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In my own country, far off I abide (i)

Česko

  15:09
There is a plane in the National Technical Museum in Prague. It used to fly. Now it is at a standstill, fastened firmly to the ceiling. Home, at last. Not beyond the mountains, beyond the seven seas in a far distant land but here, in the Museum, is its home. Next to the plane stands a chair. It´s me who is sitting on that chair at the moment. The chair belongs to me. The plane, the only fixed point in the world, doesn´t. I am only a pilot. One of many possible pilots. I am supposed to be one of the signposts. I was simply chosen.

How shall I decide? Quickly. It is the highest time I took off. But..., in what direction, transit...destination? How could I know the rest when I don´t even know who chose me? After all, do I really need to know my homeland? Does my imagination really need to know? I am free either as my mind, so why bother about thinking! “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

“Burning with desire, mankind?“, says the board high above the cockpit door. Under it shine sixteen neon capital letters: DESTINATION: BEING. There is six billion passangers in the plane. Six billion people gathered in the plane with no seats. Six billion people in search of home, searching for a pilot. But I sit on the chair, far from the madding crowd in the plane, dreaming.

It is said to be our choice. Then why do we hesitate? It is said that everybody has roots. Then why do we feel like strangers in our world? It is said that we can find home in our identity and that dispossession doesn´t threaten us. Then why are we so helpless and puzzled? What are after all the consequences of dispossession? “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.“ (1) Well, maybe literature can give the answer.

According to Václav Jamek (2), André Gide was first to talk about his feeling of dispossession in the early 20th century. Jamek states that then many world-famous writers wrote their pieces in a foreign country. Whether it were wars, conflicts, bad governance, or whether it was cosmopolitism, writers especially in Europe felt that strange feeling of dispossession. So a lot of writers emigrated to the USA. Jamek contends that the relationship of most migrants to the USA was different from their relationship to any of European cultures. The USA has always accepted immigrants, the state of exile is a general concept; to be dispossessed is a part of being an American.

R. Ruland and M. Bradbury (2) refer to the American literary critic Hugh Kenner, who more controversially than Jamek considered the background of emigration and modernism. He concluded that the after the WWI dispossessed modernism, that couldn´t find its home in Europe, found its home in the USA. Modernism was then returned as an approved product of the 20th century to Europe. The history later encouraged that exchange by offerring home to artists who fled from the nacism. They found their new home in the USA, because their home was modernism. That helped them build their own environment.

The authors, having passed the WWII, couldn´t even start building, because the foundations were destroyed. Instead, they became even more resigned. Played out modernism was changed for postmodernism. The dispossession remained. To look from inside angle at that very personal feeling and also to show that emigration is not necessary to feel dispossesed I am going to compare two writers from the different periods, both at once in love to their homeland in their hearts and hate for it in their minds. They emigrated internally, feeling like strangers in their love-hate relationship. However, they were never satisfied with their home inside.

The first to mention is the American modernist William Faulkner (1897-1962). His dispossesion, springing from love-hate relationship to his home town Oxford, Mississippi, was determined by the presence of American society, earthbound because of the unsatisfied past that made up the presence: “There is no such thing as was. To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such thing really as was, because the past is. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background is all a part of himself and herself at any moment.“(3) In his other words: „The past is never dead. It’s not even past.“ (4) The way he coped with poor presence was the love-hate relationship leading to dispossession. The vicious circle had closed.

The Austrian Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) depicted devastating processes in Austrian society unable to deal with the past (“Such foolish people and such a beatiful land“,“To be born here is the worst thing that could ever happen“, these were his so much stronger statements than Faulkner´s). In his absurd plays and fiction the life of disabled people was parallel to the life of society - had to come to its cessation in the end. Everything had its opposite hidden inside – that was the source of his love-hate relationship. By repetition and hyperbole he cancelled the antitheses and turned them into absurdity. The way we deal with absurdity is absurd. We cannot escape. The vicious circle has closed.

What´s the way out? The Art itself, both writers say. “Art is not only mankind’s supreme expression; it is also the salvation of mankind,” William Faulkner said.(5) For Thomas Bernhard the art was equal to survival. However, the way the artists tried to achieve it was futile, they thought. The artists could only approach it. “All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible,“ concedes Faulkner.(6) It was since the motive of inevitable failure to finish the masterpiece first appeared in Thomas Bernhard´s Vápenka (1970) that Bernhard had been dealing with that motive in his work. The tense between great expectations and bitter failure, almightiness and littleness, comedy and tragedy sprang from the gap between the past and the presence, hostile to the artists. It is also Faulkner who concludes: “In our culture there is really no place for the artist.”(7)

The ideas of home are various but there is one thing they have in common. The home is to be safe and our support. A place to put down roots. We feel to be close to our true home but we fall short of it, how fast soever we fly near. We are all helpless, in the nationality crisis, unable to connect tradition with presence, an individual with society, a nation with the world. It is the early 21th century. The dispossession transformed into a new threat – terorism. The source of that kind of dispossession hasn´t changed, either – it is again the disbalance between the presence and the past and thus the feeling of futility and failure. Discontinuity together with the love-hate relationship to either homeland or generally the West makes the difference between cultures bigger than belief. The gap causes absurdity, absurdity causes a split, which is the battle between the presence, symbolized by the West, and the past, symbolized by the fundamentalists. For such conservative people it is hard to identify themselves with their home in the modern world. They think that they don´t rule over their home themselves and they can´t find it in their identity. Both their home and their identity is no longer made by them. They would like other people to adapt themselves to them, but they are forced to adapt themselves to other people. Other people give them the reasons to believe, reasons to live in their dispair, reasons to hope in their disappointment. However, they can´t change their minds. Their pilot has bombs around his body. The reaction to absurdity is absurd. The destruction, they think, is the only way how to set the world right.

To sum up, it is the great danger the dispossession brings and it is hidden inside all of us, waiting for suitable conditions to develop. During the 20th century the dispossession became deeply rooted. In some people more, in some less. We need to admit it and take it as it is. There is no cure for it. Otherwise it becomes a flood. The creepiness can broke out into nightmarish briefness. A sudden blink can add the letters as follows: DEPARTURE TO: BEING SETTLED.

On Monday, 9/11 2006, roughly in 13:30, the single-engined plane Ceasar in the National Technical Museum in Prague fell to the ground and crashed. The broken out fire caught the whole building. It was an accident, it says in the newspaper. The Museum wasn´t opened to public at the moment, so, fortunately, nobody died. Loss assesment - 6 billion crowns. Due to the reconstruction the Museum will be closed from September 12, 2006.

i The third verse by Francois Villon: I die of thirst while at the fountain side, transl. by David Curzon and Jeffrey Fiskin.
(1) Faulkner, W.:Darl in As I Lay Dying. p. 76.
(2)Nabokov, V.: Lolita. The epilogue by Václav Jamek. Praha: Odeon, 1991, p. 337-342.
(3) Kenner, Hugh: Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, 1975. In: Richard Ruland, Malcolm Bradbury: Od puritanismu k postmodernismu: Dějiny americké literatury. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997, p. 7.
(4)Faulkner, University, p. 84.
(5) Faulkner, W.: Requiem for a Nun. Act I, Scene III, 1951.
(6)Interview with Loic Bouvard, 1952. Collected in "Lion in the Garden".
(7) Faulkner, Lion in the Garden , p. 238.
(8)Faulkner, University, p. 101.
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