Well I have been busy on my new YouTube channel The Anadromist with a lot of ideas that I just didn’t have time for here. Especially my thoughts on Time and how to live in it instead of against it. We live in a culture that positively reeks in its hatred of the effects of Time. We want everything to happen now. Instantly without waiting. And the more I have thought about our defective relationship to Time the more central a role I have seen it play it the insane dysfunctions of the 21st Century: the politics, the propaganda, the efficiency of technology, the environment, the waste, the virtual worlds we choose to inhabit, the surrender of our imaginations to the grinding gears of commerce, the imitation worlds we create for tourism, the sense of entitlement, the dullness of work. Not that these things have a simple one answer fits all panacea, rather they are all issues exacerbated by the desire have the convenient instant life, or in other words to live as though Time were an enemy that must be vanquished at all costs.
I started to see our faulty relationship to Time as a problem in the early 90s. I gave a lecture on the subject at Swiss L’Abri in 1993. I have been mulling it over ever since. In many ways this is connected to many of my other ideas about Texture, Beauty, Images and many other subjects. But these thoughts about Time are at the center of my view of the dilemma of life as it is now lived. Feel free to disagree. After you’ve spent time listening to what I have to say.
Now after delaying long enough I’ve decided to get my ideas about Time out there in some form that might be of use to someone else. I have tried to the best of my ability to live by these ideas since I formulated them back in 1993. If you do the math that’s over 25 years of practical outworking. And the one thing I have seen clearly, when you add the effects of Time to life it gets much deeper and richer.
I am not saying that we are allowed to do this at all points. Au contraire. Just in transportation alone it is nearly impossible to live within a human sense of the meaning of time. We are required to move too fast to stay sane. Still one can, for instance, still apply these principles to the planning stages of a journey. To stay longer in places, rather than just passing through. That’s a simple way of incorporating Time into the hustle of the tourism industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway there are four video discussions now. And if you are thinking that ideas about Time are probably going to be dreadfully boring, then these talks really are for You. So you can start at the beginning or jump around. The argument builds, but necessarily in a straightforward direction.
(And I’ll keep adding the videos here until the series is finished.)
Well I need to get back to my life in Tbilisi Georgia. Oh and by the way there will soon be a channel on my Georgian life so stick around.
Keep swimming against the stream
Hey! People who are contributing to my sites are getting extra content not available online. They are also keeping me alive in Georgia. I must honestly say without the gifts given to me thus far this experiment would have collapsed a while ago. No much keeps me going for a while. So give through PayPal. $10 a month or a one time gift of the equivalent of $50 US. Gets you another 15 hours worth of lectures.
And so since I began writing these Georgian Lessons, and until very recently, I had no idea that I might find myself moving there. And yet that is exactly what is going to happen. (The whole story can be found at Gravity From Above.) By the end of 2018 I will be back in Tbilisi to stay. I will finish up the editing of Gravity From Above there and then just stay to start work on a puppet and doll museum. Friends back in Alaska knew I was going back to work on my documentary last year. A few asked me if I was planning on moving to Europe. And what I would tell them, in all honestly, was that I wasn’t planning on it. But then I would add that I wasn’t planning on not moving there either. I just didn’t know. Life in Alaska seemed to be changing for me. I was open to possibilities. For a short while France appeared as a possibility. My French is passable and I have a few friends there. And in all truth I will always have France as a place to return to for certain things I can find nowhere else. But I somewhat suspected it might be Georgia calling me.
When I first arrived in Georgia at the end of December 2017 I was a little puzzled. I had thought I might be invited to experience more of the holiday season with some of my Georgian friends. But that didn’t really materialize. (I didn’t even know how they celebrated their holidays.) And so I found myself in a very different situation than in my first journey to Tbilisi in 2016. I was keeping myself busy. Yet I felt isolated by the very holidays I had half hoped to experience. But I need not have worried. Georgia isn’t like America that welcomes you with wide open arms immediately, only to forget about you later. It is slower sense of acceptance. And then it feels much more solid. So whether with my hosts who rented me my three month apartment in the Saburtalo area. Or my friends in puppetry. Or the many singers, dancers, and musicians of Erisioni. In each case I realized that a slower approach would work better. At Erisioni I was content to remain in the background quite a while, hardly moving, eventually becoming more and more a part of the troupe until at the end I definitely felt accepted in a fairly deep way, even though most of the members didn’t speak much English.
But where I could speak English I soon discovered levels of conversation I had rarely seen in America since I was young. For you see Georgians, even the hippest of them, haven’t really been very influenced by postmodernism yet. Modernism? Yes. That desire to pull things apart, to reinvent things from zero? Yes. In a way. That’s there and in some of it’s darker forms. But the irony of postmodernism? Hardly at all. And so my conversations were all quite earnest. And with depth. Even though big budget Hollywood films, video games, electronic dance music are all there I didn’t have one conversation that could be construed as postmodern. No snarky references to traditional culture, no geeky discussions about Marvel superheroes or Star Wars, no obsessive gamers. I mean I’m guessing that just given the nature of these beasts they must be there somewhere. Maybe I just got lucky. But they just seemed to take these forms as just that cultural artifacts. But they didn’t seem to live in them. At least not yet. And I certainly wasn’t going to encourage them to do so.
The truth is that except for the youngest generation most Georgians have reminders of the serious side of life within their living memories. Older folks remember communism, people in their thirties and forties remember the civil wars of the 90’s. Nearly everyone remembers the five day war with Russia in 2008. And most still remember the electricity being very undependable. And even now there are still many problems. Reality has a way of chasing away the fluff. The West has had it so good for so long that our interests and problems reflect the strange unrealities of our lives.
Conversations in Tbilisi among my new friends reminded me of conversations I had had in the 1970’s when I was much younger. That was the last period I remember when people seemed open to dialogue with people of any sort. People would try to prove their points to each other. Which I’ve always taken as a sign of openness and care even when the disagreements were strong. The way conversation has developed in America and Western Europe after that period has led to more and more division, with the internet finally separating people from each other in near totality. Leading to our current stalemate. Not that Georgia doesn’t have people with radically different ideas. And not that those ideas are all healthy or wise. Rather I felt a kind of humility to discuss things in a way that sadly is almost impossible further west.
One new friend grilled me about my ideas. And seriously. She was looking to poke holes in my arguments about the meaning of life. She was coming from a science background and had begun to adopt what I felt were premature conclusions based on neuroscience. I elaborated my thoughts as best as possible. Finally after several lengthy discussions she turned to me and said “I can’t find a problem with what you believe. You prove yourself very well.” Even among my very good friends in America who often agree with me on a foundational level I rarely find that kind of remark. (Not that I am wanting everyone to agree with me.) That is mostly because they don’t chase my rabbit all the way back to its hole. I’ve noticed that when Americans find a point of disagreement, which is inevitable, they are not willing to continue the discussion too much farther. They’ve gone over the years from a we-just-disagree sort of fatalism to an immediate ‘unfriended’ mentality. Which I do feel is a shame. Because as I have said I do remember those all night long discussions when I was younger. I remember endless conversations while working. But now say the wrong thing and that can become the end of the relationship. (There are fortunately a few exceptions to this in America. You know who you are.) And I have seen that too many times in my life. It’s a definite lack of courage. And compassion all round.
I’m not saying every discussion was deep. Nor am I saying Georgians have no sense of ironic humor. One of the traits I saw that really touched me was the Georgian tendency to say what they feel profoundly. When I was invited to a supra, the traditional ritual meal, I watched the toasts carefully, because I knew it would be my time to add to them soon. And Georgians take toasting at a meal seriously. And so when my turn came around several times I spoke, and was translated, giving my most thoughtful observations and hopes. I was told by the father of the friend who invited me over, that I toasted like a Georgian. And I took that as a very high compliment. Another friend musicologist John Graham told me that he had brought a couple of British men to a supra. They were incapable of speaking without irony or from the heart. And the Georgians notice things like that.
My discussions covered a wide range of subject matter. We spoke of the art of filmmaking, puppetry as an art, music from so many different perspectives, issues related to architecture, the meaning of emotions in Georgia, the effects of communism, the traditions of art, the problem of pollution, religious devotion pro and con. And it went on and on. And I felt at home. I could stretch out enjoying the serious possibilities of conversation that I have always thrived on.
It’s not that my American friends can’t talk. But there is often a distinct lack of reality, of historical understanding. Georgians are still trained to know their history quite well. Americans in these days often stop short because they can’t enter in much deeper than the surfaces. Because that is what we are trained to do in order to get along. Whenever people tell you those three things you are not supposed to talk about in American society I feel the immense poverty of our discourse. And we are happy enough when any event feels good. We are not willing to take it further to that sense of profound emotion. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. There are deep Americans and shallow Georgians.
The conversations I had in Georgia convinced me to consider living there before I was ever offered the job which I couldn’t refuse. And I understand something very clearly in this life. Something serious in life can be accomplished by a relative handful of people who can commit themselves to a task. As opposed to the American condition that more and more resembles everyone going solo. I believe serious (and imperfect) commitments can be found in Georgia yet held with a lightness and humor while holding onto the understanding that life is very difficult. I didn’t meet one person in three months relentlessly trying to be positive. And that is an excellent thing. Not that everyone I meet will be like what I am describing. But if just a few are like that, which is what my observations show me, then I will not be spinning my wheels in the mud. And that is why I can commit myself to living in Georgia. It is hardly a perfect place. But there still is courage on a very humble level. When Georgians say hello to each other they do not say ‘Hello!’, they say ‘Gamarjoba!’ which literally translates into ‘Victory!’ And what I understand by this constant greeting is that life is hard, we’ve been through many many difficulties, including war and death, but somehow we will fight on. That attitude meshes with my own.
We’ll end our Georgian Lessons here. For now.
(Eventually I’ll have a separate site for my Georgian observations.)
And remember you can help support me in this endeavor through PayPal if you wish.
You can start the Georgian Lessons series here:
And you can find my original Georgia series here:
And don’t forget to look up my travels in Georgia over at Gravity From Above:
As you can tell I like Georgia. I find nourishment in my interactions with the country and its people. Having got to know them better that only increases that strange sense of connection I feel to them. So much so that when I was offered a chance to work and live there I jumped at the chance. (See this story.) But I don’t want to be confused with a tourist who sees the country through a romantic haze of brave mountain men and fairytale women. No I see the reality quite well. I see the damage done to the country by the years of Soviet occupation. I feel the sense of frustration of a people perennially caught between forces much greater than they can possibly be. I feel the layers of impossibility and sense the deals made under tables. I am not blind. Like falling in love, one does not merely take the first impression. As seductive as it might seem from the outside. I have seen the poverty. I have felt the impassivity when confronted by seemingly endless trials. An impassivity bequeathed to all of the victims and collaborators of the Soviet Union. I have felt the same thing in Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. And no doubt it exists in Russia as well. And so this little essay will be a look at some of the features of the country that are certainly problematic. I will try to avoid politcial topics, because I know better than to speak about things I don’t really understand yet. But if I wander into sensitive zones I do ask my Georgian friends to forgive me. I am only thinking out loud about the country I will be living in. And I promise the next essay will be just the opposite.
The first and most obvious problem in Georgia is poverty. I think anyone landing in Georgia from North America, Western and Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand, certain Asian countries, plus other places that enjoy a fairly high standard of living are going to be smacked in the face when they come across their first older woman begging with a little plastic bucket on the street. In America you only rarely ever will see such a site. Or when you see people standing on a street corner trying to sell a dozen eggs that they brought in from their house that morning. That dozen eggs would hardly bring in a dollar in US currency. This is serious poverty, not fat American poverty, but it is also not starvation poverty. Now there are things you don’t see in this picture. The effects of the failure of the old Soviet system is one of them. But also the fact that Georgian families most often live together – children, parents, grandparents. And so what you are seeing might Just be someone adding a tiny portion to the family income. Also a dollar of American money in Georgia will go a lot farther than it does in the West. I once figured that if my money ran too low I could eat for two dollars a day and still feel fairly full. Nevertheless the poverty is real. And quite sad at times.
The next thing to hit you if you start traveling anywhere are the plastic bags floating around. It’s truly sad to see trees and fences catching the blowing debris. And then comes the following question: Why does no one do anything about it? And here we come to the effects of seventy years of communism. The Soviet system ended up by creating two main spheres: the public and the private. Georgians tend to live in the private space. Pre-Soviet Georgia had a rich public space. You can see in the beauty of the older buildings built before the Soviet takeover in 1921. But because of the nature of egalitarian communism the public space was everyone’s responsibility, which meant practically that everything was done by bureaucratic fiat. And if the proper committees and departments did nothing then nothing happened. And if you complained then you got noticed. And getting noticed was NOT something you wanted to happen unless it was for awards. Therefore no one showed initiative in the public space. And while this is beginning to change, there are a few no smoking laws now for instance, the bags are still floating around. But ironically the bags are not an old Soviet problem they are actually a result of modernization. Whenever you shop, everything gets bagged over and over. In other words they are making the transitions from old stern bad service communism to new customer satisfaction capitalism. Now WE, in the West, are doing badly with our plastic bags. But at least there is more of a consensus that you don’t need everything bagged or that you can bring your bags. (Though none of this seems to effect our huge supermarket chains.) But the Georgians are still at the point where they almost insist you take another bag. And thus the nightmare grows.
And along with this is everything related to recycling. Glass, plastic bottles, paper, it all gets throw into the same garbage dumpsters. I’m told there is a tiny bit of recycling in Tbilisi. But the waste? Staggering. And people genuinely don’t know what to do about it. There are some grassroots efforts but they are a long way off still. Which then brings us to the most obvious and dangerous two problems in Tbilisi.
Pollution and traffic, which are inextricably linked. While the pollution is not near Beijing levels, it isn’t good. One friend with a child told me she worried what the effect would be on her daughter. Part of the problem goes back to the poverty issue. Georgians can’t afford expensive new cars. So most of the cars are shipped in from other countries like Germany and Japan, countries who don’t like to drive old used cars, or even have laws against doing so. I’ve never seen so many Mercedes in one place outside of Germany. And these are all used diesel chugging beasts, often dark exhaust streaming out of the tailpipes. And then there are the Japanese cars. And did you realize that, like the British, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. Which means you have Georgians driving in the right lanes in left hand vehicles, misjudging the distances. I saw one car turn a corner hit a trash dumpster hard and keep on driving. Of course his steering wheel was on the wrong side. And traffic is another serious problem. I am not looking forward to driving in Georgia. I probably will someday. Fortunately I do understand the metro and bus systems. While the marshrutkas remain completely confusing to me. I will eventually graduate to taxis. (I rode in one that was a Japanese car. Unnerving.) Fortunately there does seem to be some political will to deal with some of the pollution and the Japanese cars are supposed to stop coming in… though there are still too many of them.
