Truth, freedom, and identity: scattered travel thoughts

The contemporary struggle for truth and freedom isn’t quite contemporary; it’s a debate that existed long before the horrors of 2016 (I apologise for referencing Buzzfeed), Conway’s #alternativefacts, or the purported end-of-American-democracy-as-we-know it. We often hear that we are at crucial crossroads, teetering on a precipice of intolerance and deceit never before encountered — but the conflation of truth and freedom, and the question of the nature of their existence, are matters that have plagued the human mind since the dawn of time. I think back to Sunday school: Veritas liberabit vos. “The truth will set you free,” Jesus proclaims in John 8:32. I remember furrowing my little brows in puzzlement, feeling somewhat more sympathetic to Pilates’ reply: “What is truth?”

What is truth, indeed. Here I sit, the extremities of my cydr-lubelski-soaked limbs (fingertips and toes, I can no longer tell one from the other, they all mingle in numb delight) tingling in the Varsawian night air, legs curled up on a wooden chair, near-arthritic fingers stiffly tapping away at the keys. It seems improper for me to comment on the nature of truth: I, a distant spectator in this city of rich but tragic history; I, a blurry-eyed tourist perched atop a £35/night minimalist-themed, Ikea-furniture-chocked Airbnb balcony overlooking the Vistula river; I, a mere speck throbbing against the collective hum of the city. Trams rumble past on arched railways; cars speed by, each disguised as a glistening streak of light diffusing across the glass pane. The modernness of it all fascinates me. Not that I expected anything less coming to Poland, but after spending a day at Auschwitz and watching several films (Schindler’s List, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, and The Pianist) on the war, I can’t help but be reminded of a recent time when war ravaged the city and Nazi soldiers pillaged through the quarters. Warsaw constantly reminds you of its “newness” — its forced regeneration — everywhere you turn. “Have you visited anywhere else in Poland?” asks Lech, our Airbnb host. Yes, I reply. Kraków. “Ah, it’s quite different, yes? Warsaw is very different, very new, because it is [sic] all rebuilt after the war.”

Warsaw is different. Warsaw is new. Warsaw is changed. Historical fact, repeated almost to the point of indoctrination. Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana writes. I can’t help but think that this “newness” is Warsaw’s “truth”. And yet —

“Arbeit macht frei.”

Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.

These words lie solemnly above the gate to Auschwitz, its message twisted tauntingly into stark, sans-serif capitalised letters. Work will set you free; the ironic slogan that tormented prisoners, day in, day out. It was one of Nazism’s core tenets, and not quite meant to be ironic; they truly believed in working hard, the idea of finding meaning and liberation in work. I wonder if we can call the Nazis’ resolute faith in hard work (or, as a corollary, the belief that eliminating “lazy and egotistical Jews” would forge a better future for Germany) their “truth”. The thought of it repulses me. Yet, I recall the moral complexity presented in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: under the conditions of the Third Reich, “an average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded or indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.”

Right, wrong. Truth imbued with morality. For many Nazis, the “truth” was the words of Hitler. The command of the Führer was the be-all and end-all, and the center of legal —  and for many, therefore moral — order. Who can say that we would not make the same choices, if put in the same position? Who is to say that we would not be convinced of a different set of subjective truths?

I refuse to believe that there isn’t such a thing as morality (here I conflate “truth” and “morality”, but in this discussion they are similar; here, “truth” is the acceptance of a collective system of values governing morality as reality) — that would make the world a very frightening, and somewhat pointless place — but our own prisms of truth are very much subjective, and dependent on our environment and contexts. It is a hard balance to strike; this balance between a commitment to the search for a collective “truth”, and the acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. It’s a struggle I’ve been thinking about, more so this past quarter. Acting in a pseudo-philosophical play that tackles ideas of truth, justice, and freedom (amongst other things) prompted me to question my own justifications for the opinions I hold. What was the play about, you ask? I still struggle to describe it. It is many things — too many things, perhaps — a play within a play, a story of two Chinese dissident artists trying to get their message across — about what? I still ask myself the question. About what?

