Posts Tagged ‘Adam Mickiewicz’

Tomas Venclova speaks at the EU about his mother tongue and an “eccentric, capricious city.”

Friday, October 18th, 2013
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Tomas in Vilnius

I met Tomas Venclova in his role as a poet, and it is primarily as a poet he is known.  However, he has a lesser-known role as a champion of Lithuanian culture, literature, and above all language. His work in that arena is as impressive as his poetry – and he had a chance to show it at the European Union yesterday and today, in Brussels and Luxembourg, where he was speaking.  I asked him if I could share some of his remarks, which he had sent to me. “Mais oui!” he replied.

I’ve blogged so much about Vilnius and Lithuania – try here and here and here and here and here. But it’s a wonderful country and during my most recent visit, traveling from Warsaw to Vilnius, I gained a deeper appreciation of its wildness and mystery, of its old superstitions and myths, and the enchantment of  its jewel-box capital, aptly symbolized, on its coat of arms, by Saint Christopher wading through the mud of history.

The Lithuanian language has has kept many archaic features of ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, and is spoken by about 3.2 million people. Yet, as Tomas pointed out, it’s in better shape today than Gaelic – “now, it is not just the official state language, but also the language of schools, universities, press and other media, as well as of very good theaters. Even before World War I, Lithuanian literature in Vilnius had built quite a reputation, though during the two interwar decades, when the city was annexed to Poland, it was often dismissed as inferior.”

Marvelous Vilnius, a Jerusalem claimed by two nations, the Lithuanians and the Poles, is “the perfect and sacred city which had been lost in the whirlwinds of history,” he said.  The city, which at times almost a religious space, “is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is also very characteristic to it, allowing poets to see Vilnius as a pastoral place with ‘wild’ but idyllic nature intruding into the city center and adorning its baroque décor. … The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century dramas, where Lithuanian and Belarussian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

“But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied cultural discourses overlay one another, letting competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict.”

Two of the Polish language’s greatest poets were born and reared in Lithuania: Czesław Miłosz in the 20th century and Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th – and Miłosz was a close friend of the Lithuanian-language poet.  Venclova’s talk wasn’t short on his friend:

vilnius3“Czesław Miłosz, the greatest Vilnius poet of the twentieth century, also started his career in the interwar period … The life of Vilnius-Wilno (at that time, annexed to Poland) did not change much from Mickiewicz’s to Miłosz’s times; the city and its suburbs were populated by the same provincial Polish gentry, known as szlachta, the memories of the free masons’ lodges were still alive, and the great University, closed by Tsarist Russia in 1832, was reopened in 1918. Thus, the budding poet could readily feel he was entering a larger tradition. But for Miłosz, Vilnius was not a sanctuary to visit on a pilgrimage; nor was it a place asking for a particular literary genre to record its magnificence, namely, the poetic Baedeker, much exploited by the lesser poets of the time. Miłosz was not a regional but a European poet, as was Mickiewicz. According to him, the Mickiewicz tradition marked a revolt, a disagreement with reality as well as the prospect of exile. But for him, too, Vilnius-Wilno was a sacred city. Finding himself in exile in 1950s, he denied feeling nostalgic: he wanted to start anew and to build his poetic tower without looking back. Yet his texts soon acquired a double perspective: he would depict the city of his youth through the prism of his new French and American experiences, reviving the details of the past life with heartfelt love and skill, and contrapuntally comparing Vilnius to his new surroundings. He recreated the city spaces in the Proustian manner: his city is idealized because of his physical and temporal distance, but the picture is realistic enough and devoid of unnecessary sentimentality. In the cycle Miasto bez imienia (City without a Name) published in 1969, as well as in other poems, Milosz was approaching what he himself called apocatastasis, the revival of purified, primordial reality. He was greatly, probably mainly, interested in the language of that reality. In this, an obvious example and archetype for Milosz was Mickiewicz, but also the Lithuanian Konstantinas Sirvydas, the author of the seventeenth-century dictionary, to whom Miłosz devoted his beautiful poem ‘Philology.’

 “The peak of this poetry is manifest in the poems written after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, when Miłosz could return to it. Nostalgia acquires a new shape: 52 years later, Vilnius looks like a city of the dead and Lithuania is some ‘other space’ described in metaphysical categories. At the same time, nothing has disappeared from the landscape of Vilnius: Miłosz sees the same ‘forests of brown gold’ in October, when the weather, again, is like wine, and the familiar hills and twisted baroque gables whisper that everything passes but are also witnesses to the permanence of the world, resurrected in human memory.

vilnius2“Miłosz and his companions were interested in the history and culture of the ethnic communities which had their own right to the city, namely, the Lithuanians, the Belarusians and the Jews. Together with a friend, he translated the works of the Lithuanian poet Kazys Boruta and wrote reviews of twentieth-century Lithuanian literature, his lifelong interest. In some ways he considered himself a Lithuanian who wrote in Polish; I remember how happy he was when Lithuanian translations of his poems were published before the Polish originals.”

“Miłosz possessed some knowledge of Lithuanian, just as Yeats possessed some knowledge of Gaelic,” he said – but that’s a bit of an overstatement. Miłosz was born among Lithuania’s Polish-speaking gentry, and didn’t bother to learn the language, even though he had a ethnically Lithuanian grandmother. Robert Hass said he began learning the language instead when Miłosz was in his 80s. Why bother so late?  “Because I think it might be the language of heaven,” he confessed to Hass.

vilniusDespite attempts to make Vilnius a truly national city, Tomas said, “the Lithuanian capital has remained what it had always been―complex and multidimensional, a continent in miniature. But this is a fragile condition, and we are responsible for it.”

“The creation of our continent and our civilization has always been a duty, an uncertainty, and a risk. I don’t know of any place in Europe that better lives up to this risk than Vilnius―a perpetual peripheral area and borderland, an eccentric, capricious, erratic city with a unique past that violates all the rules of logic and probability.”

 

Dante, Grotowski, and the eloquent body

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
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Mario Biagini remembers visiting Florence’s cathedral as a child, and seeing, on the left side of the cathedral as he entered, the famous fresco of Dante, standing beside Mount Purgatory.  It made an impression, but it wasn’t an isolated one.  Beginning as a teenager in school, he remembers reading the Divine Comedy “beginning to end, so many times.”  Well, he was a Florentine, like Dante.

“I read it often for myself,” he said.  And yesterday, I became a beneficiary of all these years of exposure.

I spent a blissful hour in the morning listening to Mario – who is the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski – as he read the Inferno, Cantos V and XXII, to a Stanford humanities class. Being a Florentine helps, he admitted – Dante’s 14th-century Tuscan dialect is “what I grew up with – what I talked. This language didn’t change much.”

He doesn’t approve of the way so many people today read the lines, emphasizing the stresses – “as if it’s a quite stupid children’s game,” he said, noting instead that the verse “is rooted in living speech.”

Biagini is currently editing Grotowski’s collected works, which are planned for publication beginning this fall in Polish, Italian, French, and (we hope) eventually in English.  Biagini trained with Grotowski every day for more than a dozen years – Grotowski, who died in 1999, was the greatest adventure of Mario’s life.

At a drama class the day before, he had recalled working with Grotowski, a man with “an absolute rigor towards himself” and a “strong natural authority” – so much so that the action at a café or bistro would halt when he entered it, just like in the movies.

National prophet

The theater legend was a member of Poland’s communist party, and dressed the part, like an apparatchik – part of a “precise strategy,” said Biagini, because “his work was exactly the opposite.” He created not his own texts as much as bringing to life the great works from Poland’s Romantic period – the works of  Adam Mickiewicz, for example, who is almost Poland’s national prophet (though he, like Czeslaw Milosz, was Lithuanian-born).

At some point, the aging maestro concluded, “Theater is an abandoned house. There’s no life in it.” He  began to ask “what theater can exist without,” stripping theater down to its barest essentials.  He also focused on direct, one-on-one connections and interactions.

I’m grateful for a few things Mario said:  One of my pet peeves when I go to the theater is having some production that wants to “do” the audience.  I don’t want to “participate” – that’s why I’m in a theater rather than an encounter group.  And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated. Grotowski, he said, was suspicious of the performers putting themselves in positions of power that way.

I also resent theatrical experiments that do a lot more for the performers than they do for an audience. Mario recalled sitting through a deadly, mind-numbing three-hour performance. Afterwards, the performers told him they had never had so much fun making a production. He urged directors and actors to have compassion on audiences – it’s supposed to mean something for them.

Preparing for death?

“It’s not about how the actor feels,” he told a student.  Actors should avoid being sidetracked by their own emotions.  “Just do the job – like someone at a bank,” he said.  He impersonated a bank clerk weeping as he doles out the cash – distracting and unnecessary, he said.  Just count the cash.

“It’s not that subjectivity is not important,” he said. “But I can’t start from there. I’d just make something extremely self-indulgent.”

And here’s good advice for just about anything, though he was referring to acting: “Nothing ‘a little bit’ works. You have to pay for it. It’s very hard. 95 percent of the time what you try will not work out. 95 percent of the time you will not accept that it does not work.”

What do I remember the most?  The melodies that still come back to me today, after three hours of watching his workshops Tuesday evening.  The tunes are the result of Grotowski’s exhaustive investigation into the ritual songs from Haitian voodoo and the African diaspora; he sought relatively simple techniques that would be “objective,” having a predictable impact on the performers, regardless of their beliefs or culture of origin.

As I wrote almost a year ago when Mario visited with members of his Workcenter troupe:

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it’s as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer’s soul in a single line. …

“One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve,” Chakrabarti said. “Mario replied, ‘We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!’

“I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me.”

This time, however, Mario was more active – leading the cycles of song, prodding and coaching the students, stripping to the waist and joining the slow, ritual dance, his body a keen actor’s tool, and one as eloquent as any of the Rodin bronzes on the Stanford campus.

Mario headed today for Paris, and then … Shanghai? Italy?  His story is amazing: “When I met Grotowski, I was a shepherd looking more for adventure, not a career. I got my adventures – and later a career.”

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
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The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?