LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 60, No.1 - Spring 2014
Editor of this issue: Rimas Uzgiris
Four Lyrical Essays
KĘSTUTIS NAVAKAS is a poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. He won the Jotvingian Poetry Prize in 2006 and was a laureate of the National Prize for Culture and the Arts in 2007. These essays are drawn from his book Gero gyvenimo kronikos. They were initially written for a newspaper column in Kaunas during the mid-1990s, when the art of the lyrical essay had a rebirth in the aftermath of independence.
The Ordinary Person
Once upon a time, in one of the most ordinary cities in the center of Europe, there lived an ordinary person.
This sentence would be enough, for it contains all one needs to know of the ordinary person, all of his body and soul. Nevertheless, an essay of one sentence is obviously too short, so come on, ordinary person, get up out of bed and get under our microscope! For you are microscopic - the smallest particle of nature that exists is your soul.
Heinrich Heine once wrote that under every memorial stone lies the history of the world. In so writing, he forgot the ordinary person, under whose gravestone there lies an important piece of the world's demographic. Essentially, this person lives under a gravestone, without many signs to show that he still exists at all - doing something somewhere, sitting in a corner on a stool, invisible to the naked eye. He surfaces only when someone is run over. But even then no one comes to identify the remains, and he lies alone under the mortician's chainsaw. Life goes on: outside the window children play nice games of jump rope and "My Father Drank Today."
There are three other things that pull the ordinary person out into daylight: parliamentary elections, TV game shows, and - in pathological cases - love. He is rarely seen in elections either, but rather felt - after the fact, when the results are added up. The results are surprising not just to us, but to the political forecasters too. It appears our predictions and conscientious efforts went quietly to the dogs, and we elected the wrong government. This is the best evidence that the ordinary person still exists, still has a voice (doubtfully, in a musical sense), and that he is inclined to give it to the first collective-farm manager he meets. He is an ordinary person - you can't tell him anything.
This giving is a generous act, for the voice is often the only real wealth of the ordinary person, and also because he usually gets nothing in exchange for it. In fact, he can't get anything. But there are places where he can - lotteries and game shows.
Here one can get all kinds of things - from a Škoda Felicia1 to a greasy fig.2 The latter he owns himself, and pays attention to the aforementioned collective manager in order to orient it towards the greatest return. The ordinary person squirms about on camera, mumbles something or other, and look - he wins. You see, his competitors are even more ordinary; for them, just to be on screen is a significant event. They will talk about the experience for a long time, pointing at the screen: "I was there," they will say.
For others, it suffices to see the ordinary person on TV, for the whole world's ordinariness and all the ordinary people fit into one ordinary person. When one wins, all of them (potentially) win. They clap their hands, switch the channel, and watch Maria Celeste3, who is also like them because she cries for absolutely unambiguous reasons.
The most interesting phenomenon of all is the ordinary person's love. It is often accidental. He falls in love with whoever is on hand; commonly, that would be neighbors, nurses or service workers. If such a love falls to a bookstore clerk, the ordinary person will loiter by her counter, ask about the turnover, try to discuss some writer, most likely Marcinkevičius; and when she goes to hide in the storeroom, he will make a fist of his giant twelve-litas potential and ask her out for coffee. She will refuse; she is not ordinary; she sells books. In those books, she read about the danger of accidental connections, so she would only go for coffee with a non-ordinary person: the Dalai Lama, Stallone, Juocevičius. But the ordinary person will loiter by the counter the next day as well. And the next - until he finally wears a hole in the floor. In his eyes, whole libraries will be sold out.
The bookstore clerk is the Blue Dream of the ordinary person. Individuals of lesser imagination generally flirt with food staff. Themes for conversation are laid out here as well, on the other side of the refrigerated glass. Once the themes have been discussed, it's possible to acquire them, take them home and then unequivocally become one with them. The next day, relations with the clerk will be on a more practical level, and she respects that. And the twelve litai squeezed in the fist can turn out well.
In the same way that tele-game shows can result in the ordinary person becoming tele-rich, so too, love can sometimes help him turn from ordinary to un-ordinary, crossing class boundaries, changing the chemical makeup. He even begins to write letters, carrying at all times on his tongue a postage stamp for local mail. The word "love" in his letters is written calligraphically and underlined with a ruler.
