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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Oh, Children Smeared with Honey and with Blood

Ivan Štrpka
Traduction de James Sutherland Smith

Texte intégral

Nenazval by som dnes Európu kontinentom, skôr
formulujúcim sa kontextom. Otvoreným kontextom
uprostred iných kontextov. Píšucim sa.

1I speak to you from an unknown place, I broadcast a smoke signal from the middle of the youngest and least visible of the summits of the great literary tradition of this multicolored, rich, and ancient continent. I declare myself precisely from a place of action, perhaps precisely from a small literary black hole, undiscovered and slightly exotic, right in the geographically phantasmagoric center of Central Europe. We are at home with myths. “I remember Paris and I’ve never been there,” as one of our most spirited comics sings, thus indiscreetly revealing our tradition of brooding and melancholic frustration stemming from historical isolation and a lack of self-criticism and free movement. There is also a widespread opinion that life in the midst of such a phantasmagoria must be a great source of energy, creativity, penetration into space-time, a true gate into a new reality.

2Let’s be brief: I speak to you as a Slovak poet from the Slovak Republic. This means, as my friend, the poet Ivan Laučík, has so rightly admitted, “I write to you ... from an uncertain place on the map.”

3Precisely this uncertainty of place, this unanchoredness in firmly closed coordinates of forms and empty stereotypes, this uncertain place opposed to definitiveness, a place developing inside itself and at the same time within you, this infirm, moveable place of ceaseless change and tilting, moveable identity of which the only support and acceptable framework is plural — this moveable ground of a fertile wilderness beneath our feet (to which nobody belongs a priori), this ahistorical, enduring unrest of place, which ceaselessly pumps a living tradition from a floating archaeology of the uninterrupted consciousness of connections, of the movement of intuition, empathy and directly from the air of culture, creating a fragile shell of protective atmosphere for the maturing of life opposed to the impatient rolling of history (as noted by Nietzsche) — this moveable place of a poem, this uncertain living place of our current change, this changeable place that today I can point to without embarrassment as the fundamental point of my trials in life and in my writing. From the beginning I have unconsciously felt in my fingers a living nomadicity of writing as my ancient wandering, uninterrupted thread. Yes, this unrest of place, this visible and proven nomadicity, is placed somewhere deep within me as a mark of identity. It is a pact of European identity. It is a fundamental paradox of life, inevitable for life and its growth. The paradise of writing is moveable, its hell is immobility. Communication within this code is more a permanent purgation of our perceptions and their own words. With this game or personal religion it is not only a matter of truth or the lie of the mere suggestion of words.

4At the very outset the question of value stands before me. These are the values of a poem and the values of the individual, specific human life. There is also a nagging feeling that there can even be some relationship determined by destiny. This ceaseless tension directed towards the sheer value of meaning seeks its own solution and fulfillment — it wishes to break and evoke form in a radical way: style decides. Isn’t this still a theme of European culture?

5I remember that I first encountered the word Europe as a small boy exactly in connection with value and style. From my father’s account: in the first days of peace at the end of the war that produced the most casualties of all, the soldiers of the victorious Red Army were reconstructing a temporary bridge over the river Vah. They were in a hurry, harsh orders rapped out, often beams and construction workers fell into the river. They drowned. “Russia is wealthy! We are many! Go on! Don’t hold things up, we haven’t got time!” — the commanding officer waved his arms when this happened. Before the eyes of our own shocked people he didn’t allow anybody to rescue them. “Barbarians, human life doesn’t mean anything to them,” my mother called out in distress. This bridge was a metaphor for our future and for Communism in practice. Individual life lost its value completely. They were a new people, the new liberators of Europe. They came to free us, too, from the values of our own lives. In this revolutionary practice they became exemplars for us in the name of their great idea.

