ostensibly smile while I am walking up to my car, and sometimes I don’t even see the familiar faces of some people who cross my path. Maybe I look “serious”. This must be the reason, I fear, why once or twice a week, one of those potentially familiar faces starts to talk to me: “You ok?” In its spoken reality, the auxiliary verb “are” is indeed missing – which conveys an urgent quality to this utterance. You will ask me what this means, and I fear it means that some of those who see me walking to my car are concerned that I have fallen into a deep clinical depression just because I look serious or concentrated. To be more precise: I do not know for sure whether this is really what they believe. But they certainly want to believe that they can diagnose some psychiatric disorder in my face because, if they could, this would give them the role of a therapist or, at least, of a nurse. In my earlier California years, I simply didn’t get the situation, and so I sometimes talked back and asked why they were asking such a question. This reaction was of course taken as a preliminary confirmation of the initial therapeutic hypothesis and got me entangled, quite regularly, in lengthy conversations that I had to cut short by using what in my Californian world counts as verbal violence. I would say things like “mind your own business”, or “I can well take care of myself”, and I would walk away, sometimes literally run away, from the scene of such unhappy encounters.

But why do I find them so unbearably unpleasant? Do those people not show their very good intentions towards me? Does it not count that, in the end, none of them has ever tried to really get me into intensive psychiatric care? I guess what ultimately disturbs me is the nightmarish potential of a society where every cultivated person (and “being cultivated” starts with reading self-help magazines) wants to take over a nursing role. As nobody remains completely unaffected by our potent self-help culture, everybody ends up becoming a nurse, which, quite logically, produces an extreme shortage of potential patients. This, it dawned on me, will forever turn my evening walk to the car into a potential case for vocational nurses. The problem reminds me of Fellini’s beautiful film Ginger and Fred, where, at some point, everybody gets invited to the television studio for a Christmas show. By the most elementary mathematical logic, once again, nobody is then left to watch the programme which, necessarily, turns into a sad collective disappointment for all the potential television stars.

As the degree of grotesqueness implied may be hard to understand from outside California, my dear friends, I will give you another example. As you know, I am spending this academic year (a sabbatical year) at a bucolic-looking research centre where, as a professor of literature, I am the “odd man out” (or “the odd man in”) surrounded by a group of forty social scientists. During the first weeks of my stay here, I got the news that my father had died, at age eighty-six, after what he considered to have been “a fulfilling life”, and right in time to forego the ultimate physical suffering from a condition of muscular dystrophy. I was quite happy for my father, and I told the director of the centre that I would fly to Germany for a short week to be at the funeral. Upon my return to California, I found two cards of condolence, one from the centre’s staff and one from all the colleagues, on the desk of my studio. And these cards turned out to be the truly hyperbolic written version of the same old nursing syndrome. In some fifty-five messages (many of them quite long) there wasn’t a single hint of the thought that, perhaps, the death of a father might not have been the most disturbing and indeed “tragic” event in a fifty-seven-year-old’s life. Many of the well-wishers, unsurprisingly, offered help and expressed their good-intentioned optimism regarding the strength of my character: “Your pain must be beyond what human words can possibly express. I am with you in my thoughts and prayers, dear friend. And I know that, if anybody can ever overcome such a challenge, you have the courage and the wisdom to do so.” Now, imagine what the world would look like if emotionally surviving the death of a parent were indeed such an exception. But as I had long learnt my California nursing lesson, I politely thanked everybody for their “thoughtfulness” (another pet concept of this world) and tried to look as sad and shaken as I possibly could during our daily lunches. This seemed to satisfy the not-so-secret wishes and expectations of the nursing community, and it earned me the repeated question, at our beginning-of-the-year-party, of whether it was allowed to remind me, after only four months, that life would go on, after all, and that there were possibly some bright moments left for me. I do not even begin to count the invitations that I received, individually and with my family, to join colleagues for concerts, religious services, and evenings at their homes.

By now, dear Anna and dear Jurgis, you will at least have begun to grasp what I am talking about. But as I said at the beginning, it is not at all my intention to confirm your Anti-American prejudice. So let me throw in that there is a stark and beautiful contrast between the unbearable softness of the nursing complex and the lucid ruggedness of the natural surroundings within which, strangely somehow, it has emerged. When I decided to leave Germany, I was certain that one of the things that I would always miss were those romantically foggy and almost gloomy November days. But now, each time that I am travelling in Europe for only a few days, what I really long for is the extreme, sometimes almost painful luminosity of the California sky and of my California days. My longing for this light borders on addiction (but no European nurses in sight to help!). Another feature that has become home for me is the wildness of the Pacific Coast, which is close enough to my house for regular weekend trips. Northern Californian beaches are not for swimming. The water is too cold, the waves are too high, and at many places the sea is full of those merciless sharks. I have come to love those trees that barely survive behind the beaches and whose shapes make visible which direction the breeze is blowing. There is no better experience of a sunset than drinking a bottle of warming red wine with your back against the dunes and your face into a wind that comes from Japan.