I stood beneath the warmth of the stage light, face illuminated by the glare, feeling bare, feeling naked. Adopting a different persona is hard; constructing one is harder. The script was ambiguous enough in content; the character development even more so. Dropping lines like: “arcane American truth battles reveal the hollowness of her global outreach” and “authoritative bonds of appropriation” and “true truth is never easy” is hard when you’re not convinced of the message, or even the existence of a message. The play lacks focus, I thought, the playwright is pretentious, I disparaged, refusing to believe that my inability to grasp the play and feel it coursing through my veins boiled down to my inexperience as a first-time actress. But I venture to say that it was a success — many came up to us afterwards to say that they had been utterly blown away. Later on in the week, Caught came up in an aesthetics seminar, where two students who had seen our production called it their “aesthetic experience of the week”, and debated about the structure of the play and its message. Even so, post-production, I still feel that the play is somewhat ungrounded and attempts to punch above its own weight. Its folly lies in its pretension. Its merit lies in its confusion. In each scene, the previous scene is revealed to be somewhat of a farce. None of the characters seem to be able to come to an agreement with each other, and reconciliation only breeds more confusion and questioning.

I suppose that is the point of Caught, if it even has a point: to question. To question one’s own prejudices and prisms of truth, and to be unconvinced of its “rightness”. Ever since moving to America, I’ve realised that it’s comparatively easy to cause offense in one way or another. People tend to be more steeped in their own world views, resulting in both vitriolic arguments and a heightened sense of political correctness and awareness that paradoxically stifles free speech. People tend to care much more about what other people believe in. It’s a hard milieu to navigate without treading on someone else’s toes. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of having a much more diverse society, comprised of many different religions, backgrounds, races, and corresponding experiences.

Kafka writes on his deathbed that, “Deep down I am Chinese, and I am going home.” I find his declaration intriguing, amusing. As someone of Chinese descent I could never even imagine declaring that “Deep down I am Czech,” although admittedly it seems more natural to say, “Deep down I am American,” or “Deep down I am British.” Perhaps it’s because I am more well-acquainted with these cultures, or perhaps it’s because these nationalities are more cosmopolitan than homogenous. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel quite right to ascribe oneself a different nationality. I cringe, picturing an enraged gaggle of American teenage activists gathering outside my university hall, protesting the evils of cultural appropriation. I wonder how they’d respond to Kafka’s statement — I don’t know, and I don’t understand fully the source of their rage, just as I never understood why it was offensive for Caucasians to dress in bindis, or why I was somehow more entitled to dress up as Mulan on Halloween than someone not of Chinese descent. I wouldn’t feel the least bit offended if a friend turned up at my Halloween party dressed up as Emperor Qin Shi-Huang, or even Mao. For God’s sake, let people be who they want to be! It’s puzzling, the need to be culturally sensitive or “politically correct” over something that the minority (supposedly fragile and in need of protection) feel no qualms over. I suppose I am only one person in that vast group, but I doubt many of us care too much. As Joyce puts it (with a refreshing lack of political correctness): “I think it’s very American. And I think it’s bullshit.” Our generation is much too touchy, much too eager to be offended and to delineate the offensive.

There is something touching in Kafka’s sentiment that nationality or race is something that one can choose for oneself. Cultural identification becomes something that you can freely associate yourself with — you are as entitled to call yourself “Chinese on the inside” as you are to aspire to be a doctor, or call yourself “the biggest darned Bayern Munich fan you’d ever seen.” Well then, today I am German in my efficiency, American in my blustering joyousness, and Chinese in my tendency to spout aphoristic idioms. Here’s a thought, as I continue this blogpost in a café in Berlin: what does it mean to be a Berliner? Who is entitled to say “Ich bin Berliner”?  An elderly man from East Germany, who lived here throughout the war? The young waitress from Munich, but who moved to Berlin as a tiny tot? My friends from the Stanford in Berlin program, who will spend all of three months here? Would the act of someone like me — a tourist, distinctively un-German — taking on the cultural identity of being a Berliner dilute its meaning? Would it cause offense?

