Blesok no. 113, May-June, 2017
In the Depths of Memory:
Bogomil Gjuzel’s “Sick Dojchin” and T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”
Translated by the author
The poet Bogomil Gjuzel is one of the first and foremost Macedonian followers of the poetical theories and practices of many Anglo-Saxon poets, among which T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound take the prominent place. In the 1960s he translates essays and poems by these authors, but also writes essays on their poetics. From a chronological point of view, it is interesting to mention that T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” was first translated into Macedonian in 1960 by Bogomil Gjuzel, in the first issue of the literary magazine Razgledi. But Gjuzel’s contact with these authors is not purely that of translation; it would grow into a critical reception within his own poetic and essayistic output. Most critics note these intertextualities, especially after the publication of the poetry collection Alhemiska ruza (Alchemical Rose) in 1963 and the “Notes” to the poems, which unavoidably bring to mind Eliot’s notes to his poem The Waste Land. Although Gjuzel introduces within his critical and poetic output certain characteristics of the poetics of all aforementioned authors, there is something that emphasizes his inclination towards the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. Both authors’ poetics follow many similar paths: the meaning of history and the past, their renewal and their communication with the present (and the reality of the poet), their interest in the archetypes of memory, their poetic anti-sentimentalism and anti-romanticism, the separation of poetic subject and the author of the poem, the creation of emotion in poetry through the images being presented with an often shocking expression that surpasses the limits of the real, the proclaimed intellectualism, the hermetic character of their poetry (difficult poetry). This is especially noticeable in the Notes to Alhemiska ruza (more precisely, the “Warning” before the notes), where Gjuzel eliminates the “illusion of absolute originality” and talks about the poet’s communication with the world, meaning the poetic experience and the “world of other, external experiences”, by which he means both the world of literature and the society in which the poet is creating. Of course, Gjuzel, too, proposes “a certain positive-negative attitude towards tradition”, critical, which resonates with Eliot’s idea of a tradition that cannot be taken as “an indiscriminate bolus”. As to the author’s originality (“novelty” in literature), both Gjuzel and Eliot say that originality should not be sought forcefully, almost with fear, as that does not always imply quality, but can rather lead to “disintegration” of the poet’s sensibility. These ideas of Gjuzel can be found as early as 1960, when he publishes a manifesto together with Radovan Pavlovski, in which they promote the idea of reconstructing the epic in the context of Macedonia, the epic that is born from the past/memory of the people, and not the history (Gjuzel always makes a sharp distinction between constructed history and the inevitable past), the epic that is “personal and collective, the distinctive feature of a time”, the epic in which the modern hero—the poet, the ordinary man—by way of deconstructing the model of the epic, will have to fight his way through problems, fight for his contemporaneity, for the reassessment of “old values that need to be revised”.
Gjuzel is regarded as a versatile and complex poet, equally Macedonian and foreign, equally autobiographical and universal; this makes it difficult to select two poems by both authors that can be duly compared. Still, the purpose of this short comparison of the poetics of both authors has been to show that Gjuzel’s sensibility is closest to that of Eliot’s—that is the frame of his poetry, which later allows him to receive and process all kinds of impulses. Hence the selection of “Gerontion” and “Sick Dojchin”, two poems that will allow us to illustrate the poetics of both authors in practice, thereby presenting a significant aspect of their literary output, without falling into the trap of looking for sources and identifying the types of citation in them.
Who is Gerontion?
Gerontion, as the Greek root of the name suggests, means “old man”, which is confirmed by the voice in the poem in the first verse: “Here I am, an old man in a dry month” and later “I an old man”. Still, prior to the first verses we find an epitaph (a paratextual element): “Thou hast nor youth nor age / But as it were an after dinner sleep / Dreaming of both” whose function is to interpret the matrix of the text: it refers to the spiritual emptiness left from having an empty youth and the desire to fill that emptiness, to give it meaning. Gerontion’s physical age corresponds to his aging, spent, stale spirit and mind. The narrating subject in the poem, the old man, goes on to tell us that he is living in a “decayed”, “rented house”, “among windy spaces”, and there is nothing in his surroundings that would indicate fertility or any kind of fertile activity, but on the contrary: “The goat coughs at night in the field overhead; / Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds. / The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea, / Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.” The introductory stanza implies decadence, inertia and complete aridity. Maybe that is why Gerontion says that he is waiting for the rain, a symbol of regeneration. As to his physical condition, Gerontion says: “I have lost my passion…”, “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch”, and at one point he metonymically refers to his whole being as “a dull head”. But the winds that shake Gerontion’s house are also infertile—here they are neither the harbinger of rain nor any kind of harbinger for that matter, but a reminder, a tormentor of the old man’s sombre, (in)experienced consciousness. The winds stir his memory of the past and of history.
Gerontion, in the poem of the same name first published in T. S. Eliot’s Poems in 1920, tells us that a boy is sitting next to him, reading something to him, and Gerontion, as if by association, starts listing the things he has not done in life: he has never taken part in anything that would ensure him a heroic place in history, and he tells that in a calm, defeated tone.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
These verses refer to the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Marathon, two opposing historical events: the first sees the victory of the Persians over the Greeks, and the second of the Greeks over the Persians. It is interesting that Gerontion is presented to us with a Greek denomination, although he has no name. “His personality merges with historical figures” (Gross, 1958) of which he learns only through reading/listening and exist only in his memory, but whose heroism he has not achieved nor hopes to achieve in life. Moreover, the unnamed land he lives in, if brought into correlation with his surroundings, is none the better nor can give rise to heroic figures of the present. The inability to stand up and act is Gerontion’s illness, the very fact that he is aware of it, that his head aches from the constant historical draft that keeps interfering with the present that he dislikes.
The inability to bring the situation to a logical conclusion forces the voice to turn to religion in search for a miraculous answer because “Signs are taken for wonders”. His memory, however, immediately reminds him of those who sought a sign (“‘We would see a sign!’”), a proof of Christ’s divinity, thereby implicitly indicating a crisis of faith and the inability to find a way out of it. Gerontion tries to speak about that inability, maybe in the hope of finding an exit, but fails even in that venture: “The word within a word, unable to speak a word, / Swaddled with darkness”—the word of the speaker/writer, which always bears in itself God’s word, has no power to utter what needs to be uttered, it cannot come to light and is hidden in the darkness. The historical sense outweighs the religious, “by knowing too much about a religion’s past, we recognize its absurdities and untruths” (ibid:300). That is why “In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger”—no longer a lamb, a peaceful symbol of man’s salvation, but a tiger, a blood-thirsty beast, seemingly ready to take action against those who wanted proof in the form of a sign and did not believe in him (Anchevski, 2007:113). And the people who in disbelief (or in blasphemous belief) wanted to eat, divide and drink the body of Christ, in Gerontion’s mind and narration are all people who are themselves hollow and do that in secret, “Among whispers”, as if ashamed or in repentance, for they are the reason why the decadence in Gerontion’s waste land has taken such proportions. The people the voice mentions are obviously people of different faiths and nations and their actions, although they can be interpreted in different ways, are all somehow connected to indecisiveness, disbelief, inconsistency. These “Vacant shuttles weave the wind” that torments Gerontion, whereas he, as he says, has no ghosts, no sins, nothing to brag about nor to be sorry for (in which regard he appears to be an old Prufrock), but still, for one reason or another, he is desperately trying to find a way out of the situation. There is a hint of Gerontion’s role here, which some critics interpret as a sacrificial lamb (when the saviour is a tiger) in the ritual needed to make the waste land fertile again; it is also associated with the wounded, sick Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail (ibid:117-8), who is also waiting for some sort of salvation for his powerlessness and who, in the meantime, languishes in inertia. The impossibility of finding a solution, forgiveness, for the historical chaos of religion, in the ungraspable that we want to grasp, urges Gerontion (or the voice, the mind, the word) to turn to history, towards the graspable that is only seemingly so, but which, it seems, is the only way out. Gerontion begs the listener, the reader, himself, to think, to find a solution, although his own contradictory and fragmented babel for what history is leaves him in a continuous and even more profound powerlessness.
Who is Sick Dojchin?
