From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 2


This peasant was not as ordinary as one might think. Mickey’s Shakespeare was such a non-gentleman, as well, according to Faulkner in ”Sartoris”. He was someone who could not be called a gentleman, for he said it all, left nothing unsaid and wrote nasty things about his mother (through Hamlet’s mouth, intended for all mothers), which places him among non-gentlemen together with Matoš, the exterminator of illusions and the opponent of smoke and mirrors, a unique figure in Croatian culture. He was the pure opposite of Tacitus (according to Mommsen), who used to restrain from saying the things that should be said and talk about the things that are better left unsaid. Such writing is the standard in contemporary times; it only takes a glance at any of the existing newspapers or magazines, or even the readings which aspire to be ”scientific”, to see that there is a lot of yackety-yak about everything but something meaningful. Matoš was the complete opposite of such practice, quite often at the expense of his work’s aesthetic ”height”; he was the pagan priest of truth, just a fool, just a poet, and as such, he did it his way to the very end. Clearly, compared to the refined European writers of his time, he may sometimes sound harsh, but he sounds harsh compared to his local contemporaries, too, as someone who decided to use spoken language in literature. The main problem here is – and I would have to coax Mickey at Camden Market into understanding it – the relationship between a world city and a province. A small digression here (although this is all a digression): there are professorial and prophetic philosophies. The professorial ones had a neglectable or no influence on the artists; the prophetic ones were able to provide them with the spine. One should only remember Kierkegaard’s, Schopenhauer’s, or Nietzsche’s influence; Oswald Spengler may be included in this class, too – he wrote the philosophical bestseller ”The Decline of the West” and was beaten on the head by the academic community. Eventually, these viewpoints have changed, and today he is described as a prophet, even by the prestigious ”appraisers” such as Northrop Frye, who says: even though he is one of our true prophets, he is not the final prophet. But there is one thing he says which may clarify the relationship between the world cities – all of our competent writers had their longing eyes on them – and the province, which we are still destined to, whether it resides in Zagreb or Čepinski Martinci. I will not add that these two places are the same because they are not – there is a multitude of nuances here. This is, in short, what Spengler says, related to the relationship between a world city and a province: all major decisions are made in three or four world cities, they have ”absorbed into themselves the whole content of History, while the old wide landscape of the Culture, becomes merely provincial, serves only to feed the cities with what remains of its higher mankind.” (…) ”In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman. This is a very great stride towards the inorganic, towards the end.” (…) ”It is the destiny of whole regions that lie outside the radiation circle of one of these cities – of old Crete and Macedon and today the Scandinavian North — to become provinces.” Matoš lived in Paris for five years (1899 – 1904). That was the period of belle époque, the time of aestheticism, turmoil, political instability (which did not stop France from becoming the second colonial power in the world); finally, as Walter Benjamin said, Paris was the capital of the world in the 19th century. The other two heroes of the essays you are reading lived in Paris but in different circumstances for the city itself. Tin Ujević stayed there from 1913 to 1919, throughout World War I, and Damir Karakaš lived there for six years and left written records of it, the same as his colleagues did. But at that moment, Karakaš’s moment, at least from the (fake) perspective of Zagreb, it looked as if the difference between these two cities was not so large anymore – however, that is the chapter that belongs to the history of Croatian illusionism, and the protagonists of this story told us tall tales. There, Matoš encounters a world that would find its place in Croatian literature much later (in the 1980s), and these are the inhabitants of demi-monde, anarchists, the Apache, criminals, Lumpenproletariat. It took the characters from Matoš’s feuilletons almost ninety years to drag themselves into the prose works of his successors. Matoš describes Paris the same way the mobsters in the documentary ”Vidimo se u čitulji” (See you in an obituary) describe their life as opposed to that of ordinary citizens: in one single evening, we experience more than these poor guys experience in a lifetime. ”Paris consumes more life in one day” than ”Croatia in a century”. He is poor, supported by women, so neighbours think that he is a pimp, which was Faulkner’s ideal – he thought that life in a brothel is a blessing for a writer: there is always something to drink there, mornings are quiet, and money is not an issue. Anyhow, Matoš later said that that was the time when he learnt the most. He did to the city the same thing that the city did to the country: he absorbed it into himself, no matter how ambitious this may sound, and then later, upon his return to Zagreb, he felt as if he had fallen into an open grave. The world’s pressure is a blessing and a curse for a Croatian writer. At this point, Mickey is rolling with laughter; this is when he decides not to buy any of them – what is he to do with this assemblage of frustrated losers who yearn for something he despises and his writers describe with condemnation and contempt? Suppose we relocate the problem of world cities and provinces to our local circumstances – we have a situation in which Ujević moves from Split to Zagreb in the ’30s and says: the reasons were economic, market-based. The situation is similar