Review: Shannon Burnson Maria Tumarkin

The Drowned and the Saved: Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

I recommend poet Wisława Szymborska.

–  Axiomatic

I prefer moralists
who promise nothing.

– Wisława Szymborska, ‘Possibilities’

We know ourselves only
as far as we’ve been tested.

– Wisława Szymborska, ‘Moment of Silence’

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.

– Wisława Szymborska, ‘In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself’

In Otherland (2010), Maria Tumarkin writes: ‘Humility is a big deal to me…’, and her first three nonfiction books – all of which delve deeply, unapologetically and revealingly into ‘serious’ territories – carry the imprint of that Big Deal, in their conception and tone. Tumarkin has previously approached trauma, genocide, war, loss, guilt, systematic oppression, and survival with exploratory urgency. Her newest book, Axiomatic, is written in the same spirit. Here, Tumarkin has taken Australian society and culture as her chief subject for the first time, attending to very real but not obviously historical crises, while expanding on thematic concerns that run through her body of work. It is her most vital, compressed and compelling book to date.

Tumarkin consistently shies away from cliché, avoids rehearsing and re-purposing over-familiar arguments and literary forms, and fully embraces writerly agency and responsibility. In practice this makes for hybrid works of nonfiction that embrace the mess and contradictions of human lives and societies. In the introduction to her first book, Traumascapes (2005), she writes: ‘This book… does not exist to prove a hypothesis; rather it seeks to start a conversation about the enduring, tangible imprints that suffering and loss leave behind.’  The work of ‘proving a hypothesis’ could hardly be more alien to Tumarkin. Instead, she is concerned with examining difficult events and experiences: paying attention, being emotionally and intellectually active, while refusing to let the consequences of tragedy, bravery, cruelty, care, or indifference go unnoticed, unexamined or unfelt. The strength of Tumarkin’s nonfiction in general – but especially Axiomatic – is that we can’t guess where any of it is leading, which allows readers to imagine that Tumarkin doesn’t know either, that the questions posed are authentic instead of familiar breadcrumbs steering us to predestined (and therefore spiritless) resolutions.

Tumarkin’s singular sensibility is demonstrated by a striking passage in Traumascapes:

I suddenly remember the worst insult ever directed at me. I am probably not even ten. My oldest sister, enraged by something I have done. Says ‘You are not the kind of person who will torture a cat, but you are the kind of person who will walk past the cat being tortured.’ And I (the small, scared, pre-pubescent me) know then by my violent reaction to her words that I would rather be the one torturing a cat than the one walking past. Because what my sister accuses me of is simply intolerable—the acquiescence to evil.

This shows that Tumarkin sees herself as an active agent in the world, rather than a bystander, and that any other self-image is intolerable. Her authorial persona is best understood in this light.

Suffering and endurance are the twin poles of Tumarkin’s work. As suffering entraps and overburdens one person, stripping them of their humanity or hardening their heart, it ennobles another and enlarges their humanity. The reasons for such differences remain mysterious, but for Tumarkin endurance is intimately bound up with courage, a quality she prizes above all others. ‘I wonder where this kind of second nature comes from?’ she asks, in her second book Courage (2007), before declaring: ‘I am prepared to give up dignity, talent and generosity for the attribute of courage.’ Her kind of courage ‘is not primarily a virtuous ideal of an idea, but rather an expression of the human spirit—messy, explosive and morally ambivalent.’ The form that she practices as a writer is far from morally ambivalent, however. Tumarkin embodies a willingness ‘to confront the rot within ourselves and the worlds we inhabit.’ She does this out of a conviction ‘that without this unheroic, unspectacular courage, we cannot hold out against the worst in ourselves and others.’

