Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A testament to our insignificance

While googling the webpage of the Slovak Radio Broadcast, I noticed an article added by someone, who accidentally happens to have the same name as a guy I knew in high school. So I click the link and - lo and behold - it is about Juraj Jánošík. And it got me thinking. 

A few hours before this, I read an article in Sme, about a rather shady figure of Slovak history to be honoured by placing his bust on a nice town square in Rajec (read it here). Add to this the fact that Jozef Tiso, the man in charge of Slovakia during World War II, and notoriously known for his involvement in the mass deportations and deaths of his own countrymen of (not only) Jewish ancestry, has a plaque honouring him elsewhere in the same town, but in several other places in the country as well. 

To add yet another anecdote about a sculpture, take the recently installed equestrian statue of Svätopluk in Bratislava, right next to the castle, towering over the city. The sculpture came with just another puzzling plaque, declaring it to be “Svätopluk, the King of Old Slovaks.” Note, that there was no such historical figure as any "King of old Slovaks" and there most definitely was no group of people known as "old Slovaks". We have just falsified our own history. And got caught in the act. 

This all leads me to ask what it is with this country and its sculptures. Or even worse: What is it with our heroes?

Take Juraj Jánošík - to me, it will always remain an utter mystery that we revere a man we know nothing about, except that he was executed as a criminal and that, well, we know nothing about him. 
A symptomatic reading of the various versions of his legend and personal myth, often reinforced and repeated for the next generation, could show and tell us more about ourselves than about Jánošík. But this is hardly ever the actual objective of such programmes, articles, books, movies and documentaries. Take the above mentioned example. Aside from a few factoids about the historical figure it features only snippets of interviews with artists. People who create, reinterpret and re- imagine an old folk legend to suit their own –whatever- agendas, sentiment, issues, etc.

Jánošík is characterised right at the beginning by what he looked like: “Long brown hair and braids, rather slender figure, bracelets and a belt.” The image further includes an axe- wielding strong and manly type, a thief, hiding out in a forest; with a posse of similar looking rebels. This  is the same mould for every image of him, written or painted, that I have ever come upon.

And if it sounds a bit like a Robin Hood movie to you, you are dead on. Indeed, Robin Hood always gets referenced when Juraj Jánošík is the topic! Want to know why? Because it is a shortcut. We all know Robin Hood was good, he helped the poor and he was Kevin Costner or Russel Crow, whichever. Point in case, we all know Robin Hood and we know more about him than about Juraj Jánošík. Not the boring historical facts, but we have definitely seen a few movies about him. By linking the two legends we create our own frame of reference for one, by using fabricated images of the other. Sounds fishy? That’s because it is. But this is how myths and legends and sometimes history gets created in the age of pop culture. 

Did I mention the radio show about Jánošík was done in English? It is not meant for the natives. We know. This whole mythology was shoved down our throats since kindergarten. It is you, dear English speaking listener, who needs to be educated about our glorious past of heroic young men, fighting injustice. (Still no sarcasm font, alas!) Not that it is interesting to you, or that you would care. But we do. 

When making movies about our own past, we always highlight what seems important to us living NOW. Thus Juraj Jánošík of legends once became the personalised social state, redistributing the wealth created by the working lower classes, confiscated by the land owners and stolen back for the benefit of the “poor”. On other occasions he was portrayed as a fighter against the Habsburgh Monarchy, or Hungarian Kingdom at the time denying the rights and identity of the Slovak nation. Sometimes there are even clearly perceivable notions of his love for nature and allusions to environmentalism. None of this is relevant to history, unless it is a history of his personal myth. But it is relevant to us. 

A nation as young and as lacking in history and culture as ours (There, I said it!) will naturally latch onto every minute detail of its past that could provide a testament to its - if not greatness, then at least - the potential for it. But it is rather unsettling that we would resort to using half- or entirely imagined and fabricated figures to provide that. It is especially dumb, if we are the only ones who actually end up believing it. 

Jozef Tiso matters. Just in the same way that Vladimír Mečiar does. They are important figures in the personal history of this country. And that is a fact. But who are we kidding when we try to portray them as such without admitting to ourselves that they were also at the same time huge failures? 

Only ourselves. As a nation, we falsify our own history for others- for the sake of an image we wish to present to others. As if to say: "See, we matter, we have a past, tons of sculptures of important figures, the streets are full of memorial plaques and bronze busts! It is you who is ignorant for not knowing that we even exist." 
In other words, we are faking it. We are creating an image of ourselves. We hint at a history that never even happened, we use sculptures of our "heroes" as a proxy. And off course, we do nothing. Nothing that really matters, nothing relevant, nothing that people would recognise us for. We wish to be judged based upon that image, not our actions. Just like we judge our heroes. But who else, other than us actually failed to notice, that the emperor is naked?

I am sure that as a people, we get the heroes we deserve. I can only hope, one day we will deserve better.  


AIF said...

well it's understandable. Reducing historical figures to legends makes them kinda black and white (white mostly in case of Janosik) and that makes them easier to revere. Take Americans as an example. The US political nation is young (but still older than Slovak political nation) and when you look at figures the Americans look up to as heroes you'll encounter legends only. And you'll find it everywhere across the globe. That's just the destiny of young nations.

S. said...

I partially agree, but! Wherever I go, the commemorative plaques are usually backed up by buildings, books, tangible achievements, something. They were preceded by actions and deeds. We lack exactly those deeds, so we are building an image, not a history. We are stacking up on sculptures= hints, that suggest a past, but there is no past. And there never will be if we keep this up.
Everyone knows we are a young nation and noone is exactly rubing it under our noses, so why the hell are we so desperate to cover it up?

AIF said...

well, there is past and we could find number of ethnic Slovaks who'd withstand the heroism test. But they didn't withstand another one, which is unfortunately more important for 'Slovaks' - and that is purity (?) We voluntarily reject many past heroes because they are not Slovak enough.
My favourite example is Andrej Hadik, one of the brightest military strategy geniuses maybe in the whole Europe. (Husarsky kusok is named after one of his stunts). With provably Slovak roots he is totally forgotten, because in the 18th century he was simply Habsburg general from the Hungarian part of the monarchy. So he's Hungarian hero now :-) Did you learn about him at school? And we can find many others who were heroes, deserve commemorative plaques backed by deeds, but they are 'not Slovak enough' - as if 'Slovak' history was reduced to 800 - 1000 and 1848-now. That's probably the reason why Slovak national pride is build on Svatopluk and Janosik

S. said...

I completely agree with you on this one and I could add to your list forever. The reason why they are not good enough- basically that they are not Slovak enough just says it all.