From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 7


“Retirement does indeed bring back the youthful enthusiasm and the youthful political views”, said Kamov, and I cannot help wondering how he would react to our nation’s statistical “rejuvenation” today. He would most probably do as he did – move to Barcelona and disappear. However, back then, a guy appeared whom Mickey might find the most interesting of all due to his work’s market potential, here completely neglected. He was born in Vrgorac, Imotski, and throughout his lifetime, his brightness never abandoned him, the unique kind of brightness known to anyone who has ever met a person from Imotski – they are inventors without an invention, the invention itself is too trivial for them. His name was Augustin Ujević, and he wrote under the name Tin. He was born thirty years too early and many meridians too far to the east. Thirty or forty years before Huxley and the Beatniks, Ujević sang about the Easts; he knew that there was more than one, and he could name them all wherever he was. He was an incredibly lonely poet and writer, both in his culture and time. He was a genius product in terms of sales and marketing, even before the advent of the market he described. Imagine opening a car sales business in a godforsaken place with no buyers and no road, just you standing there alone, surrounded by magnificent machines. He wrote about the following: Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Gandhi, the connection between Gandhi and Tolstoy (who influenced Gandhi the most), Buddha, Lao Tzu, Shankara, Ashokananda, and Mani, and he saw how the ideas they were driven by influenced the work of our Bogomils. He was the entire cultural movement of the sixties of the West – countercultural – in a country that wasn’t in the East nor West, but somewhere in between; a country that one of the rejected ones – who later became a Nobel prize winner – called the “third world”;  it lay between the two worlds, neglected and despised throughout the whole of western history. Imagine him living in Paris or London amid the sixties and writing this: the loneliness of a natural landscape is advised for self-possession. Imagine the Beatles hearing this sentence. Would they have wandered off to India, or would they have known that the answers to their confusion were right under their noses? Imagine the sentence: “The man exited the animal as soon as the door was open for him. A potential God is thus hidden in the man, disabled by the lock and the bolt of not knowing. When the enlightenment removes these fences, God will appear in the daylight.” (…) “But the spirit needs to be self-possessed – like that of an archer.” Ujević catapulted such sentences like riffs on a guitar with an astonishing easiness; his texts about the Easts, in which he bows to science and rationalism yet understands their inadequateness, burst with brightness and vigour unidentified in the work of his western colleagues. Why? Probably because he never calculated, not for a minute, because he learned along the way, taking in word by word the ever broader knowledge amid the ever thicker fogs of his daily existence. Therefore we must throw in something the great poet would not find hateful: a little bit of astrology. It sounds like this: No problems for a buffalo. Hypothalamus is stimulated by the Sun and the Moon. The beginning of mating and birth are known. That’s how Mile Dupor does it, and he created the horoscope for Tin Ujević. It is not as blasphemous as it seems. When writing about Vesna Parun, it is just fair to toss the coins and cast an I Ching reading related to this or that about her. These are the methods of imagination, the moment when the mind breaks and reaches for the poetics of a different rank. Ujević asked Dupor to interpret his horoscope in the thirties (one of his eastern periods, the Sarajevo one). Whatever was said then must have been similar to the excellent introduction to “Poetry and truth” by Goethe, who says, semi-seriously and semi-humorously: “On the 28th of August, 1749, at mid-day, as the clock struck twelve, I came into the world, at Frankfort-on-the-Maine. My horoscope was propitious.”1 Goethe then describes the celestial circumstances saying that the sun stood in the sign of the Virgin, and reached its highest point of that day. “Jupiter and Venus looked on him with a friendly eye, and Mercury not adversely; while Saturn and Mars kept themselves indifferent; the Moon alone, just full, exerted the power of her reflection all the more, as she had then reached her planetary hour.” Anyone who is not afraid of good prose must find this exceptional! Ironies like this mark Ujević’s work. Here is an example found in one of his poems not published in the collection of his work: “But I have an ounce of blood more than a vampire would ever be able to swallow.” Irony aside, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Ujević travelling to the East that early. There were other travellers. Still, if you compare their work to his, the first thing that strikes you is his ability to be what he writes about: a well-tuned man. Today he is a genius forgotten on many levels, whose post-vitae path reminds us of his earthly days – misinterpreted, simplified through a miserable lifestyle he had, gossiped about by his colleagues, too (like Krleža, who raged against his translation of Proust). Still, he was a creator who seemed to have come from the past and the future: the themes of his work announced all the important events in Croatian literature ever since; we can hear the echo of his greatness in the works of Vesna Parun, or Danijel Dragojević, whenever he hunched over to write an essay. Also, Ujević’s thematic construction, so subversively opposed to the logocentrism of the West, has an almost deconstructionist tone, keeping in mind that Ujević is a much better writer than anybody in that circle. What must we keep in mind regarding Ujević’s writing about the East? Something he wrote while interpreting Romain Rolland and his Gandhi: it is too Indian to be understandable. As soon as he started dealing with these topics, he knew that to grasp the essence of Buddha’s teaching, we needed to weave into it our western dilemmas and change Gautham into a Goran2, into someone who looks at the same skies as we do, with anguish and excitement. Of all the export goods of our literature, none would fit the countercultural movement as he, his despised lifestyle included, because it was him, the author of “Svakidašnja jadikovka” (Daily Lament) – more than anyone else – who was in the know of everything that would, up to today’s informatisation, become an enormous expansion of various types of knowledge. Among the first concerning the insight into the entire human heritage, Ujević is a monument to the combination of work and wildness, unrivalled in our literary history, a colossus not easy to outgrow, no matter how fast our Internet connection may be. It is not easy to explain why this is so. He was, obviously, thirsty for knowledge; he didn’t suffer from typical modern self-stimulating syndromes, although he was gossiped behind his back, as Vesna Parun claimed, for masturbating to death. Who cares? Arsen Dedić once said in an interview that Ujević, when working, drank milk only, that his work ethic (he used to spend his days in the National Library) was almost scary. It is not difficult to believe this, for it seems impossible to fill such vast holes in one’s culture unless you are a worker. He was a labourer, and he was aware of that when naming his collection of poems “Lelek sebra” (The Wail of a Slave). Whatever the horoscopes, even the Chinese ones, said about him, one thing is certain: his ascendant is the donkey, a holy animal so clever that the Romans used it to build the roads. They would let a burdened donkey choose the path, after which they would construct their roads on the donkey’s trails. Ujević did something similar, paving the way on which future generations travelled, often unaware of being in the places he had already visited. What was it that kept him going? Most probably, sending his troops to the main house of reality (that he often thematised). A wish to see the world that has woven us. And knowing that it takes a lot of effort to get satisfying answers, to quote the Ecclesiastes (the favourite lines of Bunuel, Ujević’s brother in nightmares): “Furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh “. He was not afraid of either of the two.

  1. Translation by John Oxenford, Project Gutenberg, 2016.
  2. Goran is a Croatian male name.


Dario Grgić