6I was a child and I understood as a child. I knew then nothing of Stalin and Hitler, of Communism and Fascism, of war, of concentration camps and gulags, of the holocaust, of the uninterrupted thread of blood that leads directly to us. I knew nothing of Christianity, or even of Hölderlin or the Knights of the Round Table, of the atom bomb, or the search for the Holy Grail. But then with my mother and father I sat on the lovely firm bank of civilized Europe, or perhaps more precisely, on the fertile bank of the childish word Europe. I didn’t intend to leave with regard for the opposition of destiny, human stupidity, and greed, the devastation of nature and permanent stink of history that lives on human blood and human indifference to others. This still flows in that same river within me into which they fall again, but no longer step — and floating there are the victims and the fishing floats of our interests. The mere value of an individual human life is still there as is this life in which all of us so cheerfully and anxiously surmount inscrutable waves of despair and euphoria.

7Without pathos and without cheap irony this is the foundation stone, the ideal changes with growing shadows of reality. Nothing more. When I speak about Europe today I think mainly of an image. I will confess to a childhood illusion: I somehow feel an unconscious inner flash of honor and the holy glory of knights on pilgrimage, yet I feel an aversion to all forms of crusade. I think of a net of communicating images. For me the West is this. Reality and its ceaseless research. The Mind. Chiefly this is what lies behind reality and the West, too. This stands behind it as dream and value. Let’s consider this together — live together in our different parallel experience for the last half century that we have survived, face to face, as specific hostages of an abstract powerful enmity that produced fear. Let’s speak about this in our own unique language, as individuals — this can’t be appropriated or stolen by any power.

8Perhaps our — Eastern and Western — common, stimulating theme is not so much lack of freedom, but mostly an experience with freedom, different and various antagonists placing layer upon layer of attempted implementations and usages of freedom to extremes. In fact, what about freedom today? It is precisely with its consequences and borders that we must now take the greatest care.

9From the beginning the size of internal freedom has carried us against the totalitarian stream, in spite of it and over it, as a spontaneous and free culture. Power ruled the masses and the unreconciled individual retired deep within either the masses or deep within him or herself. And existed. Sometimes the individual survived. Today it’s only of use as a gloomy European fairy tale from the folklore of the last century. This was another Europe, but it was in Europe because the routes of my country within the hermetic seal of a forcibly implemented phantasmagoria continue to sever Europe. It was the responsibility of Europe. Yet — who is Europe?

10I began to read seriously and write a little less seriously in the famed 60’s, in the era of a palpable relaxation and general rise in hope. Perhaps I began with a bit of provocative and quixotic gesturing. A young person should kick out of his or her path all the crap, stink, and necrophilia of collective assent — and all this should be done with his first declaration aimed at clearing his or her own space. Yet seriously, “perhaps everybody who is born serious shouldn’t become Don Quixote — he has something better to do than be awkward with some imagined realities,” as Nietzsche observed. Truly, this applied to the whole exterior unimaginable reality of our lives in the midst of an absurdly caged society that was no good at all for anybody. It applied to its change — that is to say, from within. Nothing less. Oh, children smeared with honey and with blood, they want everything and wish to lose nothing! Precisely and to the point: with my friends of mind and heart — one, Ivan Laučík, the other, Peter Repka — as a nineteen-year-old in 1963, I founded a group of poets, The Solitary Runners. Its first declared step was, of course, to produce a manifesto with the innocent title “Return of the Angels” (in the midst of vehement Communism). Of course, it was stopped by proactive censorship. The highest echelons had acted and a circus was begun. The prohibition of “Return of the Angels” lasted for twenty-five years.

