Live Your Own Life, for You Will Die Your Own Death
Where is the best writing in the world being done now?
Eastern Europe and Latin America, I think, almost without doubt. Great writing, great thinking, flourishes under pressure. Thinking is a lonely, cancerous, autistic, mad business: to be able to concentrate deeply, innerly. Very few people know how to think; real focused thinking is about the most difficult thing there is, and it profits enormously from pressure. Asked about Catholic censorship, Joyce said, “Thank God for it. I’m an olive; squeeze me.” Asked why he didn’t leave the dangerous Buenos Aires at the time of the Peronistas to take up a position at Harvard, the smiling, blind Borges said, “Censorship is the mother of metaphor.”...
From my perch, I often question if the books of a more difficult kind are going to survive this black market of cultural values with its short shelf space, its hype, its slick marketing techniques. Are they going to survive the transformation of the disc, of the Kindle, of the new world of actual access to texts? I can imagine that self-help contents, books about sports or current bloody events will survive abundantly. Guides to museums will do better than museums, Baedekers will flourish. I’m not sure that a Proust, a Musil, a Broch, a Faulkner has even the ghost of a chance. This worries me. The abolition of the necessary time! Why the hell is it that you and I and everybody else have no more time for anything, despite all the iPhones and twitters and Wikipedias? We are short of actual time but more importantly of the inner spaces of the undisturbed which people had before us.
A person for whom Plato and Bach and Shakespeare and Wittgenstein are the stuff of his dreams, of his marveling, of his exasperations, of his daily life, of his communication, cannot pretend that he is a populist creature. I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that’s worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona.
De Tocqueville was right when he spoke of a deep inherent egalitarianism in the hopes of the American mind; and that kind of social justice and egalitarianism and decency—underline that with eight red pencils!—is oddly inimical to certain qualities of absolutely first-rate philosophic and perhaps artistic creation. The European press still will have on the front page coverage of a philosophic event or debate or the death of an eminent thinker. There is a density to the atmosphere, a vibrato of ideas. From western Portugal to St. Petersburg, you have cafés, places where you can come in the morning, order a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, spend the day reading the world’s newspapers, playing chess, and writing. The bibliography of magnificent books written in cafés is enormous.
In Belgrade, I used to sit in front of Manjez (The Stables), order a veal soup and a beer, watch time, people happen. How could I not write when two tables down Danilo Kish would lift his glass in front of the light in August, reciting in Yiddish, French; when later the same night I had to literally carry dead drunk Zoran Radmilovic—the most resounding and demiurgic of all Serbian actors—from my cab to his second-floor apartment; and by five in the morning I’d drop two liters of milk at 1961 Nobel Laureate in Literature Ivo Andric’s doorstep. It’s 7 a.m., and after having a few myself I’m standing in front a kiosk buying a paper I won’t read, when a familiar voice breaks the silence, “Good morning, my brother.” I turn half way, only to see Miki Manojlovic getting cigarettes.
By one in the afternoon I’m back at Manjez, going over details of my TV appearance with Alex Zikic, a Balkan version of young Charlie Rose, when a teen approaches our table asking for an autograph—Zikic’s, not mine. Alex is laughing, “Buddy, you are at the wrong end of the table!” Unlike Charlie, Alex talks so fast that listening to him is like trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages.
Not being a writer inside the environment like this should be a punishable crime, equal to a sober sailor at the pirates’ drinking binge at Tortuga. Even though I miss those days badly, I’m not going medieval on the new generations’ ass: as non-biased as I could humanly be, I regret the lack of mental effort on their behalf, as they go spinning off their wheels through the high tech gadgets and the lack of thought: that burnout smells fake, smoking through every single mirror on its way. It’s not even about the content: I could live, if I have to, with Hegel being replaced by Larry the Cable Guy, but the absence of challenge is what really kills the generation; swimming comfortably down the stream, you always end up with the Stranglers’ song, Down In The Sewer: “People say you shouldn’t stay down here too long, Lose your sense of light and dark, Lose your sense of smell.”
When I was sixteen, I would pack a beer, half loaf of bread, smoked sausage, a fresh jalapeno, and walk to the only look-alike racetrack Belgrade had. Sitting in the grass, I’d imagine my future car, calculate my possible speed, drive around as fast as I could, flawlessly shifting gears in my brain. Miraculously, I’d win every time. I managed to pass Dieter Quester in his BMW 2002 Alpina with Kompressor, but that was a tight squeeze. I had time inside me, insatiable future, emancipation to shape my life to any extreme desired, which in return equipped me with determination to catapult myself into the stratosphere.
I’m not going to sit here and say the rest was the name of the rose—quite opposite took place: my otherwise generous father for the reason unknown to man tried wiggling out of his promise to buy me a car, and only my mother’s firm backup made him deliver. Once I built my rally car out of the clunker I’ve had, my co-driver wanted to try the monster, only to crash into stone banking. I’d understand if he went all out—what tortured me was his crawling pace and deer-in-the-headlights behavior. When the first rally unwrapped, my Abarth blew the gasket and overheated 300 yards from the start. And so on. I managed to endure all these vicious attacks owing to my inner time accumulated in prior years, as well as the dedication it produced, aka substance.
Have in mind this: lesser people than you will do anything to drag you down, those beyond your reach are on the mission not to let you in. Government is already inside your ass, trying to climb up in your head and spray microchips around. If you are convinced you have a few true friends, think again, this time with glasses. The only friend you have is knowing the fact that you will die. In the interim, be yourself, since this is who you are—an interim.
Published at the Serving House Journal, can be found here