Essay / 5 June 2022

Sisters In Arms, or Know Your Jakobson

Author of the Week: Croatia

Poetry and War

One of the “good old” Latin sayings they used to cram down our throat at school (and it’s one of the few we’re glad to remember still) is Inter arma silent Musae, or When arms speak, Muses are silent. In a number of cultures and languages it is considered common, proverbial knowledge. It became widespread among the general population and consequently worn out with use, almost like Adorno’s notorious gnome about poetry and Auschwitz that students of literature and authors of endless essays on the horrors of war, seen through the eyes of a poet, never cease to quote and reference. Adorno’s statement, a serious philosophical claim with deep roots in humanism, coined in the aftermath of the unspeakable horror of the Shoah, is habitually brutalized by intellectual idlers, exploited for its symbolic capital and the sheer sound of the keywords. Poetry. Auschwitz. The essay must have been already written, published, festooned with prizes. Needless to say: I’ve been among the brutes myself.

As for the Latin proverb mediated by the ideological apparatus of the state and enthroned by idle journalism covering wars, alas, it must either hold true, or be completely emptied of any meaning. This is the point when we’re supposed to feel the silent thriving of ideology. For war is a semiotic machine, one of the cruelest and most ubiquitous ones, with an immediate impact to virtually all aspects of our life, including the realm of signs. The Muses do speak during wartime and they do speak loud—indeed, sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart from the guns. They let the war machine wear their faces as masks while it spreads its mermaid song. They don uniforms and man the posts of low-ranking propaganda officers. And that’s not necessarily bad. Wars are complex, multilayered, totalizing events, but, though similar in form and execution, they can be quite different from one another in their very essence. The exact nature of that essence is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, fully dependent on his position, politics and ideology. What all wars have in common, apart from being absolutely horrific, is that they need to be won.

Anything the Muses say can and will be used as a weapon. To suggest that they fall silent amid the roar of guns is merely to show how ideology operates: we are not supposed to actually hear what is being said, we need only internalize it, make it something deeply ours, never to be questioned. It is that thunder of the Muses-murmur shimmering over the battlefields, that “good old” In hoc signo vinces casted and tastefully carved in the innocent filigree workshop of theirs. The Muses, secretaries of interpellation. Those very Muses, supposedly ball-gaged, are among the main creators of war mythology, both in its eve, throughout the cannonade, and in its aftermath. Muses, the myth-smiths. It’s by no means a coincidence that their mother is Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and their father Zeus himself, the head tyrant, the president, the commander-in-chief of the armies of Olympus. The Muses do speak, but they don’t necessarily say what we expect or want them to say. Worse yet, they may be saying exactly what we want to hear, but we’re too afraid to admit it.

Let us return briefly to the various essences of war. There are, of course, just wars. They are, first of all and above all—our wars. Wars against them. And no, I’m not by any means trying to say it is all relative and all the same. There are wars of self defense (one such is being fought in Ukraine as we speak), wars against occupation, tyranny, and fascism. Wars for freedom, of Davids against Goliaths. These are always our wars, and there’s always that other side, without which there can be no war. Our Muses are the good ones, they sing the anthem of freedom in their crystal soprano voices. It’s actually their Muses, those who fall silent when guns roar, who turn into wicked propagandists instead. The Muses of their poetry or music that once, not so long ago, we used to cherish and celebrate as we did with our own ones or more, and now the bastards betrayed us.

Fact: we need propaganda in wars, our wars. Remember: wars need to be won. But, just as in the arts, just as in poetry, the propaganda in war needs to be good, or it’s not propaganda at all. And the Muses must read Roman Jakobson, if they want their mother Mnemosyne to have mercy on them. They need to be acutely aware of the different functions of language, and use it accordingly. Even if the others are now amplified, the Muses must favor the poetic function of language. Even if they’re adjusting their style, merging it with that of the “popular genres”, training it along the nonreader’s horizon of expectation. Only bad Agitprop is remembered as propaganda. As time passes, also as trash, cringe. Good Agitprop, on the contrary, ferments into pleasure of poetry. A great body of canonic literature was written during wartime and about wars—I mean “real literature”, steadfastly and exclusively focused on its dominant, poetic function. Yes, there are Trakl and Char and Celan, and the jewel that is Akhmatova. But this piece is not about them. Not even about Remarque, or Hemingway. It is about the Muses who are supposed to remain silent.

