Quinta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Sophia,
Your letter arrived yesterday. Mirna and I both read it before sitting down to the supper Yara had prepared for us. Yara was annoyed. “After the way she insulted you last time I wouldn't think you'd skip supper to read another one of her letters.”
Mirna told Yara, “It's a very moving letter, Yara; you and Sophia have a lot in common.”
I felt this too. For the first time since the beginning of our correspondence I was able to recognize myself in you. This isn't only because you used my arguments or Zdenek's in your quarrel with your friend Daman but because your letter made me aware of similarities in our experiences and outlooks. I now feel I should apologize for the way I treated your earlier letters. I did treat you as an outsider, as a person with whom I couldn't communicate about my present situation. I was wrong.
During supper last night Mirna commented, “Sophia is a born troublemaker, just like Jan and Yara. She shares Jan's recklessness as well as his courage. I'm glad for her sake that she was taken away from here even if her emigration caused her some pain. There's no room here for people like that. If she'd stayed she would have disappeared years ago in a prison or concentration camp.” Mirna loved her “reckless” brother and she's very proud of Yarn's rebelliousness. Your letter convinced me that Mirna is right: if you'd stayed here you could well have followed a path very similar to Jan's. And you're right: you certainly wouldn't have occupied the “place” I assigned to you in my earlier letters. The tenacity with which you pursued your struggle, even in the face of certain repression, is something you share with Jan, not with people we both consider opportunists. Your recent confrontation with the administrative psychologist at your college, your exposures of militarism during your university years, your disruption of the war expert's class, are clearly not opportunistic acts, and you make it perfectly clear to me that you couldn't have derived any privileges from engaging in those acts. You're right when you accuse me of failing to distinguish your commitment from the commitments of those around you. I did accuse you of being a carrier of the repressive fuctions of the university and the press and I recognize that this accusation was unfair. I did identify your engagements with engagements that are as unacceptable to you as they are to me. I think I did. this because the contexts in which you've chosen to struggle are contexts in which I had thought genuine rebellion impossible. In my world the political militant, the journalist and the academician do not and cannot help establish a human community because their very existence presupposes the absence of community. This must be true in your world too; Tina expressed it very colorfully when, standing in the street, she shouted at Daman that his “cushy job” depended on the passivity of the rest of the population.
You've convinced me that your engagement in Daman's activity, or in Marc Glavni's and Vera Neis's activities, doesn't make you like them, and that your engagement was “some kind of affirmation of life,” as you put it. But you haven't convinced me that the kind of struggle you've waged is actually possible in the contexts in which you fought it. Every one of your experiences convinced me that the instruments you chose are useless for the kinds of ends you tried to make them serve. You were trying to fight for liberation with this society's instruments of domination. I think this is why you always remained an outsider while those alongside you became priests of political sects, missionaries of repressive religions and officials in government bureaucracies. In my earlier letters I failed to distinguish you from your context and my understanding of your activities was very one-sided. You're right to emphasize the side I had excluded and you do force me to recognize my narrow-mindedness. But I think you still leave some veils hanging, you still hide some parts of the picture. I see the picture in a new light now but I still don't see an altogether different picture from the one I saw before. I now see that your own goals were not repressive but I'm still convinced that the context in which you fought for those goals was repressive.
In order to combat my one-sidedness you have recourse to arguments that are equally one-sided. You pretend that the contexts in which you located your struggles were accidental and that your own activities had “nothing to do” with those contexts. I think you're wrong. I think your activities were reduced to nothing by those contexts. I think it's no accident that the agitational activity at the carton plant twenty years ago served Vera and Marc as a stepping stone toward the establishment of bureaucratic careers. I think it's no accident that your co-worker on the university newspaper is now a functionary in the ideological establishment, nor that the students who were stimulated by the example of your journalistic activity became politicians. The contexts in which you sought a project and a community are institutions which thrive on the absence of what you sought and you couldn't have been anything more than an outsider there. I'll try to clarify what I mean by telling you about my recent encounter with two of our onetime friends.
Last Saturday Jasna and I attended a lecture in the auditorium of the House of Culture. The speakers were Vera Krena and Adrian Povrshan. Their speeches were critical exposures of the repression we've undergone during the past twenty years. In terms of their words alone, Vera and Adrian couldn't have been very different from you at the time when you exposed the militarization of the university on the school's newspaper staff. They sounded like rebels, even revolutionaries. But in terms of their relations to those around them, in terms of the context in which they spoke, they are not rebels but political opportunists.
I agree with you: the similarity of their activity to yours does not make you one of them. But I don't agree that the context is or can be as hospitable to your goals as to theirs. You seem convinced that speakers' platforms, newspapers and pedagogical institutions can be serviceable to the struggle for freedom. I'm convinced of the opposite; I think such contexts are antithetical to your goals and hostile to your struggle and by engaging in them you merely strengthen forces whose very existence negates your project and your community. Maybe I'm being unfair again. If so, I hope you'll show me where I'm wrong. I'll try to express my doubts as clearly as I can, even at the risk of being unfair and overstating my case again. If I do get “carried away by my rhetoric” once again, I hope you'll understand that it's not because I feel that everything you stand for is alien to me. On the contrary, I'm not addressing my comments to a stranger but to a comrade and it seems to me that such critical appreciation is not an expression of hostility but is at the very basis of communication and friendship.
Last Friday Jasna walked Yara home from school and waited for me to return from work. She told me Vera and Adrian were scheduled to speak the following night and she was quite excited about it. She hadn't seen Adrian since she'd visited him three years ago in his empty office in the trade union building. And the last time she saw Vera was twelve years ago, on the day when all three of them were arrested at Jasna's house and accused of having contacts with a foreign spy. I did remember to ask Jasna if she could answer Sabina's question about the last name the police attributed to you and Luisa when they questioned her about her former acquaintances, but Jasna didn't remember the name.
I didn't share any of Jasna's enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing Adrian and Vera. In fact, I refused to accompany her to the lecture when she first mentioned it. I told her that if two politicians ever came to the carton plant to lecture to me during work hours, I'd walk off my job, so that I obviously wasn't disposed to go out of my way to hear the politicians. Jasna said she wasn't going because of her interest in political speeches but because these speakers had once been her friends. If my correspondence with you hadn't revived my memories of a distant past, I doubt if I'd still remember that Adrian Povrshan and Vera Krena had once been my friends. But I did remember this bizarre fact and I changed my mind, not so much because I wanted to see or hear Adrian or Vera, but because of you, because they've come to occupy such an important place in your life.
The auditorium was almost empty. The audience consisted mainly of young people, probably students, although there may have been a few young workers among them.
Vera Krena was introduced first, along with all her titles: honorable rector, honorable member, honorable deputy minister. There was little applause. She spoke very eloquently about what she called the “errors” which had been committed here during “recent years.” She was applauded when she said that these “errors” and “shortcomings” had all been brought about by the “deformations of our social system.” I didn't applaud, since I felt that by linking the “errors” to the “deformations” she merely linked two equally empty words. Her concluding speech was a rousing call for what she called “action.” Vera's words were as out of place in the midst of the present ferment as Daman's lecture was in the midst of the student strike. “We must find our way out of this vicious circle where bureaucratic attitudes reinforce passivity and passivity reinforces bureaucratic attitudes. We must create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of initiative. The prohibition and repression of criticism, the stifling of democratic relations, only inhibit the growth of initiative. Such deformations paralyze initiative at all levels and lead to indifference and to the cult of mediocrity. We stand at a historical crossroads. We face a great task. The time to act has come. Let us not be satisfied with half measures.”
The audience applauded and some people stood up. I felt uneasy. I had of course known that politicians were very busy trying to derive personal profit from the present ferment. But it is one thing to know this and quite another to experience it directly. No one in the audience could doubt Vera's sincerity or determination. She is still a very powerful speaker — much more powerful than most of the politicians I hear on the radio in the carton plant. She's also more courageous than most of the other “radical” politicians of today; perhaps she still has some of the traits you admired her for twenty years ago. She's the first politician I've heard in recent months who referred, in one and the same speech, to the stifling of democratic relations, the repression of criticism and the paralysis of initiative. But like all politicians in power, Vera presents all this as “errors” and “deformations,” and not as the very nature of the system of which she's an integral part. If the system is only “deformed” then it can be cured. However, if this social system is itself the deformity then it can only be destroyed, root and branch. Vera's remedy follows from her own diagnosis: the system has to be cured. How? “We must find ... We must create ... We stand ... Let us...” “We” of course means Vera Krena together with her audience, Vera together with the working population. And how will “we” cure the system “together”? Obviously the same way “we” have always done anything “together.” We the workers will do our share by remaining at our posts in the factories, while Vera will do her share by remaining at her posts in the offices of the academic and ideological establishments. In other words, we will cure the system “together” by continuing to reproduce it. And why do we face this “great task” only now, why have we suddenly arrived at this “historic crossroads” when “the time to act has come”? Because a ferment began at the bottom of this society and this ferment has spread to such an extent that it threatens to sweep away all the offices that Vera and her comrades occupy. For Vera the time has come to put an end to this ferment. That's the “great task” she faces. The offices she fought so hard to reach are endangered by the ferment. That's why she sounded so sincere and so determined. She's determined not to lose a single one of her conquests. Her heart may even be set on reaching new heights of bureaucratic power, on profiting from the opportunities created by the ferment itself. The present situation would then indeed be a historic crossroads — for Vera Krena.
I don't think Vera is an unusually brutal, cynical or unscrupulous person. I think the brutality is in her social activity, in the offices she occupies. These offices are part of the state apparatus. That apparatus can perform its functions only so long as a passive and submissive population lets itself be expropriated of those functions. For the past few months thousands of people have started to perform functions they had never performed before, functions which had been the exclusive domain of the state. This is especially true in the area of communication, namely the area which contains all of Vera Krena's academic and ideological offices. People have started to communicate with each other directly; they've been forging their own terminologies and infusing them with their own meanings. The ideological establishment and all its means of propaganda are being superseded by human forms of communication. If this process continues, all those offices and instruments will become historical junk, curiosities discarded by a reawakened humanity.
Vera's interest in derailing and stopping this ferment is not so much her own personal interest as it is the interest of an ideological establishment struggling to reimpose itself over human beings who are running out from under it. Vera Krena, director and ideological minister, didn't speak as an individual but as an agent of directorship and ideology. Through her these institutions, these abstractions which are nothing but summaries of regularized submission, acquire a voice and a will; through her these abstractions assert their insatiable hunger, their will to devour every human thought, word and sound, to digest all forms of human communication and excrete them as ideology.
Adrian wasn't applauded when he was introduced; several people snickered when his full title was announced; “Chairman of the central committee of the commission for problems of standard of living.” His speech was short and dull. He did exactly what he used to do twenty years ago. He didn't add anything at all to what Vera had already said; he merely repeated a few of her platitudes and then proceeded to document them. He documented “errors” and “deformities” with statistical data. He cited facts about the stagnating rate of industrial development and the declining standard of living, facts which are well known to a population that has experienced them daily. Adrian, like Vera, called for the reproduction of the very system whose ills he documented, but he was much more straightforward about the “cure” than Vera. When he said, “The leaders must apply policies which will earn them their leading roles in society,” he was hissed by several people. He apparently didn't hear the hisses because he continued in the same vein: “We can no longer impose our authority but must conquer it through our acts.” The hisses became so loud that I could barely hear his concluding sentence, which was something like, “We can no longer impose our line by commands, but only through our work, only through the truth of our ideals.” A few people applauded; over half the audience hissed. He could not have been more pathetic if he'd begged, “Please let us stay where we are; we promise to be good next time.” The rulers apparently think the population is ready to overthrow them. If only the rest of the population had such a high opinion of its own potential!
The fact that Adrian was hissed whereas Vera was applauded puzzles me. I'm equally puzzled in the carton plant, where people condemn some of the radio politicians as “rotten bureaucrats of the old school” while praising other politicians as people who are “basically on our side.” I'm puzzled because I can't see any essential difference between the politicians who are so different in the eyes of those around me. Either I'm failing to see some very important differences or else those around me are failing to see the similarities.
