Life, Novels

Behind the Silver Mirror
He discovered an unknown continent. Introduced us to a hidden century, only a few of us knew something of. If it weren’t for him, who knows whether or when we would understand who Fyodorov, Solovyev, Florensky, Leontiev, Ilyin, Khomyakov really were. Or Cengiz Aytmatov and Andrei Plantonov. He did more than university departments, institutes, academies had done. Much more. Much deeper and more far-reaching. Whenever we wish to give an example of a first-class cultural achievement, we may just state his name

By: Branislav Matić
Photo: Željko Sinobad and Guest’s Archive

His origins resemble a woven rug, with threads from many Serbian lands. His father’s roots are from Ajvalija near Priština, Crkvina near Kolašin and Voganj in Srem. His mother’s from Lički Tiškovac and Martin Brod in Krajina. He, born in Ruma in 1953, climbed up from the Great Plain to the Terazije plateau and stayed there. At that time, one could see far from that place.
As a publisher, he published several hundred valuable titles in his ”Logos”. He embedded the Russian God-seeking ”silver era” into Serbian culture and Serbian idea. He wrote the enlightening Reflections in the Silver Mirror (Gorjani, 2013) and dozens of other philosophy and art essays. He is one of the contemporary Serbian authors often quoted in Russia. The person we have been talking to for a quarter of a century: Vladimir Medenica.

Misunderstanding with the plain. My mother’s father Milan Bursać, from Lika, pre-war policeman and chetnik, came to Srem during the Eighth Offensive. His blood lacked the centuries-long ability of peasants to adjust to the plain; he just couldn’t live by its rules and wait for its gifts. Every year, as soon as classes finished, I was placed at his disposal with a hoe in my hand. The memories of thirst and summer tortures in grandfather’s fields haunted me for a long time. The endless plain was so difficult, that I could only daydream in it, often not even that. But, how would I love my homeland if everything were easy in it, if there weren’t any sufferings and pain?
Now I know it – the utopian longing for a better world, even my religiousness, was born in me there, in my hometown, where I completed elementary school and gymnasium, and in the burning fields of grandfather Milan. After grandfather’s fields, even Kant was bearable. Thanks to the will tested in the homeland, I succeeded in doing a few things in my life.

Image of paradise. Grandma Bosiljka, mother of my mother Smilja, was born in Medići, Martin Brod upon Una. The fairytale-like little village, which I used to visit in summers, had a special place in my life and my dream.
I was six or seven when I first traveled there with my mother. We got off the train in the middle of the night. A single light bulb at the station was the only light in a moonless night. We went down a stone path towards the village, and with every step a roar was growing stronger.
”Mama, what is that?” I asked.
”Water”, she said.
”Yes. Waterfalls.”
I couldn’t even imagine it. Up to then, the only water I had seen was the Sava flowing through the plain, where we sometimes used to go on bikes to take a bath, and the Jarčina, a muddy channel where father sometimes took me fishing. In the morning, when I woke up and went outside, it was a shock of beauty and clearness: several waterfalls rushed down into a bluish little lake above the house, and from it came two strong streams filling two ditches in front of neighboring houses... I remember: when I first approached the ditch, bent down and put my hands into the water, besides freshness, I was also swept by the wonderful scent of moss on tuff. It was paradise, paradise of my grandmother’s and my homeland, I have always longed for. My image of the world without torture, a world of play and joy, freshness and freedom. A world in which any thirst will be quenched.

Impertinence. Grandfather Milan died when I started my third year at the gymnasium and that is when my impertinence began. I frequently crossed the line not to be crossed by polite and well-brought-up young people. I graduated the gymnasium with great difficulties. I was into boxing, I hung out with ruffians, petty thieves and cheats, went to all the worst places in the city, and at night, when I returned home, I read philosophy: Plato, Hume, Nietzsche...
My philosophy professor Božidar Peko wouldn’t let my classmate Mile Stupar me and pass the final test, because we spent time at the famous ”Kutić” tavern. Not even the fact that my knowledge was on very high level several days before the end of the school year helped me. We couldn’t take the final examinations or enroll in the university. Some of my school friends went to Belgrade, some to Novi Sad, and the two of us remained in our city, which showed its horrible face already in the first days of autumn.

