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L.Degėsys is a professor of philosophy at Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. His research areas are Philosophy of Art, Social Philosophy, Business philosophy, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy for Children. He is a member of the Board of Lithuanian Writers Union, also a member of a Board of LATGA - Lithuanian collective copyright management association.
L.Degėsys has got the Lithuanian Republic Government Culture and Art Award (2013) for poetry  and Twice - Awards of Ministry of Culture (2010, 2017) for the essays and non-fiction writing.
Degėsys has published 8 books of poetry, 4 books of philosophical essays and 2 novels.

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Illustration by Morta Griškevičiūtė

 

From the essay collection ‘Life’s Undergarments’

 

 

Kissing a selfie

The moment when your smartphone falls out of your hands and shatters on the tarmac, you don’t feel any anger or pity or irritation (which would be understandable since you’ve just lost about 440 euros in a single second); you only feel regret. ‘Oh, how sad that I don’t have a phone to take a photo of just how beautifully my phone shattered, and share it all on Facebook.’ And at that very moment, you realise that this is a symptom of an illness.

And still, you can’t stop thinking about it. You can’t even take a good selfie with just one telephone, because that selfie never shows you with your phone in your hand. You start developing a business plan: we’d have to convince everyone to always have two phones, so that not only can each person take a photo of the shattered phone, but also immortalise themselves mourning over the phone’s corpse. Or take a photo of yourself taking a photo of yourself against a postcard backdrop in an exotic location. Everyone would see not only you in that selfie, but also your expensive, beautiful and beloved device. So, you’d have not just a selfie, but a selfie of a selfie. You’d be presented with an incredible opportunity: to see yourself looking at yourself. To see not another person’s, but your own gaze. A regular selfie (selfie vulgaris) is categorically incomplete, because it doesn’t capture the most important thing, that moment when a person is looking at himself through a camera lens: with affection, with pride, with distance, and completely selflessly.

Rather, for your benefit. And the worst thing is not seeing your own self.

It’s how people think, and then this is what they say: ‘I don’t take selfies for myself. I take selfies so I can show others. I do it for you. We should call a selfie a youfie or yourfie. I look at myself through your eyes. I will show you myself as you want to see me. I will find a way to make you like me. I am yours, with you, in you. If you don’t see me, you don’t know me, it’s like I don’t exist. Because the most important thing is not the fact that I exist, but that I am seen. That thanks to the digital world, I can multiply, proliferate, clone and copy myself, live in a thousand, a million different devices, screens, memories all at once, or maybe even find myself in the minds of millions (okay, maybe thousands). It’s not enough that I am seen; what’s most important is how many times, how many views, requests, comments.’

There are these trackers that let you know how many people are looking at your page right now, what comments they are making, and how often you are being shared (‘Oh, it’s so good to be shared’), and how many viewers liked your photo. But there are drawbacks to this:  educators could propose a requirement that there would be different degrees of ‘like’ available on Facebook: for example, ‘perfectly like,’ ‘very well like,’ ‘good like,’ ‘kind of like,’ ‘sort of like,’ ‘don’t really like,’ and ‘terrible like’.

When you think about it, Facebook is perhaps the only place where you can multiply yourself on such an astronomical scale. If you spend your entire life trying to become famous like the author of the song about millions, you can rest assured that no one in Latvia knows who you are, let alone in Poland. And they’ll speak of you with deference: ‘Here’s the one who worked so hard so that no one in Latvia knows who he is.’ If you’re an architect, then you’ll design some sort of funeral home, and only the dead with their eyes closed will stare at the ceiling. Or you’ll come up with a rabbit house, for rabbits. If you’re a writer, a poet, God forbid, then you’ll have a group of twenty lickspittle-readers from whose adoring faces you won’t understand that you’ve written enough and that it’s time to stop. And you’ll write and write, not just poems, but books, and you’ll publish and publish 200-copy editions at a time, of which you’ll buy fifty, and then hand out to people who can’t even read. If you’re an artist, then you might be so very popular that people in all the villages where your exhibitions take place will rush to look at your art, because there will be rumours that the municipal book-keepers are completely nude in your paintings, and that the district commissioner is also nude, and is depicted eating his bastard children. Not to mention the confessors: how tortuous to sit in the confessional; why would you listen if you then couldn’t go and tell someone else about it. You couldn’t post anything on Facebook about the types of sins you’ve just heard. Or plastic surgeons: those poor souls can’t brag to anyone about whose front or rear they worked on, or when they enlarged or minimised something.

