Blesok no. 51, November-December, 2006

Zone, the Forbidden City

Primož Repar

    When I start to think about the Balkans, I freeze. I get tangled and wrapped up in myself. A fear hides in me, that does not want to be found out, so it puts me into a static state of still agony, leaving even more of the bitter taste that prevents me from expressing myself clearly. The easiest thing to do would be to present a pattern. Narration may only be concrete and that opens up a dangerous field, as it transects the patterns that make us ponder. Something within me resists, the question is buried too deep to embrace or even to reach from my quiet corner. I shall therefore try to summon up a few thoughts that dare go where one should not. This is why I shall try to reach those spaces the long way around, perhaps even from the other side, trying not to lose the theme about which I had set out to write.
    My Balkan experience does not wish to speak about a place in which perhaps the negative image of Europe is mirrored. Only by ourselves can we answer questions that surpass us. And what does answering mean anyway. How do we put it?
    In Andrej Tarkovsky's movie The Stalker, the zone is a complex system of deadly traps that come alive when people are near. The Zone then - a metaphor of the forbidden city, where you find yourself lost in the infinity of space no longer defined by rules of the old cosmos. Safe spots may become dead ends suddenly. We can observe and monotonously control them from a safe distance, or we can become immersed in the uncertainty of incomprehensible experience. This experience has matured particularly with the irony and humour of Yugoslav rock music, but this is not the place to discuss that. The experience is unique, bordering on oddity at times or it may even be pathetic when expressed superficially. The story of the Balkans is also the story of human fate, which, as Dostoyevsky puts it, does not feed on the truth that two and two make four, but rather on its own will, unable to evade or renounce suffering, destruction and chaos. It is, in a way, a meteorite that fell from the skies and dug deep into the core of the planet. Having crashed among us, it is a reminder that life is not an ant hive, as human free will does not allow such a hive to be. Even when all seems lost, freedom seems to depend on the will that is not self-will but a relationship to the Other, which, again, must not become a hostage of this will, lest it draw the situation to itself. And here we stumble upon a Faustian contract, which serves as an icon of apology (and being of irrational origin, a very dangerous one!). One must agree that in all situations there exists an »irrational surplus, which is the need to survive«. And yet - a trap is hidden within, which beyond the borders of egoism is capable of leading to stigmatisation and negative connotations as self is projected onto the other, bringing us to the pathological.


    Europe, the respectable elderly lady that she is, has been behaving totally inertly toward some of her limbs this past decade. Her power is lame to the point of almost having no meaning left. She uses only the rational half of her mind in self protection, covering in old-age tiredness her eyes and ears from the bitter truth of her nature, the nature that succumbs to its own calculated self interest. In this, she is boringly predictable and, afraid of this boredom, she pushes and goes on by her own narcissistic, spectacular image and also the images of her contradictions… ideological self-corrections. The west has turned a blind eye and quietly believed in the myth, even though realistic assessments were possible and welcome, even necessary for the protection and benefit of the entire corpus, which has nothing to do with the politically prevalent model of euro centrism. This serves only the interests of particular limbs as they have subjugated the model. One gets confused: not to wait - each moment everything is different. However beckoning may be the colours in which freedom is offered, most times it dissolves into a consumer - restricted despotic dictatorship of corporative libertarianism, offering itself as the universal model, the base matrix of the post industrialist globally capitalistic world. We cannot wait for what is about to happen, because when it happens it will be too late. Nobody involved gets out alive. Luckily, this linearity is severed sooner or later and the dissonances of life ring out.
    If the predictability of a solid and calm westerner represents the one side, the other is the unpredictability of the »wild« man from the Balkans, faithfully complementing the first to form a whole picture. If we agree to this set-up, we could say that the world of rationalism, the world of necessity is reflected in its own contradiction, the world of freedom, irrationalism. Rewinding this film, we also plant onto this world a demonism, thereby revealing a hidden moral note from the West, an empty and superficial ring of obsolete renaissance »paroles« about freedom and puffed-up phrases about the right to he different, the consciousness of its self-assurance. Yet it is just the Balkan experience that tells us there is no such thing as self-assurance. What today the West-East relationship represents on a horizontal scale, the North-South relationship represents on a vertical one. The global situation of an age is reflected in this, a particular equilibrium of horror. But what is being informed well or not well, and - does it mean anything? The only reporting here is sincere narration, or else it is not reporting and the dignity and precedence of mankind comes under question. Especially when it comes to the rage of the masses and thereby to the »natural idiotization of human nature«, where all criteria of good or evil are lost. The pressure of the masses is always inhuman. A rationalization that offers a normative answer to crime cannot fit with a horrible atmosphere, full of blood and murder. Man as a free being is responsible for evil. The impersonal force of the masses cannot be held responsible for evil (the true reason is in the personal, in the internal depth of affection that is part of the personal culture). Violence breeds violence: coming to terms with evil always means death, even though some might add sarcastically that it means death only of the person within (while the Western TV screen keeps feeding us pictures of any murder or violence). Bad news reflects the typical demagogy of today's resentiment - the bipolar reflection of reality, knowing only ours and theirs, good and evil, nice and mean. In reality, life is about a multitude of fragmental ways that cannot bear bipolar labels or demonisations. To put it simply - we must not allow such simplifications. Never. And we do not even have to mechanically deconstruct Underground by Kusturica. After all, we were all in the Bunker. Some in this, some in other ways - one must not create new stereotypes! Once we've gone too far, there is no turning back. And yet Europe, whose ideals have so many times inverted into their own opposites, has another option in recognizing the differences of being and the wealth of particularities.