Another more truly modern problem is the new architecture. And that is connected with the desire to catch up with with the times. Always a bad idea. I’m told that had certain powers had their way that much of charming Old Tbilisi would have been torn down and replaced by bad postmodern architecture. You can see some of this on display already. People complained loudly. And much was saved. Or at least granted a stay of execution. And yet if one looks at monstrosities like the Biltmore Hotel (the large ugly spike in the middle of the city), which at least was talked into saving their Rustaveli Avenue facade, or the new Tbilisi Galleria Mall, one can imagine the pseudo Singapore or Dubai that was envisioned. The Georgians, who are quite proud of their country, need to realize that they should restore the unique glory of their country, their traditional modes of architecture are quite stunning, worthy of emulation. And worthy of updating. They don’t need another postmodern building shaped like a dog bone. They need to work on eliminating the worst aspects of their Soviet heritage and live with pride in a cleaner country. With work and effort I could see Georgia looking more like Switzerland a few decades down the road. (Not as clean obviously but who can be as clean as the Swiss?)
I’m told that one man in another city was so tired of the litter that ended up in his yard that, after cleaning his yard over and over and yet always finding more trash, he finally put a Georgian cross up in his lawn, effectively saying this is holy ground. Georgians still respect Christian things even when they aren’t Christians. The litter stopped over night. A creative solution.
As far as the architectural pollution goes that’s a much more elaborate problem. Georgians don’t need to copy other cultures bad taste. Postmodern architecture has done very little for anyone. Georgians are a vastly creative people. They can find unique answers to their own problems.
And when visitors come then they will feel even more of what I feel when I come to this special and unusual place.
And what makes it such a meaningful place to me? It’s the people I meet and conversations I have with them. But I’ll have to discuss that next time. Come back.
The main reason I became attracted to Georgian culture was because of the music and dance that leaks out whenever step into their world. Yes I have visited Georgia to explore puppetry. That was my justification at least for going as part of my nearly finished Gravity From Above documentary film project exploring the meaning of puppets through Europe. And I found so much great puppetry there. Truthfully though, it was the music and dance that called to me from half a world away. I have already introduced this subject in another essay. But as I am writing this Georgian Lessons series there is no deeper lesson that I could pass on than that found in Georgian music and dance. (I would recommend going back to my introductory words first, though it isn’t necessary.) My perspective on Georgian music and dance has deepened considerably since that earlier essay in 2012. And I hear much more in the music now than I did then.
So where to start?
It has to start with voices. If you have a trio of polyphonic Georgian voices you pretty much have everything. Add to that the handclaps and you have the rhythmic structures that underline the dancing. All of the other developments arise from those basic elements.
To look a little more closely, the voices almost always have a central voice, a bass, and high voicing. The central voice will often contain the melody, the other voices can provide a simple harmony, but more often it will immediately get much more complicated than that. The bass, particularly in Eastern Georgia, will usually be a drone. Sometimes the drone will shift pitches to offset the melody. The high voicings may spiral into orbit or in the case Gurian music will shift into a rhythmic yodel. The melodies themselves will often be bittersweet, sounding somewhere between the minor keys of Eastern Europe and the astringent modalities of the Middle East. But where the Arabic Middle East is positively allergic to harmonies, Georgia revels in them. Not only harmonies, but multiple melodies. And the harmonic structures will then do something unique in the world. They will dip into extreme dissonances as well. Not in a Modernist sense. This isn’t Schoenberg’s 12 tone row. Somehow, and here is the mystery, they resolve the most abstract of dissonances easily and often back into the bass drones.
A Gurian Song Performed by the Singers of Erisioni in Tbilisi, Georgia
Stepping into a Georgian Orthodox Church one evening I was overwhelmed by the intense beauty of the antiphonal polyphony. Somehow the tension between dissonance and harmony conveyed ineffable symbolic resonances of the unutterable sufferings and inexplicable meanings of life. And it made me realize how impoverished the vast majority of contemporary Western Christian church music has become in America. But then again this deep music was not congregational singing. It takes trained voices to sing in such a way as to convey the holiness of God in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
When in Georgian folk traditions, not the church music, you add the handclaps you suddenly have something deeply expressive of real joy. In many of the local Georgian regions Svaneti or Guria, for instance, the voices are already setting a beat. The clapping adds layers of motoric syncopation that practically propel the body into the dance. If this sounds a bit like African music there are aspects of Georgian dance music that indeed strike me as closer to African than most other standard forms of European traditional dance music. Not that it comes from any actual African influence. Georgian music in turn can also sound Greek, Middle Eastern, Persian, Armenian, Russian, even like Western Europe. And these areas have all had some influence upon the basic Georgian polyphony, which is stretches back into antiquity.
Add to the voices and basic rhythms the more traditional instruments, the panduri and chonguri, which are both in the guitar family; the doli, which is a handheld drum; the duduk a reedy droning flute, originally from Armenia; the garmoni, the Georgian accordion which has a unique tuning, and several others. And you start to have a powerful arsenal of musical tools to create an endless variety of sounds. Over time pianos, organs, guitars, electric instruments and electronic instruments have all been added to the stew. And curiously Georgia is now seen as one of the European centers of electronica. In talking with DJ Giorgi Kancheli he demonstrated the same respect for music that I encountered from so many other Georgians. He didn’t see his music as any sort of rejection of his musical culture.
And this was one of the aspects of Georgian culture that struck me forcefully. I was impressed not only by the Georgian music I was hearing, but also by the musical curiosity and knowledge that many Georgians displayed. One friend, a surgeon studying to be a neuroscientist, asked me if I knew the music of American composer Moondog. I was completely impressed. I did know of the blind street performer Moondog who used to dress like a viking of the sidewalks of New York City who made several recordings of his naïve symphonic music. Now how many Americans per 10,000 people would know of his work? A handful? Maybe. Maybe not. Have you ever heard of Moondog? And yet here was this young Georgian woman who was conversant with his oeuvre.
And I often found that Georgians knew these strange details from musical history. I pondered why. Why did this culture seem to have such a connection to musics from various corners of the world? And here is what came to me. Georgian folk music traditions are so complex that it makes it easy to absorb music from most other cultures with real appreciation. If there is some truth that the exposure to basic classical music is good for a child’s development then the Georgians are ahead of that game, since their folk music tends to skip Mozart and go straight to Stravinsky.
And that does raise the following specter. How shall future Americans learn to appreciate music beyond their own time and place given the diet of hollow commercial pop music that has been increasingly foisted upon us?
Now I don’t want Georgia to seem like some musical paradise. Stepping into the new mall on Rustaveli Avenue one hears that exact same hideous, predominantly American, shiny overproduced pop music playing to the masses globally. And people are simply absorbing it unquestioningly. This will have an effect. Likewise the success of the EDM rave and club culture is going to have an effect upon the musical traditions as well. What kind of effect? I can’t say. And since they are largely influenced by German electronica, a culture that mostly disdains its own Germanic heritage, which is understandable considering its 20th Century history, there are already serious tensions in this zone. But Georgia, despite the presence of some ultra nationalists who hate the club culture, is not Germany.
If you wander through the United States, choose a high school or university at random, and ask a collection of students to sing you a folk or traditional song very few if any will be able to do it. (I was recently informed how poorly even university level music students are with such things.) If you go to Georgia today, even with the omnipresence of the big commercial culture descending like an all consuming vulture, even in the presence of more postmodern forms of musical exploration, most Georgian youth would immediately be able to sing you a folk song.
The question then remains “For how long?’
The good news is that the vultures only consume a dead carcass. And Georgia as Georgia is not dead.
I have returned to Tbilisi Georgia nearly two years after my 2016 visit. And I am gaining a larger perspective than I had before. I’ve nearly finished learning the alphabet and I’ve met many friends, old and new, as I wander the streets observing the world around me. My observations directly connected to my chief aims of puppetry, music and dance will be covered on my Gravity From Above site, but here I am going to continue dealing with the other aspects of Georgian culture that call to me. And today nothing called out as loud as the legacy of Communism in the old Soviet Union, which Georgia was buried deeply within, as I visited the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum.
But before we enter that world a bit of background. A quick look at the wars of Georgia, both outside invasion and civil strife, produces well over a staggering 150 conflicts before the year 1800 from Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Mongols and the Ottomans among many, many others. And around the year 1800 the Russian Empire muscled its way into the area and presented a deal the Georgians couldn’t turn down, eventually swallowing them into greater Russia. To this day it is a common misconception that the Georgians speak Russian and write in the Cyrillic alphabet. Then after a very brief season of Georgian independence during the Russian Revolution Georgia declared itself as a state and from 1918 until 1921 they were free and the blossoms of liberty began to grow everywhere. Until they were harvested by the new Soviet Union and were ‘allowed’ to spend another 70 years under Russian/Soviet yoke.
Since the 1991 declaration of independence Georgia has remained free, though not without periods of strife. And so it is inevitable that the marks of both Russia and the Soviet Union (not the same thing at all) are still quite heavy on the land. To be fair some of these marks are not bad. Under the Soviet system education was encouraged as was theatre, ballet, puppets (!) and other cultural products… though always at the whim of the state censors. But other effects were much more troubling. Churches were banned under the atheist system. And many church buildings were destroyed or put to non-religious uses. I stepped into the Lado Gudiashvili Museum to look at work by that painter who had been part of that brief moment of freedom in the early 20th Century and who had continued on under the Soviet Union. He mostly stayed with a sort of surrealistic portraiture heavily influenced by his wide knowledge of Medieval Georgian frescos. And in 1947 he was asked to paint the altar of the Kashueti Orthodox Church on Rustaveli Avenue. He did it, then was barred for a while from the painters union. He often made scabrous sketches reflecting his cynicism of the Soviet system. But his fresco still stands.
Another area where the Soviet Union is still deeply felt is in the endless blocks of concrete apartment buildings circling the town. And they are often indeed gray and eerie as they house thousands upon thousands. And so while there is much new building going on these days it is hotels and not as often affordable replacements for these gloomy structures.
One question I sometimes wonder is where would Georgia be today if it could have stayed free in 1921. It’s a dream I know. Nevertheless the Georgian people have a lot of natural creativity and drive. Yet one gets the feeling that they are still digging out painfully from the basic burdens left by communism. And part of that burden is a kind of fatalism that I have encountered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. In Romania, in the Czech Republic, to a lesser degree in Poland, you often hear some equivalent to the statement “What can you do?” Here in Georgia it attaches itself to issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, recycling, etc. But not only that, these very creative people will sometimes hit a roadblock in their lives. And then you can see a cloud of fatalism passing over them. Which is odd because I’m convinced that this fatalism is a foreign import, it is not native to Georgia. Yet even I being one of the least optimistic Americans you will ever meet, always feel that there must be more options. The world may be dark, but I don’t have that fatalism that clouds future action.
The most interesting thing that happened to me with regard to Georgia’s communist past occurred today. I went to find a strange little museum that I’d heard about. One not covered in guide books. You probably already guessed that I mean the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Now if that sounds strange to you trust me on this, the title of the museum wasn’t nearly as weird as the museum itself. I took the metro to a stop I’d never been to before – 300 Aragveli*. (I don’t know what that refers to, it’s not an address.) After a rambling walk I arrived at a door that could be no other than the house museum. It featured hammer and sickle designs in Soviet red. And what was odd is that it didn’t look like commentary or in any manner ironic. And lo and behold it wasn’t. (See above.)
For those who don’t know history as well as you should, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not Russian, he was in fact the most famous (or infamous) Georgian who ever lived. His Georgian name was Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი). He was born in the Georgian city of Gori, where a controversial museum dedicated to him exists to this day. Stalin is of course responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and yet there are those, even in Georgia, who wax nostalgic for the old days. And I had indeed walked into such a place.
The museum was like a frozen tableau of the Soviet Union without any upkeep whatsoever. Entering the dark corroding building was like entering into a time warp of the days before 1991, no really before 1953, it was the grayest dingiest thing I’d ever come across, from exactly the kinds of minds that thought that people wanted big ugly apartments. I was brought into a room festooned with red flags and pictures of Lenin and Stalin and an old comrade, a true believer in Soviet style Communism, named Zhuli was speaking Russian like a native. A young Russian teenager and his mother were there too. And that was fortunate because the boy became my interpreter for the deeply felt tour Zhuli was just starting. I mentioned that I was from America, which produced a puzzled look from Zhuli, who then recovered quickly with the only question one could ask at such an occasion: Are you a communist? The answer was a simple ‘No’. I wanted to understand what was going on here much too much to say that I was anything but! Yet from then on he took it as his mission to convert me. To tell me of the heroism of comrade Stalin and the way things had been.
Zhuli told us that back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during the summers, over 500 hundred people a day would come to this museum. And this place was the house that hid Comrade Jugashvili, where they printed revolutionary pamphlets and papers in Georgian, Armenian and Russian. He show us fading imitation copies, decaying on the walls. (“They don’t give us much money for this museum.’) They had built a loud printing press under the nearby house (a reconstruction since it had been torn down by the Georgians after it had been discovered) and had an elaborate escape hatch through a deep well. And that was fascinating in itself. The well was still there. And another printing press, same German make and model, probably used somewhere else for propaganda, was rusting under the house because the chamber would flood regularly. Zhuli showed us diagrams and models of the house plans. He showed us photocopy clippings of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War 2. He showed us a large map with little lights that glowed where revolutionary cells had been. We walked by socialist realist paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov and others. He told us of Stalin’s heroic escapes in times of danger. Not a word was whispered about purges, famines, gulags, murders, the millions.
I was just in awe that such a man still existed. Zhuli was a man who still lived for the party. He was a man in his 80’s with a cult-like devotion to communism. And he knew it was going to come back. And when I thought about recent far left appropriations of the hammer and sickle image, whether by Antifa or by Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the UK, I wondered if he might not have a point. Because this was a man entirely possessed by his ideology of total egalitarianism, and that idea had come back with a vengeance, though applied with different terms for oppression, among people in the West who know nothing about the Gulag and the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism from Russia to China and far beyond.
As I left I looked at a funny work of graffiti on the wall outside, and I thought of this earnest man inside for whom such a thing would be incomprehensible. Bourgeois hooliganism would be the only category he would have for such a thing. He called the independence of Georgia a blow for the ‘counterrevolutionaries’. But you knew he thought it was only temporary. As I walked back towards the Avlabari metro station I walked passed a massive new Sheraton Hotel going up not far from the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Here’s the new ideology Zhuli. Yes indeed there will be one world, it’s just not the one you were imagining.
*Discovered later: 300 Aragveli – The Three Hundred Aragvians are a detachment of the highlanders from the Aragvi valley, near Tbilisi, who fought to the last man against the invading Qajar (Persian) army in 1795 at the battle of Krtsanisi, .
This will be the last Georgian Lessons Addendum! At least until I travel there again. And this time we’re playing it easy. This will be a compendium of the videos I’ve taken while I was there. So if you think about visiting Tbilisi yourself consider this a few breadcrumbs. There is music, dancing, puppets, wandering around the Tbilisi and spending time at the incredible bazaar/flea market at the Dry Bridge. To watch all of this would take a while. (The first two videos are also a half hour each come back to them after you’ve watched the shorter ones.) But nevertheless you know where they all are. It’s hard to believe that a year has nearly passed since I was there. There are lots of jewels buried in these videos.
One of the fascinating and unnerving things about visiting Georgia for the first time is trying to get a grasp of the alphabet, one of this old earth’s few distinct separate alphabets. There is a bit of Latin script and English in a few spots but generally one is confronted by a lot of hooks and squiggles that bear no relationship to anything else, as with the language itself. In this little addenda I thought I’d give you some of my observations of the signage around Tbilisi.
But don’t let the Georgian alphabet deter you. The Georgian people more than make up for any confusion you will feel. I would go back in a heartbeat!
When I look back on what I saw and learned in Georgia what stands out above all are the people I met. Now in a way I can say that about wherever I go. But somehow it’s not quite the same. When I first visited Paris I can safely say the people did not glue themselves to my memory in the same way. Nor in London, nor Prague, certainly not Zurich. Even on my first visit to Alaska, a very friendly place filled with memorable folks, I recall only a couple of faces after three weeks. Yes I met people in all of those places, some must have impressed me in some way. But with Tbilisi, Georgia, it’s 3D technicolor when it comes to the faces and personalities I remember. Yes I came to meet musicians, dancers, puppeteers, photographers, filmmakers. But I’ve met many creative types before and in many cities. It took years to build up relationships in Prague. Likewise Paris. And after many visits, except for a couple of puppet filmmakers, London remains a closed book.
Now that might lead the North American observer to assume that Georgians are friendly the way Americans are friendly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Often with Americans greetings are big toothy smiles, people act interested in you, you’re already famous friends from the first moment you are introduced. Only later you discover that a good deal of this ritual was done for show, the teeth are masks, the interest possibly feigned, the introductions perfunctory. Once the day is over there’s a very good chance you will never talk with these people again. Obviously this is a generalization. But it’s a generalization Europeans see all of the time. Americans are great at introductions; not so good at follow up.
Georgians value friendship as a serious part of their culture. Their great epic poem by Shota Rustaveli, The Knight in Panther’s Skin , is a tribute to friendship. And they value it in a way we (Americans and Europeans) could learn from. Yet when you walk around people aren’t immediately warm. One could wonder where is that much vaunted Georgian hospitality. Well it is there. But it is not spectacular in the way Americans demonstrate, our manners being intimately related to our pop culture. And yet I found things that I would rarely find in my own country. I entered a tourism office at Liberty Square. Until this moment most Georgians I had passed have minded their own business. I ask where the nearest bank is. I’m desperately in need of finding a bank machine to withdraw my first infusion of Georgian laris. I ask a couple of rather attractive young women at a counter. They suddenly brighten, like someone had just turned on a 200 watt bulb and are glad to give me information. I turn to leave. Now in America in such a situation what would happen at this moment is this, an older man leaves a couple of younger women, they might say goodbye, or just get back to work. I get to the door and they call out to me, forcing me to turn back around and they ask “Where are you from?” And we have a little conversation. And they are genuine towards me, never American-girl-suspicious.
And this brings me to another observation about women, unless you live in very small town America, you don’t stare or smile at unknown men. Many were the times I found myself being directly apprised by Georgian girls, women, who obviously recognized my deep level foreignness. But this was not the scrutiny of a suspicious other. There was no wariness in their gaze. Nor naïveté. Rather just natural curiosity. And when my eyes met theirs, rather than the usual game of turning away, I was often treated to warm smile. And this something I’ve never met in any other large city or suburban situation. It wasn’t a come on. It was simply natural warmth. And I thought how sad by comparison was all of the wary behavior I’d encountered in my life among girls who had to protect themselves from uninvited advances. This is how it should be.
And that was another thing. Tbilisi was a city that had many dark, lightless, corners. In big cities darkness tends to attract predators. But here I’d walk through the streets late, through dark streets, and at some point I realized that I didn’t feel that sense of hyper-vigilance that often accompanies such a scene.
But again rather than the general mood of the city it was the people that really stayed with me. I had contacted film director Tinatin Gurchiani, after having seen her documentary, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear. And had only had a couple of brief email exchanges with her. I let her know that I was coming and that I would like to meet her. I also mentioned that I was working on my puppet documentary Gravity From Above as well as starting to poke around to make connections for a future documentary about Georgian music and dance. She then asks what she can do to help. I arrive and after a few days we meet. She arrives to greet me carrying a basket, like luggage, holding her newborn baby daughter. She starts trying to figure out how to help me and introduce me to people. Before I leave Georgia she’ll apologize for all of the people I did NOT have a chance to talk to. There was a death in her family midway through my three weeks in Georgia. She obviously had to bow out our next meeting. But we did have breakfast together again before I leave.
At that first meeting though she talks to meet in extremely calm measured tones, which I discover many Georgian women do. Confident tones. Besides puppeteers, with whom she arranges a meeting, and musicians, likewise setting up a meeting, she asks who else I wish to meet. I mention that I really want to talk to Nina Ananiashvili, the most famous ballerina in the country. I ask if she knows her. No, she replies. So I put it out of my mind. She drives me over to set up a meeting with Budrugana Gagra, the hand shadow puppet theatre run by Gela Kandelaki. Then as we leave there she turns a corner at the rear entrance of the ballet and opera house. She parks her car on the sidewalk, typically Georgian style, then walks up to the security guard, tells me she’ll be right back, returns in five minutes and says, “There will be a press conference for the Firebird tomorrow afternoon at 2:30. Enter at the front.” Tinatin hands me a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. “Ask for Tamar and she will let you into the press conference. You might be able to talk to Nina Ananiashvili then. After that you can watch the dress rehearsal and take photos.” Incredible. Tinatin actually hardly knows me. Yet she’s opening doors for me. Interested in my success. Glad to be of assistance.
Then I do meet the great ballerina. And I have a wonderful conversation with her alone in her darkening tenth floor office in the early evening. I arrived in the country an absolute stranger a week earlier now I’m having a warm human conversation with Prima Ballerina Assoluta Nina Ananiashvili, one of the most respected people in her country. And she is the first to ask if I had been to a supra meal yet. And she would have invited me over if they had not been leaving the next day to tour the Firebird in Italy and Spain. And she makes it clear that if I was still there when they returned I’d have an invite to a supra as soon as possible. I said it would have to wait until I returned. No problem, she enthused. Absolutely astounding! I will return!
Things like that kept happening. There was a line somewhere. The second I ceased being a tourist, another individual wandering the streets, I was suddenly welcomed in to another world. And seriously too. Not simply as a stranger, but as someone whom it was hoped would not remain a stranger.
Another good case in point, Mariam Elieshvili, Mariam was a young folk and pop singer and national television personality. She answers my Facebook request to meet her. Now she has thousands of Facebook ‘friends’. But she takes me on as a cause. And so I met her three times in three weeks. And each time is was as if someone had switched on the lights. And she was always accompanied by her mother Ia. (That’s a name pronounced Ee-ya.) And after a while it was just natural to be a small part of Mariam’s musical world. She introduced me to the guys of Chveneburebi. Quiet introductions yet I could feel a genuine interest in what kind of person I was.
Shako, the son of Tamar, the woman who rented my guest room to me. Was likewise generally low-key yet I felt he had is hands in many interesting pies. And the longer I stayed at Tamar’s Guesthouse, the more friendly he became. We had many little discussions about music and culture. And he recommended more to me than I had time to pursue. He even purposely returned home at three in morning to see me off.
And there were so many others. Sometimes just seemingly random people. I passed this youngish street woman begging. After a few days of passing her near Marjanishvili Square I threw some coins into her bowl. As I continued walking I heard a young voice behind me. “That was nice of you mister.” I turned and saw a boy about 13 years old. “Oh.” I said. “I just felt I needed to do that.” “You must be a good man.” And I’m wondering if he talks to strangers often. He says he saw me at the folk music school the day before. I told him I was going there now. So was he. We walked along together. He hands me a small fruit about the size of a walnut. I’d just seen them go on sale on the streets. I put it in my mouth. It’s sour, yet quite tasty.
By the time I see Tinatin again we’ve become old friends. I go back to say farewell to Gela Kandelaki, the puppeteer is most likely in his 70s. He tells me that in Georgia they believe in real friendship. I do too. He gives me an example. He pulls out a set of keys. They belong to a friend of some sixty years. If he wants to he can go there anytime, sleep there instead of going home, cook, make himself at home. And he’s been doing that for those sixty years. I had to admit it. That pretty much wiped the floor of any thought I had of thinking I knew what deep friendship really was. But I was already finding an entrance into his world. He would put his hands on my shoulders at times in a symbol of trust. As I was about to depart Gela grasped me firmly by the hand and he spoke something poetic in Georgian. I turned to one of the Elenes, she translated. It was an old Georgian blessing. And that was a perfect benediction to a culture that taught me things I didn’t even know were possible. (For a full account of the trip start here.)
My journey Georgia was a cornucopia of memorable faces and names. There was Aneta, and seven year old Mariam; photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote; the three Elenes at Budrugana Gagra, plus Sophie, and Ketivan; Nino Namitcheishvili, the puppeteer; Giorgi Ushikishvili the folk music authority, singer and teacher; and finally Nino Sukhishvili, the director of the Sukhishvili dance company. I have not done justice to all of these encounters. It’s been nearly a year since I met this fragrant assortment of souls but they all stay with me. And that is why I have to get back to Georgia as soon as possible.
For more of my writing on Georgia click on the large fonts below.
For my first essay series on Georgia before going there.
Then for my extensive 2016 tour journal start here.
And then for the beginning of the Georgian Lessons.
I have been writing mostly about what I saw in Tbilisi Georgia in March and April 2016. And in these observations I have been mostly noting what challenged my perceptions. These ‘Georgian Lessons’ have been primarily about what I learned. But now I’m going to flip the rules inside out and write a little something about what the Georgians might be able to learn from an outsider, a representative of a world that they both aspire to and wonder about. These will not be sweet little tidbits of practical knowledge. And some of these observations will be sharp. Again I am not romantic about the country. Since much of what I say deals with Georgia moving into the future it might be tempting to treat the country as a quaint land of happy peasants with their folk dances and songs with a desire to keep them as folksy as possible. But you’d be wrong. I want them to face the future squarely, but also to realize the many tragic errors that have already been made in the name of hypermodernity. I do not set myself as an expert on geopolitics, economics, legal reform et cetera. These are predominately cultural observations from one who has spent a good healthy chunk of his life weighing the nature of the cultural changes of our times. And mostly it friendly concern, for what I still find in the uniqueness of Georgian culture far outweighs its problems. Consider it advice that can be applied if it is found useful.
First a speck of history, Georgia as a country was buried in Russia, then the Soviet Union, for nearly two centuries. Many Western Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the like, still consider it a Russian speaking country. Georgia for them is more obscure than Barbados, Vietnam or Fiji. Georgia was only released from its Russian servitude in 1991, which was then followed in quick succession by a corrupt government, a civil war or two, a revolution and finally, in 2008, a five day war with Russia. And most of that is also as unknown to outsiders as the 20th Century conflicts in Laos or Angola. But the main point is this. Georgia didn’t really opened up to the non-Russian world until very recently. And this is reflected in two main areas: First in the Georgians’, particularly the younger Georgians’, desire to be like other Europeans and Americans culturally. And secondly in the looming discovery of Georgia by the outside world, which will result in the descending vulture of tourism, with its truck-fulls of tempting hard cash.
My meeting with younger Georgians revealed a kind of wide-eyed fascination with the results of pop culture and technology. And this is only to be expected. The Soviet system certainly brought in certain kinds of modernity. Georgia is a very educated country as far as scholarly standards go. What is not realized though is just what this postmodern tide will bring along with it. Take the Smartphone, nearly ubiquitous in Tbilisi. The Smartphone may connect you all the time and everywhere. Yet it completely changes the habits of its users. Riding the Metro one did not see much in the way of reading anymore. But one did see the usual scrying into the palms, the games being played, the neurotic gazing at email and Facebook, the endless selfies. In other words though the Georgians have some cultural features, more conversation, even musicians playing for friends on the train, that help to fight against this particular curse, they still aren’t that strong. Because no one is. The Smartphone is stronger than those that use it, without exceptional choice.
Likewise when it comes to one of the prime features of Georgian culture, its music and dance, that hasn’t really stopped the arrival of the dance club. A short British documentary on the subject celebrates the electronica being produced in Georgia as a step towards cultural liberation. Which I find about as honest a thought as recommending cages to tigers. As a former sixteen year resident of New York City I think I can safely say that the dark deafening pulsing womb of club life has never led to freedom, unless your idea of freedom is to shake off the past and bath only in a perpetual now. Yes indeed the discos, raves, parties and clubs will make you more like the Europeans. But is that a worthy goal? The night life produces alienation first and foremost. Yes you can experiment sexually. You can add various chemicals to the mix. You can flee from the philosophies of the Orthodox Church. But where will you end up? It ends with people having atomized relations all round. They no longer sing together except as a joke. They live alone. There is no meaning to anything. Along the way there is a lot of laughter and fun. As well as a lot of hurt and emptiness. No matter what it seems like now, the club life, which late rising Georgians are quite tempted by, will end in a void. I am reminded of a song from Italy in the 1980s and a big American hit for Laura Branigan in 1984: Self Control. The chorus went like this. “I, I live among the creatures of the night, I haven’t got the will to try and fight, Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just believe it, That tomorrow never comes.” And that sums up that world perfectly. 1984. That’s how long we have understood the problem. The electronica and DJs may seem new and cool, underground, rebellious. But it is a well-paved overused road. It doesn’t have a gram of the integrity of real Georgian music and dance. But I understand. I really do.
There are many other ways in which Georgians are encouraged to seek parity with their Western cousins. Most damaging of all are postmodern cultural and philosophical choices and institutions, which if taken straight would drain the soul from the rich fountain of Georgian traditions. And one of the most threatening of those institutions is Tourism. And the eye of tourism is slowly turning its gaze upon this most unusual of countries. Georgia is still quite underdeveloped for tourism. I would say as of 2016 they still haven’t developed a real structure to support the kind of industrial tourism that feeds many corners of the world now. And I’m not against people coming to Georgia to visit. Not at all. Right now Georgia is getting many thoughtful tourists, the people who are more adventurous. (I don’t know if this assessment applies to the Russians who have been visiting for centuries and are still the most common tourists.)
