My people

The city of Ternopil, Ukraine. Source:

As I repost some of my past essays, I offer the below, originally published here in 2019, before the current anguish. I should note that additional research points to the very real possibility that small municipalities like Urman were incorporated into the Ternopil administrative region some time ago — rendering genealogical research even more difficult from this distance than it already was.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a few direct-mail scam artists showed up offering to research and produce your family’s very own heraldry for a nominal fee. “Did you know that the [Insert Family Name Here] has its own coat of arms? Think of it — an courageous eagle against a field of blue, a sword-carrying warrior against a field of red,” went some of the bulk-mail letters that accompanied these scams. “Suitable for framing, your coat of arms reflects your family’s proud history in empires around the world.” These occasionally showed up in my father’s mail, too. He’d read these letters and laugh. “You know what’s on the Hunka family coat of arms, George?” he’d say to me, tossing the mail into the trash. “A peasant hut against a field of poverty.”

He was probably not far off. My ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side were uneducated peasants in Eastern and Central Europe back in 1900 — Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Though family tradition had it that my paternal great-grandfather held some kind of position in a local Orthodox church in Ukraine, there is no real evidence to prove it (in any event, my paternal grandfather was a staunch atheist). And when they came to the United States in those unsettled years before the First World War, they found jobs suited to their family backgrounds. My paternal grandmother held a position as a charwoman in a local elementary school in Philadelphia; my paternal grandfather became a freelance electrician after being trained at the Valhalla Dam in New York; my maternal grandparents were coalminers, textile workers, and subsistence farmers in northeast Pennsylvania. While their children went on to earn college and university degrees in the 1950s and beyond, they themselves were the unskilled product of an agrarian land, and none of them was particularly cheerful — not surprising, coming from a region that was damp, cold, and gray every year from October through May. (I’m sure you can partially attribute the generally dour nature of Russian and Eastern European literature, even its humor, to the climate.)

Coat of arms or no, the casual amateur geneology research I’ve done over the past twenty years or so has turned up little in the way of my family’s history before 1900, indicative, perhaps, of their low status on the socioeconomic totem pole. The best I’ve been able to do is trace my grandfather back to the region from which he emigrated — Ternopil, about 125 km southeast of Lviv, which is listed as his original home on the register of the ship that brought him to Ellis Island in 1914. A little research, mainly through Roman Zakharii’s useful web site, revealed a tranche of Hunkas (or Gunkas) in a small town called Urman. He left behind a sister and brother when he embarked for the shores of New York.

Urman is “a village of 622 people in Berezhany Raion (county) of Ternopil Oblast (province) of western Ukraine. It lies in the historic region of Halychyna (Eastern Galicia) and during 1772-1918 was part of Austrian empire, consequently of Poland in 1920-1939 and of Soviet Union in 1939-1991,” says Wikipedia. This being the internet era (and I having a little time on my hands), I did a quick Facebook search and turned up an English-speaking Hunka who still lived in Urman; we engaged in a brief correspondence that, alas, did not reveal anything except that if there were Hunkas or Gunkas in Urman at the turn of the century, there were still a few left. It may be likely that we share some blood, those Urman Hunkas and those on New York’s Lower East Side; it’s not a common name in either of those places. But farther than that I cannot go with any certainty.

All this, anyway, is mere genealogical bookkeeping. Apart from genetics, though, what interests me is what all this means for one’s temperament — personality traits and philosophical perspectives that we imbibe from our parents with our mother’s milk. We are imitative creatures, and we’re never more imitative than when we’re young; we observe our parents’ ways of speaking, their attitudes towards the world and each other, their moods and their likes and dislikes, and we incorporate them into ourselves unconsciously. Of course, we change — as we get older, we accept or reject the traits that we inherit as we see fit. It’s both a conscious and an unconscious project, and it affects us for both good and ill. And because our parents were imitative creatures too, they receive their temperaments from their parents, and back and back into the distant past.

Nor do these temperaments appear from nowhere. They’re formed by our (and their) reactions not only to family dynamics but also to history. Our attitudes towards money, violence, humility or pride, politics, power, culture, art — we absorb our parents’ responses to these too, perhaps not as intensely as we do those things closer and more intimate to us, but we absorb (and later in life accept or reject) them as well. It is, in a way, a generational butterfly effect; we unconsciously repeat or exhibit a trait that may have originated several generations ago, passed on to us through our grandparents and our parents in some small, protean way. But that trait is still there, whether we recognize it as an internalized characteristic or not.

