Blesok no. 87, November-December, 2012
Finding Freedom, Understanding Necessity
– On expressions of freedom in the performance Per Gint in Serbia, Užice, 2000 –
This paper investigates how desire for freedom was mediated by an Ibsen-inspired performance. The performance Per Gint (based on Peer Gynt) in Užice, Serbia, was adapted in a way that criticizes war, as well as the very recent brutal history and the political, cultural and economical harsh reality of the people living within the borders of what, in 2000, was left of Yugoslavia. The play was marked as a success in Serbia at the time. The text of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was employed in a way that blended the motive of war with the motive of the search for the Self and one’s own freedom in a very secular way. Having in mind the main and dominating cultural, political and social trends in Yugoslavia since the Second World War, the play strongly reflected on the country’s past and present through various scenic, audio and visual mediations.
This paper is an attempt to develop an understanding of how freedom or the search for freedom could make peace and co-exist in a non-conflicting way with the inevitability of power and the complexity of its manifestations. Power manifests itself through restrictive but also necessary agencies, while the search for power, as well as what is understood as power can take many directions and be motivated in endless ways. This paper intentionally builds on actions motivated by the desire to achieve internal freedom in a situation of being overpowered by external agencies.
1. An Introduction to Serbian and Very Recent Balkan History
I will begin my essay with a short socio-anthropological and political introduction into Serbian very recent past, since the performance Per Gint was assembled in a way that was very reflective of it. I was born in and lived in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for the first 25 years of my life, excluded a year of two of traveling and studying abroad. Due to belonging to a common wider social, political and geographic network of which Serbia was the administrative center, I have experienced this reality closely and have also been largely effected and shaped by it, and I am familiar with its many particularities. At the same time, I was forced by my own circumstances to understand this reality as if it were external to my existence. I have had the privilege to travel and educate myself in institutions distanced from my birth region, as well as to come in contact with many ideas that dominate the global intellectual world but mostly come from without this region. Distancing my own self from the situation of the region where I originate from was also an expression of my freedom, a rebellion against being identified with any of the prevailing politics or institutions that I experienced as restrictive and violent. Ever since I was around ten years old I was witnessing how people violently destroy the union, ideals and identity that were created by my grandparents and shaped the youth and lives of my parents. Since I was too young to have adopted these identities as my own, just like many other young people from the region, I was left to forming a pessimistic attitude to governments and legal systems, a strong mistrust in power, authority and politics, fear of the future, dissatisfaction with the past and the present and a very keen sense for the injustices that we can all become a subject to. Achieving some kind of freedom from the hierarchically distributed power in this world is an essential project for the ones that feel powerless. How one approaches this project depends on one’s lust for power, desire for freedom, as well as on one’s own courage and self-sense of being and worth.
I begin with this self-reflective, and yet anthropologically common narrative because I would like to point to the region of former Yugoslavia as a specific unstable network that has been the cause for so many misunderstandings and misinterpretations, as well as conflicts and confused actions, not only by its own inhabitants, but by the most powerful military and political forces in the world as well. It also happens to be the region where I grew up and lived. As Michael Sahlins points out,
As structured relationships of symbolic freedoms, cultures are relative and historical forms of life, each having a particular validity without some universal necessity. Hence the character of our cosmographic explanations, their sufficiency without necessity, which consists in their being of the nature of logico-meaningful motivations of the practice in question. (…) If I say something like Fijian cannibalism is accountable by its logical motivations in Fijian culture, still the logic, their logic, is also something going on inside me. This again is not an original observation, only something I came to practice: the distinctive character of anthropological knowledge is that it involves a substantial unity of the knowing subject and that which is known. (Sahlins 2000: 29)
In the specific case that I am presenting here, I don’t need to understand or adopt the logic of Yugoslavian, or Serbian culture, because I was a functional part of this specific network in the period that I write about. The logic of this network is a part of my being, and therefore, I can justifiably be my own informant. I believe that if we start observing our own contemporary selves and the social, cultural and natural networks that we and others from our groups belong to as anthropologists, the self-knowledge of our own situation will deepen even more “the substantial unity” between our own selves and the world we belong to. Thus, we gain another sort of vital power – the power to change and transform our own individual circumstances. This process makes it easier for an individual to fell free within their own situation, if it is experienced as restrictive, and if it is needed, it can contribute to achieving one of the biggest freedoms that I believe a human can ever have, namely, the freedom to change the internal relations with the Self (identities) and the external relationships that we are involved in, but that have a negative effect on our complete well being. The process of changing of our own circumstances, including internal persuasions and identities is consisted of continuous steps on the walk down the road to freedom, steps that each one of us could take in a situation of being, or feeling deprived from freedom.
The source of man’s moral energy is outside him, like that of his physical energy (food, air, etc.). He generally finds it, and that is why he has the illusion – as on the physical plane – that this being carries the principle of preservation within itself. Privation alone makes him feel need. And, in the event of privation, he cannot help turning to anything whatever which is edible.
There is only one remedy for that: a chlorophyll conferring the faculty of feeding on light.
Not to judge. All faults are the same. There is only one fault: incapacity to feed upon light, for where capacity to do this has been lost all faults are possible. (…)
We must strive to substitute more and more in this world effective non-violence with violence.
