Blesok no. 25, March-April, 2002
Balkan Heresy of Love
Do we really think and speak of the same thing when we speak of love?
Julia Kristeva, one of those persistent, lucid women who deal exclusively with the most complex issues of human existence (melancholy, depression, new social diseases, neurosis, pain, terror…), in one of her extremely intriguing books (Love Stories – Histores d’amour, 1983) endeavours to pose and discuss this complex issue “leaning” on a whole dozen of crucial “subquestions”:
Is love a feeling or (perhaps, after all) a certain specific state (of the spirit)? In what ways does love express itself? Through what modalities does it display and prove itself? What is its – so specific – language? Some authors, especially women authors, undoubtedly “identify” the specific love language with the poetic one, believing that in both cases the language is full of metaphors: even when the love expression appears (ostensibly) very “simple”, monosemantic (I-love-you), its referential and communicative potentials excel “the content of the spoken/written words – that is to say, these “simple”, monosemantic words always imply (in fact – imagine) a lot, a lot more than their ortographic-ortoepic appearance can “contain”. They imagine a whole universe!
“Is it at all possible to express love in words? Is the love discourse not the only (of all possible discourses) which can be expressed solely in first person?” – a famous Balkan feminist is asking, fascinated by the discovery of the European linguists (Kristevna, as well as other women linguists) that the “essential characteristic of the love discourse is precisely the uncertainty/vagueness of its subject” (Popovic – Perisic, 1988; 69). From this, one may conclude that the true “imaginary” field of the love discourse is the letter. To be more precise – the love letter!
What is a love letter? The desire to reach/get to the other, the desire ‘I’ to become/be the Other. We recognise the same situation as the commencing situation of writing, Kristeva believes. Love, as writing, signifies a state of instability, “in which the individual is no longer indivisible, unique, stable: that is a state in which I accepts to be a part of the Other, to live for the other” (Kristeva, 1983; 121).
The letter – not only the love but also the literary one! becomes “a space in which ‘I’ summons the Other, for s/he loves, suffers, outdoes him/her own self” (Popovic – Perisic, 1988; 69).
According to Barthes writing is love itself – for it is a result of pure pleasure, so it must produce the same, i.e. pure pleasure: in his system love (of the Other, to the Other) becomes a name to write (Barthes, 1975).
It turns out that love and writing are essentially related by one and the same motive: the attempt to establish an intensive relationship with the Other. An attempt for a discourse!
Trying to remember some Balkan, not only Macedonian! examples of exceptional love writing, let us say, such as European and world literary history are especially proud of, I have come to the conclusion that either I am not well familiarised with this theme, or the Balkan people are truly not fond of writing. I mean – writing letters! Namely, it seems that not one Balkan Eloiza has ever been yearning after her beloved Abelard, that not one Balkan Kafka had his Milena, not one Balkan Cvetaeva had the luck of meeting her Pasternak, that – even – not one Balkan Havel has found his true Olga.
I refuse to accept – in advance – the possible thesis that the Balkan never had its own “literary equivalents” of Eloiza, Abelard, Kafka, Milena, Cvetaeva, Pasternak, Havel, Olga… That its (metaphorically speaking) writers who were in loveand their (again metaphorically) beloved oneshave, perhaps, never managed to articulate their desires appropriately – now, this is something we may discuss! At this moment, however, I am mostly interested in the issue of the (without exceptions) unexisting Balkan love letters!
Apart from the cards that Racin sent the mysterious Raca – an ideal girl, a girl-metaphor, girl-dream that he himself selected, “created” as an object of his love (the feminologists would recognise this as a typically feminine illusionism, as sentimentalismtowards which the women are more inclined than men!), I can’t recall any other writer from these areas who developed their own love epistolary with such great care. The women authors appear to be no exception. If this impression is true, especially in the part concerning women writers (I admit not to have been researching in too many details!), it seems that the “gun-powder barrel like Balkan” has systematically destroyed the famous (male?) prejudice of women as “congenital writers”, for they all suffer – don’t they? – from the “intrinsic fault” of writing long and sentimental love letters. Women are, supposedly, constantly sentimental beings, obsessed by the need to announce their most profound emotions to the Other, even if “he” is but a sheet of blank paper.
It seems that Balkan men and women writers deal with their personal, strictly intimate love problems easily! Or, rather, they deal with these issues strictly personally and intimately! Enclosed in the narrowest four walls of their home. Domestic problems are not for the eyes of the public – a folk saying states, which has been a part of Balkan tradition for centuries!
