Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dusan Makavejev: The Last Yugoslav

So the article about Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makavejev that I have been promising since July has finally been published in the print and web versions of this week's edition of The Nation.

Though I had to scrunch and smoosh to get it all in, I'm pretty happy with the piece. In particular, I was happy to get a chance to talk about a few things:

(1) The brilliance of Makavejev's first three feature films -- Man Is Not a Bird, Love Affair -- Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, and Innocence Unprotected -- which have been recently been rereleased for the first time on DVD as a set by Criterion.

Because they had not been released previously on DVD when I had to write the piece, I had to buy all three movies online as used VHS tapes. That alone should tell you how valuable this new collection is in tracing the arc of Makavejev's art.

(2) A chance to make the argument that WR: Mysteries of the Organism is a more audacious and satisfying film than Sweet Movie, which is a much more notorious though less intellectually adventurous film. I was also delighted to remind readers of Makavejev's trenchant critique of the absurd priapism of the American combination of violence and capitalism -- something that critics who have been transfixed by Makavejev's stinging critique of communism in that film usually omit or elide.

(3) An opportunity to reevaluate Makavejev's last full-length feature, Gorilla Bathes at Noon -- and argue for its excellence as a film and as a portrait of the exhaustion at the end of the Cold War that so animates WR and Sweet Movie. Particularly viewed on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorilla Bathes at Noon is -- as I mention in the article -- a "portrait of Berlin as a filthy, cold and abandoned siege line of the Cold War." It is criminal that this film has not been released on DVD. I can only hope that my piece might urge that possibility on someone who can do it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Danilo Kiš: Mittel Man

Twenty years ago today, on October 15, 1989, Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš succumbed to lung cancer in Paris, France. He was only 54 when he died.

Among the works Kiš left behind included a form-bending prose triptych -- Garden, Ashes (1965), Early Sorrows (1970) and Hourglass (1972) -- two masterworks of short fiction -- A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) and Encyclopedia of the Dead (1983) -- and a string of dazzling polemical essays and interviews about his own work (some of which were translated into English and published in 1995 as Homo Poeticus.

The early death of one of Europe’s humane and powerful literary voices was a tragedy for literature. But history suggests that the timing of the Kiš’ passing was – at least in one aspect – merciful. Kiš did not witness the engulfment of Yugoslavia in the blood-soaked tide of competing nationalisms that he so thoroughly despised and belittled.

After all, witness was at the center of Kiš’ literary works, which grappled with the worst of Europe’s mid-20th Century horrors: Nazism and Stalinism. The author experienced the first of those horrors in his childhood. Kiš was the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Montenegrin mother, and his father and other relatives died in Auschwitz. It was a trauma that fueled the keenly-felt and minutely-observed explorations of memory mingled with looming tragedy in his first three books.

In a 1988 interview included in Homo Poeticus, Kiš observed that his later exploration of Stalinism in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich arose in part from a prick of conscience:

Yes, there’s a break in my work between the family cycle (the first three books) and what followed. I went on with my investigations, but substituting the experience of the century for my own personal experience. I felt it was wrong to take on fascism while ignoring Stalinism, especially as they have traits in common: the predominance if Jews in both the Nazi and Soviet camps (pace Solzhenitsyn, who tends to bring in Jews only if they are camp guards.)

The brutality of Stalinism in Kiš’ work is sharpened not only by Stalinism's perversion and betrayal of revolutionary idealism (the classic trope), but also in the author’s painfully comic vision of human beings careening through a universe of injustice and accident. In Boris Davidovich, the grand forces of history are whittled to the sharp and savage portraits of victims and victimizers. Modern pogroms and purges are shrouded in illusion and infiltrated by chance and caprice.

One of the great ironies of Kiš’ career is that Boris Davidovich set off a lengthy war within Yugoslavia’s -- and mainly Serbia’s -- literary establishment that turned not upon interpretations of Stalinism (the vexed question that forced both author Mihajlo Mihajlov and director Dušan Makavejev into dissidence and exile) but on questions of nationalism and literary cabalism.

An initial and unfounded attack upon Kiš’ use of source materials as “plagiarism” a few months after the book was published burst into a conflagration that raged through magazines and newspapers. By the end of the polemics around the book, Kiš and his colleague Predrag Matvejević – a professor at Zagreb University who joined in the defense of Boris Davidovich – had laid bare the provincial prejudices and machinations of Belgrade’s literary establishment arrayed against Kiš and his book. (You can find an excellent summary here.)

The key text in the controversy was The Anatomy Lesson (1978), Kiš’ book-length defense of Boris Davidovich. (Portions of the book are included in Homo Poeticus.) Though much of The Anatomy Lesson is a dissection of his own working methods, and a refutation of any whiff of "plagiarism," the most famous passages of the book grapple with the larger stakes of the battle: literary cosmopolitanism versus narrow nationalism.

