Rebecca West on Croatia

Excerpt from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:

Well, what did all this story mean to the people in Croatia, the people I was looking at, the people who had been selling me things? I had come to Yugoslavia because I knew that the past has made the present, and I wanted to see how the process works. Let me start now. It is plain that it means an amount of human pain, arranged in an unbroken continuity appalling to any person cradled in the security of the English or American past. Were I to go down into the market place, armed with the powers of witchcraft, and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’ — wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him in his turn to his father, — I should never hear the word ‘Yes,’ if I carried my questioning back for a thousand years, if by my magic I raised four thousand from the dead. I should always hear, ‘No, there was fear; there were our enemies without, our rulers within; there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.’

And they had no compensation in their history, for that never once formed a historic legend of any splendid magnitude. It was a record of individual heroism that no nation could surpass, but it never shaped itself into an indestructible image of triumph that could be turned to as an escape from present failure. The Croats have always been superb soldiers; but their greatest achievements have been merged in the general triumphs of the armies of the Hapsburgs, who were at pains that they should never be extricated and distinguished, and their courage and endurance were shown most prodigious in engagements with the Turks which were too numerous and too indecisive to be named in history or even preserved with any vividness in local tradition. The only outstanding military victory to their credit was the rout of the Hungarians commemorated by Jellachich’s statue, and this might as well have been a defeat.

Again we must go for an analogy to the sexual affairs of individuals. As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given an opportunity for success or failure. Art is not a plaything, but a necessity; and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations.

What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes, if it had not its Elizabethan and Victorian ages, its thousands of incidents which come up in the mind, simple as icons and as miraculous in their suggestion that what England has been it can be again, now and forever? What would the United States be like if it had not those reservoirs of triumphant will power, the historical facts of the War of Independence, of the giant American statesmen, and of the pioneering progress into the West, which every American citizen has at his mental command and into which he can plunge for revivification at any minute? To have a difficult history makes, perhaps, a people who are bound to be difficult in any conditions. ‘But perhaps,’ said my husband, ‘it does not matter very much.’

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7 Responses to Rebecca West on Croatia

  1. CityIslandMichael says:

    Form the essence of art. Eventfulness, not happiness, the measure of a life.

    Damn it, Red, will you stop posting such interesting quotes? I need to work.

  2. CW says:

    THIS, Red, is why I love you. Nobody else posts long quotes from Dame Rebecca. Like Kaplan, I carry my copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon everywhere (it’s in the trunk of my car as we speak). I never get tired of reading it.

    The great thing about the Balkans, and the book, is that I think I have met every character in her book – just a two-generations-later version. Dame Rebecca so perfectly captured the “essence” of the Southern Slavs that she described all of them, for all time.

    The thing about the book, however, is that she has set the bar impossibly high for anyone else. No one, that I know of any way, believes that there can ever be a greater book about the Balkans, or a greater travelogue about anywhere else for that matter. It’s the ultimate accomplishment.

  3. red says:

    CW: I love that about her, too, and it gives me chills. I’ve read a ton of books about the Balkans – and all of them bow to her – because they MUST. If they do not, they are charlatans! Yes, an impossibly high bar has been set.

    I am lost in admiration. I wish her book had maps in it, actually. That is my only complaint. I am staring at my world map, as I read her book, but of course the borders have all changed 67 times since it was published …

    So. Dalmatia. Talk to me.

    Robert Kaplan’s latest book (which I am waiting for to come out in paperback, because I am CHEAP) apparently is a travelogue, in the tradition of Balkan Ghosts – and I think he travls through the Mediterranean, and also what he calls “Dalmatia”.

    Counting the days til it comes out in paperback.

  4. CW says:

    Ah Dalmatia – the best part of Croatia.

    Dalmatia is the coastal “finger” of Croatia along the Adriatic (the other “finger” is Slavonia – true “Croatia” is only the fatter part in the middle). It was originally a Roman province, and has some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Empire. The Colisseum at Pula in Istria is nicer than the one in Rome, and the Istrians still use it just the same as the Romans – for rock-and-roll shows. They could afford to buy some vowels, however. Some of the famous Dalmatian islands include Krk and Hvar.

    Dalmatians refer to themselves as Dalmatians, not Croatians (although they are still fervent Croatian nationalists) and are hardy sailors as well as wonderfully friendly people. You can’t hang around there for long without hearing how Marco Polo was actually a Dalmatian (from Korcula), and how Cristopher Columbus probably was also. At home I have some fascinating articles about Dalmatian influences in the New World from the time of Columbus that are very compelling – even if Christopher Colombus wasn’t Dalmatian, a lot of his crew definitely was.

    All the cities in Dalmatia are gorgeous and historic – Pula, Rovinj (both technically in Istria), Zadar, Trogir, Trapanj – but the crown jewel is Dubrovnik. The inner city of Dubrovnik is totally unchanged in a thousand years and comes complete with Roman-era sewer system that is still in service. I may have told the story before about visiting Dubrovnik with my buddy Misha (who is now a big playwright in New York, as I understand). Some local dignitary pointed out the scarring on the walls of the city from artillery, and told me the Serbs had done it in the recent naval battle. I knew better, however – the shell craters in question were put there by Napoleon – and told him so.

    Recently I’ve heard from German friends how a lot of the war damage in Southern Dalmatia has been repaired and it is now a fantastic and popular resort area again. I was planning to go last summer, but I’ve also heard it’s gotten REALLY expensive. That coastline is one of the most beautiful anywhere.

    I could bore you with Dalmatia stories forever, but unfortunately I’m not half the writer Kaplan is, or 1% as eloquent as Dame Rebecca.

  5. red says:

    It sounds incredible, CW …

    “What country, friends, is this?”

  6. spd rdr says:

    I sense that you like the book, red.

  7. CW says:

    Illyria was of course the Roman name. I want to say Venice had another name for the area besides Dalmatia, but it escapes me at the moment.

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