Catharsis is an important element in both theater and politics. On stage, the actors enact a drama that generates a great change of emotion in the audience. Through this outpouring of emotion – of pity, of fear — the audience can experience some kind of spiritual renewal.
In politics, too, catharsis is an important stage that separates the old from the new. The fall of the Berlin Wall, that first mass demonstration in Wenceslas Square, the reburial of Imre Nagy in Budapest: these highly symbolic occasions all produced an outpouring of emotion that prepared people for something new. A friend of mine in Poland liked to tell me that the Poles didn’t have such a symbolic catharsis in 1989, a storming of the Bastille moment, and that complicated the political transition.
The Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade is devoted to the creation of catharsis. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say a counter-catharsis. After all, Slobodan Milosevic was, if nothing else, a consummate theater director who knew precisely how to stage his political ascension, how to dramatize the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989, and how to blow on the embers of Serbian nationalism to produce a fiery catharsis of public emotion.
In 1993, the Center for Cultural Decontamination began the long process of draining that nationalism from Serbian society. At the heart of this enterprise was a realization that pallid liberalism didn’t stand a chance in Serbia. A new politics had to appeal to the emotions. There had to be a counter-catharsis to substitute for the false emotional renewal that Milosevic and his successors promoted.
Last October, I talked with Borka Pavicevic in her office at the Center for Cultural Decontamination about the failures of liberalism in Serbia.
“Liberalism is weak because it wasn’t well prepared. It’s weak because there were 11 wars in this area over the last century, and there was never enough time for change to take root and grow. It’s weak because of the enormous propaganda from the government in the 1990s,” she told me. “Liberalism is weak because there were not enough anti-nationalistic and anti-war statements inside of these parties. Liberalism is weak because we didn’t have Adam Michnik and all the other who were working and preparing all those years in Poland.”
The one figure who embodied the hopes of liberalism in Serbia in the early 1990s was Zoran Djindjic, a philosopher who became first the mayor of Belgrade and then prime minister of the country at the beginning of 2001. On March 12, 2003, he was assassinated.
“The assassination of Dzindzic was by itself a catastrophe,” Borka Pavicevic told me. “During his funeral, I thought that all these people, the next day, would finally do something different. You need a capacity for tragedy, which is also a capacity for history. You have to have an opinion about the war, about him, about everything in order to have a catharsis.”
That catharsis did not happen, however. Instead, as she points out, a counter-revolution took place.
Today, the Center for Cultural Decontamination continues its job of provoking the Serbian public. When I was in Belgrade last fall, it made headlines for its exhibit Ecce Homo, which featured photo tableaux of Jesus in various homoerotic scenarios. The Center courts controversy. After all, catharsis is not something that takes place quietly in a corner. It takes place on the main stage under the lights and in front of the largest audience possible.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Belgrade and I was watching it on television from moment to moment, as much as it was possible. Now, of course, I think about what Milovan Djilas called in his essay “an expectation of post-Communist chaos.” But that’s not what I was thinking about during that glorious day.
At the time I was thinking about a book that we talked about in 1968 in our student newspapers: 101 Ways to Escape from East to West Berlin. This is an amazing book of all the different ways that people used to escape from the East, like being concealed in a hidden part of a car. And I was also thinking about Heiner Muller and his plays. And I was thinking of a building that I saw in East Berlin, an enormous building for 5,000 people, which is really a small city. I saw similar buildings in Romania and Bulgaria, and I was thinking that maybe this is the end of such structures.
At the same time, it was just before the beginning of the wars in Yugoslavia, so I was mostly thinking about what will happen to us, here. I was thinking about the pronouncement from Woodrow Wilson of the right of a people to self-determination and what that right would mean here in Yugoslavia.
Was there a moment when, in 1989 or 1990, you thought that it was going to be not just a couple of skirmishes but an actual war in Yugoslavia?
I realized this much before. There was a meeting in the Republic of Serbia, a cultural council or something like this, in April 1987. It was still cold. I still had on gloves and a scarf. It was common in Yugoslavia and in Belgrade to have such meetings where the Party brings together some people to discuss cultural phenomena. I entered this room and I saw that the people were not sitting in the usual way. The people who were always sitting in the front were now sitting in the back. And then he entered. And that man was Slobodan Milošević. From the way he walked in, I could see that he was somebody who is very dangerous. There was pause in the meeting. I ran into the writer Radomir Konstantinovic. I said to him, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “What are you doing here?” And then we both left.
