We know already: Milos Crnjanski has died. We know it, and we don’t know it. Why isn’t it possible to believe in death, which is the ancestral fact of every other fact, something absolutely axiomatic and obvious? It’s because belief is the negation of death; one cannot believe in death because death and belief are irreconcilable. The person who survives and attempts to believe in death, and, by doing so, perhaps to reconcile with it (to reconcile: to liberate from the pain of not accepting) – what is he or she doing but attempting, even if it’s not intentional, to see the person who has departed, to oppose dispersal with memory, to counteract dematerialization, a literal de-facement, with a countenance or figure?
The first snow of the season has already fallen on Crnjanski’s grave, and I am trying to picture him as he was at the spring festival in honor of Jovan Petkovic Dis in Cacak, where I had to give a talk about him, right in front of him, and where I met him for the first time; but I cannot envision that Crnjanski. Between him and me, there always appears, irresistably, the Crnjanski from the photograph that, if I remember correctly, was published in his “poetic comedy” of a play called The Masks and that I, as a child during the war, right there in that same city of Cacak, had kept on my desk. For me, the countenance of Milos Crnjanski has remained since then simply that visage from The Masks; into it had poured, line by line, every one of his sentences, so that even today I cannot revel for even a single moment in their one-of-a-kind magic without that countenance emerging from the lines.
I’m only telling this story of mine because I think that it’s not mine alone; because I believe, because I’m almost prepared to declare, that in everyone’s mind, everything related to Crnjanski returns, ineluctably, to this youthful image of him; all other pictures of him, from all other photographs or films, and from all of Crnjanski’s sentences and books, merge gradually into that face, into his features that, however, disappear into indeterminacy, in some gentle haze, in an airy ambiguity. This most essential Crnjanski, blurry, situated between melancholy and irony, like a stifled glow that he reaches by means of a romantic dematerialization of all that is immanent and given, of everything extant, empirical – this is the Crnjanski who, as if in an unending aerial, remains suspended before us, on our internal horizon: that Crnjanski who found such lightness and exaltation on the Galician front, as an Austro-Hungarian soldier, finding, amidst the hell of general disunity and universal fragmentation, as if in answer to that very hell, his Sumatraism, that neo-romantic mythology of universal connectedness, and who, through the anarchism of a demobilized soldier, someone who belongs to nobody and to nothing, via an anarchic freedom, found a transparency, of both word and body, which wanders, freed from earth’s gravity, through the skies.
The spirit of roaming, and straying, that spoke through him was not part and parcel of the literary modernism of the period after the Great War. It was the spirit of a man who’d gone through the hell of war and who had found in it, in equal parts, both his anarchic anti-nationalism, so exceptionally pronounced in his poetry of the time, and the mythology of the population of the Vojvodina, which, as if cursed, and personified in the character of Vuk Isakovic from the magnificent novel Migrations, was condemned to perish for other people’s interests and benefit. The theme of Odysseus was conceived somewhere there, and it indeed it would never leave Crnjanski, but it took the form of an absolute odyssey, one for which no Ithaca existed in reality, but was only there in a dream, always as something else, something different from what it was in reality, and it is here as well that the fate of the Hyperboreans originates: the fate of dreaming of Strazilovo while under the Tuscan sun, and while on Stražilovo of dreaming of the north, of ice on that mountain or in Italy itself (…)
(…) Crnjanski had an extraordinarily strong influence on this kind of literature, an influence stronger and more ramified than is usually supposed. He is, as is generally known, a revolution in poetry, and a revolution in the novel; and yet no one has ever duplicated the airiness of his poetic sentences, or the transparency of his words, for no one else found them where Crnjanski did – in the mud of the trenches. All that is airy, and quivering, and light, this whole illusion of disembodiment, and the gentleness in it, is a transcendence of brutality and mud. The power of the translucent foam is the power of being unreconciled with mud, which is always as bloody as that kind of mud found in Migrations: the translucent foam, that lightness, is the heaviness of mud transcended. Built into the magic of what, in Crnjanski, seems so invulnerable, almost like a kind of immortality (for what is bodiless and like only unto sound, is not sound but only what remains in the mind from sound, which doesn’t correspond to the “body” of sound but splits off from everything, including from the sound itself) – built into this magic is the experience of death; and it’s even the case that this magic is achieved by means of death. This soldier, this perpetual youth, in the midst of death’s triumph, managed to turn death into his loyal representative, his apprentice. The principle of death, as the principle of the negation of everything that exists, every form, every identity, lies at the very core of his so-called literary technique. Whether this is a late expressionist dissolution of form, or a neo-romantic one, death thereby repudiates itself, becoming a function of the poetry of diffusion, diffusing itself, even, through the mutely radiant air, and the lustrous fog in which everything else diffuses and amidst which Crnjanski strayed, as if he were freed from mundane heaviness, picking sweet cherries, and sour ones, on Strazilovo, as if he were coming from ancient Japan or China with a smile on his face, or caressing, from Belgrade, the snowy peaks of the Urals.
There he is again: Crnjanski. I see him now, as the snow falls on top of his grave. There he is. That blurry countenance on the photograph, out of focus, that comes from his book The Masks. A perpetual youth belonging to an eternal romanticism: the person who’s here and who’s not here, like a permanent exaltation that, of course, can no longer remember where, or when, it originated. Maybe it’s always thus, when genuine poetry is at issue: conceived in history, poetry frees itself from history; found in what is very much a fixed or set moment, it emancipates itself from the moment. Crnjanski, that substantive and essential man, is the romanticism of youth, and youth preserves it, youth that is always shakiness and longing and distance; the youth that, in its trembling, is melancholy and happy, has no countenance but rather stumbles towards its countenance, taking its greatest joy in the wandering that, in fact, never matches up with one. Crnjanski’s face, the one from that youthful photo of him into which, truly all his verses and all his sentences flowed, this face that did not contradict them and was not a betrayal of them, this face that found miraculous reconciliation with those sentences which, otherwise, recoiled from any sense of finality, from every definitive form or face – that face of his is, as we all know, one of those rare ones on which youthfulness fits. It’s a wonder, this: that a face finds youthfulness. It’s a wonder of which only very few of us are capable; it’s a wonder realized in The Carnojevic Diaries and in Strazilovo.
For a long while now there has no longer been on my desk a photograph of Crnjanski as a young man, but neither I nor we have further need of it, if truth be told: it’s enough that for a moment, an unforeseen but nonetheless necessary moment, whether by nostalgia or some unnameable desire, the magic and the power of distance are quickened by that romanticism that we believed (so naively) was dead and gone, and that we again find ourselves surrounded by our youth, and that we again, in youths’s heights and strayings, catch sight of Milos Crnjanski.
First published in Danas (Specijalni dodatak – Konstantinović: Odlazak Radomira Konstantinovića, [1928-2011]), November 5-6, 2011.
Translated by John K. Cox (History, North Dakota State University)