11Of course, this didn’t apply only to literature — it applied to life and to the world in which we were sentenced to live. What was fundamental, wholly determining, stimulating, and overriding for us was the radical, unreconciled conflict between sequestration and openness. This was within ourselves, in our inner lives, in our thoughts, in our relationships, in our society, in our reading and writing, in our morals, and chiefly in our actions that crown the work called human life in this world. No assiduous literariness, no poems for their own sake, permitted by the state and exhibited passively to the consumer, no aesthetic objects closed within themselves, no masks of a prescriptive and emptily gesturing culture poisoned by ideology. No forbidden words and forbidden fruits, no diktats, no “apparent realities.” It applied to a guaranteed and consciously responsible freedom for us, it applied to ceaseless cocreation, to a real free and imaginative movement from our own energy on our own paths. This movement can be undertaken solely by oneself — and solitary in the midst of a devastated and sequestrated world, in the midst of an unheeding mob, split into the silence of a slavish lethargy and passivity that secretes an unbreathable herd-like smog into the midst of an illegally manipulated people, sentenced by power to a lie, to a half-truth, to hypocrisy, to dissimulation, collaboration, and wholesale immobility. It applied to us — á la Camus — in the glory of living freely and the virtue of freedom created by our own energy. We talked about ethics, about the ethics of poetry, and we thought continually about the ethics of openness. We thought of human spontaneity and intimacy. We thought of the free space in human heads, about these parallel words. We thought about cultivating perception and sensibility. We invoked strong experiences, sincerity, authenticity, also irony, an open derangement. We talked absolutely down-to-earth that we come from the pure countries of our childhood — and not from a filthy history that they liked to call revolutionary practice. Above all we arrived to — addressing again the fundamental questions touching identity and meaning, and their conditions — the space for the individual, the individuality, and solidarity of the individual as opposed to the perverse, forced self-identification of the masses with power. We sought clear meanings and we didn’t wish to be tempted by words to which we weren’t even attached. We said that Communism and war were equally absurd. We said that we were committed to the “Return of the Angels” into human hearts and heads. In the age of ideological interpretation, the role of these words — to be committed and to be angels — were absolutely incompatible in their connotations. And they acted as a blasting-charge hidden in the paper corridors and the well-masked chasms and fossils of spiritual life. We said we wished to live and incarnate in our poems in a way that had a chance to have a creative impact on our mental life. This was in order that the poem should pass the test of a lived experience outside its own language. It would be open and function in unique intimate communication. We said that the poem is a message of meaning and we quoted Ginsberg to that effect. At the very end of the text there appeared, with a virtual tender smile as a message, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” which is a clear quotation from the letters of the Apostle Paul. Humph!

12“Solitaries of all countries unite!” Peter Repka cheerfully parodied the sacred ritual chant of Communism, which bared its teeth in all corners of a flattened world. This phrase of theirs had only one side. Its own mental movement was blocked to all intents and purposes. This was in spite of the fact that at the time we expressed our fundamental feeling for life, the feeling of the solitary runner. On the horizon of sequestration to orthodox immobility its own movement is experienced through openness. Running itself is a lack of fixedness, indefiniteness, a continuity of meaning, and the rediscovery of place. It is a living open space of creativity simply continuing and stripping meanings — intense life in the present, in direct action. Simply: it is the ideal place for the poem.

13And solitude? It is a separation and exclusion from the queue. A rejection. It is choice and expulsion. Let’s say it is a person himself or herself, the extreme stage of a person within his or her confronted and self-reflecting nakedness and sensibility. It is an intimately radical state of a person searching within the concealment of his current context. It is like the open poem. It is like solitary running — the supreme act of the present in the present, an always moving open form that endures until it runs on. It is like openness to communication that endures while direction and connection endure. This radical style of writing and mental existence has always remained with us. Openness and sequestration meet herein a conflict of creating alternatives of one’s experience in a moveable and unpredictable talking space of individual utterance.

14The poem, in fact, is an unpredictable nomad in the midst of a firmly settled world. It is an ancient mixing of the correct borders of things and the unceasing mixing of languages and styles of poems, all in a continual mutual influence; and rejection uncovers for me behind the word Europe, an exciting, varied, always blossoming nomadic tradition of poetry and its living fata morganas that time immemorial impinge forcefully upon a complacent reality and our blunted sensibilities.