But here is the problem: As the Germans, English, Australians, even a few Americans go home they spread the word to others. So far so good. And so more folks come, as they have been in the last six years. Then more hotels are built. Fancier hotels. (I hear Radisson Red is on its way, after the success of the Radisson Blu.) More infrastructure changes. A massive chunk of Tbilisi was being polished and renovated as I visited, at the expense of the people who used to live on that street.) That’s where Georgia is now. They are still a bit out of the loop. (Try mailing a postcard home? Nearly impossible.) Transportation is still quite a pain. And these are the kinds of things that keep foreigners happy when they come. But here is what the Georgians may not understand yet. When tourism as a postmodern entity finally arrives in full. Great pieces of Georgian culture will become imitations of what they once were. Everywhere that industrial postmodern tourism shows up it turns whatever remains of traditional culture into simulacra of what they once were. People want to see Georgian dancing and hear Georgian singing. And so shows will be set up just for them. (This has happened in Alaska with Native American culture and the Russian culture of the past.) This effect is nearly universal. And when you combine that with the youth exodus towards postmodern pop dance culture. The past becomes a bad museum. And the present is trapped in the sensations of this eternal moment The Big Wow.
Now I don’t think that it will happen that way in Georgia for a variety of reasons. But I give you my friendly concern as one who has the watched the process replicate itself over and over. At the moment Tbilisi is where Prague was in 1991. Tourists are coming. But the infrastructure still won’t hold them efficiently. TripAdvisor just recommended Tbilisi for hot new destinations for 2017. My dear Georgian friends do you know what that means? Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Next time, to wrap things up, I will be returning to the lessons that I learned from the Georgians I met on my travels. And why I really have to get back again.
Tbilisi, as I mentioned in my Gravity From Above diary, was a rude shock to my American system at first. It just seemed like pure chaos on some level that I had never encountered before. Travelers to India, Africa, certain parts of South America will I’m sure bring back even more intense observations than mine. Nevertheless I have traveled most of America, much of Canada, maybe two thirds of Europe, as far as Romania, and to Juarez, Mexico. I’ve seen things that gave me a sense of culture shock before, but nothing on the level of Tbilisi, Georgia.
It was swirling blooming confusion of signs and cars, cats, people on the streets and a certain casualness that I didn’t get at first. The spoken language was not related to anything else outside of the Caucasus Mountains. (For those unaware Georgian is not Russian at all.) But not only that the actual alphabet just seems like hooks and squiggles. (I’ll do an addendum on signs and the language later.)
Then there is traffic. I don’t know where to begin. It seems like normal traffic at first glance. But then you slowly begin to realize that there is no traffic control. It a city of one million and one hundred thousand I counted maybe four or five stoplights. The police rarely seem to stop anyone. Yet you hear the barking of squad car loudspeakers all the time: A sound that, for these American ears, means pull over immediately. (Subtext: We’ve got guns and your license plate number and you’ll never get away.) But here? I was told they were just giving instructions. Hey you!!! Turn left!! ??? At least twice my life was in peril looking for a way to get across speeding highway traffic. Later I was told I should have used the underground passages. Which I would have used if I had seen anything like a sign I could read. Mothers with families, old ladies, giggling teen girls, men who looked unconcerned, all just simply walked in front of cars and they stopped. The key I realized was to see where the car was. Judge your luck. And go! But do NOT look the driver in the eye. If they think you see them they won’t stop. (Which I discovered was the opposite of France where eye contact stops the oncoming traffic.) I eventually learned to walk between moving cars, putting my best New York City moves to good use. And as I did my ballet around the vehicles I thought half-jokingly “Maybe this is why Georgians are such good dancers?”
Another thing that leapt out at me like the swipe of a bear’s claws was the street life. You see everything in Tbilisi on the streets, the good and the bad. People sell food. I don’t just mean vendors. I mean if a old man from the edge of the city in a village has a dozen extra eggs he’ll come down to the streets with his twelve eggs and wait as people walk by. And he’ll sell them one at a time if he has to. I saw a woman day after day with freshly plucked chickens selling them on the street, no refrigeration needed evidently. People sell fruit, vegetables, odds and ends. Booksellers seem to crop up everywhere, with Georgian books, Russian books and the occasional English title. And don’t even get me started on the huge swap meet at The Dry Bridge near the river. I couldn’t even begin to describe it, except to say that THAT was reason enough to visit Tbilisi all by itself. (I made a video of it that takes nearly a half hour to watch as a strait walk through.)
But back to the streets. Another thing that was quite common to see was older folks, mostly women, begging on the streets. And since my own elderly mother recently passed on this hit me strongly. A sign of obvious trouble with social welfare systems. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are on in the USA. This is something you don’t want to see. In fact in America we have large industries dedicated to taking care of the aged. Or is it keeping them out of sight? The more I looked at these folks on the street the more I adjusted my eyes. It never became a good thing to me, as it isn’t to the Georgians. Yet there was something about seeing everything on the streets. There was less shame about it. And people did contribute to these people. It didn’t take too much money to fulfill ones daily needs. I reckoned that if I was really desperate I could live on less than five dollars a day for food easily. And stay full. The more I saw these old women, the more I realized that they tended to occupy one area regularly and they had people who would give to them regularly. Which was similar to the homeless in New York City. The difference is that in New York you rarely saw people who reminded you of your mother or grandmother on the streets.
Other things: Construction was going on everywhere. And ancient buildings sat in habitable decay everywhere. (See the photo at the top.) And there were nice stores all over. And one street might seem fashionable and next to it might seem like the end of the world. The sidewalks were uneven. Stores sprouted from holes in the wall. Traffic never stopped swirling. I only mastered about half of the alphabet while I was there, but there was Latin script in enough places to figure out how to navigate. The metro made sense. The buses were almost impossible. And I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.
But here’s what I began to see, and this meshed with my observations about Orthodox culture, my American culture is far more organized than I ever realized before. No one seems to collect taxes on these street vendors that I can see, yet they can make extra money for themselves. We have rules for absolutely everything: Protecting consumers, traffic flow, jaywalking, safety, even our children live in an age appropriate world. Even the most laissez faire anarcho-whatever in North America has never experienced anything like this. We all want a net to catch us when we fall. And yet I looked at this and realized that on some level this was more human. There was a net actually. The government provided some amenities and was learning to do more. But the net, the real net, was a thing called family, extended family, and a network of acquaintances. And I was actively beginning to appreciate this chaos. Because the more I looked at it the more I could see a different kind of order, almost invisible to the outsider, holding up the structure of Georgian society.
Now there many troubles in Georgia. As you can see I’m not romantic about the country. And there are many deeper and darker layers of problems I am not qualified to address. But there is one area I can discuss. As Georgia enters the contemporary world it will, and has already begun to, experience the problems of a highly technocratic postmodern age. I’ll deal with that next time.
But let me say this about my time in Tbilisi. I walked down dark streets at night. Houses all turned away from the road sequestered in courtyards. In all of my wanderings I never ever felt endangered. Never once felt that someone was watching me in a predatory fashion. Bucharest, Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, London, New York, Seattle, even Juneau here in Alaska all have given me more of a shiver of unease than anything I experienced in Tbilisi walking through the dark streets at night. Our order seems a bit like a mirage when I consider it. We live in a society where we thrive on rights. And while rights and the law are crucial to living, I can’t help feeling that often we only have rights left. And if you step on them, then comes the crush of the rules, of the law. Everyone wants what’s theirs. Maybe in Georgia they are a little less concerned with getting everything due to them. Maybe after their extremely rocky history many are glad to simply be here.
Come back again soon.
November 23rd 2016
Here then are the observations that began to accumulate around me after my journey to the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Tsminda Sameba) in Tbilisi Georgia. I don’t mean these to be anything definitive, nevertheless I did begin to comprehend something that had been tickling my eyes and ears for a couple of weeks.
First of all there was this: If in an Orthodox Church the actual times do not matter the way they do in America or Northern and Western Europe, to different degrees, then that helped to explain the rather casual attitude towards work and punctuality. Why only this week I stepped into my local Presbyterian Church and they were discussing whether it was exactly 10 o’clock or not. (‘No we still have a minute to go.’ ‘Well my watch says 10.’) This attitude would be positively incomprehensible in Georgia and I suspect many Orthodox countries. And this would make it quite difficult to enforce Western or East Asian standards of business production. Thus anyone coming from outside Eastern Orthodoxy expecting a certain kind of timeliness would feel very disappointed. But I adjusted my own expectations accordingly. When I went to see Nino Sukhishvili I was constantly playing tag with the times. I didn’t really lose a beat over this. People seem to come and go. And when I went to the theatre or the ballet the shows did start generally, though never precisely, on time.
Next and much more to the point. The Orthodox church service did not revolve around the sermon. In an American church, Protestant or Catholic, in many ways the liturgy builds up to the message. It’s a little less with the Roman Catholic Church who focus upon Communion, but it’s certainly still there. And when one leaves you discuss the message to compare what one already believes with the words of the minister. Did the sermon stick with the Bible? Was it delivered well? Did the words ring true?
Now what this means is that not only is the emphasis upon the truth of the message, but in fact this weighing of the message for truth is a hallmark of Western Christian culture. And it is also a fact that although the vast swaths of Europe and America think about God as much as they do the country of Vanuatu they nevertheless have inherited the same approach to ideas. So that an atheist judges the truth of a thing the same way. A third wave feminist who blames the Christian patriarchy for the sins of the world still will react with a miffed ‘That’s not true.’ Or perhaps ‘That’s just so wrong!’ So our churches have grown stale over the years but the assertions of truth don’t end, even if the speaker claims that Truth doesn’t exist.
Now look at Georgia and the Orthodox Church. I’m sure people care about the Truth in Georgia. But not in the same way. In fact, unlike the western branches of Christianity, the Orthodox Church believe the Bible is true and yet don’t really try to harmonize science and the Bible. In other words the Bible is true AND science is true. And I see no force trying to reconcile the differences. Now again I don’t see everything going on, but I do know that is a feature of Orthodoxy. In other words there are no ‘creationists’ in the Orthodox faith. There is paradox. Two truths held together. Looking from my position on the West Coast of the USA that strikes me as, well, radically different. So what this means in practice is that there is a lot of leeway in belief. But God created the world and Christ died for us and was resurrected. And maybe things most likely evolve or maybe not. It’s just a human idea.
What this means practically in international relations is this. Remember Russia is an Orthodox country. Even if that Orthodoxy is suppressed as it was during the Soviet Era. What happens when Americans come over with their true or false mentality? It just seems rather silly to them. Especially since publicly we change our truths like we change our socks. One minute, after World War 2, one must be a good member of the Christian Democratic world. The next they see us haranguing them about homosexuality, which only a few years back we weren’t in favor of. Is it any wonder that there are major conflicts? Neither side is even on the same page. How to communicate? Now Georgia isn’t Russia. That must be said. But many of these issues still hang over them as well.
And here’s one last Orthodox observation. The point of the service seemed to be the glorious mystery of God. The words seemed secondary. But the music, the actions of priests, the reverence of the congregation definitely seemed focused upon that aspect of faith. And that affected everything. For one thing the music was not being passed around to amateurs. The five women singing may have been mere congregants, but the sounds coming out of their voices put to shame anything I’ve heard in a western church service for my whole life. Only once in a while have I ever heard a church choir come anywhere near the beauty of that music. In America we value inclusiveness over the quality of the music. It is rare that I hear good music in churches these days. The songs we sing together are again more about collective feelings than anything to construed as depth. Every now and then we sing the old standards, which still are glorious (Amazing Grace, O For A Thousand Tongues, How Firm a Foundation) But even those get updated. (How on heaven or earth is Amazing Grace improved by adding a chorus???)
Or here’s another comparison: If I enter the standard Protestant church, or even many Catholic churches, is there any reminder of God’s mystery, his Otherness? If I walk into that same local Presbyterian church the answer is a resounding no. Not in the folksy/poppy music. Not in the various activities of the church, not in the potlucks, not in the architecture, not in the quilted wall hangings, occasionally the sermon gives hints. And that’s about it. So our inclusive faith essentially makes God into our pal. Make sure no one squirms.
Now again what is found in our churches is found in all aspects of our culture. And it’s a two way street. We’ve just become folksy dorky self-conscious people. Real things bother us. Even the approach to nature among folks who would never step into a church these days is often mostly recreational. We could all stand to watch and understand the great Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Our walks into nature would change immensely. In his very Orthodox films the textures of the environment become alive and mysterious. But again we like to make things casual, cool, no biggy. And thus we live in a neutered world, as we gaze into our hands and make magic swishing motions over the devices at our fingertips. So yes I was overwhelmed to find God’s mystery in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
My feeling is that a cross-pollination between Western questing for Truth (capital T please) and Eastern Orthodox Mystery would be a beneficial thing on both sides. But I’m not sure they need our postmodern casualness however. Yet that seems inevitable as the ‘blessings’ of pop culture descend like crematorium ashes across the whole world.
(But we’ll get to that soon enough… Come back again for our next Georgian Lesson.)
November 14th 2016
Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, rising above the city like a golden crystal. (As seen at night from the terminal of the funicular railway in Tbilisi, Georgia April 2016.)
My next Georgian lesson comes in a very different manner from the first. Although I had come to understand the cultural heritage of Georgia, it soon became clear to me that in order to make sense of Georgia’s many points of artistic creativity I needed to investigate the place of the Christian Church in the country. Like Poland Christianity plays a big part in the life of the people. Like Poland the Church was the glue holding the society together and giving an essence at odds with Communism. Much of Europe has shed its Christian roots in favor of some more contemporary definition of self and society. But like Poland Georgia has clung to its faith.
But unlike Poland the Church wasn’t an obvious catalyst for change during the Soviet era. For one thing Georgia was actually subsumed under the Soviet Union itself for historical reasons which would take too long to explain here. While Poland was dragged behind the Iron Curtain at much later date. The Soviets actually tried to destroy as many churches as they could. And Georgian homeboy Joe Stalin made sure that this task was carried out thoroughly. But as in periods of Muslim invasion and occupation Georgia seemed to have been denuded of Christians and then as soon as the pressure eased suddenly there were Christians everywhere. So when the 1991 coup came the Georgians were the first to bolt for independence after their own period of intense struggle culminating in the bloody 1989 April 9th tragedy, all of which most non-Georgians have never heard of. Immediately the Georgian Orthodox Church became a strong force within country again and they started rebuilding ruined churches.
And so I was arriving in what was essentially a peaceful island caught between the Scylla of the Middle Eastern eruptions not too distant and the Charybdis of Russian/Ukrainian tensions not much further north. I arrived in Tbilisi to research music, dance and puppetry. But soon it became clear to me that it would be important to go to church to make sense of this unusual country.
Georgia (Sakartvelo) is an Eastern Orthodox Christian country. Statistics for the country range between 83 and 80 percent of Georgians being members of the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Autocephaly means being independently governed and not under another Patriarch of the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church. That means what the aging Catholicos, Ilia II, is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church without any outside interference. You see the distinctive architecture of the Georgian Orthodox churches everywhere. And since independence they have also constructed the largest church in Georgia, and one the largest Orthodoxes churches in the world, the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral სამების საკათედრო ტაძარში (Holy Trinity Cathedral), often just called Sameba by the locals. Sameba can be seen easily rising above the city in the night from the mountains next to Tbilisi.