It seems that the Balkan – and particularly Macedonian – letters written by women has been and will be for a long time deduced to the separate courageous examples of those exceptional women poets like Danica Rucigaj, Liljana Dirjan or Katica Kulafkova. The appearance of an authentic Balkan Erica Yong is simply – impossible.
Balkan men and women authors appear to admit and “announce” they are capable of writing within the already “classical”, even “programmed” literary genres: the most frequent lyric poems (let us say – those of Aco Sopov), occasionally short prose forms, seldom whole novels (let us say – “A Novel of London” by Milos Crnjanski).
The plays are another story. In fact, we will mostly be concerned with them. Later.
The conclusion is, without exaggeration, bizarre:
Balkan men and women authors – as it appears – love and want the Other only as His Majesty the Reader (or Observer), the general one, who is usually referred to as audience. Their literary love towards their reading audience, whatever this mysterious notion means (mysterious especially in Macedonian conditions), seems to be more intense than the love towards “the love of their heart”, as the authors of those hypersentimental popular novels would put it.
Whatever the case, the average reader of Macedonian literature will easily detect that the so-called “love topics” are not a frequent theme of its respected authors: excepting the so-called lyrical (love) poems; prose and drama mainly get to the “simplest”, typical love situations. While love expression itself, even when emotionally exposed to a high degree, does not develop its language further than the monosemantic statements of the kind I-love-you.
As if it hesitates whether to go further!
As if it is ashamed!
Having been dealing with Macedonian drama for a long time, not only with what is now called contemporary drama, but with its integral corpus, I noticed, long time ago, that Macedonian actresses are truly right: they claim that the complete dramatic discourse is notably male, which is evident in the way the characters are being created. It is the – men – who are always interesting and challenging to interpret. The function of the women characters, unless they are “giant”, “heroic”, the type of a mother who would sacrifice anything for her child, on whose pathos the whole dramatic tension is built, is mainly to support the men. The roles of men are always numerous, more active, more aggressive, dramatically more developed, more interesting to deal with critically. In Macedonian drama in general the women have hardly got a role to act: when something important seems to be on the scene, it is almost always deprived of any passion. Apart from the passion to prolong human kind.
Macedonian dramatic male authors – even the rare female authors – seem not to be able to truly and passionately love!
Even from the beginning of Macedonian drama in the nineteenth century, a certain view that love is sacred and an attempt to present it that way is evident, inherited (undoubtedly) from the long European tradition, Christianely pure, black-and-white and quasi-knight like. Enclosed in the frames of this solid, in fact – rigid, context, love is understood as “a holy feeling”, whose purity– no doubt extraterrestrial and void of bodily passion – must not be questioned. This obviously is a matter of love as an exclusive “result” of strictly male imagination, as one of those typically male fantasies in which any alternative is excluded in advance.
This “pure love” turns the woman into “a simple being” (deprived of free will and, of course, passion!), into a passive being, almost – an object. Gaining (in advance, automatically) all the attributes that men, from Odysseus’ time on, have imposed on the women, she receives an obligation to be “beautiful”, “fragile”, “tame” and “helpless” – so that the man-knight could protect her every step of the way! And to adore her, when he has got the time – usually between two battles! Such a doll-woman – deprived not only of her body, but of any spiritual needs as well – has nothing to do (with her life), except fulfilling for her “knight-protector” her one and only obligation – to be and remain honest. Till the last breath.
In the world of the male fantasies this honest woman is given the sole task (not only in drama, but in life as well): to retain the home and family, giving birth to children! Doing so, functioning exclusively to fulfill these two essential tasks(for she could not have any other needs), the honest womaneventually approaches the ideal of womanhood and femininity: she will become identifiable with the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God! “We still live in a civilisation where the idea of femininity is wholly absorbed in motherhood, represented in the Virgin Mary” – Kristaeva said fifteen years ago (Julia Kristaeva, 1983; 67).
It is hardly likely that anything has changed in the meantime, especially on the Balkan, despite all the technical and other progress which quickly passes through the rest of the world.
Since the time of the first Balkan dramatic heroine who was, as we believe, so magically called Genoveva, the Great Sufferer, and whose theatrical hagiography which stands in the beginning of all the national theatrical histories in this area, has become the matrix, “the mould” for creating all other dramatic women characters, hardly anything has changed in any direction. Throughout the long decades in which the mimetic, sentimentally constructed so-called ‘theatre with motives of the everyday life’ functioned as the only medium for mass communication (somewhere between the middle of the last to the middle of this century), the fictional “life” and the didactic instructions of this Genoveva-the great sufferer, the “sacred” god-like mother, correspond perfectly with the so-called “collective structure of the sensibility” (Williams, 1968; 13-18). The so-called “horizon of expectations” on the part of the audience, accepts melodrama as a new, “unusual”, self-contained, natural genre: apart from telling nice stories, incites simultaneously the strong feelings. A genre that is part of a new/different situation – citizen-like.
