Blesok no. 63, November-December, 2008

The Sleeplessness and Poetry of Witness

Aleš Debeljak

An image, a memory: I stand in the foyer of the splendid dilapidated palace Kazina in the center of Ljubljana that houses the offices of the bi-weekly student publication, Tribuna, of which I was editor in the early nineteen-eighties. The newspaper itself, at that time one of the few independent intellectual forums in Slovenia, had aroused with the combination of its youthful naivete and its authentically dissident attitude the wrath of the communist authorities. It was brought under the close control of government censors; the editoral staff were assigned “shadows,” secret agents meant to scare us off the task at hand.
    Standing beside me in the foyer was a bespectacled, black-bearded poet, nodding with understanding of and support for my commitment to both Tribuna's editorial politics and my own creative ambitions. Even today I can vividly remember the gentle soothing tone of his voice and the confident though never self-aggrandizing content of his words. He spoke as a man with experience and faith, as a man who had followed the “moral imperative within him as well as the starry sky above him.”
    I gratefully placed my trust in this poet because I knew him not only from his literary work and his translations but also from the many informal critical groups that made up civil society and from which the Slovenian “political spring” began to spontaneously emerge in the early eighties. His name was Boris A. Novak. Neither his political views nor his philosophical contributions were negligible in the formation of this progressive movement. His book of poems Stihožitja (Verselife, 1977), its untranslatable title metaphorically closing the distance between still-life and the magic of verse, was followed by a slew of poetry collections, eight for adults alone. All of his books enjoyed the enthusiasm of literary critics and the general reading public alike. In addition to these poetry collections, he wrote an enviably large number of children's books, puppet shows, radio plays and theatrical works. He lent his skills as a dramaturge in the staging of numerous plays in the most important theatrical houses in the country and, for several years, was employed as the dramaturge at the Slovenian National Theatre.
    In his poetry, Boris A. Novak, making use of classical equilibrium, formal discipline and aesthetically attractive linguistic methods, imaginatively explores the depths of his central obsession: the pursuit of the mysterious connection between the “sounds” and the “meanings” of words. In other words, he seeks nothing less than poetry's true source. His poetic language successfully appropriates everyday words, using them in new combinations and coaxing out of them unrealised possibilites. He thus allows us to see how extending the limits of what is said can broaden the limits of the known. For one of these collections, an innovative paraphrase of the well-known Arabic fairytale - 1001 stih (1001 Verses, 1983) - the author received the highest literary recognition in Slovenia: the Preљeren Award named for the romantic poet, France Preљeren, the founder of modern Slovenian poetry.
    In the second half of the eighties Boris A. Novak became explicitly engaged in political activities. He was doubtless inspired by his openness to two cultures and two languages, the by-product of both his childhood spent in the Serbian city of Belgrade where he was born in 1953 and his return to Slovenia when he had to discover is mother tongue anew. Most of all, he was inspired by a rich family tradition of urbane tolerance and by his father's experience in the Partisan resistance movement which anchored him to a cosmos colored with the universal and utopian values of solidarity, equality and brotherhood.
    In the mid-eighties, Boris A. Novak accepted the position of chief editor of the then leading Slovenian dissident publication, Nova Revija (New Review). Gathered around this magazine were, if not all, then most of the best and brightest in the Slovenian intellectual community. Thus Boris A. Novak took the editorial helm of a publication that he himself had helped to establish in the early eighties and which had become the most important forum forcivil society's critical voices and for serious intellectual analysis of the communist regime.
    Boris A. Novak's leadership coincided with the period of the most severe repressive crackdown against Nova Revija, which because of its critical editorial policies and its articulated theoretical rejection of the prevailing practices of the republic's communist government had become a thorn in the side of the ruling class. Yet the editor of Nova Revija, despite ceaseless pressure on him exerted though both informal channels and public media campaigns, never abandoned his commitment to the political ideals embodied in the concepts of “open society” and democratic order.
    Likewise, Boris A. Novak never abandoned his commitment to the idiosyncratic aesthetics of “sound” and “meaning” which he propelled to ever more beautiful heights. In such a way, he played a substantial role in the destruction of the literary aesthetic that dominated in the sixties and seventies: that is, the aesthetics of neo-avant-garde writing in which content is nothing and experimental style is all.
    As important as this movement was in terms of rejecting the values of sentimental humanism, values that had been amply supported by the communist party, the literary program of the neo-avant-garde had exhausted its creative potential. By the beginning of the nineteen-eighties it had become impotent, shamelessly repeating past formulas and living off its past glory.
    From this vantage point it is certainly not accidental that after his return from America (where he was the American Bank Professor of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga), Boris A. Novak became the President of the Slovenian PEN Center. He led this prestigious organization precisely during the period of escalating conflicts between the republics of the former Yugoslavia and the increasing totalitarian ambitions of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Miloљevic, who strove to dominate the whole federal entity. This desire for domination eventually led to the eruption of the Ten Day War in Slovenia in the summer of 1991. Then with a flick of the dragon's evil tail, war swept into Croatia and with especial cruelty into the towns and villages of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