This is related to something I experienced in prison. We often discussed the behavior and character of prison guards and we classified guards in terms of their degree of brutality: some guards were “vicious,” others “so-so,” a few were “fairly decent.” But on several occasions I heard a prisoner refer to a guard as a person who was “on our side.” I could never understand this type of characterization of a prison guard. Or rather, I understood it and considered it absurd. In prison the absurdity of such an observation is made obvious by the walls, gates and bars. A person who was not inside a cell, who policed us in the yard, who left the prison every night, was clearly not on our side. The comment was absurd if it was understood literally. But it was much more disturbing if it was not understood literally because it described something very real about our situation as prisoners. It meant that prisoners have no “side,” that our fate depended completely on the wills and whims of the guards. We were things, inhuman entities without interests, desires or potentialities. The closest we could come to regaining our humanity was to have our interests and desires represented among the guards. Saying that a guard was on “our side” meant that all that remained of our humanity was lodged in the guard.
The applause given to politicians like Vera Krena in the present situation is even more disturbing than it would have been in prison. Our survival as human beings in prison did in fact depend on the prison guards, on the presence or absence of “our side” among the guards. Every attempt to affirm our humanity on our own led directly to severe repression, mutilation, even death. But this isn't the case in the present situation, a situation Vera described as a “historic crossroads.” For the first time in twenty years the extent of our development as human beings has not depended on the extent to which our humanity was represented among the prison guards, the ruling politicians. For the first time in twenty years we've begun to take steps to regain our own potentialities and realize our own desires. For the first time in twenty years we haven't been prisoners at the mercy of guards but free human beings discovering our freedom and beginning to forge our own humanity. The applause given to politicians like Vera indicates that many, disturbingly many people are not able to leave the prison in which they've been locked up. It means that many of my contemporaries are unable to accept the reality of their own desires even in the act of realizing them. They are unable to accept themselves as human beings. They've been locked up too long. They can no longer imagine any freedom other than the freedom of the prison guard. They've repressed all desires except those represented among the guards. Even while they take steps to realize their own project they affirm a politician's project and deny their own.
Most of the audience left after Adrian's speech. A group of i people gathered around Vera and a smaller group around Adrian. Jasna told me she wanted to talk to Adrian, or at least to shake his hand. She told me she felt sorry for him. I stayed in my seat when she walked up to the circle of people surrounding Adrian. He was very busy grinning and shaking hands. He didn't seem aware that anyone had hissed his speech. The enthusiasts surrounding him probably gave him the impression that everyone in the audience considered him a seer.
Most of Adrian's admirers were gone when he noticed Jasna. He shook her hand as if he were pumping water from a well. She must have asked if he remembered me, because both turned to look at me. Adrian's face didn't show the slightest sign of recognition. He immediately turned to the young man next to Jasna and started pumping his hand. Jasna's turn had ended.
Jasna walked toward the large group which still surrounded Vera, and waited. I saw Vera look at Jasna several times and then turn to someone else. Jasna waited until she and a girl who couldn't have been over twelve were the only people who still wanted to shake Vera's hand. Vera shook Jasna's hand without even looking at her, said, “Thank you very much, comrades,” shook the girl's hand and turned to Adrian saying, “Well, that didn't go over as badly as I'd thought it would.”
Jasna walked toward me with tears in her eyes. “Adrian at least remembered my name,” she sobbed. When we left the auditorium she was crying. “Vera lived with me for five years! We could have been sisters. She doesn't even know who I am!”
I tried to console Jasna by telling her that I wouldn't have recognized either Vera or Adrian if I hadn't been reminded of them by our recent conversations and by your letters.
“You haven't seen them for twenty years, and you never knew them the way I did,” Jasna said, and continued to cry. She knew that it wasn't only time that separated her from her former housemates. The distance between two worlds separated her from them. Jasna was as alien to Vera and Adrian as you were to Ron on the night of your last encounter with him. When Ron said. “I hear you're going to college,” you heard him ask: “When did I ever have anything to do with you?” Adrian remembered only Jasna's name. Vera didn't remember that she'd ever had anything to do with Jasna, not only because twelve years have turned Jasna into a stranger, but also because Jasna's world is strange to Vera. The people who inhabit Vera's world have names, “real” names, like “chairman,” “first secretary” or “president.” They have titles, posts, offices. They're the people Vera remembers. Jasna doesn't have a title. She doesn't have a name. Jasna isn't somebody. She's nobody. Jasna is a cipher in the population statistics, a grain of sand indistinguishable from all the other grains on a beach, a face indistinguishable from all the other faces in an audience; she's merely another hand to shake after a speech, another member of the working class whose noble cause Vera serves.
Jasna and I walked silently toward my house. I stopped trying to console her. I thought of your first two letters. I understood perfectly why I had responded to them so “unfairly.” You had described these politicians as your “community,” as the only people you knew who weren't puppets, as insurgents who had struggled to shake off their own chains without enslaving others. I had responded as if you'd told me you had modeled your life on the life of the Roman emperor Caligula. I hadn't seen Vera or Adrian for twenty years and I had never exerted the type of social power they aspired to. I've never seen Caligula either, nor have I occupied any post comparable to his. But I've experienced some of the effects of the projects of their likes. When you identified yourself with them I thought of you as one of them. I'm now convinced that you're not one of them, that your project has nothing in common with theirs. But the terrain on which you've chosen to struggle for your project is their terrain. Every one of the activities you've described is an activity of politicians and ideologues. This is what led me to respond so “unfairly.” I couldn't imagine that anything human could grow on that terrain and I still can't.
During our walk home I could have tried to cheer Jasna up by telling her she ought to be flattered not to be recognized as a comrade by two opportunistic politicians, but I didn't think of this. Yet this is what Mirna must have had in mind when we got home and she saw Jasna's tears; she asked us what had happened.
“They didn't recognize us,” I said.
“Did you think those people would recognize you?” Mirna asked. “How important do you think you are?”
Jasna smiled in response to Mirna's question but protested, “I'm as much of a person as they are!”
“Maybe you are in Yarostan's eyes and in my eyes,” Mirna said. “At my factory there are dozens like me in my section and there's one manager. Do you think I'm as important as he is?”
“Much more important,” I said.
Mirna laughed and said, “Come with me on Monday morning and tell him that!”
Jasna laughed too. At this point Yara turned to Jasna and asked, “Could you tell if they were lovers?” Yara had apparently been bursting to ask this question from the moment we had entered the house but had been inhibited by Jasna's sadness.
“Could I tell what?” Jasna asked.
“Krena and Povrshan: aren't they lovers?” Yara asked.
“What in the world do you know about that?” I asked her.
“Jasna told us all about them!” Yara insisted.
“What Jasna told us was that Vera married the bank director and when Adrian was released from prison and found that out, he stayed away from Vera,” I reminded her.
“Jasna also told us Povrshan went out with the rector's secretary,” Yara reminded me. “I told my girl friend Julia everything Jasna told us. Julia's father works in the state bank and knows all about the bank director and his wife. Julia says they talk about them all the time. But they didn't know anything about Povrshan. Julia told me the bank director is old and his wife isn't nearly as old. In their mansion they sleep in separate rooms.”
“Did your girl friend's father tell you about all that?” I asked.
“No, Julia figured it out,” Yara said.
“You mean she made it up,” I said.
“She did not!” Yara snapped back angrily. “She's not a liar!”
I said, “I'm sorry. I was amazed that you and your friends discussed such things.”
“Why shouldn't we? You do!” Yara retorted.
Mirna laughed and said, “We keep forgetting that you're already eleven years old.”
I asked Yara to tell us what Julia had figured out.
“Her father had talked about deputy minister Krena having a lover, but no one knew who he was until I told Julia about Povrshan.”
I burst out laughing and couldn't keep myself from asking, “Do you actually know what a lover is?”
“Do you want me to bring mine home and show you? His name is Slobodan!” Yara snapped.
Jasna and I were embarrassed. Mirna laughed. Unfortunately not one of us can take credit for Yara's sophistication. Periods of ferment undoubtedly have a stimulating effect on everyone. I begged Yara to go on.
“Julia's father only knew that Krena's lover was some kind of official, that he was married, and that Krena had him appointed to a commission,” Yara continued. “But it was Julia who put all the pieces together. She's read stories like that in magazines, but usually it's the woman who does what Povrshan did. And she knew from the papers that every time he and Krena gave a speech together he got another promotion until he became commission chairman. When I told her what Jasna told us, Julia figured out that Povrshan had never stopped loving Krena, even though he hated her for what she's done to him. But he knew Krena would throw him out if he simply showed up in her office. She'd think he wanted to get even with her. So he married her secretary, the one Jasna told us about. That way, when he turned up at the rector's office he wouldn't be looking for Krena but for his wife, and it would be Krena who would accidentally run into him. Can you imagine her expression when she asks, Are you looking for me? and he answers, No, I'm waiting for my wife. Julia figured out something else too. Krena would have thrown him out of her office if he'd turned up there unmarried, but she must have turned green with envy when she learned he was married to her secretary. Julia says it doesn't really matter if he planned all this from the start or if he married Krena's secretary because he actually loved her. In either case he obviously ran into Krena, since they're together now, and his wife is Krena's private secretary. Julia's father said it was Krena who appointed him and Jasna told us that he was someone who'd do anything for an appointment. Don't you see? Krena appointed him and then he had to see her about his post, sometimes at night, sometimes even all night. Krena was tired of that old bank director. When they started giving speeches they were together all the time.”
We were stunned. I had no reason to doubt the plausibility of any part of Yara's story. After a long pause I asked, “How old is your girlfriend Julia?”
“She's ten and a half,” Yara answered. Then, by way of explanation, she added, “But we're both in the same grade in school.”
I was stunned by the worldly wisdom of Yara and her ten year old girlfriend. I was also disturbed. What bothered me was related to what had bothered me in your letters and also to what had bothered me when young people had applauded Vera Krena's lecture. What disturbs me is not Yara's sophistication but her frame of reference. She and her friend have unbelievable insight into the private lives of the ruling bureaucrats. They're familiar with the most intimate details of a world that's completely alien to them. They're as interested in the love affairs of officials as the ancient Greeks were in the love affairs of their gods. The world of officials is the world that matters. Officials are today's gods. They're omnipotent and immortal. Not as individuals: Krena and Povrshan are mortal; they're also replaceable. The deputy minister and the chairman are neither mortal nor replaceable. They're the essential beings, the permanence behind the flux, the fixed stars of an ever-changing universe. They're immortal. They can conceivably be dislodged from their positions, but only through a cosmic cataclysm which takes place in the sky. They cannot be dislodged by mere mortals. Nothing we do down here affects them. The projects which Yara has already forged with her companions have not dislodged the all-powerful beings who inhabit her imagination. The solidarity, the community, the potentiality she and her likes experienced in their demonstrations are transitory and trivial compared to the love affairs of a deputy minister and a chairman. Yarn's acts may at times be courageous and exciting but they can never be fascinating, admirable or awesome. Fascination, admiration and awe are reserved for the acts of the gods.
Like those of my fellow workers in the plant who applaud the speeches of certain bureaucrats, Yara is already a fascinated admirer. Like them, she has already experienced in herself a capacity, however modest, to overthrow the ruling relations and like them she lodges all capacity in the gods. Like them, she has already experienced a glimmer of freedom yet still she can't imagine any freedom other than the freedom of prison guards. Yara and her friend are our contemporaries, not only because of the sophistication of their perceptions, but also because they're already prisoners of the ruling ideology. Like the students who applauded Vera Krena's speech, Yara and her friend remain locked up within this ideology at a time when their own acts are undermining the ideology's social foundations. With half of their being they dig the grave for the expiring corpse of the repressive world while with the other half they infuse the corpse with new life and carry it through yet another crisis.
In one of your earlier letters you and Luisa argued very eloquently that slaves are not responsible for their misery nor workers for their exploitation nor the poor for their poverty nor prisoners for their imprisonment. That's true, but only superficially. Where do masters derive their mastery? From the stars? Where do the rich get their wealth if not from the poor? Where do guards and exploiters derive their power? You and Luisa are right in a very narrow sense: we don't shoot ourselves. They shoot us. But it's we who produce them, it's we who staff their armies, it's we who produce the weapons that kill us. It isn't even true that they shoot us. They only order us shot, and it's we who implement their orders. We butcher ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that Yara's imagination has been permanently maimed. If this were so she wouldn't have been able to engage in the demonstrations in which she's been taking such an active part. All the lively activities taking place around me prove that no one has been permanently maimed. Human beings cannot be permanently transformed into insects or robots. But all the half-revolutions of the past show that human beings are as reluctant to reclaim the totality of their repressed humanity as they are to lose it. I think you illustrate this as much as Yara and my fellow workers in the carton plant. I'm not talking about opportunism now. I finally do recognize that you have nothing in common with Vera Krena. I'm talking about an ambiguity you share with people who are genuine rebels. I'm talking about the fact that you've reproduced the official project in the very act of struggling to realize your own; you've re-enacted repressive relations in the very act of fighting against them. The world in which you've tried to realize yourself is the world Yara carries in her head. It is the official world, the world of officials. The context in which you've chosen to fight your struggle makes your acts ambiguous, it robs your acts of their intentions and turns them against you.
