3 min read

Duende54: The liberating scream

Duende54: The liberating scream

Writing Duende each Sunday morning has become a pleasure. Painful, but exhilarating. I find the struggle worthwhile. I get meaning out of it.

It is a miniature version of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." I often begin with an idea and then come to a fork in the road when the initial concept splits into two distinct possibilities. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way," I need to pick one and forgo the other.

And then there is this week's attempt.

As I researched the initial idea, I came across Etty Hillesum's diary. She is not someone I have ever encountered before. And holy fuck I am glad I now have.

Hillesum c. 1940

Hillesum wrote her diaries during 1941-1942, when the German occupation of Amsterdam ramps up. "Her diary conveys the sense of impending doom under the occupation and her growing realization that she herself would ultimately face the same horrible fate."  

I was exploring an idea connecting meaning of/in life and our addiction to telling stories. My usual beat.

But then I started reading her diary. Again, holy fuck.

Let me quote from her last entry dated 12th October, 1942.

I always return to Rilke. It is strange to think that someone so frail, who did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live... Evidence that, in peaceful times and under favorable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions? A response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities? Sadly, in difficult times we tend to shrug off the spiritual heritage of artists from an "easier" age, with "What use is that sort of thing to us now?"
It is an understandable but shortsighted reaction. And utterly impoverishing.
We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.

Her deportation to Auschwitz occurred suddenly on 7th September, 1943. She wrote her last words on a postcard and threw them out of the train.

"Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower'. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning.... We left the camp singing.... Thank you for all your kindness and care."

Her parents died a few days later, while her brother died in March, 1944. They murdered her in Auschwitz on the 30th November, 1943.

Rather than go back to Rilke, as Hillesum suggests, I'd prefer to go back to her own writing. The very first entry stands testimony that under "peaceful times" a "sensitive artist[...] may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights".

Hillesum's first entry was dated 9th March, 1941.

Here goes, then. This is a painful and well-nigh insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper. The thoughts in my head are sometimes so clear and so sharp and my feelings so deep, but writing about them comes hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love.

The stories we tell ourselves are but the screams that bashfully stick in our throats. And sometimes we come across a road we can't believe we've never taken before.