Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Historical Novel and the Historical Reality (4th part)

The essay has been published in Serbian in the 12th tom of Borislav Pekić's Collected Works, Belgrade, by Partizanska knjiga in 1984. Pekic has delivered a lecture under the title "The Historical Novel and Historical Reality" at the School of Slavonic Studies of the London University on the 14th March 1984, and they have published it the same year in 1984. English translation © by Bernard Johnson.

back to 1st part HERE

ossian.jpg I shall now try to illustrate this thesis with examples. There isn't sufficient time for proofs so regrettably I shall limit myself to assertions.

Since it is better to get the unpleasant duties out of the way as quickly as possible, I shall begin with a model of a badly historical novel, written by a good writer. Robert Graves evidently without any particular artistic, spiritual or philosophical need, wrote a novel about Belisarius, a general of the Justinian era, which is only a little better then the kind of novelettes about English history, which are written by housewives, who have become bored with having nothing to do after their children have left home, and bad luck has it that they have competent libraries within easy reach.

With the feeling, if not quite of Gibbon's ill humor towards Christianity, then at least of that same lack of understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean and the complex spiritual climate of an age in which the fate was been prepared for the future Byzantine orthodoxy's heresies and schisms, he chose a time of greater clarity in which the Latin tradition in the sense of the reigning idea, was still alive on the Bosporus, in the hope that that would keep him in close contact with his theme, just as it had done when he had written his brilliant story of the Western Mediterranean and Claudius the Emperor and God.

A skeptic and a pupil of the rationalists, a great admirer of, but also a destroyer of myths, in his "Golden Fleece", a much more successful literary work, he had already distorted the magical formula of an archetypal myth, for the sake of the common sense interpretations of the people of our age. He turned the gods into colossi of human vices and virtues, so following I must admit the favoured practice of educated Greeks, and he looked at men and their destinies in the same cynical way as we look on them today, and not at all in the way a Greek of classical antiquity looked on them.

But in "Count Belisarius" there is neither the poetic legend of the "Fleece" nor the fine irony of "Claudius". The facts are of a schoolboy quality, and what is worse wrongly understood, we arrive at a commercial tale of a modest literary and intellectual level, which in a way it is told is absolutely impossible in the Byzantium of that, or any other age.

So now we can turn, with some relieve, to our real models.

The first of these are still unparallel masterpiece of the meta-historical novel - "Josef and his Brothers". The Biblical episode at the point of intersection of two peoples, the ruling Egyptian and the enslaved Hebrews, takes on a truly magical faithfulness of sole and spirit to a long past age, and by its transcendental interpretation of the facts a universal meaning, which is valid for all times and all levels of humanity.

The characters which move through Mann's story are at home in their time, but we can recognize them all around us, for they show an unalterable human fundamental and faithful qualities, which are only temporarily and provisionally forged into the shapes of one time.

The varied meanings of this epic polyphony, are as real today as they were in the days of the Pharaohs, but not because Mann has returned our world unto the past, or involved the content of our world in the form of the past, but because with matchless intuitive force, with the support of a powerful education and a philosophical spirit, he has found a point above and outside time, at which both intercept, at which also the axes of all worlds and times intersect.

His incredible richness of ideas and thoughts sole and spirit, style and language, makes of this work a veritable Cheops' pyramid of literature, whose architect can not think in any other way then as a Magician, in the temporary incarnation of a writer.

The second example, of course, will arouse your surprise. It is George Orwell's "1984", the year through which we think we are passing. I say think, for in its essential meaning we have in fact already past through it long ago, and the futuristic negatively utopian form of the work which has deceived readers and critics alike, is in fact the artistic mask for one of the most perfect meta-historical novels of all time.

The basic condition which characterizes the society of Orwell's pseudo-future is at of Doublethink. And Doublethink is the content of the whole of men's history, from that very moment when mankind at the dawn of consciences through the invention of the first tool, the innocent and useful primeval forbear of our present day atom bomb, once and for all set out along the path of the lower, but easier materialist alternative of life, leaving behind only Doublethink excuses for the spiritual one.