From that moment on, I knew that we are facing, oh, how to describe it to you? A ruckus from above. From then on we saw many photos that were an imitation of that famous Lenin speech. In the theater, Bertolt Brecht called this the Verfremdungseffekt or the effect of “making strange.” And it just got stranger and stranger. Of course, there was something similar in Croatia, with Franjo Tudjman and his uniform with its epaulets. It was also a kind of staged event in Zagreb, with the uniforms and the marching.
Many people have told me that the current government here in Serbia features many of the same people from 20 year ago, and that the political environment is similar as well. How would you compare the events of the early 1990s with what took place here at the Center over the last week around the exhibition Ecce Homo?
I was thinking that night with the police here at the Center that I’m standing in the middle of a scene from 1991. It was a performance of the play Saint Sava by Siniša Kovačević at the Yugoslav Drama Theater. It was performed by a theater group from the Bosnian town of Zenica under the direction of our Macedonian friend Vladimir Milcin, and it was part the theater festival called the Sterijino Pozorje. At that time, too, there were many policemen around and these army cars painted as police cars. There were some people with placards, but these placards were not written in the usual way. Everything was stylized, like a weapon, with the O like a shield. The curtain went up and the actors came on stage. Then suddenly we heard all those people from the galleries shouting, “Get out!” and “Enough of that!” They were dressed in military gear and I’m sure that a lot of them were the leaders of the so-called paramilitary organizations. And the performance was stopped. It was incredible. I thought that I was in the middle of a Visconti movie or 1900 by Bertolucci.
That was 1991, and I was thinking about this scene a few nights ago in our yard during the exhibition Ecce Homo. I was thinking, “Oh my god, it’s been 22 years of the same scene.” I was also thinking of the quote from Martin Niemoller: “They came for the Jews, but I did not react because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the communists…”
In between, in 2008, there was also a scene involving an exhibition of the Albanian visual artist from Kosovo, Dren Maliqi, who did a portrait of the Albanian guerrilla leader Adem Jahsare in the style of Elvis Presley. And these protestors destroyed that picture. We wrote about this in the newspapers and gave it to the Serbian government. The Ministry of Culture said, “This is something against you. It’s not against us.”
There was also at that time an incredible speech by Amfilohije Radović, who is now the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro. I was really shocked by his words, by the way he was speaking. He called actors “drug people” and talked about Richard Burton as an alcoholic. I was deeply shocked not only by his condemnations but also his level of thinking. I called Vuk Draskovic the next morning, and I started to shout terribly. The person who was also with him on the phone, the writer Milan Komnenic, said to me, “Borka, this is not us! This is Seselj, who’s putting together his own party.” So Vojislav Seselj created his own party, the right-wing Radical party. And today, we have these people, who say that they have changed, forming our current government.
And then we are coming back to the Center for Cultural Decontamination, which began its theater life with The Devils by Dostoyevsky, from an adaptation by Albert Camus. There’s a sentence in that adaptation: “The terror comes not from the power of those others. It comes always from the weakness of the liberals.” That was actually the Center’s platform. A friend of mine, Tanja Simic, wrote a play called Srpski Faustus about what happened at the Yugoslav Drama Theater in 1991. We had a huge discussion of the play here two or three years ago on the responsibility of the artist and theater people.
This government is composed of the people who were involved in the destruction of the country. But we, each citizen of this country together with those of us who were opposed, in some way allowed that. So this is a bigger question of responsibility. How could we have stopped them? The Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of information in 1998 and was responsible for the “Vucic law” that fined independent journalists critical of the government. You can read about the consequences of this law in a fantastic memoir by Grujica Spasovic, the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Danas. And it’s amazing: now Vucic is deputy prime minister! It all goes back to Milovan Djilas and the post-communist chaos that happens if we don’t prepare for something different.
I think you can evaluate government by its language, the language that has been dramatically rotten. Maybe the government will be successful in investigating privatization. But the language is dying. It’s just incredible what government people are saying in public. As the linguists say, human beings don’t have language, they are language. Of course, I’ve had some personal experience with these neo-populist, national socialistic statements. Maybe they changed, but the circumstances surrounding them have not. Each of these public people is a duplicate, a successor to their previous persona.
