This is the central question of today’s post: Are we artists because we just are (more or less by our own free choice), or because we’re wired, genetically, to be artists, in the same way that our ancestors were? Further, did the experiences of our ancestors come to define how subsequent generations of their progeny (including us) would be wired to experience and interact with the world? Do our experiences come to influence how our grandchildren will be, via some kind of genetic inheritance mechanism? Does what happens to us change how they will think and what their approach to interacting with other people and the world will evolve to be? Are our distant successors destined to be, statistically speaking, more likely to be artists and think like artists, if we spend a lifetime as artists?
I think these are very interesting questions and they were motivated, for me, because of some strange coincidences and happenstances that left me wondering.
Let me start out by stating clearly that I don’t know if any of this has any basis in scientific, objective fact. This is, rather, a set of impressions, intuitions, inexplicable but spooky feelings and a description of my experiences, all of which I can provide no satisfactory explanation for. As such, much of this article will be in the realm of pure speculation and asking questions that I feel need answers, but the answers are not accessible to me. I don’t know if genetic memory and epigenetics are proven facts, or still in the realm of investigative speculation. I suspect the latter.
This all started with a lark. I happened upon an ad for ancestry.com which claimed that it could unlock the secrets of my family tree, just be typing my surname into their search engine. I was, of course, quite sceptical about this, because our family history consists of fleeing from persecution as refugees, migrations to the far corners of the earth, of cloudy, obscure family stories, of a wall of silence (or perhaps ignorance or incuriosity) about our deep heritage, of burned out and bombed official records and a sense that all was lost to history. My surname also happens to be a common noun, which tends to confound every search engine known to man. It’s also not a very common family name. For years, I would open up every phone book in every hotel I stayed in, to see if there were any locals listed with the same surname. Invariably, there weren’t. I was certain the ancestry.com search engine would return junk data, so I put my surname in, just for the satisfaction of watching millions of dollars worth of technology prostrate itself, uselessly, in front of my very eyes.
As so often happens when you expect one result, you get another, surprising result.
The thing about my family name is that because it isn’t very common, if you get meaningful search results at all, there is a very good chance that the people it returns are distant blood relatives. We’re just not that numerous, as a clan. Imagine my surprise, then, when in addition to the search results that recorded people from approximately the same area as my grandfather was known to have originated, there were older birthdates for people with our surname, who came from somewhere a little further away, but not impossibly distant – approximately 600 miles, to be (in)exact. Not exactly the other end of the earth, to be sure.
It turns out we had multiple long-lost relations from an area of the world that has since come to lend its name to a people that, descended from Celts, became renowned for their unconventional lifestyles, beliefs and ideas. Rather than being content to do as the authorities told them to do, my ancestors were, it seems, quite rebellious, in a generally peaceable way and they valued their freedom of movement and freedom from rule quite highly. My distant ancestors, it seems, hailed from Bohemia. They were true Bohemians.
In the UK, there is a television programme called “Who Do You Think You Are?” which traces the genealogy of minor celebrities and films their voyage of discovery, as they learn the details of the lives of their ancestors. The remarkable thing about the programme is that you frequently see how and why a celebrity has gained certain personality traits, or has been drawn to one field of endeavour or another. How the celebrity thinks and acts seems to be eerily echoed in the recorded deeds and life histories (scant though the details may be) of the lives of their many times great grandfathers and grandmothers. Suddenly, many of the things that mark me out as different to my peers came into sharp relief.
I, perhaps for the first time in my life and quite unexpectedly, understood why I hold certain values dear and why I pursue certain projects and hold particular beliefs. It’s not just that my thoughts and values were shaped by my parents, especially my father. It’s that his were shaped by his father and my grandfather’s by his father, in turn. The kind of people we are, temperamentally, owes something to the outlook and values passed down from father to son, over the course of several generations. There is more than a little of the Bohemian outlook in me, in terms of being unconventional and proud of it, fiercely protective of my autonomy and of my freedom of action. I had my own, personal “Who Do You Think You Are?” moment. But there was more…
Some of the search results detailed ancestors that had perished in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Contemporaries of my father and grandfather, with our surname, had presumably been rounded up by the authorities and imprisoned – more than half a dozen of them, according to the search engine. It is a historical fact that so called Gypsies, the label often given to the unconventional and those less than eager to bow to totalitarian authority, were rounded up because of their perceived trouble-making tendencies and conveniently exterminated. My grandfather had come from a large family, but nobody knew what had become of my father’s uncles and cousins, or indeed of his great uncles and extended family. The grim reality of their probable fates presented itself to me, in my browser. This discovery hit me hard.
While I had no direct knowledge of these people that shared my surname, there were very many from the vicinity where my grandfather had been a young man and again, presumably descended from the Bohemians that shared our family name. Due to the machinations and conquests of the Habsburg Empire, my grandfather had always identified as an Austrian, though both Bohemia and Bosnia sandwich Austria. You have to go through Austria to go from one to the other. It was just too much of a concentration for these people not to have been my distant relatives.
The tell tale sign was that, apart from those that evidently later emigrated to the United States and to the United Kingdom, everybody else, especially the earlier people with our name, were all from this same area. The miracle, to me, was that my immediate extended family had all survived the first and second world wars and had found a safe haven, as refugees, in Australia. But for a series of lucky decisions, it could have been my direct family members that were in those concentration camps. It gives you pause for thought.
I’m not a big believer in anything supernatural. I believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Having said that, what really spooked me was a series of distinct and memorable feelings I had had in the past, inexplicable at the time, which now knowing a little of my likely ancestry, took on a different complexion. I did warn you that a lot of this post would be speculative and defy straightforward, rational explanation.