Here is, then, my third and final nursing story – that I have chosen for the end of my letter because it is a bit edgier than the previous ones. One of the neighbours in the condominium where I am living with my family is a world-class scientist (so clearly “world-class” indeed that I would risk to give away his identity if I told you more about the field of research in which he excels). About a year ago, his son was taking driving lessons, and this happens in California, symptomatically perhaps, with the young driver’s parents playing the role of the teachers. So one evening, on my short way home, I found myself behind a car that slowed down progressively as it went uphill, like it happens to joggers who have reached a certain age. As this very part of my ride home is a one-way street, I correctly and competently passed the slowing car in front of me – only to discover (too late!) that the person I had passed was my neighbour’s son taking driving lessons from his father. So I was dismayed but, to be honest, not all that surprised when, the next day, I received an e-mail in which the neighbour and paternal instructor was accusing me, verbatim, of my “reckless and boorish driving”, drawing all kinds of far-reaching moral conclusions and threatening to report such excesses to the police should they ever happen again. Naively enough, I responded without delay, giving both profuse and profound apologies for what I self-ironically and good-heartedly referred to as my “European Formula One driving style”. The response to this response appeared on my screen within a minute. Avoiding any modifications in his harsh tone, my neighbour explained that Formula One driving was for race circuits only (and not for regular traffic!), and he encouraged me to seek his advice and his conversation if, as it were, I had a serious problem in understanding the correct position.

There it was again. The tone of self-righteousness and correctness (is it any wonder that the ugly concept of “political correctness” was invented in the Bay Area – for a possible reading of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, no less!), the tone of self-righteousness that had barely covered my neighbour’s extreme anger and obvious aggressiveness and had in the process transformed itself into the offer of a nursing relationship. Can you imagine the scene he was talking about? Can you imagine that, the next evening and full of contrition, I rang at my neighbour’s door and asked to be introduced to the principles of correct driving and its ethical grounds? Once again, I am not sure whether my eminent neighbour thought that I could ever accept his generous offer. What I do know, however, is that the person who can claim to be the victim (as my neighbour did) and manages to transform such a position of victimhood into a magnanimous offer for therapy, wins any contest of correct social interaction in Northern California.

I imagine that you will be asking, my dear friends, why this is so – and the truth is that I have no good answer. Of course, historically the US has been the “city on the hill”, founded, under Enlightenment premises, by religious dissidents who were so intolerant that they had provoked the terminal intolerance of the British crown. But do such constellations last over centuries? Maybe. All I know for sure is that so many things that could and should be sheer pleasure, under Californian conditions, turn into what I feel tempted to call the “generalized nursing offence”. You join one of those countless “book clubs” because you believe that reading, almost like prayer, will turn into a contribution towards the betterment of humankind. If you invite your friend on a wine-drinking tour (and more), as it happens in the beautiful Californian film comedy Sideways, you say, as if you were an elementary school teacher, that you want to “show” your friend a good time. If you have sex, you pretend (and, to make things worse, you may honestly think) that you want to “express” tender feelings to your partner (as if language was not the much more practical medium for this specific purpose). In a university exam, a student is tempted to qualify the examiner’s questions, both opportunistically and absurdly, as “helpful”, offering him or her a therapeutic role. The one thing that our Northern Californian society does not tolerate is anger and, God forbid, tragedy, in the original sense of an existential problem without possible solution. Therefore, what we call “tragedies” are situations like traffic accidents, the timely death of aged relatives, or diagnoses of cancer (however benign the tumour may be).

No doubt you will tell me that you do not have this problem among intellectuals in Riga – and I agree. Living up to a grand central and eastern European tradition, the seriousness and “critical spirit” of Latvian intellectuals seem to take care of any possible need to counterbalance extreme and therefore perhaps groundless happiness. Latvian intellectuals will not let anything stand without casting a critical doubt on its positive aspects. Is this not better, at least more honest, than the hypocrisy of the nursing syndrome? My first reaction is that the attitude of absolute negativity is nothing but the old-fashioned, perhaps the Dostoyevskian version, of the same intellectual nursing complex. Absolute negativity has always been, so to speak, the surgical mode of the nursing complex. But being consistently negative does not really justify a claim of being more truthful. Therefore, rather than being the opposite of a “truly critical spirit”, to offer help through soft-spoken advice boils down to the same off-putting arrogance, disguised in the style of internal medicine and its pharmacological treatments.

“A better world”, on both sides, would depend on our willingness to drop all self-aggrandizing claims of taking care of people’s lives in one or the other modality. What I love about California are those moments in which we unpretentiously say “take care” instead of “good bye”. For then you know that even Californians don’t take their words all too seriously. To insist (and to criticize) that most people who say “take care” would not shed a tear if you got run over by a car three minutes later, is old-style, heavy intellectualism. And you find it as much in California as in Riga. But nobody says “take care” with more grace than those people who wrap your groceries in a California supermarket.

And this is one more reason why I so much hope that you will soon come and see me in my habitat on the American West Coast.

Big hugs from your friend


Published 10 March 2006

Original in English
First published in Rigas Laiks 2/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht/Rigas Laiks Eurozine


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