Why would you try so hard if your creation is seen by ten people max in the gym locker room showers, or one person, for ten minutes, in a suburban motel during a random lunch hour.

Sometimes, of course, you don’t think about just how risky Facebook can be: when you’re still a private citizen, then you can entertain the world with photos of your culinary marvels or your intoxicated neighbour’s pearls of wisdom; just remember to say that this is how Aristotle, or in the worst case Einstein, used to talk. For example, when your car mechanic says ‘Health is the source of illness,’ keeping in mind that last night he got drunk and now he’s hung-over, you can upload this phrase on Facebook with the tag line ‘Heraclitus’. But if you’re a more public figure, God forbid, some deputy or delegate, you have to be careful and avoid risky behaviour. Because all of your insights about ‘various thoughts’, ‘voters – sugar beets’, ‘academics – agents of Moscow’, and ‘stinking foreigners’ will come back to bite you. If you want people to laugh, they’ll laugh, though not with you, but at you. If you want to be famous, you will be, but you’ll really regret it in the long run. Facebook enhances the level of communication, but also increases the degree of ridiculousness at an astronomical rate and geometric progression. He was, it seems, an almost normal person until the devil got hold of him and led him down the path to Facebook. As soon as he signed up, there was a litany of racist pearls and homophobic gems. Ah, there’s good reason why these public figures, especially the more intelligent among them, avoid Facebook. You need a brain to understand that you’re not so brainy.

How can one see and understand that Facebook is a mirror. That in showing yourself to others you show yourself to you, and you see yourself. To see how you view yourself, not through the eyes of another, but your own. For some reason, you think of St Denis of Paris who carried his own head, and, legend has it, walked around crying and kissing himself on the lips. Before the smartphone in your head shatters, you can ask yourself while it’s not too late: what do you hope to see when you look at yourself. To see, or to look. To live or to show how you live.

There’s still time, maybe this summer you’ll be able to see yourself in your own mirror: your gaze looking so intently at yourself.

 

Liutauras Degesys 03Illustration by Morta Griškevičiūtė

Every time January 13th[1]  rolls around you get irritated …

Each year on January 13th, whether you like it or not, you get irritated. You read the remembrances of events from more than two decades ago: how, kindergarten children at the time, they made tricolour flags of the resistance, how they were ready to go and defend the Post Office, the train station and the power plant, and how they never got around to it.

The first time, you get irritated while watching official footage of the storming of the Television Tower in Vilnius over and over again. You see your mother, may she rest in peace, flash on the screen for a second. She was a doctor with the cardiology unit of the Vilnius ambulance emergency service. She wore a red jacket over her white coat, and was diving between tanks, the injured, the intoxicated, gunshots, and all the other nonsense, pulling victims from the crowd all the while in red and white, a perfect target. By the way, she never received any January 13th medals, nor was she recognised, because she was at the Television Tower during work hours, as a doctor, so there was nothing valiant about her deeds, running around in her white coat and red jacket among the armoured vehicles, the drunken crowds, the deranged soldiers, and the gunshots, helping other people … But you do know of several January 13th Defenders of Freedom who did get medals and pensions, because, living in Karoliniškės and standing on their balconies, they suffered hearing loss from the artillery fire. Some suffered concussion from the shockwaves of artillery fire on their street, in their yards, or even in their beds. For some reason, your mother, who was running between the artillery and the armoured troops, who transported ten injured individuals by ambulance, was neither concussed nor acknowledged as a victim. Those who stood about 20 metres from the armoured vehicles firing weapons lost neither their hearing nor their health.