There is one big difference, in my opinion, from 1990. At that time we had something more left over from the previous Yugoslavia, the Yugoslavia of King Alexander and of Josip Broz Tito. But today this is no more. We’ve been practically robbed of everything in this process of so-called transition. The war changed things. The war was its own kind of privatization, which is what Mary Kaldor was saying back then. After the NATO intervention, you’d wake up in the morning to see all the new buildings and installations of the new class, which were constructed in the name of patriotism. It makes me sick! But we the people are to blame.
Why has liberalism been so weak in this country?
Liberalism is weak because it wasn’t well prepared. It’s weak because there were 11 wars in this area over the last century, and there was never enough time for change to take root and grow. It’s weak because of the enormous propaganda from the government in the 1990s. Liberalism is weak also because Ante Markovic, the prime minister in 1990, said, “Let’s bring the whole country into the new system.” But that was a failure. If Yugoslavia stayed together, there would have been greater liberalism, I don’t mean in the sense of liberal capitalism, but in the sense of democracy. There’s a fabulous analysis by Ivan Krastev, which he did for TED, about the influence of money in politics, how money entered the picture as soon as parties were formed.
Liberalism is weak because there were not enough anti-nationalistic and anti-war statements inside of these parties. Liberalism is weak because we didn’t have Adam Michnik and all the other who were working and preparing all those years in Poland. There are many reasons, but these are some of them.
When somebody says “Serbia” or “Croatia” or “Montenegro,” it’s not like Slovakia and Czech Republic and Poland. The transition here took place after four million people were dislocated and after such tremendous war crimes. And there’s also the question of facing what happened during the war.
For a lot of people I’ve talked to, their moment of disillusionment came with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. For them, that was the moment when they thought nothing will change. Other people told me that their disillusionment came earlier than that; that they didn’t have really any illusions about Djindjic either. I’m curious what your impression is.
Djindjic was a person of movement. He was like a dancer when you looked at him. He called himself a manager, not a philosopher. I’m guessing that he thought that people don’t like intellectuals very much, and it was better to call himself a manager. And, from the beginning, it was a question of managing the system.
Let’s say that you have friends that want to divorce. He says, “She is impossible.” She says, “He is impossible.” One day you say to them, “Okay, listen I will bring you a lawyer and please divorce already!” And then he says, “Oh, but we have a common flat.” And she says, “Oh, but we have children.” It’s not easy to change!
In my opinion, Dzindzic should have insisted on reforms even if there was resistance. But it was more of a game in which he said simply that reforms are possible and then ultimately told people, “Listen, I have no consensus for that.” But at the same time, change was taking place.
The assassination of Dzindzic was by itself a catastrophe. During his funeral, I thought that all these people, the next day, would finally do something different. You need a capacity for tragedy, which is also a capacity for history. You have to have an opinion about the war, about him, about everything in order to have a catharsis. And that’s not easy. Many people were just against Milošević, but not against the war. And these people felt sad because we didn’t win the war.
After Dzindzic, there was a kind of permanent counter-revolution, a time of restoration. And that’s how we got our current government. This restoration is coming slowly and quickly at the same time. It’s both tragedy and farce. There are all these double persons on the stage, and we don’t know whether they’re real or caricatures. And the people are somehow paralyzed. They think it’s crazy to try something. But this is the meaning of our Center. We believe that it’s not crazy to try something. If you try, maybe somebody else will also try.
Also, we lack greatness. We lack examples. We don’t have anything on the public stage that is worth following.
Speaking of the public stage, I’ve always been impressed with how important theater was for Poland in its transformation. The 1968 events were encouraged by the Mickiewicz play, and Adam Michnik writes about these incredible performances that took place in the late 1970’s in Lodz.
I saw some of them, like Wyzwolenie by Wyspianski.
So there were really a lot of interesting intersections between theater and politics. There seems to have been a similar tradition here, and I was wondering if you could talk about those intersections.
There are different historical circumstances. Poland has been occupied. And the role of the Catholic Church in Poland is completely different from the role of the Orthodox Church here—especially during the war. But let me give you two very contemporary examples. There was a performance in Belgrade and Novy Sad of a new play Zoran Djindjic by Oliver Frljic. And I saw a performance a few nights ago in the New Culture Center, To Kill Zoran Djindjic by Zlatko Pakovic. I think that these performances did more to raise the question in the public discussion than the courts ever did.
We can evaluate this new government by its statements about culture. Politically they are going to say, “We have changed. We are for the European Union.” But then the minister of culture comes out and says, “We need a patriotic culture. ”
What does he mean by a “patriotic culture”?