    The following anecdote amply illuminates the chasm that yawned between Slovenia's defensive attitude and the militaristic policies of Serbian national mythology. During the brief period when columns of Yugoslav Army tanks were attacking Slovenian towns and villages, Boris A. Novak sent a letter to the seat of the Serbian PEN Center in the hope that he would receive at least verbal support for the legitimacy of Slovenian resistance against aggression. The response that came from his literary colleagues in Belgrade during that fateful summer of 1991 was the first, though certainly not the last, great disappointment felt by Boris A. Novak during his tenure at PEN: “This is war,” they responded, “During war, people die.” An ethical revolt against this kind of cynicism was what drove Boris A. Novak, despite his own pain, to tirelessly help all of those who in besieged Sarajevo could not help themselves.
    He quickly and efficiently organized the Slovenian PEN Center as the key distribution point for all the international assistance collected at individual national PEN centers around the world intended to assuage the suffering in occupied Sarajevo. Again, it was no surprise that it was Boris A. Novak, with his powerful poetic imagination and his existential sensitivity, who acted as “eyewitness” and responded to the war in the Balkans. First in his book, Stihija(Elemental Forces, 1992) and later at the acme of his creative career in the eloquently titled collection, Mojster nespecnosti (Master of Insomnia, 1995), he penned moving images ofindividual despair in the face of aggression and evil. Yet at the same time, an aura of fragile hope emanates from the book without which its readers might be defeated by apathy and moral indifference. Such moral indifference had been encountered in numerous Western governments, the brutal realpolitik of which was already known from the Munich Agreement preceding the Second World War: another episode when Western leaders failed to face ahistorical challenge. It seems that it is only poets, speaking in their own name and from their own experience, who are able to respond to such challenges with aesthetic conviction and ethical integrity. The poetic experience becomes our own in the process of reading and this alliance between writer and reader is the very foundation of enchantment, identification and perhaps even catharsis.
    Boris A. Novak is a poet who understands that hope and fear provide both individual and collective access to a narrative method by which “the soul of generation after generation seeks the way.” Hence, the fateful meaning of a coherent narrative about the past for the understanding of the community today and tomorrow. Yet there are two distinct narrative methods: the story of history and the vision of poetry. Poetry, as the highest embodiment of all art, always tells the story of the specific. Thus it is more true than history, that is, more true that the story of the non-specific, of the general, a law which has been learned from the binding tradition of Aristotle's Poetics.
    I can't think of any reason to doubt this ancient truth. So it is no wonder that, rather than drowning in the neutrality of political economies and changing national rhetoric, I prefer to delve into poetry. It is possible to detect in poetry's lyrical metaphors the trembling grace of a special light that meaningfully illuminates the third Balkan War in the same way that the tragedy dramatically scarred our own lives. Master of Insomnia, the most recent collection of Boris A. Novak, carries such a light within it. In the miraculously polished verses of this book, the poet conquers his at times exaggerated emphasis on form and weds form and content with a magical equilibrium. Hidden within its pages is the key to one of history's great enigmas that Boris A. Novak slowly reveals before our bewildered eyes. While a river of Bosnian refugees flowed into the uncertainty of foreign lands, while European diplomats' wringing their hands like Pontius Pilate became the symbol of the day, while war criminals unscrupulously shook hands with the leaders of “the free world,” Boris A. Novak - as the President of the Peace Committee of International PEN, a position to which he was appointed in 1994, but even more importantly, as a poet - wrote a personal testament of a happychildhood, the one and only artistic homeland. In this work he draws not only on the highest reaches of poetic language but also on the aching pain of the visionary. At the same time, he gives shape to Cassandra's fearful prophecy. Indeed, the poet does dwell in his own ivory tower but not, as might be thought, to escape the brutal terror of history but rather to gain the vantage point needed to bear witness: “from here one can see quite far: with the gift of birds - I will be the first to know, when the armed band approaches. - Things have such a peaceful, dreadful face.”
    The poet's personal story is more precise and more revealing than any of the various histories written at strategic institutes or political offices. The poet's voice is singular and doesn't hesitate to utter the existential truth that the individual story is also the story of the world. The poet sings with the simple beauty of maturity: “The haste of the disintegrating world is I.”
    For Boris A. Novak, the search for various formulas of verse structure is nothing less than the search for an aesthetically provocative way of demonstrating how the creation of the perfect poem is the most eloquent revelation of the bloody, tragic and stirring imperfection of the world. The poet's power in bearing witness to Sarajevo and Dalmatia, to his childhood room and his retired father, to the indifferent passage of time and the desperate pain of loss confirms the melancholy clairvoyance of Walter Benjamin who stated that what is essential hides in the marginal, negligent and hardly observed details. Whoever strives to see the “big picture” will inevitably overlook the essential.
    The poet is not interested at all by the “big picture.” And that's how it should be. It's been too long since he has slept. He gathers to him all the forgotten details of a past time and all the unspeakable cruelties of today and tries to rescue them from oblivion. Master of Insomnia exists because the devastation won't let him sleep. The poet doesn't know sleep because he is the witness of the world: not for an instant will he be lured into the magic circle of dreams. His wide-open eyes must watch over both the beauty of this life and the horror of its destruction.

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