As I strolled around Tbilisi, dodging traffic, through the crowds, feeling the sweat of a warmer season on its way, I often passed Orthodox churches. They always seemed to have people coming and going. A baby christening might take place on a Wednesday afternoon. People walked by, some crossed themselves. Some might kneel before entering a church. One young woman stopped on a bridge nowhere near a church and made a cross. The only church in sight was off in the distance. I entered a couple of churches as I had more tentatively back 2000 in Romania. People bowed before icons, even kissed them. A normal working man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt walks into one church. Soon he is prostrate on the ground in the middle of the pewless church. I understood all of these gestures as acts of faith in a manner different than anything I had quite seen before. I sat off in corner as a visitor observing what I didn’t really understand.
The more I researched music I realized how important it was to attend to a serious service to hear Georgian liturgical singing. (Tinatin Gurchiani later apologized that she could not get me into see a Georgian priest and music expert before my departure.) And so I determined I would go to Tsminda Sameba on the last Sunday of my trip. It would require some planning to get there on time. Or so I thought.
Now I have been to many different kinds of Christian churches. I’ve been to Anglican High Church and folksy Roman Catholic Masses. I’ve been to churches so dead you’d need an EKG to detect a pulse. And I’ve been to Pentecostal churches where the preacher was rockin’ the organ and shouting “C’mon y’all look like you’ve been hit over the head by a dead wet possum!” I’ve been to African-American churches of various stripes and styles great music and bad and to Jesus People Godstock gatherings in the hills of California replete with acoustic guitars and roasted lambs on spits. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I wasn’t the casual visitor without a clue. I knew enough about Orthodox doctrine to realize that the icons weren’t idols and that the rules would be different. But how different didn’t occur to me until I arrived at what I thought would be a little late at Tsminda Sameba Cathedral.
And truthfully when to arrive presented me with my first conundrum. I’m coming from a culture where church starts almost exactly on time. If the sign outside the church or on the website says 10am or 11am. That’s when it starts. Period. Hard as I looked on line for when Sunday services start at Sameba or any Georgian Orthodox Church the more befuddled I became. Finally I saw one person on Trip Advisor who had written ‘Go at 9 in the morning.’ Of course they wrote to go then. They didn’t exactly say that’s when things start. So at 8:00 I left my friendly and quiet guesthouse and strolled out to the metro to find my way to the church. My first clue that things were a little peculiar in Georgia was that the streets were as quiet as 5am in New York City on a Monday might be. That is hardly a soul was on the streets at all. This was the first time I’d been on the streets before 10:00 since I’d arrived a few weeks earlier. The metro was quiet. Hardly anyone looked like they might be going to church. And when I arrived at the subway exit I found myself mystified by the bus schedule and so decided to walk the last couple of kilometers up the hill to the cathedral.
As I walked up the initial stairs onto the cathedral grounds I noticed only a few people going towards the grand building. Maybe I was late? I decided to follow them. I walked through a grand room that had been a burnt out from a fire that left it dark and eerie. I followed the few people through a set of glass and brass doors into the main structure. I could hear the angelic voices of women singing somewhere up ahead of me. I entered a large chamber that felt as if I was under the main floor. I found myself on a terrace within the large room looking down one floor from a cement and marble balcony upon a congregation in the middle of a service that seemed like it had been going on for sometime and that had no specific focus. And everyone was standing, except for some occasional soul who would be on a chair nowhere near the center of the pewless floor. In Orthodox tradition sitting is considered resting and you do not rest in church. I descended to the lower floor to find people engaged in various points of attention. Some were stationed before icons. Some were awaiting the return of a priest with the communion host. A group of five ordinarily dressed women in headscarves were off to the side and would occasionally singing another short exquisitely haunting song in Georgian harmony. There was from what I could tell no congregational singing. I eventually moved back upstairs, after climbing the stairs further to find that the larger main room of the cathedral did not seem too busy, to watch from above to try to get an idea about what I was watching.
Eventually a priest came from behind a closed door with the Eucharist which he personally dispensed only to those who had been waiting. Eloquent blessings seemed to follow each supplicant. After a while I could see he was calmly talking to that specific cluster. But he seemed to make no larger speech to the entire congregation. And during all of this at certain moments the heavenly music of the women ascended out from floor. It was deep, overwhelming and mysterious and so very different from any other service I’d ever been to. I eventually wandered out again. The service continued. More people were arriving. I passed through the blackened chamber, down the stairs, down the hill again towards the metro pondering all the while.
And I was struck by so many thoughts, thoughts that reflected back to the core of Georgian society and ultimately contrasted so strongly with ours.
(But to find out what those observations were you’ll have to return for Georgian Lesson #3 here at The Anadromous Life. And you’ll want to even if you have no interest in God or religion.)
You can read about my full journey to Tbilisi in Georgia here:
And so in late April I returned from Georgia, the country not the state. And if you’ve been following The Anadromous Life for a few years you know that I’ve been thinking about Georgia since 2012 as an unusual place culturally that might have a few helpful clues as to how to live in these media soaked, excessively technological times. The big question I had was this, Was Georgia the place I was imaging it to be from my perch up in Alaska half a world away? Music and dance everywhere? Everyone inviting you to supras (the big elaborate meal with toasting, music and too much wine). The answer proved to be ‘yes’ and of course ‘no’ and yet verily ‘yes’ and then some. The view from the internet, from Facebook, from YouTube proved helpful. Ultimately though reality is always different. Always. And yet…
So what did I see? What did I learn? What are the Georgians like? Do they have anything for us? Or are they caught in the same traps we are? (You can read my actual Georgian tour diaries over Gravity From Above, which I highly recommend if you feel like you are getting bit by the Caucasian bug.)
First of all, no, Georgians may sing a lot, but I wasn’t greeted by songs when I landed at the Tbilisi airport at 5am. No one was dancing at the baggage claim. My first few days in Tbilisi were quite frankly bewildering. The air in late March was already muggy. The traffic insanely unregulated. I estimate in a population of 1,100,000 people I only saw four traffic lights. Crossing the street required serious nimbleness. Maybe that’s why they breed such fine dancers. Georgians weren’t exactly what an American would describe as open and friendly. But then again I’ve been convinced for quite a while that American ideal of niceness is often a façade. And I was firmly apprised of the fact that the vaunted and legendary Georgian hospitality isn’t a happy mask. In fact Georgians seem to be very low-key, low-maintenance people on the whole. It isn’t until you actually begin to talk with them that you notice something different.
But in many ways they were like any other people with access to technology. I saw plenty of Georgians staring down into their hands in the now universal gesture of smartphone addiction. Georgians have no secret immunization against television, computers or video games. And yet they do have something that seems points them down a different path. As I began to survey the culture from the capital Tbilisi I began to put a few things together. I purposely didn’t go wandering into the Caucasus Mountains, which I felt I could best save for another trip. I’ve long been suspicious of tourists who have to see everything. Quantity does not matter to me as much as quality. And since I was here to understand the culture, especially its music, dance and puppetry, it was much more important to me to spend time in one place, a place I could begin to understand, Tbilisi, rather than spend a few days here and a few days there. Understanding comes through time. And my goal was to meet Georgians who were involved in their artistic endeavors. And so staying in one place was the way to do that. And since Tbilisi was where much of that happened why go into the mountains too soon? Besides when I showed a few photos of my Alaskan backyard to some Georgians one of them said “I can see why you don’t need to see the mountains.” Indeed I do have mountains to gaze at here in Haines, Alaska.
And then there is this question: What does a person get out of such a place who just spends a few days here? Now I’m a good traveler. I do my homework. I read an awful lot before arriving in Georgia. I bought every DVD I could find on the travel, the culture and history of Georgia. I downloaded every possible relevant documentary on Georgia. I listened to lectures by Donald Rayfield, the longtime expert in Georgians studies and by others. I bought books. I connected with a few Georgians through social media. I wasn’t arriving as casual tourist. And yet I would say this; my first few days their were truly baffling, trying to make sense of the Georgian alphabet, trying to figure out how to get around, attempting to make some sense of things. And I was largely doing basic tourism level events. And so I can’t imagine how a visitor who does little homework could get much at all, except a bit of exoticism, out of a quick experience here. Georgia requires study. There is a touristic zone. But even that isn’t nearly as tourist friendly as say the same much larger zone would be in Paris or Prague. In Tbilisi it’s just one street of about seven blocks and it’s local environs. Not very big at all. The rest of the city is much more about living and working in Tbilisi.
So ‘no’ Tbilisi didn’t extend a warm friendly vibe, at least not as Americans reckon ‘warm and friendly’, which usually means lots of convenient amenities laid out in such a manner that a child could make sense of them. And that was, I found, a good thing. In my entire three weeks in Georgia I overheard American and British English about ten times. But I did hear lots of Russian! And I did overhear a few words of English from what turned out to be Iranian women. Fascinating. I had an informative little conversation with them. I hope that when more Americans do discover Georgia, and given the insatiable needs of distraction in our world they/we eventually will, I hope it’s more like the Rick Steves crowd than the cruise ship industry. Unfortunately it’ll probably be the younger post-hippies, who’ll inevitably bring the spores of contemporary alienation along like fleas. Meanwhile the relative incomprehensibility of Georgia will keep the most obnoxious folks away for a while. Which means that right now it is perfect for the traveler more than the tourist.
Nevertheless when I did manage to find an information office I was met by some of the truly friendliest people I could meet. And here’s where things began to change in my experience in Tbilisi, and it’s the reason why a person should visit. It’s in actually meeting Georgians that you find the real gold in the country. It’s when you begin to cross the line into human connections that you start to find something radically different. The standard tourist experience will produce little except fond memories of the food, crazy moments to remember when you tried to bargain at the Dry Bridge for a soviet era relic, a few sights that might be tainted by the tourism industry. But once you connect to locals? All bets are off. Anything can happen. (Which also happens to be the name of a funny book by George Papashvily about a Georgian immigrant to America in the mid-20th Century.)
So to the adventurous and openhearted I say come. To the politically correct college students looking to reaffirm their rather calcified vision of the world and the tourists who need convenience before all else, I say there are many other places to travel; try Thailand, Amsterdam, Costa Rica. But for those looking for humanity Georgia is the place.
(Georgian Lesson #2 soon!)
You can read about my whole journey to Georgia at my Gravity From Above Site:
Please excuse me, I’ve been nice for a while now. The time has come to barbecue a few sacred cows.
Which might lead someone to say OMG! Are you really trying to offend Hindus?!
And which is precisely why I’m writing…
Bizarrely, after years of scorched earth counter-cultural products that have suggested all manner of nihilistic rebellions, we are left, not with black garbed existentialists crying over the alienation of humanity, but with an almost infantile culture of folks deliriously caught in a fast food playplace for endlessly emerging adults, who tend to see the world in fun, cuddly, positive terms as they giggle (LOL) through the endless global mall while texting extraordinarily blank verse into the universe.
I recently took a trip through Europe to investigate the meaning of puppetry, how perhaps, there might lurk in the humble realm of the puppet something real, something tangible that might aid humanity in its virtual addictions. And I did indeed find much that heartened me. The European puppet folk of my acquaintance were, in general, quite aware of what puppetry might be able to mean in such a high-tech age. The puppets themselves were inspiring as individual one-of-kind handmade artworks. Those learning the art of puppetry seemed to have a leg up on those in other fields of learning. And yet…
I remember more than one moment where I said to myself aloud, maybe its too late already. I remember the sinking feeling I had in Poland as I wandered through the massive seven story mall next to the Warszawa Centralna train station. And Poland is a country I love. Yet here was a perfect replica of what had once been a California styled shopping mall. And everyone seemed happy to wander through this emporium of material delight. Here were endless chain stores and franchise food services. Here were the big hollywood movies and the brand name off the rack clothes. Here was that same sense of credit emptying glut and spent detumescence. Here were the blank souls wandering lost and hopeless. And to think that the Poles gave up the tyranny of communism for this mindless 21st Century Woodstock of the Złote Tarasy (Gold Terraces).
Or then there was the moment in Hallstatt, Austria, when I found myself alone beneath a glowing full moon on All Hallow’s Eve wandering through the most haunted graveyard I’d ever experienced under the freshly frosted medieval town on a mirrored lake as the other guests in my pension stayed indoors because “there was nothing to do” and they would rather live scrunching their fingers over and staring into handheld digital screens. And I thought to myself, how can the real world compete with these pointless and distracting virtual gadgets? Actually what I said to myself is this… Is there any hope left?
Dude chill. It’s not that bad. There’s a lot of serious fun to be had. Lighten up! Get a life. If you see snow get a snowboard. You rocked that midnight medieval stroll scene. Don’t worry about those other peeps. They’re just hanging out. They’ll come out and play eventually. As long as everyone’s having fun, right?
Absolutely wrong. When did fun become some sort of foundational reason for living? Blessed are the funseekers because they shall rule!
And fun is not alone in this brave new world that has such people in it. Cute is another strange little sacred calf that has been slicing the rational portions of our culture away in more recent times. I mean if cute means something comparable to ‘baby-like’ how can anyone critique something that is like a baby! Heavens to Betsy!
And to critique, that just sounds so judgmental. Criticism doesn’t really help anyone. Don’t be so left-brained. Be positive. Try to get along with people. Do not hurt anyone’s feelings… ever. Certainly not by implying anything negative about them. Don’t tell them you disagree, even when you do. In fact you think all sorts of people are wrong. But you don’t have to hang with them because they aren’t fully… well one doesn’t really want to say human… but you know. Yet among the people, the real people, your online friends, do not criticize their beliefs. It’s just so wrong. Remain positive.
Positively… I hear the loudest most ominous holy moo coming from this direction.
But before we get there let’s have some Fun with a capital F first.
(to be continued…)
Part One – A Truly Obscure and Blessed Land…
Okay let’s play a game. Quick think of three things you know about Georgia? No, not that Georgia! Not the US state. I mean the country in the Caucasus Mountains: The one that had been swallowed by Russia and the USSR for nearly 200 years and was only recently spit back out into the world.
Now stop reading and think about it for a moment…
If you are like many people I’ve spoken to lately you are probably drawing something of a blank. A few people get one point or another. Didn’t they have a war with Russia or something? Or, more ominously, wasn’t Stalin a Georgian? And then I notice a kind of plague of poor information. Isn’t that next to Romania? Isn’t that one of the Stans? Isn’t that a small Muslim country? All completely wrong.
But one thing is for certain, except for people who are Georgians, or who have been lucky enough to run into some aspect of Georgian culture Georgia is currently, and undeservedly, one truly obscure culture. People know more about Myanmar, Nepal, Colombia, Serbia, the Ivory Coast, most of the Middle East than they do about Georgia.
