Blesok no. 26, May-June, 2002

In Search of an Archetype
My Hometown in Transition

Aleš Debeljak

     In the vibration of the memory of my childhood spent on the streets of Ljubljana, I clearly hear the verses, “If you let me go a little higher, the houses of Trieste I will admire.” Of course, I flew a kite, too, but the kite in the poem by Oton Zhupancic, premier Slovenian children's poet, was not made merely of light paper and balsa wood. In a metaphorical sense it outlined the totality of my childhood horizon.
     We lived in a cluster of low socialist apartment blocks beside the river, drab faces of high-rises never quite catching their reflection on the surface of slow-flowing waters. I gazed through the gently swinging branches of the weeping willows along the Ljubljanica River, which today no longer exist, perhaps because Joseph Plecnik, the foremost architect of my country whose work defined much of the Slovenian capital city's downtown, intended them to stand as a visual illustration for bending washerwomen, an image of the irreversibly-lost past. When I gazed there and tried to imagine invisible worlds in which genuine dramatic adventures took place that would be worthy of my longings, never satisfied with the simple reality at hand, I really saw the Italian town of Trieste, with its large harbor and the sea's promise of infinity. It is not that as a child I had already but a limited conceptual framework that was according to the force of necessity shaped by the meager financial means of my parents and the political restrictions of “soft” communist Yugoslavia, the country in which we lived. Because of such restrictions, even a trip to nearby Trieste literally meant entering a different world. I don't have the limitations of this kind in mind, although I don't deny their force. I have in mind my acceptance of evaporating, having never completely disappeared, and ever-so-fragile memories that are anchored in childhood, permeated with primordial images, images of the past. Who would not want to understand them? It is the artistic vision that so often feeds on the lost paradise of childhood, because symbolic archetypes were formed in it that govern the perception of the present moment. I try to miss as few opportunities as possible where this can be seen at work: how the archetypes confront the present use of time and orientation of space. Such opportunities come to light in playing with and caring for children.
     I have three; for all three of them, the Slovenian of their father and the American English of their mother are equal though their usage alternates according to the immediate suitability of the vocabulary and the flexibility of descriptions. And so, they run in the garden together with Zhupancic's kite and through the refrains of “London bridge is burning down” from the English song and “itsy bitsy spider” from the American help the sun dry the spidery thread stretching above other roofs and toward other bridges. My children's horizons inevitably reach farther than Trieste. They are spontaneously doubled, the potential for the possibilities of biographies and desire is expanded, and the symbolic topography of their world is more extensive. The view of the fecund surroundings and the feeling of boundless power in the eternal return of the sun rays are – I am increasingly sure of it – simply pillars supporting the frail architecture of the soul. And just as the soul needs landscapes of freedom to prepare carefully enough for the certainty of pain and potential grace of knowledge, the doubled identity reaches in many directions, hastily opens the doors to unknown rooms, retreats, and seeks always others because – extraterritorial as it is – its connection to only one dimension is fading.