15It was precisely in this tradition that we began to write in the midst of a sequestrated reality, patiently, our vision eagerly directed, full of our own inspiration. We moved at our own pace in this network of changing, living, breathing context. What we cling to is an openness to contact, mutual reading of one another, empathy, which on the nomad’s path always finds a fresh print.

16I take risks, though I don’t like laboratory experiments. I prefer to try things at the sharp end. In this way you know what it can withstand, what is valid, what works within its reality in the midst of a wider reality beyond words.

17Writing for me has always had an analogy with running. It is action. It leaves behind itself a design, a possibility, an unclosed solitary pact — not product. It leaves, literally behind one’s heels. From the first step, which is infirm, unstable, in fact continuously perishing only able to project itself, it grows into a mobile network of meanings.

18Simply, a step perishes, the action lasts. You can continue to try. It is open. What lasts without a firm place is writing. Within it every fixed point perishes. Within it we gain an unusual plasmatic form of movement that creates space by itself, continuing the world in which it exists. It has no objective. In fact, it is this “has no.” Thus it could also be with this pure “is.”

19There is still fire behind a runner’s heels. And writing. This is why he continually hurries ahead into the unknown. To put out the fire or burn? In any event the ground here is hot. The only fixed point of meaning is the place where the reader stops. Such running and such reading are the most profoundly active solitude and revelation. What we are directed toward is a ceaseless renewal of the beginning. I perceive it in this way — in the midst of a selfrenewing instability. I would prefer another, calmer explanation. But from what should I strike off?

20Of course there is an obligatory written text, though it’s character I have not precisely indicated. Before us is something like a pure act. Or it is a pact of instability, renewing itself in a directly stable way. “I write to you from a future void / wedged already into this moment and from an uncertain / place on the maps” wrote Ivan Laučík, traveling with concentration by pen over the map he is creating in just such a manner. “Three thousand years more,” adds Peter Repka, “and the birds will stop fearing us.” Writing is a ceaseless stepping of an uncertain existence from itself. It is a Slovak tradition. Writing is perhaps something like the persistent forgetfulness in the shyness of birds, which at first sight has no connection at all with our uncertainty or even our adherence to the air. A proximity is offered. The possibility here is the naked sign.

21Without any mysticism or illusion: something that does not exist writes within you to somebody within you who is not yet here. It is as if he or she originates involuntarily word by word.

22From time immemorial this has been our Slovak existential motif: we write to demonstrate that we actually exist. But for me there’s an inevitable and slight tinge of an eternally ironic anarchy that demolishes in advance what is definitive and gives as form, as a mission, or destiny. We create ourselves. There’s something in this that frees me. It allows me to laugh at any social fetishism and all the substitute roles of writing. Simply said: poems are written to be tried out, to become their own reality — and we, too, together.

23My poetics are defined by process “the open poem!” An exploding, continuing, and achieved conflict of sequestration and openness. It is a current meaning-creating conflict directed towards resolution. A hermetically sequestered fullness and a hermetically sequestered emptiness has harmed my life and my writing. It is a lie of the pure, sequestered, institutionalized form. It is the dark power of sequestration and control by the System. It is the empty power of form, a mere institutional lie.

24“Poverty protected me from believing that everything under the sun and in history is good. The sun taught me that history is not everything,” said Albert Camus. This is not just a proud resistance of poverty and light-leading writing. An unimpeded knowledge of possibility shines at us from the wealth of every pure page. In this connection I don’t dare to talk about truth. But here is sensibility, rebellion, refusal, and acceptance, depth, joy, and anxiety, a moment of identification, perhaps ecstasy, that allows us to live in reality and profoundly — to extend our depths, create our own word without considering history, or in spite of history.