You grow irritated again when you remember your uncle, your mother’s brother, a programme director at Lithuanian Radio at that time, who was beaten senseless with the butts of automatic weapons in the building on Konarskio Street by Alpha Group Soviet special forces, and kicked around in the hallway of the Radio and Television Committee headquarters. And he, too, did not become the director of the national resistance television who faded away, nor a participant in the resistance.

Because the best participants in the resistance were always those who were not injured, or who were safely hidden far away from the events, or just, and let’s be delicate, surviving heroes. The best Hero is the one who is killed or who remains unscathed. According to Hollywood, the laws of history or of the heart, the Hero is one who either suffers everything or nothing. And if something minor occurred, you lost an eye, an arm was broken, or you took a shot in the leg, is this really heroism, or just bad luck? Can someone who was unlucky be a hero? So minor, so silly, a damaged eye or a broken leg? There are tons of those kinds of heroes out in the streets right now, especially as soon as it snows and the streets get slippery in the capital.

The third time you get irritated is when you think about yourself, at the time a young man, without any children, so by definition basically with no family, and therefore with nothing to lose. You went out not to the Television Tower or the Television Committee building, because at the time you hated and had no respect for the media. You went to defend the Lithuanian Parliament, driven by a substandard education and silly civil consciousness, The Parliament, the Most Important Object of the Entire Event.

So you see yourself, parking your little red Zhiguli on the other side of the bridge in Žvėrynas, so that the approaching tanks won’t crash into it or crush it. You take two of the thickest books you had in your library out of your boot, the Oxford English Dictionary and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and you stick one in your belt at the front of your trousers, and the other at the back, to protect your stomach and spine. Why were you so naïve? You thought there would be gunshots, and you basically knew how bullets fired from an automatic weapon worked, perhaps even a machine gun, and you believed that those two thick 1,000-page books would protect you from the bullets …

It’s like you were protecting yourself, but so naively, so childishly, so comically … Patriotism turned you into a child. You knew that you didn’t want to suffer an injury to the gut, the intestine, from a shot to the front, or you thought you had a right not to want to be paralysed for life from a shot to the back. But you were somehow prepared to get shot in the head …

When you tell this story to your friends, some, especially those who spent a restless night on the balconies in Karoliniškes, say that you were a coward and a weasel; you protected your stomach and your back. You hid your Zhiguli in a yard like some sort of derelict bourgeois, and you didn’t leave it like a real patriot to barricade the streets … And then, at the time, you think, you’re on your way to die, but for some reason you didn’t want to die a slow and painful death … You wanted, this is how it has to be, a shot to the head. You didn’t protect your head. Maybe you really were a silly coward.

The fourth time you get irritated is when you remember those who, without any thick books to protect them, stood bravely and trembled on their glassed-in balconies, or tossed restlessly in their beds and brimming with resistance under their blankets, and listened to the call sign of Lithuanian Radio …  They complain even to this day that those call signs make them anxious, and that when they remember them, they have to hide under their blankets again ….

Another time you get irritated, now the fifth one in a row, is when you remember how you stood all evening and all night until dawn at the Parliament, some singing, others ready to die, and you can’t forget how the Parliament was surrounded by a living chain of people. There were women with children, the elderly, and a fair number of young men, but most of the young people went running after the tanks, by the Television Tower, by the action … This entire ring of bodies was summoned to surround the Parliament, to defend it, to protect it with their own flesh against a possible tank offensive. There was not a single member of Parliament among those guarding the Parliament. They were barricaded in with sandbags, they wept and prayed, chaplains administered absolution and the last rights. They wondered, what’s going to happen when it’s their turn … Some even left, disappeared, never to be found … And the fact that you were in the first line of defence, among those guarding the Parliament, that if the armed forces had attacked, if they fired their automatic weapons, and that unarmed women and children and groups of old people singing would have been annihilated first: this somehow never crossed the minds of the members of Parliament, who were so concerned about their own survival, there, indoors, behind the sturdy walls of the Parliament.