Nevertheless, love for such a person rarely ends well; the letter gets stuck in the middle of the page, and the pen and ruler travel along more usual roads - filling out utility bills. The utility inspector moves into the ordinary person's dreams, knowing everything about him: address, telephone, gas and electric usage, and so on. The utilities inspector is to the ordinary person what the wolf was to Little Red Riding Hood. Sometimes he dreams that he lives inside his inspector's shaggy belly.
Artists also take an interest in the phenomenon of the ordinary person; they travel through the countryside, where Birutė's song resounds, through towns where there is the song of Džordana,4 stubbornly looking for that person; and when they find someone similar, they fall to writing, photographing, and carving wood. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find the ordinary person; he is a virtuoso of mimicry, melding so well with his environment that, apparently, even the air blocks our sight of him. Thus, in creative works we see the ordinary person's diluted surrogate. Acorn coffee.
The historical mission of the ordinary person in the computer age is not at all clear. There are those who still think the ordinary person is an absolute double of life, who sits for decades on the same bench. In this way, he generously returns us to the original meanings of words, to the feeling of the importance of elementary phenomena. On his lips, words (not only "table," "bottle," "galoshes," "Vycka-Ecka,"5 and so on) have least distanced themselves from the objects they describe, and they are the best guarantee of the continuation of civilization, showing that the world is still strongly supported on its foundations, that our homes are not yet hanging in the air, that they have not sailed off among the clouds. They are only just intending to rise and sail away.
The Universe of Things
Clothes make the man, according to the well-known saying. Clothes mark a person's economic and social status, origin and class, taste or lack thereof. In clothes we see the wearer's mood or reflections of disappointments, his daily aura, even his view of the rest of the world - of what is not him, what is full of other people and other clothes. That world was made not by God or Darwin, but by Benetton, Levi-Strauss, and Christian Dior. Clothes live in that world. They sleep in closets like forgotten lovers, and sometimes they climb off their hangers and walk the avenues, wearing their people.
People are not important to clothes. The only features of concern to clothes are height, the length of arms, the circumference of the neck and chest, and so on. Clothes are indifferent to us, like nature itself. Sometimes it seems as if they are a piece of nature, that they grow on trees.
This assertion is not just something taken down from the rafters, because the forefather of all clothes was the fig leaf. Two fig leaves once covered the strategically important areas of the bodies of Adam and Eve. And when they began the line of humanity, there weren't any pants or skirts by the side of the bed, but two fig leaves. By morning, they had already managed to wither, whereas pants and skirts don't wither. Maybe that's why they took leaves out of circulation. When is the last time you wore a fig leaf, dear reader? The day before, you say? Well, speak, then speak...
Clothes are obvious, far more obvious than people. People hide in them, like water in a faucet. Clothes know how to sacrifice themselves, hiding people's defects while revealing their own at the same time. Seemingly, they hide nothing from us, except for the lining, the labels, and ourselves. Nevertheless, a passerby goes and drops a handkerchief. Then the whole illusion of the candor of clothes falls apart. After all - whence that handkerchief?
It turns out that clothes have their secret life and carry it in their pockets. The clothing is just the viewable part of the iceberg: everything else goes into the pockets. Whatever we want can hide in pockets, from the keys to a Mercedes to a greasy fig. Speaking to a person with many pockets, you feel like you're reading a book from which censors have cut three-quarters of the text.
It's a good thing that the number of pockets isn't infinite, otherwise people would stuff the whole world into them. What percentage of the world is already inside pockets? No one has counted, though that research direction has strategic promise. Industry is already turning towards the pocket format. There are already not only photographs, books, and currency carried in pockets, but telephones, video cameras, and dogs.
It's naive to think that telephones should sit on a table, books on shelves, and dogs by the doghouse. Everything in your pockets! Even a thousand-some shoemakers in a factory sit in their boss's pockets. Granted, he doesn't carry them around: the pocket is a broad concept.
The word "pocket" is exemplified in the Contemporary Lithuanian Dictionary by the phrase: "He lives out of his father's pocket." We can imagine how the father comes home from the shoe factory and hangs his coat on the chairback. Then, said person, as described in the dictionary, sneaks up, sticks his hand in the pocket and - lives. There would have to be Social Security payments aplenty in the pocket to ensure such a life. The dictionary guarantees it.
How many pockets does the average Lithuanian citizen have? Probably around fifty. So, at the end of the twentieth century in Lithuania, there are about 200 million pockets. There is something put into every one of them, or there was, or there will be. A staggering potential, like the Donets Basin mines or the Berlin supermarket KaDeWe.