25Long ago (four years before the occupation by the fraternal armies of the Warsaw Pact that came to definitively free us from ourselves), one Spring day in 1964, eager for life, sequestered in the Phantasmagoric empire in the midst of Central Europe, I sat on the banks of the Danube in Bratislava with Allen Ginsberg, whose presence among us was something almost unreal. He had landed like a living Martian, like a vision. With excitement we pointed at the clear, empty air of a seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain on the river bank in front of us. Our daily border that he had passed through miraculously was so near that we could almost press our noses against its unbreakable glass. Only the sky flowed freely and indifferently on all sides. Allen sadly shook his head: he sensed the absurdity, he sensed the border of borders that divided the world and which on our side was a prison. How was it from the outside, from the other side? Was it a projecting screen for illusions, for contempt, for enmity, for indifference, for hope, or for their own fears and anxiety?

26We debated the borders of the world, smoked grass, and drank wine while sitting under a tree by a forgotten grave at the end of an old cemetery. The end of Allen’s poem “At the Grave of Apollinaire” circled importunately in my head: “I am buried here sitting under the tree of my own grave.” It was so pertinent that I had to say it out loud. Allen (who was thinking of Paris) smiled at these words and nodded in understanding. “Yes, I feel the same again just now — and it’s a happy feeling.” We laughed; and suddenly I understood. At that moment it was unambiguously my own excited feeling. At the same time I was above it — I had within me a majesticderanged image of strange images completely under control. The broadcast was functioning. This time it worked along an ancient route: without writing and without paper. The border silently opened in my head.

27This was a living moment of crossing the border. Our identities are connected daily to the world of the past that has already been completed. It’s history as well: the graves repeat. And what is repeated are graves. We, here in another new world, continue along in our lives, directed toward hopes of uncertainty and toward our own ideas. We continue along with traumas and scars as well, with graves and the hovering feeling that history now stands firmly again on the side of the living. The graves are asleep and within them the unrest of their experience. It is like after the war. Our common heritage is a future Europe as fact and idea, as good will — a living broadcast. Growth has precedence. This the experience of graves will not be able to disintegrate.

28Our own history, even the hysteria of history, has not yet been permitted to kill our future — as used to be the case in a kind of eternally repeated vendetta. Evil is specific, and the struggle with a living evil requires tough action. It mustn’t be covered by the shadows of a substituted victim, our expedient fanaticism, and puritanical ideological darkness.

29Let the dead bury their dead and the living both of them. Thus the alchemy of the present bubbles. What is alive today is for the benefit of the living and let it live with us. Let the rest fruitfully decay in gold-bearing flashes of dreams, putrefaction, and mercy — not abandoning the world of human memory. The mysterious interior judge in us always raises a finger and points at us: are you a mere close “I” or are you another — an opened responsive “you” responsible for both?

30With regard to poets, I’m a mild optimist: they are often the destroyers of stereotypes, petrified canons, and gravestones; but also living respecters of graves. They live from the air of the future that now fills our days to the brim. Our tradition leaves us to drink in peace, to smoke, and debate by the graves of a completely living avant-garde and post-avant-garde poets. This Ginsberg feeling endures within us. Something substantial speaks in this — this happy feeling, that voluntary living chain that passes over borders and graves and ourselves, holding us alive, face to face with a future that desires to swallow us and fulfill us. We still call this culture.

