People don’t just disappear in wartime, they also disappear in broad daylight. Los Desaparecidos. Not accounted for, never to be seen again. Some are lucky enough to survive, but they are not in peace for all that, they become the war. Through their reactions, they reveal a reality that may not be accessible in any other way : the war is never over. It is simply simmering under the surface, ready to burst out at the slightest opportunity and show itself for what it is. War has become one with peace as death has become one with life.

I was admitted in the emergency room of a hospital in upstate New York after they found that my heart was twenty times its size. That was a lot of heart for one man. They had no bed in cardiology so they moved me to the cancer ward. I arrived there just on time to hear the doctor break the news to my roommate that he had terminal cancer. The doctor pulled a thin curtain between his patient’s bed and mine and I could hear his voice spelling out softly the man’s options, chemo, etc. I felt he was signing our death warrant. That night I had the most cheerful dream. Maybe it was the hefty dose of morphine they gave me that night. A horrible mightmare would have been in order, but no. Maybe the idea of death coming so close was liberating, even uplifting in a strange kind of way. There was nothing more to fear.

I don’t get afraid easily. I am never afraid of something. Before I left France I had a close friend, Henri M. When we were 16 he told me he had no idea what guilt was, and this made perfect sense to me when I thought about it later on. See, he was all guilt. He didn’t have the distance. Fear is no different. You don’t even know it’s there. It helped me understand something of my own reactions. I always light-up in life-threatening situations, never quite understood why. It’s as if I’ve been rehearsing them all my life.

For two years I lived on the high desert plateaus bordering on Iran and even trains crossing the mountains weren’t safe. One morning I woke up as the train was going over a cliff. It slumped to the side, and stayed there, hanging. I knew exactly what to do. It was like a dance in slow-motion, or living in the eye of a storm. Dostoievsky’s epileptic fits were always preceded by this kind of eerie silence. But then it would explode and the world would collapse. I am always ready for this to happen, even relish the thought probably. But the world is still here in a strange kind of way, and so I am.

Henry and I were of the same age and shared very similar experiences. He aspired to be a great French intellectual, a Claude Levi-Strauss, a Jacques Lacan -- it was Paris early 60s -- but he kept living his life in the conditional tense, as if looking back on what it could have been. Except once – when he hung himself to a tree. And even then it turned out to be inconclusive. His death remained uncertain for a long time. He was discovered three months later in the Foret de Fontainebleau, near Paris. He was hardly recognizable. He had managed to disappear in death as he disappeared in his life. He was the ultimate “traitor,” a Sartrian concept Henry appropriated with some relish to account for his own malaise. But he didn’t have to betray anything, the very fact of his existence was a betrayal. Of course, there was a precedent. His father died in a concentration camp, so who is there to say? All he could do was get even.

When I was young I read a book by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs. It always stayed with me for some reason. It wasn’t something one would laugh at really. The man in the title (a heir to the French throne, I believe) had been disfigured as a child so no one would recognize him. Maybe he didn’t recognize himself either. His kidnappers carved both corners of his mouth all the way up to his ears so he had this grotesque grin frozen on his face. No one could imagine that the man was crying inside.

I always wondered how my parents managed to make us switch names. I was three, my sister five. One day they told me how they did it. My father took my sister aside, and my mother took care of me. For the entire day they kept repeating: “The Germans kill little children. If you say your real name, you’ll be killed.” And my mother added: “It really worked.”

Last year I arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris from the Charles de Gaulle airport. Crossing the station I suddenly fell upon a small display -- hundreds of photographs posted on plain panels, the kind they would put up in French schools for local elections. I had never seen an exhibit there. There was no title, pictures were small. I came closer, holding a piece of luggage in my hand. They were black and white photographs with just names, ages and addresses typed right below. Rue de Turenne, rue des Pyrennees, rue d’Hauteville… I didn’t expect that. I froze. These families had been shipped in transports right below, on the tracks I just left, children and all. For a brief moment I forgot where I was.

These photographs weren’t snapshots. Photographs still were something special at the time and most had been shot in a studio. Some were touched up. They were meant to endure. The people in the pictures, of course, hadn’t been as lucky. They had no idea what was in the offing.

For years I used to talk to morgue photographers, study crime pictures. I hang out with a police videographer, George Diaz, documenting crime scenes for the Brooklyn D.A. I even made a film with Chris Kraus called How to Shoot a Crime where I could be seen lying down on a bed, face down. Diaz had shot it the way he documented actual crime scenes in Brooklyn, four bodies, three men and a woman, neatly lined up on a bed., their heads cut off. A drug deal that went awry. The dealers were sending a clear message. Are dreams messages sent every night when we lose our heads and start raving? I wanted to study crime as a special performance piece, something that happens only once. At least there was a before and an after. I wanted to know what death was about to make sure that I was alive.

Reminds me of pictures that James van der Zee, the famous Harlem photographer, showed me just before he died, pictures of the dead he had taken earlier on. In Van der Zee’s pictures a couple is holding their dead baby in their arms as if still alive. It was impossible to tell. A man’s body is surrounded by the entire family in their best clothes. The man seems to be resting. No one looks especially sad. Everyone is posing, the deceased included. These photographs too are making a statement. They were saying that the dead had been taken care of until the very end, death extending into life. These pictures were sent to the family in the South, in the Caribbians. It was a rite of passage, a sign of respect. Even those far away participated in it. They wouldn’t have these horrible dreams, the dead coming back to claim their due.

I had a dream of that sort a few months after my father died. He came back, but I didn’t recognize him. He was a small retiring man suddenly grown tall and angry. He used to make fur coats and stretch wet rabbits’ skin on small wood boards against the glass walls, feet extended. Now he was roaming through his workshop with a huge board, hitting at me right and left, like Samson in the temple. He was blind. I crouched in a corner, trying to avoid his rage.

Everybody has dreams like that at one time or another. What I was seeing in the train station was photographs of people who never had a chance to die. They had put on their best clothes too, but death was missing at its place (as the French say when a book is missing on its shelve at the library). It’s difficult for those who come after them not to occupy the empty space, become dead inside yourself. There’s always a temptation to complete the picture, as my friend Henry did.

I kept looking at the photographs still dragging my suitcase, looking at the faces, checking names, addresses. I looked at everything. I expected to see our picture there, where we belonged. But it was missing at its place as I have been missing at mine. What would have happened if I had seen it on the wall, looking at me in the eye, as if I had no right to be standing there ? Of course it gets a little shaky after all that, believing you’re alive, or considering anything as your own. It’s like living at the third remove, watching your own life as if it belonged to someone else. And someone else is living it for you.

It’s a bit difficult to explain. Maybe another dream would help. It’s about my father again. I dreamed he had never died, had been in hiding all this time as he did during the war. He looked kind of young and clean-shaved. And I asked him: “How could you have done this? You missed all your children and grand-children growing up.” And Chris Kraus, simply said: “It wasn’t him in the dream, it was you.”

I had another dream around that time, as if the few dreams I manage to remember keep banging and banging at the same door trying to go through. I am in a Roman theater, people in white togas lying down in a circle on marble steps. It reminds me of the first essay Freud wrote called Delirium and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva, a novel set in Pompeii. Freud’s Gradiva is about the mechanisms of artistic creation. My dream is about writing and retrieving the past. The Romans in toga are writers. They are all making fun of me for wanting to be a one. One points in my direction and says out loud: “This man has no heart. He has a heart in radium.” How could anyone without a heart ever be a writer? Writing comes from the heart, and mine is buried in ashes. (Freud’s metaphor was prophecy masquerading as archeology. The
past was still to come).

I had another disturbing dream some time after that. I don’t exactly know where I am. I am not alone either. I am trying to hide a piece of paper, people who are hounding me. The paper is several layers thick, like a parchment, a thick piece of skin with many layers. I am wearing it on me, trying to protect it from people who want to grab it. But I can’t make it disappear -- it is bright red -- and then they find it and I have to fend them off again. Then the piece of text turns into a living material – a piece of meat, a swarm of black ants -- made of layers too. And it is attacking me. I try to beat this bloody thing, taking chunks off it, but it keeps growing back. It is thick and slimy. I don't see any blood on my hands but there is this meaty feeling about it. I keep pounding on this meat that doesn’t want to go.

