Born in Klaipeda in 1937, Tomas Venclova is Lithuania’s most internationally renowned poet and intellectual. The most recent part published by Suhrkamp Verlag is “The Magnetic North”, in which he looks back on his eventful life between Vilnius and New Haven, Connecticut. where he taught Slavic literature at Yale University for many years. With the essay documented here, he opened the International Literature Festival in Odessa, Ukraine a few days ago. Gregor Dotzauer translated it from English.
I have been to Odessa many times – first in my childhood, or rather, at a time of transition between childhood and adolescence. My grandfather spent his childhood in Odessa and got married; my mother was also born not far away – in Bolhrad. I still vividly remember Bolhrad’s poplars and plane trees, its vines and golden ash trees, the magnificence of the Potemkin steps and life in the small limestone backyards, the market in Priwos and the pebbles in Luzanivka.
In Odessa I also got to know the Mediterranean world for the first time. Even in the strictly isolated Soviet Union, Odessa was a lesson in openness – in view of what Dostoevsky called “universal receptivity” in his Pushkin speech. European history, like the history of the whole world, begins with the Homeric oinopa pontos – the dark sea on which the ships of the Odyssey hoisted their sails. This sea has left indelible traces in our cultural image memory.
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The Black Sea, in the immediate vicinity of the steppe world, became the northernmost part of the Mediterranean. Initially, the Greeks called these waters pòntos àxeinos, the “inhospitable sea,” whose shores, according to their myths, were inhabited by dark giants. Incidentally, I once chose the same words – pòntos àxeinos – as the title of my very first collection of poems, which at the time could only appear in samizdat.
Living in a totalitarian world
The title alluded not only to impressions of my youthful travels, but also to the dangerous totalitarian world we lived in at the time. In time, the Greeks called the sea “hospitable”, eùxeinos pòntos, because they established settlements on the shores and built relationships with the local population, the Scythians, Sarmatians and Dacians. So these coasts went down in the tradition of the old world. It was near these areas, not far from present-day Odessa, that Ovid died.
Later the steppe tribes came under the influence of Byzantium. Some of them converted to Christianity. In the Middle Ages, the Black Sea was reached by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whose successor is my homeland, today’s Lithuania. Today it no longer even shares a border with Ukraine, but only a few centuries ago it shared its fate with it. A Ukrainian writer and public figure recently made a toast to the Lithuanians – “the invaders Ukraine can’t remember”.
Unlike later invasions, the Lithuanian invasion can hardly be called an occupation. The Lithuanians did not impose anything on the peoples who entered the Grand Duchy. On the contrary, they learned a lot from the locals. Once known by the Tatar name Khadjibey because Crimean Tatars nomads the area, Odessa has its origins in the Grand Duchy.
Tangled historical threads
These are just some of the tangled, intertwined locks that underlie Odessa’s history. Perhaps the most important thread is that of the Zaporozhye Sich, a settlement area that is one of the foundations of Ukrainian nationality and sovereignty. But in Odessa you will also find an Italian thread (Odessa is reminiscent of Genoa in a way), a French one (Odessa is reminiscent of Marseille), a Polish and Moldovan, Armenian and of course Jewish thread.
There is also a Russian variety, but the real Odessan Russians are a special crop. Unlike a Russian from Moscow or St. Petersburg, they are more open, get along better with their neighbors and are, I would say, more Mediterranean. Perhaps, in terms of its culture, Odessa can be described as an offshoot of the Levant.
All of this has contributed to Odessa’s outstanding literary tradition, which begins with Alexander Pushkin, Adam Mickiewicz and Lesya Ukrainka and includes to varying degrees Anna Akhmatova, Boris Shitkow and Yuri Olesha, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Isaak Babel – and inherited from contemporary authors from Free Ukraine. . is becoming.
Like my native Vilnius, Odessa is a borderland between countries and cultures. Borders can be extremely fruitful for writers, as can be seen from Dublin, which is linked to the names William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, Prague, which is linked to Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek and Karel Capek; or the city of Trieste and many other places. Unfortunately, border areas, including Dublin, Prague, Trieste, Vilnius and Odessa, all too often become zones of conflict and dispute. And here we return to a more serious crisis, which we believe is only just overshadowed by the pandemic. Because no matter how serious the current health crisis is, it is milder and more temporary.
