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Jaroslavas Melnikas (born 1959) is a presence in at least three cultures. He was born in Ukraine, and his earlier work (both literary and academic/critical) began there and in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. He is a great Francophile, and some of his novels was published by a major French publisher. And life has brought him to Lithuania, which he adopted and adjusted to with success that is hard to believe. He has written several novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction in a language that is not his mother-tongue!  His work is an interesting mix of complicated philosophical ideas and popular, entertaining genres like sci-fi. The effect has been divisive – some love him, others loathe him. However, leaving no-one indifferent is quite an achievement in itself.

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Graphic Novels

Vitalijus Butyrinas, Contact. From series "Civilisations". Photo collage, 1983. From the MO Museum collection

 

By Jaroslavas Melnikas

Some time ago I wrote an essay called Už konteksto ribų (Outside of Context), where I wrote about the freedom of writers (and humans in general) and about ‘belonging’ to a context as both a good thing and a problem. Today, I'd title that essay Tarp kontekstų—Between Contexts. Although that’s the same thing. I believe that true freedom pertains to that vacuum we enter when we find ourselves between contexts. Only by not associating themselves with any context does a person actually come closer to who they really are...

What does it mean to be within a context? Within a context, a person takes on specificity, but they also risks losing themselves.

This is particularly important for writers. A context may support us, but it can also be suffocating. Limiting.

Everything is ambiguous. People in the provinces are more stable—I like them. They are warmer and more open. But they can also be limited because they have never left their own village to see other worlds. I’m not admonishing them, but that’s how it is. A person can have no knowledge of Marquis de Sade or Heidegger and still be one hundred times more human than those who are familiar with such names. The reverse may also be true. There are no rules.

Many people have left Lithuania. Abroad, they have to shape their identities anew. Once across the border they inevitably become ‘émigrés’. It’s not easy to escape the awareness that ‘I am an emigrant.’ It’s impossible.

Those people are also between worlds. Between contexts. Not by choice. But all of these issues vanish once we stop thinking about who we are.

After all, we don’t think about that every minute of the day.

Essentially, someone else, not we ourselves, ‘enlists’ us into a context. They only reflect who we are, those people asking us: Who are you? What passport do you hold? What about your parents? What culture are you part of? To whom do you belong?

That always sounded rather strange to me. No—it actually sounded incomprehensible and silly. To me, it seemed as if they were butting into someone else’s business. I never knew how to respond, because I’ve never thought about it myself! I don’t belong to anyone, I exist in and of myself. Yet, here they are, asking me: Who are you? Answer! I begin to think... Do I have to?

I do, if this is an absolute. I don’t, if it’s relative. If, in your own view, the very words ‘to belong’ don’t actually reflect reality.

Of course, every person (thought it wasn’t always so!) is born in a given country and ‘belongs’ to certain traditions and to a certain culture, language or nation. But this assertion plays a cruel joke on all of us: The more cultures we come to know, the more languages we learn, the more we ‘belong’ to those cultures. But this is an entirely different kind of belonging—a belonging best set off by inverted commas.

And if not by inverted commas, then, as I see it, we have to understand that this question is an artificial one, even though many may consider it to be entirely natural. How can a person ‘not belong’?

I would ask: But how can he ‘belong’? A person belongs to themselves and, if they are a believer, to God. Incidentally, the essence of Christ’s teaching is that you don’t belong to Caesar. You are free. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s (pay the tribute or tax), but remember that you belong to God alone. This was something entirely new. It was an utterly revolutionary idea that gave man his profound freedom, liberating him ‘from the context’.

I approach this problem from on my own understanding of humanity and, if you wish, from my own philosophy of life. When I’m asked to whom I ‘belong’, I often cite an ancient Greek philosopher who replied to the question about his origins (in this case, from which region of Greece he hailed) with: ‘I am from the cosmos.’ In other words, the philosopher essentially said: I don’t understand your question.

