In a few months time I will be trekking via a hellhole, known as economy class, to the home of my patriarchal ancestors. I will be visiting a part of Poland which was once known as East Prussia. Arriving in Warsaw, the beloved and I will hire a car and navigate the Polish roads to the city of Elk, once known as Lyck. It was here, around 1944, that all sorts of horrendous dramas unfolded for my grandmother and her children as they fled the Red Army at the end of WW2 (my grandfather had died in the battle of Stalingrad).
I have found the genealogical research a very troublesome process, not just because of the countless documents that have been destroyed. It has also been difficult to read the heart wrenching, historical narrative of desperate people caught up in the horrors of WW2, no matter what ‘side’ they were from. The more I dig, the more I wonder: “Why am I doing this?” Hours of work may result, if I am fortunate, with a minuscule detail of information that may or may not further the progress of discovering some of my heritage.
My research took me to a “Church of ‘Jesus Christ’ of Latter Day Saints” near my home, which provides access to thousands of documents to assist those tracing the footsteps of their ancestors. I was welcomed by a lady who bore an uncanny resemblance to Professor Trelawney. In the course of conversation she mentioned that she spends nearly every day of the week here and has managed to trace her family history to the 7th century. It was a strange conversation as she gushed forth detailed information about her lineage with that mad gleam of a genealogical zealot in her eyes; eyes that were boring into my soul, wanting me to grasp the magnitude of the importance of her obsession. Desperately trying to remain interested I kept being distracted by the giant teacup by her computer, wondering whether there were traces of tealeaves at the bottom? In my head I was thinking, “A friggin’ name, lady, I am just after one elusive name.”
So what exactly drives someone like this charming, ancestral extremist to embark on this magnitude of research? And what has made genealogical research one of the most popular hobbies and a global phenomenon?
The fascination with our lineage seems to go back into antiquity. Some have argued that it is a sense of feeling connected to others that is the motivation behind the hours of research work. Eviatar Zerubavel, in his book, ‘Ancestors & Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community’, challenges the way we look at genealogy. Rather than simply documenting who our ancestors were, it is a process of constructing a narrative to link ourselves to our ancestors.
Genealogies, he argues, aren’t simply a straightforward account of our ancestries, rather they are the heavily curated social constructions of our imagined values.”No other animals have ‘second cousins once removed,'” Zerubavel points out, “or are aware of having had great-great-great-grandparents”. Only humans have the ability to expand family trees and accrue large numbers of ‘optional’ relatives. We construct our genealogies by choosing, out of a nearly endless array of possibly important or interesting ancestors, the ones who matter to us.
So is our search for origin simply a search for meaning? And do we use distant relatives to construct a narrative that in some way feeds the need to discover meaning in our lives? I would say this idea certainly plays a factor into my research. That, and sheer curiosity. If Zerubavel is correct in his argument, then is it any wonder in a world of disconnection, suspicion and tribal disintergration, people take to studying their ancestors – looking for stories that bring meaning to existence? Do genealogical studies provide a little bit of comfort for the existential angst that gnaws in each of us? And perhaps that is why, generally speaking, we have a love affair with fairytales? Because like our own historical narrative, they help us dream and imagine stories of greatness and mystery.
Since water still flows, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way satisfy our cravings,
Let us loosen our hair tomorrow and go fishing.