They wanted to save themselves, for the sake of history. Not one of them said: go home, we the members of Parliament will go outside, we’ll stay here, we will perish and will defend independence with our bodies. And again, just like all resistance movements throughout time, ordinary people were condemned to die; while the leaders stood behind them, and not one of them said, women, children, go home … And if they did say it, then it was through a tiny window, and they never did go out to the square, they did not go out and stand with the people.

But now they say that there was a hand sticking out of a small window, at around four o’clock in the morning, when there was no longer any danger, and when it was pretty clear that the tanks would not attack, and that hand waved and said: now you can go. Ite, missa est …

And some kind of irritation, some sense of ignorance, misunderstanding or just misfortune engulfs your heart every year on the eve of January 13th. Something happened that night which we cannot correct, we cannot change. It’s as if all ended well, as if historically correct. We certainly mourn the victims, their lost lives, and the pain of their loved ones … But for some reason, we feel sorry for everyone else, too. The failed heroic acts, discoveries not made, the changes that didn’t occur … The unfulfilled hopes … We feel sorry for those who were abused, maimed and transformed after that night, but we also feel sorry for those who were maimed, but who were not transformed. We feel sorry for those who are written about, who will be written about, portrayed and honoured … And we feel just as sorry for those people who participated in history, but will not go down in the annals of history… People who did not make it and will not make it into any real history, which will probably remain unwritten …

Your heart warms when you think about just how many bewilderingly brave people there were that night, people who really didn’t want and will not want any recognition. They went, maybe not even thinking that they might die, but at the same time not thinking about themselves. They went, maybe not so ceremoniously thinking about their Homeland, but maybe thinking about their Freedom, maybe about something that does not need to be named. They did not hide or shirk their responsibility.

They went voluntarily, knowing that there was no one else behind them. Knowing that if not for them, then who would go, who would march, struggle and fight … Fight for themselves, for me, for others … You would go, too …

And your eyes stumble upon the thickest books on your shelf …

Liutauras Degesys 04Illustration by Morta Griškevičiūtė

To remember yesterday, know today, and not forget tomorrow

A writer knows that ninety-five per cent of his life occurs in his head (to say it more nobly, in the heart or in the soul). Which is why we can say that almost all of a writer’s life is fabricated. Not always, sometimes, very rarely, maybe about five per cent of the time he’s able to unplug and relax. But, unfortunately, this is true of all artists.

Non-writers and non-artists: all of those other people also live in their own minds and their own worlds, but it doesn’t seem that way to them. They are more concerned with so-called life, where they go to work, eat, exercise, carry out chemical reactions, and perform bodily functions. In this life, they say: ‘It is what it is,’ or ‘It goes without saying,’ or ‘I know how to live.’ They also live in their own heads, but either do not want to or cannot comprehend this, or they try to ignore it and not think about it. In that sense, their lives are also fabricated, but according to schemas: they know how it should be, and if it isn’t so, then they know it’s wrong. And for those who admit that they have specially fabricated lives and false realities (for all sorts of writers, artists and other creators of life), they can say reproachfully: ‘Oh, how imagined and incomprehensible everything in your life is,’ or ‘Can it be more simple, so that it’s like life?’ or altogether ‘Everything is unreal in your creations: your characters are incapable of sincere emotion and real love.’

In reality, that betrays those real people: as it turns out, you can know how it should be in reality and then you can evaluate all of those inventions and denounce them if they don’t reflect that reality. Artists are probably the opposite: they say that the desire to live how we should, how everyone else does, the pretence that we can live in some singular reality, the requirement that everyone should assemble into one reality, this is false, forced and unnecessary. With the entirety of their creative work, they argue that art is a means of seeing reality differently, and this means that it is possible to see an infinite number of varied realities. They say that art not only sees these realities, but makes them visible to others. What’s more, art demonstrates that there is a possibility (and maybe even an obligation) for each person to create his own realities, and not necessarily by painting or writing poems or composing music: we can create those realities by imagining our own lives, our own unique realities, basically by living differently. Because life is the creation of these original realities, and not a copy of another’s life, nor a repetition of routine destinies.

