Blesok no. 51, November-December, 2006
The fantastic in the works of Srečko Kosovel
As we read Kosovel’s accounts, letters, journals and critical writings, we quickly realise that he regarded the fantastic as a significant and high-profile aspect of art:
“In the chaos of more clear and less clear views on art – that is attitudes defined in the past, which are instinctively uncertain, yet reach into the future – one can discern three bases on which contemporary art is developing: the impressionist base, the expressionist base and the fantastic base.”
Kosovel wrote this observation on 23 January 1926 in his review of Gruden’s poetry. The text may have remained in handwritten form, but since it was penned only four months before the poet’s death, it can be considered a mature and cogent statement. Nevertheless, the statement is surprising particularly considering the function that our poet accords to the fantastic. In Kosovel’s view, echoing the theory of Roger Caillois, the fantastic was supposed to provide a significant and unavoidable basis on which develops good-quality and significant contemporary art. He mentions it right after impressionism and expressionism, that is, after the stylistic and conceptual tenets, which literary historians, together with constructivism, consider as the main labels defining Kosovel’s literary production. The fantastic thus occurs here rather like a “substitute” for the expected constructivism, as a third “basis” from which develops the entire contemporary and not only the poet’s personal art.
If Kosovel understood the fantastic as a basis for contemporary art, what exactly did he designate by this term? Did he still have in mid the dreams, the delirious states, the magical and mythical situations? Did he have in mind extraordinary situations and heroes at odds with the ordinary image of reality? Is perhaps Kosovel’s concept of the fantastic by chance and in theory completely unfounded? Are there any traces in the poetry itself: how far does the fantastic of Kosovel reach?
Let us first quote Kosovel’s writings on Gruden in their entirety, namely those passages in which he speaks of the essence of contemporary art and the function of the fantastic in it:
“The impressionist basis of art springs from the spirituality of human beings who observe life in an impressionistic way, that is: they view life in the light of their sensuality. For an impressionist an object is worth only as much as it can influence him. He does not distinguish between these influences and does not seek their similarities or differences, but rather, he sinks into the object, dissolves it with his senses and in this way shapes it. Characteristic of impressionists is their sensual attitude to nature and their attitude to people is similar: In sensual stupor they seek, love and elevate the human being. For an impressionist life is a force on which he sensually depends. For an impressionist instinct is a handier tool than his intellect; he is one with nature. He is usually contemplative and passive, viewing life such as it is and not racking his brains about the meaning of life. He is only concerned with his sensual intoxications, which are a riddle to him. The impressionist adores and admires the object such as it is, such as he sees and feels it.”
An impressionistic, sensual attitude to nature, to human beings and to the universe is obviously very close to Kosovel, as he refers to it in a most emotional, warm and affirmative way. While he defines expressionism only in negative terms:
“If we compare an impressionist to a person who is the mirror of life, then an expressionist is blind to the majesty of the world, only looking at the value of the object, not in the object itself but in its purpose. An impressionist may be interested in a tree, in the sun or the afterglow of a sunset; he may be overjoyed by a sunny day, but the expressionist is only interested in one question: what is the meaning of life, development, revolution; he is concerned with religious issues, in short questions about the fundamental, ultimate and most profound questions about beauty, goodness, truth and the meaning of life. The expressionist is shackled by the influence of external natural phenomena. He only sees the logical progression of life, and from there springs the question: what is life; what is the meaning of life? Thus the expressionist does not draw, does not observe phenomena realistically, such as they are, but prefers exaggeration. He does not care about the form; he prefers the content of phenomena. While the impressionist conveys to us the sensual analyses of his experience, the expressionist gives us the mental syntheses of his cognition.”
If we read Kosovel’s account between the lines, we realize that expressionism is only possible after impressionism: The artist must first see, experience and sensually comprehend the world, and only then ask questions about the world and its essence.
“And the third basis of the contemporary artistic production is the fantastic – continues Kosovel. - It is not an independent basis of life, but rather, a basis combining many different images of life, cognitions and sensitivities. The fantastic is merely a basis, which does not heed the logical order of things. It wants to be somehow surreal.”
As he seeks to propose the third artistic basis of contemporary art, namely the fantastic, Kosovel is less profuse, but very clear: The fantastic is that manner of expression which does not acknowledge the logical order of things, but rather, freely combines and intertwines “all possible images of life, cognitions and sensitivities.” And adds at the end: “On the basis of impressionism the following were born with fantastic orderliness: cubism, futurism, Dadaism and constructivism. On the basis of expressionism: religious mysticism.”
What is surprising in Kosovel’s understanding of avant-garde trends is the fact that he associates cubism, futurism, Dadaism and constructivism only with impressionism and not at all with expressionism. He in fact reduces expressionism to a philosophical issue about the essence of the world and marginalizes it. Since it does not interbreed with the fertility of the fantastic, expressionism cannot serve as a basis for modern artistic trends and is limited only to “religious mysticism.”
The term “fantastic” Kosovel uses in the sense of “a manner of expression,” which enables the author greater subversiveness in his relation to the material world. This view is rather far from a traditional understanding of the fantastic in relation to both prose and poetry. Of the texts written at the time of the first, historical avant-garde, that is, in Kosovel’s time, the closest that comes to his definition of the fantastic is that of Evgeny Zamiatin, a Russian engineer and avant-garde writer. A hint of satire, the grotesque and the fantastic can be detected in Zamiatin’s narratives. “Serapionovists and constructivists considered him their teacher,” points out Drago Bajt in the preface to the Slovene translation of the novel Mi. Zamiatin discusses the fantastic in his essay On Synthetism, first published in 1922  as a foreword to the portfolio of paintings called Portraits. In his review of the painter, Yuriy Anenko, Zamiatin places the fantastic in third place, just as Kosovel did in his writing on the poet, Gruden. In Zamiatin’s text the order is as follows: realism, symbolism, the fantastic:
“Even space and time were torn out of the centre by Einstein. /…/ Following this geometric and philosophic earthquake, which was provoked by Einstein, time and space, conceived in the traditional manner, were finally destroyed /…/ In literary imagery there appear side by side: mammoths and residential councils from Pietroburg /…/ A shift in the levels of time and space took place.”
Art growing from a new, present-day reality, cannot be but fantastic, says Zamiatin. This is the fantastic, which lives and breathes in the same space, together with the most banal details:
“And yet houses, boots and cigarettes continue to exist; and by the ticket office for Mars there is a sausage shop. You can describe every detail; everything has its size, weight and odour; from everything comes juice, like from a ripe sour cherry. From the same stone, boot, cigarettes and sausages – phantasms and dreams.”
This is therefore the fantastic as a consequence, as the result of the awareness of the relativity of time and space. That which seems to us so much ours, so familiar, minute and insignificant – e.g., the skin and hairs on a human hand – suddenly, under a microscope, appears as mountains, caves and gigantic stalks of unfamiliar plants. This understanding of the fantastic is, in our mind, the closest to that of Kosovel. Kosovel’s dreams and phantasms as well stem primarily from his new, modern conception of time and space: “Time and space are only two relations in the relativity of cosmic space, which is a synthesis of time/space,” says our poet. The understanding of the modern fantastic, which we detect in Kosovel’s literature, refers primarily to the technique of writing, to the manner of organizing the poetic material. And this is conditioned by the great desire of the modern author to discover the interconnections and relativity of the real world, the relativity of time and space. The attempt to break through to the “other side” of the visible/apparent is subversive, parodical, satirical and always suspenseful: There is suspense between the commonplace, ordinary, “real” image and the one that exists somewhere “behind,” – inscrutable and for this reason also mythical.
In his collection, Integrali, first published only in 1967, the fantastic is generalised, present from the very beginning to the end of the poem. Thus we do not only come across the fantastic atmosphere, fantastic events, events, movements, but also encounter general chaos. It is a topsy-turvy world of anguish where the supernatural intertwines with the natural, the commonplace with the extremely bizarre: My ink fountain is on a stroll. Wearing a tuxedo. Like fog. The entire land veiled, deaf. A melancholic cat lies on the hay. Squealing with his golden violin! Yes, yes, yes. A A A/ A A A.”
The poem Evacuation of the spirit describes the physical happening of the meaning of the expression: The poet’s spirit is sparkling. Towards the end also emerges the romantic thesis of the eternal struggle and incomprehension between the poet and his environment: a poet is misunderstood by the world and time to which he belongs. Already in the first volume of his collected works, from the early period, we learn that the poet was obsessed with light and blazing fire; there is blazing fire and twisting flames everywhere. But no poem matches the following in terms of light and fire:
A spirit in space.
A BLAZE of storms EMBLAZES darkness.
The spirit BURNS in space.
magically, LIGHT is IRRADIATED.