Alas, short of asking Facebook strangers whether or not they share a penchant for alcohol, cynicism, or an appreciation of bad folk music, there’s only so much we can learn about how the geography and history of our ancestors has affected ourselves. Fortunately, though, there’s one other avenue open to our investigation, and that’s culture. A few days ago I wrote about my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, and philosophy. These writers and philosophers were affected by the same cultural, political, and historical milieux that affected my potato-digging ancestors — on a grander intellectual and artistic scale, perhaps, but affected nonetheless. I share some of my temperament with those of these writers and philosophers, who sprang from the same soil as old Maxsym Hunka back there in Ternopil, who may have received (or lacked) the same early education, were rendered dour by those gray winter skies, or experienced the regional and political disasters as Max and his neighbors. And as far as those left behind — well, there’s the Holodomor for Ukraine, as there were other catastrophes in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century.

Is like necessarily drawn to like? I can’t say. But it is intriguing that, quite without knowing it, I married a woman whose ancestors came from the same region; my two best friends these days also have their family roots in western Ukraine and Lithuania. These days I’m brushing up on my Ukrainian history and my Gogol, both of which appeal to my temperament. And I’m sure that a part of my hostility towards the current President is tied to the despicable way he’s been treating the country I consider my homeland (not to mention the country in which I live now).

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to knock on a few houses in Urman to see if there’s any physical resemblance between me and their occupants. But perhaps there are a few, in more ways than one — even if we don’t, in the end, share any blood.

Saturday serenade: From chaos to order and back again

Wilhelm Gauseː Court Ball in Vienna (1900).

In his study of fin-de-siècle Vienna, Carl Schorske turned not to Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern to introduce his themes, but to Maurice Ravel’s 1920 La valse. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny,” Ravel said, and Schorske wrote:

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligensia of the fin-de-siècle. How had their world fallen into chaos? Was it because the individuals (in Ravel, the musical themes) contained in their own psyches some characteristics fundamentally incompatible with the social whole? Or was it the whole as such that distorted, paralyzed, and destroyed the individuals who composed it? … These questions are not new to humankind, but to Vienna’s fin-de-siècle intelligentsia they became central. Not only Vienna’s finest writers, but its painters and psychologists, even its art historians, were preoccupied with the nature of the individual in a disintegrating society.

As, I would add, am I. It is small comfort to realize that we’ve been here before, but we must take our comforts as they come.

To while away a few minutes today, you may wish to hear La valse itself. I’m quite fond of eccentrics; they are the spice of society, so long as they don’t shade into sociopaths, which they too often do. Below you’ll find Glenn Gould’s re-arrangement of Ravel’s solo piano arrangement of La valse in his 1974 series for the CBC, Music in Our Time. His introductory remarks are of interest as well.

A Yuletide Modernist

Enthusiasts of the poet and critic T.S. Eliot will find their Christmas stockings over-stuffed this year. Recently both Lyndall Gordon and Robert Crawford have added a few volumes to the biography shelf, and just days before Christmas W.W. Norton will issue another biography of sorts — of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” by Matthew Hollis. In part, this is no doubt to leap upon the very recent release of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend and, in many ways, poetic muse.

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe has already had at Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl, in a fair-enough review. Fair enough, I suppose, in that she doesn’t outright call Eliot an unrepentant misogynist; Gordon’s biography focuses on Eliot’s relationships with the women in his life, including Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan, and Hale, and it’s been no secret that Eliot’s attitude towards women was highly-fraught at best. “It’s hard, at times, not to be repelled by the poet,” Roiphe muses, and she also gets a dig in at Eliot’s antisemitic leanings (common-enough knowledge by now not to generate headlines like the publication of letters to a lover might).

I’m of two minds about The Hyacinth Girl myself, because, having been indocrinated into the New Criticism during my college years, my initial response is to steer away from relying too heavily on biography as an approach to art. (In the early 1980s, undergraduate literature study was still grounded in New Critical principles; graduate literature study was an entirely different story, which I found to my chagrin and, ultimately, amusement.) Besides which, I still think reading somebody else’s mail, even that of the long dead, is unforgivably rude.

I say this as somebody who admires Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Never has a book been so aptly subtitled — so aptly, I suspect, that any biography could bear it. It’s especially apt in that Eliot, flying high for nearly half a century as perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent Modernist poet and critic, has had his wings severely clipped since the 1970s, both for his obscurity and for those imperfections (not particularly obscure) that became public knowledge in the years after his death. For a while, Pound’s reputation overshadowed Eliot’s until the fascist label rendered Pound persona non grata in the seminar room too; Joyce quickly became TL;DR as our attention spans shortened through the 1980s and cable television and the internet began their dominance over every hour of our days and nights. Nowadays, so far as I can tell, readers who like their Modernism neat tend to take up Virginia Woolf, safely a woman, safely proto-feminist, safely rather dull.