"Buying pockets": a perfect ad in the city newspaper, showing that the buyer has lots of little things. Exactly those kinds of people are usually interesting to talk to, to invite home for tea. Attention to little things reveals a high level of education and subtle tastes. For a person of truly subtle taste there will never be enough pockets.
The bliss of using pockets is sometimes sullied by various troubles, of which there are three: geographical, criminal, and rebellious. In the geographical sense, pockets can be as disorienting as the Kalahari Desert. The more we have of them, the more likely we are to lose things in them, like keys or 50 USD. Search all you want. You're just making the dogs bark, according to the dictionary. The Atlas of all Pockets would help, but without it, one is left to follow one's intuition: don't start looking for a wrench in your smoking jacket or for a revolver in your jeans. Intuition whispers they are not there.
There is only one criminal enemy of pockets - the pickpocket. In Lithuania, a couple of hundred wallets are pulled out per month. A pickpocket only needs three seconds to perform this act. When we multiply these numbers, we see that a pickpocket keeps his hands in our pockets for ten minutes a month. Too long, obviously too long. Municipalities should ponder this problem, create pickpocket police units, and the representatives of such units should periodically check citizens' pockets - just in case someone has managed to pull something out of them already.
The final and greatest enemies of pockets are the little things themselves. They are mobile, dynamic, and easily bored with lying still. They take up a quiet resistance and slowly unravel the totalitarian structure of pockets. They unravel a hole and spill into the lining. Then you can look till doomsday for your ring with the fake diamond or a desperately needed girl's telephone number written down on an orange rind. They are gone, escaped to freedom. The world has already forgotten them. After that, Granny Lionė comes by with a needle sticking out of a spool of gray thread and sews up the hole like some light at the end of the tunnel.
Nevertheless, an empty pocket is a sad sight, like an empty bottle of wine. It calls out for new content. It has nothing but form, place, emptiness. Without its little things, it is without a soul. So, all the more quickly, I'll wind up this essay, fold it, and put it in my pocket. Let the pocket read. Let it live.
The Solitude of Cafes
Fortunetellers like the ace of hearts. When they work with dreams, they prefer the dream book of Greater Egypt. In a similar manner, fortunetellers who work with coffee grounds prefer Turkish coffee. It has the grounds, the fate: happiness or ruin. Ruddy runes cover JIESIA porcelain.
I never liked the Turkish way of making coffee. It is mute; and sitting with your back to the bar, nothing will reveal the birth of a new cup of coffee. A new customer: a new serving of coffee diluted with loneliness. Older machines, sputtering and wheezing, immediately force you to prick up your ears. How many servings? Two promise a comfortable cooing at a neighboring table, three - the lively tone of spinsters' laughter, for whom life has already been fully tasted and filled, and who have learned to spend lunch breaks with zest. The apparatus's long series of spurting sounds promises a youth in jeans who has nowhere to sit; he will chirp about that, as you yourself chirped a decade and a half ago, and every passerby on the avenue will look like Proust, carrying lost time.
Still, there is one more kind of sputtering that is like the cut of a sword, under which the head of a solitary person at the next table will fall. You will rise before it rolls away, and the corners of your eyes will meet the corners of his eyes. Yes, you are both emigrants; yearning has destroyed your homes, but even here you are not two. You are one, and he is one. The coffee machine gifts you with a thousand seconds of merely offhand neighborliness.
Coffee is not a drink. Coffee is a ritual, one of our cosmopolitan features. In its gregarious meaning it is conversation, the eventual touching of fingers on the table's horizontal, the last gulp of fear before the conversation ends. An invitation to coffee is an invitation to a micro-model of Paris. It is the possibility that an awaited miracle will take place. You will go for coffee and read to each other for a long time, sharing the poets who've amazed you, or you will kiss until five in the morning with "Shocking Blue" on the stereo. After that, you will be surprised to feel fatally in love, yet the invitation to coffee will never come again.
This will mean that while, for the other person, half a cup was enough, you went and dove to the bottom, getting lost in the grounds. The coffee of solitude will remain, where we found you at the beginning of this essay.
To this cup, people come from different sides. From one side come those seeking a brief escape from telephones, wives, neighborhood girls, and dogs, from overstretched habits like bottomless bags. These are the reasons people go fishing, fix cars, and dig up gardens. They want to experience contraband, forbidden (in the home) solitude, solitude strengthened fourfold by all the colors and smells of their escape. That kind of person, with the last gulp of coffee in his mouth, is chased home by the clock, whose long directional arrows turn over his head. Without any special warning, his door shuts.