The battle over Boris Davidovich presaged the violent breakup of Yugoslavia set in motion a decade later, and Kiš clearly articulated the vicious mentality that would later sweep through the nation as rooted in paranoia, banality, kitsch and ignorance:

The nationalist is by definition an ignoramus. Thus, nationalism is the path of least resistance, the easy way out. The nationalist has no problems; he knows – or thinks he knows – his own basic values, his own and therefore his people’s, the ethical and political values of the nation to which he belongs. He is interested in no others. Nothing “other” holds any interest for him. Hell is others (other nations, other tribes), people not worth knowing or studying. All the nationalist sees is his own image: the image of a nationalist. A comfortable position, as we have said. Fear and envy. A choice, a commitment requiring no effort. The nationalist feels not only that hell is other nations but also that everything not his (Serb, Croat, French…) is alien to him.

Though Kiš won the battle over Boris Davidovich, the nationalists in Serbia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia eventually won the larger culture war. The conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart were rooted in the paranoia and ignorance belittled by Kiš, and the cultural artifacts of that era trafficked in the banality and kitsch that he so savagely ridiculed.

* * * * *

Perhaps it was a mercy that Kiš did not live to see the bloody triumph (however temporary) of naked political nationalism in former Yugoslavia. (The jury is still out on its more subtle political manifestations. Culturally, nationalism still holds considerable sway.)

But the collapse of communism and Yugoslavia’s wars indisputably demolished a greater literary project in which Kiš’ was implicated: the notion of the “Central European” writer.

I choose the word "implicated" expressly because of Kiš' tantalizing ambivalence about the concept. His longest extended meditation on the topic is a 1986 essay, "Variations on Central European Themes" (included in Homo Poeticus), which flits in fits and starts between defining and debunking a "Central European" category in politics and (most importantly) in literature.

Early in the essay, Kiš dubs the concept as "risky business" and tartly observes that:

Even taking a historical perspective, we have trouble speaking of "Central European culture" as a coherent supranational entity, the differences in national cultures being greater than the similarities, the antagonisms more alive than the agreements.

Yet in the period in which Kiš reached his artistic zenith, the concept was alive and well in Western Europe and the United States, largely as a method in which a quorum nations of so-called "Eastern Europe" under Soviet domination (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania) or perched uneasily between East and West (Yugoslavia) could be reconnected somehow with a political and cultural reality that predated Anschluss, devastation and Communist rule.

The notion of a literary “MittelEuropa,” created in the great cultural mixing bowl of the Hapsburg monarchy, and stretching roughly from Karl Kraus and Karel Capek through Joseph Roth and through to Milan Kundera and Kiš himself had a cachet that the author of Boris Davidovich eyed warily:

The sudden interest in "Central Europe" is the result less of concern over a culture remaining in the shadows than of the West's growing awareness that the Manichean East-West split has caused an entire geographical region to vanish into the mists.

and, later:

At present the notion of a Central European sphere of culture may well be felt more strongly in the West than in the countries that ought logically to constitute it.

In 1978, it had been a full decade since the last political eruption in MittelEuropa (the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). Before that, of course, was the spectre of 1956 in Hungary. The declaration of martial law to quell the rise of Solidarity in Poland was two years in the future. Indeed, a spirit of cultural ferment in the region -- be it Article VII of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia in 1977 -- was thick in the air.

But as his "variations" gather intensity, propelled forward in short bits of prose, Kiš warms to the idea of Central Europe. When he reads Polish writer Andrzej Kusniewicz or Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, he writes, "I find something in the way they put things that draws them close to me, a Central European poetics if you will? "What is the tone, the vibration that situates a work within that magnetic field? Above all, the inherent presence of culture..."

More commonalities follow and aggregate. "Since even the awareness of belonging to a culture known as Central European is ultimately an act of dissidence," Kiš writes, "writers whom others call Central European or who define themselves as such generally live in exile (Milosz, Kundera, Skvorecky) or are marginalized and appear in samizdat (Konrad) or are in prison (Havel)."

The tone of the essay also gets more personal as it winds to its conclusion. In my view, the figure of Austrian playwright Odon von Horvath looms large in Kiš' thinking and writing in this era.

Horvath was a classic MittelEuropean mongrel: born in former Yugoslavia (Rijeka) as the son of a Hungarian diplomat, educated in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna. Horvath's own self-portrait rendered his background as "a typical old Austrian-Hungarian mixture: Magyar, Croatian, German, Czech -- my name is Magyar, my mother tongue is German."

In a short 1983 essay called "Birth Certificate," Kiš consciously echoes Horvath's biography, emphasizing his Hungarian Jewish and Montenegrin background, noting that "The ethnographic rarity I represent will die out with me."

One of Kiš' final stories was an almost-literal retelling of Horvath's biography -- and in particular, Horvath's untimely end. Translated and published in the anthology Balkan Blues: Writing Out of Yugoslavia, it is a haunted tale. Like Kiš, Horvath died in exile in Paris, hounded out of the magical sphere of Central Europe by the political and cultural controversies of the time.

