LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 3 - Fall 2006
Editor of this issue: Mykolas Drunga
The Experiences of Lithuanian Exile: Between Loss and Discovery
Dalia Kuizinienė teaches literature at the Kaunas’s Vytautas Magnus University and is a Senior Scholar at the Lithuanian Emigration Institute. She specializes in the history of Lithuanian diaspora literature and culture as well as in the theory and practice of literary criticism. She has written a book on Lithuanian literary life in Western Europe from 1945 to 1950, and has published roughly a hundred scholarly papers.
The experiences of exile culture can be, and sometimes have been, integrated into the space of Lithuanian culture. What does it mean to be a creative artist in the arena of global culture? From their first days abroad, some representatives of Lithuanian exile culture, especially the writers, have been thinking about their identity and about the positives and negatives of their relationship to the surrounding world. The opposition between local and global space, between national tradition and Western culture, as well as the fusion of these opposite elements, has found the most varied formal and thematic expression in the work of artists working in several distinct media. It is the purpose of this paper to look at Lithuanian exile culture of the first postwar decade as it expressed itself in relation to space and identity.
In analyzing Lithuanian exile culture of the 1940s and 1950s, two important tendencies become apparent. Some creators enclosed themselves in a ghetto of national traditions and values, choosing a kind of isolation, while others were open to the world around them and extended the boundaries of the national tradition through their work.
In general, Lithuanian writers and artists living in Western Europe could not, and did not, seal themselves off from Western cultural influences. A new environment and new conditions for living and creating forced them to rethink their relationship with tradition and to reflect creatively on their own identity. In comparing Lithuanian literary processes with the tendencies of universal literature, Algirdas Landsbergis could not help but remark that “every true writer’s passport should contain, beside his first nationality, the inscription ‘world citizen.’ For the sake of his country and of its literature.”1 In one of his texts, Adolfas Mekas (brother of Jonas Mekas and himself an author) poses a question full of rhetorical pathos, directed at himself and his generation: “Weltbűrger. I don’t know who that is: am I one – or am I not?”2 Expanding on this question, he both asks and answers it: “How can I be a Weltbűrger if I cry when reading Aleksandriškis?”3 In this text, the author expresses the doubts and sentiments of someone who ends up abroad and experiences the eternal tension between one’s home and the world.
The literature of that period is dominated either by the space of the home that one has left or by the space that one is still looking for. This search was perhaps given its very best name by Jonas Mekas, who published the diaries that he wrote while still living in Europe under the title I had Nowhere to Go.
Thus the first postwar decade was marked by a very clear attachment to one’s former home or by the experience of neither having nor finding it. Writers romanticize the Lithuanian village and the details of its landscape, they lovingly hark back to something that exists only in the past. This ‘philotopy’4 also suffused the work of the visual artists, as evidenced in woodcuts and engravings of the ubiquitous village well sweeps and Pensive Christ images, and in paintings by their colors so characteristic of the Lithuanian landscape. Lithuanian magazines were illustrated with pictures of the most important national symbols.
On the other hand, artists began to look for more modern forms of expression as their artistic worldview changed in response to newly encountered Western influences. Having settled in Paris, the painter Adomas Galdikas felt increasingly drawn towards abstractionism; and the same tendencies became apparent in the graphic arts, as can be seen in the work of an already mature Viktoras Petravičius, a maturing Žibuntas Mikšys, or in the amateurish yet provocative illustrations that Vytautas Leonas Adamkevičius (Leonas Lėtas) created for Jonas Mekas’s magazine Žvilgsniai. Literary texts lost a consistent plot line; only fragments thereof remained. Inspired by a reawakened existentialism and expressionist tendencies, writers experimented with form, deformed the literary depiction, transformed the well-known classical plot lines, and playfully stylized them. These changes in visual and literary creativity were due not only to external influences, but also to a changing sense of national identity felt by individual writers and in many cases applying to an entire generation. For example, Julius Kaupas called the generation of writers that was just coming into literature during the first post-war decade the generation of “the third brother” (of fairy tale fame), a generation that was always searching for something:
There’s an endless multitude of magic castles and kingdoms richer than those on earth, of inner worlds wider than the earth, but you can’t inherit them or buy them with all the gold in the world – you can only discover them, conquer them, conjure them up for yourself.” 5
In Lithuania itself it was, perhaps, only Juozas Erlickas who later would talk of “the third brother” in his texts.