If a person comes home after a performance (or an exhibition, or after reading a book, or listening to a concert) and is inspired to do and change something, if the person realises that he’s been living in vain up until this point, because he has been living as others do, and not in a way that serves him, and if he is ready to start to see, or maybe even live in a different way (most importantly in his own way), then this is the power with which art affects and transforms a person.

It is understandable that there are sometimes artists who decide to write about life as it is or more precisely as it was, and they call their book: ‘I know how it was’ or ‘And this is how it was.’ There are artists who decide to try and paint an animal or a landscape so beautifully that it would look or even be more real than it actually is in nature. Or an actor portrays a character in real life, like in the kitchen or like in war. Or a composer is able to arrange from sounds this thing that presses on one’s tear ducts, elicits sorrow in the chest, and generates a real physiological euphoria within a person.

A philosopher could cautiously mention to these artists, just like to those real people, that such unequivocal and compulsory realities and self-evident things do not exist. That they are not self-evident, but evident to me, evident to you, evident to him. We all live in our imagined worlds, but there are lives and worlds in which we are required to meet, and it’s important that when we come upon one another in those worlds we’re still able to agree, to grasp and to communicate. But there are worlds where we will never meet, and we don’t all need to crowd into that one prescribed world. There’s an abundance of realities, there are mysteries and secrets, there are totally separate worlds. And art creates and multiplies these worlds. And this means that you and he and she, and everyone, is able to create his own world, to appear there and to be there alone with oneself.

Art can scare you … It doesn’t promise that you’ll live for ever, or that soon, so very soon, you’ll be happy. It tortures you with reminders that loneliness is unavoidable, that you will die alone (unless, as some people think, we’ll all die together in a world war) and that the only thing that you can have is yourself (if you know that you have yourself). And at that moment you understand that all that you can do and that has meaning in life is to know yourself. Even if you spend your whole life learning about penguins and politicians, sooner or later, you realise that you were learning about yourself: you were trying to understand what interests you, what you are capable of, how you see yourself, and how you can change. An artist is that very same student, maybe just a thousand times more cognisant of the fact that he is creating himself all the time, and that he creates in order to understand himself, to see what he is capable of doing … So that he’d know, that he’d trust and would rejoice, that he’d be fascinated with himself and fall in love with himself, that he’d be disappointed in himself and would break up with himself for a while, that he’d not understand himself, that he couldn’t speak to himself. That he’d start trusting himself.

The artist is that same person, but he knows that he must create new realities because this is the only way to create oneself. As was mentioned before, the artist not only creates himself, but can also show everyone else how they can create those realities, because works of art are the external expressions of those internal worlds: he knows how to do this so that others can see the act, significance and result of the creative process. We cannot see other people’s dreams, we cannot feel what others feel. But we can see the necessity of the creation of other worlds.

It is possible to understand that the most important events occur not in the so-called reality, but within a person. And that possibility is art. When a person writes about something (or draws, films, composes), then he is speaking about himself. Even one who is discussing reality sooner or later realises that he is talking about himself, because he is this most important, singular, inimitable reality. And he appears in this reality like in the palm of the hand. And if he is lost, drowning in that reality, submerged in it, not understanding the possibility of speaking with oneself, it becomes clear to everyone that he is the real hanged man and drowned man in that reality.

Of course, moving from one customary, everyday reality that is slowly killing and destroying you to another one, the created, unique, real reality, various technical reasons appear. A person is accustomed to looking wherever he wants, but just not at himself, if the so-called applied sciences have worked his head so much that he has to look around and forget about himself for the sake of the objective real truth. No one taught him to remember that he is also important, that he can, after looking at the penguins and the stars, even remember himself. To ask himself not only ‘What do I see here?’ but also ‘How is it, that I see in this way, interestingly, oddly, not right?’ or ‘Why do I see the world the way I see it?’