We should strive to become such that we are able to be non-violent.
(Weil 1987: 3-77)
Serbia was the administrative center of the social and political network that was until recently called Yugoslavia – a federation of the South Slavic people, as the name says for itself. Anthropologically, ethnologically, linguistically, socially, culturally, economically and historically all the peoples of Yugoslavia have a common complex past and many common features, and after the Second World War, under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, they joined in a federation based on a Marxist based ideology of brotherhood, equality and industrialized modernity, a union of six independent and economically unequally developed republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia, as well as two independent provinces that were both a part of the Serbian Republic: Vojvodina and Kosovo.
Like most of Central and Eastern Europe before the Second World War, the whole of the Yugoslavian region was a mostly rural region, with the addition that it was heavily plundered by wars and occupation for some hundreds of years. Jeff Pratt reminds that:
Yugoslavia had long been a theatre of war: a territory which was periodically contested by two great empires [The Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire], then devastated in two world wars [and parts of it involved in the Balkan wars], and again in the 1990’s. Nobody in this region in the last two centuries could have reached the age of 45 without being caught up in war and most would have been involved much younger, and more than once in their lives. They were caught up not as civilians in a society conducting a campaign against some remote enemy, but in a massively destructive land war which passed through their homes. (Pratt 2003: 131)
Thus, the people living in the regions of what was Yugoslavia were constant victims of wars that were not their own to begin with. Three of my four grandparents fought in other people’s wars when they were teenagers – one of my grandmothers escaped from her home so that she could fight for freedom when she was thirteen. She had met her husband, my grandfather, while they were both teenage soldiers, in a situation of war, violence and deprivation. My other grandmother, the one that was not fighting, had to work hard labor and remain single during the wars, in fear of being raped or killed, so that she could provide enough food for her siblings and her own sick mother. All of my grandparents lived long enough to be the witnesses of the destruction of Yugoslavia, the country that they spent most of their youth for, in fighting and building: factories, roads, cities, educational, economic, social, political and security systems. They saw and felt the consequences of the crumbling down of their vision and efforts for a better future in their elderly days. This is a normal ground narrative for most family trees from the ex-Yugoslavian region; stapled by outside afflicted violence, restricted by fear of the power of weapons that come with all the proud man who defend their ideas or who come to attack for gain. The numerous attacks and wars forced migration of people, who, since they were mostly peasants, had a very strong connection to the soil of their region, and thus felt impoverished and desperate when migrating. They also lost their source of food. As Jeff Pratt mentions, this double narrative of continuity and destruction, of the need to belong and migration, of permanence and change, of necessity and freedom, of the need for stability and the ongoing flux in the region is crucial for the understanding of the rise of nationalistic politics and movements in the last decade of the 20th century, “since national identities draw heavily on peasant culture, while war is one of the ways in which nationalism is consolidated.” (Pratt 2003: 132) While one tries to understand the shifting borders and national narratives of this region in which the youngest country in the world, Kosovo, was also established just less then two years ago, one has to keep in mind that these very violent fluctuations, disturbances, shifting of borders and all the world powers that ran through, crazed by their own will to power, were also powerfully catalyzing the radical idea that is the total opposite of this regional liminal-like instability. The dialectically compatible idea to ever shifting boundaries and histories is the idea of firm and hard boundaries that try to fight off all kinds of otherness in the attempt to defy the abrupt and violent changes. The ones that, when under a threat, narrate their origin as placed in past times and a piece of land usually get involved in a project of achieving firmness and hardness, trying to prove national continuity and isolate their own kind so that it can survive as its own, so that it would not be lost or polluted by others. “In the twentieth century the most important cause (not consequence) of that hardening has been war.” (Pratt 2003: 132)
The politics and discourse of otherness prevailed in the region in the 90’s, and nationalism became the main political direction. Even though for many generations all the Yugoslav republics were mixed cultural networks in which people exchanged, lived and shared together, these processes of mediation and hybridization of the peoples and cultures in the region were completely marginalized, not mentioned, and not paid attention to, not only by the local manipulative political radicals, but also by the western media, politicians and military and cultural forces. These amazingly destructive and divisive modern ideas that polarize thinking into seemingly incompatible conceptual dichotomies and forcefully undermine the undercurrent processes of hybridization and mediation were not only a feature of the Yugoslavians stuck in their modernity, but also of the whole progressive postmodern world that encouraged these same ideas and identities by forcing the establishment of ethnically purified and unified political and geographical entities through political contracts and by throwing bombs on these already impoverished regions.
The wars of the 1990’s were not produced by spontaneous outbreaks of hatred but by political strategies. (…) In the speeches of western leaders and in the media, the dominant representation of events in Yugoslavia has been that violence was a direct product of ethnic hatred, which had deep historical roots and exploded after the collapse of communism. (…) These accounts rest on cod history (‘some things never change’) and cod psychology (‘war is the product of aggression ’). They tell us something about how western leaders set about obtaining domestic consensus for their policies; or about the way in which the United States and the European Union were instrumental in shaping the political forces which emerged with the breakdown of communism. The increasingly nationalistic governments of the republics developed their political and their military strategies in relation to direct western intervention and interpretation of the west’s intentions.” (Pratt 2003: 151)
The situation in Yugoslavia is a typical example of not following Foucault’s political message: “Political discussions should be driven by the concrete problems that raise our questions, not by the established theories that claim to be able to answer them.” (Gutting 2005: 27) Any explicit encouragement of nationalism is an implicit encouragement of conflict, just as any violent opposing to nationalism and attempts of total exclusion of nationalism are conflicting. Nationalism does not necessarily have to be caused by hatred, but hatred is encouraged by adding fire guns and bombs to places where nationalistic ideas already flourish. Nationalism is a complex motive frequently used by politicians for achieving excluding and often violent actions even though the results of the actions do not actually help the nation. It is rooted in the need to define a collective identity through a narrative focused on origins in a certain point of time and space, it is a tribal definition of substance of people, where essential substance is inherited by one’s origin. (Burke 1969: 27) This definition of identity gains power when it is proliferated as threatened by others in the present. Even though essentialist theorizing is almost academically banned by the postmodern theorizing of cultural and identity processes as shifting, porous, multiple, hybrid or unstable, I would like to suggest, in tune with the research of Jeff Pratt (2003) that premodern, modern, antimodern and postmodern instances, definitions, understandings and relationships are present in the world simultaneously. This mixture manifests itself as complexities that we can only research as particular. (Mol and Law 2002: 1-23) Each individual is a complexity, with individual identities and experiences, while also incorporating some characteristics that are common and shared with larger groups. Identity within a single person is a complexity, and it is not tied only to the nation, or the country, or the gender. It is a complex hybrid of understanding, or interpreting relations. National identity is only one sort of an identity that we have, and this identity can become rigid and excluding if it is forced, or encouraged to become such. Political and cultural theoreticians also assemble in groups and totally exclude other’s concepts, ideas, fields of study, etc., thus behaving exclusively and excluding. In order to escape rigidness in my analysis, regardless if it is rooted in thinking in dichotomies or in the idea of an ever unstable flux, I adopt a nonmodern approach that is considerate of both processes of purification (division) and hybridization (fluctuation, mixing) as simultaneous, undergoing, necessary and natural processes. (Latour: 1993)
What one must not forget is that nationalism is an interpretation of the differences between people that belong to certain groups, and it establishes itself as an interpretation – sometimes negative, of course – of other people’s culture. However, nationalism is not these differences themselves. How we choose to motivate the interpretation of differences is up to each and every individual self. Freedom lies in this choice. So, instead of interpreting ethnic differences as a threat, we might also interpret them as a positive thing. Or we could shift our focus from the differences and point it at our similarities. Also, nationalistic thinking tends to forget that the differences between people change since people themselves are always changing, and that the interpretation and the employment of these differences also changes. By forcing violence and nationalist thinking, groups throw away their power of socializing and communicating, of moving freely across borders. Thus, an atmosphere of fear and ethnic unity is built, which makes it possible for tightening borders and closed societies in which established politicians, or war-lords and criminals can rule and rage. Fear is provoked by the possibility of experiencing change, as change is observed as a kind of a national loss of identity, and not as a normal and natural process.
I dwelled in this part on the problem of nationalism and exclusive thinking since I wanted to point that “[t]he evidence from Yugoslavia, when an industrializing economy imploded, shows in a more dramatic way that modernizations (and ‘modernity’) are reversible. In Yugoslavia and elsewhere, people were recycled from rural to urban and back again, sucked in and spat out. In each case the rural world comes to represent stability and continuity – the roots to which one returns to in periods of crisis.” (Pratt 2003: 190) This return to the rural, however frightening it may seem for the modern and postmodern societies, is not a negative condition by itself. Only our interpretation of it, as well as the reasons for why it happened in the case of Yugoslavia makes it negative. On the cultural identity level, it strengthens even more the feelings of origin and belonging to the land. If we accept other motives as possible for this kind of reversibility, it seems that the land and the Earth are our biggest constriction and the ultimate border that restricts our freedom for the time being, no matter how modern, postmodern or post-post modern we proclaim ourselves to be. We always have to eat, and we provide for our food from the Earth. By now big surfaces that were used for providing food are useless and turned to deserts because of modernization processes focused on ‘purified’ planting, destroying all that was not planned to grow for profit, inconsiderate of the diversity of nature and the mediation processes between species as crucial for sustaining the planet. The higher the one-sided flight in the future for the ones in power, the lower the fall in the past for the ones that are powerless. Modernity is motivated by visions of future, industrialization, progress and spreading, but at the same time focused on forming nations, collecting ethnographic material and building identity narratives located in the past. Freedom is to be found only in the present moment within each individual and his scene, and the first factor and step to its realization is decided by the ways we motivate our actions.
Having said this, I can continue discussing the production of Peer Gynt – Per Gint in Serbia, Užice, 2000 in a perspective of freedom, motivated by the lack of lightness and abundance of gravity in the lives of the former Yugoslavian people in the last decade of the twentieth century.
2. Peer Gynt as a national cultural product.
I would like to begin my analyses of the performance Per Gint by mentioning a source that motivated me to question the legitimacy of certain kinds of secondary mediation of cultures and cultural values. Secondary mediations of culture, especially in public media, many times actually restrict our understanding of culture as a set of ongoing processes and restrict the freedom of cultural expression and production into means – most often political and economical. One of the first texts that I ran into at the beginning of my research on this performance was an optimistic and praising article in Dagbladet, where I read that the project Per Gint was supported by the Norwegian Embassy in Serbia and that the year 2000 was a very successful Ibsen year in Serbia, with four Ibsen performances in the country. At that time, Serbia was still in a union with Montenegro, and this union still carried the name Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had been in war and under sanctions since 1991, and in a civil war in the Kosovo region since 1998. In 1999, the joint forces of NATO bombarded Yugoslavia and its military forces, but the conflict in Kosovo was not over, just as the suffering of the people in the region was not over. One year after the bombarding Ljubiša Rajić (2000) wrote on the Ibsen activities in the country in the Norwegian daily newspaper Dagbladet: “This is happening simultaneously with strong Norwegian efforts in the field of the humanities. Norway is gaining its reputation in the country once again. I can see coming results of this process as a significantly arising interest in Norwegian studies, that are now attracting more candidates, then for or example, German language studies ”.
Rajić’s claim is juxtaposing the role of Norwegian culture as competitive in relation to the role of German culture in Serbia, supporting the view of culture as an arena for showing power and domination among nations. This fantastic Ibsen year in Serbia happened simultaneously with strong Norwegian efforts in the field of the humanities, and these efforts mean nothing else but finance. I would like to point to a condition that was not mentioned in Dagbladet – the sad fact that any theatre group in Serbia, in the midst of the financial, social, political, economical and humane crisis just after the civil war and the bombarding in 1999 would most probably put on stage whatsoever, as long as someone financed it. Theatre audiences need money to go to theatre, and it is hard to sell culture to impoverished people that lost a lot. Creating performances is a profession, and it is motivated also by profit, not only by artistic inspiration and greatness of texts, nations, folklore or intercultural elements and so on. War and its consequences on the lives of all living things were the reality of Serbia at the moment, and people were suffering from lacks of many kinds. The great Ibsen year in Serbia was a very hard year for the Serbian people, including theatre workers. There is very little greatness of culture, freedom and understanding in a narrative that places Serbian theatre culture as a modern arena for nationalistic cultural politics of wealthy nations.
Rustom Barucha also stated when commenting on his own production of Peer Gynt: “Peer Gynt’s universality is a red herring to me, because, if I may put it somewhat provocatively, he was always already Indian.” (Bharucha 2000: 71-72) Ljubiša Rajić wrote: ”According to the audience’s reactions, it seems justifiable to ask if Peer also comes from Serbia”. (Rajić 2000) Statements about Peer Gynt as a man from any nation appear quite often, and they are well accepted and even encouraged. He is universal – he fits in everyone’s model, but he is also national – first and foremost Norwegian, and then Indian, Serbian, or whatever not. These statements are considerate of Peer Gynts function as a cultural mediator while trying to understand this mediation in exclusively modern, purified and national terms. Thinking of Peer, or the trolls exclusively or primarily as a Norwegian, i.e. as a national cultural product, only opposes, or reformulates him and Ibsen’s text as another nation’s product. I find such analyses to be divisive and to work against real integration and understanding among groups of people. The country or the nation mediates essential, non-physical attributes to the character that is physically before the audience as an actor. So, as soon as Peer is physically an Indian actor in India, he is Indian. When he is a Serbian actor in Serbia, Peer becomes Serbian. Thus, his essence is Indian or Serbian, while his universality is adopted as one’s own nationality through a purified image. Insisting on this kind of theorizing and employment of Peer or any other cultural agency shows a present fear of otherness in a certain discourse. One could easily also say: Peer is one of us, us meaning humanity from all times and all locations. This builds on and enriches the possibility of creative freedom in a philosophic, and not a necessarily nationalistic way. National borders could then be crossed with ease and new hybrid concepts would crown our common existence, as well as the further existence of employments of Ibsen’s texts like common jewels, without anyone wanting to claim these jewels as an eternal and unchangeable national treasure.
The cause of wars: there is in every man and in every group of men a feeling that they have a just and legitimate claim to be masters of the universe – to possess it. But this possession is not rightly understood because they do not know that each one has access to it (in so far as this is possible for man on this earth) through his own body.
(Weil 1987: 78)
Understood through the nonmodern terms that I employ, Peer Gynt is a nature-culture hybrid agency that, situated in particular space-time networks, gains different essences through its employment. These essences are not stable, they are constructed, they can only be confirmed through time, and we can get familiar with them by studying the ways in which they are described in Ibsen’s text, as well as through studying other physical and dialectical manifestations of the current and particular employments of the imaginary hybrid Peer that at a certain point in time was linguistically expressed by the man called Henrik Ibsen who happened to be born in Norway. For the understanding of each and every employment of Peer, rather than using some generalized narratives, the nonmodern approach would trace the network and the ways in which a particular employment was materialized, or actualized. Peer Gynt is not a man “between nations,” or even “between cultures.” He is not a man at all. He is a wonderful, skilful and wise imaginary construct inspired by the particular networks that Ibsen was involved with, or in contact with. He does not belong anywhere in particular, but can be used to mediate various and multitude employments and essences to audiences. This could liberate Peer from the past narrative chains of nation and modernity and it can liberate creative workers and intellectuals from their own. Focusing on Peer Gynt as a vessel for identity in a way that tightens this focus in the nation is not something excluded, nor is it always harmful. My research is focused on finding solution for freedom in the particular case of this performance and its mediations, and the research motivates me to be critical to cases that are creating possibilities for conflict. In order to support my point, I would like to quote Michel Foucault: “My point is not that everything is bad but that everything is dangerous.” (Foucault in Gutting 2005: 20) The focus on an agency has the potential to shift between the microcosm and the macrocosm – it can be as tight as The Self or as wide as the Universe, and it can freely fluctuate between these two networks within one and each employment. I only point to certain dangerous processes that the particular cases of secondary mediation stated above could serve to as agencies.
3. War and Freedom
Helge Rønning researched Peer Gynt as a drama of the individual and the development of his understanding of the world, as “putting up as a theme the relationship between the splattered modern individual and the surrounding world that does not allow to be controlled.” (Rønning: 165) He observed the drama as a drama of cyclical return, where the narrative begins at the home, develops as a situation of being distanced from the home, and then ends with the journey back to the same home, only enriched with the knowledge attained by contemplating on the relationship one has with one’s self and one’s surroundings. (Rønning: 163) This contemplation can come out as both positive or negative – resulting in either the individual’s peace or his total disillusionment about social and familial relations. “Peer Gynt has structural similarities with the educational novel [Bildungs roman], but thematic similarities with the disillusionment novel.” (Rønning: 165) At the same time, the drama has a structure similar to that of a fairytale, only that it does not have an ending in which the poor, but witty hero wins the princess and the country and consequently becomes a king. Peer Gynt is a drama about orienting one’s Self within reality, and the drama can also be seen as one long monologue of Peer, in which he expresses his identity problems. (Rønning: 164 – 165) These identity problems, according to Rønning, come from the incompatible and unreal expectations that Peer sets out for himself, as a kind of strive for freedom that wants the Self to be everything, and in return finds the Self to be nothing. The freedom fantasies of Peer culminate in the image of the Keiser, but are parodied, laughed at and carnevalized throughout the play. The play is structured around the problem of finding one’s own identity and place in the world, and in this respect it is an existential drama. But at the same time it is very reflective of the historical modernization and nation building processes.
The first three acts are showing two relationships in this development. On the one side, the old peasant society is presented at exactly the moment when it is ready to break up in conflicts as a result from both a pressure that comes from the outside and a lack of inside strength. On the other side, this is strengthened through a pattern that is revealing of the vision of the harmonic Norwegian peasant societies that the national romantics were spreading. (…) The whole ideology of the national romantics is presented as distanced from reality and enough for its self, without a real core or capacity for an adequate interpretation of its present time. (Rønning: 176)
The structure of the play, as a process of returning to the home, is focused on a specific kind of rural home, and is similar to the process of the Serbian and other nationalities’ ‘nationalistic returning home’ to their roots and the land during the Yugoslavian wars. Pratt pointed to the process of the Yugoslavian people returning to the land as a source of food and stability during the decade of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. (Pratt 2003: 190) Many well educated people were forced to go back to their old family houses in the villages in order to provide for their food and basic needs, since the economy was in crisis since the 80’s and crashed in the 90’s. Slobodan Milosevic, the so much despised Serbian nationalist leader was forcefully creating a historical event, the Battle of Kosovo as a focal point of Serbian national identity, as a kind of a fairytale about the deprivation of the Serbian people that, in those long gone times were threatened by a Muslim invader, just as they were threatened in the late 90’s by Muslims that wanted independence in Kosovo. According to the nationalistic rhetoric, Kosovo belonged to the Serbian nation since a very romanticized, but important event in history happened there. The Kosovo battle was a crucial fight that happened in 1389, when Serbia lost to the Ottoman Empire in the Kosovo Field, very close to Pristine, the capital of what today is the independent state Kosovo. The centuries of suffering for the Serbian people within the feudal organization of the Ottoman Empire began after this fight. The Battle of Kosovo was strongly accentuated as a symbol of Serbian patriotism and desire for independence in the uprisings against the Ottomans in the 19th century and the Romanticism that happened in that period, and then later again in the 1990’s while the national myths were revived. Therefore, it is clear that the narrative line of Peer Gynt could easily serve the same critical purpose that Rønning traces, and therefore it was quite adequate for the purpose of mediating self-reflective knowledge to Serbian audiences in the year 2000. Just as the text Peer Gynt was critically positioned to the Norwegian national romantics, so was the play Per Gint fused with criticism aimed at the illusory nature of the Serbian nationalistic romanticized narratives from the 1990’s. They praised the past as a passage to the future which is somehow frozen in a heroic vision, or determined as a time when things will be better economically since the nation will regain its strength ethnically. Both of the groups have an idealistic background, only it is motivated differently.
Rønning also points to the fact that in the complete opus of Ibsen’s works there are general reappearing topics, only articulated through different situations. A key problem in the whole of Ibsen’s works is the problem of finding individual freedom in a society that propagates liberal ideals, but is actually ruled by money. Power articulated through economy is presented as hindrance to one’s own personal freedom, and it serves only as a restrictive and conflicting agency. The individual that is motivated to search freedom in some kind of ideals, but operates within a society based on economic power can only find freedom in isolation, within the Self. (Rønning: 51-63) In the present days, the situation of the world as ruled by economic power is not covered up with metaphors, nor does any grand ideal try to make up for it. This situation and the politics of neo-liberalism are well accepted. And they are a fact that we all are living, as it can be most dramatically concluded by the observation that the recent ‘world economic crisis’ was presented as the highest threat that overshadowed most of the other common problems or differences in the world and shattered millions of people and entire systems of countries.
Both [old and new liberalism] make mantric use of the concept of freedom and accuse all those in favor of limitations on trade of being opposed to freedom. (That the rich countries in practice protect their own activities is another matter – they are in favor of trading, but not importing.) And back then, as now, few of the pillars of society wished it to be said of them that they were opposed to freedom.” (Hylland Eriksen 2006: 17)
Still, all sorts of ideals exist simultaneously with and within this global knowledge of the power of economy. It seems that the individuals that bother themselves with idealistic concepts are, just like everyone else, prone to viewing the global economy as a powerful agency that is either to be avoided and worked against, or is desired and aimed at as the highest power. The groups of people that try to find freedom in escaping the global economy are commonly referred to as antimoderns, or dreamers, they are not usually tied to the nation or the country and remain to be isolated in minor ecology, welfare and fear-trade interested groups within the larger societies that are heavily involved in the neo-libertarian world structure. The second types of groups are more common on national levels, and they employ nationalistic rhetoric while calling upon the power of economy to induce people in processes that are presented as to somehow empower the nation and give freedom to the people.
When considering the production Per Gint in Serbia, the topic of individual freedom was most obviously juxtaposed to the situation of war, nationalism and corruption in the region. The rhetoric that the politicians used in order to flare up the conflicts in Yugoslavia was based on criticism of the communist and socialist ideology, and it was aimed at destruction of all that praised the communist leader Josip Broz Tito and his dream of a common country for the South Slavic people – Yugoslavia. Communism was interpreted as a hindrance to becoming an acknowledged part and an agency of the highest power – the global liberal economy. At the same time, appraisals of democracy, nationalism and capitalism were flooding the media, while the politicians in power and their hired gang leaders spread violence and hatred as means for making profit. A lot of people profited from the wars in Yugoslavia, people that both belonged to the country, but also people from other countries, and ideology and economy were rhetorically used to cover up for criminal and war actions widely, while the motives of the people that were spreading these complex and conflicting messages was personal profit. This was criticized in the performance Per Gint through employing iconography of local politicians and their gang-lord bodyguards. The motive of war was most directly mediated as the dominating motive through the trolls as agencies, and of course, through the narrative about the boy who had cut his finger because he wanted to escape war. The story of the weapons that were to be sold as support for the fight between the Greeks and the Turks, adds to this complex. The last two situations, the boy that cuts his finger and the discussion about the distribution of weapons between the Greeks and the Turks that was motivated solely by profit connect to factual parts of Serbian and Balkan reality during the centuries of Ottoman occupation.
The Turks were forcefully collecting male children that were to be converted to Islam, and then trained as soldiers, or helpers in the courts or other public institutions. This practice was called “tax in blood” and resisted by the Christian peasants. Girls were also very often kidnapped and raped by the Ottoman soldiers. Some parents were resorting to crippling their children, meaning cutting off some part of them or hurting them in another way, and sometimes they tattooed crosses on their foreheads so that they would not be taken by the Turks. These stories were present in literature, history and media while I grew up. The Turks had colonized the Balkan and were present there until the beginning of the 20th century, and many of the political and ethnic problems on the Balkan today originate from this period and the first half of the twentieth century, when the Balkan wars happened. Therefore, these two episodes have a special weight for the Balkan audiences who are familiar with stories about refusal of literally becoming the enemy by crippling one’s self. The two particular narratives from Peer Gynt – the narrative of the distribution of weapons motivated by profit, and the story of the boy that cut his finger, are located in the history of the Ottoman period for a Serbian audience, and this history was also used as a motive for the most recent armed conflicts in Serbia. Тhese two narratives scenically mediated war and nationalism on complex levels to the Serbian audience.
In the assembling of the motive of war for this performance, the strongest mediation of a general concept of war comes from the way the trolls were materialized on the stage. As presented in the performance, the trolls were a part of a network motivated by various aspects of war and nationalism. They were presented as a group that requires total faithfulness and dedication, as well as sacrifice, as cripples, damaged by the brutal reality of war – one of them was in a wheelchair, another one on crooks. Their clothes were a mixture of military clothes and rags, and they also possessed weapons. They dwelled in the cacophonic atmosphere of war – ugly, loud, crippled, destructive to nature and life, not at all harmonized. Peer’s attempt to become one of them, and the danger of being physically wounded by becoming a part of the troll kingdom can be understood as an attempt to become a part of the war gang, followed by the danger of being crippled in the war, or even by the members of one’s own war gang in the attempt of deserting them. No one wins in war, but everyone loses a part of their self.
The trolls are connected to collective memory, to the past, to nature, the unconscious, they are mythical creatures, nonexistent, a form of dialectical, and not real substance. They are also a part of folklore and peasant culture. They are not purely cultured, and, deformed but human-like, they stand for all that is supposed to be ‘animalistic’ in the human. Ibsen refers to the troll-nature of humans throughout Peer Gynt not only as nature, but as human nature, as madness, or violence. A human should be true to one’s self – whatever this might be. A troll is just enough for one’s self, takes care of himself and his desires, but has no higher ambition to manifest a purer essence. The difference between being true to one’s self and being enough for one’s self is in self-knowledge. One cannot be true to something one cannot understand, but it is easy to be enough for something, even if this is unknown. To be enough is to be alive – to survive, but to be true to one’s self means knowing why one is alive, knowing one’s purpose.
The attempt of Peer to be only himself and nothing else but himself is a very modern, purified concept of the self. This concept also appeals to the extreme nationalistic understanding of one’s self as a pure national genitive. A person is a Serbian, or Bosnian, or Norwegian, and even though this person might live inside the borders of another country, and is in constant contact with all other nationalities and cultures, the national self is understood as to have remained intact, pure. In the present time, nationalistic currents are gaining power in political discourse, even though our everyday lives are full with information and mediations from all regions in the world and our products that might seem European are actually made in Asia or Africa, and vice versa. It is impossible to attain this desired and idealized national state since no single individual, and no nation stands alone, all humans are full of layers of different essences, all have been mediated many experiences, all have been agents and agencies for all kinds of action, and all are in constant interaction. While remaining aware of the anthropological, cultural, ethnographic and social features of one’s surrounding, and being acquainted with one’s history and identified with one’s nation is only positive and enriching, holding on to the processes of the past and identity as unchangeable is impoverishing and conflicting. Acknowledging the trolls is acknowledging nature within a cultured self, but denying them, or even placing them on the negative scale is an attempt to purify one’s self. Understood as human nature, the trolls have a profound role, and they were mediating a profound message to the Serbian audience.
War is a legal state, a state of contract between politicians, designed as the first step to escaping the experience of pure violence as a kind of a natural explosion of conflict among people. (Serres 1998: 8)
War is the motor of history: history begins with war and war set history on its course. But since, in the straightjacket of the law, war follows the repetitive dynamics of violence, the resulting movement, which always follows the same laws, mimics an eternal return. Basically we always engage in the same conflicts, and the presidential decision to release a nuclear payload imitates the act of the Roman consul or the Egyptian pharaoh. Only the means have changed.
(Serres 1998: 14)
War and warring are one of the oldest anthropological facts that all networks of humans have in common. Thus, if all of humanity, regardless nations, would express its essence through a temporalization of the war motive, we would have to admit that war is all of us. Serres, in an interview conducted by Latour, expressed his “strong disinclination to “belong” to any group, because it has always seemed to require excluding and killing those who don’t believe in the sect.” (Serres 1995: 20) He observes the drive to belong as a libidinous drive that dangerously supports all ambitions and serves up the most widespread morality. It seems that war, or the drive to belong to a group, dangerously supports all ambitions and serves up the most widespread morality. Sport matches and cultural competition are also forms of war, or symbolic compensations for it. Very often they escalate into physical violent conflicts. Remaining social and communicative while belonging to a group is complicated when the group is violent, excluding, judgmental, blaming, isolated and afraid or angry of others. Remaining integrated and not carried away by the need to belong as a drive creates healthy and non-violent individuals that can create healthy and non-violent groups formed not because of the drive to belong, but because of a conscious decision and choice.
I experienced the episode in the Dovre kingdom in the Serbian Per Gint as a release. The encounter between Peer and the trolls mediated a different understanding of war that was not only placed in Serbian geography, culture, or nature, but also in a kind of a European, or Nordic nature, or nature in general. The fusion, the meeting point of what Ibsen was putting up as problem and what the Serbian theatre practitioners decided to put up as problem in their production is the potent point for exchanging, understanding and uniting in a large and more open group. Belonging to the ‘violent’ Serbs implies danger of war, a constant possibility of conflict. But belonging to the violent human puts us in front of a different notion, a situation of questioning if one is, or could become an enemy to all other people. If this is true, and if we follow the nationalistic logic of exclusion, then each one of us could try to be completely free of all other humans, and I am sure that not so many people would accept this situation as a possibility. Instead, the solution is to be found in the realization and the feeling of belonging to humanity on this planet – a very nonmodern feeling. Realizing that war is a common ‘troll nature’ that is hybridized within ‘human nature,’ but is activated by the group, leaves a person that does not wish to activate the troll alone disconnected from the group in an extreme ideological way.
And this state of aloneness, this disconnection, can be experienced as crisis. The drama Peer Gynt begins with such a crisis, a war that Peer foolishly initiates when he runs away with another man’s bride. Since it seems that he was in any case not a favorite among the villagers, they use the opportunity to throw an anathema on Peer and chase him for his life, creating a common enemy out of his being. He runs away, afraid for his life, leaving his roots, his home and his mother. Throughout the play, he is alone. He is eager for physical relationships with women, but somehow manages to always establish a relationship of conflict, treachery and war with them, a relationship from which one has no other choice but to run from. The pious and patient Solveig is the only exception. And still, she is escaped, approached in a roundabout manner, as if affiliating with her is some kind of a threat. Even at the very ending of the play Peer Gynt needs to gather courage in order to be able to come back to her.