From the other side of the cup, the pure products of nature come to drink. Sumerians died out thousands of years ago; the Jotvingian swamps swallowed the armies of the Crusaders; and later on, the forms of civilization changed with ever-shorter intervals. Yet cuneiform writing, shouted from the primordial mouth, still pursues the solitary person in the street. Cities are not built for the lonely, and they wait for the city's reflections to turn over in the cup. The cup of coffee situates a person like that - his time and place of wandering become concrete. He can stop and look around.
"Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world," said Archimedes. The coffee cup is a place to stand, and the world really does begin to move, tearing off its anonymity like a pharaoh's mummy slowly unwound. Fragments of conversation, glances from neighboring tables, details of clothing -all of them are signs showing that the world still exists and that somewhere within it there will be a place for you. You drink the atmosphere, becoming more and more possible -not anyone's dream - until finally, you feel like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from the novel Perfume: you have gathered all the possible perfumes except for one - your own. It is impossible to get to know you: a substitute for coffee steam. Your yearning lacks concrete characteristics. If you would unbutton your shirt, there would be yawning emptiness underneath. A great shard of emptiness.
Palaver. This is all a lot of pointless chatter you think up while pushing your coffee around the table. You used to collect stamps, dreaming of traveling to those multicolored countries - to all of them at once! Now you collect your palaver, wanting it to dissolve you, trying to distance duty and responsibility. And that coffee - yet another means of avoiding action, an attempt to take Eve's apple away so that the world would remain un-begun. And if I have guessed this all correctly - you pay for my coffee; if not - I'll get out of here in time. Though, I've never managed to get out in time.
So grab your cup and come sit close by: I see your fortune in the grounds of your eyes.
You once dreamed at night that you were not there, that not one finger could touch you under the sheet, that not one candle could illuminate your face. You are doomed to a bodiless wandering in the city streets, looking for the smallest sign that you have been here before. Your number is not in a single address book. Not one book writes anything important for you. And just as it seems you have found something, in the slightest context of actual life, you disappear again like a shadow in sun. Only in the coffee cup do you find your face, and from it you blow yourself up like a giant bubble. Solitary. Yes. Nevertheless.
Those two over there, cooing at the next table. They are drowning in each other's habits. They are, to each other, illusions that they eat up with large bites. One without the other, they are equally alone - even lonelier, because then they have no alternative context.
The three spinsters have nothing but their work and fleeting informational themes over the table: "and she says..." Their solitude is sublimated: they don't even want to take a vacation. Wherever would they go?
And the youth in jeans, pouring himself a birthday champagne under the table? In mood and demeanor he feigns depth, but his words never manage to convey it. After every phrase there is either emptiness or simulation.
And your "Shocking Blue" girl, to whom you were the paragon of chivalry? That episode was nothing but a mirror reflecting your eternal yearning for the feminine, the blink of an eye that blinded you because it was just a bit brighter than the others. Will you sacrifice an army of trouble to conquer your mirage?
It's not strange to see you get up and leave with that smile. Letting romance run makes the world comfortably real. And everything becomes possible. Even a second cup of coffee late on Christmas Eve, there, where you really want it. As for what is left on the table, I will have to pay.
In Defense of Tables, or The Table: An Apologia
Floors. They are, in this instance, of utmost importance. Without them, we wouldn't get into the room; without them, we would fall through somewhere into the depths, into Gothic basements or root cellars, into a Soviet hideaway or a Nazi bunker, maybe even into Hades, where Eurydice escaped from Orpheus. There is almost nothing down there. You read in books about corpses under the floor, a box of thalers, and you peel back the boards - nothing of the kind. A grey, moldy, mouse-infested park. So - the boards back in their place, a path of rugs over them, and on the path - a table.
A room with a table and two stools is called a minimalist interior, or a friend-of-port-wine interior. You will find such a sight most often in the kitchen, but in another room there will always be additional detail. A glassed-in section, an axe without a haft, a wedding photo on the wall (all grooms on walls, with their doubtful mustaches, are alike). Nevertheless, a table is the indubitable center. Let us ponder how furniture might be differentiated in terms of a throne and its greater or lesser periphery. From this point of view, a table for a Chinese vase will be a total backwater, while the true table of real, live communication will be backed by the sky, waiting for the president to take his seat.
