An exhibition of Yugoslav art in London a few years ago. We are walking and looking at the exhibits with our English friend. You can tell from our eyes that we are seeing and thinking differently. Finally we admit it. And while we confess to it, our smiles are courteous and cordial like flags on two ships passing one another.
And the Englishman says: “It is apparent that the artists have something European in them, and they are European, and they do work in a European manner, but there is still something missing. And I cannot grasp at which point what they are ends, and what they appear to be begins.”
– You know, the thing with us, our artists and us in general, and the thing with our Europeanism, is that we are in a way like the spirit of the forest who won over the princess and took her home with him, but had to keep an eye on her, because despite her affections for her new environment and new life, she showed a certain tendency to flee. One day the spirit fell into a sleep somewhat deeper than usual, and the princess escaped. A little later the spirit awoke, jumped up and realized what had happened. With all of his strength and stride he hurried after the runaway. But his strength and leap were so great that with his first leap he passed and left the princess behind. He wandered for a long time afterwards, but he could not find her and get her back. At home, he wept bitter tears: for being incapable of holding on to such a gentile and beloved thing, or at least of catching up with her when she tries to flee”. Whether our friend understood this story the way we understood it – we did not find out. Afterwards he went for lunch, and we went down from Tate Gallery to the Thames, and there on a bench made this note about small nations.
The Englishman had sensed one Schopenhauer’s classification. Writing about the identity of man, Schopenhauer derived a very interesting line on certain basic, and one might say fateful tendencies of man. According to him, a man’s identity depends on what the man is, what he has got and what he appears to be. We are of the opinion that this ideology in its entirety can also be applied to nations. With great nations, significant in number and territory, but primarily characteristic as states and cultures, all three series of aforementioned features are present. And it is not that these features are present in series, they are also inter-serially amplified. Namely, a great nation often is what it has, and more importantly, it is what it appears to be, and therefore, what it has. And if this is not completely true, it is true at least in part or periodically. Of course, sometimes a great nation neither has nor is, but only appears to be; but what it appears to be depends on its combinations, calculations and decorations.
A small nation certainly has and is something. But being insignificant, or of slight significance as a state and culture, it is worth what it is worth with its racial characteristics, with its racial and not cultural individuality. In addition, this value remains localized, without transcending to the interest functions of the world, because a small nation lives in international solitude, so to speak. However, certain qualities are acquired in solitude; but to the same extent qualities are lost, and often even the endemic ones. Solitude preserves the race more than it develops the state or culture.
Strange things happen to small nations while they evolve from a purely racial to a cultural individuality. The process of development can be perceived in the existence, possessions and outer appearance of a small nation. The process suppresses the nation as a race, and demands that it assume primarily political and general cultural forms and functions. But it can also occur that a nation, secretly, remains intimately more of a race than a state or cultural organization. And as such, it is constantly stronger than the state, even though a long time ago it handed priority over to the state.
As we have said, even a small nation is something and has something. But as small nations do not have much contact with diversity, which is an opportunity to test those qualities and get acquainted with the best features of these qualities; these qualities remain a kind of demure potentials. Of course, primitively and wildly demure.
These potentials in a small nation are a mixture of sacred and profane, sentimental and cruel, dogmatic and critical. And this is why if put to use, whatever that use may be: political, generally educational, purely artistic – these qualities become rather bewilderingly effective – inconsistently or extremely effective. All small nations, because of their solitude, carry in them a sort of melancholic shyness, which dissolves activity. At one moment they are self-confident, triumphant, cheerful, at another, penitent before themselves and before their worst enemies. This is especially apparent in a small nation’s art.
The greatest problem with a small nation is what this nation appears to be. In the simple, so to say local life of a small nation, you cannot be, not is it worth to be, “appearing.” And in the global perspective, the outer appearance of a small nation depends on the impression and rating of the great nations, or one great nation; of foreigners that have “traveled and studied the nation”, or who have business and ties through well-known “spheres”. In addition, the benevolent and malevolent in the great nation violate the small nation. The great nation usually starts by seeking and assessing the traditions of the small nation, and ends in not finding what it sought. And they declare that it is a nation without tradition, therefore an utterly primitive nation.