In the mid 1990s, my wife and I took a summer holiday break in Austria. We rented a car and could go anywhere we chose. Without any concrete plan, we stopped off anywhere we thought might be interesting. We went to visit Baden. I clearly remember eating an ice cream in the town square. It felt homely, to me. I liked that town square. Only long after the tour, when we were telling my father about our journey, he revealed that he, too, had passed through Baden as a young man. I was unaware of this, prior to discussing it. Of course, I shrugged off the feeling I remember experiencing, in that square.
For reasons not wholly explicable, we also passed through Linz. There, the atmosphere was very different. Disquieting. There was something uneasy about being in Linz. I put it down, at the time, to the fact that it was Adolph Hitler’s birthplace. Now, I was aware that a contemporary of my father, with our surname, had perished in Mathausen concentration camp, 20km from Linz. ? Was I drawn to visit the town to feel that discomfort and unease? Or was it mere coincidence that I should have felt that chill uneasiness? Very probably.
I started to research the Bohemians and where they had ended up. Not just those with our surname, but Bohemians in general. To where had they fled? I started seeing records about people with our surname that had moved to places in the UK and the US. I also saw cities that had once been home to significant Bohemian émigré communities. I had been to many of these places and the strangest thing is that they were all places I had liked being, where I felt an affinity for the place. Those feelings were strong. Some other places and cities, in those same countries, I really disliked being in, but these places always made me feel at peace and happy. Of course, there are many places one can feel at home and at ease, but I distinctly recall having a preference for these places, without necessarily having a compelling reason to do so. Knowing, now, that my people very likely had lived there, it seemed like those feelings were no longer quite so mysterious and yet still wholly inexplicable. Is it coincidence that I felt at home in places where my forebears or their people had settled? Again, very probably.
Last week, I read that one’s musical tastes solidify when one is about fourteen years old. The song or artist that makes the biggest impression on you, at that age, tends to define your musical preferences for the rest of your life. It seems like a plausible idea. I was fourteen when a song was released that was so different to anything that I had ever heard before, I was instantly enraptured and enthralled by it. Yes, that song has influenced my musical tastes strongly, since that time. It’s true. What was the song? “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Another tangential coincidence, of course, rationalised in hindsight.
What was the thing that you read about, as an adult, which caused you the most visceral revulsion and adverse reaction? I can clearly identify that. For me, it was reading about Bohemian Grove. The alleged activities that took place at that site filled me with a sense of indignation at the fact that the ideals of Bohemianism had been purloined and perverted in such a twisted way. Of course, this was before I suspected I had any connection to Bohemianism, but it seemed to me that the rituals and ideals described, if true, were the complete antithesis of the spirit and ethos of true Bohemianism. It had been co-opted and turned into something that was the complete opposite of what the earlier Bohemians stood for. I reacted strongly against that.
It makes a good story, doesn’t it? Is it true? I don’t know. I sincerely doubt it. Yet, I undoubtedly think and feel a certain way. Is it a Bohemian thing? Would I have believed so, if I hadn’t performed that search on ancestry.com? I have no real way of knowing. Maybe not, but perhaps. All I can tell you is that to my mind, some loose ends suddenly seemed to connect and make sense.
Does experience change the DNA you pass down and does that, in turn, wire you as being predisposed to certain ideas, habits, traits, characteristics, etc? Is this what we think of as instinctual? Of course, I don’t know. I have no idea. Nobody knows. I doubt it strongly, yet I have these inexplicable feelings that, after the fact, make more sense to me, when you consider my likely heritage. Is that just me being irrational and superstitious? I think that’s the most likely explanation, yet I can’t dismiss it all out of hand, definitively. I am learning to trust my intuition more, because life has taught me that it has been a reliable guide, which I have frequently and mistakenly discounted and ignored. I was wrong to not listen to it. My intuition, right now, is telling me that there is more to this Bohemian connection and my feelings than meets the eye, but I can offer no extraordinary proof for this extraordinary claim. That, to me, is quite frustrating. I can’t prove it, yet I am reluctant to dismiss it.
There are other times I have had strong reactions to a place, which have been very memorable and for which I had no explanation, at the time. For example, the first time I visited the area I now live in, on the way to somewhere else, one grey and rainy day, I had a very strong and sudden feeling that my recording studio was somewhere here. I remember that feeling very well and I remember trying to find recording studios, as we drove through. We didn’t move into this area, until some twenty years later. Did I move here, attracted by the fact that I had once had that feeling here, long ago, or did I have that feeling because I somehow knew I would spend more than a decade living here? I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. I can tell you what the rational answer is, but it doesn’t feel very satisfactory.
The only other place that evokes such a noticeable and strong reaction in me, strangely, is Wiltshire, where I feel spooked and creeped-out, every time I visit. I still don’t understand what that’s all about, but I have to go through that county to get to Devon, a place I like to be, where there were once ancestors of mine, it seems. It’s all very strange, inexplicable and spooky. Maybe it’s just a story I retell myself, every time I am there and so that’s why the feeling persists and grows. Who knows? This might very well be my early Halloween tale.
Confirmation bias is real. To tell a story counter to these seeming coincidences, I have never felt drawn in any way to the region around Bergen-Belsen, where at least four of my distant relations apparently perished. I’ve never been there and never felt any desire to be there, unlike those other magnetic places. This might be the counter example that disproves all the other post-rationalisations. I’m prepared to believe so.
I don’t know what this all means, if anything. Perhaps nothing. More than likely nothing. The connections are tenuous at best, but the intuitive feelings are real enough. I really don’t know what to make of it. All I can say is that all of this speculation came as a surprise, as the result of a mere lark. I’ve shared this unusual story for your entertainment. I hope you have at least found it interesting, in the sense of it being pure fiction, if not compelling.
Or is it?