But let’s rectify that now. First of all Georgia is a country about the same size as Austria with mountains higher than the Alps AND they grow oranges there. The oldest evidence of the fermentation and cultivation of wine is to be found in Georgia. They have their own language which is unrelated to anything else outside of the Caucasians. And they have their own alphabet, which looks like a lot of hooks and squiggles. And having said that the name of the country isn’t even Georgia really. They call it Sakartvelo or საქართველო. They are the Kartli. Tbilisi the capital is built on warm springs, which is what the name means. There are about four and a half million people that live there. About 83 percent of them are various types of ethnic Georgians. Then there are Armenians, Turks, Russians, Ajeris, Jews and others.
Okay I could go on but you can look all this up for yourself. I’m not trying to interest you in the country as a tourist destination.
I have something else on my mind. As the most observant of you might notice this series of essays is entitled The Anadromous Life. I’m using the word ‘anadromous’ the word to describe certain fish that swim against the stream as the Pacific Salmon do. And by analogy I have pointed out that life today must be lived against the stream, which threatens to take everything downstream with it. I hope that over time I have also made a point that the obvious forms of rebellion are usually exactly the dead things that will just float downstream.
Having said that… finding the truly living things that swim against the current is no easy task. But I think I have something interesting here; a country that often goes against the grain in some of the best ways. And that country is საქართველო.
I have only recently, within the last six months, discovered this country with it’s anadromous culture. Finding Georgia is like discovering a hidden world, a lost civilization, that wasn’t really ever lost. It was just staring at you the whole time, patiently waiting to be noticed. And when you finally look at this culture you find that it is remarkably intact and complete. Yes of course Georgians have been influenced by the modern world. But they stubbornly refuse to give up certain antique traits that set them in a kind of odd stance vis-à-vis the larger world.
First of all to understand this country you have to understand that it goes back perhaps further than any other European land on earth. Some of the oldest post-African fossils were found exactly here. So naturally there was a Georgian or perhaps we should say Caucasian style dating way before written language… anywhere. Then again there was that wine. A sure sign of civilization if there ever was one. Of course there were Gods and Goddesses in a pantheon that was loosely connected to the ancient Greek world. Jason and his Argonauts found the Golden Fleece here. And there was such a thing! And Medea is the first historical woman we know anything about from what was then Colchis now Georgia… but she would not be the last.
Christianity was firmly introduced to Georgia by Saint Nino (წმინდა ნინო) a Christian slave of the royal house who performed several miracles and created the Georgian cross by tying a lock of her own hair around the bent dried wood of a grapevine. Then came Saint Shushanik (შუშანიკისი ) an Armenian woman martyred by her Georgian husband defending the right to believe in Christ. Her story is also the earliest surviving piece of early Georgian writing in the Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik. And there was also the Georgian golden age under the reign of Tamar (თამარი) the Great in the 12th Century. And it was under her reign that the eerily beautiful book The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი) was written by Shota Rustaveli .
Now I have emphasized the female aspects of Georgia for a reason. As countries go Sakartvelo is a predominantly masculine mountain culture of warriors that stretches back into the mists of history. Yet interestingly from pagan times and especially since the introduction of Christianity, by a woman, Georgia has had an unusual emphasis upon its women to a degree that many others could stand to learn from. Not that Georgia is in line with contemporary standards of politically correct feminist ideology. Au contraire. Yet it is has long been a country that promotes the development of the creative gifts of its women. And so looking today one finds intelligent artistic women under every mountainous rock.
A few women I could point to off the top of my head would be the Prima Ballerina Assoluta Nina Ananiashvili (ნინო ანანიაშვილი), actress Lika Kavjaradze (ლიკა ქავჟარაძე) and photographer Mariam Sitchnava (მარიამ სიჭინავა).
Nina Ananiashvili is now the artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia. She claims that the Georgian approach to ballet has some unique features. We will investigate this later. But let’s just say that her own work in ballet is astounding and beyond graceful.
Lika Kavjaradze first made her name in Tengiz Abuladze’s masterwork The Wishing Tree (ნატვრის ხე) from 1976. In that film she portrays a pure village girl, a virgin Mary in transcendence, the embodiment of the philosophical questions related to the existence of beauty in the world and an allegory for the nation of Georgia itself, which is revealed when one man calls her Tamar. And the glory of it is that Lika is actually up to this monumental task with ease, from her first smile to her final mud-soaked procession.
And if you are starting to also get the picture that Georgian women also have a singular essence you need look no farther than the photographs of Mariam Sitchinava to be haunted by the female character in Georgia. She started by photographing what appears to just be friends, friends who later were discovered to become some of the most sublime models ever. Yet only Mariam can actually get to the ethereal heart of her subject.
And then there is music! Where to even begin…
Even totally amateurish videos of teenagers singing together give you goosebumps. And it isn’t being done in a self-conscious postmodern look-at-me-I-want-to-be-a-star kind of thing. In Georgia people still sing together unselfconsciously. And what a miraculous thing it is too.
(To be continued)
On Travel to Georgia:http://www.lonelyplanet.com/georgia
News From Georgia:http://www.georgiatoday.ge/index.php
On Nina Ananiashvili:http://www.ananiashvili.com/
On Mariam Sitchinava:http://mariam.ge/
The Švankmajer Effect Comes to Life
In 2005 I traveled through Europe tracking down puppet theatres and talking with puppeteers. I spent several weeks in the Czech Republic and in Prague in particular. I was thinking about Švankmajer the whole time, half hoping to run into him. At one point I wandered through the library of the Strahov Monastery on the castle hill. I looked through the shelves and glass displays at objects like a desiccated baby dodo bird when I saw a portrait from hundreds of years ago of a face made of seeds. I knew that Švankmajer had seen this too and found inspiration in its pronounced Mannerism.
I had visited tourist friendly puppet shows on a earlier Prague visit so this time I was determined to find something a little closer to the heart of Czech puppetry and also if possible to the spirit of Švankmajer. Jakub Krofta, a director from DRAK in Hradec Kralove, had recommended I look for Buchty a Loutky (meaning Cakes and Puppets in Czech, a parody of Bread and Puppets) whom he said, along with the Foreman Brothers (both sons of the film director Milos Foreman) were making intriguing innovations on Czech Puppetry.
I descended into the brick walled basement of the Švandovo Theatre in the Smichov district, a 15 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge. Buchty a Loutky performed an absurdist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, retitled Pes Baskervillský. There was no stage as such only crudely constructed wooden boxes and cubby holes. Then I watched many strange things that I had never associated with puppetry before. At one point the puppets request tea. On the side of the ramshackle assemblage a Czech puppeteer pours liquid out of samovar into a teapot. Meanwhile the small Holmes and Watson puppets are given full sized teacups. The puppeteer steps up and pours the ‘tea’ straight down into the cups, liquid splashes out of the cups of course, yet some of the refreshment does indeed remain within the porcelain containers, upon which two suited puppeteers stand off to the sides of the little cage-like wooden puppet stage as the puppets and their life sized human doubles sip gently as the tiny figures do the talking. This doubling effect serves Buchty a Loutky as a sort of signature style. A puppet has a gun. Suddenly a human hand in another small box directly below the main puppet theatre is holding a gun as well. At another point we hear the sounds of train while a tiny HO scale train circles the aimlessly around the wooden boxes. Even the intermission midway through the show was handled in the most unpredictable way imaginable. One member of the troupe, Tomáš, began to read from a boring scientific textbook about swamps as an eco-system. He read this for perhaps ten minutes. The time it took a majority of folks to ken to the fact that this was indeed the break and that a small snack bar had opened up. I, of course, was one of the last.
In another performance entitled the Urbild Remix, a variation on one their older shows, a tiny, perhaps seven inch tall, crudely made puppet wanders out into a ‘stage’ about ten inches by fifteen, with a teensy beer bottle in his hands. He sits on a miniature bed drinks a little. And then falls to sleep. The rest of the show is his dream. And takes place in the multiple small boxy stages below him. Then all mayhem breaks out as a mermaid breathes bubbles in a large water filled jar, carnal relations ensue, one character is killed and very red stage blood streams off the already red stained set, enlargement doubles with weapons take place in the space below the dream stage, live acoustic music encircles the audience and an American Indian figure plays a sort of heroic role while a skeletal figure brings a warning. And this state of brilliant theatrical anarchy was as funny as could be even for a non-Czech speaker. Especially when Marek Bečka, the Buchtys de facto leader and founder stood up before the show and recognized a few English speakers. He told us he would explain everything. Then spent several minutes talking to the Czech audience who were sitting on bleachers then turned back to us and said “That was important information.” Then continued on in Czech.
In a discussion with Buchty a Loutky’s Tomáš Procházka, the director of Pes Baskervillský, I asked him about the groups connection with traditional Czech puppetry. He replied “We don’t feel such a strong connection between the puppet theatres and stuff. We are very interested in film and in bringing the film style into puppet theatre.” I was fairly certain I had seen a Švankmajer connection. He confirmed that, “Švankmajer is the only name we can say we all love it.” As I was still about to see the Urbild Remix he added, “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” Among the objects that caught my attention was a vortex shaped chunk of rusty iron that looked like it been unearthed in someones’ back yard. This was definitely not standard theatrical gear. Later after Urbild I observed that, like Švankmajer, they must be pack rats of odd artifacts. Procházka explained, “Our office is full of rubbish. When we find something that looks interesting we just keep it.”
This approached struck me as something I’d really never seen before in puppetry. And it was clear that that the Buchtys were using the junk and detritus of the past less in a postmodern spirit than in an almost entropic patchwork mode. Tomáš Procházka said “Now is the moment when (Czech) people need to find a new way to get the rich life of puppetry, to find some new way to do puppets, what is the modern theme for puppets, to say what is the use of puppets at all. And there are only a few people who really want a new direction. Otherwise it is very classical and conservative, it’s still the same from the 50’s to now.” That is to say that they were seeking something beyond the Modernism of the mid to late 20th Century. To me there was an affinity to Punk rock; not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Procházka concurred “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.”
In an age of artificial surfaces, hollow objects, virtual screens on every angle of perception, Buchty a Loutky had taken hints from Jan Švankmajer about the importance of the dense inhabited tactile object, perhaps what Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor called the l’objet pauvre, the poor, ruined, or miserable, object. Švankmajer’s film work and experiments in tactility open up the possibility for a breed of puppetry that is not interpreted through the artificiality of theatrical tropes. He not only breeches the fourth wall but the other three as well. It was seeing Buchty a Loutky’s version of this as well as coming across the works of some of the students of l’École Supérieure Nationale de le Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in France that convinced me to hijack this style and to apply these principles to the puppet troupes we would soon form in Haines Alaska. But that is another story.
For more information about Buchty a Loutky read this:
Or to visit them in Prague:
or to find the Divadlo Švandovo:
A woman, dressed in rags and furs, carelessly filthy, black stringy and presumably lousy hair, teeth unsubjected to any dentistry and poisonous as a hyena’s, her face cocked like a gun preparing to explode, enters the lair of a wolf. The animal growls. The human brute growls back even more ferociously. The camera does not show us but we hear the beating and the tearing of those human teeth. In a moment we see her running, perhaps it is a dream. But in this story the woman who runs with the wolves is no sub-Jungian New Age empowerment fantasy. This is a fearful thing.
The film is The Woman. It was released in 2011 and more recently for home digestion. Directed by Lucky McKee, who also directed the brilliant watch-at-your-own-risk May back in 2002, The Woman has been vilified as misogynist, far too gory and just plain nerve-wracking and simultaneously praised for it’s feminist undertones and unique character portrayal by Pollyanna McIntosh. It is indeed quite hard to believe that Pollyanna (Has anyone ever been more paradoxically named?) is actually a statuesque Scottish beauty. But all of this contradiction delineates clearly the manner of beast we have here.
And as I watched this grisly work of art I was struck by many details that resonated far beyond the confines of this inexpensive little indie film. The screenwriter, novelist Jack Ketchum, had continued his novel, The Offspring, with special emphasis on the Woman at the suggestion of producer Andrew van den Houten, who had directed a version of the earlier book. The film of The Offspring also starred Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, leader of a tribe of feral humans in the American Northeast. And it is in fact this notion of feral humanity that really jumped out at me with such force in both films.
Feral is a curious word. (By the bye it can be pronounced in two ways. One, the more standard, makes it sound like fair-al. The other less common pronunciation is more like fear-al.) It suggest not merely wild, or wildness, but of the domesticated thing returning to the wild. For instance if you showed up on the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean you would find a healthy population of feral cats that had been left behind by sailors from centuries back to eradicate the rat infestation accidentally bestowed upon the islands. I am claimed by a feral cat myself here in Alaska. They can go in and out a feral state. And that is very different from the human race. This could have something to do with the fact that domestication depends entirely on an animal’s relationship to mankind. We are not tamed by our pets or cattle. Now before I tread too far into some politically incorrect screed let’s return to ferality.
So to be feral is to revert to a wild state. Now at this point we bump into a raft of cultural issues that have their primary origins back in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who theorized most famously that ‘L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.‘, which translated says that, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.‘ It was clear from his writings that Rousseau lamented the state of society that had enslaved us. All those compromises! All that book learning! All of that conformity! The individual must be free as an individual! Vive la Revolution!
Another related idea is that of the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau did not invent the concept nor was he as primitivist as it sometimes claimed. Yet the somehow a reduction of his idea comes down to us like this; that the most free folks on earth are those most free from civilization, those closest to nature and the earth. Rousseau praised children for their purity, primitive tribes when they had achieved the stage of the savage. Regardless of the subtleties of Rousseau’s very influential works, the concepts of the ‘noble savage’ eventually merged with the art movements of 19th Century French Bohemia.
French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin followed a quest for this kind of wild life when he left behind everything and followed his muse to Tahiti. There was vision at the time that the Tahitians and many other tribes were more liberated than the stale old bourgeois European world that he had left behind, along with his failed marriage and children and the sense of depression that led him to attempt suicide. He wanted to find something in Tahiti. Something he was missing. Yet it could not be found. When he did eventually paint his masterpiece, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (trans. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), this was not the work of a man who had found his boho dreams come true. Death and futility are writ large. Paradise, not a paradisaical as the dream. A great painting had been made but the Tahitians were pretty much stuck on the same earth as everyone else.
Nevertheless more and more souls began to empty themselves out into various jungles of the mind in search of the perfect primitive conditions of liberation. Expressionist movements like Les Fauves, the very word meaning wild beasts, followed Gauguin into the primitivist wilds. In fact so much of modern art can be seen as a various forms of rejection of the things that make up the a dull conformist society: a return to nature, a rejection of nature, the artist as prophet, the artist as shaman, the artist as outlaw, the artist as madman, the artist as barbarian, the artist as explorer at the edges and the artist as denizen of the dregs. And all the while the dream of a feral sort of existence haunts the proceedings.