You haven't been uncritical of the environment in which you've sought to realize your projects. In fact, some of your critiques of the academic world are devastating and they've been very instructive and novel to me because I know so little about it. Yet how am I to understand your critiques if you conclude every one of them by telling me this was the world in which you sought your project and your community? Would you understand someone who gave a lucid analysis of the social function of the police and concluded by telling you he had joined the police in order to struggle against its social function? I won't say that this situation is identical to yours. But there are similarities. The social function of bureaucratized education and communication is not identical to the function of the police, but the two functions are not mutually exclusive and their consequences are terribly similar. A prisoner whose helplessness leads him to seek out guards who are “on our side” is terribly similar to the worker who thinks a politician is “on our side.” The prisoner's justification is that the guards are armed. The prisoner's human prospects do in fact reside in the guard. But a worker who thinks his human prospects reside in a politician is deluded. He is imprisoned, not by concrete walls and iron bars, but by delusions implanted in his mind. The schools, the newspapers, the official and unofficial propaganda machines, the proclamations of the rulers and the “consciousness-raising” campaigns of “revolutionaries” are the instruments which create these delusions, they are the walls and bars which imprison him.
You've told me that in your activities you didn't aim to implant the ruling delusions but to undermine them. You've convinced me about the integrity of your intentions. But you're not as lucid about your own intentions as you are about Daman's. As soon as he began talking about his intention to found a newspaper in which the “inherently revolutionary” workers would “speak for themselves,” you spotted the saint, the prophet, the shepherd and guide lurking behind the intentions. You're not nearly as lucid about yourself. Surrounded by prophets, politicians and aspiring bureaucrats, you fought for your own project on a terrain where only theirs could grow. You fought against repression within the repressive apparatus itself. You don't claim to have realized any of your own goals in that context, but you claim that it was not your intention to contribute to the realization of their goals. Are you sure you didn't in fact strengthen their goals, the apparatus' goals, by your mere presence within it? Did your intentions really matter?
It's not Vera's intentions that make her a bureaucrat but her social activity. Her intentions are “to find our way out of bureaucratic attitudes” and to “create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of initiative.” In terms of her intentions Vera is probably still the devoted revolutionary, the humorous and quick-witted militant you remember. I'm sure that in her own eyes she's devoted, not to herself, but to the workers' cause, not to the repressive apparatus but to society's liberation from it. But in her daily life she's an integral part of the repressive apparatus and she's determined to remain within it. The bridge between her intentions and her practice is the ideology which allows her to equate her own success with the success of the workers. I'm sure Vera is convinced that the higher she rises in the bureaucratic apparatus, the closer we all are to “finding our way out of bureaucratic attitudes,” and the greater the power she and her friends are able to exercise over the rest of society, the more favorable the atmosphere becomes for the growth of initiative. She identifies her importance in the repressive apparatus with the workers' cause and her freedom to exercise repressive powers with society's liberation from repression.
If this repressive ideology were confined to Vera Krena, she could be dismissed as a very cynical and profoundly deluded individual and the rest of us could then turn to life's real problems. But Vera's delusions are not confined to Vera and Adrian; they're shared to some extent by all of us, even by people who can't use these delusions as masks for their own private ambitions. Vera's applauding audiences share her delusions; people with whom I work share them; Yara shares them; you share them.
When we shut down the carton plant in order to oust the union functionary, we began to find our way out of the bureaucratic society and to create an atmosphere favorable to our own growth and our own freedom. But when we praise the speech of a radio politician we back away from our own deed and return to the safe terrain of the official delusion, the delusion that we can't find our own way. We revert to the comforting conviction that our growth and our freedom are being realized by one or another politician. And, like Vera Krena and her likes, we identify our own growth and freedom with the advancement and power of politicians “who are on our side”: we give up our own struggle and become passive admirers and supporters of “our” bureaucrat; we renounce our projects and our potentialities and lodge them in “our representatives,” who realize them for us.
The programs and commitments of Krena and Povrshan are nothing but veils which cover their own private goals. Theories of liberation are the clothes of dictators. Vera Krena “finds our way out of bureaucratic attitudes” by marrying the head of the state bank, by using his influence to imprison the university rector, by replacing the former rector, by rising to the post of deputy minister of the ideological commission. Vera Krena serves the cause of the workers by reviving her love affair with Adrian Povrshan, by promoting Povrshan to member and then chairman. And we sit by our radios and newspapers, admiring the progress of our struggles and the flowering of our humanity during the official daily sessions and the unofficial nightly sessions. Our projects and our freedom become mere concepts; the reality behind the concepts consists of the love affairs of the deputy minister and the chairman of the commission for problems of standard of living. Our struggle is played out in the corridors of government palaces and the bedrooms of country houses.
We identify our lives with the private lives of bureaucrats because our own lives have stopped being real to us. We have no projects; only the rulers have projects. If we nevertheless want projects, we think we can have them only in the world of the all-powerful bureaucrats, not in the world we share with others like us. Thus we seek to realize ourselves by negating ourselves. We seek to express ourselves, not directly, not as individuals, but indirectly, as voices magnified a thousandfold by electronic instruments; we seek to communicate, not within the community of our likes, but within the community of written words, the community of newspapers, books and leaflets. But in that community there is no communication because that's not a human community, and we either accept our bureaucratic assignments or we're evicted as outsiders. I believe you fought bravely in the university and on the newspaper staffs, but I don't believe you took any steps toward the realization of your projects because I don't believe such steps can be taken in that world.
From our vantage points in repressive societies it's as hard to imagine a world without newspapers as it is to imagine a community of free human beings. But if your whole life has been a search for such a community, how could you possibly have thought you'd find it on a newspaper staff? A community of free human beings is first of all a community in which every individual defines reality, and it is on this basis that the community builds its own environment. Journalism can only exist where there are no free human beings, where there is no community. The person who specializes in informing others about the “news” is a usurper. The newspaper establishes a reality which is common to all but alien to each, a reality expressed by all which is the self-expression of none. By letting “the news” be defined for us, we allow our definition of reality to be imposed on us from outside ourselves and we lose our ability to define, express or project ourselves; we lose precisely those faculties that make us communicative and communal animals, the faculties that make us human beings.
You treat your exclusion from the university newspaper and from the oppositional newspaper as an exclusion from Utopia, and you describe your trip to Sabina's garage as a descent to the underworld. In the newspaper world you saw yourself as a participant but in Sabina's world you saw yourself as a disoriented tourist. Yet the garage in which Sabina and her friends lived is an environment far more familiar to me than the world of the university or the newspaper. Your descent to Sabina's world is a descent to my world. I recognize the people as well as the activities: those are the people with whom I shared cells during both prison terms, those are the activities and the choices I confronted when I was released from prison, those are the activities in which most of the people I've known have engaged. I hope you're beginning to understand why I treated your previous letters as the letters of a stranger: you describe my world as a world which is far stranger, far more exotic to you than your world ever was to me.
Nevertheless, you did descend from the world of the newspaper, even if not by your own choice. The moments during which you considered your alternatives in the world below the propaganda apparatus must have been very much like the days I spent facing similar alternatives after my first release. As soon as you start moving in an environment very much like my own, I understand you and I admire you. I think Mirna was right when she compared your courage as well as your recklessness to Jan's. You refused to become a protected daughter or a protected wife. You refused to sell your labor for a wage. You left yourself no other choice but to “descend” yet further, to a place you call the “underworld.” And once there, you refused to submit to the requirements for survival imposed by that world. You refused to sit inside a display window waiting to be bought. I'm obviously very interested in learning what you did do in the garage operated by Sabina and her friends.
When you wrote about your search for genuine friends and for a human community in the world of academics and journalists, I responded with hostility and I didn't understand your search. But when you carry that search into the world of Tissie, Jose and Sabina, I suddenly understand. That's why I'd like to know what you did in Sabina's world, why you and Sabina both left it, why your only friend today is the pedagogue Daman. It seems to me that your search is transformed as soon as you leave the academic world and descend to the “underworld.” Looking for community in the world of academics is like looking for trust among informers or for sympathy among executioners. In that world it's impossible to distinguish the desire for self-realization as a human being from the desire for self-realization as a bureaucrat. It's only when you descend among those who are nothing in this society that your search becomes meaningful as a struggle against this society. Tissie, Jose, Ted are nothing; in order to become anything at all they have to become everything all at once, and that can only happen through the complete destruction of this society. For them there are neither transitional stages nor illusory victories along the way to self-realization. To look for a human community among them is to look for the destruction of everything that makes them and their likes an “underworld.”
I think I share your lifelong commitment. But I also think you don't grasp the nature of that commitment. You still refer to our experience in the carton plant twenty years ago as the original stimulus for your commitment. I think the project and community you seek were as absent from that experience as they were from all your subsequent experiences. I think that experience played an altogether different role in your life from the one you attribute to it. I think your attachment to that experience stems from a desire to materialize your dreams, a desire to visualize what cannot be visualized, a desire to resurrect what can only be created. I share your commitment if it's a commitment, not to a corpse, but to a community that has never existed, a community that cannot coexist with the world that represses it. But I don't share your understanding of that commitment: by locating its source in a repressive experience, you make the goal itself repressive.
Yet I also understand your desire to resurrect the past. You're not unique in having such a desire. When I was first released from prison I wanted to relive the very experience you've placed at the center of your life. Luisa's life has revolved around the revolution she experienced before she came here. Every politician seems to be motivated by the dream of stepping into the shoes of a past prophet, dictator or executioner. Nor is this desire to resurrect the past confined to priests and politicians. It's probably shared by all individuals who have desires. I think it's related to your commitment, but very differently from the way you say it is.
After my first release from prison I would probably have expressed myself in terms very similar to yours. I didn't only feel hostile toward the police society into which I had been released; I also felt that I had lost something, that something was missing, something I had learned to want. Like you I thought that this missing element was something I had possessed sometime in the past, perhaps during the agitation at the carton plant or during the resistance, or perhaps only when I had listened to Luisa's accounts of the revolution she had experienced. I was convinced that I had been whole and alive in the past and I wanted to be whole and alive again; I wanted to resurrect the past situation. If my memory isn't exaggerating I think I was at that time convinced that anyone who had experienced such a community and wanted to resurrect it was an insurgent, my comrade and my like.
I sensed that Mirna had a similar dream and a similar commitment. I thought that she too had lost a community and that she too was committed to resurrecting her lost community. I idealized the village where she spent the first six years of her life. I imagined she had lost the rebirth of plant life in springtime, the summer walks in the countryside, the chores as well as the festivals, the wood burning during the long winter. Above all I thought she had lost a world of human beings each of whom had recognized the other's humanity.
The war and the occupation had driven the Sedlaks out of that community. They had tried to resurrect the village environment on the fringes of this bureaucratic city. Mirna seemed awkward and out of place; I interpreted her awkwardness as a form of resistance to the environment to which she'd been brought, as a form of affirmation of the community she'd been forced to abandon. I saw Mirna as a patient but committed insurgent determined not to lose forever the communal relationships she had once experienced. I understood Mirna's life the same way I understood my own, the same way you still understand yours. I thought all her gestures, including her attachment to me, were motivated by a search similar to mine, a search for something lost, for something missing, for something she had learned to want.
I was as wrong about Mirna as I was about myself. And I'm convinced you're just as wrong about yourself. The community I thought Mirna had lost was a product of my imagination. Her actual village was no more of a community than the neighborhood into which her family settled on the outskirts of the city. Later on Mirna told me that when she'd still lived in her village she'd dreamed only of moving to the city, and once in the city she never dreamed of returning to the village. I don't know if a genuine community ever existed in a peasant village. I doubt it. Even if it did, this community disintegrated so long ago that our memories couldn't possibly retain any trace of it. Mirna's village, like all the other villages that survive today, was a food factory; its inhabitants were commodity producers; its project was the production and sale of merchandise.
