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Mindaugas Kvietkauskas (born 1976) is a literary scholar, writer and translator. Since 2008 he is a director of the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute in Vilnius. Kvietkauskas acquired Ph.D. at the Department of Lithuanian Literature, Vilnius University, and studied Yiddish language and literature at the University of Oxford, Centre for Hebrew and Judaic Studies. His main areas of research are multinational literary modernism and urban culture in Lithuania and East Central Europe. He is an author of two academic monographs, a collection of poetry and a recent book of literary essays Uosto fuga (The Port Fugue). Kvietkauskas has also translated several books from Polish and Yiddish languages, including works by Czesław Miłosz and Abraham Sutzkever.

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Mindaugas Kvietkauskas interview 01A scholar in Lithuanian studies and a long-time lecturer at Vilnius University, the director of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, the organizer of the annual Literatūros salos (Literary Islands) literary festival, a participant in and head of various rallies/gatherings focused on Lithuanian studies, and the 2016 winner of the Bronius Savukynas Prize awarded for the dispersion of humanistic values and intellectual culture in journalistic writing—all this applies to just one person, Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas. His collection of essays Uosto fuga (The Fugue of the Port) reveals the vision of an individual who, since childhood, has been involved in cultural and creative work of various natures: how he sees or would like to see the cultural life of Lithuania and what the cultural policy he is proposing consists of.

The colors of the book are black and white. They are the classic colors of the early cinema, artistic photography, chess, print, and writing. The associations are not incidental, for the voice speaking in the essays resounds in this particular junction of classical art, intellectual games, and the word as a means to maintain and preserve them. The eighteen texts of the book published in the cultural press from 1998 to 2016 and the postscript belong to the tradition of classical essay writing (compare the texts by George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Czesław Miłosz, and others) which is not very abundant in Lithuania and the most prominent examples of which are essays by Arūnas Sverdiolas[1],  Leonidas Donskis[2],  and Tomas Venclova. Here the theme of concern is the existing cultural condition, the sources that nourish it, and its survival. In the context of Lithuanian literature where the larger—or at least the visible—part of essay writing consists of literary essays (narratives about personal daily life, reflections of a general nature, emphasis on what takes the author by surprise and the like), this book stands out in that it attempts to merge with global culture that trespasses the boundaries of the given time and space (a particular country).

What cultural picture does it propose? In my view, the content of the texts can be described as a play of two “versions”—the positive and the negative—of one photograph or as a fluctuation between the colors black and white.

The first black/white dichotomy is culture as friendship vs culture as policy. All essays point to the fact that a dialogue is more productive and sustainable than a monologue; one of them, “Poetų grupės legenda” (The Legend of a Group of Poets) is even written as a dialogue with the self. In general, the conversation in Kvietkauskas’s texts is understood not as communication but as culture, value, and mental engagement, and that is why the partners in a dialogue are not incidental: the author frequently cites his ideologically like-minded colleagues and teachers Viktorija Daujotytė[3],  Darius Kuolys[4],  Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Fiut, Algis Mickūnas, and others. However, being heard and recognized is equally important: “Insistently encouraged, I eventually got used to addressing the professor in the second-person singular and in the spoken form of his first name” (p. 167). A culture based on such conversations is an eternal exchange between a teacher and a disciple and between a person and their friend, with the places and the roles of the participants clearly outlined. (Such a worldview was highly characteristic of Leonidas Donskis’s essays.)

On the other hand, conversation always contains political meaning (in the broad sense) and points to the political (public and/or civic) stance: “in the natural and underlying philosophy of our language [...] we do not observe the opposition between the civic spirit and poetry, between civic self-awareness and creativity” (p. 144). Indeed, all essays in Uosto fuga are consciously political: the interest in Lithuanian studies is directly associated with the syllabi of Lithuanian in schools and observations on the layout of bookshops with public funding of culture. Like the author himself, his friends and partners in a conversation are also individuals who shape the cultural policy of Lithuania or take part in it.

In this light, the second black/white dichotomy emerges: global vs local culture.  The book is beautiful in its scope: from travels in Silesia in the tracks of the eighteenth-century architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz (“Amžino judesio meistras” / The Master of Eternal Motion), through an “encounter” with the American poet Sylvia Plath in a park in Cambridge where she used to take walks more than fifty years ago (“Platanų šaknys” / Plane-tree Roots), to an actual encounter in Vilnius with Estera, a bibliographer of Jewish literature, and the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania that unfolds through her (“Esteros žirklutės” / Estera's Scissors). When you read the texts in succession, it is not hard to see that seemingly independent stories converge into one large narrative. It is a journey in the crossroads of different cultures, and Kvietkauskas sets out on it both in his essays and in his academic research such as, for example, his monograph on the multilingual literature of Vilnius (2005).