First experience of a metropolis

     I was born in Ljubljana with its narrow streets and the modest embarrassment of its facades that “dreamed in German,” as I say in my book of poems Anxious Moments. I grew up here, its schools gave me my university education, my departures abroad began here, and along the ring of bourgeois mansions below the squat castle and on the banks of the lazy river I ultimately measure – almost against my own will – the experience of the pulsating architectural, cultural, and social force-fields that confuse people in foreign cities. This is to say that, at least for me, the archetype of a city springs from the earliest experiences of something that for a long time represented the only model of the urban rhythm, from Ljubljana.
     My first experience of a “metropolis” is Yugoslav, however. I imagine that I still remember the excitement of entering new territory, even though half a life separates me from the first encounter: like the full lips of a slightly vulgar but immensely sensual girl, the streets of Belgrade seduced me with promises of romantic possibilities and emerging familiarity with the Balkan wisdom, of which the “fin-de-millennium” will recoilingly remember only the military insanity of Serbian nationalist megalomania. It comes to us through the veil of hopeless powerlessness in the face of the catastrophe of ethnically clean identities that Belgrade orchestrated in the wars of the disintegrating Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, I still remember quite well my first climb from the railway station through the canyons of already faded palaces, which, I was later told, architecturally imitated the gorge of Sutjeska that was the site of a famous partisan battle against Nazis half a century ago; up to the broad Terazije Avenue; down that boulevard, enjoying the colorful relaxation of flaneurs; walking past the Moskva Hotel, where the aging doyen of Serbian letters, writer Milosh Crnjanski, lived until his death after having returned from decades of emigration in the British Isles. I am not sure, but perhaps it was because I was first astounded by the depressive force of the condition called “exile” in the pages of his bitter Novel of London that I did not stay in America when many years later I followed the call of foreign countries under the promising sky of student adventures. There's no point in feigning ignorance or, worse, a politically motivated amnesia: I was fascinated by this city. It embodied everything that Ljubljana was not. Belgrade gave me my first experience of a dangerous and exciting cosmopolis, which with its mixture of oriental and occidental customs persistently remolded various personalities and traditions, stitching them in the vivid, if anguished, patchwork of self-confidence. This was a particular “way of being” that Vienna, for example, could not give me, nor did I really expect it from that Hapsburg city, even though it is historically, socially, geographically, and possibly mentally closer to the Slovenians as the seat of the royal family that more or less continuously ruled much of Slovenian lands in the course of last five centuries. Aware of the limitations of their home place, urban characters in Slovenian feature films fled to only as far as the Adriatic sea coast, from where they gazed longingly toward distant foreign worlds; meanwhile, the unshaven and city-smart youths from Belgrade brazenly boarded the legendary Simplon Express to conquer Paris. This narrow flash of artistic metaphor alone suggests how limited Ljubljana's spiritual horizons are.
     Specifically, Ljubljana has no significant tradition of cosmopolitanism that could filter down from the extremely thin layers of each new city elite to the broader masses that live here. However, after the initial depression, in the face of which I longed for other rivers and other castles, this absence of a cosmopolitan tradition in some way set me free. It took me a long time to realise that if Slovenians have no cosmopolitan tradition and the creative self-confidence that accompanies it, one must create this sort of mythology himself.

Identity crisis

     Ljubljana, which only became a capital city a decade ago with the independence of Slovenia, that is, in the sense of being the seat of an independent nation-state, lives in me – a bastard of Gutenberg's galaxy – through an older, even ancient perspective of creative imagination, namely through the increasingly idiosyncratic selection of literary chapters outlining the symbolic iconography of space in which – a grand ambition for a birthplace, I admit – all cities manage, if for a blink of an eye, to recognize themselves.
     After all, poetic sensitivity is given birth in a deeply intuitive conviction that city walls mark the last boundary of the known, that in some way an individual city is the entire world; that the true place worth living in is a kind of transcendent “imago mundi.” To be at home in a city where the sky and the earth meet, is therefore existentially real; to be at home in a city offering a primeval, emotion-charged, adventure-filled, and thus fundamental experience of a place; to be at home in a city where everything has its names, the magical cartography of a handful of squares, three or four key streets, and the anonymous corners of the provincial nest that is the capital of my intimate world since it mimics the dwelling place of the gods – this cartography persistently follows me down the boulevards of foreign metropolises where the longing for “something else” repeatedly draws me to try unsuccessfully uncovering the “same” with the painful delight of passing time. In short, I am searching for a primeval place that has the meaning and weight of the archetype.

     Traffic jams in the comfortably winding streets of Old Ljubljana, the asphalt-glittering crowds and boisterously revealing shop windows from Cerruti to Nama, the shy coquettishness of alleys with thinned tree-lines along Ashkerceva Street, the friction between the bounty of consumer goods during fairs and the parallel worlds of the diplomatic salons and the muttering refuge of taverns and bars, the clamoring squares and the scrimmage in front of the elevators of powdery supermarkets like Metalka and Maximarket, the victory of kitsch in the villas of the nouveau riche and the spreading molasses of government palaces that gives no thought to the historical necessity of concentration that cultural institutions, including museums, should have in the city center; the huge advertising posters ceaselessly congratulating themselves on the triumph of a post-industrial capital, and ambiguous efforts of the social margin to create lifestyles from the pressure of predictable banality in which both, a cheerful relaxation and an open public space of the conflict, demand the right to be treated as an existential innovation – Ljubljana knows the swarming of explicitly urban identities.
     However, everything is still very thin, verily just born in the spasms of economic, social, and political transition. And this is where opportunity lies. The identity crisis that Ljubljana is experiencing because it is the capital of an independent country for the first time and simultaneously the focus of Slovenian national effort, means not only the disintegration of its previously valid identity and forms of self-perception but also, taken etymologically, a turning point. The opportunity for Ljubljana to qualify as an open city whose air liberates, which only works if a city is open like a parachute, to therefore become a city of self-confidence internally and hospitable externally, this opportunity will be probably more clear precisely at the cusp of something that shines with the sobriety of dawn, as Walter Benjamin once poeticized the authentic impulse of a work of art. To realize the potentials that originate from this milestone period, we, ethnic Slovenians who live largely in Ljubljana as a modern national habitus, still collectively lack those manifold layers of cultural capital that has the power, with a series of regenerating exchanges of universal civility and the reciprocal effects of the local “habits of the heart,” to produce a stock of refined styles of collective life. This is art that is worth pursuing. It is worth pursuing precisely at the time when any ambition beyond furthering one's self-interest is denounced as the last refuge of sentimental mind. On this basis we could achieve a certain level of relativization of our own deep-seated attitudes; that is to say, we would be able to translate what is the menacing threat of “other” and thus soften it into what is merely “different.”

The rhetoric of pedestrians?

