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Regimantas Tamošaitis is a well-known literary critic and essayist. He wrote commentaries and an introduction to the Lithuanian translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the monument of Indian religion and philosophy. His essays are paradoxical and often lined with irony, the grotesque, and humor. The texts abound in cultural and philosophical allusions yet look deceptively simple, like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland: they place the readers in totally unexpected situations and make them question seemingly very obvious and established things.

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Linas Liandzbergis, From Generation to Generation. 2011, Canvas, acrylic paint, 135 x 200 cm. From The Modern Art Center collection

 

Three essays from the essay collection Like Rabbits in the Night

 

Like Rabbits in the Night

I received a letter from my old friend Gertrude. In it, Gertrude wrote: “Those horid rabits girdled the pair trees that I werked so hard to grow. The monsters also aet my plum tree with the beutifull blosoms in the spring. And they chewd up my aple trees. You see wot I have been dealling with hear?”

My friend is a good woman, but barely literate. How did she get through school?  I have no idea. If a person can’t put together a grammatically coherent sentence, it means their thinking is confused, and so the way they see the world must also be distorted. Yet this doesn’t affect their lives. Quite the contrary: they throw themselves into life without any scruples; they seize from it whatever they can. It turns out there’s no logical link between clear thought and real life practice.

In the village back then, I used to help Gertrude out with her fruit trees, but our paths have since separated, and now I see rabbits, and Gertrude, only in my dreams. I see her waving at me in the distance, waving a bright white kerchief; she calls out to me, but I don’t hear anything.  What does it matter anyway?

Sometimes I think it’s God and Nature who give the rabbits permission to chew up Gertrude’s trees! Why should the trees belong only to her? After all, God decides. So there’s no reason to complain.

I miss the village of my childhood … I keep thinking about Gertrude’s trees and those rabbits of hers.

The ways of the world really are a mystery. People imagine themselves to be the authors of their actions; they can’t even understand that on a higher plane all human actions have already taken place, and all their time on earth has already passed; ultimately, everything happens exactly as it’s supposed to.

Gertrude is over there planting her trees, thinking only about herself: her needs, her pleasure. She has no idea that she’s fulfilling a divine plan …  Motivated by what she thinks is her own desire, she plants the trees, as if for herself, but actually they’re for the rabbits, which, following nature’s orders, will turn up one lovely evening, and chew them all up. Because, ultimately, all this has actually already happened, and that’s why it’s the truth, certainty and law. For human beings, the lesson is this: we must make peace with the world, and refrain from changing it according to our own designs. After all, through our human desires and whims, we are in effect hiding from the cosmic order, where ultimately none of these desires exist …

Let us imagine that this is the night when it all happened: imagine Gertrude’s silenced trees, the mute shadows of the rabbits in the garden, their eyes reflecting cosmic darkness and the blind will to live. You won’t see any purpose in their eyes, as Gertrude believes; there is nothing but emptiness and infinity. For a rabbit, it makes no difference what he chews: the pear trees that took so much work to grow, or the beautiful plum tree; they listen only to the will of the Creator to chew only what is chewable. Those red rabbit eyes see only what He commands them to see. And we with our desires make absolutely no impression on that deep darkness of theirs.

The rabbits’ lot is also realised when they are eaten: rabbits don’t mind being eaten for no particular reason or purpose. And sometimes that’s precisely what we do: we eat rabbit meat for no particular reason or purpose. After all, eating rabbit meat is not the essence of human life.  But if it happens, then it becomes the truth, and rabbits come to terms with this.
Rabbits are wrathful and righteous. They hear the Creator’s Voice and carry out His Plan. They carry it out without thinking; they carry it out without stopping. And they are fruitful and multiply in the process. Which is also righteous.