There is no trace of a belief in the perfectibility of the human soul, or societies, in Tumarkin’s work, but she is concerned with preventing the worst from dominating, and one of the methods she prescribes is the steady exposure to uncomfortable experience. ‘One of the best ways of preserving our illusions,’ she argues in Courage:

is to not allow into one’s orbit people whose presence, behaviour or inner life are likely to inflict on us a considerable degree of moral discomfort. You do not need to label these types – white trash, Philistines, those people – it is enough just to keep them at bay…. courage is that which resists our desire to live by the rules of inner comfort, to put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on our door. In other words, for it to be worth anything, our sense of self cannot function like a gated high-security compound. The doors need to be kept open despite the risks, some considerable, that such a proposition entails.

This approach has little to do with safety or the nurturing of delicate sensibilities, and everything to do with robustness, responsibility, and alertness.

Each section of Axiomatic tests a familiar axiom, partially re-enlivening and partly undermining it. Tumarkin’s use of well-worn phrases as an organising device is particularly striking given her habit of stopping short, sometimes mid-sentence, when an over-familiar idea rears its head. Axioms seem, by Tumarkin’s standards, insufficiently ambivalent. She is at her most captivating when she weighs up two contradictory but compelling ideas or feelings, as in the opening chapter of Axiomatic (‘time heals all wounds’), when she considers the nature of grief:

                        Everything has its limit including sorrow
No, not sorrow, it has no limit.

Both lines are given their space. The first suspended by the absence of a full stop, then revised or contradicted by the next line, but not erased. Tumarkin has previously embraced Jean Améry’s ‘revolt against the disappearance of the past’ and the so-called ‘healing powers’ of time, she says, but she is now allowing another thought to stir. In the case of a young woman who lost her sister to suicide, Tumarkin suggests that time has helped her grow ‘new parts’—and perhaps that is a better way of expressing what ‘healing’ is commonly taken to mean. Not burying, forgetting or resolving, but growing new parts, or expanding. For some people.

‘In Australia,’ Tumarkin argues, quoting Varlam Shalamov, a Gulag survivor and author of the monumentally grim (and essential) Kolyma Stories, ‘people did not have to learn that “a human being becomes an animal in three weeks­ – with the hard work, cold, hunger and beatings”’, She goes on:

Of course it is a blessing not to have this twentieth-century lesson home delivered… But it can’t be a cover for ignorance. Or indifference. Being spared means you have to work twice as hard at remembering. Only when does that happen? Two words: ‘human nature’.

Tumarkin is clearly identifying a moral imperative here (which would include the acknowledgment of Australia’s genocidal foundations), while simultaneously noting that what should happen rarely does happen, because of ‘human nature’. Most writers will stop at the imperative, pretend that it is enough to articulate an ideal or need and ignore the difficulty, or impossibility, of converting that ‘should’ into something real. Not her. If ‘being spared’ means you have to work twice as hard, being human means that you probably won’t.

The gulags offered victims more than one lesson about human nature. In ‘What I Saw and Understood in the Camps’, Shalamov writes: ‘I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.’ Little wonder that Tumarkin is so devoted to courage.

In Traumascapes Tumarkin writes: ‘I don’t understand how life keeps going [after catastrophic tragedies or man-made horrors], except that it does.’ Herein lies Tumarkin’s early romanticism. We shouldn’t be able to forget or stop feeling horror, at the highest intensity, but most of us do. We shouldn’t be able to experience joy in a place where lives have been needlessly destroyed or genocide has been enacted, yet we can. This position is qualified some years later, in Otherland, when Tumarkin homes in on the various methods that people commonly employ to cope with tragedy and comes to see that even a site of genocide, ‘a terrible, ugly place’, can be a place of uncommon natural beauty. She also analyses her great-grandmother’s way of dealing with intense grief:

It took me a while to see what Mum had also realised – that at that moment of acute, unbearable loss, chopping salad was not a manifestation of some kind of shameful repression, or an inability to mourn, or an attempt to take refuge in some kind of ‘pretend’ normality. All my great-grandmother was doing – unconsciously, unwittingly – was trying to take care of her broken heart.