The story establishes the Central European pedigree of a writer that Kiš renames "Egon von Nemeth" before literally erasing it in a cold fury against the obsession with race and class that destroyed a generation of Europeans. The final line of Kiš' story suggests that the task of seeing and recording that is essential to the writer requires a self-immolation of sorts, an rubbing out of all the cultural threads that one would wind together to form a Central European strand:

The witness needs impartiality; the remorse of some is as alien to him as the prejudice of others.

George Scialabba in DC: My Thoughts

I was asked by George Scialabba to make some introductory remarks at his Washington D.C. appearance at Busboys & Poets. He was in town to celebrate the release of his collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?

Here is what I wrote....

* * * * * * *

I am delighted to be here tonight to introduce George Scialabba.

His latest book, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has excited intense critical attention – and if you haven’t read it, or read the splendid seminar on it at Crooked Timber’s web site – I urge you to do so.

George would likely agree that he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to pose significant questions about intellectuals – and, in particular, so-called public intellectuals – and their role in American life. But he is among a select few who have thought most deeply about these questions and responded to them – not merely with the force of his words but with the courage of his example.

Indeed, the critical attention that George’s work has received in recent months makes it a daunting task to say something new about it by way of introduction.

But allow me to take a license granted, in part, by the fact that George’s book is published by “Pressed Wafer Press" -- with all the communion and agony attached to that name -- to draw on something that George and I share: our American Catholic heritage.

George has written wonderfully and movingly about his own deep encounter with that faith in his youth, and the struggles, gains and losses of his abandonment of it. He is being introduced tonight by someone who convinced a nun to lend him a Baltimore Catechism in the fifth grade. (This was 1976, by the way, when that once sturdy redoubt of American Catholic faith had been breached by the guitar mass.) I devoured it cover to cover before being pulled away from that particular state of grace by the writings of Hume, Nietzsche, James (William. Not Henry.) and Lowell (Robert. Not Amy or James Russell.) only a scant few years later.

As I say, George’s observations about his own religious life are deeply-felt and wonderfully-wrought. (I point you in the direction of his essay “An Honest Believer” in his first collection, Divided Mind.) But as any honest lapsed Catholic will acknowledge, deep structures of thought (foundations, even) stay with us despite the loss of faith and certainty. They are rooted too deeply to be entirely demolished. We build new annexes. Rearrange the furniture, perhaps. Plant some trees and shrubbery to hide it. But traces of the architecture remain upon deeper excavation.

If you read George carefully, for instance, you know that he has his own firmament of cultural saints – many of them thorny and unpopular figures who deserve resurrection – even apotheosis or beatification. (In his response to George on Crooked Timber, Rich Yeselson channels Jean-Paul Sartre to dub them “unsalvageable” – a most unCatholic notion, that.) Yet it is a tribute to George that he is most scrupulous in his critical canonizations, playing both advocatus diaboli and advocatus dei with equal zest. Resting nothing upon mere faith but insisting upon good works. And like anyone of our background, George finds power in tradition – even if that strength is a springboard to a dive into wider worlds.

But the Catholic value that I find most persistent and compelling in George’s work is a value that the Church itself seems to have downgraded to the point of demurral in recent decades: the hunger and thirst for justice. Social justice, yes. But George also hungers and thirsts for the just weighing of ideas that is the hallmark of the best literary and cultural criticism.

In his response to the Crooked Timber seminar, George approvingly quotes from a key moment of Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven. He also uses this quote in his recent book, but in his response to the online seminar, George liberates Lasch’s definition of justice from its previous veil of ellipses:

Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories – no doubt distorted, overlaid with later memories, and thus not wholly reliable as a guide to any factual reconstruction of past events – in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments.

George writes: “I’m not sure I understand this, but I find it more illuminating than many things I do understand.”

Be prepared to be illuminated now, and join me in welcoming George Scialabba.

Monday, October 12, 2009


My performance as a blogger, that is.

It's been almost a month since my last post. I can't say that I haven't been busy. I've been crazy busy with work, family, life, etcetera. But having a blog is a cosmic pact. According to my web stats, people are still showing up, driven here by the wonderful machinery of Google. I must do better.

There will be an onslaught of posts in the next few weeks as some long-awaited projects come to fruition. The piece on Dusan Makavejev from The Nation will finally be appearing in a few weeks. And I'll have a post about Yugoslav author Danilo Kis on Thursday to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

Til then, here are a few links to tide you over....

* I will be introducing author George Scialabba at this event on Wednesday night in Washington DC. Please make it if you can!

* My interview with John Strausbaugh in the new UMBC Magazine is here. Strausbaugh's essay on his memories of Baltimore is here.

* My very short essay on the Prague Playwriting contest can be found in the latest contest newsletter.