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Never Ending Goodbyes: Concepts of Home and Loss in The Emigrants
He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.
 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A home is where the heart is, and when a person leaves home they leave their heart behind with it. No matter which way the word is added to a phrase, the concept of home invokes different feelings and memories in each of us. While the word means something different to each of us at different moments in our lives, I’ll begin by elaborating on what the word means to me in various situations. When someone says “Welcome home,” my soul feels wanted and appreciated. “Home sweet home” is a cliché that I’ve begun to use whenever I return to my house and living space after a long and difficult day or an extended journey. When I say “I want to go home”, I am usually feeling anxious, uneasy, and anguished at the reality that I am away from the comfort, familiarity, and belonging that my home provides.

The abstract nature of the idea of home allows the word to be flexible and adaptable. It means something different to each individual in each stage of their life. Home can exist as a physical place, an intangible feeling, a relationship, an atmosphere. In the novel The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, the characters of Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber each experience very different lives that are linked to one another through the events and cultural climate that existed in Europe before, during, and after World War II. While their lives are lived separately and their paths never cross, one similarity in each man’s life is their continual emigration from home. The title of the novel alludes to the idea that the characters will leave their home in some capacity, but I became interested in analyzing not only their emigration but also the homes, both figurative and literal, that they were leaving behind and how each characters’ home shaped their decisions, relationships, and ultimately the ends of their lives.

The story opens with the nameless narrator describing his encounter with Henry Selwyn, a Lithuanian doctor he had crossed paths with while searching for a room to rent in England. When the narrator comes across Selwyn’s home, he finds it to be unkempt and overgrown with thick and ungroomed shrubbery. The disheveled state of Selwyn’s physical home is representative of his figurative homelessness. The narrator explains that doctor and his family emigrated from Lithuania in 1899 when he was just 7. In speaking with the narrator, Selwyn explains that as he has aged and his memory has changed he has begun to confront many memories from his childhood he had previous repressed. The narrator describes Selwyn as living “in his hermitage”—itself a term suggesting reclusive isolation—“giving his entire attention, as he occasionally told me, to thoughts which on the one hand grew vaguer day by day, and, on the other, grew more precise and ambiguous.”

Selwyn is an example of being homesick for not just the place he left long ago but also for the memories he hasn’t been able to acknowledge until the end of his life. The events of his life after he left the home where he was born caused him to file the memories made there away. Despite owning a physical home (regardless of its rugged state), Selwyn is homeless in the sense that he has nowhere to belong and nowhere to return. He is unable to adapt to a new way of life as these repressed memories come back to the surface because he is fixated on the home he lost, rendering him incapable of building a new home. Selwyn’s story is an example of what happens when there is a lack of resolution and closure when leaving a home. When a person is forced to leave their home, especially at a young age, it often creates a lasting sense of loss if that feeling isn’t dealt with promptly and properly. Dealing with feelings of loss as they happen is essential to successfully rebuilding one’s self, and Selwyn wasn’t able to do so.

The next story the narrator tells is of a teacher named Paul Bereyter. The narrator hears the news that Paul, who was once his teacher, has committed suicide. The teacher’s obituary causes the narrator to reflect on Paul. He learns that Paul was one quarter Jewish and three quarters German but he served in the war on the Germans’ side. While a smaller fraction of his heritage, Paul’s Jewish blood likely gave him a complex while fighting to exterminate the people whose legacy he shared. In times of war, there are many internal conflicts that participants face, but it is difficult to imagine fighting on behalf of those who want to rid the earth of people that have something in common with you. Paul’s Jewish blood also created conflicts in his teaching. The parents of his students in the German town he taught mistreated and persecuted him for being part Jewish. In one sense, Paul was German enough to be considered a worthy soldier by the Nazi regime. In another, he wasn’t German enough to escape the oppression and ridicule that accompanied having Jewish blood. This leads to the creation of a crisis of identity. Home is a massive part of what shapes a person’s identity, and Paul’s home offers little stability or consistency for him to build an identity on.

After the war, Paul reflects on the horrendous acts committed in the name of Germany and finds it repulsive to take ownership of such events. Considering himself German wouldn’t do his identity justice if he didn’t believe in what the country had just lost millions of lives over and he had been required to fight for. However, he was reluctant to consider himself Jewish, feeling as though he was an imposter in the culture after having fought against them in the war. The feeling that the different parts of himself were at war with one another were likely contributors to Paul’s decision to leave Germany behind and travel to France to work as a private tutor. He leaves the home he was having trouble coming to terms with in search for a possible new home. While he works in a more positive environment free from bigotry in France, something about Germany continues to tug at Paul and he eventually returns. He incorporates the history of Germany’s injustices into his teaching style, much to his critics’ dismay. He seems to be doing everything he can to reject the atrocities of Germany during the war and can never come to terms with his feelings of attachment to the country he calls home versus the repulsion he felt toward their part in the war. This internal war ultimately contributes to his suicide.

Paul is an example of an attachment to a home being so intense that it is impossible to officially leave it and move on, regardless of the events that happen there. While I was reading, I related Paul’s relationship to his home in Germany to the relationship an abused child might have to their home. When a child is abused in their home, it is no longer viewed as a safe place for them. However, regardless of the negative events that take place, they don’t erase the memories made there and they don’t sever any attachment those memories create. Similarly, Paul is bound to Germany because it is the place he was born, grew up, and called home for so long. His homeland can’t be forsaken, regardless of his distaste for it.

The narrator comes across the story of Ambrose Adelwarth, his great uncle, next. Ambrose is a master of languages and a frequent traveler. While he never received any sort of formal education, Ambrose used his skills with language and his hardworking mindset to create a life for himself. He comes across a man named Cosmo Solomon while he is acting as a butler for a wealthy Jewish family in America. Cosmo and Ambrose begin the travel across Europe with one another, forming a very close relationship and likely becoming lovers. However, after their escapades through Europe end, both men fall into a deep depression. Cosmo receives treatment in a facility in New York and later dies. Ambrose checks himself into the same facility, but he is unable to reconcile his feelings of loss and depression and allowing himself to be shocked into a state of unfeeling and deadness. As the narrator hears the story of Ambrose, he investigates further and learns that the staff at the facility didn’t believe Ambrose had much of a will to feel anything at all, let alone live.

When reflecting on the events of Ambrose’s life, the concept of home can be tied to his relationship with Cosmo. According to the narrator’s Aunt Fini, Ambrose “never really had a childhood”. The lack of memories associated with his home as a child contributed to his nomadic lifestyle and his desire to learn languages to communicate with those he encountered in his travels. As a sort of free spirit who never really settled down, establishing a physical place as a home wasn’t likely for Ambrose. That’s when he found a home in a person: Cosmo. Traveling with one another created a strong bond between the two of them that ultimately led to love. When two people spend so much time with one another, creating memories and experiencing life, the attachment they form is very strong. When Ambrose was with Cosmo, he was home. When Cosmo died, Ambrose lost his home. His lifestyle prevented him from finding and building a new home, so he checked himself into the same facility that Cosmo was in as an effort to find some sort of connection to the home he’d lost. That connection wasn’t able to be formed and Ambrose would rather live his life emotionless than confront the fact that the person who made him feel more at home than anyone or anywhere ever had was gone.

The final encounter the narrator has is with Max Ferber, a painter he encounters while visiting Manchester. Max fled Germany as a teenager to escape the persecution of the Jews he and his family would endure as the war advanced. His parents were intercepted during their emigration, leading to their fate at the hands of the Nazis. Without any family, Max uses art to try to rebuild the fading memories of his childhood. He paints in dark solitude as his emotions and traumas are translated into his art. Max’s abrupt isolation from his family and abandonment of the home he knew until he was a teenager created a sense of loss that he attempted to cope with in Manchester, where hundreds of cultures merged as it was a hub for immigration in Europe. The narrator describes the myriad of languages heard as he and Max walked the dreary streets of Manchester, which made me think that while the description of the city wasn’t warm and welcoming, it was their new home, whether it was temporary or not. Max found a sense of home in his painting, and when he went outside to see the different people from all over the world, I think it made him feel less alone as he attempted to deal with his traumatic past. However, the suffering that accompanied losing his home and family wasn’t erased by his attempt to work out his feelings through his art, and his increasing solitude damaged his ability to create a new home alone even further.

After reading the stories of these four characters and relating the concept of home to each of them, I began to wonder if the author himself struggled with each idea of home himself. The novel was written semi-autobiographically, as Sebald was in Europe at the time of World War II and witnessed its events and aftermath firsthand. The writing of these characters could have been therapeutic to Sebald as he described through his characters the various losses of home he himself and the people around him endured during the War. The theme of home was accompanied by the theme of alienation. When left without a home, the characters were alienated from the people they met and the places they visited, ultimately leading to each of their tragic suicides. I think the ultimate message Sebald wanted to convey in creating these characters, telling their stories, and explaining the circumstances and consequences of their emigrations from home was to not only show the realities of the War, but to give his readers a chance to reflect on their own homes, both as a physical location and as the relationships we form with those around us.


