The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barbarian
Javor Gardev © 2000

The case Droctulft

“Droctulft was a Longobardian warrior who deserted to the enemy during the siege of Ravenna, and died defending the city he had previously attacked. He came from the dense. He was white, brave, innocent, cruel. The war brings him to Ravenna and there he sees something he has never seen…in such plenitude. He sees a city-organism It moves him as we might be moved today by a complex machine of whose purpose we are ignorant but in whose design we can intuit an immortal intelligence. Abruptly, that revelation, the City, blinds him and renews him. Droctulft deserts, and goes to fight for Ravenna. He dies and words he would not have understood are carved on his tomb:
‘Contempsit caros, dum nos amat ille, parentes,
Hanc patriam reputans esse, Ravenna, suam’ [1]

After several generations, the Longobardi who condemned the deserter, did as he had done: they became Italians, Lombards, and perhaps someone of that race – Aldiger – may have engendered those who engendered Alighieri…” [2]

My attention was captured when I first read this story in Borges who was moved himself when he read it in Croce who had not remained indifferent either when he had read it in Paul the Deacon. It is a memorable story, memorable by the indestructible internal logic of self-identification. A self-identification that is strong and explicit, maybe even coercive with its unquestionable appeals to us. There are no Romans in Europe for a long time now. They were consumed, they were turned into fetish and assimilated, so that they could infuse into the veins of the present masters of the continent as their desirable “alter ego”, consequently often acknowledged as their only “ego”, as anima of the adopted civilization. But today’s Europe still has its various hordes of belated barbarians; as they approach calls “Hannibal ante portas” are heard, ramparts are being built, moats are being dug. Some of them are quite like Droctulft.

The life of the modern Droctulfts

For the sake of convenience I shall call the barbarians of the latter ilk inhabiting the south-eastern provinces of Europe with the name “Droctulfts”. Compared to the other local barbarian breeds the population of Droctulfts is rather sparse. Droctulfts are usually born in the cavern of Plato, where they spend long time watching mere shadows. Then they learn to read and read Plato over. Having done that, they assume that they must have been watching mere shadows and start trying to leave the cavern. This turns out to be a demanding, venturous and almost impossible task, because, due to their underdeveloped sight, the rest of the barbarians inhabiting the cavern don’t want their feeling of equilibrium in the world to be disturbed by annoying ideas or any source of strong light in general. Left with no choice, the Droctulfts continue reading; as a result Plato gets very dear to their hearts, dearer than truth. There comes a time when the Droctulfts who have done best in reading set off on a trip to Greece. Sitting in the bus and trying to suppress the onslaughts of sexual maturation, they keep their fingers crossed and hope strongly to see the Sun, or Plato at the very least. In Greece they have fun, throw roses and dishes at each other, and even see an extraordinary bright sun, but on their way back they remain under the grave impression that they must have failed to catch sight of the Sun, not to mention Plato. This is the first time when, though still diffidently and tacitly, the Droctulfts doubt whether their problem is of topographical character, and even surmise that the cavern might be extending itself to take up every space available. Still cherishing the hope that their Ravenna exists they go looking for it among the non-barbarian peoples. They travel long. They even get to Ravenna, where they fail to find it either. The journeys of the Droctulfts usually end in one of the following ways:

Finale 1/ Sobered up, they return to the cavern of their birth where no one remembers them and never tries to recall them.

Finale 2/ In high spirits, they return to the cavern of their birth where everybody expects to hear how are things going in Ravenna. “It is just fine in Ravenna!”, the Droctulfts answer, by which they stop being Droctulfts right away. Then they tell several half-true and several completely fictional stories about common experiences with important citizens of Ravenna, which secures their well-being in the cavern till the end of their lives.

Finale 3/ Desperate, they return to the cavern of their birth and say: “There is no Ravenna”. No one would listen.

Finale 4/ In an indefinable emotional state, they never return to the cavern of their birth, but instead settle in a random cavern in Ravenna. They die there and no one carves epitaphs on their tombs, because there are hardly any Ravennese left in Ravenna.

The life of the Ravennese

“Ravennese” will be called a very small portion of the citizens of Ravenna. The rest will be called their fellow citizens. The Ravennese are usually born in a good place – in the cavern of Plato in Ravenna. They spend long time watching mere shadows. Then they learn to read and read Plato over. Having done that, they assume that they must have been watching mere shadows and start trying to leave the cavern. This seems to be an easy task, because their fellow citizens are quite indifferent to the fact that Ravennese’s sight is better developed; the fellow citizens’ feeling of equilibrium in the world cannot be disturbed by anything, least of all by ideas. There comes a time when all adolescent Ravennese and all their adolescent fellow citizens set off on a trip to Greece, notwithstanding who had read Plato the most, who – only a bit, and who – not at all. Sitting in the airplane and trying to suppress the onslaughts of sexual maturation, they keep their fingers crossed and hope strongly to see the Sun, or Plato at the very least, as their fellow citizens hope to paint the old town red. In Greece they all have fun, throw roses and dishes at each other, and even see an extraordinary bright sun, but on their way back the Ravennese remain under the grave impression that they must have failed to catch sight of the Sun, not to mention Plato, while their fellow citizens are fast to forget their impressions. They all return to Ravenna. Yet, inhabiting the same city they actually dwell in two different cities: the fellow citizens dwell in the extant Ravenna, and the Ravennese dwell in the missing one. The lives of the Ravennese usually end in one of the following ways:

Finale 1/ They work in one of Ravennese libraries until they retire and die quietly afterwards.
Finale 2/ They meet a Droctulft and begin living with her/him in the land of barbarians.