The Surrealists perfected perhaps the most intellectual version of this dream… which is of course an oxymoron. Yet one has to hand it to the Surrealists, whom I have a great deal of respect for. Following Symbolist dream theory and folding into it a strong dose of early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s reduction of human psychology to the libido, the Surrealists sought among the detritus of tainted experience in childhood, the metal institution and other outsiders for a way to connect, beyond reason, to the meaning of Art and Life. Later artists would discover Carl Jung.
But finally a movement would come along that would bubble up higher than the demimonde of the arts. The Beat Generation were by the late 1940’s pickled in Rousseau’s individualistic liberation dream. All that matters is to be true to yourself. That is the final statement. (With the proviso ‘as long as you don’t hurt anybody’ whatever that means. Actually that is the nail in the noble savage’s coffin.) But the Beats had a few nice twists in the lime of Rousseau’s gin and tonic. One, sex, and lots more of it. Two, drugs, and lot’s more of them. And finally music, or should I say Jazz, with Charlie Parker, (Oops! Sorry! Dead from primitive aid number two!) or Miles Davis in the role of the prophetic noble savage. We’ll overlook the hidden racism in considering black jazz players as noble savages with a pipeline to the primitive urges and demiurges. Did anyone ever at the time notice that being black did not equate to being more in touch with the mysteries of the savage universe? Great musicians? Yes. Fresh from the jungle? Um? Not quite. Pretty damned intellectual actually. So let’s change that addition from Jazz, just cross that out, to let’s look around a little… Oh! Wait! What’s this wild primitive stuff over here? Oh yeah! Rock ‘n’ Roll! And voila sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (!) equals another variation on the noble savagery theme.
Okay. I’m well aware that white American asses in the 1950’s had gotten damned tight and needed some musical loosening. But in plain fact, find one 1950’s rock ‘n’ roller that was truly in Rousseau’s camp. This was a case of the noble savage interpretation of what was actually fairly standard electric folk music in the traditional American vein. Had Postwar America not been quite so somnambulistically square it would not have been seen as such a radical departure from Jazz or the Blues. Nevertheless by the late 1960’s this Rousseau interpretation of Rock music was standard. (See the burgeoning field of Rock criticism.) Rock had indeed become a revolt against civilization. LSD was the psychosomatic magic which would effect the liberation of desire. Down with Christian prudery! Down with humanistic rationalism! Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go! Vive la Revolution!
And now the feral dream was out of the intellectual closet.
(Next time we continue our little survey of the wilderness from Woodstock to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Virgin Prunes)
Also here’s another Anadromous essay on a similar theme…
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of heck not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 7 – The City of Eccentric Dreams
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs. The Czech Republic, the eccentric core of Europe, the Surrealist dreamscape, to quote Andre Breton: “Prague, wrapped in its legendary magic, is truly one of those cities that has been able to fix and retain the poetic idea that is always more or less drifting aimlessly through space.” I had come to Prague for the second time, in the second half of April 2005, a little more prepared to unwrap it’s curious puppet mythologies.
My first stop was the Švandovo Theatre to find Buchty a Loutky. Back in Hradec Kralove DRAK Director Jakub Krofta had highly recommended them. They were performing Pes Baskervillessky, their absurd version of the Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. The lights went down. Someone played slow music on a piano. A tall bearded long-haired gentleman in a suit began to read from Sherlock Holmes. Behind him in an exceptionally funky homemade stage Sherlock Holmes and Watson suddenly appeared. Watson and Holmes were full sized actors who had crammed their heads into the tiny puppet stage. Soon the actors were replaced by little string puppets. At one point Holmes requested tea. Suddenly two full-sized cups appeared on the stage. Water was poured from above. Splashing helplessly on the tiny figures as well as into the porcelain cups. It was then consumed by a couple of puppeteers from the side as the play continued. Suddenly the actors would be in front of the little stage duplicating the movements of the puppets. A model train began to roam around the makeshift stage at one point. At another a puppet is falling and falling and falling, the miniature stage curtain descends suddenly the play stops and the bearded guy starts reading a book on swamps through a microphone. This goes on for five minutes before it starts to dawn on everyone that this is the intermission. He reads for 15 minutes. The evening continued with humor, absurdity and inventiveness blazing away in full glory. Holmes does indeed solve the case. Eventually the play ends as a cello lonely tune is bowed offstage. And the players take a bow. I approached the guy with the beard… his name was Tomas Procházka. He is the director of the piece. We set an appointment to talk for later that week before their next show. I walked off thinking, laughing, obsessed with the play, my head positively exploding with ideas. I had seen much on this trip, but nothing had prepared me for this. I would return.
The next evening I decided to visit one of the unique Czech black light theatres, Ta Fantastika to see “Aspects of Alice“, a truly weird variation on Alice in Wonderland. Black theatres tend to be quite commercial in their production design and sadly proliferate largely for the tourist market. Nevertheless as they are tangentially related to puppet theatre I felt I should see another one. This one appeared to be the best of the current crop. In the presentation Alice follows a magician by floating, always lots of floating in these shows, across a day-glow version of historic Prague. She meets some tall Jewish ghost puppets that carry her around in her hands. It was doubly odd since most of Prague’s Jews had been exterminated in World War 2 and these gangly puppets were largely nostalgic characters. Then there was a fairly successful clown show to cheer Alice up after getting depressed by the Jewish specters: lots of floating juggling day-glow bowling pins. After the intermission things turned down right odd. For no discernible reason Alice was suddenly topless and reenacting the Garden of Eden, with the snake represented by another topless woman. Now I’m fairly familiar with the Bible and many interpretations of the GArden of Eve story but I’d never encountered this interpretation before. The magician then becomes Adam. Alice/Eve becomes pregnant. She prays for forgiveness to a triangle with odd lines in it. (Was that the Trinity?) And the show ends. I’m not sure what that meant, but it sure was slick and bizarre.
The next morning I went to meet Nina Malíková, daughter of famed Czech puppeteer Jan Malik, an intelligent animated woman in her fifties, editor of the noted puppeteering magazine Loutkář, who was already being interviewed by a French student, Rachele, doing a Master’s thesis on Czech Puppet history. Eventually Nina, Rachele, an interpreter and myself were deeply involved in a discussion about the meaning and future of puppetry. Nina was worried that there would not be enough good puppet shows for children, since in the Czech Republic everyone wanted to do work for adults. I could only dream of such problems for America. “What about DRAK and other companies”, I said. “They do work for children?” “Yes”, she said, “that’s one show once in a while, but I want to take my grandchildren to puppet shows every week. We are supposed to be the land of puppets.” She had definite and high standards. She lamented that increasingly puppets were becoming a purely improvised visual phenomenon. (Several other puppet theorists have pointed to same defect in so much contemporary puppetry.) She also wondered if the future of puppets was to be contained within various filmic or digital media. I pointed out the use of strong texts by the students of the International Institute for Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières France. Rachele added that there were writers in Avignon who were assigned to specific puppeteers. That was exactly what I saw at the Institute. I said that there had to be more of an emphasis on texts to bring puppetry to the next level. Nina looked at me and said… I want you to write about what you’ve been telling me for the next issue of Loutkář. We’ll translate it. And she also offered the same to Rachele. It had proved an interesting meeting indeed. (I did write something but I suspect it was too long. You are basically reading a variation of it write now.)
Not all in Prague was fascinating theatre and engrossing meetings. I couldn’t help noticing the predators of tourism as well: the strange bad tourist puppet shows and imitative black light theatres. Prague has so many genuine puppet attractions that it is also plagued by commercial puppetry trying to cash in on the Czech culture. There were so many cheap puppet shops that the authentic ones took a little effort to find. There are two Don Giovanni marionette theatres. The real one is at the National Marionette Theatre. I talked for a while to a Bulgarian girl who was passing out leaflets in front of the imitation Don Giovanni marionette play. She worked 12 hours a day six days a week doing little more than this. She was so bored with her job that she struck up a conversation with me when I turned around to walk away from a theatre foyer. She explained how a group of Serbians also ran many of the most exploitative black light theatres. She was stuck working for them a few years until she could get enough to go home.
Returning to the Švandovo on my last night in Prague I found Tomas Procházka from Buchty a Loutky. I told him that their puppetry reminded me of old school Punk rock. Not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.” He explained how the troupe took turns coming up with ideas for shows. The group of five or six people had been influenced mostly through the strange puppet films of Jan Švankmajer, also probably the reason I found myself wandering around Europe looking for theatrical homunculi. Referring to that night’s entertainment Tomas said “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” The stage for this show, entitled Urbild Remix, was actually indeed constructed exactly in the Švankmajer mode. It was made from wood you might have found in your backyard. There were three puppet stages and extra curtains besides piled on top of each other. The show was billed as an adventure. There were chases, murders, mermaids, skeletons, American Indians and stage blood that literally flowed from the middle stage into a teapot, again homemade music, plenty of strange humor and a great comic introduction by the play’s director, Marek Bečka. And it was all a dream! I can’t possible summarize it. Except to say if you ever go to Prague if you must hunt down the performances of Buchty a Loutky at the Švandovo Theatre. I hear Rocky IX is particularly good.
At one point in my two weeks in Prague I was exploring the Strahovsky Cloister libraries, particularly their surreal object collections, not too far from a desiccated baby dodo bird; it was then that I found I found a portrait, several centuries old, made entirely from seeds. As I looked at them locked behind the glass on a low shelf ignored by the hordes of high school students currently being herded through the place, I smiled to myself. This was exactly like one of the images in the short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Švankmajer had been here. And I promised myself that next time I visited Prague I would find the man himself.
Next time we conclude our journey in Salzburg Austria with the most polished and complicated marionettes of my whole trip.
And here is what you will need to explore puppetry in Prague on your own!!!
For more information on Buchty a Loutky:
or their haunt at the Švandovo: (Hint more shows are listed on the Czech version)
And to learn more about Jan Švankmajer begin here:
To see the authentic Don Giovanni puppet opera in Prague go to the National Marionette Theatre. This is an excellent place to begin.
And if you do want to see a strange if commercial black theatre presentation Ta Fantastika seems to be the best one I’ve seen so far. And they are still presenting Aspects of Alice! (They have a video here too.)
Other spots for real puppet shows Říše Loutek theatre. DRAK plays here on occasion.
Divadlo Minor is a good place for interesting children’s puppetry:
If you want to get more adventurous translate this…
Highly recommended The Forman Brothers – Film Director Milos Forman’s sons are experimental puppeteers and high on my list to catch:
To learn more about Loutkář run this through a translation tool:
To buy a serious puppet try:
And finally to have a puppet commissioned for you! (as Reckoning Motions did) write to Lenka Pavlíčková. She does an amazing job!
There are also puppet festivals!!
Get thee to Prague …
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – On The Czech Puppet Trail
I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. Museum Manager Alena Exnarova, a very knowledgeable woman, and one of her assistants, a spark-plug of a guy named Radek, graciously spent an hour and a half giving me the Czech history of puppets. (A history I’ve already spent some time writing about back in Antidote Art #1.)
What was curious to me then was that Czechs had been doing mature puppet plays ever since the 1700s. They had been performing medieval church puppetry before that but were highly influenced by wandering Punch and Judy Men and other homunculoid riffraff drifting over from England and Germany. The traveling Czech puppeteers would give miniature versions of famous plays and novels for people who might not be able to see the real thing or read. It was during this time that classics like Macbeth, Don Juan and Faust put down their puppet roots. And this also proved to be a significant influence in helping to keep the Czech language alive while under a ban from the Austrians after the devastating Battle of White Mountain in1620. This was the battle that destroyed the Reformation that Jan Hus had started nearly a century before Martin Luther. Puppets therefore occupied a very special place in the Czech psyche for while their Austro-Hungarian overlords spoke German, the puppeteers performed in Czech: a language too far beneath them for the Austrians to notice.
Puppets were sometimes a way of presenting messages that the authorities overlooked. Kašpárek, the Czech Punch, sometimes made salty comments about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 1800s more was being done for children as the trend was developing in many countries. Many children looked forward to getting miniature puppet theatres as Christmas gifts. Yet before World War One there were thousands of roving puppet troupes, some for children many still for adults. They even started a puppet magazine called Loutkář (puppeteer) in 1912… and it continues today. Later Joseph Skupa invented the characters Spejbl and Hurvinek who actually made such anti-Nazi remarks so as to get Mr. Skupa thrown into a concentration camp. The Soviets, ironically, as they had done in other Iron Curtain countries, encouraged puppet theatres. And yes there were many times when the audience saw something beneath the obvious surfaces, they were used to reading the allegories. I realized that alone of all the countries in the world the Czech Republic was the only country I could think of where puppetry was not just woven into the warp and woof of its history but was positively heroic! Astounding.
It was a fascinating history from a fascinating museum in an undiscovered little medieval town. They also housed a library of 70,000 multilingual books, magazines and other items pertaining to puppet history. The museum was supported by the Czechs because puppetry is respected as a vital art form by the Czech government. The museum also serves as a focal point and aid to the Amateur Puppet Festival in Chrudim. The amateur festival is held each July for Czechs only, but foreign guests are also invited. It is a pretty big deal and might warrant a return to Chrudim someday.
As I concluded my interview with Alena Exnarova I asked her about the meaning of puppetry. “The puppet has limitations but then again it can do things actors could never do.” She explained that there is a life to puppetry that will continue even with all of the modern digital screenal gadgetry. What were some of the new trends in Czech puppetry I asked? Radek explained that there was a movement translated as something like Illusion Theatre. It was a return to certain aspects of the roots of traditional puppetry particularly the used the hidden puppeteers. In other words while Americans hardly knew much beyond the Muppets except in a few isolated zones, most of us having not even seen puppeteers standing on the stage with their puppets performing, some Czech puppeteers have already been there, done that and have started to return to the mystery of the hidden hand by behind the puppet.
There is no European spiritual program that allows one to return to states feeling vaguely in touch with the ineffable. It’s not like a trip to Asia. Instead one often just feels as stupid as a laundry bag in need of some real education. (Oh thank you American public school for partially teaching me English and English alone!) And I was hardly finished with my lessons in puppet history. I was now on my way to receive a few more instructions and to tag along with a Czech puppet troupe across some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
A short one-hour train ride the next day took me to my next destination Hradec Kralove. My purpose in coming to this town was to visit the DRAK (an acronym that spells ‘dragon’ in Czech) Theatre. And to meet with Jakub Krofta, son of Professor Joseph Krofta, who did, and continues to do, so much to change Czech puppetry. Jakub is the de facto director of the theatre most of the time and was rehearsing a new play with actors in bear costumes. When I arrived I spent the first two or three hours interviewing and chatting with Jakub. After giving me a tour of the facilities, that I must say inspired a little wistful envy, Jakub gave me much of the history of the theatre and so many interesting perspectives that it would be difficult to begin to unravel it all here. As I watched them rehearsing their bear play I felt a need to speak out from the Alaskan perspective. Bears sniff around with their sensitive noses. If you ever see this play you might notice the bruins sniffing around a bit… now you know why.