Sick Dojchin is an epic character, one of the personifications (in the collective memory of civilisation) of the saviour who must save something dear to him from an aggressor. The second and the third elements are usually personified as Beautiful/White Angelina and the Black Arab in the Macedonian folk/legendary tradition, the first usually having the function of Dojchin’s sister/fatherland, whereas the second—that of the conqueror. The basic matrix/pattern upon which the legend is built can be narrowed down to the fight between good and evil, between lightness and darkness (the names of the characters are indicative), with the mediation of a third character, a saviour, bearing some of the characteristics of both characters, someone hidden in the shadow of these two elements, who gains meaning only when the time comes for him to perform the act of salvation. “Dojchin, as an epic-heroic substitution of White Angelina, becomes Sick, thereby taking on a characteristic of the black, of death, because he ‘rises from the dead’ in order to perform his famous feat, to defeat the conqueror, the thug, out in the open, personified in the figure of the Black Arab” (Kjulavkova, 2009:69). This is the main context, the motif of Bogomil Gjuzel’s “Sick Dojchin”, borne in the title of the poem first published in 1963 in the collection Alhemiska ruza (Alchemical Rose), under the subheading Envoi.
“Sick Dojchin” opens with images of degradation and staleness, presented through the words of the dramatic persona in this dramatic monologue, who later on reveals himself as the speaker: “That is why I lay sick…” He presents his surroundings, the “White City” as a place where nothing happens, a city that sleeps “under the cover of fog and snow”, a city which, on a macrocosmic scale (universe=world=man), is still unborn, in a figurative sense, and his “painful birth” is prolonged, as if unwanted, uncalled for. That is why there are no newborns, no new people and the “cradles are still”, there is nothing good, but also nothing bad, as “The black seed is buried in the earth, and evil blood “is boiling like fresh wine / To crow once again in another time”. The first verse sets the frame of the title story’s deconstruction. Here the function of the white/good/home is personified in a static White City (maybe as one of the personifications of the Wide/White World), whose name leads us to interpret it as a comparison to White/Beautiful Angelina, but is obviously contrary to her, its seeming whiteness and cleanliness in which fogs rule is deconstructed. Here the two terms white and black become one and the same: the evil-good city performs the function of both the homeland and the foreign country, both oneself and the other, both what needs to be defended and what it is defended against. Hence the conclusion that this text is not a celebration of the characters from folk poetry, but a recontextualization of their functions. “The black seed” is buried in the earth, “the black earth” later on in the text, but the earth is such as a result of the air in the White City: “(That makes the city white, and the earth black)”. The “bulwarks” are hence forgotten, nobody knows where “the beginning point of the field and the world” is, the physical (geographical) demarcation is completely lost, and the bronze gates (human creation) are already rusty from the “warm tongue of fog the birth-giver”, of nature, here presented as something disease-ridden and sick.
If in some historical contexts religion marked the difference between god and evil with the birth of the saviour, here, it seems, neither he can be born, or his birth/coming is unwanted. Therefore:
The caravans arrived and locked themselves in the inns
(The camels bleat with the burden still on their backs)
The taverns have vanished in warm breaths and white smoke
Now in wine their own blood men seeketh, in bread
Their own strength, with curses unuttered though
This is a recontextualization (or mythical turn) of the coming of the three wise men after the birth of Jesus. The image presented here is completely opposite—the wise men, or the magi, have locked themselves in the inns, almost forgetting what they came for, leaving the gifts on the camels. They do not fulfil their task (or refuse to do so) and embrace the comfort of the smoky and crowded inn, a symbol of bohemianism and wastefulness. The prolongation of the coming of the religious hero and saviour is obvious, so everything is up to man now: wine is no longer the blood of Jesus, but the blood of the common man, bread is no longer the body of Jesus, but the body of man; these are sought not in church, the home of prayers, but in inns. We can derive the logical conclusion that the common man is the hero now, but a hero that does not use his forces to perform what is needed of him, but on the contrary, he leaves them to languish, to grow, always deferring the moment of action.