Let us get back to Borges for that second option.

“Beyond the pampas, half-astonished, half-mocking, my grandmother spoke of her destiny as an Englishwoman exiled to that end of the world. She was told she was not the only one, and, months later, an Indian girl who was slowly crossing the plaza was pointed out to her. She had not spoken her native tongue for fifteen years and it was not easy to take it up again. She said that she was from Yorkshire, that her parents had emigrated to Buenos Aires, that she had lost them in an Indian raid, that the Indians had carried her off, and that now she was the wife of a chieftain to whom she had already given two sons. She said all this in a rustic English, interspersed with Araucan and the pampas’ dialect. A savage life could be glimpsed behind her tale: the horsehide Indian huts, the fires made of manure, the feasts of scorched meat or of raw entrails, the yelling and plundering, war, polygamy, stenches, magic. Shocked and pitiful, my grandmother urged her not to return, and promised to protect her and rescue her children. The woman answered that she was happy, and, that night, returned to the wilderness. The figure of the barbarian who embraces the cause of Ravenna and the figure of the european woman who chooses the wilderness may seem antithetical. Nevertheless, both were carried away by a secret impulse, an impulse deeper than reason, and both obeyed this impulse they could not have justified. Perhaps the stories I have recounted are a single story. To God, the obverse and reverse of this coin are the same.” [3]

International relations

The international relations in the cavernous world described above reproduce another Platonic myth – the myth of androgyny. Ravennese and Droctulfts on one level and fellow citizens and barbarians on another are still running towards each other in their dreams; according to their best expectations they reach the supposed missing half of their lost identity, embrace each other, stick to each other and forming jolly self-sufficient spheres start rolling across the Elysean fields of Europe. But when they wake up from that prophetic dream and do rush towards each other they find out to be using different perfumes and have incompatible temperaments.

The modern director

Let’s now see what everything said above has to do with the modern definition of theatre director.

“The word “barbarity” has accumulated  rich historical deposits. It might seem as a word of reproach, but its usage is not an easy one. It evokes the sense of some aged, grim, intimidating aristocracy, a faded reminiscence of the King of Persia.” [4]

The modern director from the East is of the breed of the Droctulfts. He (you’ll see later why “he” and not “she”) is a subject of the Persian King, but inside he is prepared to betray him for the sake of Ravenna. As long as the King of Persia has long been gone, but so has Ravenna too, the director finds himself in the schizophrenic nowhere of lost self-identification. He dwells in a virtual topos lying midway between the old capital of Persia and the coasts of Italy. The modern director of the East creates his art out of his nowhere. He is a function of his own yearning and of nothing else; a yearning that is presumed to be powerful and full of barbarian primitivity. Modern directing is the legitimized power of a patriarch, of a demiurg entitled to create a world and the irreversible laws valid within it. The director is not simply exerting power, he is overloaded with it. As a result his creation is expected to deluge, to overwhelm with its power. The director is expected to not just dialogize with the audience, but to penetrate it with the might of his creation, to inseminate it with the meaning of the work of art. The modern director is a man by right and obligation, a dominating male. It is not accidental that before the feministic discourse has shyly begun to infiltrate East-European cultural realm, the women-directors had been (and still are in fact) demanded to exemplify this very prototype of the barbarian intellectual, expected to make an unachievable attempt to overcome her femininity, to ‘evirate’,  to masculinize. As an evidence I could cite the Russian saying, very popular in theatre circles, which is in fact a commentary of the opposite case of self-imposed femininity: «Курица не птица и баба не режисьор» – Neither hen is a bird, nor is woman a director.

In the scenery of European culture the presumption that the counterpart belongs to the barbarians effects a kind of new, inarticulate colonialism, residing in the secret hope that although lacking in valuable style, the barbarians might still conceal in themselves the clue to vigour, to some vital power more meaningful and more motivating than style. If such power existed it would have been awesome, overwhelming, restoring the desire to live. Such power is, of course, a myth reciprocal to the barbarian myth that style and good taste belong to the West by definition. Among everything originating from these myths is a hidden fear, the fear that one’s identity might be stolen. Barbarians have to be ugly. If they would start looking better they would misappropriate our identity, they’d become like us, they’d become us. This is the colonizers’ fear of the barbarians. There is, of course, also the reciprocal barbarian fear of the colonizers, underlying modern eastern nationalisms. These inner fears are always concealed deep behind the ready smiles of international understanding. That is why intercultural dialogues usually resemble a kind of group psychotherapy, where the wolfs learn how to be nice to the sheep, and the hunters learn how to be nice to the wolfs. Good will, if it is possible at all, can be founded only on the sober observation, that today we are all lost to the same extent.