Orientation Beacon One

    The flow of history points in the right direction. The new Cartesian modern world begins in the politically global sense with the Spanish domination, that becomes a world hegemony with the annexing of the New World territories across the ocean. And it is typical of a hegemony to spread by political means its monolith culture that is really the basis of its ideology and the concept by which the hegemony is to protect mankind and improve the world. In this lies a great danger, because a culture becomes politics, and thereby terror that does not allow for contradictions between the particularities of a culture or an open dialogue with other, different cultures. By rule of thumb horrible things follow: ethnocide, genocide.
    It seems that if the story of modern history began in the southwest of Europe - with amongst other things the banishing of the Arabic and Islamic cultures from Europe - then it ends exactly half a millennium later with the destruction of a multicultural society in the southeast of Europe. The same pattern which we used to describe the beginning, might offer an explanation of the rise of another hegemony, the Western empire, for the end of modern history. The monolith culture of this hegemony was in fact in the embryonic state of its development at exactly the time that the first European ships discovered the Americas and began to populate them. This problem of culture is its superiority complex which, however, does not come from the power of the culture itself, but rather from the political and economic power of the West and sees its superior role in the economic back-lag of the rest of the world, be it East or South. The theme of the »undeveloped« world arises - and this world is soon pushed into the theme of irrationality and thus dealt with - because of the differences in values and cultural meanings and even more so because of ignorance and prejudice. And once the process of the »enlightenment« and cultivation of this world begins by western, universal civilisation standards, we usually face an outbreak of horrible violence, violence in which two oppositions, two forces battle, one man against another. Sadly, the more people believe in tolerance, democraticism, enlightenment and progress, the faster and more ready they are to become volunteer victims of repression and self-betrayal. The jargon of the Great progress becomes all, and its faith represents the heritage of the western age of enlightenment. Modern societies enter everything encompass everything to the point of understanding themselves as the final goal of history. And that of course is proof enough of the radical undervaluing of all previous cultures and particularly their mysteries. Man is no longer recognized as mysterious and open by default, but rather as generally understandable, definable and expressible. If a culture that we recognize as the foundation of the European man appears on Balkan ground, a culture that produces multi-mysteries - which later historical Christianity reduces to a one and only - then the profane culture of today eliminates even this »only« from a world understood as a complete structure of social relationships. A system, or more precisely a world, that supports and grows a network of multiplying institutions and regulations allows the passive man of today only »faith and illusion«. The faith in question is one that replaces primary human communication with an illusion of consumerism, the belief in unlimited economic growth that is supposed to improve the world through the quantitative growth of prosperity.
    But it is more than worrying to notice that man has apparently lost control over this »self perpetuating« clockwork of production that modern man had put into motion. Here we face again the problem of the »unmoving picture«. You see, prejudice always follows that which prevails as a general label of something we do not know, will not admit to ourselves, cannot face, do not want to meet, or of which we are even afraid or terrified. This is why these prejudices are very useful for constructing opinions and even act as powerful symbols and once these symbols are used in politics (and therefore out of time) we find ourselves on the verge of catastrophe. The catastrophe of war that took place in the area of ex Yugoslavia in this past decade has put tremendous strain on the experience of civilisation, proclaiming itself to be humane. Today the cultural dichotomy between East and West is not apparent but is in fact a fractal and chaotic intercivilisational difference, that takes place within a given territory, whether in the so called developed or the undeveloped world. Turning a blind eye toward reality is more than dangerous. It seems that the part of the world that deems itself superior is renouncing its own other and far greater pole as if it were an »unwanted child«. But in this is hidden the way of thinking that in all historic epochs has pointed toward an »alarm« for change. Hypocritical hiding behind reasons of civilisations with the purpose of covering up the true reasons of an action is poisoning the world in its total manifestation. All empires have crumbled. In this spirit, given different points of view of course, including the one that I myself have experienced and lived. The Yugoslav story should be a warning and a reminder of all other stories that have not yet unravelled. And yet, in a time when corporations rule the world, it seems that in this part of the world one model of idolatry is substituting all others: euro-idolatry, thus prolonging the dependence on the world metropolises of modernization. The boredom that is becoming the universal state of mind of modern man is dangerous because it enables him to evade responsibility for his own action or inaction and lets him give in to operativity. This is why modern man is becoming easier to lead and passively succumbs to negative identification. And things do not stop there - this identification becomes the prevailing model of negative realisation of a personality, and the monolith culture only works to suppress it forcefully. Persistence in the illusion of thus suppressed differences automatically creates a traumatic image of the Other. We should begin by admitting this problem.

Orientation Beacon Two

    Just a few more thoughts: We must not allow ourselves to inhibit a sincere existential experience, we must open it out. And it can only be opened out by freedom. This is why we must not speak of this lightly. We must pull ourselves together and remember our own experience, the forgotten, the most traumatic inner experience. Our own fear is preventing us from doing this and it may also prevent choice. Once we admit to the problem, we've already in a way made a choice.
    Nearby events without doubt testify to the end of humanistic self-assuredness and the satisfaction of man with himself. And of course such revelations strike deep wounds. The headache is severe: the occurrences of hypocrisy and resentment are accompanied by a loss of identity, of power. The arithmetic of power collapses sooner or later. Once the desire most hidden has seeped through the sieve of suffering, love becomes deeper than humanistic certainty. Infinite empathy, even when combined with horrible cruelty, is no longer based on an ontological but rather on an ethical principal of cohabitation, which recognizes the other as fellow man. The masks fall then, and the »bill« cannot be set right. This is the only way in which we can avoid the workings of »imperial« logic even after the empires have collapsed, the »forceful unification of all men«, whether Roman universalism by force or Byzantine ideological imperialism in culture and politics.
    The key to all this lies in affection, for it is exactly the kind of self enclosed indifference that enables the growth of unlimited despotism. When one thinks of one's past, one becomes a better man, says Andrej Tarkovski. And one can thus overcome the deep loneliness of a man who thinks he has failed. In the end, one must always choose.

Translated by: Jure Novak

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