I idealized Mirna's village for the same reason that I idealized my own past experience: because it was in the past. Since that past experience existed only in my memory, I continually infused it with present desires until it grew into a golden age, a Utopia that contained everything my present lacked. I think this is what you've done with your experience in the carton plant. You've made it your Utopia. You've convinced yourself that it had contained people, relations and projects you haven't been able to find since. But by doing this we turned our heads backward while we continued to walk forward. My understanding of Mirna wasn't only wrong; it was inverted. Mirna herself, unlike you and me, never looked for her future in her past. She wasn't self-satisfied, like the numerous complacent patriots whom neither you nor I seem to include among our acquaintances. She wasn't submissive, like her mother, who accepted whatever happened as the inevitable unwinding of fate. Nor was she an opportunist like those of our friends who waited for a buyer to offer them a future in exchange for their lives. Mirna's life, like yours and mine, was motivated by a search. But it wasn't a search for something she had lost. If something was missing in her urban world, it wasn't something that had existed in her village. Whatever was missing in her present had already been missing in her past. What she felt in the city was not nostalgia for the village but relief at having left it.
Near the end of your letter you say that for me “it's so clear and obvious where the opportunism lies.” I only wish it were clear and obvious. To me it's only clear and obvious that during most of the time I've spent out of prison I've collaborated in the reproduction of the repressive apparatus. To me it's clear and obvious that whatever it was Mirna sought, she has only moved further away from it. It's not so clear where the opportunism lies. We've sold our lives in order to survive. In this respect we don't differ from Vera, Adrian, or Marc Glavni. They were once rebels too, like you and me; they too were motivated by a search for something missing; they too felt desires that were repressed by the ruling society. But unlike Mirna, you and me, they didn't sell only their lives in order to survive; they also sold their desires. They weren't unwilling collaborators in the reproduction of the repressive apparatus but became its carriers and its functionaries. They appropriated its desire, the desire to contain, repress and extinguish the humanity of each. The extinction of their initial goal became their project; they realized themselves within the apparatus that makes self-realization impossible. Vera, Marc, Adrian and Claude are on the upper levels of a pyramid while we're at its base. We've wanted and we've tried to overthrow the pyramid yet we've been among those who supported it. We did it in order to survive. We were opportunists to that extent. We sold our humanity in order to keep it. By selling it we lost it, we merely added to the weight that crushed us. By surviving we kept alive, not our humanity but at least its potential. And by keeping alive that potential, that nothing which can at any moment become something, we've kept alive a flame that can at any moment set fire to the entire bureaucratic pyramid we call society. I think an opportunist is an individual who extinguishes that flame, and I think what you call your search for a community is the struggle to keep that potential alive.
When Mirna and I were married we confirmed the reality of our desires because we found them in each other. Both of us expected the future to be nothing like the present or the past and each of us thought this future was guaranteed by the other. We were both wrong. After our marriage the world remained the same. The only change was that I replaced her brother in her parents' house. We continued to live on the outskirts of the city, and urban worker though I was, I drove a bus — just like her father. Mirna's enthusiasm, her lust for life, adventure and change, were frustrated. She talked less. Our walks grew shorter. She didn't tell me she was unhappy; she didn't even hint that she wanted to leave her parents' house. Not that I was observant enough to understand a hint. I was too busy proselytizing, telling her about Luisa's experiences. She made me feel self-conscious, just as Jan did whenever he came to visit. I talked, and I remained where I was. I even talked about driving that wretched bus and I continued to drive it. It was Jan who finally put an end to a situation that couldn't have gone on much longer. He asked if I'd be willing to work in the vehicle repair depot where he worked, at the opposite end of the city. The possibility of working with Jan appealed to me, but I didn't like the idea of spending two hours a day travelling on a bus in addition to eight hours at the depot.
“You could get an apartment,” Jan suggested. “Mirna would welcome the change.”
I obviously didn't go to the depot to apply for the job. Such a procedure is archaic under the dictatorship of the proletariat. I don't really know if anyone gets a job that way any more. I got my second job the same way I'd gotten the bus-driving job. Jan went to the trade union building next door to the depot, spoke to Titus Zabran, and Titus pulled strings. An official pulled strings. And some workers I've met thought they'd won a victory twenty years ago! I didn't even have to go to Titus' office the second time. Jan went alone. He told me Titus picked up the phone, listed the qualifications of “the mechanic, Miran Sedlak,” and told Jan that I would start working in the depot the following Monday. I suppose everyone must know someone like Titus Zabran. I wonder what happens to people who don't. This was the third time he had pulled me out of a trap, and it wasn't the last. What gave Titus Zabran the power to pull strings? My powerlessness. If I had picked up the telephone and introduced myself as Yarostan or Miran, the person at the other end would have laughed and said, “Comrade, if you're not an official you can't be heard; this is a people's democracy.”
For several weeks I actually enjoyed my new job. I had repaired presses in the carton plant, but I had never dismantled a vehicle. I was impressed by the ingenuity of the generations of workmen who had connected the power of an engine to the motion of axles and wheels without concerning themselves about the use to which their work would be put. Would they have worked so hard if they had known what their work was for, or didn't they care? After the first few weeks the work became familiar and then routine. My initial awe gave way to resentment toward the tinkerers who had given their lives to the project of transporting ever larger quantities of commodities with ever greater speed. Working alongside Jan, I couldn't forget what my work was for, because he continually reminded me. Once, when I was still new on the job, I went on working on an engine when the others took a smoking break. Jan grabbed my wrench and asked, “What's your hurry, brother? If the busses pile up, some people won't be able to get to work and they'll have a day off.” He didn't let any of us forget that the busses didn't serve our aims but only the managers', the bureaucracy's, the state's aims, and that the faster we worked the more we increased the power of the forces that policed us. Jan didn't let any of us forget that those vehicles were not our protect.
It was during those first weeks on my new job, when Mirna and I were still living at her parents' house, that I stopped trying to convert my hosts to the wisdom I had learned from Luisa. I finally gave up the project I had embraced so enthusiastically when I'd first visited the Sedlaks, the project of “going to the people” with news about a past experience. It wasn't only Jan's hostility toward my missionary activity that made me give it up but also my own growing hostility towards it. I became ridiculous to myself. My situation, my daily activity, made me sense that my closely reasoned arguments were incoherent, contradictory and irrational. I spent an hour every morning and another every evening on a crowded bus, usually standing, letting myself be conveyed to and from a garage where I repaired busses. Some of my fellow passengers rode to factories where they produced the tools or the parts with which I repaired the busses. I spent all the motion of my limbs tightening chains that bound us to a monster, yet every evening I spoke to my hosts about a community of free human beings. I had learned about such a community from Luisa. One of my favorite stories had to do with workers who drove and repaired 1 busses. I told it to the Sedlaks as enthusiastically as Luisa had : told it me me. Bus drivers and bus repairmen like I, like Jan and his father, had once turned against the monster; they had taken over the entire transportation network of their city. Like a schoolboy reciting a memorized lesson I stressed the fact that shortly after the takeover the busses were again running on schedule, they were again transporting workers to factories and buyers to markets, they were again repaired. The workers themselves were doing without capitalists and managers exactly what they had done with capitalists and managers. In other words, with naive enthusiasm I told my hosts, over and over again, that workers had defeated the monster and yet remained chained to it. My hosts didn't respond; they evidently didn't understand why I was so enthusiastic, and they obviously didn't think that such a victory was worth a drop of a worker's blood.
Let your friend Daman call me an “intellectual.” I was educated and informed by Luisa if by no one else. Because of this education I had to think hard in order to figure out what was perfectly obvious to Jan and his father. Who but workers have ever driven and repaired busses? Who but workers have ever transported other workers to and from factories? If those workers fought on barricades in order to do voluntarily what they'd been forced to do before, then there was something wrong with those workers, or else with Luisa's story. But my hosts were polite. They didn't ask me if I'd be willing to risk my life in order to drive a bus “on my own.” They'd heard such meaningless jargon before: on the radio. They still had high hopes for me.
But I lost my missionary zeal as well as my self-assurance and grew increasingly depressed. Everything I knew was false and everything I did was harmful. On balance it was my activity that bothered me more than my ignorance, because I spent only an hour a day talking compared to the ten I spent working and travelling. You're perfectly right. Survival or not, there's only one word for that activity. It's prostitution. From morning to night I sold myself, I exchanged my life for a sum of money. What I knew or thought I knew was completely irrelevant. I sold myself when I was a missionary and I continued selling myself after I stopped being a missionary. The only concrete thing I did with my life was to keep some busses running, to contribute to the efficient circulation of commodities and labor power. The hopes Mirna and I had shared vanished like childhood illusions about the adult world.
While I became increasingly depressed, Mirna grew more hopeful. Vesna was born shortly before I got my new job, and to Mirna the birth of the child and my job transfer were the first of a series of changes that were going to transform our lives. My job transfer confirmed some of her more extravagant expectations. One day, after I complained bitterly about the social function of my new job, she said, “Don't be such a pessimist; that's only a beginning.” A beginning of what? I didn't ask her but I think I knew. It was the beginning of our journey from the village to an imaginary place where all desires could be fulfilled. In her eyes I had apparently stepped backward into the village when I had become a bus driver like her father. The move to her brother's job was a move out of the village. Jan lived by himself in the city; he didn't grow chickens or potatoes in his own back yard; he was no longer a peasant but a worker. And the fact that I moved at all confirmed her most profound hope: it confirmed that I was able to move.
But it was only after I had been on my new job for several weeks, after I asked her if she wanted to move closer to the center of the city, that Mirna expressed any of this.
“An apartment in the city!” she exclaimed. “If you only knew how long I've dreamed of that and how afraid I've been that I'd never get there. Of course I want an apartment in the city! There's no reason for Vesna to be brought up by my mother when she's already so close to a different kind of life. How badly I've wanted to leave, Yarostan! I hate it here! Didn't you know?”
If I hadn't known, I knew then. It became very clear to me why my new job was a “beginning.” It was the beginning of Mirna's final break with the village, the beginning of Mirna's journey to the dream world she had seen from far away: the beginning of Vesna's upbringing as an urban worker, a citizen, someone like Jan and Sabina; the beginning of a different kind of life.
Since neither of us had to be convinced, our next problem was to find an apartment. Various monuments were built after the war to celebrate the workers' victory, but very little had been done to house the victorious workers. The consciousness of the working class had to be housed first, and all the new buildings were inhabited almost exclusively by bureaucrats. I could have turned to Titus Zabran once again but I had misgivings about the strings he had already pulled for me. I decided to consult the people with whom I worked in the depot. That was how Jan had found his place: a worker offered to share his apartment with Jan. But since there were three of us, this possibility was out of the question. My fellow workers promised to keep their eyes open for any vacancies that might turn up in their neighborhoods.
But weeks passed, and then months. Mirna grew impatient. She decided to look on her own. She visited addresses advertised in the newspaper. They were all privately owned houses or apartments. Her experience was the same wherever she went. She was asked what her husband did, and as soon as she said “mechanic,” she was told the apartment was already rented. She cried as soon as she got home. After four or five days she gave up.
Finally, several months after our search began, one of the workers at the depot told me there was a vacancy in the building across the street from where he lived. I went to see the place as soon as I got off work. The building was an ancient two-storey mansion that had been divided up and turned into an apartment house already before the war. After the coup the four downstairs and four upstairs apartments were classified as doubles so that the one-time single private house now consisted of sixteen living units. Each double unit consisted of two bedrooms and a single living room, bathroom and kitchen. In other words, the vacant apartment consisted of a vacant bedroom. An old worker who had occupied it had just died.
When I described the place to Mirna, she was overjoyed. She was so frustrated and so desperate that she'd gladly have run to a rat-infested basement that had been used to store coal. All that mattered was that there were neither geese nor chickens in the yards and that all the neighbors got their potatoes and vegetables from stores. She didn't even want to see the place first. We simply moved in, and all her enthusiasm returned. Mirna greeted and embraced our new neighbors as if they were long-lost friends. She carried Vesna around the neighborhood, in and out of all the stores, as if to familiarize the baby with her new, genuinely urban surroundings. In the evenings we took long walks. Mirna studied all the passers-by, their expressions as well as their clothes. She also studied all the commodities displayed in the store windows.
Mirna fulfilled her life's dream. She became a city dweller, a citizen, the wife of a city worker, with an apartment of her own and a child who would be no more of a country bumpkin than her urban neighbors or her brother. But that school-created dream masked a shallow reality. She became everything she was going to become on the day she moved out of her parents' house. The following day, or week, or month, she didn't become more of a citizen or more of a worker's wife. She didn't become more creative nor more imaginative nor — after her enthusiasm dissipated itself — more energetic. She didn't become anything she hadn't been before. She merely lost her life's dream.
