From an interesting interview with Sam Garrett, an American living in Amsterdam who translates Dutch literature into English:
CC: What’s it like to be an American living in Amsterdam?
SG: I guess I’d have to distinguish between my early years in Europe (when I was feeling “landlocked,” like a salmon that can’t get back to its headwaters) and today, when I seem to be like a computer with two hard drives that I can switch between. I feel Dutch when it comes to soccer and politics, American when it comes to politics and culture.
Now I feel considerably less landlocked in Holland. But I do recognize myself in what I picked up from the writer Elias Canetti, who lived in England for a long time. As an exile there he called himself “der Hund meiner Zeit” — the dog of my day. Like that dog, I’m always sniffing around to discover the “why” behind things, which for the Dutch, just are. That keeps you an outsider, but I’ve found that that’s a role you can grow into.
Meanwhile, I sometimes refer to myself in my relationship to the Dutch, and in their reactions to me, as “the talking dog”.
This really resonates with me as a writer. I can’t quit thinking about why things are the way they are. This was a big point of dispute between my late sister and me: she accepted things as they are, but I kept wanting to go behind them. I am part of a culture that valorizes seekers, but doesn’t have much to say about finders, except to view them with suspicion. I see finders — and I’m not sure that’s an accurate term for Ruthie, who was always happy with the world as she found it — and I want what they have, but can’t let myself have it.
I was sitting on the floor against the wall in church today, with my head in my hands because I was sick and exhausted, praying, “Lord, I got nothing. I am weak in faith and spiritually lazy and full of doubt. I’m sorry. Help me.” And you know, He may extend a hand to me over and over, and I’ll take it for a while, but then I’ll start to question why He’s done this thing, and then I’ll question whether or not I’m really holding His hand, and then I’ll question what are hands, anyway, and the next thing you know I’m back there on the floor, back against the wall, head in my hands, telling God I got nothing.
This is a vice, but it’s not wholly a vice. My dad explained to me once that I should be more forgiving of my sister’s prejudices against me and the things I loved and thought. “You have been all over the world,” my dad said. “She hasn’t seen the things you’ve seen. She doesn’t know what that’s like.” And he was right. The problem I have with that, though, is that she didn’t want to know. For Ruthie, accepting the things that are, in the sense I mean, implied that people who saw things differently were deceived in some kind of cosmic sense. I mean, she didn’t have any way to understand how so much of what she accepted as given was in fact highly conditioned by her time and place.
She found a deep peace that I’ve never had, and never will, in large part because she chose not to know a lot of things about the world beyond what she was given, simply because she had no curiosity about it, and didn’t understand why I did. I live and work in a culture that doesn’t value what she had, because it depends on closing off inquiry, and resisting curiosity. I couldn’t be that way if I wanted to. Still, I am certain that by radically closing many, many doors, Ruthie opened other doors, doors deeper into experience that I will never have the opportunity to pass through, because I’m so restless.
I’m a writer. I’m a permanent outsider, a confirmed stranger, even to myself. That’s a role I’ve grown into.
More from the interview:
CC: Does learning a second language change your outlook on life?
SG: One language is a sort of desert island: no matter how pleasant and comfortable and stimulating that desert island may be, it’s still tightly circumscribed and an obstacle to communication.
When you don’t know a country’s language, you’re always viewing that country across a stretch of shark-infested water. You can never leave the shore and truly visit and understand it. That’s not necessarily a disaster, because maybe the shores you can reach are very pleasant and comfortable and stimulating. But it is a limitation.
I really, really felt that living in France for a month. I found it harder, in a way, than being in Holland, or Germany, or any other country where I don’t know the language at all. Knowing just enough of the language to make sense of things, but not enough to really understand what was going on, was maddening. The worst thing was going into bookstores. Paris has fantastic bookstores, but I don’t read French well enough to invest in books. I had to go into them and be surrounded by all these gorgeous volumes and not be able to do a thing about it. I knew just enough French to have a very, very pleasant view across the water, but I couldn’t really be a part of the city, and I knew it, and it pained me.
But I return to the idea of language (as Garrett uses it here) as a metaphor for cultural outsiderness. When I lived in New York, I found after a year or two I felt fairly comfortable in the city, navigating its ways. But then something would happen, and I would realize that I only had a superficial understanding of this city’s culture, and that it would take years and years of living here before I began to see the world as a New Yorker. Similarly, I find myself observing things about my Louisiana town, the place where I grew up, and they seem so natural to me, but I can easily imagine someone who grew up outside the South being nonplussed by them. So much is untranslatable. I mean, you can speak the words to explain the meaning, but mere language is so inadequate to translation, if you follow me.
[Via The Browser.]