Gertrude also carries out the Creator’s Plan, but she carries it out differently, in her own way, mistakenly believing that it is she who determines her own actions, and that her goals are meaningful. This is typical of humanity’s decline, of man’s alienation from the totality of his being only for himself. In the divine plan, alienation and being only for oneself are impossible: our fabrication of human goals is an illusion which reveals the limits of our decadent intellect and betrays the Creator’s Will. As it has been established, it’s “May Your (not my) will be done.”  When someone fails to understand this, the rabbits show up to set things right. This is something that sinful and arrogant people can’t even fathom: in their pride, they think that the trees are there only for them.

And so another day dawns, and Gertrude curses and grieves. She says, “Why did they come to my garden, and not to my neighbor’s?” These are naïve questions and ungrounded accusations against the rabbits, and reproaches against their Creator! When it’s necessary, when the time comes, they’ll show up at the neighbor’s apple tree grove as well. But if it’s necessary, the Creator will enlighten the neighbor’s thoughts, and the neighbor will wrap up his apple trees to protect them from the wrath of the rabbits. And he will think: “How intelligent I am! But my neighbor over there with her trees . . . not so much.” Nonetheless, all human thought is deceptive and false, because everything has already been determined at the beginning of time, and because everything that occurs will already have occurred in time. And rabbits, with their superhuman consciousness, are the realisation of fate, part of the world’s plan …

Gertrude will complain, but she can never even fathom that she has been a participant in a Great Cosmic Event, and an instrument of Divine Activity. Just like the trees and the rabbits: they all occurred as part of one single event. It just was. Such is our cosmic existence; such is our fate: neither to know why we’re here, nor to understand why we do what we do. Just rabbits in the night—this is the silent and impenetrable truth of being!

    We must see the rabbit as an invisible god, one who observes us from the other side of the hill, and who is now on his way, coming towards us …

 

Atop the Ivory Tower

Today I ran into a dear colleague atop the Ivory Tower. She meant to rush right past me, but she stopped. I wanted to rush right past her as well, but I stopped. Stunned, we came face to face. Since college, we haven’t run into each other anywhere else; we rush to our respective departments and classrooms, not like human beings, but like those insane yogis prancing about at night on the peaks of the Himalayas.

    “How are you doing?” I shouted happily. “How are your projects? Your lectures? Where are you rushing off to?”

    She laughed, slighting my naïve, unimaginative questions.

    “Can’t think of anything better? I’m hurrying to class, where else? How about you?”

    She leaned over to my ear, and scoping out the scene left and right, whispered excitedly:
“I’m sick and tired of the academic world. You know what I want more than anything right now? To raise goats!”

    Imagine that! I was shocked, and delighted. I wasn’t alone! Inspired, I quickly counted my own desires and ambitions. After all, I felt obliged to respond in kind to my college classmate’s sincerity. We had begun this journey together, we’d had so much fun in the old days, courageously marching forward along the path to the Ivory Tower! Like Guthrie’s train to glory …

    “And I … I …” I muttered, grabbing onto her sleeve, because I saw she was already planning her escape. “I’ve always dreamt of raising crucian carp. I want to find a peaceful old pond and raise them. I don’t know why. I simply like them. They’re so amazing, so calm, those lovely, golden carp …”

    I even groaned in happiness, thrilled that I was still capable of dreaming. All is not yet lost, all is not yet known; not everything under the sun has been learnt. I even began gasping for air, yearning to say something more, but of course carp don’t speak ….

    “But goats are good too,” I caught my breath and was reassuring my colleague. “They’re very good. Much better than cows or pigs … Cows chew the cud, pigs squeal … Wait! Wait! Where are you going?”

    “I have a class. I’ll tell you about my plan afterwards …”

    And she dashed off to a class where her students were waiting for her. She dashed off oh so swiftly, like a goat. I’d seen similar ones in the Caucasus way back when I was roaming the high mountain paths, searching for a secluded cabin to rest my spirit. I had planned to stay there and meditate, but I changed my mind and took the academic path. It was untried, and it intrigued me.

