Rožanc Marjan:
The Neoplatonic Cosmos


    Under the high church bell, erected in the style of the Venetian Baroque which in the morning seems to throw a shadow over the entire Karst land, is perhaps the only place I feel at home. I no longer experience the world as something indifferent and dead, but rather as something active and pleasing—where a kind of development can be found, a seedbed of ancient principle. Its substance no matter how old it may be, especially the substance in the stones with which I surround myself and with which I am surrounded, contains the potential for all possible forms and for all possible things which can be expressed and which will be expressed. Perhaps this substance will one day speak. God created in one stroke all that is past, present and future and thus all things are possible. Otherwise what happened to me could not possibly have happened: that not long ago I was entirely elsewhere and now I am here. That before I was a foreigner and now I am at home.

    All of this calls to mind Augustus’s neoplatonic cosmos which—for the grace of God—has suddenly become my own intimate world. Not that this experience is anything all that surprising since, after all, my path through life has come to resemble that of Augustus: from doubt to faith, from criticism to dogmatism… I do not yet know, as it happens, how all of this came to pass or how it will all be resolved, but one thing is certain: for me there is only one history, the history of the spirit, that is to say, the relationship of man to God. And along with all the other Christian faithful who were the first to have spoken of a man who was God incarnate, I do not deny my own responsibility for man’s arrogance of will.

    Now when I am so close to Christianity, I am haunted by a feeling of guilt and shame, even of diabolism, an anxious fear of the happiness that springs from life and goodness, a happiness which can be lost in an instant and which therefore should better be expunged immediately from the unwise heart. Before I was innocent. Yet this human God has aroused in me a thirst for divinity. And now, along with all the other Christian souls, I can no longer swear that I can redeem myself only with the help of God, that I might not try to redeem myself with my own powers. This structure I am building is not only the foundation of my own home but that of all the other humanistic plans which have excited my imagination. In the history of the spirit, Christianity is—whether its adherents recognize this or not—only the beginning of a process which will ultimately obliterate God Himself.

    Fortunately one other thing is also certain: when I came to this place, I travelled the same path tread upon by many Romans from the time of Augustus, the path from Paganism to Christianity; along this path I carried with me a number of doubts and heresies. My total ignorance is similar to that of Augustus. If David Knowles’ conclusion is true at all, that it is difficult to imagine a philosopher or theologian who would stand, like Augustus, so high above the authorities but who was at the same time so poorly armed with the scientific discoveries of his own time, the same applies even more so to me. I have no idea about any of these things. What I do know, with exultation and, truth be said, with a great deal of torment as well, I store together in a kind of compendium, a form which better suits my existential disposition than actual knowledge. In this case, time works in my favor since the era in which Augustus lived and the era in which I live are in my opinion remarkably similar. Augustus’ era was a time of cultural impoverishment in the Mediterranean, or more accurately, throughout the known world; it was a time during which cities full of educated jurists, grammaticians and poets, all of whom symbolized Roman culture, were conquered by church sermonizers and religious demagogues—a time during which the Roman theatres began to fall into ruin while cathedrals and monasteries, secluded from the secular world, were constructed. The time in which I live is not essentially different; it is equally catastrophic. Even my homeland presents a kind of barrier against the outside world the light from which grows ever dimmer. It is not, however, a pious landscape but rather a place for reflection or perhaps it is only a temporary haven. But if this were the only problem, who would not envy the luxury here and view it as his one and only home, treasuring it above all previous homes? Who would not pose the entirely different question: is this stone wall sufficiently high, sufficiently strong?

    Once, many years ago during the mid-fifties when quite a few things were still forbidden in Slovenia, I secretly but carefully leafed through a copy of Slataper’s book about the Karst. Even then it pulled at something deep inside me. Even today I vividly remember certain photographs in the book, a picture of peasants with hand plows turning the hard Karst soil in a deep ravine.

    Beneath the picture were written the words: Il mio Carso. Sono gli slavi che lo cultivavano. This caption struck me at that time—a time when more than ever there was a lively understanding that the earth belongs to those who work it—as something immoral, in conflict with fundamental human ethics. The relationship of Scipio Slataper to the Karst was one of aesthetic enjoyment in the style of Don Juan; but more than anything else, it was one of ownership as befits an urban liberal. My attachment to the Karst is of a different nature altogether.

    If I were pursuing a deeper poetic reality—and this is the only reality I pursue or I wouldn’t speak of a neoplatonic cosmos—I would state that human beings really have no homeland. Ranier Maria Rilke wrote in an intimate poem that all people live in foreign lands, that all homelands are empty. Yet, in spite of this, man is at home somewhere and this is precisely due to the fact that in the ontological sense he has no home. He thus rebelliously and with perseverance seeks to find at least his own home region even though in the end he will always find it rather limited and unsatisfactory, reduced to a few geographical and topical particularities.

    As a soldier in the faraway Serbian town of Pozaravec, in the jail of Sremska Vitrovica and in other distant lands, I have always been tantalized by a certain nostalgia although it was never a nostalgia for a specific place, landscape or architecture nor was it for a specific climate or way of life. It was always a nostalgia for people, friends and acquaintances to whom I have been attached by strong emotional ties. I have felt the torments of homesickness more for relaxed fraternal laughter than for anything else and I have known such relaxed and congenial laughter only among my dear friends from Moste and Zelena Jama, two working class neighborhoods in Ljubljana. Indeed, I had never had any other home but that which I found within that happy and congenial laughter.