Beneficial lesson of Fat Rade. There wasn’t a single soul anywhere in the streets, except for a few scoundrels. We started hanging out in taverns with them. My parents found me a job in a shoe factory. I had to wake up at five in the morning and came home after midnight. Realizing that we won’t be able to live until next summer in such boredom, Mile and I thought to get some money somehow, go to the seaside in February and stay there until spring. I spent the little money I earned in the factory, after buying a few pieces of clothes, in taverns or in the movies. However, I invested a big part of it in gambling, dominoes. We somehow started winning, ”beginner’s luck syndrome”, and our moneybag grew heavier. Already in November our plan seemed easy to accomplish. Then we became greedy. We started playing at other tables, with serious players and much higher stakes. It was going well until one night we stumbled upon Fat Rade, the most dangerous gambler and cheat in Ruma. That same night, I took with me more than half of the money I saved. In only one November night, almost everything we gained by winning some petty amateur gamblers was gone. We were bankrupt. The next day, Mile Stupar and I agreed to divide the remaining cash.
After that debacle, we hardly saw each other. Desperate in the provincial desolation, I reached for books. I read London, Sinclair Lewis, Tolstoy, Gogol, as well as Plato, Nietzsche, Hume, tried to read Hegel. I passed the final examination in January and had the chance to enroll in the Faculty of Law in Novi Sad. My father forced me to do it, but I refused, since my wish was to study philosophy. My father couldn’t take it anymore, so he showed me the door: ”Out of my house!” I went to my grandmother, who lived alone, to continue reading and preparing for the philosophy department preliminary examination.

Fighting to remember. I hope these childhood images will stay with me till my death, that they won’t be washed away by Lethe, the stream of oblivion, or dementia, which my mother was fighting against.
Until the last moment of her earthly life, my mother fought against forgetting. In her last autumn, she liked to sit in the garden, under a tree and solve crosswords. I often dropped by to see her. Once I found her sitting under the tree, her head on her chest. She fell asleep. A crossword puzzle was in her lap and a piece of paper under her chair. I lifted it and looked. Tears ran into my eyes immediately. The piece of paper had letters of our Cyrillic alphabet written on it. My mother was forgetting letters and wanted to preserve that memory at any cost. Letters, and what comes to us through them, couldn’t be forgotten. She prayed to God to send her death before such oblivion would overcome her.

Belgrade. I came to study and stayed here. As soon as I stepped onto the pavement, I remember, I started vomiting. From exhaust gases, smell of petrol, anxiety. From everything. I didn’t want to impose myself to this city. I immediately stood in awe before the faculty buildings and the Academy of Sciences, before ”Prosveta” antique store... Now I know: that awe, that fear of God, made a man out of a punk like me. Thanks to that fear, I didn’t bring everything to a lower level, I didn’t simplify everything and bring it to my own size. I learned. It was a good school, high quality, thorough, not like now. And there was real interest, deep and passionate, not like now. Our lighthouses were bookstores, not shopping malls. All our famous bookstores, the holy places of my generation, were destroyed. Our sacral space now has a different purpose, often the complete opposite, and that is the measure of things.
On my map of Belgrade, Studentski Trg used to be the most important point. There are three faculties in it (Philosophy, Philology and Natural sciences and mathematics) and Kolarac University. That was for me the entire Belgrade University, the center of our world. Today, Skadarlija is most important for me. Not so much for the kafanas and music, but because of the House of Đura Jakšić, still a place of freedom. A house of Belgrade originals, literary evenings, exhibitions, philosophical discussions and real socialization. Still.

Where popularity doesn’t reach. I lived my Serbian influences in the gymnasium, and at the faculty submitted all my strength and free time to get to know international culture better. I had to read all the world literary classics, all books from the ”Metamorphosis” and ”Contemporary Serbian Writers” editions. Moreover, I reached for books that didn’t gain so much popularity. The general story about them was reflective for me, provoked doubt. For example, everyone praised Kundera, whereas I didn’t like his work, except for a few short stories. It was similar with some new Serbian writers. Bulatović, Kiš, Šćepanović, Ćosić... None of them had an influence on me. Njegoš, Laza Lazarević, Simo Matavulj, Milovan Glišić, Stevan Sremac, Kočić, Andrić, Crnjanski, these Serbian classics were incomparable to the new ones.
Only one writer later became part of this hall of fame: Meša Selimović. I read him later, while working as a Marxism professor in the School of Mixed Vocations in Prijedor and lived near a mosque. The reduced Fortress, not the sumptuous Dervish; that is the world literary peak for me.