Green windows of the ILLUMINATED
express train on the overpass.
I myself BURN for my own LIGHTING;
the blind only feel electricity
my LIGHTS, do not see the DAWN.
But they shudder like me,
as if in a deathly stupor.
And do not know that it is a shudder
of the wings that want to unfold,
TO BLAZE like a GOLDEN FIRE into the night.
And they curse the policemen of the SUN,
who sleep at night
like the petty bourgeois.
And all people sleep at night,
and feel not the magic revelations,
which SHINE within me and from me.
People are the evacuation of the spirit.
The anomaly of psychology.
A poem of 22 verses contains 15 verbs and nouns suggesting light, fire, dawn, sun; A blaze emblazes, burns; light is irradiated – space is thus set ablaze. Through a burning fire speeds an illuminated express train. In the general illumination, the subject says: “I myself burn for my own lighting.” The poem not only features the poetic subject, but also those who should understand this light as euphoria. But the poet immediately adds: the blind only feel electricity my lights, do not see the dawn. Although the light is so bright that it “emblazes darkness,” people are blind and do not see it. And yet they desire light (“and they curse the policemen of the sun, who sleep at night, like petty bourgeois”), together with the poet “shudder as if in a deathly stupor and feel the electricity of my light”, thus they are excited, intimidated, yet blind and do not know that this electricity, that shudder of the poet’s winds is the consequence of some cosmic process, which the poet expresses in his imagery and says that his wings “ want to unfold, to blaze like a golden fire into the night.”
Kosovel sings about the old conflict of the poet with his environment by materialising, that is shaping into physical images, the figurative thought: the poet’s spirit is a light intended to shine for the people, but the people are incapable of seeing the light because they are empty; because they are spiritless; because the evacuation of the spirit has taken place. The poem illustrates on the one hand the general spirituality of space (which is light itself, emblazed, golden fire), and the sleepiness and blindness of the people and the evacuation of the spirit on the other. By weaving a poem with blazing imagery and by materialising a proverb, Kosovel presents the reader with a story which transcends mere allegory (when I say: “the poet’s spirit is bright,” it is an allegory and I understand it by thinking of all the things that this spirit is capable of creating; how many rhymes, rhythms, melodies; how many new images and meanings…). While Kosovel understands this image literally, presenting to the reader cascading rays of light, golden fires and blazing flames which move through space like an express train. From some general “truth,” which is so threadbare that no one can understand it literally, Kosovel returns to this literalness and with this retorsion builds the fantastic, the fantastic mood which shocks and shakes and disturbs the reader – and even that reader on whom he relies and with whom he communicates in the poem itself – so that he begins to shudder “in the deathly stupor.”
Kosovel’s poetic production features several types of poems in terms of the level of experience or reality they contain. Nevertheless, eventually this presence decreases and the techno-poetic transformation completely destroys and pulverises reality; all that remains are fragments. And then critics try to reconstruct the original story, the one that “caused” the poem, introducing into the poem narrative elements, even though it is utterly clear that each reader weaves into it his own story, not necessarily the one the poet had in mind. Whatever the case may be, the poet’s interest certainly shifts from the material relationship man – nature to a rather visionary and fantastic relation of my world – the universe. The method of using reality in Kosovel’s poetry constantly runs in the direction of de-materialising and substituting reality with inscrutable cosmic eternity.
In parallel with this de-realisation of the scene runs the process of a profound experience and sensitive re-experience of the abstract world which has splintered into an a-logical, fantastic and surreal reality. “To create should mean to show spiritualness in matter (that is in the form – symbol – of matter).
”To create should mean to spiritualise matter” - says Kosovel in his letter to Černigoj. And goes on: “Every art lives and grows from life, but its form is symbolic of the time in which we live.” In his letter of January, 1924, addressed to the painter, Černigoj, Kosovel chooses the form as the artist’s way of expressing and liberating himself. Matter, reality, life – an artist cannot change these, only the form is “his.” And with it he “translates” matter into art. “I step through letters / behind the golden curtain. / Through golden letters” (Kalejdoskop) “I would like to walk / in a small coat / of words” (Majhen plašč). These are but a few echoes of the poet’s faith in the form as a manner of individual expression in time and space. To return for a moment to the premise of the three “phases” of Kosovel’s artistic career, we realise that the process of “technicalising” runs from the impressionist form through the expressionist and then to constructivist form. This is yet another suggestion that this representative of extreme modernism was increasingly aware of the form as the essence of art. The form eventually became an increasingly obedient and loyal means of spiritualising matter.
And what are the themes and motifs that find their way into Kosovel’s process of abstracting and spiritualising? We may say that his themes are exceptionally varied, ranging from ethical and religious poems (particularly in the first volume of his collected works) to de-sacralisation of the hitherto sacred, mythicised phenomena (museums, ideas, science, capital… Europe), which can be interpreted also as an anti-spiritualisation process and attitude awakened by the poet’s political persuasion. Here also belong an ethereal and at the same time ecstatic re-experience of the fundamental elements of life: earth, heaven, water, plants, wind… Even when he sings about the poet and poetry he waxes abstract and mythical: The future he expects will be beautiful, pure, real, while poetry sets the scene for the preparations for “The Great Truth.” For this poet, art is also a special personal religion which must be served loyally and to the end, sacrificing everything, even life, if necessary. The mission of the artist is “sacred and inscrutable.” Kosovel also wrote very religious poems, placing God at the centre of the world, while the humble, miserable poet tries – almost always in vain – to uncover the mysteries of this world (for example in the poems Truden ubit, Povej, razodeni II; Dead Tired, Tell, Reveal II).
Has it ever been defined what in fact is meant by the expression: “Kosovel is the poet of the Karst?” This often repeated description is one of the most generalised labels that have been justifiably associated with the name of this poet. The Karst region is of course the poet’s haven, his home with a fire, burning red in the fireplace, crackling fire soothing the evening traveller and pilgrim. The Karst is bathed in the sun; this is where the heart flares up, golden willpower begins to ripple… (Ob začetku; At the Beginning) The sun, light and shine are the sources of energies, life and work. Kosovel describes the infinite number of positions from which the eye of the subject absorbs light which endows him with power (Na večer; In the Evening). But the fire may also be “icy”, “burning in the cold,” in a way suggesting the sadness of the Karst region which is also universal. It may be universal (“hanging over us like the sky”), but that Karst sadness is somehow transparent and human, “like a melancholy, cried-out face.” In the splendour of light, in the sea of sunshine, fire and gold, the poetic subject does not force the imagery of some real and final death and oblivion on the reader, but only wonders: Have we really lost our way, have we really died? But he cannot make the final decision, because for him there is no final and definite truth about this or any other sadness (Na večer; In the evening). Throughout this poetry there is always the Karst, particularly light, glowing, sunshine. The Karst is also the kind of haven that protects the subject against the fall into final desperation. It is a place which preserves the possibility of the subject’s indecision and undecidedness, his openness to the dual, dramatically opposing meanings of the fundamental existential values: nature, time, death, birth… The world of light in Kosovel’s poetry means a greater than the real world. For him light is a magical realm bringing to life new, unheard-of connections. In this realm of light there may be no witches or gods, but light itself is revealed as a magical, delicate, airy connection between the Karst and love, between the Karst and matter, matter as a symbol of birth with death, as the mythical attainment of all goals, etc. And all of these correspondences and similarities, all of these connections are realised through language, through new poetic forms, in unusual syntagmas, in verse which refuses to follow traditional rhymes and established rhythms.
In the opulence of light, in the play of sparkling sunshine, which is so characteristic of the Karst region, we encounter the first, albeit very simple, structured poem which can be labelled as fantastic. It runs as follows:
A silent thought shines bright
over the evening land,
the soul’s shine faded
with the golden glow.
Silent – where has it gone
the gazing soul,
as if a bird
flew across the evening?…
We may indeed say that some clear and unexpected thought “is shining bright” and indeed, the first verse “A silent thought shines bright” is first understood allegorically. But in the general shining and glowing atmosphere of the Karst, Kosovel uses the mentioned verse in its literal meaning: a thought, shining bright was given its space: It shines “over the evening land” and its dimension is rather substantial. But the soul, as the refection or sparkle of thought, becomes something material, tangible: as a kind of mirror reflecting a cosmic, brilliant thought. The allegory somehow rolled over and turned into the fantastic, into a miracle: Since the thought shines bright over the evening land and the soul is reflected in it, it is born and disappears. Like a sunbeam in the mirror, the thought is a refection, but also an object in its own right; like a bird which can fly not only over the land but also across time: “as if a bird flew across the evening?” In conformity with the principles of the fantastic, Kosovel in this poem of somewhat fantastic structure opted for a non-committal attitude, for open questionableness as an “exit” from a situation: The intermediate, indecisive and undecided position remains for the reader as well as for the poet himself.