I’m not sure if that sort of obsession over cultural identity or cultural exclusivity exists here. Berliners seem to celebrate diversity and inclusivity more than anything else. Perhaps it’s less “acceptance” and more “giving no fucks.” What a change from America: more so in there than anywhere else, there seems to be a need to assert a “right” or “wrong”. I’m not sure which extreme is preferable, “you believe your shit and I won’t give a damn,” or “you’d better give a damn about my shit.” There is much merit in striving to highlight certain issues plaguing our society, and also for feeling protective of one’s own identity, but the surge in identity politics has also yielded an alarming cacophony of sanctimonious voices. The discussion is less of a dialogue and more a war of words, even in the “safe space” or university confines of a place like Stanford. Die Luft der Freiheit weht, our motto proclaims. The wind of freedom blows. Indeed it does, more so here than anywhere else, but not entirely freely. Perhaps the wind of freedom doesn’t quite blow as strongly as we think. It’s absolutely important for us to try to move towards understanding, but one thing we’ve failed to collectively acknowledge is that it’s perfectly alright not to agree. Disagreement doesn’t necessarily imply negation. It’s a strange Catch-22, isn’t it — on the one hand, we want people to understand us and see things from our point of view; on the other, we want to feel special, entitled to our own experiences, assured that they are ours and ours only.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Kraków’s Old Town, we stumbled upon a Modernist building, a starkly brutalist construction amongst all the old architecture. It is the Bunkier Sztui Gallery — a small exhibition space behind a café near Planty Park, currently chocked full of photographs and somewhat pretentious and kitschy captions about the nature of art and the “debate on domestic neo-avant-garde” (??? I don’t understand, either.) But one line strikes me as particularly memorable: “In lashing out at the foreign, we only reinforce its foreignness.” This reminds me of a quote from Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and a particularly apt one for the road: “it is good to know of the customs of various peoples, so as to judge ours more soundly and so as not to think that everything contrary to ours is ridiculous and against reason.”

But immersing yourself in different cultures can also become a burden. It becomes harder and harder to be sure of one’s own position in the world, and of one own’s beliefs. Real courage lies in picking apart the societal constructs that have accumulated within ourselves in our nascent years, and then building our own systems of values, taking full responsibility for our own choices and actions. And yet this leaves us at a loss as to where we truly belong.

Berlin ist mehr ein Weltteil als eine Stadt.

Plastered all over the U-Bahn stations and on marker-filled, gum-wadded poles: Berlin is rather a part of the world than a city. Perhaps that’s why I like Berlin so much as a city (or a non-city) — it encapsulates the itinerancy and rootlessness that has characterized most of my life. I don’t mean to sing praise: it’s certainly not rainbows and sunshine. In its bare, gritty, melting-pot of vibrant human individuality lies isolation.

Yet that isolation also imparts a certain assuredness that can’t really be explained. I end this blogpost on the Gatwick Express, amongst a crowd of people all tunneling towards London — feeling completely alone, a pit of fiery excitement gnawing away at my stomach. I’m not sure if it’s the aftermath of the i-only-had-three-hours-of-sleep-caffeine-boost, the agitation at being perpetually late (customs always takes so much longer than anticipated…), or the raw excitement for the next ten weeks in Oxford to follow.

I heave my luggage onto the platform and feel a heavy sense of deja vu — life at this moment seems to be retrospectively comprised of a series of trains, each delineating a new chapter, a new adventure to embark on.

So here’s to the next one. Maybe I will discover more personal “truths”, or perhaps I’ll break down some of them. Perhaps I’ll find “myself”. Perhaps I’ll lose myself.

Published by ruruhoong

Part-time economist, writer, tanguera. Full time glutton.

2 thoughts on “Truth, freedom, and identity: scattered travel thoughts

  1. Dear Ruru,

    Your post was as delightful as the others and as always (although I haven’t read all of them, in all honesty).

    I may end up coming off as condescending but, to me, aesthetic beauty in a piece of writing consists in the proper use of grammar and exclusion of any typo, among other things. This is no criticism of any sort, it’s just to keep that aesthetic beauty afloat. I think this piece was perfect but I would like you to double check two different paragraphs/sentences, where I think you’ve used the word ‘was’ wrongly twice. In one instance, Descartes’s quote, it should be omitted, and in the other sentence it should be ‘as’, instead of ‘was’.

    1) “it is good to know of the customs of various peoples, so as to judge ours more soundly and so as not to think that everything contrary to our was is ridiculous and against reason.”

    2) And yet this leaves us at a loss was to where we truly belong.

    You may want to correct these. And again, I’m not being condescending, I explained myself above. I think your writing skills and overall intelligence far exceeds mine anyway.

    One last thing, this writing made me reflect a lot (and I appreciate intellectually challenging readings) but it also reminded me of a book I recently read, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl and how witnessing what he witnessed, the author, with immense courage, also set out on the quest to remodel and/or reinforce his set of beliefs and to find truth and life’s meaning. And one of the things he discovered is “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is one of my favorite quotes and I don’t know why, I strangely thought it seemed to fit here.

    Then I guess reading or hearing about related historic events definitely reminds one of related literary works and events so it’s probably nothing special, i just thought I’d mention it.

    Anyway, you take care.




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