    The first sensation of the ease and comfort of a homeland was awakened in me during the mid-sixties when I was working as the co-editor of a Triestine literary review, Most (Bridge), and went with some colleagues to visit the Slovenian villages located just above the city of Trieste: Mackovlje, Kontovel, Nabrezina. Then and there, my conviction of the fateful identification of the Slovenian nation with the Alpine world, an identification with which my generic being had never been fully able to reconcile itself, suddenly and with great relief evaporated. My world would be entirely different: the Karst, the Mediterranean… Not only snowy mountain peaks and Alpine meadows which one could approach only as a Sunday tourist—in hiking boots or on skis—but also the open plain and above it the sun, a place where stony sheltered paths meander, where man can live naked, as it were, having come from a distant time. Not only wood and limestone that aspires to Baroque riches but also ascetic and ancient stone. Not only moisture and green moss, chestnuts and pine trees but also arid wind, balm and mint, mulberries and pines filled with singing cicadas. Not only carefully tended privacy but also the warm-hearted readiness for sharing life with others, the openness of social beings who build their own homes so that they lean up against their neighbors wall. Not only the self-sufficiency of the Alpine ghetto but also the inclusion of a much wider space which extends the entire length of the Mediterranean coast and is somehow more cosmopolitan, contains more history. This was the space, these were the people and this the way of life with which I ultimately and joyfully identified myself. Yet only there, in Mackovlje, standing by the stone well in the center of a village where I had never been before, did I feel for the first time that I actually did have a home, a place with which I could identify.

    This experience could have also happened today when there is the scent of natural catastrophe in the air, when the spirit of ecology within us is being defeated, the spirit that is our link to nature, to the deep change that takes place in our consciousness which can best be expressed in the phrase: culture is nature. There is some truth in this but it is far from the whole truth. Nature is something we take for granted, something which preceded us and which is independent of us and which belongs to the pre-Christian world. Culture is a spiritual adventure, a particuliar and autonomous world of human relationships which we create and select ourselves. Therefore, I must confess that, for me, the Karst did not seduce me with its nature but with its culture.

    Thus it was appropriate that I should experience my migrations and my return to the Karst with a sort of pathos. I wandered through the commons, tore bay leaves from the low bushes, crumbled them into papery dust againt my palms, lifted my scented fingers to my nose and rejoiced. I was finally here. I had fulfilled the atavistic instinct of my ancestors who long go departed from cold and swampy climes in the direction of the warm sea, from a distant and hardly populated world to the center of life, to the Mediterranean where faith and civilization were at home, where the whole world had been mastered. I had arrived, in short, at the ultimate goal of the millenial migrations of the Slavic peoples. My own ancestors had no doubt grown weary toward the middle of this difficult voyage; but I - look at me! - had arrived at the sea and fulfilled their unrealized desires. All of those Slovenians who had stopped somewhere to the north, in the Alps, in Stajerska or Prekmurje regions, awoke in me only pity and were my national brothers solely because of this compassion. Chamois pants and boots, gingerbread cookies shaped as hearts, diatonic accordians, Alpine herdsmen and their national songs, the ringing of their bells and all those national symbols no longer struck me as national or Slovenian at all. I alone was the one true and authentic Slovenian, I who from behind the enclosure of my limited condition could break out into the cosmopolitan world. And that is how in the passion of my first feelings of being at home I also tasted the foreign, the new, a feeling that was more insidious that anything I had experienced before. I had to tear myself away from the world of my home in order to feel that I was at home.

    For me, my new homestead in the Karst was like a sacrament. I hardly dared to touch this house for fear of violating it. Even the bramble and the nettle around it I pruned with great care. I examined ten different homesteads in order to be exactly certain of the appropriate arrangement of the individual spaces and their purpose in my new home, to be exactly certain to which house the stone fence belonged and what kind of wooden frame surrounded the windows and doors, which one was, as local expressions go, the medjon and which one jona, which one was gajnk and which one linda. Only when I was certain of all these things did I take the liberty of entering my new home. And when I first scraped a bit of plaster from the ceiling in the wine cellar, the kind of plaster Karst dwellers had used in the twenties to convince themselves that they were bourgeois, and discovered beneath it the old, almost carbonized, wooden beams, I was seized by a new and different passion: the desire to come into contact with all that was ancient. The deeper I could penetrate into the past, into the authentic the more real would be my home and the more reliable my future. I would not be satisfied with only that which was visible, that which had merely fulfilled daily functions: I also wanted to touch history. And when I had broken through to the stone itself and to the oak beams out of which jutted the forged nails upon which fire tongs and iron pots had hung in a distant time, when I had broken through to the blackened entrance to the chimney in front of which had once been an open fire place, only then was I finally nearing my goal. And when, within the broken wall, I came upon old ceramic tiles decorated with magnificent seccessionist vignettes the likes of which had graced the original volumes of Ivan Cankar, vignettes which could have been painted by the young Joze Plecnik or Maksim Gaspari, I felt sorely tempted. Yet in the end I had to recognize that these tiles were from a relatively recent time, from shortly before the turn of the century. And since I wanted to go back, further back into the preceding entury and even further to a time when man’s life was something noble, something important I ultimately had to sacrifice them. Together with the plaster, I tore them away from the stone wall.

Translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak