Part Three – Epic Poetry, Epic Nation
When I mentioned that the Georgians weren’t merely listening to the singer but rather the song. It points out another significant aspect of their culture. That is words themselves. After singing and dancing a third institution combines singing and dancing with words and feasting (Georgia has a unique undiscovered cuisine as well!) and drinking. And that is the supra, the meal I mentioned earlier, which involves much music and toasting. This toasting, especially as done by the toastmaster/host, who is know as the tamada, is an art form in itself. One does not merely say “Let’s drink to world peace!” or “May your marriage be blessed before God and your children all live to a ripe old age.” Such a short toast, while respected, would not be seen as artful to a Georgian. A real tamada is part sommelier, part poet. And Georgia is a country where the poetic gesture still has a real chivalric resonance.
Part of this must be due to the national epic of the Georgians, Shota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი, which is often translated as The Knight in the Panther’s Skin or The Man in the Panther’s Skin, the translation can even rendered The Owner of the Tiger’s Skin. And it is these multiplicities of meaning which should begin to tell you that Georgian is not exactly a close fit with English. It is not a close fit with any European language, though there have been abortive attempts to connect Georgian to Basque. And in fact it not a close fit with any language anywhere outside of a few other sibling tongues in the Caucasus Mountain region.
Desperately in need of a fresh translation, the standard version from 1912 by Marjory Scott Wardrop shows how difficult this species of Georgian is, it makes a very rough road into English. Often a person’s attributes is simply become a rarified metonym. They will become crystal or ruby. Wardrop is at such a loss that she must add to the following description “nor was the rose-bouquet plucked from his lips”, a parenthetical remark within the text that rose-bouquet refers to his speech. In this book all tears are tears of blood.
But it is not just the curious references that stand out upon reading this strangely beautiful epic poem. It is the characters themselves. It feels like something that mixes the The Song of Solomon out of the Bible with medieval The Romance of the Rose with the weird Saragossa Manuscript.
The story involves a Knight, Tariel, who lives under a curse, and has lost his love the princess of India. (Interestingly, while India and Arabia are mentioned they seem more like states of mind than anything resembling the actual geographic location mentioned.) When we first meet Tariel he seems to have much in common with Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Only much more ferociously emotional.
“The slaves went forth, they drew nigh to him, their armour clanked. Then indeed the knight started up, he wept still more woefully; he raised his eyes and looked round, he saw the band of warriors. But once he said, “Woe is me!” and spoke no word more. He passed his hands over his eyes, he wiped away the hot tears, he made fast his sabre and quiver, and braced his strong arms. He mounted his horse–why should he heed the words of slaves? He wended his way elsewhither, and healed not their troubles. The slaves stretched forth their hands to seize that knight; he fell upon them–alas! even their enemies would have pitied them; he beat one against another, he slew them without raising (on high) his hand, some with his whip he smote, cleaving them down to the breast.”
And so the King clearly offended sends his favorite knight and the other hero of our story Avt’handil to follow him.
“When he saw that the king was come, he struck his horse with his whip; in that very moment he was lost, our eyes see him not; he seemed to have sunk into an abyss or flown to heaven; they sought, but could find no trace of his course. His footprints they sought, and marveled to find no trace.”
That is one seriously mysterious stud.
For all of it’s fierceness The Knight in the Panther’s Skin is also a meditation on love and friendship. It was traditionally considered something every Georgian girl was practically expected to memorized. And to live by! And one could do a whole lot worse!
Consider this rumination on the meaning of love.
“Love is tender, a thing hard to be known. True love is something apart from lust, and cannot be likened thereto it is one thing; lust is quite another thing, and between. them lies a broad boundary; in no way do they mingle hear my saying!
“The lover must be constant, not lewd, impure and faithless; when he is far from his beloved he must heave sigh upon sigh; his heart must be fixed on one from whom he endures wrath or sorrow if need be. I hate heartless love–embracing, kissing, noisy bussing.
“Lovers, call not this thing love: when any long for one to-day and another to-morrow, (lightly) bearing parting’s pain. Such base sport is like mere boyish trifling; the good lover is he who suffers a world’s woe.”
There’s advice that won’t be showing up on any blogs too soon. “The good lover is he who suffers a world’s woe.” I don’t know maybe you have to understand the pain and darkness of the world a bit more than we are encouraged to by the central propagandas of the time to get the wisdom of such a thought.
And then again the book is definitely a work of Christian imagination (though certainly influenced by Persia) and deserves to be known by all who claim Tolkien, Lewis or George MacDonald as guiding lights.
Consider this bitter lamentation as the king’s knight searches endlessly for Tariel. “O God, why make Thy judgments crooked because of me? why, alas! should I have made such a journey in vain? Thou hast rooted up joys from my heart; Thou hast given griefs a nest there. All my days my tears will never cease.”
Yet then he stops and reflects from the depths of his despair.
Then he said, “Patience is better,” and communed thus with himself: “Let me not die a day too soon, cast not down my heart; without God I can do nothing, my tears flow in vain. No one can change that which is decreed; that which is not to be will not be.”
That is not simply resignation, it is in fact the deepest resolution.
I haven’t even discussed the Kadjis yet!
I suggest hunting Shota Rustaveli’s epic poem down if you have any interest in spooky fantastic romantic literature. Be surprised.
And in this survey of Georgian culture there is so much left to cover. I really wanted to talk more about Tengiz Abuladze’s remarkable film trilogy: The Plea, The Wishing Tree and Repentance. And they have a very worthy puppet theatre in Tbilisi whose production of “The Battle of Stalingrad” (!?) sparks our deep curiosity. We haven’t even discussed the majestic and unique Georgian church architecture yet. And this unusual style dots the country everywhere. Nor have we discussed the formidable yet enigmatic towers of Svaneti. Nor have we mentioned the medieval cave city at Vardzia. Nor the paintings that adorn its walls. Georgian culture turns out to be not a part of another culture but a classical entity pretty much unto itself. While is has connections with many cultures nearby in its history and geography, in nearly every case it has made something unique to its own world.
Finally I want to conclude by saying something. By praising Georgia I hardly mean to romanticize Georgia. There is poverty, crime, political skullduggery, machismo, way too many cigarettes and certainly drunkenness. There are troubling relations with Russia and petty bickering with Armenia. I write this on the eve of an election, which could be a sign of maturity for the country or a slide into a time of difficulties. I am certainly not trying to encourage glib tourism, even of the English as a second language variety. I think a journey to Georgia would be an excellent thing to do. Though not for the kind of guys who always want to know if the girls are hot. Not for the kind of people who hope to turn the entire world into a repetition of our own postmodern irony and political correctness.
The reason to go to Georgia? It’s to learn something from them. They swim against a tide that desperately wants to subsume them. Yet no matter the many incursions of hyper-modernity into Sakartvelo, I suspect the Georgians will always sing and dance and recite poems as toasts in the name of God.