I don’t know what he means! That we have to learn about royal families and so on? It comes down to antifascism. We don’t remember that we were on the side of Churchill, for example. We don’t remember what we were doing during the Second World War, that we had been a fourth army in Europe against Hitler.
I asked a friend of mine, who is gay, how it was possible that there was less hatred of gays back in the 1970s than there is today. And I got an amazing answer. At that time, he said, there was still a memory of the concentration camps. There was still a memory that homosexuals were there as well as Jews and Roma. It was indecent to say homophobic things publicly. Today we don’t remember anything about the violence. It’s a question of education, a question of the schools. It’s not a question of the police.
Speaking of the schools, I know that there were even worse periods than today in which the government mandated the teaching of creationism.
Yes, we had a minister of education in the Kostunica government who said that we should withdraw Darwin from the schools and that we should not learn English. Can you imagine? I was born in 1947. When I was growing up, we were all educated to learn languages. And it was one of the main tasks of our parents to learn the languages. All of our parents were educated in Paris, in Berlin, in Moscow. That was also a custom in Yugoslavia between the two world wars.
Also, nobody controls this religious education. It’s not under the Ministry of Education. You have these people who are teaching religion in the schools, and nobody is supervising it. What’s their program? What are they doing? Just as nobody is controlling the drug rehabilitation centers for addicts. Two months ago, a priest killed a patient at a church-run center. And the church said, “We have nothing to do with that.” And the ministry of justice said, “We have noting to do with that.” My goodness sake, there are these hospitals where people are being paid to heal patients by beating them, and nobody’s responsible?
If you depoliticize the public sphere, then the church enters that space.
Have you ever been invited into the school system?
Unfortunately not. We tried working with faculty when we did transitional justice. We brought in many guest speakers. We published many people knowledgeable the subject: Mary Kaldor, Jon Elster, Stanley Cohen. We tried to enter the History faculty with historians from the other side, by which I mean non-chauvinistic historians. And we have educational programs at our Center. But to enter this school system, this is not easy. We will try.
There are many young people here who can listen, who can be inspired. There is a lot happening in terms of cultural events and symposiums that are very educational, but it is not happening inside our education system. Just look at the children’s books, for instance on the battle of Kosovo. When you read those books, you can understand how another war could take place in the future.
That’s precisely the point. It seems that for any successful cultural decontamination, you have to get children when they’re young, younger than university.
But how to do that?
We organized a school for human values that was for teenagers, and it was very very successful. It was done by professors from the fifth gymnasium in Belgrade. And tomorrow we will involve small children in a performance. We are working with separate groups of children, but not systematically. It’s an enormous process.
We have been against the inclusion of religion in the schools and have talked with government representatives about this. We’ve had meetings concerning religious identification, when citizens have to identify their religion, when the government asks, “Are you Serb?” and “Are you Orthodox?” and “Do you believe?” People should say, “Yes, I believe.” And when asked what they believe in, they can say, “In justice or in the law.”
I wanted to ask you a question about the recent exhibition Ecce Homo. It sounded almost as if you were surprised by the reaction. Given the fact that there was such reaction to the proposed Gay Pride march last year and that nationalist organizations like Dveri Srpske have been so active in their activities, it seemed that this exhibition would likely generate negative reactions.
Dveri Srpske is not a natural thing. It was created. And the people responsible are at the top of the state. But it’s a question of how they are used: how this is an opportunity for them to be legitimized as a political power.
It’s like during the wartime. The paramilitaries were protected by the state. If I went out on the street with a shotgun, I’d have been arrested. But I watched for a year the guards in front of the headquarters of the paramilitary leader Arkan and nobody arrested them. In war we had these paramilitaries, and during this transition we have Dveri, the football gangs, and the rest of them.
Everybody has a right to think what they think. If somebody says, “Anne Frank never existed,” well, they have a right to doubt her existence. I don’t support forbidding them. But this is what I was talking about in terms of the depoliticization of society. It’s not a police thing!
And you know how it all ends.
How does it end?
With the measurement of our heads! That’s the endpoint of such theories. Sorry if I’ve been too dramatic.
What is it going to take to have substantially less homophobia in this society?
To have less nationalism.
Then what’s it going to take to have less nationalism?
To have a different education system. And to have different politicians. Politicians who don’t say, “Ratko Mladić is a hero, he’s a hero, he’s a hero, he’s a hero” and then dramatically arrest him. They should have prepared people from 2000 for this. It’s the job of the politician to lead, to explain, but also to heal.
Belgrade, October 9, 2012