Collapse and bloom again
Thirty years ago, we witnessed an isolated, hopelessly backward collapse of the empire – a collapse that some today describe as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. It wasn’t a disaster, of course, but the start of a more prosperous era. Several free or relatively free countries with amazing diversity emerged from it, or experienced their rebirth. They develop their legacy and follow their own direction: a legacy not imposed on them by an inhuman dictatorship.
Some initially lagged behind on this path, but eventually joined the general flow. The latest addition is Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor, where a people has emerged before our very eyes aware of their dignity; a people who demand with enviable calmness and nobility that human rights be respected and freedom of thought and conscience protected.
However, obstacles have been placed in their path: from police raids to covert assassination attempts, from falsified election results to forced evictions and the compulsion to leave the country, from lying propaganda to direct military intervention, occupation and annexation.
This could easily turn into a real geopolitical disaster. It seems that we are going back to the situation of the 1930s. Dubious theorists and experts describe this as a return to “traditional values” and “a multipolar world”. In reality it is a return to conflict and bondage.
Eastern Europe threatens to become a danger zone again. The sovereignty of international borders is being shamelessly violated. To top it off, this is presented as the will of the people. Borders, which should only be open to goods and ideas, are crossed to smuggle murderous weapons as well as the killers themselves.
Last but not least, instead of real borders, there are provisional lines of demarcation along which the shootings continue. The dismantling of the Iron Curtain was a great victory. Lately it has de facto closed again with only a few geographic shifts.
Writers and intellectuals in general arouse hostility and contempt in dictatorial regimes. But that’s not the worst, because hostility and contempt hide the fear, a sometimes hysterical fear of losing control. What is more regrettable is that writers and intellectuals very often speak of their own inadequacy and irrelevance. One of the common contemporary, and not just contemporary, clichés is: “Words cannot change anything”. I disagree entirely with this review.
Sometimes literature, and not necessarily first-class literature, contributes directly to social change: Harriet Beecher Stowe contributed to the abolition of slavery, Emile Zola and Charles Dickens helped draw attention to the plight of the offended and oppressed in the industrialized world while Alexander Solzhenitsyn helped destroy Stalin’s gulag. But more importantly, literature gradually changes our language and with it our perception of life. In other words, it takes humanity to a new level of development.
After Proust we see Paris in a new light, as a repository of memories, after reading Joyce Dublin acquires something changeable in all directions, after Kafka and Marina Tsvetaeva Prague shows itself as a walled labyrinth.
Questioning the status quo
Not every writer has the ability to renew our perception in this way (although one should strive for it). Also, not everyone is able to resist evil. But at least one can question the status quo and try to initiate a dialogue and raise a higher level of intellectual life.
One can and must remain a skeptic in the world of collectives and defend oneself against enforced, “irrevocable truths”. After all, one can and must speak out against unjust wars, obvious and clandestine murders, police batons, prison cells and torture. I think it’s important to stick to two rules in all of this.
The first overlaps with the medical maxim of the primum non nocere: the first is not to harm anyone. That is, not to write or say a word that might encourage the slaughter. The second rule is: always start with yourself, not with your opponent.
Perhaps this second line needs a more detailed explanation: many would say that the main culprit needs to be clearly identified: revanchism, the evil ambitions of a system that did not become democratic and remained imperialist.
I also agree that the biggest mistake lies with the powerful: they have a greater responsibility. But effect and cause can also be viewed in reverse. That is why one should not let his fellow countrymen out of their responsibility. A country’s sense of dignity does not have to be based on excessive pride.
Amplify the voice of culture
The nationalisms, quite widespread in Eastern Europe, place love for the country and the nation above all other possible virtues – above reason, justice and empathy. In fact, it matters what country you were born and raised in; it is about landscape, language, history, the memory of previous generations and the expectations of future generations.
But if fate, education or even free choice bind you to this and not to another country, then you should strive above all to make the voice of your own country audible as part of a universal symphony.
It shouldn’t be the voice of artillery, missiles or bombers, but the voice of culture. Every effort should also be made to correct the country’s mistakes, often serious ones. Unshakable criticism of one’s own kind is better than money laundering, or worse, the glorification of vice.
Loving your own country means resisting all attempts at self-isolation, because isolation means distancing yourself from history. Loving your country means resisting hatred and keeping your head clear in every crisis.