When you have no affiliations and want above all to avoid them, when you have no home and cannot live anywhere, you are very much obliged to begin a project. All my life I have had the distressful feeling of wandering in the desert or on the high seas. And when you are lost and it is stormy, you quickly need to build a raft or a boat or an ark – even an island – solid and consistent, and to supply it with tools, objects, with shelters, and to people it with characters … doesn’t philosophy consist of such a series of domestic improvements? Later, whoever wants can seek shelter here. (Serres 1995: 21)
Peer built a cottage in the mountains so that he could assemble his own self as disconnected from his original group. However, as soon as Solveig appeared as an affiliate and wanted to inhabit his hide-out place together with him, he had to escape and leave his lonely island for her to inhabit. She assembled herself easily and in a non-complicated way, while incorporating Peer as a part of her being even though he was not physically present, and so, when he comes back to his hide-out, frightened by death, she only naturally welcomes him. He, on the other hand, chased by the fear of belonging, had to go through an assembling process that showed him the danger of groups – of leading them, idealizing them, or providing for them – multiple times, always on a different level.
In the episode in the Dovre kingdom, Per quickly understands that belonging to the troll kingdom demands a sacrifice and he escapes from the trolls, but immediately after encounters the great Bøyg. This scene in Per Gint was pointing even more to the need of constructing some kind of a new Self in a situation of lack of a group. The Bøyg was presented as a moving mirror that was following Per’s own movements. Thus, the shapeless, mystical and dark Boyg from Ibsen’s text became a geometric, concrete and light-reflecting mirror that was facing Per with Peer – a very open allusion to facing one’s own self.
This scene is like a fused expression of one of the dominating essences of Peer – employed to dialectically portray the assembling of the Self. For an assembling to begin, there has to be an available emptiness, a lack. So, the lack of a consistent, assembled Self results with the project of assembling the self. Since the Self is never a completely consistent Self, even though it has many firm and continuous features, the process of assembling is the constant process of experiencing and learning. Belonging to a group is also a part of the Self and the assembling. Just as the Self grows and develops, so the understanding of groups can grow and develop. We witness the assembling of Peer through his journey in time and different spaces, through the ways in which he employs himself – through his actions. Every important turning point is like this mirror – Bøyg, in every scene Peer looks upon himself as if in a mirror, reflects, comments, but manages to escape open conflict, open violence, manages to go roundabout. He always escapes groups as a firm and definite arrival, even a group of two people – he avoids marriage, the ultimate peace contract. I understand this ‘roundabout behavior,’ or logic, as an attempt to not become either an object, or a subject to war, to conflict. By always avoiding the group, always insisting on individualism, the assembling of one’s Self and one’s own memory and reflection can take over all the other assemblings. The return to Solveig at the end of the play is like a positive attempt and acknowledgment that one could belong to a group without creating a war, without developing resistance to the other. Thus, the group of two is assembled into Peer’s character, taking him back to a situation similar to the one when the whole action started: comforted in the lap of another, in the lap of an isolated woman, just as he is.
The new assembling begins, and the problem continues: how to not become either a subject, or an object to war – both for Peer and all humans on this planet. If each one of us acknowledges that there are always wider groups to belong to, that each and every individual is a part of them, with the Universe being the largest infinite group that we know off, this knowledge can serve as a rationalizing factor that can promote the understanding that the only enemy we ever are faced with is ourselves and the way we create our relations, on all levels. Self reflection then becomes a means for understanding and doing non-violent actions, creating one’s self into a non-violent being and forming non-violent groups.
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1. Dagbladet is a daily Norwegian newspaper.
2. Dette skjer samtidig med en kraftig norsk innsats på det humanitære området. Norge begynner igjen å bli et begrep her til lands. For mitt vedkommende ser jeg resultater i betydelig økt interesse for norskstudiet, som nå tiltrekker bedre og flere kandidater enn f.eks. tysk.
3. Etter publikums reaksjoner å dømme er det ganske berettiget å spørre om ikke også han Peer kommer fra Serbia.
4. Peer Gynt tematiserer forholdet mellom det spaltete moderne individ og en omverden som ikke lar seg kontrollere.
5. Brand og Peer Gynt har altså strukturell likhet med dannelsesromanen, men tematisk likhet med desillusjonsromanen.
6. De tre første aktene viser to forhold i denne utviklingen. For det første framstilles det gamle bondsamfunnet akkurat i det øyeblikk det er i ferd med å brytte sammen av konflikter som både skyldes press utenfra og manglende indre styrke. For det andre forsterkes det gjennom en mønster som avslører den nasjonalromantiske ideologis forestillinger om det harmoniske norske bondesamfunn. (…) Hele den nasjonalromantiske ideologi blir framstils som virkelighetsfjern og selvtilfreds uten egentlig kjerne og evne til en adekvat fortolkning av sin samtid.