But that dream is a chameleon. It changes whenever we think we've reached it. Mirna knew that something had gone wrong, that something was still missing. I remember one of the statements she made only a few weeks after we moved: “I had expected everything to be so different.” She had expected a new life. She had expected what you express with the words project and community. But she didn't become desperate or depressed. She still experienced reality as she'd been taught to experience it. She held on to her dream. The chameleon transformed itself. Whatever was still missing, whatever she hadn't become, could be bought in a store. She didn't buy very much. We had saved a considerable sum of money during the year when I had driven the bus and we had lived and eaten at her parents' house. She spent very little of it; she's always been afraid to spend money. But the few things she did buy were very important to her. Since our room was adequately furnished, we didn't need to buy furniture. But we did need curtains. I'm sure that no city has ever been built with the love and care with which she bought those curtains. She looked at shop windows for several weeks; every night we walked to look at another pair. When she finally bought them she treated them as a second newborn child. After the curtains were hung she repeated the entire ceremony with a bedspread. Jasna read novels in order to experience in fiction what she'd failed to experience in her life; Mirna bought curtains and a bedspread. The objects replaced her project as well as her community. But like the apartment itself, the objects lost their promise on the day they were acquired. No new life began. Nothing was different. Even the curtains and the bedspread remained new only for a few days. The chameleon changed again. But the more it changed the more it remained the same. The lack, the gap that reappeared every time it was filled, could be refilled continually only to reappear again. If this object failed to satisfy, surely the next object would succeed — or the next job transfer, or the next apartment.
The next object was to be the largest of all our objects. It was Vesna's baby carriage, a four-wheeled vehicle complete with bed and canopy, two axles, springs and brakes. It was the only vehicle we ever owned. And it was from that vehicle that I learned the narcotic potency of the manufactured thing. We scrupulously examined every carriage in the city before deciding which one was to be our carriage. We wheeled it to our apartment as if it were made of glass, carefully avoiding every pool of dirty water, raising it gently over every bump. We carried it upstairs to our bedroom, and we continued to keep it in our bedroom, not so much because we were afraid it would be stolen from the hallway but because we wanted it where we could see it. In other epochs people looked for gods, saints and revelations to confirm their lost humanity. In ours the commodity embodies all the gods, saints and revelations. Whenever we were depressed by the hollowness of our lives, whenever we felt the still unfulfilled gap, we looked at Vesna's carnage. The object confirmed our purpose and our worth. It was the meaning of the endless waiting and the meaningless work.
Our evening walks on the neighborhood streets, and especially our Sunday walks in the city park, became the high points of our lives. It was on those walks that we displayed our qualities, the qualities we had bought in stores. As soon as we had the carriage we needed the clothes that went with it. I bought a suit identical to the suits I had seen in the city park, the suits of young men who accompanied their baby carriages and their wives. Mirna and Vesna each acquired a dress with similar properties. We were now complete. When we promenaded Vesna through the park, we felt ourselves admired the same way we had admired the well-dressed couples with baby carriages. Passers-by looked into the carriage and smiled at Vesna. We were proud of Vesna, proud of our success, proud to be admired. Vesna, Mirna and I were like all the others in the park, like the admirable others, the members of the working class. We were complete human beings, citizens. Our clothes and Vesna's carriage proved it. At the end of the promenade we removed our attributes and hung them in the closet, always keeping them spotless and uncreased. We set Vesna's carriage in the corner of our room. It was a very pretty carriage. We still have it. But Vesna is no longer with us.
Our bliss lasted for two seasons. I don't know how long we could have remained intoxicated by our objects if the ground under out feet hadn't shifted, but I suspect the drugs would have lost their power on their own during the third season. In any case, we weren't given a chance to enjoy the full effect of our narcotics; our frail house of cards collapsed around us.
The event that put an end to our blissful stupor was a violent encounter between Jan and the foreman at the depot where we worked. The foreman was the type of person usually described as dumb and ruthless. He was several years younger than we were and had started working at the depot three years before Jan was hired. He was immediately recruited as a police informer and he apparently did this job so well that he was appointed section foreman only a few months after he was hired, and general foreman a few months after that. Although he had spent a few months working as a repair mechanic, by the time he was general foreman he had become convinced that the mechanics were all mindless robots and that the only thinking in the depot took place in his head. He thought of the rest of us. not as complete human beings, but as human fragments, as extensions of his limbs, as instruments which mindlessly implemented his orders.
The only consequence of the foreman's attitude was that his intentions were completely undermined. Since we were brainless, we didn't use our brains to implement his wishes but only to thwart them. As extensions of his limbs we were worse than lifeless limbs; we were rebellious implements that continually frustrated their user. No one expressed this rebelliousness as explicitly as Jan. Whenever the foreman called his name, Jan instantly dropped whatever he was holding, even if it was an oil pan, jumped up, saluted, and shouted, “Yessir!” Jan was the only one who tried to conform in every single detail to the way the foreman saw him. If all the foreman told him was, “Pull that carburetor out,” Jan took a winch or a pry bar and pulled the carburetor out, without removing any of the bolts. One day Jan was removing a rear wheel to replace a worn bearing. “What the hell are you doing? All it needs is grease!” the foreman shouted. Jan furiously replaced the wheel and packed it with grease. The bus was towed back to the depot two weeks later with a ruined axle and wheel. The rest of us also implemented the foreman's orders to the letter, but none of us were as scrupulous as Jan. If some busses were nevertheless repaired, it was only because the foreman couldn't be everywhere at the same time, and all of us worked with relative efficiency when we weren't carrying out a command.
Some weeks after the incident with the broken wheel, the foreman again pulled Jan off the job he was doing and bellowed, “See if there's oil in this engine. And don't let me catch you doing anything to the engine!” The foreman had conveniently forgotten that he'd been wrong when he'd kept Jan from replacing the wheel bearing.
Jan did exactly what the foreman told him to do and two days later the bus returned with a burned out engine. The foreman was furious. He ran to Jan and shouted, “I thought I told you to see if there was oil in that engine!”
Jan dropped his tools and saluted, saying, “Yessir!”
“There couldn't have been a drop of oil in it!” the foreman shouted.
“Yessir!” Tan said again.
“You imbecile!” the foreman bellowed. “I told you to put oil in! Did you put oil into that engine?”
“No sir!” Jan answered.
The foreman's eyes were red with fury. He leered at the rest of us, ran to get a crowbar and swung it at Jan's head. Jan ducked and was hit lightly on the shoulder. Jan picked up a wrench.
The foreman started to swing his crowbar again but I ran up from behind him and yanked the bar out of his grasp. “You're lying,” I told him, holding on to the bar; “I heard what you told Jan to do. You told him to see if there was oil in the engine and you explicitly told him not to do anything else.”
“You're crazy!” the foreman shouted. “Whoever heard of sending a bus on the road with a dry engine?”
“Everyone here has heard of that,” I answered. “We've also heard of sending a bus out with a worn bearing and of stopping j someone who wanted to fix it.”
Backing away from me and the crowbar, the foreman shouted at the top of his voice, “Put that bar down! You can't threaten me! You Sedlaks are lunatics. I'll have you locked up. You're sick! Someone sent you here to wreck the workers' busses! Who pays you to wreck busses?”
Jan turned to the foreman and said calmly, “No one pays us to do it. We wreck the busses on our own and for ourselves. We can't stand them. They use up our space, our air and our energy. We're lunatics determined to drive you and your busses out of our asylum.”
I'm reminded of your scene with the school official who said you were deranged and dangerous when you called off your class to take part in the student strike. I commend you for your courage; you really do share that with Jan. Your courage was in fact greater because Jan and I weren't nearly as isolated as you were. The foreman backed away from us like a cornered beast. He grabbed another bar and then a wrench, but he didn't try to use them. He no longer faced only the two of us. Every single worker in the depot had picked up a tool and joined the semi-circle of angry workers surrounding the foreman. Every single person was waiting for the foreman to take the slightest step toward Jan, toward me, toward any other worker. We were all waiting for him to start swinging his bar, his wrench or even his fist. The foreman was pale with fright. He cringed away hugging the wall, trembling, not taking his eyes off us for a second.
The foreman didn't return that day, nor did we continue our work. We sat down and smoked. All of us were furious. Someone said, “Let him try that just one more time. We'll show him!”
“What'll we show him?” Jan asked.
“We'll show him who does the work; we'll show him that we can do without him,” the man answered.
“That's a lie,” Jan snapped. “Do you think I'd repair these contraptions if no one forced me to do it? What on earth for?”
Everyone drew back when Jan said this. The others probably hadn't ever heard anyone express such an attitude. I drew back too, although I had heard such a view before, during my first prison term. Jan's attitude to work was identical to Manuel's. It was also similar to the attitude your young high school friend Ron expressed when he took you on your first tour of his city. To Jan it wasn't the presence or absence of the foreman that made our work prostitution but the fact that we sold our lives to a project that wasn't our own. At that time I didn't understand him, just as I hadn't understood most of what Manuel had told me in prison.
Jan had expressed the same attitude six years earlier, during our agitational activity at the carton plant. Luisa still remembers him for that. In your second letter you told me George Alberts had considered Jan and me “destructive hooligans” and Luisa agreed with Alberts. It's not at all surprising that she included Ron and Manuel among the “hooligans.”
According to Sabina, George Alberts thought that workers had fought a revolution in order to replace reactionary foremen with revolutionary foremen, that workers had fought a revolution in order to place George Alberts in an important post. All those opposed to this, like Manuel, had to be swept out of the way. Where was Luisa when revolutionaries like Manuel were swept out of the way? Was she alongside the aspiring foreman Alberts, helping to sweep people like Ron, myself, Manuel and Jan out of the way? She virtually admitted this when she said that “such people” were a greater threat to the revolution than the militarists. I'd really like to know where Luisa stood during this purge of saboteurs. I've long ago become suspicious of her interpretations; your letters have made me wonder about her activity as well.
Incidentally, I'd still like to know how Alberts succeeded in having you and Luisa released from prison twenty years ago.
Sabina wants me to tell more about Manuel. Unfortunately I knew him only in prison, and our conversations were neither very thorough nor were they very relaxed in the circumstances in which they took place. Also, at the time I knew him I spent as much time defending Luisa's arguments as I spent listening to Manuel's. I didn't really understand Manuel's positions until I worked with Jan at the bus repair depot, and even then I resisted the implications of that position. Emotionally I agreed with Jan. His attitude to the work we did expressed exactly what I felt toward my job and toward my life. Emotionally I had also agreed with Manuel, and even while defending Luisa's arguments I had known that I would have been among those of Manuel's friends who were jailed and killed as saboteurs. Intellectually I must have held a view similar to the one Sabina expressed in your letter although I don't remember that I had any intellectual view at all; I only had vague feelings. I suppose that I, like Sabina. thought that busses and factories were useful and that their only dehumanizing characteristic was that they were managed by bureaucrats and policed by armed torturers and murderers; if we could only get rid of those predatory parasites, we would humanize the factories as well as ourselves. Such may have been my view when I drew back in response to Jan's comment after the scene with the foreman, and such may still be Sabina's view today, but this view has nothing in common with Jan's or Manuel's. Manuel had nothing good to say about what Sabina, following Alberts, calls “industrialization.” Manuel's name for it was Capital, and he called j the revolutionary politicians who murdered his comrades; “capitalists.” For Manuel, industrialization was merely another name for humanity's disease, it was a synonym for dehumanization. He called it Capital because he didn't see it as a human activity, as a project launched by living individuals for themselves and for each other, but as a process that grew apart from them and against them, as a growth which they fed with their living energy but which they didn't control. He had been with people who had temporarily defeated the forces that repressed them, had shared with them the experience of projecting a world that would be for human beings, and had watched most of those people reimpose on themselves the very forces they had defeated the day before because someone had told them industrialization was for them. He saw workers re-shackle themselves to a process over which they had no control because someone convinced them their desire for their own life and their own project constituted sabotage and hooliganism. Manuel and Jan taught me that if we don't destroy the old life, whether we call it capital or progress or industrialization, and if we don't project and begin to create a new life, then we're only going to reenact our slavery on the graves of our fallen comrades, some of us managing and most of us managed, some of us repressing and all of us repressed.