    Turning back, she shouted:
    “Carp are good too! Carp are good!  Raise them!”

    “Of course they are!” I yelled back. “Like goats! Let’s keep it to ourselves! At least for now …”

    I added a phrase that had suddenly occurred to me, one of many I’d committed to memory. But she didn’t hear me: “Sic transit Gloria mundi!” Thus passes the glory of the world …
    And atop the Ivory Tower, I came to understand a simple truth: when that glory passes, life becomes so much easier.

 

 

Notes of a Writer

I’ve been planning to write to my readers for some time to explain in detail the reasons for the success of my latest novel Salami. Why did my readers fall in love with it? I want to clarify this for myself as well. How did I manage to write such a great book? Although I trust my talents, actual life conditions get in the way of their full development: mostly, it’s the burdens of everyday domestic life. Oppressed by these concerns, I haven’t had the time to devote myself to my work. Just think how much I could have written if it weren’t for these damned circumstances … They say our lives are made up of circumstances; they are also made up of kith and kin, who, like evil spirits, disturb the creative process. They circle round and round, preventing the creative bud from blossoming.

    I racked my brains: just how did I manage to overcome the pressures brought on by my surroundings and my kith and kin? I reflected more deeply on the sources of creativity. Where is inspiration born? Where do the greatest themes come from? What’s the key to a work’s allure?  How does a writer win his readers’ love?

    The book launch for my novel was lovely. The most important voice of the evening turned out to belong to an ordinary reader, not those myopic critics of mine. The sincere little woman went up to the stage giggling, and just said that she’d read Salami, and that she’d liked the novel very much. It was a lovely book, she giggled, adding this and that about her own life, her habits and work, which by the way had nothing to do with literature. But this is precisely what a real reader should be. Ignorant about the intricacies of literature, this reader reads boldly, with no preconceived notions. And if something manages to please the reader, the book will sell.  All serious publishers have book testers like this: ordinary ladies, plain old guys, raffish teenagers, and with their help, the publishers determine whether the book will sell; if it’s worth the risk.

    There are many ordinary readers like these, and they are very important. Ordinary doesn’t mean plain, by the way. Ordinary means familiar, everyday, trustworthy, like that dear woman, who spoke with so much emotion about my Salami. I wanted to stand up and kiss her in front of everyone. She doesn’t understand a thing about literature, but she still reads: isn’t that marvelous?

    A reader who buys a book offers the best argument for its value. There’s no point in trusting the critics. For them, reading is a professional disease; their taste is distorted; their blatherings are inscrutable. Nobody reads the writings of hack critics, and certainly nobody buys the books they praise. It’s intellectual masturbation, nothing more.

    An old friend who is also a distant relative once gave me some useful advice on creativity. Over a glass of wine, he explained to me that a writer must love people: this is the whole secret to writing a good book!

    “But me, I can’t stand them,” he admitted sullenly.

    “What do you mean?” I asked, clutching my beer. “So why do they admire you?”

    “Who are you talking about?”

    “Your readers?”

    My friend stared at me, saying nothing.  

    “My writing is simple, ordinary …” he muttered a few minutes later.

    Indeed. His method was quite ordinary, like his readers. Starting first thing in the morning, he would glance through several newspapers, taking notes about various events; he would also watch television with his notebook in his hand. He would often call us to inquire who said what, and whether anything interesting had happened, and so on. Without newspapers or television, without us ordinary people, my relative’s writing career would be finished. And without his writing, he too would be finished, because someone like him can’t live any other way. He lives only for his incessant writing …

    My process is a bit different. My writing develops from dreams and desires. I write as if asleep. Sleeping people are all the same; their dreams are similar. So if you get the dreams down on paper in time, everyone can enjoy them; everyone will understand them. Because everyone wants the same thing. The secret to a work’s success is the universality of its themes.

    But now, let’s get back to where we started. Where did my Salami come from?