These great nations forget that without tradition there cannot be any individuality, not even racial, that in the life of the smallest nation, often a tribe or a caste, there had to be a master plan, a will for order and principles, for taming the society and schematizing existences. The famous chivalry of the lowest Hindu casts, the pariahs, is a matter of tradition. The renowned musical talent of Gypsies, who play with self-confidence and beg with elegance, is a matter of tradition. Great nations are mistaken about the traditions of small nations. Great nations do not know how to read these traditions. They have trouble perceiving the deeply intimate sensibility in both the rulers of a small nation and the entire people, not to mention its artists! Small nations are full of vital contradictions, and that is why they represent a material from which an altered nation could be created at any time. The artists of small nations, when trained by great nations, are students that cannot “complete their education” entirely, because their internal and external concepts are, indeed, very much different.
The “We” of great nations, their sovereignty, has for a long time been an abstract notion. The sovereignty of small nations can at one time depend on something as shady and non-spiritual to such an extent that it is almost a mere physical necessity, and at another time on some colossal racial aspiration, the extent of which only God knows. In a small nation’s progress towards dignity there is much subconscious effort and many surprising results that do not come from desire. Great nations, facing the dramas in the lives of small nations, have every right, but only from their perspective, to repeat the ironic thought of the composed Goethe regarding the strange plays of the contradictory Kleist, that these plays are set for some ‘invisible theatre’.
Small nations lack the sophistic intelligence needed for grasping what is arguably most attractive and rewarding. They lack the cynical precision with which to read the psychology of other nations. A small nation can only be proud of the very thing a character in one of Propertius elegies boasts about (book IV, 11):
Mi natura dedit leges a sanguine ductas,
ne posse melior ludicis esse metu.
Small nations only go by “blood laws”, they are limited to nature and race; they cannot, or perhaps will not, be different or better, or at least appear to be different or better, fearing the verdict of the judge, the great nation. The allegorical giant leap of the spirit of the forest – this is racial aggressiveness. Those bitter tears after all are the melancholy of aggression not carried out. When great nations judge small nations, whether it politics or art, they know about the aggressiveness and the runaway princess, but they do not know about the hard melancholy which follows both those things. They cannot know or see that this melancholy is noble and creative in its own way.
A small nation is a strange notion. Sometimes the nation is not really small, it only appears to be small; while actually it is a peaceful, very patient and conservative fragment of a large nation, or a certain racial group; and it is aware of this. Sometimes it is neither big nor small, but actually only the yeast of a nation, the essence is racial, the eternal renaissance element, a nation that breeds a nation. Such a nation lives so disconnected, so much on the edge of every civilization that it lives under special biological conditions. However, the long-time scrawniness, the prolonged solitude, can be a normal requirement for strengthening and metamorphosis. The path of a small nation to a better and higher life is sometimes dim and endless, like a forest trail.
In small nations, from the ruler to the singing shepherd, everyone trembles and breaks between two balances, one which is fading away and the other which is coming into being. What is at work in small nations is what art history calls renaissance, and natural sciences, much more accurately, call event elements. Small nations are indeed a less European and more of a celestial material which by God’s will can instantly enter new events, become a new world; naturally, by God’s will, it can be momentarily pushed deeper into the elements. This is a dance on the razor’s edge; it is the flashing and dwindling away in a dewdrop. It is the poetry of small nations everywhere, even in painting.
A small nation artist Simeon Stylites: perching on a thin stand above the chaotic oscillation of event elements, himself reluctant. These artists always create something too difficult and never perfect. These artists love imperfection, because they still do not know or love the craft of creation, and also do not love enough this life in which they are seated in the rear. They foster imperfection in perfecting, because it is the symbol of their lives and fates: having and not having, allure and pain, rest and toil. However, can this be known and understood as we know and understand it – by our English friend?
Excerpted from the book Balkan by Isidora Sekulić, Plavi jahač, Belgrade 2003.
Translated by Vuk Tošić and Ivica Pavlović
- My birth and blood gave me laws to follow,
I cannot be frightened by judgment. ↑