A similar interaction of the soul and light is suggested by the poem Nedelja na vasi (A Sunday in the Country):
Bright blue skies above you, me,
in the fields, meadows, sunshine bright,
like snowy clouds in the sky,
from the soul joy is seething, bursting.
A rainbow bridge spans between us,
a crossing for the souls,
peace, deliverance, silence and repose
will they drink from this land.
The fantastic springs from a close link between the subject and the shining land: the “rainbow bridge” spans between you and me; just as required by a literary work imbued by the fantastic. Kosovel conjures up universal imagery which is somewhere in between – between the material and the immaterial: With the greatest of ease the soul turns into matter and vice versa.: The passage from the subject into the spirit, here occurring metaphorically as a rainbow, which is the emanation of light.
Let us mention another of Kosovel’s many poems singing about light. In the poem Drevo v snegu (A Tree in the Snow) the “first phase” of the fantastic is only at the beginning: The allegory turned into the fantastic; a linguistic expression, which is supposed to convey meaning, here, in fact, has a material meaning (when the sun blazes, the snow turns yellow with the golden sunrays, which have turned into “pure gold.”) Then suddenly something very disturbing barges into the poem: The poet’s subject, from the “landscape of death,” enters this golden, snowy landscape. His loneliness (this person is “his own call and echo”) is paralleled by the loneliness of the “silent and black tree” standing alone in “the gold, in the snow.” Communication between the subject and the object, between the material and the spiritual worlds is limitless; “the silent, black tree” which “eavesdrops on distant places” and “lends them a hand” communicates with a lonely and strange poet’s subject; this comprehensive communication relativizes time and space (“the land of death” is within man’s reach, the tree does not move, yet it eavesdrops on distant places). Mystique and a certain shudder overwhelm the reader in the presence of this wordless, yet general communication of the material and the spiritual worlds in the white and shining golden space.
Sunshine and light in general assume in Kosovel’s poetry great power of transformation, metamorphosis and animation of the material world: “The magic of sunrise,” as it is called in the poem Smeh kralja Dade (The Laughter of King Dada), turns the grey, melancholic reality into a “white pyramid” and is for this reason “dangerous for the state.” With the aid of rays (sun, morning, evening, cheerful, sad, lively, dead rays….) Kosovel takes us on a journey into time and space, bringing us closer to, or taking us further away from, the ethical values on which the world rests, in short – with the aid of light, Kosovel leads us to the cosmic fantastic.
The process of de-realisation, that is, removing the “substance” from objects and their reality, as well as the process of integrating light and its meanings into the content of the poem, are of exceptional importance for our poet of the fantastic. Thus Kosovel’s poetry eventually becomes an increasingly naked form suffused with light. In this context we encounter exceptionally interesting differences between the early and the later poems about autumn. In his early poetry he speaks about “the grey early morning” (Jesen, Autumn), “the heart wallows in the sadness of the October field” (Oktober, October), “everyone has his own way of warding off sadness” (Kraška jesen, Karst Autumn); when “the autumn flower closes its blossom”, “I smile with sadness” and “my dreams are sad.” (Jesen, Autumn). In his period of the “ubiquitous” fantastic, in the collection Integrali, where the language unfolds and becomes loquacious, as it has to “cover” the ubiquitous transformability of the living world of light, sunshine and light in general, there is also clarity in the poems on autumn and the autumnal season instead of melancholy and sadness: “Autumn quiet in me/ and outside. Beautiful / where I think” (Jesensko tiho, Autumn Quiet). In Kons which begins with the verse: “Angry autumn is coming” we also read: “My thought/ shines brighter than the star./ Aimless I walk / and your dog barks / at me.” Objectively, the situation is rather dark and aimless, yet the subject is full of faith, energy, light, brightness. The greatest mobility and lightness of the autumn season is conveyed in the poem Jesen, which begins with the verses: “The green wreath freezes / on a friend’s grave.” Apart from the natural cyclic perpetuation of melancholic feelings, which were awakened in the poet in his early period by the autumn as such, there is an additional reason for a gloomy mood, namely: death of a friend. There is a “green wreath freezing” on his grave. It is true that this poem also contains the verse: “Cold is coming to my heart,” but this is followed by: “Love awakens the spirit.” The tension between “cold” and “love” will continue to intensify, and the poem will conclude on a note of open indecisiveness and indefiniteness; nevertheless, the introduction of cosmic dimensions in a specific autumnal space will somehow shift the entire impression towards bright and silvery spaces. Far from drawing parallels between the grey autumnal colour and the inner melancholy of the subject, the tense, cosmic play of light and shadows of the “ubiquitous” fantastic of Kosovel’s poetry becomes so entangled that there is no solution; thus it remains enmeshed, dual, tense and contradictory.
