Proteus was a mythical being, a sea prophet who you could only press and squeeze – while he was transforming into every possible figure – to extract some knowledge, some piece of information from him. Therefore, this is someone who you must squeeze so he would tell you something, and hold him for quite a while. The Greeks use the same word for holding and squeezing to describe a sexual encounter. So this is the figure I am talking about. I will begin with a story which showcases this. In 1983 I managed to get myself invited to an elite Belgrade slava[1] in the house of a well-known intellectual. He is dead now. This did not happen because of my own merit, I did not belong there, but because of my friendship with a certain American, who, as a member of the high class, was naturally invited. When I showed up as a more or less unwelcome person, I was approached by a man who at the time was a member of the Central Committee, a Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts candidate, who was admitted 15 years later – therefore, someone well positioned in many ways – who threatened me in a sharp tone of voice, saying – you, the leftists, you are to blame for all this. I was somewhat confused, I never belonged to the Communist Party, or any other party, but at that moment everything became clear to me – the left can be anywhere, anything goes.

It is then that I started viewing the left – or the leftists – as a figuration, as something you could really acquire anywhere, same as Proteus, in any shape or form, and this is the aspect which interests me. And why? Because from my earliest youth I was used to moving toward the left, because it is wiser, because it produces better culture and better discourse and that’s it. I am not interested in anything else besides that. In this sense, I envision the left, or leftists, as some place, space, some nest in which the leftists are hatched, from their ideas and their brain cells. This nest needs to be warm and someone needs to bring worms, but not too much, they are not particularly demanding. When there are ideas and when these ideas meet with some political will – those moments can produce good sparks between the left as a system of government, as a political organization, as an opposition and the leftists as protean figurations, who can deliver, create, enrich, botch, destroy, popularize etc.

Another vision I can imagine is a vision of the way the leftists function. They should function, in my mind, in my experience, in my interpretation, as a compass needle. So, when a video of a violent priest shows up on the internet, this needle should instantly point it out to the population that will scream. I still do not see it screaming enough for this incredible scandal that happened and that is happening, but this needle should point to something, and this something, in order for the pointing to be efficient, should be an institution. And this is where we come to a word which was already mentioned today – enlightenment. Not as something boring, that we associate with historical figures which we rarely dwell on, but rather as something active, contemporary, courageous and as elegant as something one of the real enlightenment figures – Denis Diderot, a nice man who dealt with new emotions – wrote in the late 18th century: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

I want to go back to leftist ethic, or to those worms – where does feeding on worms stop and the demise of the leftists begin? A good example is the year 2000 in Serbia, when many activists – civil activists, leftists, whatever – thought that the moment came for them to cash in on their ten years of suffering. They snatched up ambassadorial post and other positions, became government ministers and the whole thing fell through. The worst example of this downfall is the magazine Vreme, which simply collapsed because people with a lot of courage and brains wanted to do something useful for someone, and then everything will be better. No, no it won’t. You need to stay on the worm diet, without any reward, without reimbursement, without accolades. This is the only way leftists can operate as a sea monster.

Another example to describe this figuration of the leftists is the Slovenian case. For several years in Slovenia, where I live, we are witnessing ex-communists, current right-wingers, attacking former dissidents, accusing them of being – communists! And this works, it works very well. The worst thing about it is that it is true, those people really are leftists, and when they were dissidents they fought against the Communist Party taking a right turn. Today they are still leftists and they fight everything that is on the right. Therefore, as for them, they remain a protean figure. Why is this paradox important? It is important to me because paradoxes determine the minimal criteria. Those are the criteria which the left in power or as a party usually cannot determine, but the leftists can.

If I can list several points which would be minimal touchstones in Serbia today, I will list them, regardless of the possible reactions. One would be to recognize the right to self-determination of Albanians in Kosovo, and then you can start thinking of criticizing Albanian nationalism. Another would be tolerance of all sexual orientations, as abstract as that may sound, but this is a key distinction of leftists as a group that makes it possible for all citizens to express their central intentions.

In short, if we are able to organize a nest with worms, a Proteus without a body, who can exist anywhere and anytime, but who always has this compass needle that does something, and who can be squeezed by the left when it wants to get something, then I think there are possibilities for a better organization of the left. Thank you.

Anthropologist Svetlana Slapsak speaking at the convention on anti-fascism in Serbia, which was organized by the Center for Democracy and supported by Friedrich Ebert Foundation in May 2009.

Pescanik, 05.06.2009.


  1. a celebration of a family’s patron saint

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Svetlana Slapšak
Svetlana Slapšak, rođena u Beogradu 1948, gde je završila klasičnu gimnaziju i doktorirala na Odeljenju za antičke studije na Filozofskom fakultetu. Pasoš joj je bio oduzet 1968-73, 1975-76. i 1988-89. Zaposlena u Institutu za književnost i umetnost 1972-88. Predsednica Odbora za slobodu izražavanja UKS 1986-89, sastavila i izdala preko 50 peticija, među njima i za oslobađanje Adema Demaćija. Bila članica UJDI-ja. Preselila se u Ljubljanu 1991, gde je redovna profesorka za antropologiju antičkih svetova, studije roda i balkanologiju (2002-14), koordinatorka studijskih programa i dekanka na ISH (2004-14). Glavna urednica časopisa ProFemina od 1994. Umetnička direktorka Srpskog kulturnoga centra Danilo Kiš i direktorka Instituta za balkanske i sredozemne studije i kulturu u Ljubljani. Predložena, u grupi Hiljadu žena za mir, za Nobelovu nagradu za mir 2005. Napisala je i uredila preko 70 knjiga i zbornika, oko 400 studija, preko 1.500 eseja, nekoliko romana, libreto za operu Julka i Janez, putopise, drame; prevodi sa grčkog, novogrčkog, latinskog, francuskog, engleskog i slovenačkog. Neke od novijih knjiga: Za antropologijo antičnih svetov (2000), Ženske ikone XX veka (2001), Ženske ikone antičkog sveta (2006), Mala crna haljina: eseji o antropologiji i feminizmu (2007), Mikra theatrika (2011), Antička miturgija: žene (2013), Zelje in spolnost (2013), Leteći pilav (2014), Kuhinja z razgledom (2015), Ravnoteža (2016), Preživeti i uživati: iz antropologije hrane. Eseji i recepti (2016), Kupusara. Ogledi iz istorijske antropologije hrane i seksualnosti (2016), Škola za delikatne ljubavnike (2018), Muške ikone antičkog sveta (2018). Dobitnica nagrada Miloš Crnjanski za knjigu eseja 1990, American PEN Award 1993, Helsinki Watch Award 2000, Helen Award, Montreal 2001, nagrade Mirko Kovač za knjigu eseja 2015, nagrade Mira ženskog odbora PEN-a Slovenije 2016, Vitalove nagrade Zlatni suncokret 2017.
Svetlana Slapšak

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