The people in my dream are not making fun of me, they may even be trying to help. They want to take my pound of flesh away from me, bring me back to the present. Couldn’t I just give it up, be like anyone else? I resist fiercely. Can you put war on the couch? Because this is what I am. I am war, and nothing else. Others -- everyone -- may not realize that they are like me. War never stops, only changes names. You can’t stop it anymore than one can stop me. The past is our future, the future hiding in our present. I care for the sentence inscribed on my flesh more than anything else because everyone else has it too. I am just wearing it on my chest like a general, for everyone to see. It’s bright red, how could anyone miss it? But it may be yellow inside.

This thick paper was not a piece of writing, but a piece of my skin with something inscribed on it, a parchment, a palimpsest, some ancient writing that is using me as a receptacle, as if my entire body was a sacred scroll and I was trying my best to protect it and protect myself from it. But whether I am pounding at it or it is pounding at me I can’t really tell. All I know is that it keeps pounding and pounding. Maybe having no heart is still too much heart.

Actually didn’t the voice in my dream say: “This man has no heart. He has a heart in radium.” So I have a heart after all, and it is in something. I had only noticed the more obvious part of the oracle first. “Radium” is less obvious. You can’t see it with the naked eye. The effect of radiation is totally invisible, but no less deadly for that. In Chernobyl helicopters and armored cars fought an enemy that was nowhere to be seen, and the victims were still walking around after that as if nothing had happened, not realizing they were doomed from the get go. These people are the living dead. But I guess we all are. We’re all subjected to a relentless assault and we shut off like a shell. We keep nursing our death inside, like a baby.

What the voice told me in the dream didn’t quite make sense. “This man has no heart. He has a heart in radium.” The statement contradicted itself. How could the man have no heart and have one “in radium”? It was as if two people were talking to each other, and not just one. They were having an argument, the second voice objecting to what the first voice just said. “No, this is not true. His heart isn’t missing, it is only missing at its place.”

But then the dream didn’t say that. It didn’t say that my heart is in radium, it just said that I have a heart in radium. So is it really the same, and is it really mine? Another heart then. “A heart in radium.” It makes me think of an organ that’s been kept in formol. Formol is a disinfectant but it also preserves body parts that otherwise would deteriorate. Brains, fetuses, etc. Einstein’s brains got lost for half-a-century and was finally found a few years ago floating in a jar on someone’s desk, like a fish-bowl. Well, my heart has been floating in my chest too, waiting to be found.

The other voice in my Gradiva dream said that the missing heart could be found at another place. But where? The night before I had this dream I flew to Paris from New York for a short visit. The night before I had diner at my mother’s and we spent the evening looking at old pictures from Poland. My mother adored her father, and she still cries today every time she mentions his name. I remember her crying that night. She took out an old shoe box and handed me the last mail she sent him after the Germans invaded Poland. Two yellowing postcards with a feverish writing covering the back. You could feel the horror creeping between the lines. Both were returned with the big red stamp of the Kommandantur, an eagle holding a swastika in its claws.

Before the war, my family was living on the outskirt of the Warsaw ghetto. It was a big family, as was customary at the time, and only four survived. In 1939 my grand-father decided to go back to his birth-place in the south of Poland. He always found it safer in times of trouble. The entire family moved there during WWI when the Germans invaded Warsaw. It was a smaller city, the Austrians who occupied it treated people somewhat better. They had some food too.

My grand-father settled in the ghetto with my uncle Adam, the youngest in the family. Adam’s real name was Adolf, but he changed it when he arrived in Dachau. Uncle Adam was tall and well-built and would stand in front of my grand-father each time they lined people up for selection. One day, returning from work, he suddenly realized that his father was gone. To this day no one knows what happened to him. My mother never says: “He was killed.” She hammers: “He was burned.” More than half a century later her anger is still raw, and it will not die with her.

Both postcards she showed me that night bore the following mention in German, “Unknown at this address,” inscribed in red ink in a big rectangle. Her father was still missing at his place as I am missing at mine. I kept looking at the postmarks, trying to figure out what was written there. They were difficult to read. My mother understood and said: “Radom.” I said: “What?” And she said: “The postcards were sent back from Warsaw, but he wasn’t there any more, he was in Radom. Radom was the name of his birthplace.”