Melodrama thus becomes the magical passage through which we can escape folkloristic (rural) tradition and begin with a new one – the citizen tradition: the American theatrologist James Rosenberg calls it a “protoplasm from which great art came to be” (Rosenberg, 1964). The Balkan society, only lately characterised by relatively big cities, in the effort to find/establish, but also prove/confirm the adequate new identity, uses the melodrama to affirm its own – southeasterneuropean! – variant of a dramatic expression – a little suffering, a little exotic decoration, a little kitsch, spiced with sentimentalism (tears, laughter) and approximately the same quantity of “controlled tension” (the one that leads to the inevitable happy end) – and, this goes without saying, it is all concentrated around the suffering of a young, beautiful, unprotected, fragile and (undoubtedly) honest woman. The little boy in her arms is also an inevitable element!
“The model” according to which the story of Genoveva, this peak of the melodramatic heroines, has been created is not very different from those (models) that form the basis of many ‘soup operas’ nowadays, and not only the Hollywood ones. That is why the events in it are worth narrating; I must note that I will paraphrase only one of the virtually numberless versions (in Europe a whole “Genovevianne” has existed for centuries) which, except for the “decorative” details and the number of episodes, are practically same. The paraphrase I offer takes the German version of “Genoveva”, dating from a century and a half ago (1856), “bulgarated” by the teacher Kretju Pisurka, called the “father of Bulgarian theatre”; it is with its performance (1856 in Shumen) that Bulgarian theatrical history begins. The supposition that this was the version that reached Macedonia seems logical to me: in the year of 1875 the Veles teachers-exorcists will make a performance of “Genoveva” and play it with great success for two seasons in a row.
Make an effort – on the basis of the paraphrased plot – to understand the reasons for this great success:
A kind-hearted and honest Count, happily married to a Countess with the same properties (Genoveva), is suddenly summoned to an important war. Being a patriot, he immediately accepts the war invitation. Not only that the tears and begging of his young beloved wife will not prevent the Count in his firm determination to serve his motherland, but neither will her telling about “what she carries under her heart”.
Left in a desolate discomfort, Genoveva has yet to suffer real pain. The man the count has left his beloved wife to, certain that he will take a good care of her, will immediately break his promise (betrayal – a point all melodramas are concerned with). And he will attack the holiest: the woman’s honour. Rejected – of course! The traitor continually tortures Genoveva (the torments resemble those of Christ’s when carrying the cross). Not even her deliverance softens him – he orders that she be exiled in the mountains, so that the wild beasts tear her apart (exile = a classical mythic element). The major turning point of the play occurs in the green woods: instead of becoming a prey, Genoveva and her newborn child will be recognized by the wild beasts for their kind-heartedness and love – all that the count and the traitor were unable to see! The animals will feed and dress them for years, as well as take care for their well being. Until the count – at last! – returns from the important war. And, one day when he went hunting (enjoyment = is only the privilege of men), he accidentally found his wife (the faithful Penelope) and the son, now grown up. Extremely happy, the count decided to build a monastery on that spot. Together they go and live happily ever after, for honourremained holy. Curtains.
All can be realised from “Genoveva”: the patriarchic model of living, the moral codices, the relation between sexes, the treatment of subtle issues (for instance: the issue of love!), the place and status of the woman in society… And, of course, a conceptupon which the Balkan theatre will develop further on.
We will not be wrong to call this concept male, i.e. chauvinistic.
The only serious task that this concept imposes on women – the only task a woman could possibly have, to retain her honour and sacrifice herself for it (motherhood is only part of that sacrifice) – Genoveva fulfills, we could say, even more than paradigmatically, perfectly. No man in the world could have any remark for her behavior – if one could, then Genoveva would not exist. Namely, her melodramatic mould functions exclusively as a “chauvinist play”: in all the existing variants we can easily detect the principle upon which it is imagined, written, played. The chauvinist principle. The gentlemanliness fixed in the title may fool only the naïve and ignorant ones: both her dramatic and narrative point of view is absolutely male. The best argument supporting this thesis is precisely the treatment of the ostensible main character: Genoveva is precisely the kind of woman as any patriarchic man (men, macho) would wish for, she is an ideal woman; I have never noticed that anyone has ever asked whether the count is the type of man any woman would wish for/choose; in fact, I have never noticed that anyone wondered whether Penelope had any remarks for her heroic husband, although it has been clear for centuries now what use she could have of him.