But our civilization would not be schizophrenic, if we were not aware of the mistaken nature of our choice. To overcome that awareness which would have made history nonsensical for us in advance, we had to forget this spiritual alternative and the possibilities for it ever existed, and then forget that we have forgotten about it.

We managed to achieve this by the complicated system of Doublethink, in the different areas of human life of human awareness. In the work of organizing the global lie which would quickly would take over both the destiny and the history of mankind, there came together rationalistic ideas of Progress, the deterministic cults, the various philosophies of so called needs and in the historical field social utopias and pseudo humanist doctrines.

Our science is Doublethink with the aid of which we imagine that we are penetrating into great Secrets, without knowing in the mean time, where we are going and why. Our philosophy is Doublethink, by which by all manner of anthropocentrism we choke back that, put aside and consciously forgotten awareness that our lordly solitude in the cosmos is opposed by that very form of logic, from which we, with Aristotle, built up that same philosophy.

Our faith and our morality are both double thinking and double meaning. They are an elaborate system of Doublethink by which we hide our own sins and crimes even from ourselves for, there is no doubt, if we take into consideration only the faith of the West that each one of us as a Christian each day breaks at least one of the Ten Commandments by which we still swear and which we consider as a basis of our moral culture.

Someone who speaks of such Doublethink is not predicting it, he is recognizing it. He is projecting the past into the future. For that reason I believe that "1984" is one of the best historical novels ever written, and I have no need to add to that the fact that the majority of the forms of spiritual oppression described have been flourishing for a very long time. From the times of the Inquisition right up to our present day despots.

The third model is my countryman Dobrica Ćosić's tetralogy "Vreme smrti", the story of a great moment in the life of a small nation in the Balkans, which the diplomatic cogenesis of the West new only as that "damned Eastern question", which it was aware of geographically as the "appendix of Europe", but which the majority of people never even heard of, an odd peninsula which despite its destiny or perhaps thanks to it, has given that same world three titanic fundamental civilizations: the Hellenic, the Byzantine and the Ottoman, while the rest of the world, with the exception of the Apennine peninsula, barely managed to bring forward a single one during the whole of that time.

It is novel – and I am not afraid of using strong words – which is a supreme example of artistic skill, historical feeling and personal integrity. An epic of the Serbian War which despite its ample and serious documentation is in the first instance a magical resurrection of a period through its own self. Not through our prejudices and counter-prejudices, partisan personal or general demands, but through its own spirit, its own truths and mistakes.

Ćosić with the dramatic power unequal in our literature, has opened up by means of an artistic meta-bridge the innate universality of an apparently limited historical event, and introduced the dates of our national history into the history of the world, their rightful place.

The Serbian War became right there on the soil of little Serbia a World War, its tragedy became the tragedy of humanity, and then it went back into myth, from which its prototype was born. The national story became anthropological and further, further then myth one can not go in the historical novel. Further then that is the darkness of the Great Secret.

The studied silence surrounding "Vreme smrti" in my own country, on the one hand the scanty and cautious evaluation of professional criticism, and on the other unjustified suspicions of an ideological nature, paradoxically confirms the profound artistic and not only artistic truthfulness of the book. But man has an ear for the truth only when it is too late.

Dobrica Ćosić's personal opinion about the substance and function of "Vreme smrti", and the historical novel in general, seems at first site to differ from my own. But the difference is only illusionary. In a letter Ćosić wrote to me: "Can the historical novel really be of any use to anyone or anything if it not of use to me, to my contemporaries, to my striving for an identity?"

There is no greater truth then that, as it accords perfectly with my thesis. Only Ćosić is speaking of a function of an already written historical novel, whereas I am speaking of a function of a writer in his writing.

We return into a past age, to bring it magically back to life, to materialize in front of us its external and internal hologram. "In our striving for a consciousness for all times, for a human creativity for all times", as Ćosić writes in his book "Stvarno i moguće" by means of this life of the past we want to say something to life of the present.