There is no correct way to deal with severe trauma or grief, and devising universal rules should not be a priority. Some cannot bear to be reminded of a wounding tragedy, or to relive it; others cannot bear to avoid it.

Institutions are often pierced by the horns of this dilemma. In Axiomatic, Tumarkin observes:

After a suicide a school may desperately want to do right, whatever right looks like, for the students most effected but its duty of care is to all students and by extension their families…. Tension between duty of care to the 15% and the 85% will probably always be there. Such tension may just be defining of school as an institution. Always the 15% need different things to the 85% and neither are the needs of the 85% by any means uniform…

Any institution with ‘too many sardines in one tight-sealed tin with a hook-up lock’ can only fail to cater to such disparate, conflicting needs. Yet we depend on them to succeed.

Tumarkin always addresses Big Questions, but they are typically left unresolved. In Axiomatic she writes:

Nature, nurture—this thing cannot be worked out, as they used to say in my childhood, without half a litre of vodka…. In ways too complex to lead to scientific or cultural consensus they are in it together, and each word may mean a thousand things…. We’re past newborn-as-a-blank-slate, past the thick bushes of social Darwinism, past behaviourism and genetic supremacism. But we are in another thick forest. Trees again. Maybe it’s for the best. Worst would be to convince ourselves we know.

Tumarkin supplements humility and unknowability with a healthy dose of self-scrutiny. In Traumascapes, which deals with memorialisation (or lack thereof) in the context of large-scale violence and trauma, she writes: ‘The fear that I am just another tourist never leaves me.’ This anxiety is evident in Axiomatic too, and shadows the practice of writing or reading about human suffering in general. How does it differ from dark tourism? How much should we care, and what must we do, for our engagement to be regarded as constructive, rather than opportunistic, mechanical, self-indulgent, or even exploitative?

The answers to questions like these have something to do with responsibility and memory. ‘When sites of death and loss are forgotten and all traces of tragic events are erased,’ Tumarkin argues, in Traumascapes, ‘the responsibility for what happened is far easier to dispense with. The burden of memory is shifted onto the shoulders of survivors and victims’ families.’ Shirking responsibility is the opposite of courage in Tumarkin’s world, and everything that contributes to our capacity to embrace responsibility is to the good. ‘Most societies are built on suffering, raised on graves, nurtured on bones and blood—this is a given,’ she writes. ‘Yet I have always believed that attitudes to places of suffering and loss were a measure of civilisation.’ The attitude required isn’t guilt, since ‘guilt is to responsibility (and change) what pity is to love—a pathetic substitute.’

We attend to suffering and injustice, then, because embracing responsibility for things that are more comfortably buried or ignored is a humanising (or civilising) practice. If we shirk that responsibility we are diminished as people, and as a culture.

Children – what happens to them, and how institutions (often fail to) attend to their deepest needs – is a recurring concern in Axiomatic. Tumarkin begins with the tragedy of youth suicide. ‘Brilliant kids,’ she writes, ‘good at nearly everything, awash with friends, their talents and achievements get noticed, acclaimed, often they’re from privileged families, are killing themselves.’ She abstains from speculating about the underlying causes of those deaths, however. One boy writes, in a suicide note: ‘Please do not assume you know why. Even I’m not completely sure. It is simply the best thing to do. The mechanism telling me not to kill myself is broken.’

In a later chapter, in the context of people who have endured serious hardship and humiliation for much of their lives, she queries the legitimacy of an approach that foregrounds the sanctity of human life, challenging the idea that ‘knowing your life is precious is a default state of the human psyche’ before asking, ‘How about all those people for whom their life does not feel precious?’ If even brilliant, privileged kids are falling victim to despair, what can we expect from the unexceptional? Or the friendless kids whose achievements go unacknowledged? Or those who come from broken families and endure abuse and neglect?