This journey finds its reflection in Sigutė Chlebinskaitė’s[5] artistic design of Uosto fuga. The texts are separated by double spreads of black-and-white photography by the author, each of which features a certain detail of nature or architecture extracted by the camera frame from a larger piece, for example, a segment of a bridge (p. 222–223), a fragment of a mosaic (p. 110–111), or a painting of helical stairs (p. 84–85). Like in the texts, visual details of the surroundings are approached as narratives of different cultures. However, the inner harmony of each image (symmetry, the proportions in the composition of the photograph) show that each detail reflects a unified whole, that straight and curved lines and smooth surfaces also stretch into the distance beyond the frame of the picture. The visible detail is a reflection of the invisible whole. Just like individual narratives from seemingly different places and times find their place in the overall story, the story of a journey with an extremely clear perspective, the abovementioned “Lithuanian concern.”  It is the main theme that, following the fugue principle, recurs in different fragments of the journey.  The global aspects of culture contain as much meaning and liveliness as they are deeply engaged in the local tradition and are in harmony with it (for instance, in the book Miłosz becomes Miloš with the Lithuanian “š”). This could be Kvietkauskas’s response to Lithuanian modern literary essay writing, which keeps playing with intertextuality (at times too much) and with the freedom of postmodernist writing.

This leads to what I saw as the goal set in the book for the reader, as the third black/white pairing: variable vs maintained culture.  There is not much change in the book although its title seems to promise it: a port as a location of departure, a destination, where there is exchange, noise, and turmoil. And then there is the postscript, a letter on the changing roles of the letter and the implements of letter writing. Yet here the port is just a memory of the past or a fantasy about it (Uosto Street in Vilnius is now Pamėnkalnio Street, “Uosto fuga”), while the port fugue echoing where there is no longer a port preserves the memory of the past and calls for keeping it in the field of vision, in the multicolor painting surviving in time. Let us name this painting Lietuvos kultūra (culture of Lithuania), while the port fugue could be referred to as ever recurring and repeated, or maybe a discovered or created (all variants go) narrative of the culture of Lithuania.

The writer Tomas Daugirdas[6] such such a relationship with culture maintains, preserves, and targets continuity and sustainability as an antithesis to a culturological view that is a result of  highly diverse perspectives being associated or, in general, novel ways are searched for when talking about culture.  A harmonious picture of culture without gaping cracks or inappropriate details is deemed to be preserved even in the most problematic texts*** of Uosto fuga such as “Nenoriu baroko” (I Don’t Want Baroque).  In this way Kvietkauskas’s essays differ from those of Tomas Venclova or Marius Ivaškevičius,  who, although they dwell on similar themes, point to painful and irreconcilable issues: the dissonance of cultures or people’s inability or even unwillingness to understand one another.

The black and white combinations in the book reflect the choice of staying within the scope of classical and canonical texts, of being inseparable from the experience of those texts. It is like cultural phenomenology that complements and extends the direction of thinking developed in Lithuania by Viktorija Daujotytė.  It is also like political cultural phenomenology when the contemplation of the overall picture of culture is proposed as a prerequisite of the cultural policy, and, vice versa, when the revelation and nurturing of such a (large, integral, and multicolor) picture must be the aim of cultural policy.

And since this review is intended for foreign readers, the main news is probably the following: in the broad field of Lithuanian essay writing a book has finally appeared that can be translated into foreign languages and expect a response—a voice that can be heard and understood, a dialogue. Looking from the point of view of foreign essay writing, the classical structure of Kvietkauskas’s essays, their vivid style and the circle of issues that goes beyond the concerns of everyday life ensure the possibility of such a dialogue.

2017

 

1. Arūnas Sverdiolas (b. 1949) — Lithuanian philosopher. He has taught philosophy across a wide variety of subject areas at Vilnius University, the Vilnius Academy of Arts, and other Lithuanian universities for many years and has published nine monographs on cultural and hermeneutic philosophy.

2. Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016) was a Lithuanian philosopher, political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, and political commentator, professor of politics and head of VDU Academia Cum Laude at Vytautas Magnus University, Honorary Consul of Finland in Kaunas and deputy chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. He was also a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 2009 to 2014.

3. Viktorija Daujotytė (b. 1945) — a Lithuanian literary critic and philologist. She has written more than 30 scientific monographs, as well as essays and Lithuanian language textbooks for general education and higher education. She has also written about culture, feminism, and society.

4. Darius Kuolys (b. 1962) — cultural history researcher, author of many articles on politics, cultural and social processes in Lithuania. He was the Lithuanian Culture and Education Minister from 1990 to 1992 and an advisor to the former Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus (from 1998 to 2002).

5. Sigutė Chlebinskaitė (b. 1977) — a famous Lithuanian book artist, graphic and illustrator.

6. Tomas Daugirdas – contemporary Lithuanian essayist and writer.

 

 

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