Amnon Ben-Ami, Woman with Two Heads, 2009, oil on paper
This story originally appeared in The East Bay Review, Fall 2017. It appears here reposted.
It was a miserable April in Paris. The temperature hovered just above freezing and there was a constant threat of rain. I'd flown from Boston for an academic conference asking scholars to present "notions of proliferation" in "historical pragmatics." Someone on the organizing committee had read my article on "tragic foresight" in Harold Laski's Liberty in the Modern State and invited me to speak. The organizers had a "global vision" and welcomed any American that would fit their agenda.
At the reception, the evening before the conference, I ran into Thomas Neuerdorf, a recent doctoral graduate I'd met at the last pragmatics conference in Norway. I found him less self-important than the other so-called scholars and went over to say hello. He smiled when he saw me and raised his wine glass.
"I'm glad you're here," I said to him. "I'll have someone to drink with at the end of these boring days."
"Why do you bother crossing the Atlantic for this?"
"The department pays for my ticket."
As we clinked glasses one of the keynote speakers, Rolf Gerhardt, came and greeted Thomas in German. Rolf was wearing a shiny light gray suit and sporty black-framed designer glasses. Thomas and I wore muted pants and sweaters. I'd seen Rolf at the conference in Norway too – a hotshot from Tübingen who'd coined the term “irrecorded history.” It was supposed to describe histories that had been first “recorded” then “wiped out.” I'd argued two years ago that we had plenty of words that already said the same thing: suppressed, censored, erased, denied, revised. But the term caught on and there was no way of dissuading anyone from using it. I'd told Thomas that I hoped it would go out of style by the time we met in Paris. Instead Rolf was giving a plenary talk on the continuing evolution of “irrecordedness” in pragmaticist theory.
After a few German pleasantries Thomas introduced me to Rolf – who merely smiled from behind his black framed glasses and nodded with his round cheeks before going off to say hello to someone else.
“What a jerk,” I said to Thomas as Rolf walked away.
“You didn't like him in Norway either.”
“What's to like? He's trapped in his own ideas.”
“You think so? I'm not so quick to judge.”
“It's obvious,” I said. “He's trying to convince you of something he barely believes himself.”
“Are any one of us really convinced of what we have to say?”
The reception ended early and most people went back to their hotels. The conference was at the Cité universitaire at the edge of the city but I'd rented a small room in the center of the Latin Quarter – so I could experience a little bit of Bohemian Paris. On the way back, watching people on the metro and streets, I thought about what Thomas had said. In a way, he was right, and none of our ideas were really convincing. Tragic foresight was actually no better a concept than irrecordedness since no one in the real world cared about theories. So-called experts like us were as ignorant as anyone else. It's just that we pretended to know more than we really did. The least we could do was to admit that history wasn't about the hidden meaning of form and syntax – that it was about human experience.
The next morning I decided to scrap my prepared talk and focus on what history was really about: people. After a long day of lectures, about everything from Mongolian Tengrism to postcolonial expansionism, I got a chance to present my position. I used my panel to say that if we, super-educated professionals, couldn't find a way to connect to a larger part of society we would kill the humanities for ourselves and for generations to come. I said that we had to rethink our entire methodology and put the human being at the center. We had to find a language that would preserve our scholarly integrity while making it accessible to people who really cared about history. If we were so smart, I said, we had to find a way to speak about all these important events without losing the interest of those we were serving -- the public.
Of the four aging professors who'd come to hear my presentation only one deigned to respond. He told me I was missing the entire raison d'être of scholarly investigation and said my intransigent blindness was an obvious symptom of American ignorance and hypocrisy.
"May I ask when you last visited the insignificant and inferior American continent?" I asked him.
"I wouldn't waste my precious research time," he said. "It's enough to hear the echoes of arrogance from every American publication that reaches me right here in Paris."
I politely suggested to him that as a rigorous researcher he would perhaps recognize the value of seeing things for himself.