Tumarkin focusses on the aftermath of suicide, how institutions and individuals respond to tragedy, then circles back to child abuse and its consequences throughout the following sections. Confronted with a defiant grandmother’s rage against ‘institutions supposed to keep all children safe’, she observes that

a miscarriage of justice in the world of abused and neglected children is as common as primary school nits… Children get taken away when they shouldn’t, abused in foster families or institutions, left in danger with their own families, forced to be someone else’s responsibility, pushed up and down the chain like containers of mercury. Plus most kids would choose sticking with their family over safety so it’s fraught on all sides.

When it comes to institutional care more generally, she argues that ‘the system is fucking plenty of children up; it’s kind of impersonal.’ So what can be done about it?

A teacher, Ann, believes that ‘you must take a student’s word for it, even if at times you’ll live to regret it.’ Again, both parts of this equation are worthy of emphasis: it is best to believe all children at all times, but sometimes you will regret it, dreadfully. This is not a righteous break eggs to make omelettes-style ethos. Anguish and uncertainty are the rule.

The best section of Axiomatic, ‘history repeats itself’, is concerned with down-and-outers who are at the mercy of the legal system as a consequence of severe or prolonged disadvantage. ‘A child comes into a world that is like a tar pit,’ Tumarkin writes, ‘a tar pit of prehistoric ferocity, the kind that could suck a Columbian mammoth in. In this world a little creature still sorting its hind legs from its front legs does not stand a chance. Cannot stand.’ These are people ‘whose every creep forward—in a good year every couple of creeps—gets followed by a bone-splintering triple tumble backwards.’ The difficulties that they have to confront, merely to survive, are never-ending.

Vanda is a committed community lawyer who works out of a cramped office, drives an unglamorous car, combines pragmatism with care and does not believe in fairy-tales. She reaffirms Tumarkin’s worry about the ‘damage that can happen when people force their way into complex ecosystems they do not understand’, especially when they fail to commit wholeheartedly. Through Vanda, Tumarkin is able to approach the difficult questions of how, when and if to intervene, and what we can rightly expect to achieve with good intentions: 

But what if the something good men and women do is largely nothing masquerading as a something, or if the something’s worse than nothing because it plucks people out of their own world then dumps them, with fewer resources, less hope, once the good people collapse with their inevitable exhaustion? Helping someone in the unspoken expectation of their often impossible rehabilitation is frequently worse than not helping. Vanda has not always known this, knows it now. It is a difficult knowledge. Would paralyse me. What am I saying? It has paralysed me.

Compare this with a note to her young son a decade earlier, in Courage:

I am counting on you not to grow up into one of those sensible, strategic people who always calculate odds and risks before acting. Trust me, there are enough of them in the world already.

Tumarkin clearly prizes the kind of instinctiveness and impulsivity that is commonly registered as courageous – indeed, she is committed to it – but in Axiomatic she acknowledges that the negative costs of instinctive action are not always exclusively borne by those who choose to intervene, and that the stakes are as high as the odds are bad.  Vanda condemns those who intervene ‘expecting a fairy-tale.’ Advocates and carers – adults in general? – mustn’t.

In Traumascapes, Tumarkin foregrounds the practice of survival, and what it can offer us: a kind of universal roadmap, which recognises our innate vulnerability while demonstrating how to live with and thrive under perilous conditions. In the second part of Axiomatic, ‘those who forget the past are condemned to re—–‘, Tumarkin tells the story of an unnamed grandmother who conceals her grandson from the authorities – and lies to the police and court – in order to protect him from a violent stepfather. The grandmother’s grim childhood experiences play a large part in her willingness to take what may seem, to some, like an extreme and irresponsible course of action; but for those who know something about institutional failure in the care of children, and its lasting consequences, her behaviour is likely to register as responsibility par excellence.