When Jan said he wouldn't repair any busses if a foreman didn't force him to, I drew back. I suspected that I wouldn't either, but I refused to draw any conclusions. I knew that on a superficial level Jan's statement was false, since the only time any of us repaired any busses was when the foreman was out of our sight. But Jan meant something more profound, and it was this that I resisted. My resistance to his argument helps me understand why we still produce busses, bureaucrats and bombs. I resisted because I worried for the busses. I wondered who would repair them and produce them if the revolution I then had in mind ever took place and overthrew all foremen, informers and influential comrades. I worried for the future of Capital. It was only years later that I began to ask myself who had decided that several of us were to spend parts of our lives repairing busses. This certainly wasn't the project of the living individuals engaged in it. None among the living, nor even among those who had lived before, had ever come together and decided that this activity was to be the content of our lives. It was as if we had no choice in the matter, as if we were irremediably condemned to spend our lives at forced labor. The progress of things determined the content of our lives. Things defined us, things dominated us and things consumed us. And when Jan expressed the desire to run out from under them and let them crash, I worried, not for myself or for any of us, but for the things. I wondered how the things would fare when we were no longer under them. I knew we had the ability to communicate. to determine our own individual and collective projects, to launch them together and to enjoy our common creation. I knew that such abilities were inherent to our being, that they were our very essence if we have a specific essence, that they were not aberrations or Utopian dreams. I knew this with as much certainty as I know that my heart beats: because I feel it. Yet every day I negated my being, I suppressed it; every day of my life I nursed the thing, I worried for it, I repaired it, cringed under it and died for it. The progress of the thing matters more to us than our development, more than the flowering of our own capacities. It is more important than our lives. If the progress of the thing ever requires us to stop breathing, I wonder if we'll be flexible and accommodating enough to do that for it as well.
I drew back from Jan's conclusions but I couldn't draw back from the experiences that had led Jan to those conclusions. I couldn't draw back from the world I lived in. I couldn't keep myself from experiencing what I still refused to believe: that the thing didn't exist for me but only for itself, that its well-being coincided with my immiseration, that its progress was built on my stagnation.
The day after our confrontation with the foreman I went to work at the usual hour. When I reached the entrance to the depot two men in street clothes rushed toward me, grabbed me by the arms and dragged me to the back seat of a car. Jan was already there. He laughed when I was placed next to him arid shouted, “What's this? Have you ever seen these gentlemen before? Did you ever have anything to do with them? I'd thought we were having an argument with the foreman, an argument that concerned only us and the foreman. Are these gentlemen the foreman's relatives or his personal body guard?”
We were taken to the police station. I felt frustrated and indignant. It wasn't hard to surmise where the foreman had gone the previous day after he had cringed away from the circle of angry workers surrounding him. Nor was it surprising that going directly to the police would have been the normal reflex for this individual who had started his career as a police informer. What was so frustrating, and so revealing, was that all this took place without any communication among the individuals who were involved. Nothing was discussed, nothing was decided by the workers in the depot. The whole matter was settled by the foreman and the police, by the agents of order, by the agents of an order that doesn't concern those who maintain it because it isn't theirs and doesn't exist for them; they merely undergo it, as their lot.
Everything that happened at the police station was predictable except the fact that we weren't sentenced to a new prison term. We were locked into a room with nothing in it ! except a bench. Jan grumbled, “Here we go again.” We were both convinced that we were going to spend the next few years, perhaps the rest of our lives, in prison. We sat quietly and waited. Jan stared at the blank wall; his laughter was gone. I started to cry, not because I would miss my walks in the park, wearing my suit and pushing Vesna's carriage, but because that activity suddenly seemed so ludicrous, such a miserable way to use up life's time. I cried because I would miss all that I hadn't done, all the possible lives I had failed to live. I thought of a story I had read about a man who realized only on his deathbed that during all his years in the world he hadn't once lived.
We were wrong. The repressive apparatus decided to dispose of us in a more economical way, without incurring the costs of maintaining us.
We were summoned to the office of what must have been the station's head bureaucrat. As soon as we were seated the bureaucrat turned to me and, fumbling with a dossier that must have been mine, asked, “Are you Yarostan Vochek?”
“Would you believe me if I told you I wasn't?” I asked.
Pointing his forefinger at me, the bureaucrat threatened, “If you parade as Miran Sedlak one more time, you'll be imprisoned for fraud, do you understand that?”
Jan and I looked at each other; we were relieved. “If” and “one more time” meant that we weren't going to be imprisoned this time. We wanted to laugh.
The bureaucrat turned to Jan and, with the same threatening tone, said, “You know that you can both get ten years for insulting and beating the foreman.”
Jan didn't respond.
“You could get another ten years for instigating a riot inside a workplace, and another for wrecking social means of production. All this on top of your criminal record would land you in prison for life,” the bureaucrat said, threateningly but calmly, as if he were explaining a mathematical problem to us.
Both of us stared at him. We no longer felt like laughing.
He continued, “We're not going to imprison you. We don't run a nursery for wild beasts.” (That explained our good fortune.) “Parade under false names one more time, go into or near the bus repair depot for any reason whatever, wreck any more social property, fight with the same or another representative of the working class, and we'll take care of you — this time permanently. Do you understand that?”
We were being told that we would be exterminated like “wild beasts” if we protected ourselves from abuse one more time. We were being fired from our jobs. We were being given a picture of our future: either to live as dead things or else not to live at all. We were being deprived of uncertainty.
“Yes,” I answered, “We understand that.”
The small amount of conventional happiness Mirna and I had nursed with such loving care disintegrated all around us. We could enjoy the illusory satisfaction offered by the objects only if we served them; as soon as we stopped serving them we learned that they were not for us but that we were for them. The moment we transgressed the rules of progress and found ourselves alone with our rewards, the objects lost their auras and revealed their essence: they were garbage.
I returned to our apartment long before the end of the working day. Mirna started crying before I even told her Jan and I had been arrested. She knew as soon as I walked in that I'd been fired. The previous night I had told her about our encounter with the foreman; her only comment had been, “What'll become of us?” I had been angered by her comment because I'd interpreted it to mean, “What'll become of the curtains, the bedspread, Vesna's carriage and our Sunday clothes?” I'd been angered mainly because I had shared exactly the same concern: I had worried for the objects.
When I told Mirna what happened at the police station she started to tremble. Her face took on an expression of undisguised, raw fear. She threw herself at me, sobbing and shaking, and uttered weakly, “They can't, Yarostan, they can't!” Mirna saw what I had seen a few hours earlier while waiting with Jan in the room at the police station; she saw how ludicrously poor our lives had become since the day when we'd started pouring them into our objects. We stopped worrying for the objects and started worrying for ourselves. We became aware of our own lives for the first time only when we began to be hounded, when we faced the danger of losing them.
That day was a beginning, but not the kind of beginning Mirna had looked forward to. It was the beginning of our persecution. From that day on we were hounded so persistently that we never again had the opportunity to worry about the future of our objects. That day was the beginning of our human lives. We ceased to be objects in a world of objects; we ceased to be things that produced and things that consumed. I began to understand Jan's outlook as well as Manuel's.
Only two days after Jan and I were “briefed” by the police bureaucrat, there was a knock at the door. Mirna jumped up as if a cannon had exploded; she backed against the wall, pale with fear. The moment misfortune begins all news is bad news and every change is likely to be a change for the worse. I let in a man who introduced himself as the president of the neighborhood council. His eyes didn't once stop shifting from side to side. He was as suspicious as a mouse sitting in the middle of a room, ready at any instant to flee back to its hole. He even i studied Vesna with apprehension, probably fearing that her paw would fly out and claw his face before he'd had a chance to defend himself or escape. Years later our neighbor, the police informer Mr. Ninovo, reminded me of this council president.
The president announced, as if he were reading, although he didn't have a text: “At its last deliberative session the neighborhood council resolved that convicted criminals and other parasites who suck the blood of the working people will not be harbored within the living units of said council.”
Mirna started to bawl and Vesna joined her. I flung the door wide open, grabbed the president by the back of the collar, and sent him flying out of our apartment with a kick in the rear, so as to justify the need for his vigilance, his suspiciousness and the constant shifting of his eyes.
Mirna became hysterical. She was sure the police would come to arrest me for the last time because of the way I had treated the council president. I tried to calm her by telling her the president's behavior had indicated that he hadn't expected to be treated any other way. But as soon as her fear for my arrest receded, she started worrying about our situation. She convinced herself that the neighborhood council had no right to evict us, since they didn't even live in our building. She talked me into taking our predicament to the neighbors. I agreed with the principle of doing this, but I assured her that our neighbors had no more power to stop our eviction than we did; right or wrong, the neighborhood council had the police behind them.
Even so, I went with Mirna to knock on the doors of our neighbors' apartments. This was a mistake; it only informed us how alone we were. One of the women downstairs opened the door and immediately slammed it in our faces. None of the others let us into their apartments. We were forced to stand in the doorways and explain our situation as if we were dirty beggars asking for food, and as we spoke we heard the doors we'd just left open slightly. Apparently people wanted to hear our story a second and then a third and even a fourth time, or else they were eavesdropping so as to hear what the others would tell us. When we reached our third or fourth door, the man interrupted us before we were finished and said, “I'm sorry for you, but you really should have told us you were a convicted criminal.”
The next neighbor interrupted us almost as soon as we began and she made the advice more succinct: “You should have told the council you were convicts.”
Mirna angrily grabbed the woman by the shoulders and shouted, “You idiot! We're workers just like you! Convicts are people who are inside prisons, and most of them are workers too!”
The woman was apparently intimidated. She said, “I'm sorry for you,” backed away from us and closed her door.
We heard the next door close while we walked towards it. We knocked and a man shouted, “I don't talk to criminals!”
I got furious and, banging on the door with all the strength in my arms, I shouted, “That's because you're a pig, and pigs never talk to human beings!”
We didn't knock on the remaining three or four doors. We didn't have the nerve. We were defeated. All of our neighbors were workers; there wasn't a single clerical worker, student or bureaucratic official in the building.
According to your friend Daman, workers are “inherently revolutionary.” I suppose what he means by that is identical to what our neighborhood council president would mean. Daman doesn't mean all workers; he means those workers who have learned to submit to authority, those workers who would be willing to obey any authority that speaks in their name, those who would be willing to evict and ultimately to maim and kill other workers for the sake of a politician who considers them “inherently revolutionary.” Daman is a politician or a saint: in his mouth “revolutionary” means the same thing as “blessed” and is merely a way to flatter his future followers.
Our situation was similar to the one I had faced during the weeks after I had been released from prison. We had no place to go and I had no job. We still had some savings but now there were three of us. We were stained, exactly the way Jews had been stained during the occupation. Only now there was no resistance movement; the dregs of that movement had replaced the previous occupiers; the rest of the movement had been slaughtered during three days and nights of senseless butchery.
If we found another apartment, we would be hounded out as soon as the police informed our neighbors that we were “convicts.” I couldn't find a job for the same reason. I didn't even think of looking for one. I knew I'd have the same luck I'd had before: “I'm sorry comrade, but with your record... we can't afford...”
We went to Jan for help and advice. He was able to remain in the apartment of his former fellow worker, and as a result he was able to communicate our situation to the other workers in the depot. The police had told us to stay away from the depot; they hadn't told Jan to move out of his apartment. I suppose the police had expected Jan to be evicted the same way we were, but Jan's friend, not being a “criminal,” had managed to reason with his neighbors, convincing them that Jan couldn't be evicted since the apartment wasn't in his name; he was simply a guest.
Jan said that he would contact Titus Zabran once again about our getting another job; he'd have to telephone Titus to avoid being arrested, since Titus' office was next door to the j bus depot. As for our housing problem, Jan looked sadly at Mirna and suggested that we move back to their parents' house, at least until I found another source of income.
Mirna swallowed her pride together with her life's dreams and took Jan's advice. We moved back to the fringes of the city, back to the yards with chickens and vegetable gardens, back to the neighborhood which was no longer a village but was not yet part of the city. We packed our curtains, our bedspread and our Sunday clothes; we wouldn't need them where we were going.
Vesna's carriage had to be transported on a truck. We were ashamed of it when it arrived. There were no baby carriages on the unpaved streets where Mirna's parents lived; they weren't built for such streets. We stored the carriage in what had been Jan's room and covered it with an old sheet. Unlike an old trunk after a journey's end, it couldn't be used as a storage box nor as a seat or surface; it had no use at all; it was simply a large mistake.
What upset Mirna most of all was the thought that Vesna would grow up in the environment where Mirna had grown up, that Vesna would be brought up by Mirna's religious mother, and that Vesna's whole life would consist of experiences like the one we had just undergone. I argued that there was no reason to project our misfortune into the child's life, but ultimately it was Mirna who turned out to be right.