That “Genoveva” was truly imaginedand structuredas a play with a male point of view is confirmed by its text, in the discourse of which there is no trace of at least the simplest love expression, enclosed in the three simplest words I-love-you!
Not only was the popularity of thisGenoveva enormous till the middle of this century, but it also surpassed the “narrow” theatrical frames. There was almost no decent house which was not decorated with the sculptures of Genoveva, pictures with motives from the play, and the kitchen rags had on them Genovevian scenes and “messages”. The instructions of some of the Macedonian plays (those by Vasil Iljoski, Kole Čašule), state that the dramatic scene should be decorated with several such “Genovevian” details. It is said that they had been sold on the market and manufactured in many versions. Generations of people on the Balkans who have patiently been going through the complicated journey from patriarchic to urban way of living (this journey lasts still!)were establishing not only the aesthetic, but also the ethic norms of their own behavior on the basis of these Genovevian motives: on one wall there hung a picture of Genoveva (with long loose hair, a child in her arms, and a deer beside them), and on the opposite wall a fresco of the Mother of God! These coordinates have determined not only the model, but also the archetype – the female archetype– that later, all way to the present will appear in similar variants in all kinds of art on the Balkan. Literature included!
The Balkan writer that came directly out of those first generations of citizens, will create all their female characters following this archetype! In all literary genres the female characters will serve to personalise (illustrate?) the two traditional values of the patriarchic world: motherhood and honour. Would it sound too ‘Freud-like’ to say that all Balkan men – even those who are writers – look for and wish to find in every woman (even their own wife!) their mother? Taking this into consideration could we say that the Balkan writers – when creating their female characters – best describe those who resemble a typical mother?
The tradition of the so-called “great mothers” Macedonian literature conceives in its beginnings, i.e. more that a century ago. Its most distinguished talent, Gligor Prlicev (1830-1893), will note in his biography that “Neda, from The Serdar is no one else but my mother. (…) It is so true that the mother’s love helps even in writing.” (Prlicev, 1974). Prlicev is an example of a son who adores/worships his mother, judging his own actions (as well as the actions of those around him, including his fictional characters) by the high standards of his mother. The mythical mother Stalev claims to have been “courageous, just, determined to raise arms against the enemies of her people (…) her determination, Neda’s protest – that is a shadow of nature itself.” (Stalev, 1973; 24) Provided that these attributes were true for reality – since for literature they obviously were (Neda’s character was created to function according to the male concept for the ideal woman-mother) – it is highly probable that the psychoanalysts would have many interesting things to say of our “Second Homer”.
It is of a particular interest that also the other female character in The Serdar, Kuzman’s fiancée, Maria, impeccably functions in the advantage of the male concept of the ideal woman: “Brought up in a patriarchic atmosphere (how else could she be brought up) she manifests the features of this way of living” – Stalev says (Stalev, 1974; 60). Prlicev will assign her a destiny that is the only appropriate destiny an honest woman whose fiancé was killed is expected to fulfill: “I shall serve in the home of God, in black garment/ unhappy for all future times/ I shall not go in bed with another, despite his beauty/ for as long as I live. (Prlicev, 1973; 86)
If womanhood cannot be the epitome of motherhood as well – as it was in Genoveva’s case – the honest woman cannot but choose the way chosen long ago by Antigone: to be buried alive! Without a husband her life has no longer a purpose. She can neither look for her own – female – identity. On the Balkans the woman is (still?) identified through her husband (or, at least, her son) – in some areas in Macedonia the women are called not with their own names, but with the names of their husbands: Trpece-ica, Spase-ica, Krste-ica, Pasko-ica… In Risto Krle’s tragedy “Money Are Murderous” (1937) when ‘pater familias’, Mitre, addresses his wife, he always calls her “Mitreica”.
In the patriarchic world the issue of “considering a woman’s characteristics in literature” (Kristaeva) is never raised. Within the hundred years that it dominated, the drama of everyday life constantly supports and exploits the female archetype, reduced to the already “classical” triad:
It is only when it enters the so-called contemporary/modern period, arriving in Macedonia in 1957 with the play “The Winnow of the Wind” by Kose Čašule (1921), that Macedonian dramatics displays certain changes. It is for the first time that a woman (Winnow-Magda) takes the central part of a play, a play in which the search for the woman’s identity is differently is differently treated, a play whose author (learning from the experiments of the then modern American drama, interested also for psychoanalysis) makes an effort to convert the dogmatic “female” codes of his own cultural/literary heritage. Winnow-Magda is the first woman character in Macedonian drama that cannot be associated (at all) with the existing female archetype virgin-mother-saint! We may even say that Winnow-Magda is a character who threatens to finally destroy this sacramental archetype.