Pearls from the margin. I have the same relation towards popular Serbian literature today. Only the so-called marginal, yet high quality writers can expect praises from me. (I rejected many contemporary Serbian writers although they undoubtedly had high quality.) I am lit up by old Vitomir Pušonjić and his wonderful book Where is that Vrbovo, written at the very spring of Serbian local language. Another two Serbian books had a special influence on me. One is Racetrack by Ratko Marković Riđanin, wild horse of Serbian poetry, whose raging hoofs spatter the petrified Serbian language and each verse bloats like a volcano. (Riđanin rushes and rollicks with his voice through libraries and Đura’s houses; he walks, sings, without anyone paying attention to him, and we’re lucky it is so. How would we have a chance to listen to him, if someone saved him from his madness in a medical literary institution with general recognitions and awards?) The second is a small book by Branko Pirgić, a novel of memories Serbian literature should be proud of. Weird, interesting marginal people parade through Valjevo in an Amarcord manner, lit by the wittiness of Ban himself, for whom now I know the formula.

Longing for depth. As soon as I arrived in Belgrade, I found two books in ”Prosveta’s” antique store, different from all those in my father’s library, which lacked new Russian and western writers. These books were King of Time Velimir the First by Victor Khlebnikov and St. Petersburg by Andrei Bely. They determined my aesthetics during my university times and my understanding of modernity, whereas, as I became aware only later, they never broke the bonds with heritage. On the contrary, they represented the new-old, the real thing for me. That saved me, I didn’t wander off my path and didn’t end somewhere as a pretentious ”man of his time”.
At the time I also saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Rublev. After Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, which I saw in Ruma as a gymnasium student, this was the first Russian movie that somehow held the parity with western films and our ”black wave” movies. It had the image of faith and size of the cross, the Russian cross. It draw me into the depths of my own being, my nation and homeland history. I remember the scene of Christ’s crucifixion in Russian snow. Only after seeing that movie, the path of my life started opening slowly to me, the one many have passed before me. The path of God-manhood. It was an earthquake with which light tremors provoked by all other movies could not be compared. Western movies were good, but not deep.

Silver century. Russian spiritual and cultural renaissance, the ”silver century”, began in the second half of the XIX and had its full blossom and downfall in the first half of the XX century. We could say that this ”Russian cultural miracle” lasted only a century, but will be an inspiration through all the future centuries, until the end of the world. It was conceived in the XIX century by wondrous writers and philosophers: Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov... They were followed by a series of even bigger wonders, those that create the ”silver century”: Sologub, Andreyev, Gorky, Zamyatin, Remizov, Bryusov, Bely, Block, Hlebnyikov, Mayakovsky, Pilnyak, Babel, Pasternak, Sholokhov, Leonov, Olyesha, Kharms, Vvedensky, Vsevolod Ivanov, Platonov, Bulgakov... It is, undoubtedly, heritage of deep cultural contemplation, whose size is so brilliantly expressed in Andrei Rublev’s iconography. It was boiling for two or three centuries and needed an external catalyst to break the stone and have the living water burst out. The foundations were set by Khomyakov and Kireevsky, Solovyev and Fyodorov, Danilevsky and Leontiev, and the construction completed and left open to all future seekers of God by Evgeny and Sergei Trubetskoi, Rozanov and Florensky, Shestov and Frank, Bulgakov and Berdyaev, Ilyin and Nikolai Trubetskoi, Florovsky and Zenkovsky and many other writers, philosophers and theologians. Besides them are also those from other spiritual realms, musicians and scientists, painters and film directors: Skriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Ciolkovsky and Vernadsky, Malevich, Filonov, Kandinsky, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Deyneka and Pimenov, as well as their great predecessors Surikov, Repin, Nesterov, Vrubel, Aivazovsky...
These names create the mosaic of Russian spiritual and cultural renaissance (from the aspect of philosophy) or ”silver century” (from the aspect of art). It needs to be said that, exactly due to that common internal heritage, individualism, which brought western culture and thought to a dead-end, could not be expressed here. An individual here creates as a part of the spiritual whole, as a person and new subject of ”the eighth day of Creation” (as Berdyaev would say).
Unfortunately, man today, with his deeds, seems to be consciously pulling a shroud over his eyes. He does not turn to genuine culture, spiritual, he seems to have lost his sight in the manner of blind nature, a horrible chaos which could contribute to the end of the world or transcendental apocalypse.

Culture in catacombs. If culture exists at all today, it is deep in catacombs, buried. However, there is a bastard of culture and civilization, an illegal marriage between the esoteric and exoteric, a kind of a compromise between creativity and consumer society. Beauty without goodness and truth, without love as a unifying principle, is demonic and fatal. All those abnormal animals, all those ostensibly alive, yet already stillborn beings, have a common denominator: all these combinations lack salt. There is no God, no spirit. Therefore, genuine culture today is not present in the streets of our cities, in our lives. Original spiritual culture developed as vivid communication of man with God and nature. We felt its ennobling reflections in our lives. There are such places today, but we don’t know enough about them. Sunday liturgies in the monastery of Slanci near Belgrade, for example, are a place with such a cultural source.