A Zen Buddhist monk would simply mutter something back in response to a question such as ‘Who are you?’ Like a cow. And it would be the best possible reply.

In truth, by acknowledging the enormous importance to people of ‘belonging’ to one nation or another, to one or another set of roots (especially if one is an émigré and has one more new identifying characteristic and needs to decide about his or her roots), we have to answer one very important question: Do we want the truth? Even if it is not particularly convenient?

Christ called us to emulate children who embody the truth. Does a child understand that he or she belongs to one or another country, to a particular nation? And even if such an understanding emerges at a certain age, does that child think about that fact as he or she plays and enjoys life? No. A child simply exists. Children are simply children. They have no need to think about to whom they ‘belong’. Who are they? It is possible to simply be, without thinking about who you are. To simply be.

Just as all us simply are.

What is existence? It is being, in the purest form. When we look at the roaring ocean, what do we think about? About some sort of ‘belonging’? About some kind of unique ‘self’? That ‘I’ that identifies itself within a particular context doesn’t exist.

In the same way, shared humanity has an essentially deeper meaning than shared nationality. If it were otherwise, a nurse would never tend to the wounded, dying or moaning enemies held in prison camp hospitals. Otherwise, it would be difficult to understand what Christ meant when he encouraged us ‘to love our enemies’. Otherwise, people would only understand the art created by their own nation.

This would also actually describe the profundity of art: Even if a novel tells the story of someone from a specific nation, a true writer first sets out to depict a ‘person’. If we fail to delve into the realm of shared humanity, then there is no true literature and no true art capable of being of any interest beyond the borders of a given nation or culture. Yes, all artists are raised within the domain of a particular national culture—but not only there! And even within a given national context (but not always, if we consider émigré writers). But when we read Dostoyevsky, we somehow don’t think that his novel is ‘about Russians’. No, he writes about people, their souls, the depths of their being, their hysterics, their search for God, their hope and despair. We don’t wonder whether Jack London wrote about ‘Americans’... Archetypes have no national attributes. In these characters we see human beings, not representatives of nations. Jealousy was not limited to Othello alone. I can’t even remember what nationality Othello was.

But let’s return to Christ’s idea that truth lives in children. Children seem to have no ‘status’ and have no comprehension about who they are. They don’t yet have any social roles or social reflections!

Here lies a profound idea. Carl Jung created a wonderful theory of archetypes. Like no other, he was able to penetrate the secret of a human being’s soul. There is the Self and the Persona. The Persona is a mask by which we are recognized in any given society. We cannot appear without our masks, in the form of the Self. Because no one will recognize us. There is a social role by which we are recognized. Even the fact that one is a writer is a mask. Someone else is a driver, and you’re a writer. What is most important is to understand that this is relative. Masks adhere to us and destroy the Self. Andrei Tarkovsky once said: ‘I’m not a film director.’ Few understood what he meant by that.

It’s a bit more difficult with national things and patriotism. They are like our parents. But they are more than that. It is the country in which you live. If you have an American passport but your parents immigrated from Lithuania, you love the America in which you live. You love the Lithuania from which you parents came. It is possible to love both! Is that strange? Not at all. Yes, perhaps it is a different love. But can love be different? Perhaps love and hatred differ? But love is always love.

We have to understand that the question ‘who are you?’ (in every sense) is related to the Persona, to consciousness. A cat has no consciousness and does not understand that it is a cat. The cat exists. It simply is. Which is already a lot.

Is it possible to live without consciousness? It is possible. And, to a certain extent, such an existence is more real than living submerged within one’s ‘I’, which is the reflection of an individual’s specific surroundings.

In one country, you’re a professor or a famous entertainer, but once you leave it, you are nothing. Do you disappear or do you discover your true self?

What is existence? The Persona or the Self? The Self.

When you pray to God, you forget that you are within a given social context. You are a part of an eternal context.