Similar tendencies became apparent in domestic Lithuanian culture after 1986-1988, with the start of the reform process leading to the opening of the wall to the West and the resultant blast of fresh air coming from it, finally culminating in the reestablishment of independence in 1990. The period from 1986 to 1996 might be called a period of making new acquaintances and of digesting new experiences; it was remarkably similar to the first decade of postwar exile culture. Writers again tried to work out their relation to tradition and to formulate their creative positions. In this respect, Jurgis Kunčinas, Ričardas Gavelis, then Sigitas Parulskis, Aidas Marčėnas, Kęstutis Navakas, and a little later Marius Ivaškevičius and Herkus Kunčius were especially vocal and articulate. Visual artists coalesced into groups, organized common exhibits, and took their stand (for example, Robertas Antinis and his “Post Ars” group).
During the last few decades, both Lithuanian exile culture and that of Lithuania was marked by a provocative attitude towards space. Ričardas Gavelis in his novels creates a unique symbolic image of Vilnius as a world city, making it into a persona alongside the others with sacral and vulgar connotations side by side. Jonas Mekas in his writings and films erases the boundaries between spaces and cultures, tying them into a common existential problematic. His concept of space is highly individualized. The Lithuanian village of Semeniškės becomes the axis and center of the world; New York becomes a big village;6 and eventually Mekas abjures any and all identification with a specific place and instead comes to regard the entire world of culture as his home: “I travel a lot. So people ask me: Where are you from? I tell them: I was born and raised in Lithuania, I live in New York, and now my country is culture.”7
The graphic artist Audrius Puipa provides interesting transformations of space by placing both everyday and eternal objects in a kitchen or workshop. In his photomontages, Mindaugas Navakas makes known edifices of Vilnius contiguous with his own sculptures. Robertas Antinis’s monument to Romas Kalanta in Kaunas is a conceptual highlighting of the spot where he set himself on fire.
How relevant are questions of national identity, and of the relation between local and global spaces, to creative artists working today? Raymond Filip and Irena Mačiulytė Guilford, two authors of Lithuanian descent writing in English, do deal with the contrast or clash of two cultures, two spaces, and two languages in their work.
Lithuanian writers living abroad inevitably find themselves surrounded by several cultures and at least two languages. Thus, again inevitably, they come face to face with the problem of their own national and sometimes even generational identity – a problem that does not necessarily find a complex expression in their work.
Algirdas Landsbergis, who wrote mainly in Lithuanian, but also in English, talked without feeling greatly traumatized about exile, bilinguality, and multiculturalism, finding in all this rather a gift than a loss.8
Živilė Bilaišytė, a poet and literary critic who was born and raised in exile, has accurately described the attitude members of her generation have towards their national identity and the Lithuanian language:
When for an entire generation – my generation – the Lithuanian language no longer is the language through which we meet and experience reality, then for a writer of that generation the historical national Lithuanian heritage becomes an impediment in the search for meaning, a hindrance to investing everyday reality with meaning. Under those circumstances writing poetry in Lithuanian becomes in a certain sense a hermetic endeavor that one might compare with writing medieval poetry in Latin, which was not the everyday language of the people... That brings forth a desire to write poetry in English, even though the Lithuanian language was once your first language and even though by origin and in your heart you consider yourself a Lithuanian.9
Thus during the last decade the situation among writers of Lithuanian descent and living outside Lithuania may be summed up as follows. Some of them wrote both in Lithuanian and in English (Algirdas Landsbergis, Eglė Juodvalkė, Lidija Šimkutė); others wrote only in English, and the latter group in turn divides into those who in their work (and even in their life) have thoroughly distanced themselves from a Lithuanian identity as well as Lithuanian themes (Algis Budrys, Dalia Janavičius), and those who have not renounced Lithuanian themes and in whose work recollective, autobiographical elements and details of Lithuanian national and family history are rather pronounced. In the latter respect the work of Irena Mačiulytė Guilford (Irene Guilford), Antanas Šileika and Raymond Filip is especially interesting.
Where, by the way, does the work of these last three authors (and others not mentioned) belong? Their names do not appear in any Lithuanian literary encyclopedia or history of exile literature. In which periphery – that of Lithuanian exile or that constituted by the margins of the Canadian or some other cultural context – will their work find a place? In Lithuania they are largely unknown; in the diaspora their work is sometimes published in Lituanus and/or Metmenys; and they occasionally participate in the U.S. conferences of Santara-Šviesa. Their books are published by non-Lithuanian publishers. To which audience then is their work addressed?