That more or less ended the session. Everyone went out to the hospitality table to pour themselves coffee. I went out into the hallway thinking about how things always got mixed up. I'd spoken from the heart -- and all it had done was instigate hate and anger.
I looked up and saw Thomas holding two paper cups.
"Coffee?" he asked.
I took the coffee and said the session had been a disaster. He apologized for not attending and explained that his doctoral adviser had been speaking at the same time. I told him it didn't matter -- the whole thing had been a shouting match. He asked what I'd said and I explained the gist of my presentation.
"You came to a conference on historical pragmatics and said that theory doesn't matter?"
"I said what was I believe. I'm a person. Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Not at a scholarly conference."
Thomas and I went to the day's last panel together. As we came out he said he was having drinks in the Latin Quarter with a few conference participants -- mostly doctoral students and postdocs -- and asked whether I'd like to join. After my presentation I wasn't sure I could contribute to any conversation. But since it was on the way back I figured I'd tag along for a quick beer and then call it a night.
We ended up going to an English pub just next to the Panthéon and by the time we arrived the others had already grabbed a booth in the back. The place was crowded -- it was happy hour and the cold evening brought everyone inside. I sat at the end of the booth next to a German doctoral student who introduced herself as Janne. Thomas sat across the table next to a Dutch postdoc named Marleen. There was also a French research assistant named Jacques who'd helped organize the conference, a British postdoc named Lawrence who'd suggested the pub, and a young American professor named Betty sitting in the far corner.
"I didn't know there were any other Americans at the conference," I said across the table.
"Either way," Betty answered, “we're surrounded by Continentals.”
"I'm not Continental," Lawrence said, "and I'm also not American."
"So you basically don't have allies," Jacques said.
"In our country," answered Lawrence, “we call that a state of distinction.”
"In ours we call it independence," Betty countered.
"In my country we don't really think those things," said Marleen. "We keep to ourselves and try to respect others."
"And expect others to keep to themselves too," said Thomas.
"Naturally," said Marleen. "Don't you?"
"We're not really in a position to decide about others," said Janne. "We're focused on respecting people's rights."
"In the most efficient way," Thomas added and started laughing.
At some point a waitress came over to take our order. I asked for a beer and I remember that Thomas did the same. I don't remember what everyone else had except for Janne -- who ordered white wine. I also remember that the drinks arrived quickly.
Janne asked me what I'd presented at the conference and I told her about my speech. She laughed and said she'd heard someone at the hospitality table complaining about me. Apparently they said I'd ranted incoherently for twenty minutes and then insulted the only person who was trying to give me constructive criticism. I said that to me it felt like I'd tried to present some personal beliefs about the future of the humanities and had been attacked for my national affiliation. She laughed again and said it sounded like my interlocutor and I had attended two different presentations.
Most of us had finished our first round and Betty suggested we stay for dinner. I was hungry so I agreed -- as did the others. We ordered our food and Betty said we should all do shots together. Without really waiting for any response told she the waitress to bring us seven shots of rye whiskey -- which she said was what they drink where she came from. When the shots arrived she stood up.
“I want to make a toast,” she said. “I think it's only fair that we all acknowledge, together, what makes us historical pragmaticists. And that thing, I believe, is our shared instinctual tendency to face history where it really happens – not on the level of extraordinary worldly events, which are all outer show, but in the internal realm of language, which is always soft, engulfing, and mysterious. It's what brings us together and also what will change the way that history is taught and understood. Cheers!”
Betty raised her drink, downed the whiskey, and slammed the glass on the table as she settled back into her seat. The rest of us followed suit – raising our shots, crying Cheers, and drinking. The whiskey burned and I was glad we'd ordered food.
I asked Janne what she was presenting at the conference. She said he'd spoken earlier that day and that her research involved rape testimony, specifically the way that linguistic structure reflected trauma. Her main claim was that the way women spoke about rape -- and not only the things they said -- could tell us about their experience. She believed her research would be relevant to police investigating assaults and to psychologists working with domestically abused women. In her opinion too much attention was put on the details they told and not enough on the language they used to convey those details. Her hope was that this research would introduce language analysis into rape historiography across the world.
I was bowled over by the compassionate and thoughtful tone Janne used to speak about her research. I'd have expected someone working on a topic like this to be angry at the very existence of the crime.
I said this to her and she smiled faintly.
"I do get angry," she said. "But I'm not a policewoman. I focus on ways that I can help -- and I've found that after something like this happens women need to be understood. That means that the people listening need to be more familiar with how women talk about their experiences."
"I'm very sorry I missed your talk," I said.
We finished dinner and had several rounds of drinks. I looked at Janne -- she had pale skin, straight dark hair pulled into a short ponytail, and piercings up and down her ears. There was a tiny black star tattooed onto the nape of her neck. Her brown eyes projected a combination of strength and caution. I was about to ask her whether she would be willing to email me her presentation when Thomas waved his hand to catch my attention.
"Betty says she has some wine up at her hotel room. She invited us to come up. What do you think?"
"It's just around down the street," she added from the corner.
I hadn't planned on drinking into the night -- but I was enjoying Janne's company and didn't really think I'd go back to the conference in the morning.
"Do you feel like joining?" I asked Janne.
"I'm staying across the hall from Betty," she said.
Everyone paid their bill and we all went outside. At the door Lawrence and Jacques said they wanted to get some sleep before tomorrow's long day at the conference.
"Sleep when you're home," Betty said with the ring of alcohol. "This is Paris!"
"I happen to live in Paris," Jacques said.
Lawrence raised his eyebrows.
"And I happen to like sleep."
They left and the five of us headed downhill: Thomas, Betty, and Marleen walking up ahead and discussing something loudly while Janne and I lagged behind. She asked me why I'd decided to change the topic of my talk that morning. I told her it had to do with questioning myself. I said I wished I could think in more practical terms, like she did, but that my mind worked differently and always made things abstract. She said she didn't think one way of thinking canceled out the other and that they were both important. I thanked her for indulging me but insisted that there her project was probably more convincing to most people than my mad hatter speech.
"The mad hatter isn't supposed to convince anyone," she laughed. "He's supposed to make people ask questions."
"Which makes him annoying."
The others had reached the hotel and Betty turned around.
"Come on you two!"
We caught up with them and entered the lobby.
"So which would you rather do?"
Betty was looking at us waiting for an answer.
I wasn't sure what she was talking about so I glanced at Janne -- who seemed to also be lost.
The five of us packed tight into a tiny elevator and started going up to the third floor.
"Do about what?" I asked.
"Did you miss the whole conversation?"
"It seems we did. "
"We're asking a hypothetical question," she said. "If you had to choose between begging on the street in the middle of the day and working as a prostitute at night -- which would you choose?"
The elevator stopped and we all tumbled into the hallway toward Betty's room. It was small space with a bed and two chairs. I stepped inside and stood next to a window overlooking the street while Thomas walked over to the sink to uncork two bottles. Janne went to her room to bring a few extra courtesy cups. Once the bottles were open, Betty, Thomas, and Marleen spread out across the bed while I sat on a chair in front of the window. Janne came back and sat in the second chair next to a small writing table. We filled our cups with wine and toasted to the success of our conference.
"So!" said Betty. "Which would it be?"
I'd forgotten the question.
"Prostitution or begging?"
I didn't really understand what they were talking about. I wasn't sure it was worth answering. I looked over at Janne and hoped to find her as disinterested as I was. But she seemed lost in thought.
"I don't know," she said. "I guess I'd prefer to be a prostitute."
I was taken aback by Janne's answer.
"And you?" Betty asked.
It felt like a trick question.
"Can I have more than two choices?” I asked. “Can I be a street musician?"
Betty refilled everyone's wine glasses.
"You have to choose one of the two," she said.
She lay down on the bed next to Thomas and began caressing his leg with her hand.
