June 2009

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Alice’s Woods

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

And sometimes he's so nameless,

That he hardly knows which game to play...

Which words to say...

Jefferson Airplane, “Lather”

In a scene from “Alice in Wonderland” which, for reasons I did not understand, I found completely gripping in childhood, Alice enters a woods where the creatures lose their identities:

“This must be the wood," she said thoughtfully to herself, " where things have no names. I wonder what'll become of my name when I go in? I shouldn't like to lose it at all — because they'd have to give me another, and it would be almost certain to be an ugly one.”

While walking in the woods, unable to recall who or what she is, Alice encounters a fawn:

Just then a Fawn came wandering by. It looked at Alice with its large, gentle eyes, but didn't seem at all frightened. "Here, then! Here, then!" Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.

" What do you call yourself?" the Fawn said at last. Such a soft, sweet voice it had!

" I wish I knew! " thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, " Nothing, just now."

           " Think again," it said; " that won't do."

Then they exit the woods of unknowing:

      [T]he Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice's arms.

"I'm a Fawn!" it cried out in a voice of delight; "and dear, me!  you're a human child!" A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

I think the reason I loved this passage was that I felt like that fawn, and craved those woods. As a nerdy child and young adult, and, later, from a background alien to many of the people with whom I tried to associate, I often saw discomfort, and sometimes contempt, in the eyes of others.  How graceful it would have been, to end any awkward situation, by saying, “I’m a fawn! And you’re a human child”, and bounding away.

In adult life, one of the most influential things I have read is Ernst Renan’s simple, powerful little essay, “What is a Nation?” in which he argues that nations are based not only on what people remember together (Bastille or Alamo), but on what they forget:

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation….

One of the examples he gives is the French, forgetting they slaughtered all the Protestants in their country one fateful day. In the United States, we can live together amicably today largely forgetting that the Framers were mainly violent slave-owners, that we massacred almost all the Indians, that we stole Hawaii from its queen, that we forced the South to remain in the Union at gun-point

Renan’s forgetting is a very different type than Alice’s. Alice’s ignorance of her identity is neutral and innocent. Renan is identifying a form of the hypocrisy that oils the wheels of all social intercourse. Although dishonest in nature, it is a key to peace on earth. No peoples ever at war would be able to live together if not able to forget the past. Formerly murderous people would not be able to live with themselves, and attempt to carry on as good people, if not for forgetfulness. Romain Gary made fun of this phenomenon in his novel “Genghis Cohen”, in which the serial murder of twenty or thirty people in 1950’s Germany is touted by the press as “the crime of the century”.

It is impossible to imagine Jews and Arabs ever living together without some kind of forgetfulness. The forgetting, by the way, is not merely passive but has an active component: it opens the door to seeing good qualities in the other—friendship, loyalty, compassion—which would have been blocked out if we saw them through the lens of hateful memories.

John Sayles’ fine movie “Lone Star”(1996) riffs on this theme as it examines the entwining of Latino and Anglo communities in Texas in ways open and secret, clean and literally incestuous. When a couple who have been on again, off again lovers for decades, discover that they are half brother and sister (due to an affair his Anglo father had with her illegal immigrant mother), the woman, arguing that they not separate, says the movie’s memorable last line: “Forget the Alamo.”

Of course, to argue in favor of forgetting, we have to deal with the objection so often assigned to Santayana (but rarely to a specific source in his works), that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” In a perfect world of perfectly mature human beings, we would remember and forgive, or at least overlook. But few people are capable of that.

I remembered Alice’s woods when I took up scuba diving. I had been force fed a lot of information about sea creatures which wasn’t strictly accurate; moray eels, for example, are popularly presented as the rattlesnakes of the sea, planting their fangs in the legs of unwary divers. The first time I saw one, the transcendent pleasure I felt in floating above the reefs and beautiful creatures led me to forget the reductive names of things. Without a name, a moray is a pleasantly ugly fat green creature which just wants to be left alone.

I recently realized that I have lived a significant part of my life in Alice’s woods. Back around 2003, I had an experience which seemed so remarkable I have described it here several times. After a hernia repair operation, I was unable to resume working on my ambulance for about six weeks, and accepted a job in the office of the ambulance company. The people I worked with on the “watch desk” became friends and sympathetic acquaintances. One day, an outsider, a young Italian American man, came into the office, became visibly nervous and left. One of my friends remarked, “he doesn’t like being around the moulinars”.  In a flash, I realized I was the only white person in the office, and had been for many weeks. I had actually forgotten my race, and everybody else’s, something I would never have imagined was possible in America. On the first episode of “The Jeffersons” television series in the 1970’s, a goofy British neighbor comes by to introduce himself to the upwardly mobile black couple. He leaves, rings the doorbell again, and says, happily, “You’re black!” At the time, it seemed impossible that race would be the last thing you notice, rather than the first.

As an emergency medical technician, I worked in Harlem and the South Bronx. Often, as a sort of exercise, at the end of a tour I would ask myself how many white people I had seen. Often enough, when I was working with a black or Latina partner, I was the only one.

The mental trick I unconsciously used to become accustomed to people, was identical to the one involving the moray eel. By forgetting reductive categories, I had become able to see through to people’s actual qualities. African American teenagers wearing baggy clothing, even dreadlocks, had stopped making me nervous years ago, because I had learned to see into people’s faces, to their essential kindness and respect for others. An almost imperceptibly tiny subset of the people my parents and peers found frightening, actually wore expressions of cruelty or dishonesty on their faces.

On the ambulance (when I was arguably on a manic crest for several years, metaphorically touched by Legba, god of liminality and the crossroads), I went into underworld loci, illegal clubs, even gang headquarters, without any fear; it didn’t matter to me that the people I saw there had been violent to others. I saw only people who genuinely wanted to help me rescue their knifed brother or asthmatic grandmother.

 With my EMT colleagues, I was also in Alice’s woods. On quiet nights on an ambulance in Queens, my young partner and I would park next to one worked by two popular female paramedics, and we would sit in the back of their vehicle, swapping war stories, interspersed with flirting among the three twenty-somethings. I constantly forgot I was more than twenty years older than everybody else.

This leads to what I regard as the only real risk of living in Alice’s woods. I remember one of the medics looking at me hesitantly,  before she told a ribald story. “I always forget I’m so much older than you,” I said. “I don’t,” she replied. “Sometimes its kind of creepy.” In our society, people who forget who they are, are frequently regarded as being inappropriate or crazy. One night in Coney Island, a woman working the street like a prostitute, in a miniskirt and low cut blouse, looked like a teenager at a distance. Close up, she proved to be in her seventies and probably schizophrenic.

The rewards of living in Alice’s woods, however, have been much greater than the occasional embarrassment. Another beneficial effect has been amazingly rewarding friendships with women, possible only because I forget, during hours spent together, that we are of different genders. Men and women, I have always known, can be friends as such; but imagine how much more you can learn about someone, how much closer you can become, when you are unconscious of sexual differences.

I love Alice’s woods, which have immeasurably enrichened my life. I believe I am a better human for the time I have spent there.