Back from Los Angeles and Tombstone.
The emotional and intellectual high point of my West journey--- for want of a better word--- came when Jim Kari showed me an obituary in the on-line version of the Anchorage Daily News: LAST NATIVE SPEAKER OF EYAK LANGUAGE IS DEAD AT 89. Next to the obituary was a chart listing the native tribes of Alaska, the number of each and the number of remaining native speakers.
Jim was furious at the appearance of the chart. It is part of the death watch on the these languages, Jim was shouting. This came as a shock as he is usually a very even tempered, easy going guy who I have known for now more than 40 years. His voice was angry, as if he had been slapped hard in the face. That chart serves no purpose, it is depressing and an invasion of the privacy of the native peoples of Alaska, he said.
For a long time that day and the next I really did not understand the anger that Jim was expressing. I understood that this was part of a long standing argument with another academic in Alaska who had made a name for himself by endlessly talking about the dying languages of Alaska and without doing very much to encourage their growth and survival. This other fellow seems to get a perverse sort of pleasure from harping on the disappearance of these languages: thus Jim's comment on the near pornographic delight this fellow took in elaborating his language death watch.
Jim objected to the whole tone of the obituary of Chief Marie Smith Jones, this 89 year old woman who had lived an extraordinarily hard, yet typical Native person's life yet was able to work for the repatriation of bones from the Smithsonian and in spite of only having a fourth grade education--- having quit school when she was mis-told that women could not be pilots--- had been a speaker at a United Nations conferences on indigenous peoples... and many other details which underlined both the ordinariness of this woman's life and the simple fact of her being the last speaker of Eyak.
In no way did Jim begrudge this woman the obituary but he did object to the fact that her life had come down to that simple factual headline: she was a last speaker--- and the implication that there would be no more speakers of Eyak.
For more than 30 years Jim has done the hard emotionally draining work of preserving native languages in Alaska: he has done the recording, transcribing and the translating of poems, stories and tales of the Dena'ina people. He has compiled the various dictionaries, grammars and as a result he has produced a written version of that language.
But I would come back to my failure to understand his anger by trying to rescue the obituary as being of the order of one I had seen in Le Figaro where there had been an article about the recent death of the second to last surviving veteran of World War One... no, it is not like that, Jim would say. You do not understand that such charts, such obituaries are very discouraging to native peoples, very depressing in the sense of how would you feel if you were constantly being told that you were at the end of the line?... it is this foreclosure of possibility that I object to and most native peoples object to. These articles and these charts have only the affect of depressing people and they are a incredible invasion of privacy.
Back in the city I told my wife Anna about the above conversation. Anna's first language is Estonian. Yes, Jim is right. Whenever I think of Estonia, of the Estonian language I realize how small we are. Between and among all those Russians, Germans, Poles... I know what he is talking about. Anna and I had both recently seen the film THE SINGING REVOLUTION which while being an optimistic film did underline just how close Estonia and the Estonians had come to being made extinct.
Back in the city in the room on East First Street: what had all that been about in that child house of Jim in Hermosa Beach, where he was visiting from his home in Fairbanks... here in Hermosa Beach where he had grown up, been and was still a surfer, from where he had gone to UCLA, to the Peace Corps in Turkey and then via studies of the Athabascam languages at the University of New Mexico and then for all those years at the University of Alaska and still today in a few days going back to Alaska to work on transcribing and translating stories of work and spiritual matters with an aging Native informant... never doing it for the money or fame but solely for the purposes of providing as a result of his vocation the possibility of these languages continuing...
Back in the city, the nagging question why be interested in such obscure peoples? I realized the problem was in that word obscure and I guess I should wonder why I should even use such a word or even think in such terms as my own life has been devoted to what could easily be described as being obscure:::::: having published (Dalkey Archive Press) obscure well reviewed things: the execution of Nikola Petkov in Sofia, Bulgaria in THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PEKOV, traveling to, being in and coming back from the village of Patchogue in GOING TO PATCHOGUE
==while at the same time the unpublished work: focused on James Thomson BV in TO FORGET THE FUTURE, my life as a messenger in EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS, a life and lives in Dublin in ST. PATRICK'S DAY, DUBLIN 1974... the beginning and the end of the so-called 60s in JUST LIKE THAT and A BEGINNING OF AN END
==and other books, piles of them, which will only most likely be stuff the kids will have to throw away when they come to clean out this room to dispose of the evidence of my obscure life. A familiar (what?) though no less painful for it, because of this familiarity.
The only way out was to embrace the idea of Max Stirner: out of the creative nothingness of our selves is everything possible, the possibility of art: real art, the work of art that seeks to overcome the sure mortality of its maker--- and the ONLY reason to do such art: to rescue from forgetfulness, to rescue from the nothingness that is ever present in the form of the always temporary addictive acclaim of the masses, who always get it wrong.
A little act of faith, a little hint to always mis-trust the well known, the well known bad writers, bad movies even if they are desscribed as they always are as being the latest great and wonderful...
from a review by Russell Desmond. A quote from Louis de Bonald:
All things beautiful are severe.