And again: if no one shows him that you can see the world differently, then it will be difficult for him to communicate with the arts. It will be hard for him to understand what they are saying. Because the arts, just like the sciences, speak their own languages, which you have to learn if you want to understand them. You can get angry with mathematics because it speaks its own language, you can get anxious because you don’t understand philosophy, and you can denounce art because it is so inherently incomprehensible that one must make an effort to understand it. If you are accustomed to reading newspapers and websites, then you’ve grown accustomed to understand inherently, because there is nothing there that you can’t understand. And at that point, you will quietly begin to despise those incomprehensible sciences and arts.

Even artists are not always interested in the languages of other arts. Even if they speak the same language, they sometimes cannot communicate. Or they don’t like to communicate. Or they think that to praise another is not on the level. Or that musicians should not attend concerts, writers should not read their friends’ books, or, God forbid, discuss them. Maybe only visual artists slouch around other artists’ openings with wine glasses in their cold hands. But also briefly, enthusiastically like in a fast food restaurant. One serious musician, when asked why he doesn’t attend the symphony, explained simply with a single-line anecdote: ‘Miners are taken to a mine for a holiday.’ So there, you see. For that musician, it seems, the pit of his orchestra is a mine where he worriedly digs the everyday coal of music, all curled up in the bass clef and covered in the dust of flats and sharps. We could ask: Where are those critics who have studied painting and literature, critics who also know music, and architecture (which, as we all know, is frozen music)? Where are those critics-referees who should, like good referees, never be seen on the fields of artistic games, and who would not instruct us how to play and who wouldn’t ruin the game? Where are those critics who would participate, but would not try to appear the most attuned and the most important in the matches of literature, fine art, music or any other arts? Critics who would not play themselves, who would not evaluate and maybe wouldn’t even judge, but who would help the players play, and would explain the rules of the game to those who don’t understand. Or maybe they are all like plastic surgeons who, when looking at a woman, see not the woman herself, but only what has been altered and what could be altered for the sake of beauty. Like dentists who, it is said, even in art galleries look adoringly at the teeth in portraits. Like Medieval knights who, having forgotten their women, have been fighting for quite some time, not for the women, but for their own glory. Like dogs who hate cats and are too lazy to run after them, but know that dogs must chase cats. And therefore, because of their profession, they chase them because they are dogs; and creative types, as we all know, are cats.

Not knowing the language of art is a serious problem for a layperson not ruined by art. No one can communicate without knowing the language, and at that point the person is tempted to say: ‘I never understood people who speak Japanese,’ or ‘I don’t and never will understand contemporary art.’ Because otherwise, in order to understand, you’d have to learn foreign languages, languages that are sometimes more complicated than Chinese or Japanese. These are the languages that art uses to communicate. As it turns out, those arts, like other languages, are ways to see different, unseen and incomprehensible realities, new unseen worlds that are revealed to those who speak other languages. Of course, we can ask why.

Because this is how you see the world that you see, and even one world is too much. But having seen and understood what it is that the arts are saying, having experienced and having heard those other worlds revealed in art, you can see your own world, invisible, crushed by everyday existence, almost destroyed and trampled. A world that you can now reconstruct, create and change. And it’s worth trying. Because the arts can tell you: you can create yourself, and it’s never too late to do this.

And then when someone (the Homeland, an enemy, or a woman) says: ‘You are mine,’ you will understand that something is wrong. You are not someone else’s; you are yours. You are the one who has your own self. And you will realise this about others: he and she, and they, they are also not yours. They are their own. And they have a right to live in their own created worlds.

You should have remembered that yesterday, but it’s not too late to know today, and important not to forget tomorrow …

 

1. In the aftermath of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, from 11- 13 January 1991, Soviet troops engaged in an assault on Lithuania, with activity focused in the capital, Vilnius. As a result of these actions and the Lithuanian resistance, 13 people were killed and at least 140 injured.

 

 

Translated by Ada Valaitis

 

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