By Nichole Faina
University of Pittsburgh faculty member Peter Trachtenberg is the author of three books, 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh, The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning and his latest, Another Insane Devotion, an ethics of love disguised as a memoir of the author’s relationship with cats.
Last spring, Peter and I took a trip to see the locally famous murals of Maxo Vanka, housed in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, PA. The murals, painted between 1937 and 1941, draw inspiration from Eastern European folk art and the consciousness-raising political art of Diego Rivera. They are considered unique for their juxtaposition of anti-war sentiment and religious subject matter. In one mural, Vanka painted the ceiling as a sprawling battle scene, featuring an image of a crucified Christ imposed between two bayonetting soldiers. On another wall is the depiction of a bereaved mother weeping over her son who died in fighting World War I.
Nichole Faina: One could interpret Max Vanka’s murals as a protest against the suffering inflicted by capitalism and war. Do you ever see your own work as being in protest of something?
Peter Trachtenberg: Yeah, not primarily, but it’s certainly a theme. Especially my second book, The Book of Calamities. I think my protest would be lodged not so much in the causes of suffering, which are so myriad, but against the explanations we offer for it—in particular, what I see as the oppressive, victim-blaming explanations. It was one of the reasons why, in the first chapter, I write about the Book of Job. I dwelled on some fundamentalist Christian interpretations, which find incredible ways to blame Job for what happens to him.
NF: When God turns out Job, his friends reject him as well?
PT: Exactly. And there are all these kinds of examples I found online. There are various kinds of Christian Web sites that say he was perfect and blameless, but that doesn’t mean he’s sinless. It is all this hair-splitting to absolve God for what is happening to Job. I equate that with the ways in which unhappy people are blamed for their own unhappiness and their own suffering.
NF: In a previous interview, you said that you’ve courted your own suffering. Can you talk a little about that? Your book isn’t just about avoidable suffering, is it?
PT: In the book, I made a distinction about kinds of suffering, because I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Most of the suffering that I experienced in my life fell into the ordinary category. I had my parents die, and if you are lucky enough to live long enough, that will happen to you. But everything else was a direct consequence of my addiction, and I went out looking for it in the sense that I put myself in neighborhoods where I got held up. I did substances that made me physically ill. It’s not that I blame my younger self necessarily; I followed the path I had to follow. The thing was, I came from a fairly privileged, sheltered upbringing. My parents devoted their lives to protecting me. And I sort of half-consciously sought out the greatest possible dangers—so what followed was almost inevitable. And I do distinguish that from say Rwandan Tutsi who had grown up with at least an illusion of safety. Overnight, they found that their safety had been shattered and that the neighbors they had been eating meals with a few days before were suddenly trying to kill them.
NF: With that in mind, what was the seed of your last book, The Book of Calamities?
PT: I had two seeds. I would say one was the death of a friend in 1999 . She was the first person I knew my age that died of something that wasn’t drug or alcohol related. She died of breast cancer. She was somebody whom I had always thought of as extraordinarily good. I had been in love with her when I first knew her. She was somebody who, for various reasons, I thought was untouchable. We had a very good friendship. I responded to her death in the most infantile way. It just seemed incredible and outrageous to me that somebody who’d been that good and was still young had died of this disease. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. And then, in 2001, I was looking at the national response to the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, the shock and horror that people felt was perfectly understandable to me. I felt those things too. But the element that struck me as strange and grotesque was the sense that this was not supposed to happen to us. The story people told was that They—Osama bin Laden, al-Quaeda, Saddam Hussein, the whole Muslim world— hated us for our goodness. To me that suggested an arrogance and willful ignorance of history. It seemed like an American myth that nothing that is bad is supposed to happen to you. Particularly, if you are white and middle class. I do know that, along with that, there is a notion that there are certain classes of people whose suffering is just taken for granted; it’s invisible. And I would say that is mostly made up of people of color and poor people.
NF: As a writer, do you ever take on the job of trying to seek justice for those people whose suffering is believed to be, by some, just consequential to their position in life? What is the role of an artist in social justice?
PT: Well, it’s tough. I believe Sam Goldwyn, the movie executive, said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” When I wrote the book, I was torn between the impulse to send the message and the impulse to make a work of art, or at least good journalism. Really, what I tried to do was tell people’s stories, and to stay, at least for most of the book, out of the mix as much as possible. I used a fairly neutral reportorial prose that’s very different from the prose I used in my first book. I did allow myself some entry into the text when I was writing about Job or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It was there that I allowed myself to be more a preacher or a lecturer, because I was unpacking texts and looking at what those texts said. So, I was trying to find a balance between those two impulses. I mean, for one thing, if you tell somebody a story with enough attention that allows the subject to speak in their own words, ideally then the reader ends up identifying with that person and identifying with what happened to them. That was the kind of balance that I had to maintain.
NF: As a child of Jewish immigrant parents, what connection do you feel to the immigrants pictured in Vanka’s murals?
PT: It’s very powerful for me. My parents’ experience was very different; they were not imported here as laborers. They were people who really benefitted from the incredible generosity and openness of America. And they came over in the years 1940 and 1941. At that time, Jews were not popular. There were quotas for how many Jews were allowed into the United States. They came here in my father’s case with very little, and they made a living. They weren’t wealthy, but they entered the ranks of the middle class. Just like the children of those people in the Vanka murals, they eventually had really good middle-class lives. There was a window of time in the United States when people who had barely graduated from high school could make a decent honorable living and send their kids to college. That’s gone now. On the one hand, I do not have a strong connection to the people pictured in the murals. I’m not Croatian, I’m not Christian, and I’m not from the working class. But on another level, I completely identify with them. I completely understand the bewilderment and the sense of dislocation that people felt when they came over and found themselves in an incomprehensibly different world.