Whether or not these new books spark a resurgence of interest in Eliot’s work is of course an open question. Hope springs eternal, but for me so does skepticism. I myself revisited Eliot’s poetry a few years ago not because of a biography but because of William Gaddis, whose five novels taken together constitute a kind of encyclopaedic post-war “Waste Land” of their own. Gaddis was so indebted to Eliot that he “at one point in the composition [of The Recognitions] intended to weave each line of Four Quartets into the text of his novel, such was his affiliation with Eliot’s vision and ethos,” Gaddis’s biographer Joseph Tabbi writes. This sent me right on to the Four Quartets and to “The Waste Land” again — both of which affected me more profoundly in my fifties than they did in my twenties.

That is a theme for another post. In the meantime, I also looked back to Eliot criticism, finding the best of it still in his earlier explicators, especially F.O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner. Unlike Gordon and Crawford, Matthiessen and Gardner knew Eliot personally, so had access to the man before he was planted in the ground, sprouting biographies. Nonetheless, they shunned the approach. While Matthiessen was speaking of critics and not biographers, I think he hit on something in the preface to his 1935 study of Eliot’s poetry:

The most widespread error in contemporary criticism is to neglect form and to concern itself entirely with content. The romantic critic is generally not interested in the poet’s work, but in finding the man behind it. The humanistic critic and the sociological critic have in common that both tend to ignore the evaluation of specific poems in their preoccupation with the ideological background from which the poets spring. All these concerns can have value in expert hands, but only if it is realized that they are not criticism of poetry. … The most fatal approach to a poem is to focus merely on what it seems to state, to try to isolate its ideas from their context in order to approve or disapprove of them before having really grasped their implications in the poem itself.

F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 1958 edition, Oxford University Press, vii.

It may or may not be pertinent to note here that Matthiessen was himself a socialist, even by some lights a political radical, in contrast to Eliot’s monarchistic, conservative Anglo-Catholicism; he was also homosexual and Episcopalian. He committed suicide in 1950, leaving behind a note that read in part, “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective.”

Matthiessen’s concern was with the relationship of form and content, but I think there’s something here about the contemporary trend to read poems, to listen to music, to look at art not only according to its ideological background but from a specific ideological perspective as well. So long as this continues, Eliot will remain a bird with clipped wings, I’m afraid, no matter how many biographies are published about him. And God help the rest of us too.

Thirty years ago

In 2021 (we plan ahead), Marilyn and I plan to bundle our family into a transatlantic airliner for a journey to the Czech Republic. Our daughters are old enough now to appreciate the architecture and a little history, but for me, it will be a return to a part of the world for which I’ve always had a deep and abiding affection. In part, this is because my own family originated there; my roots lie in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. But more, for people of my generation, Central and Eastern Europe has a particular historical meaning not entirely irrelevant to my daughters’ own period here in the United States.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, at the age of 27, I along with everyone else in the world watched as the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Cold War evaporated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many points east. And it happened quickly, within the space of a year. It was perhaps the most deeply meaningful geopolitical event of my youth. It’s hard to explain to generations younger than my own exactly how momentous an event this was. Since my birth in 1962, I and the rest of my generation had been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation; the Soviet Union and its satellites were a region of frightening mystery. The world seemed divided between a capitalist West of liberalism and cosmopolitanism and a communist East of totalitarianism and penury. The Berlin Wall had by 1989 become a symbol of this division. It seemed permanent, bombs and guns from each side pointing menacingly at the other. Then, in November — almost thirty years ago today — the Wall fell, dismantled by citizens from both West and East Berlin, as the Communist Party looked on in paralyzed disbelief.

I didn’t much believe it either, but forbidden things have their own charm, and I first visited the region in 1990: from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade. As cliche as it may seem, the excitement and optimism in the air of these cities was palpable; as an American I was greeted everywhere I went (well, maybe not Belgrade) with a sense of celebration. And Americans were everywhere too; in those pre-EU days, the dollar went far. The ideal of individual liberty was finding a new embodiment in these newly free individuals. The following year I returned to a small village in Moravia where I taught English in a local high school.

