The Imagination of Terra Incognita
Slovenian Writers and Styles of History
What is Slovenia? Where is Slovenia? These were perhaps the most commonly asked questions that international journalists and political, if not cultural, commentators raised in July 1991 when Slovenia briefly made the headlines all over the Western world. And it was with reason. That long hot summer saw the first open military conflict on European soil since the end of the Second World War. The ten-day war between the national militia and the Yugoslav army took place in Slovenia, hitherto one of the six constituent republics of the ever more corrupt federation of Southern Slavs, Yugoslavia. The war and its larger consequences brought about major changes on the European political map. Riding high on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, the end of the communist ancien regime and German unification with its underlying national right to self-determination, Slovenia referred to its nation-wide public plebiscite, democratic elections and a declaration of independence as the legal foundation for its successful defense against the communist-led Yugoslav army. For the first time in the long history of this tenacious Alpine Slavic people, Slovenians were free to live in an independent state of their own and finally became fully responsible for their own collective existence. This was a paramount event that was vaguely prefigured, romantically hoped for, and, against all rational odds, anticipated by many writers and poets in Slovenia’s past.
Writers were, for the most part, traditionally invested with the uneasy obligation and the concomitant risk of acting as the keepers of the national flame, guardians of the moral, social, and spiritual values embedded in the Slovenian culture and its language. It was precisely the language that represented the foremost national treasure and was a distinctive mark of identity for the Slovenian people since historically they lacked many other full-fledged political, economic, or social institutions that might have helped shoulder the burden of maintaining and deepening a sense of national commitment.
It thus makes perfect sense to look for an answer to the questions "What is Slovenia? Where is Slovenia?" in the meandering history of Slovenian letters. Indeed, one is invited to wonder what are the writers and poets like in this country that was until yesterday, as it were, seen as the terra incognita of Central Europe, a country where more than two thousand books are published each year for the tiny population of two million, and where poetry books are routinely printed in editions of five hundred to three thousand copies?
Better college textbooks on Central Europe describe Slovenia as a small patch of land squeezed between the snow-covered Alps and the warm Adriatic Sea. Forests cover more than fifty percent of Slovenia, a land sprinkled with hills, the tops of which are seldom without a typical baroque church - an indelible signature of Central European culture at large. Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, which received municipal rights in 1220, emerged on the site of the ancient Roman garrison-camp, Emona, halfway between Vienna and Triest. These towns were connected by the "southern railway", the lifeline of commercial and cultural life in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the southern Slovenian lands nestle charming olive plantations on the Mediterranean coast, while to the northeast the country sprawls into the vast Hungarian plains. To the north, the mountain range Karavanke separates it from Austria and from the large Slovenian ethnic minority in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost region.
While most Slovenians live in the Republic of Slovenia, considerable ethnic minorities continue to exist in Italy, Hungary, and Austria revealing the ambiguous fact that Slovenians have historically grown used to contacts with foreign cultures. In the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous emigrants carrying Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and latter Yugoslavian passports arrived on the shores of America. Like many other immigrants, Slovenians had fled from exploitation and foreign domination. Yet unlike many other emigrant groups, Slovenians left behind an emotional home, though not a political state of their own. In modern times they did not have one. Their hearts must have been full of predictable hope, fear, and anxiety in the face of challenges in the new country, yet their suitcases were loaded with books. Instead of contemplating a heroic military tradition and deeds of the sword, historical memories of Slovenians were permeated with deeds of the pen. Their memories have kept alive the national identity, the foundation of which has been and has more or less remained until today melancholic elegies, lyrical poems of sorrow and grief.
Culture, literature, and language were the pillars of the fragile identity of this nation, both at home and in exile. After‘ the Second World War, when the tragic wave of anti-Communist "displaced persons" populated the banks of Rio de la Plata in Argentina, the immigrant community in the endless pampas under the Southern Cross could not make do without books in their mother tongue. Since the Communist blockade prevented them from receiving books from their native country, they themselves wrote, translated, and published an impressive number of works including Dante’s Divina Comedia. One is compelled to say that for Slovenians, even in times of struggle for bare existence, books were as vital for survival as loaves of bread.
Poets and writers were not only priests of language, but also politicians in disguise. In the absence of social, political, economic, and cultural institutions, poets and writers took on the role of guardians of the mother tongue and individualism, moral independence, and national integrity. The history of Slovenians is thus emphatically not the history of great war victories, but the history of tenacious guerrilla resistance to foreign rulers: literary and linguistic guerrilla resistance, that is. For all practical purposes, Slovenian history is spelled out as a history of the Slovenian language, the language which in addition to singular and plural also uses a dual form - one of the very few world languages that boast of such a rarity - which makes it extraordinarily suitable for intimate, personal, and erotic confessions.
However, the Slovenian language was forced to assume a more pragmatic role. It continuously had to give voice to ethnic and national sentiments. Due to centuries-long domination by foreigners, mostly Germans, these sentiments were more akin to a gentle whisper than to a angry shout. National identity, however, remained at the core of the popular imagination buoyed by an unrelenting confidence that the expression of one’s national and ethnic identity is a self-evident right. Today, these rights are of course taken for granted; unfortunately, the history of Slovenia profusely demonstrates that there were precious few rights that Slovenians could take for granted.
National History, Literary History
Even with a hundred years of independence and sovereignty, the state of Carantania - King Samo’s country of Slavs in the seventh century - could not be sustained throughout history. This tradition of sovereignty is now only a nostalgic memory, an illuminating lecture on the glorious past which was surely too short and too remote for its flame to continue burning until today. Due to past migrations and wars, even the location where the free citizens of the then-prosperous civitas Carantania installed their dukes in enthronement rituals no longer lies within the borders of the present Slovenian nation-state. However, traces of Carantania have survived in more than the mighty stone throne now kept in an Austrian museum. The spirit of the first state of Slovenian ancestors and its democratic procedures is very much present in important historical records.
