Krasnogruda nr 8. KRZYSZTOF CZYŻEWSKI: The Atlantis Complex, or Central Europe after the End of the World.

The Atlantis Complex, 
or Central Europe after the End of the World

Let us start our story a bit light-heartedly (if it isn't even taking chances to do so being aware of the gravity of the situation) a short statement by a certain traveller, who for many years now has tirelessly been traversing Central-Europe seeking for the traces of an old civilisation, whose very existence is questionable or even mythological, as the ancient Atlantis. 

The traveller's passport is full of various border and AB stamps and visas which were often purchased at a high price. It was often made difficult for him to get a visa after checking with whom he had been involved. He once made himself unpopular with some embassy by preferring some ethnic minority and "sects" (Greek Catholics). In the end he was presented with a proposal and a guarantee. The proposal was that he should go to this country in order to meet reliable people and the guarantee was that he would be protected, with all the costs covered and "all entertainment" provided. When he travelled by plane the direction he decided to take was somehow predetermined by the very place of departure, deprived of a telescopic corridor which usually makes it possible to get directly aboard a plane. He once thought he was kidnapped when the bus he got on after he got through the customs did not go towards the runway but in the opposite direction towards a housing estate. It was only after several small streets that the bus arrived at plane, waiting lonely at the outskirts. When he travelled by car he sometimes envied those from Western Europe for they were not obliged to queue at border crossings. From time to time a small hand-scratched notice bearing the magic English word PRESS attached to the windshield alone sufficed to disregard a whole line. On the other hand, it was hopeless when you came to the border on a national holiday - it was necessary to wait until a special ceremony was over, featuring a delegation of the neighbouring border guard, with whom the host border guard had for so many years collaborated with for customs clearing, in each side's best interest. Sometimes, when he finally entered the promised neighbouring land, he was suddenly and skilfully ambushed: in a car-wreck situated at the edge of a forest there was a policeman with a radar neatly concealed from view. Almost all the travellers were given a ticket for speeding by a police unit - who drives 40 km in the middle of a forest? - a peculiar gift of Slavic hospitality. Sometimes they took little notice of the visas and documents the traveller had obtained at the Embassy, and he was once pushed off a bus with the butt of a rifle. It was not until he sang a certain old folk song and added a statement that despite the existing embargo he desired to invite their great culture's artists to Europe - that they finally let him through. But a certain desperate woman with three children on her way to her husband was not allowed to return to the coach - she was of alien blood. Another time his green card meant to cover all European countries, proved to mean nothing at some border. "This country does not belong to Europe" - he heard while searching for marks to pay appropriate duties. Once he had to pay 10 marks for disinfection - on seeing his astonishment they informed him that a rusty pipe sticking out the ground nearby had disinfected his car when he was passing by. Let us clarify a most important point, the currency we are here talking about is Deutsch Mark and let us repeat this to soothe everybody: Friedrich Naumann's Mitteleuropa has always been an unimplemented utopia. One could infinitely go on with examples of tragicomic situations he encountered at the border-crossings of the former community of friendship, some of which humiliated the traveller and some of which treated him with generosity. All those examples would prove the truth that the further away you came from, the better the treatment you received.

Let us, however, leave this anecdotal thread so attractive for its Central-European flavour, and take a close look at this picture of the world that emerged before the eyes of the traveller. It is no longer important how he managed to get to all those places, but we are unable to resist the temptation to mention how after revealing the name of the region he came from he could manage to open the doors and hearts of people living in the remotest regions of Central Europe, speaking different languages but preserving some kind of ancient memory of community and kinship. We must tell the story how in a certain village in the mountains, over a thousand kilometres away from the country, he unexpectedly heard his mother tongue preserved in its classic pure form; or how he got to a certain town onboard a bomber plane lacking other means, or onboard an armoured track under the protection of black soldiers of the international corps; or what arguments he tried to use to make the people speak about what they had seen and remained silent about for many years, and to make them find the keys and the guides to concealed and long-forgotten places. Nor must we forget to say how he freed himself from the protection of the guides to get where they did not want him to go, or to ask a question they were afraid of. 