    The first inspiration for the novel sprang up as I observed my dog over many long winter nights. Because I live alone, I have no one else to look at. I would watch him for hours, mesmerised by the deep look in his eyes, the pained expression on his face, his indeterminate animal yearning. I couldn’t understand what was going on in the mind of the creature. To my surprise, it was a completely foreign world, and yet it seemed so familiar. After all, I feed this dog! Still, every time he’d look into my eyes, I’d feel uncomfortable and look away. God only knows what he was thinking!

    I often took him to the dog park, where, ambling behind him, I would ponder the mysteries of life. The park was frequented by mutts of every conceivable type, all socialising with great intensity: sniffing around in the bushes, following each other’s tracks, exchanging canine secrets, marking sundry corners and tree trunks, sniffing each other, and so on.

    After watching the four-legged creatures socialise for several days, I began to recognise some individuals in this society of dogs. I learned to distinguish them, and made sense of their personalities, their unique habits and behavior. Their sympathies and antipathies revealed themselves to me, as did their tendencies and territorial claims. Their world became interesting and dear to me.

     What impressed me most in the drama of the dog park were the four-legged creatures’ brief encounters, all ending in inevitable separations; this inspired me to consider the transience of all relationships, the ephemerality of friendship and love. How sad, when all is said and done, is this life of ours! A blossom of the flower of sadness …    

    After a while, once I had a better grasp of the passions of the dog park, I began to see the uniqueness of each of my observed object’s relationships. My creative imagination ignited, the engines of personification began to hum. I gave human names to the dogs that had impressed me most, I plotted their interactions, and invented trajectories and peripeteias for their actions and emotions. My intense creative consciousness then transplanted these doggy relationships into the human world. The reader won’t see a difference anyway. This is how, bit by bit, my sentimental novel was born, the novel which captured the hearts of many of its good readers, and which rewarded me with short-lived, but nonetheless pleasant, fame.

    Some readers believe that my novel depicts the lives of people, but in fact, it’s all dogs, all of them doggedly energetic, searching for the meaning of life, and professing rather lofty ideals (represented in the novel through culinary symbolism). Their goals and values are noble and elusive, not found at the local dog park.

    So, in Salami I depict spontaneous releases of emotions, the beginnings and ends of people’s trysts (but in actuality, I am talking about dogs), their sympathies and antipathies, hints of love, and myriad other ambiguities that I don’t entirely understand; these churn and boil in the depths of my own unconscious. It’s important not to forget the romantic aspects of the novel, the vital bond of my characters with nature, for whom every bush, every tree, every corner is excruciatingly familiar, made their own after being sniffed hundreds of times. My characters are unusually intuitive; they experience perception and apperception simultaneously. Their experience is considerable; therefore, in order to understand them, we will need to take time to examine every path, every bush, every corner. Canine letters from Vingis Park in Vilnius …

    Of course, the more sensitive reader will object: How can this be? A novel about dogs? How could he have betrayed us so brutally? How, then, are we to understand the novel’s intellectuality, its beautiful emotions, its noble goals?

    I’ll be honest. Intellectuality and all other such nonsense is imposed on the mutts’ world by the will of the creator. It’s a joke. To be well read is no great accomplishment. Passion, not intellect, is what drives life. I represent this passion, this yearning for life, with a strong symbol of power in the book. You might say it’s the symbol of masculine power, because no other type of power matters at the dog park. This is in fact what my dear reader experienced, the reader who knew how to read a book without the slightest understanding of why it made her so happy, why it warmed her heart.

    What joyful rendez-vous and adieus. They’re extraordinarily moving!

    Some believe that true literature should depict the conflict between high and low passions, the development of the self. That’s absolutely false. What people find most pleasing is literature that depicts the liberation of passions, not the conflicts between them. Allow the passions to fight it out amongst themselves; and leave the self alone. This is what I see at the dog park. You won’t believe how the passions boil: and there’s nothing human there at all.

Translated by Jūra Avižienis

 

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