But what it is we want to say we can not, indeed we must not know in advance, because that would destroy that cognitive epiphanique force of our own magic. It is only the past that can us tell that, if we can descend in it so deeply that we feel it as our own incarnated life.

To go back into the past with the intention of saying something already thought out, a journey into the past only to look for an appropriate examples, proofs, illustrations, is like the act of a man who goes into a shop to buy something but who takes with him his own goods to sell. I am afraid that he would succeed neither in buying nor selling anything at all.

We must be true to the past, and it will open up before us, only it will give us the universal awareness which we crave, only it will satisfy Dobrica Ćosić's other demands as well, to be an immanent criticism of the reigning historical consciousness, and here I would ad conscience also, and therefore the implement of our human transfigurations.

It remains only for me to say something about my own efforts in this field. They are modest. My "Zlatno runo" is not a historical novel in the standard sense of the term, instead of a chronological linear time it is in a cyclic form. Instead of a location in clearly defined spatial areas it is in an historic inter-space.

The numerous historical moments of its seven volumes, from the voyage of Jason's Argos to Kolkhida and the Trojan War, the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the European campaigns of Suleiman the Magnificent and the history of the Serbian struggle for independence, right up to the First and Second World Wars to 1941, serve only as bridges, which lead from the other side of the empirical into myth, into meta-reality, into the substance and destiny of human history. The subtitle of a "phantasmagoria" instead of novel is there to draw attention to the sub-historical nature of the book.

History does not interest me in itself, only what is behind it, what selects it, motivates it, directs it, commands it, in short on the basis of Balkan prototypes, and so of the first European myths what defines it. I am interested in its anthropological, rather then its historical function. It is for that reason that I regard mine "Zlatno runo" as an anthropological, rather then a historical novel.

My first real historical novel will be "Srebrna ruka", the story of two great Byzantine painters Gregoras Scopas and Andronikus Komnenos, and the search for the authorship of the miraculous icon of the "Three Handed Virgin". It will be, in fact, a lengthy epic of the Byzantine 7th century, from the Arab sedge of Constantinople in 700, to the crowning of Charlemagne and his Holy Roman Empire in 800, and of one of the most significant spiritual revolutions of Europe, which filled one hundred years of Byzantine history, with the iconoclastic civil wars.

In that period the ruling principle of that spiritual state changed four times and with it the rules of life, through what at first site seems a mere pictorial problem, but what in reality was a question fundamental to the fate of our civilization. There is no other age in which to such an extent the refined violence was mixed with the most elegant spiritual and intellectual life, when blood and ideas were so amalgamated, as to become the very essence of the life of the Byzantines, from the Holy Palace of the Emperors to the lowliest brothel on the Golden Horn.

Specialists in medieval history make an irresistible comparison of that century with our own age of ideological and physical violence. But my own task will be to resist the temptation, which would make my work easy, and unsuccessful. My job will be by magically getting to know the internal life of Byzantium, to make this similarity of which I have spoken simply an episode of the universal coincidental features of a closed human history, and not merely a servant of some global metaphor or simplistic allusion.

In the first instance to resurrect the differences there for, and the exclusiveness of the 7th century and not only similarity with our own. For unless I do this, I would not only be parading an historical corpse in front of you, but our own seen in a mirror. And corpses belong in graveyards, not in living art.

I see my work on the historical novel in a spiritualist way, and not a historiographical one. The bringing to life of history is a work of Magic, not of Science. Facts are make-up. Make-up makes a face more visible, but it does not create it. If a writer does not have the motto of resurrection – "Arise and walk!" – He will achieve animated, but not real life. A corpse which moves, but does not live. It will look like the past, perhaps, but it will not be the past.

There are a lot of those who know how to dig up a corps from the grave of the past, but only a very few who know how to summon up its spirit. I should like to be amongst this latter. But for that one probably has to be a medium, not a creator. It is probably necessary to give oneself over hypnotically to signals from the other side, to prophesize backwards, to purify oneself of the layers of prejudice and experience, one and the same thing, which have separated us from the past, in short, to become once more - innocent.

Only time will show whether I shall succeed.

Thank you.

back to 1st part HERE

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