Well, this traveller at the end of the second millennium after Christ saw the world after the end of the world. He saw parks and orchards so neglected and wild that you could play Robin Hood there as if in Sherwood Forest. He saw ruined buildings, whose function was impossible to guess, as no mentally sound person would ever think that at that deserted mountainous place where only shepherds came, somebody had once built an astronomical observatory. He saw a magnificent bridge erected not to constitute a link of some international railway line, but to serve as a local connection to once united townships. He also saw another bridge, which had been blown up, not as much to separate for good the nations inhabiting the opposite banks of a river, but to destroy the bridge's uplifted beauty - a masterpiece by some alien genius, by the sheer military power - as was everything else around. He saw other bridges, tracks, roads, railway embankments leading nowhere and all of a sudden ending at a freshly marked out border, or somewhere in the wilderness. He saw cemeteries full of desecrated tombs and tombstones dispersed in all directions, bearing incomprehensible inscriptions although the dates of death were not from the distant past at all; he also saw cemeteries-pastures for goats and cattle and because of that fortunately spared, unlike many others cleared and graded by bulldozers. He would find tombstones or their fragments in the most unexpected places. They had been used to pave yards, to lay the foundations of a stable, to make stairs, pavements. He visited temples of various religions that had been converted into boxing rings,, a storehouse for fertilisers, a museum of atheism, an inn, a cinema, a fire brigade garage... He saw pedestals without crosses, or crosses whose other transom had been cut off, or circles "castrated" of their Stars of David, as he was told by some survivor from Atlantis. He saw monasteries where cattle were kept and tractors parked, and holy books were used as washers in beams supporting rotting ceilings. He visited a certain university that once achieved fame and now stank of urine, where elaborate architecture, delicate mosaics and frescoes stood in sharp contrast to coarse furniture, dirt and low standard of teaching. It was only several decades ago that a certain poet - recognised as one of the greatest in the century - studied there, but only a small group of thousands of students there knew about that. At another university the traveller witnessed a raging battle for the university's national character to meet the needs of one or an other ethnic group, since the meaning of the word universitas - and many other words from the old days - were forgotten. The traveller saw manors and palaces either converted into kolkhozes or neglected and completely devastated. He saw the ruins of an ancient theatre now used as a rubbish dump. He saw old tenement houses that were inhabited by newcomers from nearby and remote provinces, and where anything beautiful was regarded as superfluous and contemptible. The ultimate aspiration had become a flat in concrete blocks equipped with a lift and a rubbish chute. People abandoned those old parts of the city, leaving the tenement houses with alien and mysterious souls to the poor, to the dregs of society, to the old intelligentsia. He also saw cities whose souls were being destroyed from the inside by leveling old quarters in order to build squares for military parades and for the busts of "leaders" of the nation. In a certain capital city that had once boasted of a meticulous and sophisticated architecture, he stood dumbfounded in front of a huge avenue, stretching to the horizon, as straight as an arrow, carved out of a no-longer existing thicket of old villas, lanes, and corners he had once seen in old postcards. Tall concrete blocks were situated along the avenue. Behind them he found miraculously preserved a temple that seemed almost as small as a rubbish container standing nearby. At the far end of the avenue he could see something that seemed to be a gigantic dummy of some surrealistic theatrical performance. White at first sight, it turned out to be yellowish-dirty. The nearer he got the more intense horror he felt, but it was only when he stood at the corner of the structure and saw its long equally gigantic side that he realised that it was not a dummy but a palace built for a national leader. The traveller saw concrete blocks lacking a sewage system, with windows deprived of window panes, with entrances deprived of doors. They were constructed for nomads unadapted for the settled walk of life. He also saw concrete housing estates without sewage systems and deprived of any infrastructure, but fully equipped with TV antennae to elevate the rural population to a higher level of civilisation. The population lived in wooden houses and cherished their olden traditions. He saw houses and villages, villas and quarters abandoned and left behind by fugitives, refugees, migrants, only a minor fragment of that mega-migration of peoples that has swept across those parts in this century. 