In sheep’s clothing. I watch politicians enter the temples of God and cross themselves, even take communion. Then they go out and speak about ”earthly Serbia”, showing ”heavenly Serbia” as a harmful fantasy. They divide the undividable, break the heavenly-earthly in our faith. They attack, even unconsciously, the truth about God-Manhood and God-Man Christ. The cross themselves and take communions, take pictures in churches, while as soon as they go out they start with their monophysitic politics. Such politics can never be anything else but selling eternal life for its earthly part, meaning of life for a small and transient interest, for thirty pieces of silver. However high the sum for which a human is sold and sells his faith, it is always the same: null. Always those damn thirty pieces of silver. ”What good is it for a man to gain the entire world, yet forfeit his soul?”

Measure. During the almost quarter of a century of working, I had many experiences with those who find ”security in adjustment”. I printed collected works of Kazimir Malevich with ”Plavi Krug” entitled God Is not Dethroned. Both Russia and America admire the greatness of that poet, preacher of anarchism, cubo-futurism, suprematism, absoluteness of a work of art. However, his works in the form of such a book, with over 1.200 pages in large format, and despite all that warm and intimate, have never appeared in any large European culture. That year, at the Book Fair in Belgrade, the authorized commission, certainly honorable and incorruptible, decided to grant the award for publishing endeavor of the year to some booklet written by Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, one of those who bombarded Serbia.
After that, need we say anything else about the state we are in and how dilapidated we are?

Is there salvation. The situation is even worse than described by classics. Everything today is happening in the background of such a bared lie, that it is deeply disgusting both to common sense and to the elementary feeling for truth. Furthermore, both common sense and the mentioned feeling are doing nothing about it, they are letting the lie lead them, they withdraw, hide, sometimes even attempt to accept that black and completely bare lie as truth.
But what about it? What about world deceptions if we are living our truth and keeping it within us and within the world? If we have our icon, church, school, ancestors and descendants, our Savior? Everything is, finally, our choice and test of our faith. Using the supremacy of external forces as an excuse is unconvincing, even when we think that we are completely abandoned by God, when the terrible and murderous deaf hum of emptiness appears.
Fyodorov suggested the ultimate way, a great possibility of returning through a common deed. Berdyaev doubted it, considering that humanity has gone too far down the paths of evil and that judgment is already in progress...


Mark of the Homeland
Homeland is really it only if it toughens a human, if it bonds him to itself with strong ropes, at the same time letting him into the world when the time comes. Only if it shows the value of the parents’ home, at the same, with strict upbringing, opening a specific view of the beauty of world vastness. It, the hard, cruel, wonderful homeland, will always, repeatedly dive out of the vastness. Homeland seems to force us both to leave and to return. Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ”Idiot” says: ”Those who have no ground under them, have no God. (...) Those who deny their own land, those deny God.”


Music of Childhood
If I could resurrect the music of childhood, I think my life would immediately end. I would experience Camus’ ”happy death”. The sound of childhood is in the background of all my quests. My view towards childhood passes mostly through the prism of Russian literature and film. Bruegel’s painting ”Return of the Hunters”, seen on a cinema screen, in Tarkovsky’s movie ”Solaris”, constantly returns me to my grandfather’s and grandmother’s yard, to the cosmic mystery of a small human island we all live in, both people and animals, where grandmother tells her stories while weaving patchwork on a huge, loud wooden machine called ”tkač”. And outside it’s snowing, snowing, as if snow has also fallen asleep in its descend.


Those Faces, those Places
I always return to the faces of my ancestors, mother and father, faces of my friends from my childhood and youth, smiling and eternal faces. I also return to my huge poplar trees at the end of the world, the tickling grass I’m lying on as a child, dreaming of a wonderful world of the future, listening to the murmur of the wind in the branches. Those places exist in my imagination, I will never forget them and I’d like to merge with them in eternity.


Guardians of Letters
– It’s our duty to preserve our Letters, the Word. It was dedicated to us even before our birth. The forming, personality principle. The voice of Truth. Even the language has purification through fasting. Abstention from unnecessary use of foreign words will enable us to gain insight into the dormant layer of our language, the wonderful words that guard us and lead us towards the center of meaning with their composure. Foreign words in our language, such as spinning, drilling, tolerance and education, participation and communication, benefits and investments, everything that poisons and disables the vivid depth of communicating, all these should be thrown into the fire of purification. Orthodoxy means using orthodox words, which liberate from dungeons.


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