The ancient ritual for the installation of Carantanian dukes, carried out in the Slovenian language, whereby the Slovenian peasants transferred sovereign power to make laws for the community to the dukes, fascinated the celebrated humanist Aeneas Silvius Picolomini, later known as Pope Pious II. Following his extensive travels through Slovenian lands, he complimented this political ritual in his hook Cosmographia Pii Papae. De Europa (1509), calling it "second to none". The French legal historian and philosopher Jean Bodin, encouraged by Picolomini’s tireless praise, examined the ritual in detail and described it as an original idea for transference of sovereignty that "had no parallel throughout the world". His book Les Six Livres de la Republique (1576), in which he wrote this generous praise, remains a classical reference for contractual political theory. Reading Bodin’s report on the ancient Slovenian ritual of installation and democratic arrangement between the people and their ruler, Thomas Jefferson was said to have been inspired when he wrote the draft of his Declaration of Independence.
Yet, even such democratic rules did not help the ancestors of modern Slovenians to sustain their independence after King Samo’s death. Franks, Bavarians, Charlemagne, Hungarians, Teutons, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire became enemies whose belligerent armies advanced towards the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea, setting up political and economic institutions, fighting for money, lands, and souls in the heart of Slovenian country. Nevertheless, a Slovenian ethnic island persisted up to the present day. It is thus a real wonder that Slovenians managed to preserve their specific identity despite and against German, Italian, Hungarian, and Balkan domination. In the absence of a nation-state of their own, the only real home for Slovenians was carved out in their language and creative imagination.
Preservation of national identity had to overcome many political, historical, and social obstacles. Unfavorable circumstances forced many ancestors of modern Slovenians to establish their reputation under the aegis of foreign royal courts and patrons. One of them was Herman de Carinthia, the astronomer, philosopher, translator, and writer, whose philosophical assays were often quoted by Albert Magnus, Thomas Aquinas’ teacher. Herman de Carintia participated in the first translation of the Koran in the mid-12th century, in the famous translation workshop of Petrus Venerabilis in the abbey of Cluny. European humanists familiarized themselves for the first time with the Muslim holy book through this Latin translation. Moreover, Herman’s own translation of Ptolemy’s Planispherium (1143) served as the basis for the study of astronomy in Europe for many centuries.
Ziga Herberstein, the diplomat, travel-writer, and cartographer, travelled to Russia several times as an envoy of Maximilian I, the king of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Because of Herberstein’s expeditions, the entirely unknown Russian lands were introduced to Europe through his cartographic work. His knowledge of the Slavic language - his mother tongue having been Slovenian - was instrumental in his scientific efforts. His most important work, Rerum Moscovitiarum comentarii (1549) is still frequently reprinted. Its clear narrative, illustrations, descriptions, and maps even today represent a valuable historical source for modern Russian scholars.
In more recent times, another celebrated Slovenian was Friderik Pregl, the chemist and physicist, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1923 as a distinguished professor of the University of Graz, Austria. His advanced studies were, by necessity, pursued outside Slovenia for his homeland had no full-fledged university until the establishment of the Yugoslav union.
Among the artists, Joze Plečnik, an inventive and extraordinarily talented architect must be singled out. Having finished his training with the renown Viennese architect Oto Wagner, Plečnik went to Prague where he was invited by the president of the pre-war Czech republic, Thomas Masaryk, to redesign the monumental castle of Hradcani and its extensive gardens. Plečnik’s original architectural style reflects a genuine reception of classicism and has left its inspiring imprint on many other important monuments across Central Europe. Plečnik’s home town of Ljubljana has been, in architectural terms, almost entirely defined by his original style.
Writers as Spokesmen of the People
Even though written records in Slovenian (sermons, confessions, poems) sporadically appeared from the 8th century on, it was the half century of the Reformation that gave Slovenians a systematic orthography, alphabet, and standardized language. The first book in Slovenian appeared in 1550 and only a few years later Slovenians could read the Old and New Testaments in their mother tongue. Slovenian literature was thus given birth by Primoz Trubar, the Protestant preacher and writer. On the wings of the liberating Reformation movement Trubar published his twenty-two books in Germany after having fled the religious persecution of Catholic counter-Reformation in his native Slovenia. From Germany he smuggled books to Ljubljana in barrels and carts to be later clandestinely distributed across Slovenian lands.
It is safe to say that writers were the political institutions Slovenians immediately recognized as the true and only authorities. Their artistic work was invested into a single aim: to raise national consciousness. This was anything but easy. Theirs was a small nation where the middle class communicated mostly in Italian and German while Slovenian was as a rule reserved for the lower classes, "for peasants and horses", as it was ironically put by Edvard Kocbek in his wonderful poem, Lippizaners.
Once Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in the Habsburgs’ Empire to which Slovenia traditionally belonged, education was given over to the Jesuits. They utilized generous financial support from archduke Ferdinand and established a college in Ljubljana as early as 1595. This provided the foundation for higher education in the Slovenian lands. The best and brightest Slovenians, however, continued to pursue their advanced studies in traditional Central European centers of learning: Prague or Cracow or, for the most part, cosmopolitan Vienna.