"I'm not sure," I said and turned to Janne. "Why would you choose prostitution?"
"It's less humiliating," she said. "You're not on the street in the middle of the day."
Her answer didn't seem to fit with everything she'd said about trauma.
"What about you?" I asked Thomas.
"Definitely prostitution," he said with a smile.
There was sarcasm in his voice -- he clearly wasn't taking the question seriously. I also noticed he had his arms around Betty's waist.
"And you?" Betty insisted again.
I wish I could have taken things lightly too -- producing a wry comment and making everyone laugh. But something stopped me. The same thing that had made me change my topic that morning. It was a sense that people should stand up for what they believe matters.
"I would never choose prostitution," I said.
Betty produced a big grin and took gulp of wine.
I took a deep breath. I knew that I should probably not tell the truth. I could see from the faces around me that whatever I said would be misconstrued. And yet I just couldn't stop myself from saying what I believed.
"It's simple logic," I said. "You're pushed into either prostitution or begging because of some extreme difficulty. You need a way out but you want to avoid public humiliation. So you choose prostitution. You think that this way you won't feel ashamed in front of others. But you haven't really solved the problem of humiliation. Because you're a person too and you can't hide from yourself. The shame's still there."
Betty gulped the rest of her wine.
"And what if you have a baby that you need to feed?" she asked.
"Then you probably shouldn't be putting yourself in compromising situations," I said.
"Who do you think you are?" she said and slammed her cup down on the table.
“You think you can dictate what's shameful to other people?”
“Not at all,” I answered. “It was Janne who said she'd choose prostitution to avoid humiliation.”
“So you appropriated her answer and turned it on its head for your own moralistic purposes.”
“No,” I said. “I simply pointed out the oversight in that particular logic.”
“Because you obviously know what feels more humiliating to someone else.”
I looked at Janne hoping for support but she had a strange expression on her face. It took me a moment to realize it was disappointment.
"You agree with her?" I asked.
"Your attitude is a little patriarchal," she said.
"She asked me a question. I gave her an answer. I was just trying to be logical."
Janne looked over at Betty.
"I think he's trying to put himself in someone else's shoes and saying that prostitution would be humiliating for him."
"What he's trying to do," said Betty, “is put his shoes on someone else."
I looked at Marleen sitting silently on the corner of the bed. She was the only person who hadn't said anything.
"Do you agree with them?" I asked.
"Actually I don't know if I'd choose prostitution either," she said. "But your logic isn't very considerate from a feminine perspective."
I looked at Thomas -- whose legs were entwined in Betty's.
"I wasn't thinking about feminine and masculine," I said. "I was thinking about human."
"Your human," Marleen said, "is male."
Betty sat up on the bed and pointed her finger at my face.
"As a former sex worker," she said, "I would like to assure you that your perspective is anything but human. I got myself through graduate school showing men how I masturbate online -- and it also put food on the table for my daughter. So don't talk to me about shame or logic. Talk to me about responsibility."
Betty lay back down on the bed and Thomas caressed her shoulders and head. Marleen sat silently in her corner. Janne crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. Whatever affinity had grown between us over dinner was obviously extinguished.
I looked at my wristwatch. It was nearly two in the morning and I suddenly decided that I didn't want to skip the last conference day. I'd come all the way here and managed to alienate just about every person I'd met -- the least I could do was to go and listen to my colleagues talk about their work.
"I think I'll go," I said. "We have a long day tomorrow."
Thomas looked surprised.
"There are some panels I wanted to hear."
"What for?" Betty asked. "You're learning more here than you ever will at the conference."
I got up and started putting on my coat.
"We didn't mean to gang up on you," Janne protested. "It was just a conversation."
I finished the wine in my cup and put it down on the table.
"It was a very interesting conversation," I said. "But I think I've had enough."
As I got up I saw Thomas raise his hand to get my attention.
"Wait for me," he said. "I'll go with you."