today, despite social media and internetization. The reason is simple, and this is where we need to remind ourselves of Mommsen’s description of Tacitus: he remains silent when he should speak and speaks about things that should be left unsaid. Or, as Mandić puts it: Croatians have always had the balls to stay silent. Book reviews are written as advertisements or lethally boring academic articles, and the real thing is heard through the grapevine only, passed on by word of mouth. Instead of writing about the real thing, Croatians bark about them at soirées and keep publishing things that no one wants to read in newspapers or books. And to join the soirées, one needs to live in the capital. Business deals are made there, and yammering is the way towards agreeing upon an author’s calibre. It is proof that we are still in the phase of oral culture; even the experienced literary men (perhaps because they are experienced) will ask the following question: What do you really think about the book, the author? Matoš was not of that sort, and that’s the thing.Krleža, before World War II, was not of that sort either; later, his written openness moved into ”Aretej” (Aretaeus), ”Zastave” (Flags), or ”Dnevnik” (Diary) in which he dreams, being realistic at moments only. The classical local reaction is: it could have been said nicely, implicitly, tacitly, in a gentlemanlike manner. However, if Matoš had been this ”courteous”, his most important works would not have been written. Neither would Villon’s, Baudelaire’s, Rimbaud’s. Perhaps nothing worth remembering would have been written, and here we don’t assume the necessity of bad manners but candour. Keeping in mind Davidson’s ”interpretative charity”. Today, as well as then, there aren’t many reviews of national writers’ books. Ujević is precise: ”The articles about the national publications appear on rare occasions when there is a need to commend one’s adherent or attack one’s opponent.” This practice is well worked out today; culture on life support if life support encompasses social media. I would ask Mickey what they do to make sense of it all. Describing one of the national authors, Matoš says: all of our writers have other jobs, mostly administrative ones, whereas this one is only a writer. ”A literary dilettante who is a writer.” He must write even if he doesn’t feel like writing because that is how he earns his living. ”He must push his work into this world without regard to its ripeness or sleekness”. He also says this: ”I can imagine an illiterate lyric, but I cannot imagine a semi-literate proser.” This sentence might infuriate the greatest among writers because poetry is usually put right under heaven; it represents the height of human communication with the universe. So, Matoš is at the pub’s entrance, with Baudelaire and Nietzsche in the pockets of his rumpled coat jacket, and in the pub, crème de la crème of Europe of his times. In such a constellation, he is more than indisposed, almost at the level of Wells’ invisible man; the immediately visible about him is the unfortunate fact that, among the imperialistic writers, he looks like a gejak iliti1‘freely’, a word of Turkish origin (a nod to Mandić) a country bumpkin. The hard, gnarled, huge hands, the voice eroded by strong tobacco and drinking, bones full of dampness from the disgusting shacks in which he lives. The years ahead, during which he will thread his path alone, swim across, make up for the losses: seventy at least. He is twenty and something, standing there, not only hungry for bread; I am explaining this to Mickey, hoping he would be drawn to this barbarian. This madman who had his tooth removed as a result of a bet. This versatile writer and student whose studentship (or readiness to learn) reached such proportions that he was named Rabbi. The first who said: let the people who earn for living by writing discuss writers, not university professors, who are in the habit of lagging behind, worse than the textbooks, and whose hands, as cold as the witch’s caress, turn everything into a dead letter. So Matoš turned out to be a lot at once: he was a Voltaire, a Nietzsche, a Baudelaire, a Poe, and many others in one person. In big countries, it is possible to specialize. These countries may have an individual writer for each ”area”. But small nations, with their suitcases full of frustration, are not that privileged and honoured. In our case, the colossal writer appears, must appear, as a creature fit for all branches – like a universal soldier of culture who is skilled at handling ships, tanks, and planes, climbing, and diving. It is no wonder that readers are reluctant to go for a ride with them; we are afraid: it is impossible to be so good at so many things and a reliable guide for someone’s imagination; because that is what we do by reading – we put our imagination at their disposal. Therefore, forget the stories about the critical apparatus, a construction clumsily created by professorial philosophy, most often used as a justification for not letting someone pass the exam – the only event during which ”the critical apparatus” appears. Therefore, our great, miserable writer arrives huger than huge, writing for everybody; if someone would like a reportage, here it is, a feuilleton, no problem, sonnets, poetry, epic poems produced in overloads, novellas, novels (Matoš didn’t make it to the novel). Their production is, due to the role they play – not just the artistic role, but the educational, as well – similar to the once-popular afternoon talk show ”Nedjeljom popodne” (On Sundays afternoon) or the recent one ”Kod nas doma” (At our home) (with such a home, many people would rather sleep under the bridge). This is what we, regular people, are thinking: there he is, the tractor driver who is driving a tank at the moment but who usually grows beautiful flowers. In the case of small nations, Nietzsche’s dedication of ”Zarathustra” to ”everyone and no one” has an entirely different meaning.

  1. the same as oliti; ‘or rather’


Dario Grgić