Later came the short-lived, albeit productive, French rule. The four years of Napoleonic regime were ushered in with the establishment of the Ilyrian Provinces (1809-l813) extending along the Adriatic coast all the way to Dubrovnik. For the first time, two thirds of the ethnic Slovenian territory were brought together under one administrative and legislative command, by no means a small accomplishment. At the same time the French labored hard to institute the Slovenian language in elementary schools, consequently promoting it as the everyday language of the middle class. Napoleon’s regime emphasized the meaning of local languages to an extent inconceivable to the Habsburgs. Slovenian intellectuals and writers thus conveniently familiarized themselves with the French esprit du temps which was pregnant with nationalism. The ideas of the French Enlightenment were accepted by Slovenians as soon as they appeared while their political, economic, and organizational implementation in the ‘Ilyrian Provinces’ and its capital, Ljubljana, was immediate.
The first accomplished Slovenian poet, Valentin Vodnik (1758-1819), although a Roman Catholic priest, did not write exclusively for religious purposes, but was also devoted to the secrets of everyday life. It was certainly no accident that he developed his voice under the influences of the Enlightenment.
Predictably, Slovenian national self-consciousness reached its peak in Romanticism and in this respect did not lag behind the other Central European peoples that emerged out of "the Spring of Nations". However, relentless pressure on the part of German culture at large and continuous political subjugation from the House of Habsburgs made it difficult to envision Slovenian survival. Two prominent French travellers, Cyprien Robert and Hyppolite Desprez, were simply recapitulating general colonial impressions when they recorded in 1848, during their travels through Slovenian lands, that Slovenians would not endure much longer in their resistance to the Germans. The common prediction had it that Slovenians would pass into oblivion as a distinct‘ ethnic community.
Stubborn Slovenians, however, proved these speculations wrong. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, Slovenian literary magazines and journals began to be published in Ljubljana that cautiously, yet with increasing perseverance, tried to come to terms with national and political identity. Having been traditionally denied one, Slovenian writers put the national identity at the core of their work.
A Toast To Freedom
The personality and creative work of France Prešeren (1800-1849), the most revered Slovenian poet, best encapsulates the national longing for freedom and independence. By profession a free-minded lawyer, that is, a social outsider, and by vocation a Romantic poet of the most ambitious format, Prešeren wrote in German, the Central European lingua franca, as fluently as in Slovenian. Yet for him there was no dilemma: Slovenian was not merely his mother tongue, but the language of choice. It was an article of political faith. In the Slovenian language, he created in the best Orphean tradition the everlasting works known by each and every Slovenian. A genuine Romantic poet of great creative power accompanied by a great capacity for alcohol, Prešeren’s private life was suffused with disillusion. His ethereal Laura was a daughter from a respectable bourgeois house, Julia, and in spite of all the beautiful and passionate poems dedicated to her she nevertheless married a German nobleman. Later commentators report, not without irony, that her married life was far from happy. However, what Prešeren did not achieve in his private life he did accomplish on a national level: he failed to win his beloved but he succeeded in uniting all Slovenians in one spiritual community.
Prešeren’s poem, A Toast to Freedom, is today the national anthem. Back in 1848, however, the censors of Chancellor Metternich’s regime in Vienna correctly identified the revolutionary potentials in the lyrical metaphors whereby Prešeren called for the union of all Slovenians, if necessary by military resistance to domination:
To whom with acclamation
And song shall we our first toast give?
God save our land and nation
And all Slovenians where’er they live,
Who own the same
Blood and name,
And who one glorious Mother claim.
Let thunder out of heaven
Strike down and smite our wanton foe!
Now, as it once had thriven,
May our dear realm in freedom grow.
May fall the last
Chains of the past
Which bind us still and hold us fast!
Prešeren not only achieved symbolic unification, but also radically redefined Slovenian metaphors, established aesthetic standards, and dramatically expanded the limits of linguistic expression. Each and every person could recognize him/herself in the poetic description of the universal human condition. The poet’s message of the Romantic idea about freedom and peace was by no means nationally exclusive. Instead, it rings true for all people:
God’s blessing on all nations
Who long and work for that bright day,
When o’er earth’s habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see
That all men free
No more shall foes,
but neighbors be.
(A Toast to Freedom, translated by Janko Lavrin)
Prešeren’s poetry accomplished something of a miracle. With the poems in which national and individual destiny blend into one universal message about liberation, Prešeren managed to rekindle the subdued flame of national self-consciousness. As demonstrated, Slovenians had nothing else that could stand for a firm unifying bond except their language. It took a major poet to turn language from a means of expression into the metaphysical foundation of national substance as well as the manifestation of national identity.
Pursuit of Independence
Ivan Cankar (1876-1918), the most important Slovenian fiction writer, was a legitimate counterpart to Prešeren in light of the impact his ideas and metaphors had on the nation. Having studied and lived in Vienna for a decade, Cankar was consistently addressing the role of artist as an outsider and the tensions between the provincial home on one hand and the cosmopolitan polis on the other. However, when Cankar returned in 1910 from Vienna to Ljubljana he did so in order to be "in the center of life". This focus on the national substance coupled with the European form stood at the core of the far-reaching aesthetic program of "Slovenska moderna" (1895-1914), the first modern Slovenian artistic movement, to which Cankar made considerable contributions.
Cankar who was described by Italian poet Eugenio Montale as a giant of European literature, exerted a major influence on the Slovenian letters. The first professional Slovenian writer who made a living from writing alone, he produced a wealth of short stories, novels, plays, and essays in which he critically undermined many Slovenian myths while creating new ones. Cankar’s fictional depiction of the mother figure, for example, who sacrifices herself in order to support the son and thus envelopes him in a dialectic of guilt and affection, has become a common place in the collective self-understanding of Slovenians. Cankar worked his way through numerous aesthetic styles at the fin-de-siecle, refusing to align himself with any for too long. A revered bohemian and a challenging writer, Cankar must be credited with having introduced full-fledged modernism into Slovenian literature at the beginning of the century. He did so with the sheer power of his piercing aesthetic and political vision.