     That is what a cosmopolis does. Such translating approaches between diverse traditions and existences have, of course, more to do with the specific “forma mentis” and not so much with the shortsighted speed of possibly even quite well intentioned officials who are removing the monuments of the bygone period and in the greed for changes on the newly renamed streets. To be sure, it is easy to simply hire a phalanx of architects to attempt benignly drowning Ljubljana in the generic splendour of tinted glass in the enduring international style which boasts throughout the post-Communist world with its skyscraper strongholds of the “movers and shakers” and the political clientele that doesn't care about the community when it does not enable, protect, and strengthen their special interests. These changes are easier to accomplish than to attempt a transformation of urban mentality that cannot be accelerated by elementary political will power.
     But it is possible – I surmise – to provide the conditions for the change of mentality so it can more easily develop in directions that will release Ljubljana from the traps of the pale uniformity that is commercializing the suburbs with shopping centers and touristically anesthetizing the city core by marketing “the national heritage.” It is possible to provide a recognizable basis for the forms of celebration that would be shared by those visual, architectural, and – through osmosis – not least the spiritual elements of the urban fabric that in Ljubljana's case is truly organically constructed on a “human scale.” Ljubljana, which was aptly created for the development of the “rhetoric of pedestrians” (Michael Certau) and individual imaginary scenarios of exploratory strolls along the invisible beams along to the fundamental “castle-river-park” axis already emphasized by Plecnik between the two World Wars; Ljubljana, which stretches uniquely between the boundaries of natural topographical emphasis on one side and the condensed bustle of the crowds on the other; Ljubljana, where the anonymous “lonely crowd” of the cosmopolis has not yet overwhelmed the perversely unsafe forms of public intimacy among the citizens of this small city; Ljubljana, deftly described by writer Jush Kozak as a “city at the crossroads of winds,” persistently, although at first glance perhaps less noticeably, accepts in its folds foreigners and travelers, temporary and permanent guests, immigrants and refugees, trying to shake off exclusivist dependency on the Slovenian ethnic identity so that its urban face can rightfully appear; Ljubljana, which is impossible to love without seeing in her an inspiration of distaste, this Ljubljana, like so many post-communist cities, would do right to invest more funds, critical attention, and insightful effort into education programs. This does not mean only investing where investments are necessary, that is, in urban planning solutions to the savage carnival of the ruinous automobilization of the city that will soon make “a human scale” just a hollow phrase in tourist brochures whereas a quite horrifying fact will naturally have to be suppressed: that parking lots occupy considerably more space than children's playgrounds. If my birthplace really wants to remain the archetype of a city in which life has existential meaning and does not just provide channels of functional communication, Ljubljana must take care that its citizens are better aware, on the one hand, of the long, if uneasy tradition of creating a collective alliance with all those citizens who regardless of their ethnic origins recognize the vernacular language of the Ljubljana facades and their longing for freedom, and on the other are equally aware of its essential heterogeneous nature and perpetual reflection of the “same” in the “other.”
     In an ideal-case scenario, such an awareness would prevent Ljubljana from being deserted on Sundays as if struck by an epidemic. In truth, it is an epidemic, an epidemic of oblivion in which the fact is vaporized that one's personal identification with the city demands an obligation which, in its ultimate consequence, is properly called metaphysical. But I only recognize myself authentically in the metaphysical identity only if this identity rubs against others, if it keeps mutating, cross-fertilising and penetrating the mutual tension of differences. The mental boundaries of the developed urban space are porous and thus require the mixing, osmosis and simmering of many idioms, personalities, and visions that carry with them the memory of the “shock of difference.”
     Shocks are creative. The metropolitan experience knows this well since the urban polis is inclusive while the national tradition is exclusive in its character. The Slovenian tradition of living in urban settlements is still more national than metropolitan. If a metropolis is a kind of public gathering place, a drafty space, a home of transients and evanescent identities, it can only be so because it constantly includes and processes people, groups, languages, and cultures that are different. However, Slovenians still lack – let us take an arbitrary example – even a slightly more ambitious novel let alone more subtle lyrical visions about the treasury of conflicts between the migratory pain and hopes for a better reality as they are embodied in the “southern” community of Fuћine on the capital city's outskirts, thus called because of its being populated by immigrant workers from the southern republics of the former Yugoslavia.
     If the city therefore offers important although admittedly confused elements of identity to every individual who lives here voluntarily, then being a Ljubljana-dweller means more than just being invested in the site of castle and river, bedroom suburb and encompassing moor, which is unavoidable; however, being “a Ljubljanite” also means having a heart and head imbued with the feeling that for a full-fledged urban existence it is not enough to just passively live side by side but rather that we must actively develop generous forms of collective life: not to just passively tolerate different linguistic, ethnic, and religious characteristics but to attempt to prepare ourselves to comprehend that there are no cities without heterogeneous and plural impulses, no authentic places without discovering the “otherness” in the bosom of what we mistakenly think we understand as the “same.” We Ljubljanites are only very slowly becoming accustomed to this pluralization of ethnic identities and personal worldviews.
     Along today's Ljubljanica River, the bleary but stubborn shoots of new weeping willows spring forth from the stumps of felled, presumably disease-infested old willows. Instead of washerwomen, prudent students of computer science, excitable artists, idle strollers, ambitious stockbrokers, and unemployed philosophers now hail one another from river bank to river bank or, rather, from the bars of some of the “hottest” city meeting places. However, the hope that this is a process of cosmopolitization that has less to do with the size of the population than with a close connection to the broad horizons of the soul that are worth cultivating even in children, gradually springs in the heart of every sensitive individual who suspects that for the archetype of a city it is necessary to constantly seek a balance between conservative loyalty to a place and the liberal pluralism of differences. Such a hope might occur, for example, to a stroller who, at least in summer when the city is most beguiling, manages to hear in passing those youths sitting around the tables of Mosquito Bar at the junction of Gruber Canal and the Ljubljanica River as they deal with the most important things in the world, where the balance offers itself, stretching from the limited horizon of the lips prepared for a kiss to the endless landscapes of freedom in daydreaming: they comment on the proper taste of marijuana and the nature of the cosmos.

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