Gattaca and Free Will


The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, raises several important philosophical questions. The heart of the film’s plot is about a world in which genetic makeup determines one’s social and economic standing in a society of the not so distant future. But a deep metaphysical question is present in the story: that of free will versus determinism. What does Gattaca do to make the argument for free will?

The film is obviously in favor of the idea of free will determining our destiny. The main character’s name of Vincent Freeman instantly strikes the viewer and allows the audience to see that this is a man driven by his belief in free will. "There is no gene for fate," Vincent says. Rather than becoming resigned to fate, he instead chooses to defy his own genetics that mandates him to lower income jobs. Vincent is a dreamer, and a very driven man, going so far as to adopt another person's identity to achieve his goals.  Ultimately this identity change is in the spirit of the so-called "American dream"---that with hard work and determination Vincent can become what he wants, although his willingness to illegally take the false identity of another (foreign born) person deflates this dream. Vincent ironically is a Horatio Alger-like "rugged individualist," and yet at the same time depends on a small network of people to keep him working for Gattaca and his identity a secret.  Vincent never comes off as a sellout however; his strategies are merely a way of overcoming an increasingly prejudicial society.

The film also shows the victory of free will over determinism again in the romantic subplot between Vincent/Jerome and Irene.  Irene is an obsessive over standings in society based upon genetic records, going so far as to review Vincent’s in great detail and coming to the conclusion that it is flawless. It would be easy to see why someone who places so much emphasis on this standing would harbor romantic feelings for a "superior" person.  However, as the movie progresses, Irene learns Jerome is not who he says he is, that he is an "invalid" impostor.  Her feelings remain the same, though, and in doing so she is freely (though perhaps not altogether consciously) rejecting the predetermined social order and her own highly ingrained belief system by falling in love with an invalid.

The character of Eugene presents us with an interesting set of metaphysical questions. First and foremost, Eugene is a gifted individual.  We are told he has "an IQ off the register" and that he has the "heart of an ox." However, in voiceover, Vincent tells us that, while being an extremely gifted (and well engineered) member of the elite is a definite advantage, it is "by no means guaranteed." Eugene has fallen on hard times, and what seems to be the most relevant argument for free will in this film, he appears to be on hard times because of his own choices.

In the past, he deliberately stepped out in front of a car. The impression is given that those around Eugene believe he was drunk and that it was an accident. But Eugene tells us he "had never been more sober in my life." Eugene ’s suicide attempt ultimately left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. He is a prisoner in a prison of his own making, by his own choice. Eugene later succeeds in his second attempt to commit suicide, ending a life in which he feels has only been "second best."

Eugene gives us a prime example of the difference between knowing one’s destiny and believing one’s destiny. Eugene is an unmotivated individual, and while he knows that his job prospects, peer respect and admiration are virtually predetermined, he lacks the will to seek these things.  He is, for lack of a better term, listless and unmotivated.  He knows his life is already mapped out for him.  Eugene is exactly as the philosopher William James would have predicted him to be in his paper, "The Dilemma of Determinism." James hypothesizes that if all events were predetermined, then all of the human experience would be essentially meaningless. What good is remorse or regret if all actions are predetermined anyway? Since it is already fated that he should be a massive success in life, what is the point in living and striving for it?  Eugene fails to see that, and knowing his life is predetermined, Eugene becomes consigned to his "listless" state.

But what if Eugene merely believed that his life was predetermined, rather than knowing it? That would come close to Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic. This ethic has had a profound impact on Western society. Calvinists believed that all was predetermined and salvation awaited them as part of God's divine plan. And while all action was essentially preplanned, the Protestant work ethic lead these people to live a life of "reassuring signs" that they will be saved in the afterlife.  Diligence, hard work, and a clean and moral life were good signs that heaven awaited the believer in the afterlife.  If Eugene merely believed his life were predetermined, that he was given this great gift to fulfill some higher purpose, then perhaps he would (have) become the man Vincent ultimately becomes through his alias.

However, filmmaker Niccol misses an interesting philosophical question: is Vincent driven to be a dreamer and achieve his goals through his own genes? Is Eugene merely listless because of some genetic flaw?