For a moment I wasn't sure I'd heard him right. He and Betty had their hands all over each other. They were already in her bed. I'd assumed he'd spend the night.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Wait for me downstairs," he said.
Betty scowled. Not only had I offended her honor but I'd also ruined her seduction.
I lowered my eyes and walked out of the room without looking anyone in the eye.
I took the elevator downstairs and waited in the lobby. I was about to give up when I heard the elevator called upstairs. A few seconds later it came back down and when the doors opened Thomas stepped out.
"Thanks," he said.
"Don't you want to stay?"
"I'd better go," he said.
We walked out of the hotel and stood in front of the building.
"Aren't you staying somewhere nearby?" he asked.
"On the other side of the hill," I said.
"I'll walk you."
We headed up back toward the Panthéon in silence. The streets were deserted. The air was cold and dense. Paris held none of its famous charm. It was just a cold city at night. I looked over at Thomas and saw tears streaming down his cheeks.
I didn't know what to say so I put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted to reassure him that he wasn't alone.
"Don't do that," he said.
I removed my hand and we walked in silence.
"What happened back there?” I asked.
"I was being passive,” he said, “to see how far it would go."
“Did you want anything to happen?”
"I think I just wanted a little attention."
A few minutes later we reached my building. I offered Thomas to sleep on the futon. It was nearly three o'clock and his hotel was near the conference venue at the edge of the city.
He shook his head.
"I like to walk alone at night."
He'd stopped crying and I shook his hand goodbye. Neither of us had gloves and the handshake was cold.
Thomas continued down the street and I went into the building. As I began to climb the staircase it suddenly occurred to me that he was mourning someone he'd loved dearly. And I couldn't explain the feeling but the higher I climbed the stairs the more I got the sense that whoever it was had killed herself.
In the morning, despite myself, I went to hear Rolf Gerhardt's talk on the evolution of irrecordedness. When I got to the main auditorium I looked for Thomas. But he wasn't there. I took a seat in the back where there were less people. Looking toward the front I saw Janne sitting with Betty and Marleen. Someone nearby smelled like old sweat and I considered changing seats. Instead I took shallower breaths.
After an enthusiastic introduction and round of applause Rolf got on stage and began his talk. He spoke with a serious and pleasant voice – measured but not too heavy. His ideas were simple and clear. There wasn't anything risky about what he said. He gave an overview of what he'd proposed in his early articles and then surveyed how those ideas had been applied by others in their work. The whole thing lacked any controversy. With each word he preserved and extended his place in the scholarly community – making himself one of them without challenging anyone's position. He managed to get up in front of a hundred people, say very little, and elicit a sense of common purpose that earned him another round of applause. It was brilliant.
When the talk was over I went out to the hospitality table. Janne was standing there pouring herself a cup of coffee. And so was Thomas, who noticed me walking over.
“You're here!” he said.
“I looked for you,” I answered. “Were you inside?”
“I was up front,” he said, “just next to Janne.”
“I didn't see you.”
“Join us for coffee?” Janne asked.
“I guess so.”
She and Thomas stepped over to one of the round bar tables while I went to pour myself a cup of coffee. When I rejoined them they were talking about the presentation.
“I was just telling Janne about our conversation at the reception,” Thomas said.
“About your assessment of Rolf,” she said.
“Listening to him today,” Thomas continued, “I suddenly understood what you were talking about. His ideas don't exactly come together. He has one or two insights into the way that history is told, and then he gets lost in generalities. When you criticized him in Norway I didn't understand what bothered you so much. Even at the reception I thought you were being harsh. But after hearing him today I realized you were right. There's something fraudulent about his brilliance.”
I sipped at my coffee and looked at Thomas, suddenly remembering the tears that had flowed down his cheeks the night before. He seemed cheerier now, less bothered, but in the corners of his eyes I could still sense the loss that had appeared on his face.
“I'm not sure I was right about anything,” I told him. “And if I was, I'm not sure what good it does.”
© Copyright David Stromberg