The lost art

“Anything goes”
Paul Feyerabend

One night, in a fashionable club in Sofia, I was watching a beauty contest for the title of “Miss Transvestite”. The contest was tedious enough, appealing in despair to the supposed exotic thrill of such events; already tasted, thus having long become insipid. An acquaintance of mine (she incidentally works with people from that branch in her performances), concerned that I might be bored to death, was introducing me to various persons, among them a transvestite who was not taking part in the contest and was presented to me as “the best transvestite” in Bulgaria. I was still trying to make sense of this qualification when the so defined transvestite gave me both his/her business cards, looking quite differently, one of them with a male name and a telephone number, the other – with a female name and the same telephone number on it. Next, he/she related his/her deep dissatisfaction with the quality of the present year’s contest, arguing that it were not “the true transvestites” (he/she obviously included him/herself in their number) who were taking part, but some false transvestites (whatever that was supposed to mean), damaging the reputation of the transvestite as such and debasing the art of transvestism by using busts of lower quality and by dressing like teenagers instead of wearing the night gowns, the high heels etc., appropriate to the true transvestite.  The refrain “There are no true transvestites any more” was repeated several times and the conversation died away. But I remembered the image of transvestites’ divergence from their “eidos”, from their Ravenna. The failed identity had also elaborated its own eidetic myth about a Golden Age that had already come to pass and could obviously never be repeated, about the Eden of its “first” and “right”, its “true” emergence. The two business cards with the same and yet not the same owner and addressee are a good metaphor of what is happening in the scenery of modern European art. It gets wrong its own address first, and then the address of the addressee too. It does so because it both wants and can’t help doing so. It needs the mistake in order to keep up its own metaphysical illusions without which it would have perished once for all. That’s why art shifts from the substantial thoughts and emotions communicated through its medium to the medium itself. In addition, art is more and more concerned with submitting to the rules of the new political correctness in social and intersexual relations, this way losing its sharpness and quality of being relentlessly problematic and entering the field of full certainty, of total security. There it forfeits altogether its ability to happen as a significant event and becomes ever more a straightforward illustration, a supplement to reality, a commonplace. This banalization of art in the recent years is stimulated by the dominating social and economical type of the average person with his/her predictable desires, fixed range of expectations, permanent fatigue, considerable amount of indifference and senses overpowered by visual and sound assaults to the extent of becoming imperceptive. All these factors combined with the Droctulft’s persistent pursuits in the sphere of art lead him/her into the border territory where he/she loses faith in his/her basic professional tools. Creating a story about a desire for instance, he puts in question not so much the relevance of the desire itself, but rather the relevance of the story about it. The story itself is annoying. There is no cure for the Droctulfts’ tiredness with the narrative except maybe one: living on the borderline of the narrative. And never beyond the narrative, because there spreads only the all-encompassing mist of collapsed meaning. The mist of absolute soapy indifference. The mist of the endless and endlessly boring possibilities. The boredom of absolute diversity is equal in action and counteraction to the boredom of absolute uniformity. In any case, today there is only one line of application of engaging action in the art of image – the borderline. The borderline where the resignation from the narrative has not yet demolished the latter altogether, dissolving it into a pedestrian diversity of “human instances”, but has rather only suspended the narrative, transforming it into a vision. Attacked, suspended, disguised, invisible but still present, dug behind the visible, modestly maintaining its incognito, the narrative emancipates from the automatic pen that reproduces it over and over again and leaves the pen in the hands of the reader or the spectator. From this point on the narrative is innocent. It has not told anything about itself, it has neither proclaimed nor imposed itself; it has been chosen, called for, wished for. From now on the narrative stops being the story of its narrator and transforms into the story of its listener, the film stops being the film of its author and transforms into the film of its spectator. The reason is that the resignation of the narrative changes the very perspective to the intention to narrate and, respectively, the possibility of using the narrative as a means of manipulation for the sake of power. At that point the modern director-patriarch counterattacks his will to power, gives it up on his own accord, suspends the patriarchal domination, and, as a consequence, ceases being modern. Thus he submits himself to the relentless liberalism of the postmodern, evacuates his nature of being barbarian-penetrator, that way losing his art. He is left with the single opportunity to come out on the forum and wait for the barbarians, sitting on a three-legged stool.

 And the night has fallen without the barbarians coming.
And some people have come from the borders who say
that there are no barbarians left any more.
And without the barbarians now, what’s to come of us?
They were a sort of solution, those people.[5]

[1] He loved us, repudiating those of his kin
and recognized Ravenna as his fatherland.
[2] J.L.Borges – “Story of the warrior and the captive”
[3] J.L.Borges – “Story of the warrior and the captive”
[4] Nikolay Gochev – “Civilization and barbarism in Attic tragedy” 1999
[5] Konstantinos Kavafis -“Waiting for the Barbarians” 1904

English Translation by Pavel Popov
Edited and abridged by Joanne Richardson