I was temporarily adopted by the troupe and was even invited to travel the next day with them back and forth to Prague on the crazy Czech roads. I felt honored. I got to know several of the cast and crew, including the petite Petra Cicáková an unusual actress/clown/puppeteer and folk musician Filip Huml. Driving on the narrow Czech roads to the wild music of a Balkan brass band was one of the more disturbing adventures I’d ever experienced. Cars passed each other in waves on the two lane highways. Once a car drifted out into the opposing lane from some three cars back and passed three more in front of us an instant before a semi-truck plowed forward on that same lane. It didn’t comfort me to later read that indeed the fatality statistics for the Czech roads are basically the worst in Europe, all fueled by the incredible (and incredibly cheap) beer. Our able driver passed at least 60 cars on the night time ride home.
And the play, The Enchanted Bagpipes, contained a life-size puppet or two and several actors and musicians in devil costumes. The music was curious, rewritten versions of Czech folk tunes while the lead character, Filip Huml, a Czech musicologist as well as actor, played the gajdy, the Moravian bagpipe. Quite an earful! DRAK had over time been moving more into an area that used circus techniques and masks as much as puppetry. This coincided with some of the developments at Teatr Lalka and Teatr Groteska. The message of the piece was intriguing as well. The bagpipe symbolized the Czech soul. The devils tempted Filip to surrender his bagpipes. They used the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cold uniformity of the communist system and finally the randy cash of the Americanized West. I was happy to see that the old Czech tendency to use puppetry and theatre for questioning the reigning powers was far from moribund.
Finally in a side note, as I strolled around Chrudim, Hradec Kralove and Prague I noticed something. There is a kind of connection between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Back in the U.K. men often wore a sort of uniform short post-skinhead hairstyle. In the Netherlands a very absurd waxy hairstyle predominated for male fashion. Poland was a bit formal. France a bit more stylish. But in the Czech Republic men didn’t seem involved with any particular hair trend: Short, long, beards, mustaches, shaved headed it just didn’t seem to matter, just like back in Alaska. I felt visually quite comfortable. This has nothing to do with puppetry, or does it???
Next time we finally enter the puppetry capital of Europe… Prague.
For more information on DRAK:
Go see them in Hradec Kralove!
The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim is remodeling until June 2012
But this website might be helpful until then:
Eventually their English page will be back up.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 5- Finding the Roman Polanski Puppet
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. Eventually the next day I would find it in a massive colonnaded grey cement building. I also discovered that all cultural venues in the country were closed for a week. This included puppet theatres. I also found that no one in the offices of Teatr Animacji spoke a word of English.
I continued on to Warsaw. And I met my friend Marta Czanik at the train station. Again the city was in mourning for the Pope. I attended one outdoor service that was extremely moving amongst over 100,000 thousand Poles. Although the puppet theatres were not performing that week there were a few people in the theatre. Marta came to my rescue in regards to the titanic bulk of the Teatr Lalka (teatr = theatre & lalka = puppet) and set up some meetings for me. We interviewed the artistic director for Teatr Lalka, a Polish woman with a strong character named Joanna Rogacka. Sitting in her dark office in the Palace of Culture and Science, the massive Stalinist Gothic building at the center of Warsaw, listening to this regal woman unravel the history of puppetry in the communist era, provoked quite a few thoughts. The gray morning light drifted through the windows shading the woman and her assistant Anna Bojarska is high contrasts. The furniture surrounding us was old heavy dark wood. Pani Rogacka explained that the Soviets encouraged puppetry as a form of art, though Teatr Lalka had a more elaborate history. She explained that how back in the forties a man named Jan Wilkowski began to change the presentation of puppets by stepping from behind the curtain to work with the puppets themselves on stage. Also there was clearly an influence upon the Polish style by the Russian puppet genius Sergey Obraztsov. This moved the world of Polish puppets closer towards a more artistic idea. She showed me photos of elaborate stage shows, including some tantalizing images from their version of Homer’s Odyssey. I was missing one performance because I was on my way to Krakow. But I certainly got the idea. At a certain point the interview, rather the monologue, was over. I had been granted my time. I was brimming with questions. But she was indeed a busy woman, and I was indeed fortunate to have been granted an audience. I watched a rehearsal of a story about a noble bunny rabbit, some strange looking black creatures and shadow plays. I also watched the troupe put on a clown play that reminded me of a cross between Laurel & Hardy and a child’s version of Waiting for Godot. I owe Marta good words for translating the entire interview for me. I couldn’t have done this without her.
It was soon time to go to Krakow. The city was thoroughly fascinating and well worth several visits. I also detoured for a day to visit Auschwitz, which left me with conflicted emotions about the nature of our presentation of the tragedies of the past. At last I made my way over to Teatr Groteska, which was housed in another large old domed cement building. Inside, up the four or five flights of wide marble stairs, were housed examples of the theatre’s sixty-year history. I was also allowed into the puppet storage facilities. An usher named Olga told me that she had become so fascinated with the reactions of children to puppets that it had become the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She arranged interviews for me with one of the actors of a mature puppet play, Balladyna, which I would see later in the day. But first it was time to watch a kooky version of Little Red Riding Hood. The interesting thing about all of the daytime performances was that they were all full. The theatre had made arrangements with schools across southern Poland to bring kids to the theatre. I was told that over 90,000 students a year viewed the various shows. Now that’s how it should be done!
The afternoon show, Balladyna, was full of high school students. This was a serious work with some eerie raggedy puppets, puppets that reminded me somehow of Auschwitz, used in a way I’d never seen before. Live actors interacted with the humanoid shapes as they manipulated them. And somehow at one moment they were actors and in the next they were the puppets. The story was a dark Polish legend of sorts from a work of classic Polish literature. It was clear to me that puppets could easily do work as serious as Shakespeare’s plays if they so chose. Afterwards I spoke with one of the actors, Franciszek Mula, about the differences between puppetry and standard acting. This was actually his first puppet work. He explained that puppetry was far more humble than theatre work; that the actor had to give space to the puppets, which actually went against the obvious inclination of actors to be seen. When I asked if he would pose for a few photographs with the puppets he replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I’m an actor.”
A couple of days later, after seeing one more performance with a Chinese theme and a wild use of masks, smoke and balloons (!), I had an interview through a translator with the slyly sagacious director of Groteska, Adolf Weltschek. He too explained that the theatre started as a result of the Soviet push towards classical culture at the end of World War 2. Essentially the way it worked was that the Russians thought that there were four pillars of culture: Ballet, Opera, Theatre and Puppets. That is why every Polish puppet theatre was so large. They had been financed at great expense by the Soviets. He also explained more of how the censorship issues worked. How the text of the play would be submitted to the censor for approval and then how the images might contradict the text to get another message across. He also offered me his theory that all Polish artistic puppetry was influenced by the Russians. And in fact, unlike the Czechs, the Poles did not have such an involved history of puppetry. There were some folk puppets. But the real burst in Polish puppetry had come after the Second World War. When I asked how this transference might have occurred he said probably during the war when Polish and Russian troops were fighting side by side. Before the war he said puppets were nothing special in Poland, just a folk art, but in Russia… And there was no way to get to Moscow on this trip!
As I was leaving Adam Weltschek, descending the marble stairs, my translator stopped. She pointed to an older funky looking puppet and remarked with pride, “This is the Roman Polanski puppet. When he was 12 years old he used to work with this puppet.” Teatr Groteska in Krakow had just become yet another crucial element of this poetic topography of puppet history.
Next we travel to heart of puppetry in Europe – the Czech Republic
January 25th 2012
For information on Krakow’s Teatr Groteska run this page through a translation tool
And this one on Warsaw’s Teatr Lalka
And get yourself to Poland!!!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 3- The Reality Principle
We walked three floors up to an attic room with a pitched ceiling and exposed beams at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières, France. A Polish student, with the nearly unpronounceable name Przemyslaw Piotrowski, dragged in three scruffily constructed crosses as the room darkened. He also had several nameless placards like the one that read I.N.R.I. hanging above Christ on the cross. He handed one to an audience member with a faint smile foreshadowing death. He handed out another. Then he set up the crosses and began to reveal how each of these people died and their relationships. They were just people from his life. People he was intimate with. He was the crucifier. The story was predominately about his complicity in their deaths. In the end he crawls to a light emanating from a box. He finds a small door. He knocks on it and prays in Polish. Finally a dark eerie face comes to the window. But there is no sound coming from it. He finds that it is just a mask. But a mask for whom? He doesn’t know. He stops there waiting for an answer.
Before we can find out we descend again back to the long dark hall downstairs continuing on to the next student performance. This time we pass through the long blackened hall into a room where a woman is reading names and stories on a wall. It felt like autumn with dead twisted branches on the floor and walls and walnuts in rows on the ground. The voice continued reading from brown pages on the wall. It is the elfin black haired girl again. She is of Russian ancestry from Romania. Her name is Aurélia Ivan. When she introduced Julia’s piece she seemed shy and quiet with a whisper of a voice and an open smile. But now no one had any trouble hearing her strong words as she read from the wall in her dark dress while holding a wicker basket full of walnuts. She was transformed from petite girl with a gentle smiling face into the strongest of women. She spoke directly and with authority, but also quite sadly and compassionately. She finally leaned over while reading a list of attributes describing a proud man named Jean (John). She pronounced his final name, ‘Jean le mort.’ (John the dead.) Then she picked up a walnut and looked at it. She backed down this hall beckoning us to follow. The text was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man).
Aurélia then stood behind a wooden drawer that had been filled with sand. Then slowly she picked up a strange twisted root with a little plaster face attached to it. Faces inspired by the work of artist Jephan de Villiers. And she brought it slowly forward speaking in its voice. Then she planted it in the sand. Then she brought forth another root in a quite different shape with a different motion, with a different voice and planted that in the sand. By the time she was finished she had more than a dozen of these root creatures in this box carrying on a conversation in different voices about how they would eat the body below them. We followed her and walked through a jungle of phrases hanging from the ceiling which were in French and a little too poetic for me to quite understand. Finally we stood before long scraggly bare branches whose shadows grew as she waved her illuminated hands before them. Suddenly they seemed alive. She came to a door, rapped with her knuckles and it opened. She turned to us with her basket full of walnuts and bid us to leave through the door. As we left she handed us each a walnut, the fruit of decomposition, the possibility of something new.
I stepped outside into the light my head exploding with ideas. I viewed a few other student shows but these few quite exploded my concept of puppet theatre while confirming exactly why I had taken this journey. I had been attracted to the general idea of puppetry, suspecting that as an obscure art it contained ways of communicating that been barricaded in other art forms. Yet here was a form that could speak to children, everyone’s first prejudice about puppets, yet could also in the right hands deliver strong philosophical ideas as well. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the content of what I saw. But I didn’t need to be kicked in the head to realize that this was indeed a powerful medium for ideas. And it had both ancient rules and a new vitality. It was also clear to me that it could communicate in a way that could possibly move beyond the postmodern dilemma. And this was the time to explore it.
The day ended with my talking to Julia Kovacs and Aurélia Ivan and photographing parts of their presentations after their evening shows had finished. As I was talking with Aurélia, who was quite serious and curious about why I had come all the way from Alaska to watch the student performances, there was an older French man who stood near us occasionally supplying French or English words to help the conversation along. As I was finishing my discussion with her she said “Oh! Do you know who this is?” Of course I didn’t. “His name is Francois Lazaro.” And then she proceeded to tell me he had been a teacher there for 15 years and had is own puppet theatre in Paris, the Clastic Theatre. And I turned and said, “So I guess should interview you?” He agreed and we set up a time the next day. And I walked back to the hotel that night, my head bursting with ideas, realizing that I had just had an unrepeatable day. I thought of the performances I had seen and the people I had met. And the way that puppetry could speak volumes in the right hands.
The next morning I met student Clea Minaker from Canada at a café for coffee and an interview. The first thing she said to me was that not all of the presentations were as serious or philosophical as the ones I had seen. The other set of performances had a lot crazier pieces. Her own piece was evidently built upon a mountain of consumer rubbish as she was coated in latex sheathes. (She had shown me the structure the evening before. A photo of the performance briefly glimpsed lead me to conclude that it must have been a wild piece.) Clea also explained the way the school worked. Oddly enough, there were only fifteen students in the school at any one time. The course lasted three years. And the same fifteen students moved together from an understanding of traditional puppet techniques, theatrical history, acting skills, experimental ideas and live performances. Several important European puppeteers passed through Charleville-Mézières with their shows. And the education was all for free, including the room and board. The students didn’t even need a college degree. They just needed to demonstrate their interest through past projects, speak passable French and survive the winnowing process. Clea also came back to the same line of thinking that Pascal in Paris had, that in today’s world puppet theatre provided a real tangible presence rather than yet another televised electronic spectacle. (Not that she was against puppet films.) The live performance was the chief importance of puppets in our times. So here at the International Institute for Marionettes it was quite clear that they were quite consciously leaning against the currents of the day. Clea certainly spoke of a profusion ideas herself and understood the importance of fighting against the tide of virtual electronic images to find something new. That is what struck me about the school in general: It was a place that profoundly encouraged intellectual searching and questioning in both a theoretical and a practical manner. These students truly were asking serious questions. Puppets were not seen as yet more mindless entertainment but as a means for provoking real thought.
Later I met Francois Lazaro for a beer in a café and we had a fascinating conversation about puppets, theatre and philosophical ideas. He had been performing puppet shows since 1966. We discussed his influences: Beckett, Švankmajer, even Tarkovsky. He also was quite aware of the special nature of puppets to reality in this media saturated age. For him puppets held revolutionary possibilities, not in the political sense, but in changing our view of things. He felt that traditional theatre had come to a dead end and was borrowing increasingly more from puppetry to stay alive. As we were talking Aurélia dropped in and joined the conversation. We all talked about the reality principle a little more. Aurélia was just as serious as Clea and Francois in her feeling that puppetry was a unique art form for the present moment. She planned on producing her own plays. And she had the intensity and commitment to pull it off. When she asked me how I even knew to come to see the students perform she locked eyes with me in a way that showed the need to have the question answered earnestly. She would be joining Francois’ troupe after graduation. These puppeteers understood the need for engaging the brain, a desperate shortage everywhere these days. They knew well that this world of simulated knowledge, cheap information and hollow entertainments could only be opposed by something as small, humble, tangible and intelligent as puppets. It was a way forward culturally, a way out of the maze, possibly a way to actually get people to laugh or cry or miraculously to reconsider their ideas, especially those created in virtual miasma of this 21st Century.
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. Matthew 19:30
(Next time we discover shadow puppets in Berlin and have a serious laugh.)
To learn more about Clea Minaker’s recent activities:
And to see images from her 2005 ESNAM performance:
To discover what Aurélia Ivan has been doing since 2005:
To learn more about The Clastic Theatre this link might be helpful:
For more information about the Institut International De La Marionnette (en Français):
And about ESNAM:
They used to have an English page but there are translation tools… Here is an English version of the course of study: