Love is Evil

Katja Perat

He who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his homeland is yet stronger; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a place of exile.
—Hugo of Saint Victor


“Love,” Žižek once said in his notorious Stalinist English, “is evil.” A lover is always guilty. Guilty of annihilating everything that escapes her love, guilty of oblivion and exclusion, responsible for all the closeted skeletons. A lover first suspends all that her love does not reach, and once she is finished she suspends what she—in her love—cannot reach, as ding an sich. The same, a professor of mine likes to say, goes for the motherland. Homesickness and nationalism are related, she likes to add. And I know she is not entirely wrong. I know this because I can see how everything inside me resists falling in love with America. And I know that a part of this resistance is justified, a part of it political, and a part of it necessary. But I also know that a part of it is nothing but irrational hatred, necessarily attached to the flipside of love.

America found its way into the collective unconsciousness of Yugoslavians and their children just as it intended to. Through vague outlines of splendor, freedom, and beauty. The generation of my parents, my brother’s generation, and even my own—we were all fed on the same phantasmatic dreams, woven out of shreds of pop culture. I can still remember the tender curiosity with which I inherited this tradition. Reading Kerouac and guessing how beautiful it must be to test oneself through such a long, solitary freedom, which gives birth to art of great proportions. With even more clarity, though, I remember how little of that remained when the wheels of my plane touched down in Chicago O’Hare airport, in the land of opportunities.

But things—lands as much as people—must be given a chance. Even if many years have passed since I read Kerouac and the only thing that stuck with me was his midnight-wondering about what God had wrought when He made life so sad, it might just be that the only entrance point America has is—the road. And it is also quite possible that the only way to love America is through loving the sadness that comes with it. Wanting to try, I rented a car. Budget assigned me a Kia Soul. Since life has a peculiar sense of humor, it was black. And off I went.

St. Louis and Kansas City are connected by—as Gillian Flynn would have it—the dullest road of all times, Interstate 70. Billboards, as if drawn with a ruler, mark every step of the way, marketing Jesus Christ, cowboy boots, dentists—all things out of reach. Kansas City, hosting a fistful of hipster bars, fountains, barbecues, and suburbs filled with fragile homes full of screaming children and grown-ups who might only look like they are selling pot on the side, is slowly becoming a thing. A thing, crowned by a gigantic monolith attached to the First World War Museum and Memorial, informing us about the value of the lives that once-young Americans sacrificed to this most pointless of all pointless wars.

An old man guiding tourists through the exhibition must think me lost. Am I searching for anything specific? Would I be interested in seeing the souvenirs that American soldiers sent home from the front? This neatly preserved helmet, for instance? We have one of these at home, I say. Really? Are you French? Expecting he would not know what in good God’s name I was talking about if I confessed I was Slovenian, I offer some generalizations: the Isonzo front, Rommel, Blitzkrieg. I am an Alpine. He shrugs and smiles. He is a volunteer, a pensioner trying to find some use for his newly gained hours of leisure. He is not expected to know about the subject of the museum he is working at in any detail. He only knows about the things that count: places his kin went to die, the old truth that dying for your homeland might be sweet and fair, but desperately depressing nonetheless.

Highway 2, the loneliest road in the world, runs quietly across Nebraska. Across the terrain rising imperceptibly: undulating prairie hills sparsely scattered with isolated farms making you wonder how it was possible for the people living there to preserve their sanity.

Driving across Nebraska is like starring in a Wim Wenders movie. And seeing it that way is also the only possibility one has to mend the painful cracks in the soul inflicted by this inhospitable and inhumane space. Second-order beauty. Imported, indirect, added. The road, resting in the same metaphorical field as Freedom, is a traditional promise of a new beginning. It contains irrational optimism, unfounded hope, and the empty space through which it runs is a promise of its realization. Staring into it directly brings nothing but social realism. Which is why you have to look beyond.

Switching to a local radio station means catching the tune of a country hit single informing you that it’s the little things that count. Fried chicken, cold beer, a pair of jeans that fits just right. And really—what is it if not the little things that keep a man, who will never in his life manage to accumulate enough money to leave the long, barren prairie of the state he was born into, alive?