When the judge condemns the grandmother’s behaviour and hands down a jail sentence, Tumarkin notes: ‘It is not apparent to anyone in the courtroom, least of all the Judge, that the woman’s silence is an expression of disgust not shock.’ She tells Tumarkin: ‘When I was in the courtroom … I felt above it. Above it all. I talked to myself. I looked at the judge and though you little piglet. I had nothing to say.’ She is not undone by her punishment; instead, she is confirmed in the belief that those who wield power are often unworthy of it, and that it is right to distrust and deceive them when fragile lives are at stake. Tumarkin is drawn to those who uphold, defend, assert, and reveal human dignity in singular ways, often involving personal risk and sacrifice. But she is also sympathetic to the less fortunate who find themselves in the grip of tragedy and misfortune and do not have the opportunity, or capacity, to extract themselves. Axiomatic is about both kinds of people, the drowned and the saved.

‘those who forget the past are condemned to re—-’ is the least scrutinised axiom in Axiomatic, perhaps because it sits close to the foundation of Tumarkin’s writerly ethos. It is not that Tumarkin is unaware that George Santayana’s claim about the preventative powers of historical memory is unproven – her 2011 review of David Rieff’s Against Remembrance (2011) shows that she is familiar with its doubtful status – but there is no room for forgetting in Tumarkin’s moral universe. Why? Because perpetrators of unforgivable crimes so often rely on concealment, and because the process of forgetting is closely aligned with passivity and complicity. The maintenance and retrieval of memory is active, while forgetting and ignoring is passive. Better to be a torturer than a bystander.

Institutional authority and groupthink make Tumarkin suspicious. In Traumascapes, she writes:

Our life in the former Soviet Union taught us that people’s only real defence against paranoia and deceit perpetuated by the totalitarian regime was their individualism—hungry, uncontrollable and self-renewing. Being part of the herd was a sure path to moral and psychological disintegration. For as long as I can remember, I have referred to emotionally or otherwise charged activities customarily done in groups (demonstrations, meditations, parties, book clubs and group tours) as ‘group sex’. Collective undertakings like these have always seemed to me like the very definition of unnatural acts.

In Otherland, she rails against the distortions of memory that can result from our failure to retain a firm individualism. ‘Sometimes – actually quite often – [people] struggle to speak in their own voices, slipping into a prevailing public idiom and all its accompanying clichés. Human memory is not only selective, it is incredibly responsive to environment.’ In Courage, she writes ‘I have a persistent allergy to typecasting…. People are neither their race nor nationality, they are not the whirlwind of their circumstances and they are not and never will be their incurable diseases.’ To Tumarkin, people with ‘self-respect’ stand out because their ‘sense of identity is not located in a world carved up into circles and camps. She is not merely a friend of her friends and an enemy of her enemies.’ This is particularly true for writers. As a child, Tumarkin ‘worshipped’ Joseph Brodsky, who showed her ‘a true writer was a perpetual soloist, a chorus-terminator by trade.’

In Axiomatic, this keen individualism extends outwards, manifesting in a willingness to see her subjects as they are, to ‘keep them real’, instead of turning them ‘into catchphrases for banners, appendixes to principles.’ Nor, she says, should we fetishize difference or lazily accept the idea that suffering or disadvantage instils moral authority:

There’s much that’s not known about others and much of it is unknowable. What can be grasped of another person’s suffering has its limits. Ignore the limits and people become symbols, vessels in which we carry liquids of our choosing. Things—whereas to recognise another person as fully human is also to notice what in that person is different, and to not twist the difference into near-saintliness. On the street as anywhere, people are good and bad, both at once. Poverty, neglect, abuse or disadvantage—people’s pasts do not coat them in fairy dust or make their actions always already morally defensible. If we feel roused only when picturing people as morally elevated by their misfortune then… well. Beyond sad.