Niccol gives no thought in the film to the possibility that free will is merely a predetermined illusion. Is Vincent’s desire for self-determination—for the free will to fully control his life—only an illusion created by the delicate double helix flowing through his veins?  Or is it merely learned from years of living in the shadow of his younger, genetically engineered brother?  While Vincent’s behavior does seem to be primarily motivated by his interactions with his brother, the film gives no thought to the idea that somewhere in his DNA is a sequence dictating that he will be a man driven to become more than the sum of his parts.

Is Eugene’s listlessness to be blamed for his state? Again, Niccols seems to answer no. While virtually all the "valid" characters seem to be rather unmotivated, Eugene is an extreme case of the phenomenon, to say the least. This would seem to indicate that the valids' lack of motivation is largely (if not wholly) genetically determined.  If that is so, why can’t Vincent’s desire to be more be genetically determined as well?

The question of what influence our DNA has on our behavior is largely unanswered. With the exception of the doctor listing Attention Deficit Disorder as a potential problem for the newborn Vincent, the film makes no real connection between behavior and genes, even though it is a well-documented fact that certain behavior diseases, such as alcoholism, are somewhat genetically predetermined; a portion of the population is predisposed to become alcoholics, should they ever choose to indulge in intoxication. While genetics doesn’t outright determine these behaviors, it certainly leaves individuals prone to it.

Additionally, Gattacaoffers no real link between genetics and intelligence, another hole in the film's argument for free will.  Vincent does not simply take "smart pills" to overcome his genes, he appears to be a fairly intelligent (and determined) individual from the very beginning.  He does memorize an entire book on astrophysics and appears to have learned the necessary skills to navigate a spacecraft to Titan with no help from others.  If the only thing preventing him from reaching his dream of space flight is physical, then there is no real difference between the astronauts of the not so distant future and the astronauts of today.

So while Gattacastands as a testament to free will and its existence, the film must make several concessions to determinism.  By not addressing several key philosophical questions, the film's argument (and the film itself), for all of its sophistication otherwise,  weakens itself.


Doctorow’s Homer "Blindness, Insight, and the Senses of the Body"


E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer and Langley, is narrated by a character named Homer, who is blind. Because he lacks his sense of sight, Homer is forced to describe the world around him through his other senses and engages the reader in a way many narrators cannot. Homer relates to the reader because neither can truly see the story at hand and must use their mind to view the events being told. By using this form of writing, the author attempts to explain the importance of our other senses. He encourages the reader to understand that vision can often cloud the judgment, and he calls his readers to observe their own lives by using more than just their eyes to see the world around them.

Near the beginning of the novel, Homer relates an experience from his youth when he and his girlfriend, Eleanor, stumble upon a pornographic movie. This is the first experience with film that the narrator relates. Before the viewing, he and the girl had a relationship, which Homer describes as “So serious that even Langley, who lived in another cabin with his age group, did not tease me" (9). He also asks, “Is there any love purer than this, when you don’t even know what it is?" (9). He is assuring the reader that this was a young and untainted love.

When the two see the pornographic movie, Homer explains that he was so enraptured by the scene that he did not even notice Eleanor leave. This shows the intense hold that a visual image can have over a person. The scene itself was depicted in such a way that Homer says, “Romance was unseated in my mind and in its place was enthroned the idea that sex was something you did to them" (11). This means that his entire view of sexual relationships between men and women was changed into something bad or unjust in a few seconds of viewing a film. From that moment on, Eleanor would have nothing to do with him, suggesting that she had had a similar reaction to the film that Homer had.

This is an example of the power that our eyes can hold over our minds and our views of life. Homer himself refers to this idea of romance as a “puerile illusion" (11), which, for some reason, still holds strong for adults, even in circumstances when it is clearly disproven. He seems to be attributing this universal illusion to circumstances similar to his own, and that it is taught through things such as pornography, confusing the eyes to believe something which people are naturally unaware of as youths and making it impossible for them to discredit it because, after all, they have seen it with their own eyes.

Later in his life, Homer begins to go blind. Even in his blind state, Homer seems to make his way around just fine, making use of all his other senses. He finds that he can feel the presence of objects and maneuver around them. He can feel light and darkness on his skin and also hear it in the tone of his piano keys. In many ways, Homer is much more capable, even though he is blind, than the others around him.