In the poem Jesenska pokrajina (Autumn Landscape), the last of the Integrali poems on the theme of autumn, it becomes clear how the collectivist and eschatological “faith in humanity” is, somehow naturally and self-evidently, introduced into Kosovel’s poetry through light and cosmos.
A sober man stepping across the field,
cold as the autumn,
sad as the autumn,
Faith in humanity,
A sacred thought to me.
Mute silence is like sadness.
I am no longer sad,
because I do not think about myself.
If we compare this “autumnal” poem with the poem Z delom gradimo (We Build by Working), one Kosovel’s typical poems on the exalted eschatological understanding of the future, we realise an even closer connection between the ubiquitous light and brightness and the poet’s faith in the idea of the social, even socialist, collective happiness in the future. Light is an animator, transforming not only the entire cosmos but also time. And light also ushers in the bright future. On the one hand light is the power of transformation, the force which leads to ubiquitous, yet very abstract, interconnections in the cosmos in space and time; on the other hand it is just another brick of the material world, matter, a means to materialise the abstract world of ideas. Let us first read the poem Nad realnostjo (Above Reality), which Ocvirk may have relegated to the Supplement of Integrali, but it occupied the important last place in the collection. The poem reads as follows:
Above reality there are no
fantastic shadows moving?
These are the shadows of dark blue.
A white door leads to eternity.
I would knock on it gently and go
on the soft carpets
of the velvety blue sky.
I will open the white door.
gingerly I will enter the new,
Are you coming along, shorthaired girl?
are you coming along?
You are coming, oh, you are coming along?
Here we have a process which is just the opposite of abstraction and animation of space and time: We could say that here Kosovel – wittingly or unwittingly –problematises hypnos, the subconscious dreams: He sees this subconscious, surreal reality; he materialises it, moving through it, opening white doors, walking on soft carpets. In the next poem as well – which Ocvirk included among surrealist poems – called Naše oči (Our Eyes) we may be far from surrealist dreams, but are very close to the fantastic attempt at understanding the world and man’s place in it:
Our eyes were flooded
by burning lava.
And the grey dust
of concrete towers
seared our lips.
Like burning trees
into the new day.
Three very much specific, physically possible, yet fantastic images, designed to illustrate the fervour of the subject, eschatologically infatuated by the “new day,” by the future: Our eyes were flooded by blazing lava; our lips were seared by the dust of concrete towers; like blazing, burning trees we swayed into the new day.
Although it seems that surrealism is at work in Kosovel’s poetry, it turns out that we are in fact dealing with the fantastic: An attempt to explain the world, its structure, its enigma, with the help of the poet’s own system, a system of light. It is not the poet’s attempt to bring on hypnotic dreams in the reader, to present to him automatic dreams, the subconscious, but rather, to explain the word, its miraculousness, its fantastic aspects.
It seems that we can already speak of the SYSTEM OF LIGHT in Kosovel’s poetry. In Kosovel’ poetry, light is a transformational force, interconnecting all cosmic phenomena in time and space.
As we know, Kosovel did not write many love poems. And yet in these as well, rather marginal poems in Kosovel’s view, we recognise the magical meaning of light. The imagery of the Karst nature, replete with brightness, fire and sunshine, tends to wax romantic; in these poems love begins to shine instead of natural light: “when this brightness wanes, and darkness falls upon the mountains, in my soul your visage brightly shines, speaking to my soul.” (Večerni oblaki, Evening Clouds) But this is a new topic, which we have broached at this point, but should be dealt with more thoroughly in another study.
A series of motherhood poems is intertwined with the Karst and Karst luminosity in an even more interesting way. If She, the sweetheart, is natural and fleeting and thus the same as light, the mother – which also sprang from light, or is light itself – is in fact a supernatural being and a symbol of the hereafter. Kosovel’s mother is a mother waiting:
Stranger, do you see the light burning in the window?
My mother waits for me but I do not come,
all is quiet in the night, the field is dark,
now I would go there, kneel before her.