It couldn’t last. When I once again visited the region four or five years later, the bloom was off the rose as idealism clashed with the practical compromises necessary to maintain a functioning democratic government. Nonetheless, for that moment, it seemed that most of the ideals of Western liberalism were triumphant.

Triumphs, however, are usually temporary, as history teaches us all too well. The absorption of many of these countries into the European Union was accompanied by various difficulties, not the least of which were economic inequality and migration — difficulties that have led to a resurgence of nationalistic autocracy in many of them. So Václav Havel gave way to Václav Klaus. Upon returning to the United States, however, I maintained my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, philosophy, and cuisine, and hope to share these with my daughters in two years.

Not all of Central Europe’s revolutions in the years following 1989 were quite so velvety or peaceful. I remembered my experience in Central Europe most recently with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — further east than the Central European capitals I visited earlier, Maidan was bloodier and its conclusion more ambivalent than those of 1989. And Ukraine’s long experience with Soviet totalitarianism, kleptocratic and oligarchic corruption, and a more violent past, as well as the ambivalent and protean nature of Ukrainian identity, has placed it in a particularly sensitive and dangerous position on the borderland of west and east. And — as the past year has proven — has left it open to extortion and corruption by the west and east themselves. Of western Ukrainian heritage myself, I feel this most deeply.

Among the public intellectuals most scandalized by the Trump presidency are many of my generation, primarily historians, who had similar responses to and experiences in Eastern and Central Europe in the post-1989 era, many of them travelling in that region for the first time around the years that I did. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Ed Luce (1968), Timothy Snyder (1969), and Marci Shore (1972) have all written far more eloquently than me about their experience of and deeply personal responses to Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, responses which led them to study the history of the region and propose lessons we might learn from 1989 and its aftermath. Following in the footsteps of journalist/essayists like Timothy Garton Ash of the generation before their own, they see Western liberalism and the rule of law as characteristics that are hard won — ideals for which blood was shed in the not so distant past, and ideals under attack by the Trump administration and other autocratic and neo-totalitarian leaders, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall takes place this Saturday, November 9. Ironically, Donald Trump is intent on building a new, similar wall of his own. New authoritarianisms and tyrannies will not much resemble those that fell in 1989; they are on the rise in different forms which seem more palatable to many voters in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the United States, the GOP and its supporters, in demonizing the Democratic Party, appear to be perfectly happy to consider a one-party system. In introducing my daughters to those Hapsburg-era capitals that made such an impression on me thirty years ago, I hope to imbue them with some of the dreams, some of the magic, some of the intelligence and compassion, and some of the strength that they’ll need to resist a future which is fast becoming darker.

A toast to Mineshaft

In many ways, I’m still an analog boy in a digital world, and when it comes to leisure material for reading, watching, and listening, I prefer the hand-made sort of entertainment, whether it’s mid-budget comedy movies from the 1930s or what’s generally become known as roots music. Books and magazines that suit my temperament are harder to come by these days, though.

Fortunately there’s still Mineshaft magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Inspired by underground magazines and comics of the past, Mineshaft is a modest and resolutely hand-crafted periodical that’s issued about three times a year, published by Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri in Durham, NC, far from the media meccas of New York and Los Angeles. Produced through the increasingly quaint offset printing method, the magazine’s prose, poems, and comics are resolutely free of cant and pretension. The Spring 2019 issue (No. 37) features recent work from veteran cartoonists and illustrators Drew Friedman (front cover), R. Crumb (back cover), Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, and Mary Fleener; poems and paintings by Billy Childish; and work by a number of artists who are unknown to me, such as Nicolas C. Grey, David Collier, and Noah Van Sciver. What they all share is a rootedness in the physical, not the digital, world; like the magazine, the work has a distinctively handmade quality, and the comics especially share a meditative and contemplative marriage of laconic prose and atmospheric inkwork pioneered by, among others, Harvey Pekar in the 1970s. There’s a melancholy that hangs over the whole, a feeling that the analog world it depicts is being lost, if it hasn’t been lost already. That the work has a particularly satiric quality, then, doesn’t come as much of a surprise, especially when it refers to the digital realm, and it’s not much of a shock to find, tipped in with this contemporary work, a reproduction of a detail from a painting by William Hogarth.

Both single issues of No. 37 and back issues are still available from the Mineshaft web site, and you can pony up for a subscription there as well. Obviously the magazine, itself a beautifully, lovingly produced object, will be an acquired taste for those who have drunk deep from the well of the internet culture; it’s not for everybody. But it is, in many ways, for me.