When we told Mirna's father what we had undergone, he nodded with approval for what Jan and I had done. He said, “You can't teach mules to fly,” referring to those who had evicted us; his conclusion was as fatalistic as his wife's: “That's how it is. What matters is that you're alive and well. Worse things have happened.”
In other words, a healthy horse can still be made serviceable; only a lame horse is good for nothing. In his view our adventure was nothing more than a temporary setback comparable at worst to a healthy and vigorous peasant's loss of a year's crop. Next year was another year, and if we stayed alive and well we'd surely emerge with a better crop, perhaps even coming out as far ahead as we'd fallen behind. He was still convinced that I would go far, perhaps to a bureaucratic office, perhaps even to the university. But he noticed that I talked less and sometimes not at all: he suspected that something had gone wrong. One evening during dinner he asked me. half jokingly, “What's the matter with you, boy? Have you lost your politics? This is no time to lose that type of talent!”
Mirna's mother didn't share Sedlak's high opinion of me. She had seen me as an omen, an evil omen, since the day when I first came to her house. I didn't learn this until several years later, because she didn't say anything at all at the time. She saw me as hell's messenger, sent from afar to bring destruction, misery and death to the entire family. Everything I had done until then confirmed this suspicion — or rather this certainty, since she didn't once show that she doubted the truth of her initial impression. The newest episode showed her that I had already started to carry out my destructive assignment. By taking part in Jan's fight with the foreman, and especially by calling myself Miran Sedlak, I had caused Jan to get into far more trouble than he'd have gotten into by himself. It's possible that this was when she linked me to Jan's first arrest, since a few years later she was going to blame me for everything that had happened to Jan, and she knew that Jan and I had been arrested together six years earlier at the carton plant. Finally, by getting myself evicted, I was starting to bring pain and humiliation into Mirna's life and even into little Vesna's life. I didn't know these details at the time, but I sensed her intense hostility toward me, a hostility that couldn't be pacified with a kindly gesture, a pleasant word or a smile.
Mirna and I helped with the housework, read a little, took care of Vesna and waited. There was snow on the ground and we rarely left the house; in any case, Mirna no longer had inclinations to take walks in that familiar neighborhood.
We waited for something to change for the better. Our main hope was Jan; we waited for him to come with good news about a job, perhaps about an apartment.
Jan came, but not with good news. He had telephoned Titus Zabran. Titus knew about our firing. He told Jan that our situation was made difficult by the fact that the police had reported our behavior to the trade union bureaucracy and consequently no official would be willing to hire us, even with “pull.” But he told Jan he would continue to try to find a “place” for us.
Mirna grew increasingly frustrated and impatient. “We can't simply sit here and wait,” she insisted. “Nothing is ever going to happen here, absolutely nothing!”
She decided to try to get a job on her own. First she went out with a newspaper. Then she started to ask young women on busses what kinds of jobs they had and where their factories were located. She visited every factory she could find.
After three or four weeks of daily journeys to large and small workshops she found a job in a clothing factory not far from the carton plant. She announced it with a certain amount of pride, but without a trace of the childlike optimism with which she had greeted earlier changes. Already before she started to work, her passion and her pride were mixed with a certain resignation, a certain helplessness in the face of an indifferent. arbitrary and cruel environment. She became increasingly silent, increasingly patient; her life's dreams continued receding. Mirna became a member of the working class but not on her own terms. She became a wage worker, a citizen of Capital. She described her job with one word: “drudgery.” In the clothing factory she learned boredom, the endless repetition of the same motions, the gloomy foreknowledge that the following day, week and year would be the same as all the yesterdays. Her daily activity enriched humanity only in clothes; it consumed Mirna, swallowed all her projects, extinguished her hopes. By becoming a member of the working class she annihilated the possibility to become a member of a human community, she gave away the time and energy necessary for the creation of that community. The resignation Mirna expressed the first day she worked in the clothing factory was the resignation of a person whose life is no longer one's own, of a beast of burden.
About a month after Mirna started working, Jan learned about a job for him and me. Titus Zabran had actually gone to Jan's apartment to tell him about the job. A steel plant in a small town about 100 kilometers from the city was short of unskilled laborers. There were not enough workers in the town or the surrounding villages to supply the needed labor force and city workers were either unwilling to move or unwilling to travel such a great distance twice a day. Consequently the plant officials were willing to overlook our prison past as well as our employment records. Titus suggested that Jan and I accept the job, assuring him that such “emergency situations” were the best we could expect under the circumstances and that the next emergency might not pay as high a wage as the steel plant.
Mirna refused to hear of our travelling 100 kilometers away. I argued that we apparently had no other choice. Jan suggested that we postpone making our decision until he learned more about the job.
Jan came again two weeks later, on a weekend. He told us that housing was cheap and plentiful in the steel town and that he was going to rent an apartment near the plant. He urged us to do the same. Mirna burst out crying, turned to the wall and beat her fists against it. She shouted, “I don't want either of you so far away from me, in the wilderness!”
Jan sadly told her, “The heart of this city is the only wilderness in this part of the world.”
Mirna turned to Jan with a look of desperation and said, faltering, “I'll kill myself before I go there! I'm going to stay in the city and I'll support Vesna as well as both of you for the rest of my life if necessary!”
“Mirna, don't be a mule,” Jan pleaded. “You're not living in the city now, and we don't have a choice.”
Mirna told us, “They're building houses for workers near my factory. Several women in my department have already signed up. I'm going to sign up to buy one!”
“And what'll you pay for it with?” Jan asked. “Your wages don't support Vesna or Yarostan. Father supports them; he gets twice as much as you do. In the steel plant I'll be paid three times what you get.”
“They told me I'd get a raise,” Mirna said.
“When?” Jan asked.
“In two years.”
“Two years!” Jan exclaimed. “And when will you buy your house?”
Mirna collapsed into a chair and cried. “I don't know,” she said desperately. “But I don't want you to go there and I don't want Vesna to grow up there!”
I suggested a compromise. “We could move back to the city if I took the job in the steel plant. That way we could afford to buy the house and stop being a burden to your father.”
“You'd spend half your day travelling,” Mirna objected.
I said, “I don't see any other acceptable alternative.”
Mirna didn't say anything. I decided to take the job. Jan moved to an apartment near the plant.
A certain feeling of happiness accompanies self-realization. During those days I learned that another type of happiness accompanies resignation. I was convinced that I had no other choice and I resigned myself to a twelve-hour working day, four hours of which I spent going to and from the plant. As soon as I resigned myself to that situation everything became easier and more pleasant than I had expected it to be; I experienced lesser pains as pleasures. The work was hard; it consisted of shoveling scraps of hot metal onto a moving conveyor belt. We sweated in winter; in summer the place became an unbearable inferno. Small wonder that other workers didn't want to travel a hundred kilometers for the sake of such activity. But on the other hand, the foreman didn't take his job seriously and was in no way different from any other worker; no one had been willing to accept the task and the workers had drawn lots to determine which one of their names would be entered as foreman on the official forms. As a result there was no supervision; the people I worked with were among the freest human beings I've encountered inside a factory or prison.
The time I spent travelling used up what remained of my living day. I got up every day long before sunrise. I rode a tram and a bus to the train station and then spent nearly an hour and a half on the train. I returned home long after sunset, dirty and exhausted. I bathed, ate and collapsed into bed — six days a week. I degenerated as a being with specific capacities, with the power to create. I stagnated. Whatever potentialities I had were stunted. Please mention this to Sabina. What she calls industrialization is impossible without steel. That process is not our project; it's not for us; it thrives only by destroying us.
However, since I was resigned, even the discomfort of I spending so many hours a day travelling contained a pleasure. , I took books with me and read on the train every morning: philosophy, history, science, as well as several novels. I was fascinated; I even came to look forward to my train ride to work. On my way back home at night I was usually too tired to read.
As soon as I started working I insisted that Mirna quit her job. I argued that since my wages were three times hers, we could easily support ourselves and also move on what I earned, so there was no reason for both of us to turn ourselves into oxen. But Mirna was adamant. If she quit her job she wouldn't be able to buy the house she'd signed up for, since those houses were earmarked for workers in her plant. That would mean we'd have to rent another apartment and would again be subject to victimization by the bureaucrats who administered them. She also insisted that she'd never be fired from her job as a troublemaker whereas there was no telling how long I'd keep my job. Mirna was determined not to let anything like our eviction happen again and she was equally determined to move out of her mother's house and into the housing complex near her factory. I asked who would replace her mother as Vesna's nurse when both of us were working, but learned that the planners had already removed this obstacle to the unfettered development of the productive forces: the children were going to spend the day in a nursery while their parents reproduced Capital.
Mirna's application was accepted, the house was built and we moved in. It's the house in which I'm writing this letter. Mirna still works in the clothing factory a few blocks from here. Today there are blocks of similar houses, the streets are paved, there are streetlights and sidewalks, and a bus stops half a block from our house. When we moved here there were neither blocks nor streets nor lights. It was late spring. Our house and two of its neighbors stood in a pool of mud with trails consisting of narrow, slippery planks of wood. Our baby carnage was as useless here as it had been at the Sedlaks' house. The house was built for workers, which meant that it was built shoddily. The roof began to leak during our first heavy rainfall; during my second prison term Mirna had to have the entire roof replaced. The plaster on the walls and ceilings has cracked and left large fissures. The foundation was set in mud and one side of the house has been sinking ever since we moved in; everything in the house stands at an angle. We got used to that. In fact, we got used to everything: the jobs, the mud, the nursery. What mattered to Mirna was that there were no chickens and no gardens. Eventually there were small front lawns, only grass grew on them, and we didn't even plant our own grass; that was done for us by the builders; we only mowed it. What mattered was that we finally had our house in the city and no one could evict us from it.
We were happy in our new house. It was the happiness of permanent exiles, of survivors from a shipwreck or a war. It was the happiness of wage workers resigned to their lot, the kind of happiness that comes with resignation. We had shed almost everything: our dreams, our projects, our unrealized potentialities and our unused abilities. Consequently we embraced what little we had retained with all the joy that was in us. We threw ourselves into the project of fixing our little house with the same enthusiasm with which we might have joined human beings building a new world. I wasn't able to do much during the week but every Sunday I became a master carpenter and painter. Mirna worked every night and did most of the building and decorating. We built our own bed and tables and for chairs we use backless stools. In time we again had enough money to buy what we needed but the main thing we bought was a sofa. Wood as well as paint were plentiful while the housing complex was being built since the quantities we needed were always available in the scrap piles. We left all our earlier purchases packed away. Mirna made all the curtains and bedding as well as all our clothes. We spent our money only on food and saved the rest. Mirna insisted on saving money for the same reason that she had insisted on buying the house: she didn't want to be dependent on a world she couldn't trust, she didn't want to be at the mercy of a merciless bureaucracy ever again.
Mirna, Vesna and I had lived in our house for a year when I started to hear rumors about a vast uprising breaking out in Magarna. I say rumors because every account I heard contradicted the previous one. The press organized a systematic campaign to create ignorance and confusion. I don't know what I would have thought of you if I had received the letter you sent me at that time, describing your newspaper activity as your life's project and reporters as your community. The newspaper's systematic falsification of the acts of the Magarna workers convinced me that the press was an instrument of domination and couldn't be anything else.
You commented on the press's falsification of the Magarna events but you suggested this was due to the bias of the reporters or owners and not to the very nature of the instrument. I think you fail to grasp something about the press, probably because you were so deeply involved with it. You fail to understand that instruments of domination and destruction can't be used for anything else. Surely it's obvious to you that a bomb doesn't become a benevolent instrument if it's controlled by a benevolent person. A newspaper destroys communication as certainly as a bomb destroys life and this was plainly visible during the Magarna rising. The people who reported the Magarna events were not like the people engaged in the events, just as they were not like Jan or Mirna or her parents or me. They were different, not because of their views or their biases, but because of their activity. These differences didn't reside in the personal benevolence or malevolence of the reporters but in the instrument they served. Gross, unbridgeable chasms separated two groups of people engaged in mutually antagonistic activities. The workers of Magarna were desperately trying to cease to be what they were, to free themselves from the routine that had repressed them, while the reporters made no effort to cease to be what they were but on the contrary threw themselves passionately into their special routine. The Magarna workers were desperately trying to communicate directly with each other and with their likes elsewhere while the reporters were spreading their reportages between like and like, interpreting each to the other, portraying each to the other through a glass that didn't reflect the experiences of the individual on either side but only the reporter's. The workers were struggling for lives which were not interpreted, defined, mediated or represented while the newspapers could only interpret, define, mediate and represent because that's their essential purpose, their nature. Locked into the world of representations, the reporters couldn't see a struggle against representations as anything other than a struggle between one representation and another. I'm not even mentioning the fact that almost all the reporters were actual agents of the State, officials who earned their livelihood by falsifying workers' struggles. Newspapers can't coexist with or serve human beings fighting to abolish reportage and create communication; they're based on the impossibility of community.