But if this is an acceptable mode of life for some, it is obviously not so for the speaker in the poem. For him, as a man who may have epic heroism in his genes, silence-ridden life means death as much as an action-filled life does. Because Dojchin’s death is predetermined, one way or another—the lack of action in a “limited world” kills him, but so too will the presence of action at the future moment of combat with the evil, the black, the Arab. He is predetermined to die in order to save his people, the white, the good, and then live in the poem, which will not be written if the final battle does not succeed. Dojchin’s problem, his sickness, is that his White World does not know of cries, but only silence, “death ignores the cries”, the people do not even try to summon “the black”, be it within or without us, so that it can be finally defeated. This deferral also defers Dojchin’s heroic act, and his body “full of strength” (Koneski) cannot bear inaction. This in turn leads to the logical conclusion as to the source of his sickness: he has lain sick, lonely and alienated in the “tower of air”, an empty tower, a modified reference to the ivory tower in the Song of Songs, a symbol of intellectualism that has no application in everyday life. What is interesting in this text is the merging of the characters’ functions and the deconstruction of oppositions: the epic, the timeless, has elements of the ordinary, the mortal, in itself, whereas the ordinary, the common man, has taken on the function of a hero by his own means. Therefore, it seems safe to say that Dojchin refers to any individual who, not wanting to come out of the womb (safety, security, comfort, be it an inn or a tower), inflicts upon himself the modern illness of inertia and silence, against which, as the text later reveals, this individual/collective Doychin is trying to fight. “Sick Dojchin” sees the sublimation of the three functions of the legendary paradigm, but also of the physical/geographical demarcation of the White City, whose stagnation and drowsiness (from the first verse) are transposed onto the polyphonic, polysemic speaker.
Differences and similarities
We can say that “Gerontion” and “Sick Dojchin” are related on several levels of similarity and difference:
1. Both poems are dramatic monologues in which the speaker cannot be easily identified. Although Dojchin is a character from Balkan folklore, he takes on completely different characteristics in this poem and the story about him is practically eliminated. The recontextualization of the character turns him from saviour into a “morbid epic character” (Nanevski, 1977:304). Both Gerontion and Sick Doychin are universal characters that speak about the local and the global, about the universal and the personal, each in his own way. Behind the “I” in both poems there hide many characters from the reservoir of civilizational prototypes (the black, the white). We cannot draw a stable conclusion even for the age of the character-mask in both poems. Although Gerontion says that he is an “old man”, the deconstruction of the textual elements of being read to and being a man with no senses can point to a different reading of the text—it can show the character as yet unborn or very small, which is the opposite in Doychin’s case, whose heavy thoughts do not correspond with his presence in the “womb”. Furthermore, both characters are something of a prophet, an all-seeing being, like “the mind of X” (Europe, England, Macedonia); they are characters that can rise above the “chaos” in which they live, but which, it seems, is also a part of them.
2. The commentaries on their contemporaries, compatriots and the state of civilization allow the reader to draw deliberate parallels. Dojchin’s White-and-Black City where “chaos and stuffiness rule”, as well as drowsy people, bears a similarity to the overall civilizational panorama of Gerontion. Actually, Gerontion’s ruinous civilization would be incomplete without the White-and-Black City mentioned in Dojchin, as it is its inevitable component.
3. The memory of history and of the past and their mixture with the present are elements in both poems, but for whose interpretation we have to rely on external signals, which in this part of the analysis we shall accept. The external element is the context in which these two poems were created, both the social and the personal world of the authors. Namely, if Gerontion is the fruit of a continuous tradition and written historical past, Dojchin is the fruit of a discontinuous tradition and predominantly “psychological” past. This can be the key to the interpretation of the predominance of historical allusions in Gerontion (the battles in the first stanza, the allusion to the Treaty of Versailles), entwined with religion and rituals (Christianity, the rain), and of the predominance of dreams and the psychological condition of Dojchin (the psychological past), which is sometimes entwined with factual history (King Samuil).
4. As to style, these two poems also show similarities. Many critics have commented on the output of both authors as being hermetic, very allusive and difficult to interpret, anti-sentimental and devoid of lyrical patheticism. There predominate dark images and images whose aim is to shock, negative prefixes and the definition of what is though what it is not.
5. Finally, the inertia and the inaction of both characters, as well as their general function. Both characters are in a way “sick”, and that sickness is both psychological and physical—with the first being predominant in Dojchin, whereas the second in Gerontion. Both can be identified with the mythical character of the sick Fisher King from the legend of the Holy Grail—the king who must be ritually sacrificed in order for peace, order and fertility to rule once again in the country. The function of both characters is the one of Derrida’s concept of the pharmakon (cure), pharmakos (sacrificial lamb) and pharmakeus (magician, prisoner). “If we take Gerontion as a ‘sacrificial lamb’, or pharmakos, the function he needs to perform is the purification of the village (the city, the world) of the evil that is bound to come, but still has not (sickness, death, the avenging God)” (Anchevski, 2007:117). The same could be said of Dojchin, that magician and prisoner, whose sacrifice is the cure for the city, but is deadly for him.
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