The latter was brought to bear in a particularly poignant way in regard to the Yugoslav issue. Cankar’s astute political commentaries made it clear that the new Southern Slavic union, which he called for as early as 1913, should provide only a common political frame. The peoples and cultural traditions entering this new entity, Cankar claimed, are too diverse for an‘ illusionary homogenous nation-state. Cankar best articulated this position of cultural autonomy and concomitant political unity in his well-known public lecture "Slovenians and Yugoslavs" which Cankar, an idiosyncratic social democrat, delivered in Triest in 1913. The ideas of this lecture continued to keep a forceful hold on the Slovenian imagination in each and every crisis during the development of the Yugoslav experiment, including the Slovenian summer of 1991 and subsequent independence.
Just as Cankar accurately predicted, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of the First World War compelled Slovenians to seek greater freedom in a new common state of the Southern Slavs called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians. It was later renamed Yugoslavia. At first glance, the new union appeared to offer an ideal solution to the small Slovenian nation.
In 1919 the Slovenian language became the language of instruction at the newly established University of Ljubljana. Slovenians could finally use their national idiom without restrictions. Accordingly, they committed themselves to cultural life with extraordinary vigour, enthusiasm, and creative drive.
Slovenian-American writer Louis Adamic who sailed to the shores of the new continent in his boyhood, and later became, in the tradition of Upton Sinclair, a prominent American writer on social issues, went on to write a number of realistic novels and short stories in his adopted language, American English. In one of his books Adamic described his home country during a visit he made before the Second World War as a Guggenheim fellow:
Gradually I realized what I had dimly known in my boyhood that, next to agriculture, Slovenia’s leading industry was Culture. In Lublyana were seven large bookshops (as large as most of the hardware, dry goods, and drugstores in town), two of them more than a hundred years old . . . Besides, each bookstore carried a selection of the latest German, French, Czech, Serbo-Croat, English and Italian books… In Slovenia nearly everybody - merchants, peasants, priests, teachers, students - bought books anyhow… In two years there had been forty-eight performances of Hamlet in Lublyana. Most of the city’s streets are named after poets, essayists, novelists, dramatists, grammarians. The largest monument in town is to the poet, France Presheren… When students take hikes into the country, their destinations usually are the graves and birthplaces of poets, dramatists, and other writers.
(The Native’s Return, Louis Adamic, 1934)
Louis Adamic’s perspective was correct yet it was, alas, incomplete. The situation was emphatically not as idyllic as it appeared to the sentimental visitor who was keen to see only the flattering aspects of life in the land of his youth.
The truth is that after the First World War a significant number of Slovenians found themselves in Italy. As much as one third of Slovenians had to become, like it or not, Italian citizens and their scorned Slovenian descent made them second-rate citizens in Mussolini’s state. Slovenians came under strong Fascist pressure: their press was prohibited, their schools were closed, priests could only hold illegal masses in clandestine locations. Many emigrated, but many more continued their struggle for national and cultural freedom, for the freedom to speak their mother tongue.
The importance of Mediterranean Slovenian life is demonstrated by the fact that it was not in landlocked Ljubljana but in Triest - a cosmopolitan Adriatic port which, in 1918, was one of the three cities with the largest Slovenian population, the others being Ljubljana and Cleveland, Ohio - that some of the visionary Slovenian intellectuals planned to establish their university. It would not have lasted long. The situation was indeed dramatic: public use of the Slovenian language subjected those who dared to challenge the Fascist-imposed hegemony of Italian to high fines and imprisonment. Teachers of Slovenian were exiled by force; brutal right-wing squads burned to the ground the Slovenian National House, the principal Slovenian cultural institution in the heart of Triest. The Fascist battle cry, "eia eia alala", eerily echoed throughout Slovenian neighborhoods and Slovenian nationalists were being murdered. Triest might have made a pleasant retreat for a talented writer in search of the eternal "there". James Joyce, an English teacher at the Berlitz language school in Triest, enjoyed a cosy atmosphere there. For Slovenians, alas, this town represented a linguistic and cultural straight-jacket. While Italians and Austrians were charmed by Triest’s numerous promenades and well-mannered aristocratic circles, the Slovenian collective experience speaks of an oppressive place, a true "heart of darkness" which has been conveniently overlooked in the recent debates on Central Europe.
Boris Pahor (born 1913), an indefatigable advocate of the Slovenian minority’s rights in Italy and a prolific fiction writer from Triest, provides a fleeting glimpse of this uneasy ethnic cohabitation though it is cloaked in his literary witness of months spent in a Nazi concentration camp, in his wonderfully moving novel, Pilgrim Among the Shadows (1967).
In the southern Austrian region of Carinthia, the site of the first independent Slovenian state, civitas Carantania, the notorious brown shirts or Nazi thugs terrorized Slovenian people, vandalized their homes, and beat Slovenian students and peasants. The former capital of the empire, Vienna, was in geographical terms little more than three hundred miles away; in terms of the human and national rights of the Slovenian minority, it could have been on another planet.
While writing in the mother’s tongue was and more or less remains an act of political and existential commitment for any member of Slovenian ethnic minority in Austria, it wasn’t until well after the end of the Second World War that the situation changed. With the work of Florjan Lipus (born 1937) this particular body of Slovenian literature most convincingly adopted a necessary form of aesthetic autonomy. Lipus’s refreshingly modernist credo made it possible for him to disregard the national consciousness-raising as part and parcel of the literary endeavor. Instead, he delved into the depths of Slovenian language and its Carinthian dialects that have almost hermetically retained some of the most archaic words and idioms.