This was what I was learning about newspapers twelve years ago when you were writing me about your newspaper articles. I didn't see your letter; I can't guess if I would have been angry or pleased, I know I wouldn't have been pleased by your high regard for our activity at the carton plant eight years earlier, nor by your enthusiasm for the press. But I think one aspect of your letter would have pleased me very much. Your letter was an attempt at direct communication between two individuals separated by impenetrable political and geographical barriers, an instance of the communication the Magarna workers were desperately struggling to create. Maybe it was this characteristic of your letter that antagonized the authorities. Maybe their fear of direct communication across their frontiers is far greater than our trust in it. Maybe the ultimate concern of the State is to keep such communication from taking place: that's the central purpose of the fences and the walls, the censors and the paid liars. Letters like yours vanish in normal times; it would have been a miracle if such a letter had reached its destination in a time of crisis.
I can believe that such a letter would have been confiscated, and even that a messenger carrying such letters would have been arrested. But I still can't believe that Jan and I could have been arrested merely because such letters were addressed to us. and before we had even seen them. This possibility would be slightly more plausible if we hadn't been doing anything at the time, if I had remained in the stupor of resignation, if I had continued to channel all my energy and enthusiasm into Sunday afternoon repairing and decorating of the interior of this house. It wasn't your letter but the event you asked about in that letter, the Magarna uprising, that woke me from that stupor and shamed me in the face of my resignation.
When I heard the first rumors of a widespread rising I paid no attention to them. It's not that I thought they weren't true. I had learned during my first imprisonment that such rumors contained descriptions of real events. I began to take an interest when Jan and several other workers brought newspapers into the steel plant. The fanaticism with which the newspapers denied all the rumors indicated that at least some of them weren't only true but also current.
However, what confirmed the rumors wasn't the press but direct communication with Magarna workers. One of the workers in the steel plant pretended to be ill and went to visit his family, who lived in a small village on the frontier of Magarna and had relatives across the frontier. He succeeded in evading the border guards and in communicating with his relatives.
As soon as he returned from his village all the workers in our section of the plant gathered around him like flies, questioning him about every detail of what he had learned. Jan was the most persistent; he simply couldn't stop asking questions and he repeatedly asked the same questions. He couldn't believe what he heard. Somewhere in the world people just like us had started doing exactly what Jan had always wanted to do; they had started to break the chain that shackled them to the monster that consumed them; they had started to move for themselves.
Our fellow worker wasn't able to answer several of Jan's questions and I still don't know the answers today. He told us that repressive old functionaries were being ousted from their posts but couldn't tell us if they were being replaced by repressive new functionaries in similar posts. He told us workers' councils were being formed in factories and workshops but couldn't tell us about the extent to which politicians and their organizations were behind the councils. Jan repeatedly asked, “Are they doing this for themselves or for the productive forces?” This couldn't be answered either.
Yet in spite of all the unanswered questions it was clear to us that a population had begun to stir, that ancient social structures had started to crumble. People like ourselves had suddenly turned against the apparatus into which they had been pouring their lives. We didn't know if they were determined to recover their whole lives or if they were already looking for half-way stations, if their struggle was already being channeled into dead ends. But wherever their struggle ended, we were convinced that it had begun as a struggle against the entire social apparatus that had shaped individuals into tools that served its ends. Wherever they were eventually channeled, it was clear that the workers of Magarna had stopped being workers and by that act had already made the impossible possible; they had already created the field in which jobs could give way to projects and production to creation.
I don't think I could have answered any of your questions; I didn't know any more about the Magarna struggle than you did. Our fellow worker's visit to his family was the only direct information we had. My nearness to Magarna was counteracted by a more total suppression of information. I was convinced, as you were, that a revolution had broken out, a revolution as extensive and profound as the one Luisa had experienced. It was during those events that I began to question Luisa's interpretation of her experience and to contrast it with Manuel's accounts. It was then that I began to understand Manuel's as well as Jan's arguments. It became clear to me that if there were workers in Magarna whose job had been to shovel scraps of burning hot metal onto a conveyor belt, those workers couldn't possibly be motivated by the desire to shovel the same burning scraps onto the same conveyor belt “on their own.” We didn't need strikes, barricades or bloodshed for that; we were already doing that on our own. This was clear not only to Jan and me but to everyone I worked with.
This was also clear to Mirna, despite the fact that the supervision as well as the noise at her clothing factory made communication impossible, despite the fact that after work she didn't talk to anyone but ran directly to the nursery to pick up Vesna. “Officials we've never seen before walk up and down the aisles,” she told me. “And they're so nervous, so afraid; they act as if at any instant we were going to walk off with the machinery and the clothing. If we only had the nerve!”
Discussion of the Magarna events was almost impossible at Mirna's factory, as it was in most other factories and workshops. But it wasn't impossible at the plant where Jan and I worked, certainly not in our section. There were no aisles in which police agents could walk up and down, and the heat in which we worked didn't motivate any officials to take an interest in our conversations. I've already mentioned that our foreman was a foreman only on paper and consequently we weren't supervised. I'm also convinced there were no police agents among us; the authorities had a hard enough time finding people willing to do the shoveling. We were unsupervised but we were also completely isolated from all the other workers in the steel plant; from the moment we entered our section of the plant to the moment we left we hardly saw anyone who didn't work in our section. This didn't prevent several of my fellow workers from trying to communicate with others. The communication took place after work hours in the restaurants and bars, on the street corners and in the park of the steel town. It was direct, face-to-face communication; it didn't take place through a newspaper like the one your friend Daman described, a “workers' newspaper”, the very existence of such a newspaper would have replaced and ultimately suppressed the type of communication that took place. One individual exchanged views and feelings with another; before long everyone in the steel plant, perhaps everyone in the town, felt what the Magarna workers must have felt on the eve of their revolution: the desire as well as the ability to throw off their chains.
In spite of the deafening noise and the unbearable heat, my workplace turned into a discussion club. Every day someone had heard more rumors that had slipped across the border; every day the press confirmed the rumors with its fanatical denials and distortions. We discussed the implications and prospects of every act; we discussed our own possibilities and prospects. And we knew that similar discussions were taking place elsewhere in the plant, if only because fewer and fewer wagons of metal passed through our section. The entire town could have been located in Magarna; it responded to events in Magarna as if they were taking place inside the steel plant.
Unfortunately I didn't take part in the all-night discussions that took place after work in the restaurants and bars; I would have had to catch a train that left three hours later and thus eliminate the small amount of time I spent with Mirna and Vesna. But Jan's accounts of those meetings and discussions made me feel that I had taken part in them. Whenever two or more people met they exchanged, not greetings, but news from Magarna; before long all were shouting, each outdoing the other in denouncing the lies fabricated by the press. Although formal meetings were banned, steel workers who met informally in bars and restaurants talked about writing letters to the newspapers, about passing resolutions criticizing the press, about sending delegations to the newspaper offices and even about going on strike for the sake of honest information about the revolution in Magarna.
I was enthusiastic about all the suggestions and proposals, but my enthusiasm was dampened by Jan's misgivings. Jan was enthusiastic too, but only about the fact that the human beings around us had come to life and started to stir. He considered the agitation around the press a wasteful expenditure of energy that couldn't find other outlets. Jan stated his misgivings to others whenever the occasion arose, but he did so quietly, without insistence, without a politician's rhetoric or a missionary's self-righteousness. He was convinced that what was clear to him would sooner or later become clear to everyone. It did become clear to me and perhaps to many others that our agitation for an honest press was grounded in an illusion and that this activity was a substitute for the real activity, we were unwilling or unable to launch.
What became perfectly obvious to me is illustrated by your experience on the university's newspaper staff. Your activity was the type of “honest journalism” we were agitating for. But when you practiced this “honest journalism,” authority immediately suppressed the newspaper. You claim that this suppression was caused by the spinelessness of the university administrators. You're wrong. Your newspaper was suppressed because it had stopped carrying out its function. The newspaper is an instrument by which the ruling minority shapes the conceptions of the majority. “Honest journalism” is not its function but its mask. Those in power may at times tolerate honest journalism but only if they consider it harmless. Your own experience proves this. Authority had only to place its signature on a “directive” and your honest journalism vanished. Your attitude to this is as ridiculous as the idea that a general's brain can be a warmonger while his mouth and his other organs are pacifists. The newspaper is an organ of the rulers; it serves those in power or else it is nothing, it doesn't exist. That's why our agitation for an honest press was a waste of time. I'm not talking about honest reporters. We heard about honest reporters — after they were fired.
Resolutions were passed and sent to newspapers; letters were written; there were several brief work-stoppages at the plant. But I sensed a general feeling of frustration. We seemed to be in constant motion but we remained where we'd been before. The newspapers obviously didn't publish our letters or resolutions nor did they give the slightest indication that similar activity was taking place elsewhere. But the newspapers weren't the cause of our inability to communicate with our likes elsewhere; they were merely a symptom of that inability. What made direct communication with our likes impossible was the absence of community, the fact that intermediaries stood between ourselves and our likes. We didn't know how to bypass the intermediaries nor how to extend our hands to those who stood on the other side. That's why we turned to the intermediaries themselves for help, asking them to reflect accurately what our brothers were saying and doing, asking them to communicate our words and our gestures to our brothers. But the intermediaries, the professional interpreters and ideological specialists, could communicate and reflect only their own words and gestures, they could display only the insights derived from their own mode of living.
We thought we had nowhere else to turn and we convinced ourselves that if only the intermediaries reflected a portion of the truth about the Magarna workers' struggle and if only they communicated our desire to take part in that struggle then workers elsewhere would begin to rise as well. If the intermediaries could only be brought to our side, if their instruments could only be made to serve our struggle, the police-run regimes would tear at the seams — in the factories, workshops and mines.
We were wrong. Such instruments couldn't be made to serve our struggle; such intermediaries couldn't communicate our desires. They separated worker from worker and brother from brother like fortified walls standing between them. The only one who moved in response to another's motion was one who communicated with the other face to face. One who depended on intermediaries for information depended on them also for guidance, motion and life.
The workers in my section of the plant succeeded in communicating with the rest of the workers in the plant, but that was the beginning and the end of our success. To go beyond the plant we turned to intermediaries, just as to reach their comrades elsewhere the Magarna workers turned to intermediaries. And the intermediaries they turned to turned against them.
Workers in tanks murdered their brothers on the streets of Magarna. The workers in the tanks had been informed about the struggle, not by those engaged in it, but by politicians' speeches and newspaper articles; their gestures were guided, not by the sense of solidarity with their likes, but by submission to the commands of superiors. They aimed and fired without scruple or hesitation because they couldn't see their opponents; their vision was blocked, not by the metal casing surrounding them, but by the ideological casing that gripped their minds. They aimed at the demons described by the speeches and newspapers. They fired at images. But they killed human beings.
The Magarna workers couldn't aim or fire with the same lack of scruple, with the same certainty, because they knew that their scruples and their uncertainties were only a few days old; they knew that only a few days earlier they too had known about each other only what they'd seen on the opaque screens that stood between them. They hesitated before they fired. But those in the tanks didn't hesitate.
For a moment our stupor and our resignation gave way to hope, to the anticipation of a life where large projects are possible, where dreams can be realized in the company of vibrant, imaginative and sympathetic human beings. But our hopes were short-lived. The society held together by the market and the police didn't disintegrate. Magarna workers were buried in mass graves and our hopes were buried with them. We hadn't been able to add anything more than hopes to their struggle; our gestures had remained confined within boundaries we hadn't created, boundaries we hadn't been able to cross. Something like your journalistic project had been all we had reached for during a moment when a universe of possibilities wasn't very far from our grasp. We called for good intermediaries instead of creating conditions in which no intermediaries could thrive. We called for an honest press instead of forging our own communication as our first step toward the creation of our own community. The people of Magarna had started to struggle for such a community. They were isolated and defeated. They were isolated from us and from those like us who remained fascinated by all or part of the glitter of the monarchs' world. We were isolated too, but we weren't defeated. We hadn't even begun to struggle.
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