The light in mother’s window almost has the power of a magical, siren voice, beckoning the poet to return (to his home, his haven, to the Karst). The mother is waiting, calling him back, while the poet is searching, returning and singing about his return to his mother:
“I’m coming back, mother, coming back, mother,
to remain at home forever!
I see you, mother
“Like a golden fire burns
the window of your room facing the evening,
We know that Kosovel wrote several thousand poems and at least one tenth of them sing about death: We may say that Kosovel is obsessed with the subject of death. And this theme has crept into the theme of mother the childbearer, the lifegiver. The theme of death springs from the theme of mother/life. Our poet adopts many different, contradictory attitudes towards death: He anticipates it as his own physical end (in his poem Slutnja, Premonition), and even calls to it, wishing he could “stop bleeding, oh, to be able do die!” (Oh, how long before evening falls), or tries to resist it and conquer its inevitability, as in the poem, O, saj ni smrti (Oh, There is No Death). Some poems about death belong to the religious register: Death should be salvation and deliverance, even redemption, the path to eternity, to God, to the Eternal Truth (Truden, ubit, Dead Tired). Then there are poems where death is an inspiration to persist (Borba, Struggle) and poems singing about the collective death of Europe as a symbol of Western, egoistical civilisation (Iz tečajev, Unhinged).
Light in all its nuances is the first significant focus of Kosovel’s poetry, but death appears to us as yet another such nexus determining all other categories of life. But before we take a definite stand on the theme of death as one of Kosovel’s central themes, we must again recall “birth” and mother, the childbearer. Within the same theme of death, those verses which thematise the relation, death – birth, are of key significance. Let us take a look, for example, at the poem, Pot do človeka, (The Path to Man): The poem reads like a recapitulation, a chronological survey of the various concepts of death: “Death kissed me on the cheek,/ I was as cold as death,/ I did not dream, or wait for justice / or consolation in the luxury of dreams.” The next stage was the recognition “that the Great West is burning out,” which brought on the poet’s “hopelessness.” The turning away from this everyday, deeply human understanding of death is rendered in the poem as a supernatural and, indeed, fantastic shift:
And it came as a new force,
like the sound of pigeons over the fields,
as if suddenly was awakened
the dead, sleeping power of the heart.
And yet! The change is not total, consistent, true, real, but rather, it is an “as if” change! Awakened in the poet are feelings in complete opposition to death: laughter, enchantment, kind-heartedness, ecstatic delight.
The experience and recognition of death brought Man into the poet’s heart; Man was born and the poet now sings his birth. Just as the entire situation is an as-if situation (how many times he repeated this modal structure, “as if!”), that man is also imaginary, part of the poet’s inner world, born from his words, dwelling in his heart.
What seems important is precisely the realisation that the poet is the creator of new life, which is an “as if”, quasi-real life. As early as January 1923, Kosovel writes (in his letter to Fanica Obida): “You see, I believe that, despite the existence of the physical and spiritual worlds, we must delete both and believe in a third one, which is the harmony of the two (underlined by M.M.) The desire to build a new, special, completely different world than the material one, but which is nevertheless built also from the existing one, excited Kosovel at a very early stage. Even when he opted for the “new world,” for the new poetics, he continued to emphasise: only from the ruins of the old can the new emerge. Kosovel did not – like most of the avantgardists of the time – blindly believe that literature and even the world begins with our arrival: “Gentlemen, everything that today zenithism, expressionism, claim as their own, was known by every art of every age and era, because it is the very mission of art to introduce into the human society a new life. Art has always been the counterweight to the mechanical, utilitarian, egoistical society, always, not only today,” he wrote in his Diary of April-May 1925.
What grows from ruins becomes new life. Death, as described by Kosovel, is the death in the name of the new, dying in the name of birth. Although this process is not always successful. Death does not necessarily beget new life; only peace, eternal silence may remain. Kosovel certainly essentially differs not only from Slovene but also other avant-garde poets of the 1920s in that he does not try to elevate the spirit of the new and in doing so supplant and humiliate the existing material world and deny reason and science in the name of emotional, ecstatic and imaginative experiences. He is merely aware of the powerful, essential difference and discrepancy between the opposing categories, as well as between the imaginary (“as if”) image of man, such as we build in our hearts, and the brutal external world of capital, compromises, false democracy, crime… Thus we can understand why that clarity and brightness, of which he writes in the summer of 1925, when he accepted nervousness as the consequence of the simultaneous action of different, conflicting ideas and images, did not last very long. As early as December of the same year, he wrote (to Fanica Obida): “Only now do I understand that a person can be a stranger to himself. I used to find solace in literature; today it is no longer so. I do not know what is happening to me and why. I only know that I am torn apart and that nothing can be done about this terrible grey pain in me. I only know that I would have to scream, scream to my heart’s content, that I would have to break loose from that grey heap of ashes which is stifling, strangling and killing me. That grey heap of abstraction which torments my nerves to the limit and beckons me towards the simple, the fresh and the original. There are a hundred conflicts that a person should conquer, but he remains torn apart and without willpower.