Two of the most arresting embodiments of resolute individualism in Axiomatic are women, both survivors of the Holocaust. A large part of their individualism is characterised by what they reject. One of them – the grandmother – refuses to accept or be cowed by the authority of the state; the other refuses to accept the mournfully serious role that survivors are assigned in the post-Holocaust world. Tumarkin writes about the latter (Vera) because she is resolutely herself and prefers to be ‘unresolved’. The grandmother, on the other hand, is arguably the embodiment of ‘holocaust survivor’. She ‘talks of WWII, brings it up again and again, her whole being insisting it is necessary to put it at the centre of the table seventy years after its end…’ Tumarkin wonders (rhetorically) if she has the right idea: ‘The remembering she does, which the world around her sees as her trauma taking over, her soul ulcer screaming out, could it be that this remembering is what this country needs?’

The survivor, in this context, acts as a proxy for the author. In Otherland Tumarkin writes:

If there is a sacred site for my family anywhere in the world then it would have to be Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev inextricably linked to the fate of the Jews in World War II…. Babi Yar is first and foremost the site of the largest single massacre during the Holocaust. At least thirty-three thousand Jewish men, women and children were murdered there over two days in September 1941.

When Tumarkin valorises and embodies the practices of bearing witness and cultivating historical memory, she does so from a particular perspective. She, and her family, were not ‘spared’ the lessons of the twentieth century in the way that most Australians were spared. As a consequence, she does not need to ‘work twice as hard at remembering’. It is her sacred inheritance.

While Vera defies expectations about how a ‘survivor’ should think and behave, she also places a high value on memory, telling Tumarkin:

‘Someday someone will say to me, “The Holocaust? Is that a movie?”, and like Primo Levi I will see the floor speeding towards my face.’

A civilised culture remembers and cultivates; a barbaric anti-culture forgets and destroys. But civilisation is a rare, temporary and imperfect sanctuary, while barbarism seeps through the cracks and hammers at the walls. It is one thing to know that the Holocaust wasn’t a movie, but the feeling that it belongs to us, and that its lessons remain urgent – how well can that be transmitted beyond the century in which it took place? The distance from there to here is growing every day (‘time heals all wounds’), and the whole world is now required to work twice as hard at remembering. But when does that happen? Two words: human nature.

After hearing a journalist talk about youth suicide, Tumarkin says to an interlocutor: ‘I found him a bit narcissistic. He seemed to admire the depth of his own emotional response.’ Tumarkin is never self-admiring. Her emotional response forms part of the texture of her approach but rarely overwhelms her subjects. Coupled with this, a sharpness of tone helps undercut any readerly thirst for voyeurism, sentimentality, fake profundity, or a wisdom fix. But that authorial reserve is unsettled in Axiomatic’s last section, which is a kind of eruption of personal feeling and concern. For some, ‘you can’t enter the same river twice’ will strike a discordant note, but it is of a piece with Tumarkin’s earlier books – particularly Otherland – where friendship and fidelity are prioritised. It is also a resonant personal response to one of Axiomatic’s recurring subjects.

Much (everything) depends on whether readers connect the dots between a passage in the first section of Axiomatic with the impetus for the last section. In ‘time heals all wounds’, Tumarkin reveals that her ‘best friend growing up’ recently told her that ‘one day not long ago she decided to throw herself off a high-rise’, and that she crossed the city and ‘manoeuvred herself up on some anonymous building’s ledge.’ Tumarkin does not linger over this revelation. When her friend writes, in the later section, ‘The fear I feel is that of the meaninglessness of my time here’ it should be understood in this broader, desperate (but in other ways ambiguous) context. Tumarkin claims to have ‘imbibed in infancy, absorbed pre-cognitively’ the idea that ‘friends reveal who they are in hardship’; she values friendship partly because it can be the difference between life and death. In the first section, her friend says an encounter with a cat – its ‘neediness, a look in its eyes, warmth of its body’ somehow ‘pulled her off the ledge’. Tumarkin gives voice to her own neediness, warmth and fidelity in these last pages, addressed to a friend and to the life-giving qualities of friendship.