Irene Guilford’s book The Embrace was published in its original English in Canada in 1999. Then a Lithuanian translation (by Dalia Cidzikaitė and Aušra Veličkaitė) entitled Prisilietimas was published in 2002 by AM&M Publications in the United States, and a year later the same translation was published in Lithuania by Baltos lankos under the title Glėbys.
In this novel (probably autobiographical in certain details) the author tells the family story of the main protagonist, Aldona, including her parents’ and grandparents’ exodus from Lithuania and their failure to adjust to Canada. The story is told from a first-person perspective. The narrator, like the author, was born outside Lithuania, a country about which she knows only from her parents’ recollections and the textbooks of the Lithuanian Saturday schools that she attended. Thus she grew up with a romanticized, idealized concept of Lithuania, which 54 her later experiences – garnered in a trip to Lithuania and from contacts with relatives living there proved to be dissonant with reality. The book starts with the following motto:
The ghost of my life in Lithuania exists, though I have never lived there. ... Part of me lives there still, a sleeping self snatched up before birth and carried, half by my mother, half by my father, out of Lithuania.10
The novel consists of three parts. In the first, the narrator and her father visit Lithuania in 1985; the second part returns the narrator to her youth, to the story of how her parents and grandparents left Lithuania and established themselves abroad, and to the way she, as a teenager, came to grips with these events, how they formed a personality hard pressed to identify herself, and how she started to correspond with her cousin living in Lithuania; the third part takes place in 1990, when her relatives from Lithuania visit Canada. So what is this book about? How a young Canadian-born Lithuanian woman relates to her Lithuanian heritage? How the experiences and identities of Lithuanians living in Lithuania are absolutely distinct from those who were born and are living outside of it?
The author of Prisilietimas aims to encompass both aspects. First of all, she tries to identify her ethnic identity, her being situated between two different cultures, and her inability to identify with either one. At the beginning of the book, she already calls herself “the Lithuanian inside the Canadian, an arm hidden inside a sleeve.”11 This permanent existence between two unrelated worlds is something her Canadian husband cannot understand.
Even at age fifteen, she painfully experiences a sense of maladjustment, a feeling that will never leave her: “I don’t fit in anywhere. Not among the Canadians where I was born. Not among the Lithuanians who came here. Not in Lithuania, a place I never left.”12
She never ceases to ruminate on her parents, relatives, and the dramatic history of their country. The image of a “snail in a shell,” used in the first part of the book, is transformed in the second to a near-synonym: “I become a vessel, holding memories and dreams.”13 The protagonist’s identity is also explicated in terms of her relationship to the Lithuanian language, which was her native one. Both her life and her language space are divided into two parts: a Lithuanian one and a Canadian one. And the line between them is clear in the space that is linguistic: Lithuanian is the language of home and church, the language of the intimate and the personal; English is the language of everyday public life. Several episodes describe what happens when the linguistic spheres are confused: the narrator is shocked. One time her grandmother, meeting up with an acquaintance on a Toronto street, utters something in Lithuanian:
These words, spoken only in the hot, close privacy of church and home, were like birds let out too soon into the cruel spring air, birds whose membranes were still wet and stuck together and whose bones were too fragile for flight. They would not survive.14
Many years later, the protagonist experiences the same. Having spoken in Lithuanian to her relative in a shopping center, she feels she has mixed up the separate spheres, and disclosed in public something of her hidden personal life: “This private language, spoken in public, is like stepping behind a hedge into a secret garden, a close, green space hidden from view.”15
The other aspect of the novel has to do with the two notions of Lithuania that, like the two languages, stay separate from one another. Guilford builds her novel on a principle of contrast: there are always two dissonant realities. One is the gray, repulsive reality of Soviet Lithuania, which the narrator experiences when accompanying her father on a visit to his country of birth: she describes it grotesquely and ironically. The other is an illusory Lithuania, the reality created by books, by nostalgic recollections and reminiscences, nurtured by a romantic imagination. Sometimes, the narrator identifies with her parents’ pain and loss; at other times, she totally ignores the notions foisted upon her. Occasionally, both concepts melt together and become one in her traumatized consciousness, so aware of her parents’ guilt.