Outside Austria the situation between the world wars was admittedly better than in Italy, though hardly encouraging. Slovenian hopes were of course squarely invested in the formation of a political union with their "brethren" South Slavs. The Yugoslav union was believed to provide solid political and economic protection and, at the same time, to enable Slovenians to commence a fully-developed national life. Some foundations for such life had indeed been laid out in the form of the first Slovenian university, the academy of arts and sciences, the national library, the theatre and opera houses with Slovenian as a official language, and with the entirely Slovenian school system that had replaced both the bilingual German-Slovenian and the entirely German educational model of the pre-Yugoslav era.
Despite these advancements in the national life, Slovenian aspirations for fully autonomous conditions, alas, soon collapsed. Serbian, the language of the royal court and of the most populous nation in Yugoslavia, became the language of public and official communication. High officials of the centralized state institutions as a rule came from Belgrade, more than five hundred miles away from Ljubljana. Slovenian intellectuals were routinely appointed to posts in the heart of Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Slovenian became, for all practical purposes, a second-rate language in the common South Slavic state. Later the regime in Belgrade, which since l929 had resorted to open dictatorship, tried to eradicate Slovenian identity on a nominal level as well. It arranged for Slovenia to comprise, with selected western Croatian districts, a bogus administrative province without a distinct national name.
In spite of repeated historical deception, Slovenian persistence did not relax. Vibrant literary life reflected the aesthetic trends of Paris and Vienna. Newspapers and magazines, student clubs and, most notably, coffee houses provided hospitable public forums for pale-faced young reciting their rebellious poems and giving heated lectures. Among the literati, the most radical was the prodigal son of the avant-garde writing, Srecko Kosovel (1904-1926) of whom an Italian expert on Central European letters, Claudio Magris, admiringly said in his book Triest: An Identity of the Border (1987): "In Kosovel’s lyrical poems a certain landscape and a human condition—-the Karst and the Slovenian exclusion—-reach a universal dimension for they turn into symbols of general situation and of a certain time in European civilization". Equally excellent as Kosovel, though perhaps more socially reticent, was a psychoanalytically lucid playwright, Slavko Grum (1901-1949) whose play "An Event in the City of Goga" for many decades provided a metaphor for suffocating conditions that the avant-garde writers wanted to transcend so desperately. Literary debates on expressionism, constructivism, and surrealism were imbued with political overtones. This uneasy bond between politics and literature became a question of life and death after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941.
Prešeren’s poetic idea that it is better to die than to be a slave once again provided moral, existential, and national guidance. Most, though not all, writers joined the partisans and fled to the woods where, in the midst of the raging war, they printed their books, newspapers, and magazines in makeshift print shops. In temporarily-liberated areas they organized literary readings, published reviews, and vigorously encouraged people to resist occupation. Needless to say, many of them died for freedom while writing and fighting.
Contemporary Ljubljana is perhaps the only European capital where a visitor will look in vain for the monuments of generals and victorious cavalrymen. Despite the liberation war and the revolution, Slovenians, it appears, continue to be more attracted by the pen than the sword. Instead of generals, Slovenians placed poets on their pedestals of privilege. As noted by Louis Adamic, many streets are named after celebrated masters of the pen and their faces solemnly gaze from the banknotes of independent Slovenia. During the Second World War many Slovenian partisan brigades were named after poets and writers, which is another historically rare example of the vital importance of literature to this nation.
After the war many writers entered government offices. A renowned pre-war poet, partisan, and Christian Socialist, Edvard Kocbek, became vice-president of the Slovenian government and a minister in the federal Yugoslav government. He remained there until he fell out of favor for his refusal to give up his literary mission. Kocbek’s poems, stories, and voluminous journals bear witness to his courage to criticize black-and-white dramaturgy of his former colleagues which characterized communist aesthetics.
Kocbek’s was the poetic pursuit of truth and the fight for freedom that guards language against authoritarian "newspeak". Kocbek, educated both in Slovenia and in France, was also the first to muster enough courage to expose to the public the most fearsomely guarded communist secret: the liberation war was, to a considerable degree, a civil war between the "reds" and the "whites". While the Liberation Front, a coalition of resistance groups established in 1941, was committed to fight against the occupying forces, communists as one of the parties in the coalition orchestrated a clever underground coup d’etat in 1943 and began running the resistance movement according to their particular political agenda, i.e. the social revolution.‘Simultaneous with the war of liberation, a tragic fratricidal war of communist-led partisans, "reds", and Slovenian Nazi-and-Fascist-collaborators, "whites", took place primarily in Ljubljana and its hinterland.
After the war, collaborationist forces and their supporters retreated to the Allied-controlled territory of southern Austria. It was from there that Allies returned them to Tito’s partisans who, in turn, brutally killed as many as 9,000-12,000 people without due process. Against the imperative of complicity and silent comfort, Kocbek publicly denounced this act of vengeance and emphasized the bleeding wound in the nation’s recent history. The poet thus ultimately won over the statesman. In this regard, Kocbek remained indebted to the legacy of Prešeren: only after having lost direct access to the mechanisms of power and having become a dissident, was Kocbek able to tell the bitter truth, the full truth.
This conflict - in more than one way a perverse reflection of the old antagonistic tension between liberalism and Roman Catholic clericalism, the two major mental and political paradigms in modern Slovenian history - has served as difficult, yet ever more unavoidable topic for many ambitious writers. One of the most comprehensive contemporary novels, which took measure of the above mentioned fratricide, was perhaps The Great Bear by Milos Mikeln, a large epic canvas spanning the entire twentieth century through the lives of two related, yet bitterly opposed Slovenian families.
Literary Idioms and Political Dissent
Although Edvard Kocbek was widely acclaimed and enjoyed the support of many international writers including Heinrich Böll, no fame could help him escape the fate of internal exile which denied him publishing opportunities and public contact with his readership. However, the seeds of resistance to the communist regime had been planted. Joze Udovic, himself a veteran of resistance and a highly esteemed senior poet, wrote before the Second World War although most of this work saw publication only after the conclusion of the war. Yet, Udovic wrote his poems in almost pathological isolation from readers and critics alike. This was a direct result of his disillusion with the communist politics of deception. Udovic rejected most of the literary awards, did not appear at official functions, and by and large declined interviews. Such was his way of saying, "No, thank you!" to political intrusions. In his poems, however, Udovic created a moving world of gradual disintegration of romantic subjects and a retreat from the ideal of beauty. The latter remained an idealized Ithaca even though the poet was aware that it was only a "mirror of dreams".
The Yugoslav political break with Moscow in 1948 spelled the end of aesthetically and ethically worthless literature which submissively celebrated revolutionary accomplishments. 1953 saw the publication of the first book of lyrical poems that stood head and shoulders above the then-obligatory social-realistic aesthetics. Of the poets who rehabilitated deeply personal voices in the tiny volume, Poems of Four Poets, Kajetan Kovic commanded the most respect. His was an original vision of darkness and bitterness that drew upon two sources: resigned yet not desperate confrontation with death as a legacy of the war generation, and an Orphean motif that gave credence to the poet as a voice of historical truth and redemption.
The late fifties and the early sixties were periods of creative eruption. New independent literary journals were established: Beseda (The Word), Revija 57 (Review 57), and Perspektive (Perspectives). The first poetry books by major authors, Dane Zajc and Veno Taufer, appeared in private editions because of political obstruction by the authorities. Despite roadblocks, literature continued to gain more freedom. The vision of death and the metaphysical void as a wartime legacy were given existentialist grounding in the generation of writers inspired by the re-emerging modernist consciousness.
Diverse aesthetic attitudes that sprang up from this long-awaited "modernist turn" in Slovenian letters are perhaps best represented by Andrej Hieng and Lojze Kovacic. Hieng attracted attention with his minute psychological studies of the charms and decay of the individual mind, while Lojze Kovacic became one of the most respected contemporary writers because of his obsessive focus on largely autobiographical conditions in the life of an outsider. In addition, repression-savvy poets like Dane Zajc, Veno Taufer, and Gregor Strnisa considerably expanded the possibilities of modern writing.
The mythological poetry of Gregor Strnisa elevated the imagination of his time to the point where heaven meets hell. The world in Strnisa’s poetry was perceived as a kingdom of dark, cruel, and mysterious forces. It was embedded in the aesthetic narrative of cold description replete with mythical creatures and fairy tales. Strnisa’s poems bring out two relevant themes: first, that everyday life is the greatest mystery and second, that loneliness is not merely the absence of others but a life among people who do not understand what you are saying. This was an excellent poetic definition of the historical condition of the Slovenians as a people.
Social reality by all means buttressed such dark visions. The red horizons of post-war optimism turned in the early sixties into the faded photographs from an historical album. Heaven had not descended to earth as it was predicted from communist loudspeakers; happiness and progress asserted their presence only in official rhetoric. The pursuit of truth and vision was carried out in literary books, not in political speeches.
The secret agents of the regime, "experts of metaphors", to borrow Drago Jancar’s ironical phrase, knew that writers enjoyed alarmingly wide support among the common people. Literary magazines, those strongholds of independent intellect, published increasingly biting criticism of corruption and political paralysis. This process of growing dissent culminated in 1964 in massive popular protests. Many attended literary gatherings, university campuses were boiling, night after night poets read their works to enthusiastic audiences of students. They demanded change. The panic-stricken authorities organized duped workers to protest against artists and intellectuals during a theater performance of the play, "The Greenhouse", which ridiculed leading politicians. The play was written by Marjan Rozanc, a budding playwright and literary trouble-maker who later became arguably the best essayist in the country.
Communist apparatchiks were compelled to pinpoint a victim who could be also associated by the leading cultural magazine, Perspectives. This periodical provided intellectual support for dissent and critically unmasked one communist myth after another. They arrested Tomaz Salamun, an editor of the magazine and an unprotected young poet who blasphemously rewrote canonized patriotic poems and thus called into question the hypocrisy of the regime. Salamun’s most threatening quality seemed to be the fact that the party-line education which was systematically injected into the resigned population had so completely failed with him: equipped with his talent for poetic absurdity, irony, and playfulness Salamun declared, not unlike his spiritual godfather Arthur Rimbaud, that all dogmatic tradition is the "game of countless idiotic generations".
While Salamun was soon allowed to leave prison, another Perspectives’s writer, a social philosopher Joze Pucnik, remained there for years and was, following his release, forced to emigrate. Pucnik, an uncompromising critic of the regime, returned from his German exile only after the democratic elections in 1989 and helped establish a social democratic party.
The magazine was censored and ultimately suspended in 1964. Many writers and cultural critics who today hold leading positions in academic, intellectual, artistic, and even political life in Slovenia, gathered around this magazine. With the benefit of the hindsight, one can claim that for Slovenian culture the year 1964 and the far-reaching consequences of civil disobedience and political dissent not only represented a harbinger of May of 1968, but gave shape to the national dissident imagination in the decades to come.