At one point during the novel, a group of hippie teenagers come to stay with Homer and Langley. One night, the power goes out, and several people are stranded in the house in complete darkness. Homer, however, has an awareness that the others, who use their vision daily, do not. They must rely on light to see, and once they are without it, they do not know how to call upon their other senses. As the narrator shares, “It was the blind brother who got everyone organized, telling them not to move, but to stay where they were until I came and got them" (157-58). At this point, the house is a maze of garbage and danger to those who cannot see, but Homer’s disability proves to be almost a super power that enables him to lead his friends to safety. The author is trying to show that there is an even greater form of sight for those who actively engage the senses other than vision.

One of the most important senses which the author chooses to focus on is the sense of hearing. Throughout the novel, Doctorow often uses the theme of music to emphasize the importance of listening rather than seeing. Homer himself is a classically trained, professional pianist, a detail that the author includes to pinpoint Homer as the observant, almost all seeing character of the story. He also becomes very knowledgeable in popular music later when he and Langley decide to hold tea dances. It is at these tea dances that Homer listens to the shuffle of the dancers’ feet and to the scrape of chairs, which indicates that people are sitting down when he puts on livelier songs.

Homer’s ability to hear such details allows him to understand the motives and desires of the people surrounding him, even when they are not trying to communicate. Just by these details, he can determine that “The people who come to our tea dances have no fight left in them. They are not interested in having a good time. They come here to . . . hold one another and drift around the room" (64).  It is by these observations that Homer is able to view the world as it passes through time and document them with an understanding that escapes Langley, who can actually see the dancers. Doctorow is showing that these details are not so easily picked up on by those who do not know how to absorb sensory information when it is subtle and not, so to speak, right before their eyes.

Much later, after the tea dances are put to an end Langley shows up at the house with a television set. The brothers’ experience with the TV gives a lot of insight to the author’s motives. Homer explains something that Langley said to him concerning the television: “When you read or listen to the radio, he said, you see the scene in your mind. It’s like you with life, Homer. Infinite perspectives, endless horizons. But the TV screen flattens everything, it compresses the world, to say nothing of one’s mind" (108).

The author is giving a warning to his readers. He is making a statement directly about TV that it is a form of manipulation in that it can influence a person’s view of the events it is projecting. TV can change the world into one possibility, one idea that someone wants circulated, and spoon feed it to its viewers, robbing their minds of the right to interpret and decipher truth. He is also advising his readers against trusting everything they see in general because if we do not incorporate information from all of our senses, we are not getting the full story.  Soon after procuring their TVs, the brothers decide to turn theirs off forever, at least until the moon landing several years later. They do not wish to be conformed to one standard of thought by their television set.

One last comparison the reader might make within the novel is that while Homer is blind, Langley is also handicapped in his own way. After his experience in the war, he comes home having been attacked by poisonous gas, which he had inhaled and left sores around his mouth. Homer describes, “His voice was a kind of gargle and he kept coughing and clearing his throat. He had been a clear tenor when he left, and would sing the old arias as I played them. Not now" (21). It might be implied that the gas has affected Langley’s mouth and possibly his nose, likely damaging his sense of taste and of smell. This would limit him to three rather than five senses with which to gather and interpret input from the world around him.

Correspondingly, Langley seems to go crazy throughout the course of the book. His view of life is very skewed in comparison to most people, and it causes him to live in a physically and mentally unhealthy way. In this way, Langley is almost the opposite of Homer. Homer’s mention of Langley no longer singing relates the theme of music, showing that Langley is disconnected from it and is out of tune with his sense of hearing as well. This renders him incapable of picking up on the same subtle details that Homer can. Langley has very few resources to rely on other than his eyes, so they are very important to his gathering of information. Langley’s character and the course he leads the novel down could be Doctorow’s way of showing the frightening possibilities that might occur if a person abandons their senses and relies solely on one, namely the sense of sight.

In the novel, Homer is the most clear minded and all seeing character. He is the one who witnesses all of the events in his and Langley’s life with explicit detail and recounts them with an untainted perspective. It is vital that he is both the blind brother and the narrator because his blindness is what allows him to see the world so honestly. Doctorow is showing his readers that it is the use of all the senses that will allow them to view and properly understand their surroundings. When one is limited to understanding only what he or she can see, he or she is unable to view from multiple perspectives and to incorporate all the information that is being presented by their surroundings. On the contrary, by using all the senses, one is given every opportunity and ability to discover truth and utilize it to enhance one’s own life. This is an opportunity that Langley does not make use of, perhaps because of the damage he has experienced to his senses, which disables him. His choices also deprive Homer of the quality of life he might have enjoyed under different circumstances.

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