During the voyage, the more time he spent on exploring new spaces, the more often the lyrics of some song by a Poet came to him: "there won't be another end of the world... there won't be another end of the world...". He saw the world after the end of the world. The world existed, life was still lived more or less normally. But the end of the world had almost not been recognised. A young man diving from a platform into a pool is not aware of the fact that once that platform was climbed by a priest in order to read out scrolls of a holy book. Lobotomy or loss of memory. It does not relate to him personally, but the world he is growing up in. Disability or a blessing? Testimony has been preserved in many places but it was usually written in other countries and on remote continents. Besides, individual accounts often contradict one another, they are often based on myths... Was it just a myth then? The end of certain small homelands, city quarters, families or ethnic groups have already been announced, but not the end of a whole civilisation. Or even if a prediction could be found somewhere to be understood as such even metonymically, each and every of Eastern European society refuses to admit it. It would just mean that "we" are new barbarians, which we would never accept as an image of ourselves. Still, when we dispose of old objects - the fragments of the old world - whether putting them in the attic or throwing them out, when we let old temples and universities decay, when we belittle the old men who have survived the hecatomb, when we erase the memory of the past, we actually have a hand in the annihilation of the whole civilisation. We, however, escape from exploring the truth. We rather prefer talking ironically about the myth of a land that has actually never existed. This is our Atlantis complex. We pay an extremely high price for that, and our confident ironic smile is only ephemeral. It is not possible for us to conceal the fact that we have trouble with our own identity, that the feeling of temporariness and uncertainty annoys us a lot. Once the traveller visited a country that not long ago had obtained independence and he heard something like this: "if we are no longer with them, who are we with then?" Such a fear-based quandary is very characteristic to us and it is matched by our burning desire to join a stronger ally, to break free from this land, "whose horizon is particularly unclear"- as a certain European dignitary once said. Since this land is and maybe has always been non-existent a kind of Atlantis - somewhere in our subconsciousness this sinister surrealistic truth lies in wait for us: "here is nowhere". 

There is much sense in attempting to explore the fact that the old civilisation has perished. The awareness of the end of the world that we have witnessed or that had taken place just before we were born and whose glow can still be seen is the beginning of our Central-European identity. And let us not be afraid of the name ""new barbarians". To a great extent the name is true independently of whether our predecessors spoke the same language or a completely different one. It is not only destruction that barbarians bring, but also a potential for new blood. 

The traveller exploring Central-Europe has for many years been immersed in the twilight and that experience of termination and the following vacuum have let him feel the community of that space, feel this land as a whole. The space might have never existed as a real entity. It is only the end of this world and the vacuum it has left that have revealed the existence of an entire spiritual continent. 

Somewhere in the periphery the traveller has started a new chapter of his life by adapting, for cultural activities, a school and a temple that have survived the annihilation of the old civilisation. An old poet coming back across the ocean once visited those parts. They met: a barbarian starting a life anew, and a refugee from Atlantis coming back to his homeland from before the end of the world, as he always remembered it. The old man was curious about the new life that was being born. He was careful not to apply an old cliché to the world he found himself in, still a different world. He did not emanate bitterness about what had been lost, he wanted to assist the new. The young one, whom the old man's attitude filled with strength and faith, was keeping the old man company in his trips to the places where he was born, spent his childhood, his studies and where he grew up. The young one needed the old one's presence, words and books to interpret the place where he had come to live, to interpret himself. He understood that the end of the world, which passed almost unnoticed, has sealed the place he is now living at. He was a newcomer who settled at the gate to the old city, who could not get inside without finding and understanding a mysterious code. Is the whole of Central Europe such a sealed land? We live here within the borders of national states and remain in the peripheries of a spiritual continent, for the entrance code of Central Europe is a civilisation code. Our identity cannot be created ex nihilio, in a monody of a national key and apart from what had existed before. For identity always emerges from the place that is unsealed and accessible only to the heart. 

April 1998 
Translated by Tomasz Wyszkowski

Krasnogruda nr 8, Sejny 1998, Pogranicze.


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