Between Solidarity and Solitude
The year of 1964 was followed by an era of renewed Stalinist repression which ran strongly until the end of the seventies. Intellectuals and writers were silenced or exiled. A short intermezzo in 1971, when students occupied the University of Ljubljana for several weeks, was not long enough to recharge the batteries of moral revolt. After the students’ defeat, a retreat into the intimate world seemed to be the only solution. The poets baptized by fire during the occupation of the University, notably Boris A. Novak, Milan Dekleva, and Milan Jesih (who was brought to court because of his active participation in the literary readings of protest), had defeat etched into their hearts. Censorship became stricter, many writers could not publish, few were employed. Social marginalization was the order of the day.
Writers, however, did not forget that "if you do not deal with politics, politics deals with you" as Czech philosopher Karel Kosik once shrewdly said. Instead of conforming to the standards of social life, writers continued to whisper of a world inside their minds bearing witness to "the minimal self". Alienation from external reality inevitably led the writers of the seventies to rediscover language as the house of being, as Heidegger would have it.
They explored the limits of lyrical and narrative technique, the vertigo of linguistic possibilities, and the exodus of the coherent plot-line. In these works irony and poetic wise-cracking were employed as protection against, not as a challenge to, external reality. This process may be seen, for example, in the detached fiction of Rudi Seligo who was at the time inspired by the cool descriptions in the French nouveau roman before he faced the world with a series of politically critical and very popular theatrical plays during the eighties.
The writer’s solitude in the seventies, however, became a central moral principle: resistance was passively expressed through non-involvement in the officially dictated cultural and political life. While the poetics of linguistic exploration gave an impetus to the postmodernist writers who emerged in the eighties, many luminous authors of the seventies, alas, remained trapped in the increasingly self-reverential loops of brooding textuality.
One of the very few writers who did not succumb to this aestheticist temptation was Vitomil Zupan. A notorious bon vivant, a boxer, a ski-teacher and a womanizer, Zupan was a prolific writer in every genre. His biographic trajectory stands apart from most others in Slovenian literary history for Zupan’s was a life of constant pursuit of ultimate sensations and border-line experiences. Zupan’s literary output is enormous by any standard and so is his presence in contemporary Slovenian fiction. Zupan, the adored and feared enfant terrible of Slovenian letters, fought with the partisans against Nazis yet was never a communist. Guided instead with an anarchic desire for national liberty and personal freedom, he collided with the authorities after the Second World War and was put in prison‘where he managed to produce some of the most moving testimonies to the endurance of the spirit and the inmates’ resourcefulness. While some of his work was published with considerable delay, due to political reasons, Zupan’s writing life nonetheless represents a rare example of work and biography as an inspiring "chronicle of scandals". In his best work Zupan attempted to marry introspective existential meditations on the grand issues of life, death, and human transience with a fast-paced narrative that smacked of adventure novels. Zupan’s later writing is suffused with autobiographical elements in the use of which he did not shy away from openly and graphically addressing the nature of carnal desire, erotic drive, and sexual instincts.
After ten years of literary retreat, public repression, and closed public space the patience of the intellectuals wore thin. The early eighties saw the launching of a new magazine whose very name reveals the manner in which it tried to open public debate: Nova revija (The New Review). Not incidentally, several prominent ministers of the independent nation-state in 1991 were recruited from the group of dissident writers and human rights activists who gathered around this important cultural publication. This circle was joined by certain writers who came of age in the seventies, having travelled all the way from harmless linguistic "exercises in style" to the depths of existence and moral need for "life in truth" (Vaclav Havel). From dwellers of the ivory towers of textuality, they were transformed into relevant actors in the "arena of life". Many, notably the leading formalist poet Boris A. Novak, became radically involved in civil disobedience through such socially marginal, yet morally potent, organizations‘as the Slovenian Writers Association and P.E.N. Center.
The poems, novels, testimonies, and short stories that writers managed to publish, despite tacit censorship, gradually peeled off layers of lies: the horrors of Titoism, a political system that was much admired among the Western leftist intellectuals was laid bare and the truth about Goli otok (The Naked Island) - the Yugoslav Gulag that swallowed many dissidents and opponents of the regime - was finally made public. Writers were again at the fore. The communist regime gradually lost ground. In the late eighties, writers joined forces with independent sociologists to challenge the system by writing a proposal for a new constitution. In keeping with long-honored tradition, the writers acted on behalf of the politicians.
In the larger frame of Yugoslav federation, growing Serbian appetites since the mid-eighties posed a tangible threat to the other Yugoslav nations. Serbs usurped the federal administration, illegally appropriated more than half of the hard currency reserves of the federal bank, attempted to alter the national literary curriculum in favor of Serbian authors, and the southern province of Kosovo experienced the imposition of apartheid on ethnic Albanians. Even a blind man could see that Slovenia had to choose between two alternatives: remain under the heel of corrupt communist authorities in Belgrade who were openly flexing their muscles, or establish an independent state.
It was again writers who pushed popular revolt past the point of no return. Following passionate public debates, writers led a group of dissidents and members of the democratic opposition into drafting up no less than the declaration of Slovenian independence. It won immediate support with the public at large. Stimulated by such actions even Slovenian communists mustered enough political instinct and courage to resist the centralist government. After a public referendum demonstrated by an overwhelming margin the wish of the Slovenian people to live in a free Slovenia, the independent nation-state was declared. Poets, writers, and their readers celebrated.
By the end of the eighties, pressing political and state-building concerns no longer required the use of Aesopian language and cryptic poetic metaphors. The new conditions in particular appealed to the poets and writers that came of age in the eighties. While older colleagues spearheaded the struggle for an independent nation-state, the nascent generation felt somewhat left aside in these political concerns: hence their inclination to explore the formal and metaphysical possibilities of imagination and their refusal to view literature as the one and only platform from which political opinions could be voiced. Postmodernism in its various manifestations became the slogan of the decade.