After all, if you’re an American (Spanish, German) writer (driver, minister), you don’t say as you pray: ‘God, I’m an American (Spanish, German) writer (driver, minister), and I pray that You....’ This sounds silly, at the very least. Your ‘I’ is enough. I am I. Simply I.

I hope it’s understood that such a position has nothing to do with so-called ‘cosmopolitanism’ and the ‘no roots’ propaganda. As an ideology, cosmopolitanism is entirely foreign to me. For me, ‘freedom from context’ has an entirely different meaning, dictated by the deeper, existential human existence.

And this freedom ‘from context’ is certainly not at odds with patriotic feelings, just as the colour white is not inconsistent with the shape of a square. To understand that one belongs to a certain nation, that one is a citizen of a given country. Yes, this is very important. But there also exists an objectively experienced life, without being aware of the self that has been shaped within you by your own lot in life, your surroundings, your place of birth and the times in which you live. Within us, there is the ‘self’ and that which came before (or after) the ‘self’.

And what of patriotism? I remember standing by the bonfires that burned in January 1991 by the Lithuanian parliament, and I remember the mountains of concrete blocks meant to defend the building from an attack by Soviet tanks. There was a sense that such an attack could come at any moment. And today, I disagree with many émigrés who sit in London and spout filth about Lithuania. I find it disgusting. I remember the Lithuanians who cried when the shooting started on the Maidan in Kyiv. Back then, no one thought that the square belonged to the Lithuanian nation or that the people being shot belonged to Ukraine. The question about ‘belonging’ simply didn’t fit. There was a strong sense of empathy. We belong to those for whom we feel empathy. In this sense, the French saying ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ asserts a very accurate truth.

To this day, I’m annoyed by those plastic cylinders hanging on posts by Vilnius bus stops that you have to spin, sometimes hunched over near the light of your mobile phone to find out when the next bus or trolleybus will arrive. I was happy when the first electric indicator boards appeared at bus stops. But there aren’t many of them yet, not even in the city centre. Mostly, there are those cylinders. I don’t want any pretty Lithuanian women to have to hunch over and spin any cylinders. I wrote about this in my book Paryžiaus dienoraštis (A Paris Diary), where I compared life in Paris and Vilnius. I’m angry at the local government and its lack of shame. Just as it felt no shame about the puddles that riddled the central bus station in Vilnius for decades, in spring and autumn, like in some village. I was overjoyed when the puddles disappeared. Just as I was happy and grateful to the government when Sereikškės Park opened, which is just as good as any Parisian square. In A Paris Diary I asked why Vilnius can’t have any parks that lock up for the night? And then, we had one.

I tell everyone that Lithuania has the fastest internet in the world. That your mobile connection never drops in Vilnius, like it does in the centre of Paris. I’m disappointed that they demolished a wonderful square by the Čiurlionis bus stop and blocked it off with a new building wall. I’m angry that they had the nerve to do that. There’s nowhere to breathe now. Who could have allowed it? Was it just commercial audacity? Is that even possible without corruption? I’m happy that Lithuania’s GNP is among the highest in the European Union, that the flow of foreign tourists has grown several times over, and that there are skyscrapers rising on the far bank of the Neris that hold their own against those in La Défense in Paris.

Am I a Lithuanian patriot? I believe I am. But I don’t think about that. Love and true patriotism are measured by other things. Not by how we demonstrate our ‘patriotism’. That which lies deep within us does not necessarily need demonstrating. After all, we don’t scream out ‘I am my mother’s son!’ Publicly displaying feelings for our mothers? For our roots? For the country in which we live? This is far too intimate an emotion. For me.

Do all of these patriotic feelings prevent us from living ‘outside of context’? Or to belong to different ‘contexts’? Not only does it not prevent it – it has nothing to do with it at all.

True art and literature belongs to everyone.

People ground their roots in memory, childhood, and in a specific piece of land, but their canopies graze the sky.

Through an airplane window, a person sees only the domes of treetops—and if they belong to anyone or anything, then it is to the heavens.

 

Translated by Darius Sužiedėlis

 

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