Although some still falsely consider it “a modern variant of the fortuneseeking theme”, this compact “play in three parts” (as its author terms it) could freely be called a love play. The respectable Macedonian theatrologist Nada Petkovska is right in insisting on its emotional, extremely tense basic matrimonial dramatic situation in the form of a triangle (man-woman-lover), but also on a whole row of subtle forms of lovewhich logically emerge from this trigonometry. Petkovska carefully examines the relations that develop – in any complex love (isn’t every love complex?) – between the man and the woman, whether they be in a matrimonial, love, of (as in “The Winnow”) potentially incestuous relationship: devotion, impatience, gentleness, hate, fear, hope, owning, care, repulsiveness, compassion… in the same time. Petkovska is also interested in those kinds of love that in the triangle situation are ostensibly secondary, the relations: father-son, stepmother-stepson, mother-son, father-mother… (Petkovska, 1996; 25-44). There is no doubt that these analyses confirm that “The Winnow” is a true play about love, a play whose dramatic preoccupation is exactly love: all three main characters are constantly in a vain, absurd quest for it! Condemned never finding it!
Unfortunately, neither did its author Kole Čašule in his later plays continue this Jungic quest for the identity, excellently commenced in “The Winnow of the Wind”.
The following generations of Macedonian drama behaved towards this play as if it had never been written: their preoccupations, as the author’s preoccupations became different. Their formal (the invention of the so-called fragmentary drama), as well as their thematic ones. Until the appearance of Saško Nasev (1966) and his melodramas “Whose Are You” (1991) and “A Sin or a Sparkling Wine” (1991), in Macedonian dramatics there weren’t any plays that dealt solely with love. We must note that the love that Nasev theatralises is again – relatively speaking – of the manner of everyday life type. Male love. Love in which the woman – because she wouldn’t or couldn’t respect the archetypal matrix virgin-mother-saint has to be reduced to a sinnerand a woman who repents. The female characters of Saso Nasev always generate great misfortunes and have, therefore, to be unhappy. And they are created in such a way that they have to be content with their secondary, supporting role.
His professor and instructor of dramatic skills, Goran Stefanovski (1952), in all of his plays (without an exception) follows Prlicev’s cult of the Great Mother – the Impeccable Mother of God. Stefanovski seldom creates female characters that attempt to deal with the crucial issue of their different identity – if they ever dare (reveal their passion!), they will be labeled not only as sinful, but also as fatal losers. Aware of the fact that the passion of a woman is always fatal in the patriarchic world, Sara from “Wild Meat” (1979) – one of the rare females in Stefanovski’s work – employs her passion with the intent of “spending” it. To destroy it, before it destroys her.
It does not surprise me at all that the youngest Macedonian drama writers, those who are usually referred to as postmodernists (whatever this characteristic means), Zanina Mircevska (1967) and Dejan Dukovski (1969) retain an identical relation towards femininity (i.e. love!). Apart from the fact that the ‘cult’ Goran Stefanovski was their teacher as well, they – as personalities, not only writers – have been brought up in a world in which the relation towards love seems to be based on different foundations. Searching for it through the seven exhausting stages (circles), which should represent a test for its valour, in the play “M.M.E. Who Started It First” (1997) Dukovski is near the belief that the myth of love is hazardously jeopradised. That it is completely melted. That we live in a world in which love is impossible.
It seems that Jordan Plevnes (1953) is the only authentic author in Macedonian drama who appreciates and employs in his plays the traditional, sentimental, noble relation towards love, believing in its mystical/magic power. It goes without saying that the writing of this last troubadour of Macedonian dramatics is eminently male, but freely expresses his own emotions. Or, the emotions of his characters, both male and female.
The question posed in the very beginning of this text – do we really think and speak of the same thing when we speak of love? – is obviously a rhetorical one. I have not, therefore, attempted to answer it, but only suggest it by dealing with several related issues, logically emerging from its interrogative structure. Or, are they logical only in the context of a female view, female interpretation of its implications?
The female view, as well as the female writing primarily signifies the alternative of the approach. Assuming the right to be different, it invites others to conversation.
Perhaps all of us today are in a need of conversation on love!
Especially us, on the Balkan!