Andrej Blatnik (born 1963) is perhaps the most representative prose writer of this international style which found its home on the pages of the magazine established in the eighties. Its simple name declares the return of writers’ primary concern: Literatura (Literature). Blatnik’s short stories are permeated with sophisticated references to other literary works and past narrative strategies, and to the fictional character of the truth itself.
On the other side of the aesthetic spectrum in this decade‘stands the work of the leading female fiction writer, Berta Bojetu-Boeta (born 1946). Her dark, painful, and anxious literary account of the suffocating atmosphere is as much the legacy of past political and personal bondage as it is its disturbingly beautiful portrait.
While Bojetu’s fiction is perhaps limited in its single obsession with the experience of psychological and physical suffering, the widely translated work of Drago Jancar (born 1948) is rich both in subject-matter and narrative techniques. Jancar, arguably the best modern Slovenian fiction writer, spent a few months behind the bars on the grounds of fabricated charges of "anti-communist propaganda" in the seventies. Not unlike many of his prodigious generation, Jancar is unmistakably political in his social instincts and penetrating essays. With existential courage and stylistic dexterity, Jancar does not recoil from political issues in his literary work either. In his novels and short stories Jancar uses a variety of hermetic, testimonial, realist and postmodernist devices to better focus on the "terror of history" and the chances for survival the individual may have in the great grinding machine of homogenization, including the corporate and technological narrow-mindedness of contemporary Western societies.
When discussing Slovenian literature in the eighties in the context of healthy distance toward politics, it is nevertheless mandatory to emphasize that the long-called-for separation of politics and literature was not meant to give birth to some myopic version of l’art pour l’art. Insofar as moral habits are embedded in the intricacies of historic allegory and allusion,‘the unfettered urge to stress them explicitly is beside the point, argued young Slovenian postmodern writers. The task to recognize history and its discontent is always present since the writer’s historical sensibility and responsibility makes its way into the work by virtue of language, a shared stock of metaphors, and cultural tradition.
Arguing for a critical separation of civil engagement on the one hand, and autonomous writing on the other - many years overdue in Central and Eastern Europe as a whole - the young writers championed a distinct attitude: a writer can only aspire to be a witness of his or her times if the writing itself is free of any external prescriptions. The young writers of the eighties hence espoused a kind of Joycean non serviam to the cause of Slovenian independence. I hasten to add that their civic and moral responsibility was, in accord with the best Slovenian tradition of intellectuals qua politicians, articulated outside the literary medium, notably in newspaper columns and other public forums. This was a novel approach to literature in the Central and Eastern Europe customarily associated with the noble mind which is, as Czeslaw Milosz once remarked, of no particular use to literature. Slovenian postmodernists, in other words, believed that a creative self can only bloom beyond the divisions of progressive vs. conservative.
The views of the young generation aptly correspond with the radically changed cultural situation. The writers’ historical mission is, it seems, for the most part accomplished. Slovenians now have a nation-state. Prešeren’s toast to freedom may now be sung in a free country, not clandestinely but at official‘functions and, if one wishes, at the top of one’s lungs. New social and historical conditions care predictably less for imaginative writing and more for business, advancing the commerce of goods rather than the commerce of ideas. Literature in this social nexus no longer represents the privileged forum of truth, justice, and beauty and thus, by extension, of national identity. The role of the writer as revered shaman and spokesman for the people, recounting the stories of historical taboos, suppressed memory, about individual solitude and social resistance, is in all likelihood over. The curtains are being drawn, the performance of writers as decisive actors in the public arena, it appears, is slowly coming to an end.
The social meaning of the writer’s vocation has irreversibly changed. It is commonly believed that in case the writer no longer runs the risk of going to prison for what he publishes, then his word lacks the moral weight it carried before. While the writers’ search for the truth about ex Oriente lux, "the light from the East", is responded by readers’ craving for ex Occidente luxus, "luxurious goods from the West", the writers recognized that a political theme alone no longer provides a desired historical and aesthetic alibi. This perhaps goes a considerable way in explaining why there have been surprisingly few literary works published so far that would deal comprehensively with the post-independence period. While the most important historical threshold in the life of a nation logged itself permanently into Slovenian collective memory, it still awaits its poet. In his absence, sophisticated and courageous journalists such as Spomenka Hribar, Ervin Hladnik-Milharcic and Ivo Standeker who was killed by a Serbian sniper while on assignment in Bosnia, have done their share of work in the field of the increasingly popular genre of "creative non-fiction".
By many accounts, the burning public issues no longer command the total attention of the population which is increasingly turning toward private, intimate pursuits. Grand metaphysical and political ideas of the nation, community, and history, attractive as they were because of their all-encompassing values, are being gradually replaced by human-size concerns of daily life. Hence the writer’s life ceased to be in a radical and traumatic way intertwined with that of the nation. The hereditary syndrome of Prešeren, whose work once held the mobilizing potential for the entire community, may have today reached an impasse, revealing the limits of what it can "make happen" for the contemporary Slovenian mind. Writers now face a challenge of a radically different kind: how is it possible to honor the cultural tradition that nurtured them and at the same time to speak movingly about the time of independence which ushered in the post-communist epoch with its shifting values and symbols, and with its redefinition of the writers’ profession. This is then an epoch that seems to require an entirely different language and aesthetic style.
To be sure, this is not a unique Slovenian predicament. It is experienced all over Central and Eastern Europe where writers no longer occupy the privileged position of political visionaries. The pursuit of artistically coherent and morally lucid writing which oscillates between historical amnesia and the indiscriminate amnesty for past traumas thus stands at the center of contemporary Slovenian writing. The literary consequences of this dilemma, their Protean shape notwithstanding, are bound to help determine the spirit of the time at the turn of the troubled millennium.