The Poet-An Intellectuall or Barbarian?

Can poets maintain their intellectual integrity or is their work bound to be used for aggressive nationalist propaganda? Boris Biletic discusses with regard to Balkan literatures.

The history of literature from various countries can convincingly show that, for better or worse, the
question in the given title is actually not a question. In fact, various examples have shown
that a person will either turn into or never at all become the meeting place or the place of
coexistence for the two possible faces of one and the same figure – both the intellectual and
the barbarian. Regarding the so-called “small people” and the so-called “small literatures”
– whereby the adjective “small” refers only to the population of the speakers and the spread
of a particular language or culture – this contradictory binomial situation, both on the
individual, concrete level and on the general one, needs to be approached in an emotionally
more engaging manner and with a greater sensitivity. The questions raised by the title shall be
the concern of this essay.

We know that there are great poets, including those of international standing and reputation, who are, as prominent citizens and bearers of particular world views and/or political orientation, directly engaged in practical politics, and who are in the mind of the public reminded of a constant contradiction: Their artistically superior creation, on the one hand and their at least problematic, better said, shameful use of the intellectual truly reduced to the role of a manipulator, who himself commits barbarian acts. One illustrative and probably familiar example, is the case of Gabriele D’Annunzio: An eclectic master of refined verse, he also acted as war-monger, arrogant occupier of Rijeka, (a city in Croatia, after the First World War), a member of the extreme wing of the fascist movement, known from the context of earlier history as the , and for a while competed with Mussolini for the upper hand in the fascist movement. In other words, we are speaking of a person simultaneously celebrated as “Il Poeta” (“the Poet”) but also as “Il Comadante” (“the Commander”).

Two books by Luigi Amaroy and Michael A. Ledeen, on this subject deserve a short mentioning, but also a prose work, as a “work in progress,” under the emblematic title “D’Annunzio, Mussolini, Lenin, Krleza” by, a contemporary Croatian writer of European references and the winner of this year’s Herder Prize, Nedjeljko Fabrio. When reading this “Adriatic trilogy” of the mentioned Croatian author, we become witnesses of our Eastern-Adriatic literary, eminently aesthetic answer to merely outlined yet complex problems: Questions of reciprocity, intertwinement and conflict, but also mutual permeation of cultures, ideologies and the spheres of the intellectual and the barbaric in the public domain, but also within a micro-social level represented by the family, or, on an even smaller scale, within an individual.

At any rate, the fascist theoretical-practical notion of “ethnic amelioration” of the Croatian coast, especially the Istrian peninsula, where I live, is equal to a pedantic project of “ethnic cleansing” of Slobodan Milosevic , who was, with rare exceptions, supported either directly or in silence by Serbian academics and almost all leading contemporary Serbian authors, many of whom are, with rare exceptions, the most prominent and widely read poets.

Naturally, we should not in any way identify an aesthetic act of a particular author with the politics into which he or she has engaged in (if there is any engagement whatsoever). The same goes for a few even more famous names of Norwegian, French, American and several other literatures, whose writers were in their own time accused of collaboration with National Socialism and fascism, but whose literary significance has never been doubted. Due to limitations of space, it is unnecessary to use names in order to concretize commonplaces. To complement the former theme however, and perhaps useful for another similar occasion, we could single out communist collaborators, activists, as well as ideologists among writers, and, of course poets who were in service of yet another totalitarian form of rule during most of the 20th century: Communism- spreading throughout wide Euro-Asian open spaces, from Trieste to Vladivostok, from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The Croatian literature which is in history one of the most continuous Slavic, even European forms of expression, also gives examples of refined aesthetes and repenters, converters in one and the same person, ardently intolerant intellectual notables reduced in a wretched manner to achieving the short-term barbaric goals of daily politics. They are on both sides covered in tears, blood, death and the cruelest of tragedies; an ideological rope stretching on our Mediterranean, Central-European, and peripheral Balkan wings throughout the past century. Note for example that to the east of Croatia, in the heart of the Balkans, the notion of has taken hold. Although this can not be elaborated here, an etymological and semantic analysis of this compound or coined word would be interesting in itself.
Perhaps we should also only make a passing reference to the fact that Radovan Karadjic, who is today wanted for his war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wrote and ambitiously published poetry in which Sarajevo was “burning” as it would do in reality a few decades later. Similarly Vukovar would also burn, alongside numerous other unfortunate places in the country from which I come.

Taken ad hoc, the theme of the relations of the constantly brutal and universal power as a phenomenon of the moment, everlasting in its transformations and in relation to its natural antipodes – art, culture, and general civilizational attainment on the planetary level can be traced back even to ancient tragedy. Speaking in terms of radical derivatives, we are really dealing with the barbaric as mostly violent, as opposed to the lyric as originally poetic, often enough with a classic correlation of the ruler and its subjects. This was magisterially, artistically brilliantly, and I would say in a strong contextual framework of recent European literatures presented by Hermann Broch in his novel “Der Tod des Vergil” (“The Death of Virgil”).

Avoiding idealization and pathos, I am convinced that poetry today is absolutely a matter of the intellectual elite, although this somewhat bold declaration is not as unambiguous as it may seem. The art of verse has remained relatively intact despite the horrid mercantile media contagion and daily changes in the rules of the aggressive planetary game. A ruler uses his basic interests in material profits which become his deity to barbarize a world that is easily globalized and turned mundane by evil and crime, violence and ugliness. The poet, as a self-confident and autonomous intellectual is the observer and interpreter from other, more distant ranges, being perhaps an already incorrigibly archaic, archeological specimen, or at least an aesthetically-intellectual pagan priest as a hybrid of what used to be called and . The poet is today still the one who knows that only in poetry to rule the language means to rule the world. interprets and uses this in a different manner. So much the worse for the world, says the poet, looking for consolation; this wonderful eccentric, placed between the cellular phone and the computer keyboard, between the possibility of permanent control of his physical movements and flight – not anymore in the direction of the stars but into the chaos of billions of unsystematic pieces of information in the so-called virtual reality.

Symbol, allegory, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche- a sparkling play with unexpected words and the unruliness of the fiery imagination-this set of still necessary but so old-fashioned instruments, will it forever retreat to the fringes of reality? A reality in which the language is no longer the aim or purpose, not even a means, unless it is unambiguous, poor, and in the function of the semiotical sign that sells out; in a word, unless it is barbarized? From which side of the planet, in fact, from where in the space should barbarians dash on to us and shake the foundations of the planetary post-decadence of the uniform world? What legions, whose legions should we confront (if they should be confronted at all), and is the poet really the first one to go to Canossa? Should the breezy intellectual today be the one to diligently compose the ode of the subject, borrowing the gentle and sardonic smile of the never dying court jester; an ode in the name of the “eternal” glory of a new inauguration, an ostensible new beginning, and actually constant entropy in the form of the recurrence of the same?

Read at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania; “Poetry Spring” (Poezijos pavasaris),
May 2002.

Published 2 August 2002
Original in Croatian
Translated by Ivana Polonijo

Contributed by nova istra © nova istra eurozine


Published in