31Our strength is in consciousness, a full present in the presence of culture. Yes, a still enchanting culture calls somewhere on the horizon, but the lure of “the unbearable lightness of being” smiles more greedily at us, close from all sides. After long decades of unending demoralization, life as human virtue and creative thought is easily lost. And what about the demoralization of the poor? What about the burning necessity of the frustrated desire of many Europeans for a single, unified Shopping-Center Europe filled with goods affordable to everybody? It is important not to exchange mechanical-involuntary dogmas for the old silence. Of course even the highest, globally achievable consumer standard doesn’t flow into paradise without history. We know this just as well in the East as in the West: that to sell oneself for things may be a new dominion, but it is certainly an old serfdom. It acts today as programmed dreaming, as the joyful, definitely nearly simple victory of an ideology of hedonism for the masses — and in this there is a devil. Perhaps a new Phantasmagoria is singing that the whole of victory lies outside before us. Culture brings an open appeal of value — style decides. It contains within itself the criteria of value — “making a poem is the measure (Dicten ist messen),” held Heidegger and placed emphasis on the words “making a poem.” The solution is within — it intensely indicates culture, eye to eye with its extended civilization. Which elegantly builds sophisticated traps for itself. Now the whole of Europe is under our feet — not as a territory — as a fundamental word that is a fundamental experience, and its value, and growth.

32Today I wouldn’t describe Europe as a continent, more as a form-creating context. It is an open context in the midst of other contexts. It is writing itself. It is as open as the sea and it continues to open itself, bridgeable, overlayered with contexts, dissolving the firm borders of stereotypes and writing. It opens other floating borders and coordinates of perception. This breathing, this ceaseless change, uncovering and concealing, the ceaseless flowing of information and influences, the skirmishes of imagination and influxes of thought, this wondering listening, this new attention to others, and the free standpoint for one’s original style, this ceaseless mutual reading of one another in my eyes is an open chance for us and for everybody.

33Energy concentrates. The thunder and lightning in the arsenals are under control. Xenophobia is fading, nationalism is deaf and blind. Skepticism scowls severely. Irony keeps an elastic watch. An eagerness is growing. The seeds of a sensibility as yet unknown are germinating, different new crops are growing in different gardens. In the midst of this the golden worm of new questions, while old doubts continue to gnaw away. Because writing — in the name of its meaning — is a ceaseless doubt about writing. Doubt itself is an old European virtue.

34Here is a living sketch of the interior borders of these processes: it creates a sharp “no,” declared by the individual who rebels, face to face, against any closed System that minimizes and destroys the space of an individual’s sensibility so that he can’t react with human dignity and communicate in a particular culture. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the unlimited power of money, the consumer, the media, dumbed-down entertainment, or the sheer, uncontrolled power of anything. Its border exists in me too. This open and threatened crossroads of conflict, this moveable border of values is actually myself.

35It is I. The responsibility for the values of my life are the single thing that I have at this moment, whatever else counts as wealth. I think that today this is very European — and it is right that I don’t want this to be taken away any more. I know: children smeared with honey and with blood want everything and wish to lose nothing. Does Europe write? I know the great temptation of a new beginning and a clean page. On this all revolutions wish to write. Only take care: from the necessity of purity the temptation of purity easily comes and from this often the temptation of the torch. Don’t put the chance for change to the flames — it is right here with us — in the midst of clear thought it dances in its first letters. Perhaps it is better not to give up a childlike face and accept maturity. The revolution has been sketched. Now Europe is a charm for children.

36The nomadic tribe of poets and solitary runners — minorities still searching for a mysterious common language of individual speech — have, from time immemorial, restlessly and impatiently crossed our great homeland. We write essence at home in uncertainty, in an uncertain place. We are writing ourselves. We are writing Europe. On a clean page? Or on a new palimpsest?

Table des illustrations

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Born in Hlhovec in 1944, Ivan Štrpka is a writer, author, and translator. In 1963 he co-founded — with Ivan Laučík and Peter Repka — the writers’ group Lone Runners. After studying Slavic languages and literature and Romance languages and literature in Bratislava, Štrpka became an editor for the democratic weekly Kultúrny život (Cultural Life), which was banned after the 1968 invasion. From 1970 he worked for Slovak television as a dramatist and editor of children’s programs. He translated into Slovak works by Cervantes, Borges, and Pessoa and also published successful records with the musician Dežo Ursiny. Štrpka heads the literary newspaper Romboid; he lives and works in Bratislava.

James Sutherland Smith (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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