NF: You were raised Jewish, but on your Facebook page it says that you are a failed Buddhist. How does the word “fail” fit with your Buddhist identity?
PT: Well, I’m a bad Buddhist. I practice. I meditate. I believe in the precepts, but I still want things. I am still often overcome with anger, which is really considered an affliction in Buddhism—so I would say “failed Buddhist” is a really good way to describe me.
NF: Did your spiritual practice influence your writing of The Book of Calamities in any way?
PT: Totally, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, suffering is considered, particularly in Christianity, the result of a rupture between human beings and God. For example, that’s where death came from. In Buddhism, suffering is just what it is to be human. That’s the first of the four noble truths: Life is suffering. If you really unpack it, it means discomfort, disease, and unease. Buddhism really is a religion or a belief system that’s organized around the study of suffering and the study of ways to be liberated from it.
NF: How does your meditation practice influence your writing? Is writing for you a practice?
PT: It is definitely a practice. Put it this way: I did not want to sit and meditate when I first started doing it. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t want to sit and write. I would rather be watching TV and eating something from a bowl. Or, you know, doing yoga. Although, it’s funny . . . in the last five years, meditation has become pleasurable for me in a way that it wasn’t before. It did a give me the model of doing something regularly, even in the beginning, when there is almost no visible result. I remember when, for me, to sit for three minutes was just a huge effort. And there are days when it is still like that. There are days when it is a huge effort for me to sit at my desk even for an hour.
NF: This idea of dedicated practice is a good segue into talking about your new book. The book’s working title is Another Insane Devotion.
PT: It is a book, on the surface level, that is about the search for a missing cat and in turn about my relationship with that cat and other cats I’ve had. I would say that cats are the first things that I ever loved. Through the cat narrative, I look at a marriage with a woman. I tell this story in a more elliptical way. My real goal is to ask, to examine what loving a cat has in common with loving a human being. What sort of faculties come into play? What obligations arise out of loving?
NF: Tell me about your intentions writing your latest book. Did you first decide what you wanted the overall project to be, or did you first start writing about your love for your cats?
PT: What happened was, in 2008 I was teaching in North Carolina. It was my first full-time teaching job, and my wife was at a residency in Italy. We hired a moron as a cat sitter, the child of friends. Our home was in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley. We had four cats, and one cat was my favorite. She’s named Biscuit. At first, our cat sitter would not return my calls. I would have to call him five or six times before I got him. One day he calls and says Biscuit went out a couple days ago and hasn’t come back. I flipped out. Part of what I was probably feeling also had to do with the sense that my marriage was in the process of falling apart—I was sensing some of the first fractures of my marriage. But the main thing I was focused on was Biscuit. I felt like I had to go and look for her, and at the same time that seemed absurd. She’d been gone three days; by the time I got there, it would be five days. I was broke at the time. I couldn’t afford to fly to New York City and then take a train up to the Hudson Valley to go looking for a cat. On the other hand, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t look. I went up there, and maybe I shouldn’t say what the outcome was—that’s what I’m doing in the revisions, I’m leaving the reader in some suspense. The fact was, later I asked myself—what was it that made me look for her? What was that impulse? And I realized it was love. And it made me think about what I felt for Biscuit and what I felt about my wife. What did this have to do with my prior history of love? Looking at myself honestly, I don’t think I really loved another being until I first had a cat in my early thirties. Not that long ago I described what I’m doing in this book; the form I’m working in is called an “ethics.” It’s an ethics of love, like what Aristotle does. It is similar to what Plato does in The Symposium and Phaedo.
NF: In your first book, 7 Tatoos, you also write about romantic relationships and love. That was a classic memoir, was it not? Would you call your current project a memoir?
PT: My current project certainly has elements of memoir, but I’m telling the stories in a much more elliptical way. Part of that strategy was that I want to protect the privacy of the wife character. In the book, she is just known as F. At this point, I think of her as a character. Maybe that’s the only way I can have the liberty to write about her. I have a prefatory note saying this is a work of nonfiction except that it contains, the word I use, an artifact. There is one invented thing. It says in my current draft that the first reader to find out what this thing is will get a prize. The prize will be a kitten. Although, then I realize I’m going to have to vet people to make sure I don’t end up giving a kitten to a psychopath.
NF: We’ve just spent the afternoon viewing these beautiful murals. Do any of the images you’ve seen today particularly speak to the work you are accomplishing in your new book?
PT: I would say that overall what I would relate my work to is the way in which those murals try to translate sacred truth or truths into very plain, fleshy images. You see that the women are strong. They’re not ethereal. They are women with thighs and breasts and shoulders with big arms. And Jesus is not an emaciated swooning Jesus. He’s a big, powerful, muscular figure who’s writhing in great pain on the cross. And I think one of the things I was trying to do throughout the book is to try and translate something that is very big and abstract into things that are very plain and ordinary and very material and fleshy. One of the benefits of writing about a cat is that all of its functions are on display. I have a chapter that begins with a description of a cat cleaning her butt. I write that she does it so avidly that I imagine herself vanishing up into herself. And this becomes a recurring trope. The idea of something disappearing into itself. I relate this to the image of the Cheshire cat, and then, of course, it becomes an image of how a loved person disappears from your life and leaves some aspect of herself behind, the way the Cheshire cat leaves its grin.