Tag Archives: Ellis Island

The Statue of Liberty, Trump, Georges Perec

The Statue of Liberty has suddenly returned to the limelight as something that embodies what is best of America and what is most under threat. The most shocking image I’ve seen yet is the new cover of der Spiegel, released yesterday:

Also released yesterday is this incredible cover from the New Yorker (or the day before? This shitstorm just seems to be growing everyday, making one of my favourite new websites the ‘What the Fuck Just Happened Today‘ blog.)

I know we never lived up to the ideal of the Statue of Liberty — it was a struggle just to get it erected. There are the complications of inviting the huddled masses to land that was never yours in the first place. But let us remember the ideal:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
— Emma Lazarus

Let us also remember the complexities.

One of the essays I most loved from George Perec’s Species of Space was ‘Ellis Island: description of a Project’. He grounds it on Kafka’s story Amerika where the Statue of Liberty holds not a torch but a sword. Perec writes:

Perhaps this was very precisely what being an emigrant meant: to see a sword where the sculptor, in all good faith, had thought he was putting a torch. And not really to be wrong. (134)

I sit with that.

He writes of the continued, endless disjuncture between ‘bring me your huddled masses’, and anti-immigrant laws. He writes also of just what kind of place Ellis island is:

For me it is the very place of exile, that is, the place of the absence of place, the place of dispersal. In this sense, it concerns me, it fascinates me, it involves me, it questions me, as if the search for my own identity went via the appropriation of this depository where harassed functionaries baptized Americans by the boatload… (136)

He writes about being a Jew who survived Hitler’s genocide, and it seems to me this describes perfectly the experience of many whose countries now lie in rubble. The only difference being the active role America has played in today’s destruction.

It is an absence rather, a question, a throwing into question, a floating, an anxiety, an anxious certainty behind which there is the outline of another certainty, abstract, heavy, insupportable: that of having been designated as a Jew, and therefore a victim, and of owing my life simply to chance and to exile.

I might have been born, like my close or distant cousins, in Haifa or Baltimore or Vancouver, but one thing alone in this almost limitless range of possibilities was forbidden to me, that of being born in the land of my ancestors, in Poland, in Lubartów, Puławy, or Warsaw, and of growing up there in the continuity of a tradition, a language and an affiliation. (136)

For him, this is a kind of non-place, a fissure.

What I went to seek on Ellis Island was the actual image of this point of no return, the consciousness of this radical fracture. What I wanted to interrogate, to throw into question, to test, were my own roots in this non-place, this absence, this fissure, on which any such quest for the trace, the word, the Other is based. (137)

Yet a break, perhaps, that opens up towards a new future. That we should still attempt to live up to, especially as the bombs continue to fall. Especially as the threats of more death and destruction to come are being blustered about white house halls and awkward press conferences.  Until our protest manages to transform it all entirely, because what is happening now is unbearably unjust — though it has to be recognised the harassment is not new and never was bearable. We’ve entered a whole new world now, of power grabs and defiance of federal judges.

A few more images from the past weeks that I liked…

But I will end with my favourite picture of Georges Perec and a cat. My own version of hope and self care in struggle.