I lived in Europe for nearly seven years, in London and Amsterdam mostly, but also Istanbul and Crete. I called myself an expatriate, travelled around and one day recognized myself as an American who had imbibed, unwittingly, attitudes about what was good, bad, etc. Living among others in their societies started a process of de-education. My de-education, endless. Franz Kafka wrote that his education ‘damaged’ him, and ‘tried to make another person out of me’.
US filmmaker Stan Brakhage shot and directed ‘The Pittsburgh Trilogy’ in the early 1970s. Its third part, The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes (1971), is set in a city morgue and shows autopsies. I probably looked away often, but the idea of ‘seeing with one’s own eyes’ has, since then, haunted me.
Last December, I flew to Nairobi to be on the faculty of the Summer Literary Seminars (SLS), a programme started by writer Mikhail Iossel. He has run SLS programmes in St Petersburg, Vilnius and, most recently, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and in Kenya. I taught in Vilnius in the summer of 2009 and found the denial of history nightmarish. Nearly all of its Jewish population was murdered in World War II by the Nazis and their ‘willing executioners’. With dread, I visited the Museum of Genocide Victims in a building that once housed the Gestapo, then the KGB. There was no mention of the fate of Lithuanian Jews. When I asked why not, I was told: ‘They have their own museum.’ In 2011, the Museum of Genocide Victims was renamed the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Along with the new name, it added a small room dedicated to the Holocaust. But the remark ‘they have their own museum’ signifies an historical attitude that a small room and a name change don’t change.
I’d been to Africa once, Morocco, primarily to visit the US novelist and composer Paul Bowles. I wanted to go to Kenya, someplace different, to see different land, structures, wild animals not in zoos, and be somewhere without my daily comforts and routines. I would not be able to be my usual self, since a self, if one exists, might only be a series of self-inflicted routines.
In Maasai country, a small group of SLS participants was driven into the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Our driver and guide, Joseph, took circuitous routes to find animals. We saw several elephant families, two different lionesses and their cubs, giraffes, warthogs (ugly as the name), impala, Maasai cattle, goats, sheep, hippos in the water, even one as it climbed out. The most unusual, I learned: a male leopard sleeping under a tree. A female, with a gorgeous burnt-orange coat and black spots, kept circling him, nudging him, but she couldn’t arouse him. She kept trying until he swatted her with his big paw and she ran off. In the jeep, theories arose about why he didn’t want sex. I mused, in the US people are having less sex. Maybe leopards are too.
Last, we spied a lioness sleeping under a bush. She lounged contentedly on her back, her huge padded paws crossed over her tawny chest. I took some pictures because she looked like our cat, Basie.
There is a difference seeing wild animals roaming freely, not pacing back and forth anxiously as animals in captivity do. When they appeared around a bend, they startled me, but the experience of seeing them with my own eyes didn’t seem different enough. I watch many nature movies, animal documentaries with close-ups that put viewers nearly in a lion’s maw. Maybe those endless representations, great films and photographs, which showed them close-up and personal, made their actual presence feel virtual still. The glut of images. In their presence, some of us were ecstatic. I wished I were. Ecstasy! I had expectations that so-called ‘real life’ didn’t satisfy.
Seeing with my own eyes – whose eyes? There’s a great story – apocryphal or actual – about a documentary filmmaker, years ago, who wanted to shoot on Navajo land and asked the tribal leader for permission. ‘Is it good for the sheep?’ the leader asked. ‘No,’ the filmmaker said. ‘Is it bad for the sheep?’ ‘No.’ Then, the tribal leader asked: ‘If it’s not good or bad for the sheep, why do you do it?’
Why do we do what we do, and in the way we do it? Things have come about as they have, with disruptions and wars and rebellions, and people find themselves with the systems they have. It’s a question I often ask myself, and you, reader, may also.
As for seeing those animals in the wild: I took pictures with my iPhone. They came out pretty well. I might feel more when I look at them later on. Then memory will have played its tricks.
Erratum from frieze no. 202 (April 2019): In Lynne Tillman’s column, we misprinted the title of Stan Brakhage’s film, The Act of Seeing with one's own eyes, and the number of autopsies it includes. There are more than one. The image was also incorrectly credited to Brakhage and Fred Camper. It is by Mike Chikiris. We apologise to Marilyn Brakhage and Fred Camper for our error.
Main Image: Stan Brakhage filming The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 1971. Courtesy: © 2019 Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; photograph: Michael Chikiris
First published in Issue 202