All optimism, all will to work, all energy, all of it is artificial, born of the thirst for justice, of the thirst for our own deliverance, of the thirst to create a new world for ourselves, But our life is sad and we do not entirely believe in deliverance either. We struggle because we would like to live, but we do not live.”
The world built by Kosovel for himself – rich, integrated, and repeatedly interconnected, yet ethereal and alive only in the poet’s soul, heart and spirit –quickly disappears! An eternal searcher, traveller and pilgrim, Kosovel is always on the go (how often he sings of roads and railways, train stations, trains and cars!). Just as he “elevated” the material life into the hereafter, so he dematerialised travel; it is true that he often travelled to the Karst and left again, thus describing his actual journeys. But a happy Kosovel’s traveller is only the abstract, imaginary traveller, a traveller described as such, as an occurrence:
Tired mountains sleep
amid the quiet rustling of forests,
who thinks of you, traveller,
when you are coming home?
Bright is your shadow,
white are your hands,
giving, giving, giving
soothing flowers to the suffering heart.
Nigh time arabesque
The further away he is and the more he resembles a shadow, the closer and stronger is the consolation he brings. When the traveller stops in “warm and clear days,” the poet warns him immediately: “traveller, why are you stopping in this bright, clear air.” ( Topli in jasni, Warm and Clear). The traveller is not destined to live “warm and clear days,” wholesome and happy moments, but rather, he must eternally search for some uncertain, imaginary regions.
The world imagined, built and “originated” by Kosovel is exceedingly complicated: He binds the past with the present in a poetic or imaginative way, yet he defines this entity, this world of his, in mathematical terms: an integral.
Translated by: Marjan Golobič
1. All quotations from Kosovel’s notes, letters and reviews, quoted in this paper are from the Third book (first volume) of the Collected works of Srečko Kosovel, Ljubljana 1977.
2. The fact that Kosovel does not even mention the contemporary movement of surrealism is worth mentioning, even though Breton’s surrealist manifesto was published in 1924. Anton Debeljak wrote about surrealism in the April issue of Ljubljanski zvon in 1925. Nevertheless literary history, since Ocvirk, looked for traces of surrealism in Kosovel’s works, while completely neglecting his vociferous and unambiguous commitment to the fantastic.
3. This study is not a place for a detailed presentation of modern theories on the fantastic in literature. We may perhaps mention the studies by Roger Caillois Au coeur du fantastique, and draw attention to the following works which were used to support this paper: Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction a la Littérature Fantastique, Seul, Paris 1970; translated and published in Belgrade 1987; Radovan Vučković, “Oblici fantastične književnosti”. Izraz XXX/1986, Nos. 7-8; Srpska fantastika. Natprirodno i nestvarno u srpskoj književnosti. Ed. Predrag Palavestra. SANU, Belgrade 1989; Zoran Mišić 1821-1976. Zbornik. Ur. Sveta Lukić, Đorđije Vuković, Jovan Hristić. Beograd 1978. - Mišić had been dealing with the fantastic already in the 1950s and founded the collection “Orfej“ in Belgrade as early as 1954. The first work of the collection was Apuleius‘ “The Golden Ass”. - Sartre in his “Aminadab” or the fantastic as a way of expression also writes about the ubiquity of the fantastic and its subversive attitude to the real world. In the book: J.P.S. Izabrano delo, vol. VI. Nolit, Belgrade 1981, pp. 209-233; in the Slovene edition of Sartre’s collected works there is, unfortunately, no translation of his text on the fantastic of modern times and about the way it manaifests itself through language; this is also indicative of the lack of interest of the Slovene cultural circles in the fantastic of modern times.
4. This text was translated by A. Flaker and published in the Zagreb review Književna smotra