This past weekend I watched the 2005 film Everything is Illuminated, written and directed by Liev Screiber and based on the Jonathan Safron novel of the same name. A good movie about a young Jewish American man who goes to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II.
The film, and I presume book, is a quest/journey of sorts, punctuated by a marginal over exaggeration of cultural differences. The movie, and I presume book, is narrated not by the man on the quest/journey, Jonathan (played here by quest perennial Elijah Wood), but by his Ukrainian guide Alex (portrayed by Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz).
The summation of the film, and its name, comes from the narrator Alex who concludes, “…everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out.”
Now, when I first heard that line I thought to myself “Yea, that seems about right.”
But then I chewed on it for a couple of days and thought “No, that’s horseshit.”
I don’t know a lot about my past. I mean, sure my past, but beyond that? It gets real hazy. I know virtually nothing about my paternal grandfather and his family and even less about my maternal grandfather. About 50% (25% ascribed to each grandparent) of my life being illuminated by the past is missing.
I’ve picked up bits and pieces over the years, but I am hardly satiated. If there is any illumination at all, it’s rather dim.
Years of therapy later, I am learning how to deal with things (poorly) I never will know. For me, learning how to accept the unknown is a lot like having an itch you can’t scratch. While I believe that you can’t unknow what you know; I also believe that you can’t know what you can’t get answers to.
I want to believe that things do become more illuminated in the light of the past. But, I would argue, only if you are willing to look for those things. You see, I want to know more about my history and, for a myriad of reasons, I never will. The likelihood of my life being “illuminated in the light of the past” is muted at best, if not entirely diminished by the voids.
But of those that can irradiate their past, there are far too many who are blind to it, refuse to look at it or just plain ignore it. (I guess it is worth noting, I am not referring to atrocities or horrible abuses, just your normal dysfunction.)
You see, if we believe that “everything is illuminated in the light of the past“, we must work under two presumptions. One, the person has access to their past and two, they are receptive to learning about it. If one or both presumptions prove true, how then do we explain the child repeatedly turning to the narcissistic parent for the love they’ve never received and probably never will?
The spurned lover who continues to turn down the sheet, hoping?
The continued acceptance of the narratives we create for ourselves?
Are we just dumb? Gluttons for punishment?
Is it the familial obligation that brings about the return of the child?
Is it the fear of making the unknown of a new lover known?
Is it the belief that the narratives we create might actually change or, even worse, be real?
Can it be as simple as people being that unaware of who they are? Of where they came from? Of how they live their lives?
Could that lack of self be the only deficit to finding any meaning from illuminating the past? Unlikely, but probably a pretty big piece.
Self awareness comes from many things, but most certainly from reflection and I believe we can learn from that. I also believe there is a biological predisposition to behavior that is important to understand…as best you can. Our personal narrative can only change if we are open to reflection and work towards an understanding.
Could anyone who actively and openly reflects on any sort of past, near or far, really not see any element of it occurring in the now?
But is rumination enough? Unlikely, but it seems like a good place to start.
I don’t pretend to be some sort of “all together guy”. I’m not. Hell, I don’t even strive to be. I enjoy the journey and the learning too much.
As I fumble my way through this entry I must conclude that my “horseshit” thesis is wrong. Maybe “everything is illuminated in the light of the past“. Well, not everything, but an awful lot.
We’d be dumb to turn our back on the light from the past and exclude it from the present to help guide us on our own way to the future.
“(The past) does not exist for you. You exist for it. You have come because it exists.“