Of all the places life has forgotten, I ended up in South Dakota. But I wasn’t faithful to the myth. Yes, I went to the Black Hills, no, I did not see Mount Rushmore. What I did see—comparable in its splendor and pathos—was the Crazy Horse Memorial. A monument honoring the legendary Lakota chief, still unfinished years after its creator—the crazy Polish guy by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski—had died. His family continued carving it into the face of the mountain. I was sold the ticket by a chubby Indian. The monument was out of reach. All they offered was a Disneyland of souvenirs and a looking glass you had to feed dollars to look the great chief in the eye. It was sad. And it was raining.

Deadwood, the mythical lawless city where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the head, has developed with age into a pile of casinos and cheap motels pushed against the dark side of the mountain. With a cemetery on the hill, a traffic light that never works, antique shops selling cheap second-hand weapons, and stores selling T-shirts for supporters of Donald Trump: Donald as Superman, Donald on a motorcycle, Donald as everyman. Donald, the savior of impoverished white America.

Barbra-Jean is a lesbian, a retiree, and a tour guide, giving history lessons on horseback, through the hills above Deadwood. A former nurse and a former wife, too old to invest her time and hopes in jobs and men that don’t provide for anything but bad luck. She saddles the horses, helps us mount them, and leads us through the low pines and gathering fog. Deadwood, she says, used to be the center of the gold rush. Flyers invited the poor from cities all across America to come and dig their way to happiness with a spade. And they came. On foot. They walked for a year or more, they came, sick and starving. Earned a patch of land. And they dug. And they died. Happiness remained undug.

Where the Black Hills end, the Badlands begin. A region impossible to describe without having your tongue all tangled up in cheap poetry. Like walking on the moon. Unbearably beautiful and uncanny. Conical erosion of the plateau, bighorn sheep crossing belts of grass separating carefully regulated roads from the desert. Where the Badlands end, misery begins. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is, as the name suggests, an Indian reservation. One of the poorest areas in the States, far below the poverty line. The patch of dirt onto which the newcomers drove the Sioux from their sacred mountains, before disarming them and slaughtering them at the site of Wounded Knee. A rusty red sign, a modest cemetery, and a parking lot mark the site of the massacre where Indian mothers send their daughters to beg, to roam around like an underdeveloped metaphor for despair.

Driving across the Midwest is like having the sky collapse on your head. A long, hollow silence embarrassing the mind, breathtaking in its absence of reference points. And poverty. Poverty of imagery and poverty of people who have—out of stupidity or spite—inhabited the land nobody else wanted. But we know: in describing a landscape we describe ourselves. All I could see on my way from St. Louis to Deadwood was my inability to love a land that is not my home. My stiff, less-than-liberal homesickness, my evil.

It’s funny, in a way. I came to the United States arguing that nationalism has nothing to do with me. That I don’t believe in the nation-state, that national pride was invented for those who lack either courage or skill to achieve anything on their own without the support of something bigger, more abstract: a vague substance offering a vague promise of safety. And funnily enough, I would repeat all of this at any given moment, in any political debate, at any round table, into any camera’s eye, or anyone’s tape recorder. But since I left my home, I know I have a homeland.

“Part of morality is,” to quote Adorno, to “not to be at home in one’s home.” Keeping a distance, and the perspective that comes with it. And it is true. But something else is also true. Since my return to St. Louis I sometimes read Said’s Reflections on Exile in the dead of night. This is how I know that even those who believe both Adorno and Hugo of Saint Victor were right, tremble at the memory of home. Especially those never allowed to return there. Said’s home, a professor of mine likes to say, is a home one builds for himself in literature. But I am not so sure. The friends we come across in Reflections, self-destructive people, drunks, poets, did not sacrifice their lives to depression because they missed a home made out of words. They missed people, habits, smells. And even though it might be true that the vicious emotions they crawled into tend to give birth to nationalism and hate, they, for the most part, produce nothing but sadness. And sadness is beyond morality. Sadness is just there.

translated from the Slovenian by Katja Perat

Click here to read an excerpt of the novel The Masochist, translated by Close Approximations winner Olivia Hellewell, from the Winter 2019 issue.