The novel ends with a recognition that it is impossible to unify and join together two identities, two cultures, two different sets of experiences:
[...] we are two separate spheres of existence, tied by letters, photos and stories, history and blood. It will take something other than suitcases crammed with summer dresses to overcome the teachings of Saturday primers, the letters not answered, the sweaters not sent. It will take the generation after ours.16
The concept of a home country dematerializes in the storyteller’s consciousness; it becomes a space created by her imagination.
Thus far, this book has only been sparsely reviewed in the Lithuanian periodical press; it has not received much attention from either ordinary readers or professional critics. Irene Guilford’s novel seemingly drops out of the context of Lithuanian exile prose. Is it because it presents a rather unattractive side of Lithuania, replete with portraits of pesky locals, greedily awaiting parcels and gifts from their overseas relatives? Oftentimes, the author seems to overstate her case and to caricaturize her characters. Distinct experiences, distinct ways of looking at things and wholly distinct systems of values do not unite people, but rather divide them.Is it possible, or even desirable, to make two sets of experiences one?
The poet Raymond Filip (originally Filipavičius) was born in Germany, lives in Canada, and writes poems in English. His work intertwines motifs from the Lithuanian past, exile, and a multicultural environment. The subjects of his poems identify with representatives of any nationality who have suffered loss and upheaval without having discovered their specific identity:
I am the inalienable right to alienation:
The Horatio Algerian, the Haitian electrician,
The Cuban security guard, the cab driver from Calabria,
The Jewish landlord who lives in Florida,
I am Hutterite, Mennonite, Wahabite, Bahai, Sikh, and Alcoholic.
I am Canadian Mosaic: a melting pot on ice.
I am always the next generation,
The child with which good immigrant fiction ends.
I am that child grown up, writing in English,
Mother tongue in mind, adopted tongue in cheek.
You were Commonwealth; I am common loss.
Like a citizen of the world, in exile,
Or an overseas package returned to sender,
I am nothing left but to be Canadian.17
The relationship of Lithuanian creative artists in Lithuania and abroad to their identity and the space in which they work is individual, and its expression takes on a variety of forms. In many cases, the experiences of Lithuanian exile culture have provided a positive example to Lithuanian artists.
How do artists respond to the challenges of a global world? The space in which many recent Lithuanian writers and artists live and create is not limited to a specific place or even country. How can we pigeonhole a creator who lives partly in Lithuania and partly in a Western country? In today’s world the concepts exile, emigration are beginning to lose their relevance. Itinerant creative artists might more accurately be called migrants, and the culture they create – can we not dub it a migratory or transient culture?
1. Landsbergis, 1948, 49.
2. Mekas, 1949, 3.
4. The term is used by Arvydas Šliogeris in his book Būtis ir pasaulis (Vilnius: Mintis, 1990).
5. Kaupas, 470.
6. In his film “Laiškai iš niekur” shown on Lithuanian National TV in 1997.
7. Mekas, 1997, 11.
8. The autobiography of Algirdas Landsbergis in Egzodo rašytojai (Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 1994), 461-462.
9. Bilaišytė, 1986, 20.
10 Guilford, 1999.
11. Ibid., 14.
12. Ibid., 54
13. Ibid., 50.
14. Ibid., 72.
15. Ibid., 114.
16 Ibid., 150.
17 Filip, 15.
Bilaišytė, Živilė. “Ieškant prasmės: kalba, istorinis palikimas ir tikrovė,” Metmenys, No. 51, 1986.
Egzodo rašytojai, The autobiography of Algirdas Landsbergis. Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 1994. Filip, Raymond. Backscatter, Toronto-Buffalo-Lancaster: Guernica Editions, 2001.
Guilford, Irene. The Embrace, Toronto-Buffalo-Lancaster: Guernica Editions, 1999.
Kaupas, Julius. “Išmintingieji broliai ir užburtoji pilis,” Raštai, Chicago: AM&M Publication, 1997.
Landsbergis, Algirdas (under the pseudonym of J. Alpis). “Dirvonuojantys plotai ir lietuvių literatūra,” Žvilgsniai, No. 4, 1948. Mekas, Adolfas. “Une reverence,” Žvilgsniai, 1949.
Mekas, Jonas. Laiškai iš niekur, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1997.