An excursus: war itself seems to act as a literary agent of sorts, especially in so-called big languages and literatures. There’s nothing today that seems to sell a book or an author as swiftly as a good old war. I spent an afternoon once leafing through the contemporary poetry in translation section of a large London bookstore. A book or an author that hadn’t just emerged out of a war zone (conflict zone, as they put it these days) was quite difficult to find. It seems that no one in the great city of London wouldn’t care for any of those poets at all, if they hadn’t crossed paths with Chemical Ali, the Myanmar junta, the cold banker eyes of Slobodan Milošević. This deeply-rooted commodification of horror and trivialization of empathy is ultimately reflex of imperial cultural and economic supremacy. I’ve heard of young Bosnian poets dreaming of a war of their own, cursing the lucky generation that lived through the one in the 1990s. I’ve heard of poets in far-flung mountain villages in Switzerland cursing the 500 years of Swiss peace. When the guns are asleep, hardly anyone seems to be interested.

Back to the Muses. The ones with a mission, but good, smart, freedom-loving, antifascist, and committed to the poetic function of their language; sad and angry, but true to the cause. Ones who have read Jakobson without necessarily reading him, sometimes a long before he wrote his works The poetry festival I’m lucky to be running—sixty years old the next year—was named after Ivan Goran Kovačić, a poet, writer and journalist who fought on the side of Yugoslav Partisans and was captured and killed by the local quislings in 1943. Those folks, the Partisans, fought a war which—if really forced to choose—I would sign in to fight as my own. You know, the David and Goliath story. Ideals. The political agenda that, I wish to believe, I also stand for myself. Same as in the case of the Spanish Civil War. Those wars we based our personal mythologies on while still boys, oblivious of death and the fact that every war is its foul cradle, but that stood the painful process of critic of our own ideology later on.

Ivan Goran Kovačić’s most famous, iconic narrative poem, The Pit, finished not long before the poet himself was thrown into an unmarked grave, is an outstanding example of the Muses singing in tune and tempo with the guns of (our!) freedom, yet louder than them. The Pit was finished on the front lines, in the karst of Herzegovina, and its first edition—one of many­—was printed on a makeshift press in the liberated territory, and bound in parachute silk. The book was illustrated by Kovačić’s fellow Partisan fighters, Edo Murtić, one of the greats of Yugoslav modernism, and painter Zlatko Prica. Famous actor Vjekoslav Afrić read it for the first time to the wounded soldiers of the First Proletarian Division. He is also credited with saving the only surviving copy of Kovačić’s original manuscript. The first copies, signed by the illustrators, reached just-about-to-become official Partisan allies Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle. A French translation by Susanne Beraud and Kosta Stojadinović appeared as early as 1948, helping this colossal epic about terror and resistance resonate wider. The edition was illustrated with copperplate prints by Pablo Picasso, and Paul Éluard wrote, instead of a preface, a poem titled “The Tomb of Goran Kovatchitch”. Louis Aragorn was quoted as saying that for him, Goran’s poem was “The greatest poetic achievement after the Divine Comedy”. In spite of being called out as a “work of decadent art” by some of its own commissar-Muses, The Pit—more or less traditional in form and very explicit in its imagery—did what it needed to do on the battlefield and in the rear, therefore it can be safely considered a fine piece of Agitprop. On the other hand, its artistic integrity never compromised the slightest. As well as—even more important for this very essay—its political pretext, content or context. Those silent Muses have spoken, and their cries stood the test of time, testifying truly political poetry. With, nota bene, close to nothing explicitly political being said. The Pit is, above all, a stunning fresco of human suffering.

Kovačić’s magnum opus is, of course, just one of the many possible examples. But deeply mine. And personal is, as we know, always political. The story doesn’t end here. In light of the way it was treated in order to whitewash its political context and agenda both in postwar France and modern-day Croatia, Kovačić’s work would make a curios case study of ideological warfare and damnatio memoriae. But that’s another story. And it’s a sad one. And to win wars, real and symbolic ones, you need to keep your head up. Know your enemy. Write poems like there’s no tomorrow. Always listen to what the Muses are saying, especially when they’re pretending to keep their mouths shut. And train your inner Jakobson, who is never to be tamed.

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