In the absence of the president, or of any of life's passers-by, objects of the room like to lie on the table - little things, we might add, those fated to migrate, to clamber over horizontal planes, changing their places of dislocation, forcing us to search for them. Where is that Klimt album now, or the little box with the wolf-tooth necklace? Where are those two things for which our searching never ends: keys and eyeglasses? You put them right here, yet they emigrated and the room covered up their tracks. They will wander a while longer, no doubt, then emerge onto the table like a float on the water's surface. If we lined up all the things that had once been on a table, their chain would wind three times around the earth. By their orientation, Columbus could discover America three times over.
The table takes part in all of our festivities: it marries us, seats us, and lifts up our birthday plates. It does away with us. Numerous losers died by their own tables. A few shot themselves and fell on their tables with holes in their heads. I heard about one knavish artist from Šiauliai who tried to use his table to scare his wife. He would cut a hole in it and stick his head through the hole, and he stuck his tongue out through his teeth. He would pour something red around his neck, and when his wife came home she would faint, run to the law courts, and he changed one for another, like the leaves of a calendar. The table doesn't comprehend our guile: its soul is naive and benevolent.
The table generously hides our mischief. Under it, during a meeting, you can give the finger to your boss, or caress his secretary's knee. You can even take off your shoes beneath it, and this fact will more likely be given away by the emanation from your socks than by any impatience on the table's part. After all, the table is also barefoot, like most quadrupeds. At that same meeting, the table is our support and our meaning. If at first we place our palms on it, later we pile on our elbows and then take to resting even our chests and shoulders. Try at such a time to pull the table to the side - the chairs will certainly not attempt to hold their sitters. Chairs are just the unassuming vassals of the table.
What is there more of in the world: people or tables? The numbers are probably similar. And they multiply with similar speed; nevertheless, the origin of tables will never be blamed on faulty contraception. The origin of the table is always conceived and awaited because the world piles up enough junk to put on it. Has anyone ever calculated the percentage of things in the world that lie on tables? Under tables? In the drawers of tables? What is the rate per minute of writing literature on tables, of drinking vodka, or of drawing up plans to rob banks? Until scientists discover all there is to know about these things, the universal idea of the table will keep them in bread.
Doubtless, tables are various, individual, with different intellects and temperaments. Some are even marked by a nine-year-old child's stubbornness and won't easily let their drawers be opened. So much the greater pleasure in opening them! Still, tables can be sorted into kinds by means of their most salient dispositions, in the way that we separate Indo-Europeans from even-toed ungulates. The most fundamental and widespread of them can be grouped into two types: dinner (meeting) tables and magazine (coffee) tables. Dinner tables are especially universal. On them, one not only eats and drinks, but sometimes sleeps or dances a striptease (in bad novels). Civilization has made mountains of accessories for them, beginning with tablecloths the size of Columbus's sails, finishing with six-foot vases into which it is possible to soak a thuja with its garden-bed. An empty, naked dinner table is a sorry sight, even foreboding, as if everyone had forgotten you, or there was a war on, a famine, a plague. Then you become worried about your fate and go deal out a fifteen-deck game of solitaire on top of it. You avoid looking at the sad faces of the Jacks.
A coffee table is an island of peculiar intimacy. How pleasant it is to sit shoulder to shoulder with a pretty girl, browsing through some magazine. A coffee table guarantees that there will be few witnesses nearby - and many sofas. And it can happen that, at just the right time, you will both gently let the journal go from your hands. Hands will find hands sufficient, and the table will faithfully hold your candle, champagne, and an understanding rose turning itself away. Later, the day will separate you, and after some time, you will be sitting at the table with a letter in your hand. "I remember your room," she (he) will write. "I remember your coffee table."
There are also other tables, but to take a woman to see the bedside table is not very subtle and rarely ends well. There are also card and chess tables, kitchen tables, moonlight-kissed writing tables, and so on, and so forth. People of other countries are usually people of other tables. The Japanese, for instance, are often people of lower height, so they don't go about insulting their size by means of table-height. They cut off the legs of tables, so that their tables are barely higher than their sea.
It is a common scene as the curtain rises: there is a balcony center-stage, and beyond it, a Japanese sea: in the foreground of the sea, two chairs and a TABLE. It doesn't matter who will enter here from backstage, what and how they will act. The table stands like a soulful symbol of serenity. It simply is. It is not acting.