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Culture as Memory: On the Poetics of Milorad Pavic.

"Here the world of the fantastic intruded into the world of the real," as it says at a central point in Jorge Luis Borges's Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. It is precisely this phenomenon of the increasing intrusion of the fantastic into mimetic-realistic narrative prose that characterizes the nonmimetic discourse of Serbian postmodernism. Milorad Pavic is, alongside Kis, Pekic, and younger authors such as Basara, Mitrovic, Kazimir, and Albahari, one of its principal representatives. Pavic began, as Sava Damjanov has stressed, "with stories which were closer to the original model of fantastic writing or to the field of pure fantasy," while in his novels he incorporates "literary discourse in a more complex linguistic-artistic structure (with marked postmodernist characteristics)." If this fantasy, which may be read as poetic-allegorical, is an important medium of postmodern Serbian literature yet is also different from that used in the literature of the ninteenth century or in modernism, so too does intertextuality undoubtedly present one of its further constitutive characteristics.

While in modernism, intertextual games and quotations already characterized literature, in postmodernism, literature, in Dietor Borchmeyer's words, "becomes an imaginary museum, a Babel of quotation, a permanent pla(y)giarism, to use a word-play of Raymond Federman (Take It or Leave It, 1976)." Baudrillard has introduced the term simulacrum for this literary manifestation of permanent imitation.

In the poetics of Milorad Pavic, who made his debut with the tellingly titled collection of poems Palimpsesti (1967), this extensive and intensive intertextuality is present at all levels of the work. Thus, on the one hand, there is a heteromedial intertextuality, that is to say, an intermedial interplay of graphic and verbal elements, and, on the other hand, a dominant isomedial or verbal intertextuality, the latter relating not only to structures, namely genres and poetics, but also to the motif and content levels through quotation, allusion, and paraphrase of other texts (or subtexts), both his own and others', by which the nature of this reference may be affirmative or may be dialogic (parodying, deconstructing, etc.). Therein a range of reference structures is discernible which extends through the lexicon, the crossword, disputation, dialogic narrative, parable and anecdote, to the historical novel, the crime thriller, and the love story or romantic novel, and which embraces a heterogeneity of reference texts, such as the Bible, ancient myths, Homer, Plato, Ovid, the Byzantine novel, apocrypha and holy legend, the Vita Constantini, the Talmud and the Koran, the traditions of the Kabbala, Balkan folklore and folk mythology, Ragusan baroque lyric and baroque epic, historiographical works, sermons of the Serbian baroque period (above all those of G. Venclovic), texts of the German Enlightenment and German romantic periods, texts by Poe, Pushkin, Gogol, Kafka, Borges, Eco, and Garcia Marquez, and narrative texts of contemporary Serbian authors such as Andric, Crnjanski, Selimovic, Kis, Tisma, Nenadic, and others. Thus it can be seen that Pavic in his writing technique, with his use of the nonmimetic fantastic and a radicalization of modernism's practice of allusion, follows not a principle of the dispersion of meaning but one of a multiplication of meaning (although on a deeply enigmatic level) and that he with his wholly polyphonic texts demonstrates the ars combinatoria of postmodernism as hardly any other writer has done.

It is characteristic of studies of Pavic that his intertextuality is treated too generally, indeed as I have just treated it in my listing of the most important subtexts. One reason that no one has yet expressed a comprehensive and detailed view of Pavic's intertextuality lies undoubtedly in the fact that his texts show such a compressed processing of subtexts that an exhaustive examination of the latter would fill whole volumes of analytical commentary. I wish, therefore, to try to demonstrate the basic characteristics of Pavic's intertextual poetics on a fragment of one of his texts. The text that I have selected is "Appendix I," the penultimate entry in his 1984 lexicon-novel Dictionary of the Khazars, correlated by cross-reference with the lexicon entry "Sevast, Nikon (17th century)" in the red, Christian book of the lexicon. I have chosen these two interconnected fragments in particular not only because it is possible to use them to illustrate the intertextuality but also because it is here, in my opinion, that the author has formulated his poetics.

Appendix I bears the title "Father Theoctist Nikolsky as Compiler of The Khazar Dictionary's First Edition." It contains an introductory sentence by the fictitious lexicographer ("Father Theoctist Nikolsky penned his dying confession to the Patriarch Arsen III Charnoyevich of Pec in the pitch dark, somewhere in Poland, using a mixture of gunpowder and saliva, and a quick Cyrillic hand, while the innkeeper's wife scolded and cursed him through the bolted door") and a subsequent letter-text with the autobiographical narrative of Theoctist, in which above all his remarkable memory and his relationship to Nikon Sevast are presented and in which is embedded a tale taken from Avram Brankovich, "Note on Adam, the Brother of Christ."

The lexicon entry "Sevast, Nikon (17th century)" deals with the mundane biography of the devil Nikon Sevast, employed as a protocalligrapher and painter of icons in the Morava monastery of St. Nicholas, and moves into the report in a church register of an unnamed monk in the year 1674, in which the painting-technique of Sevast, left-handed but converted to right-handedness, is presented.

In my view three semantic complexes may be discerned in these two exemplary texts, complexes that dominate not only the whole of the Dictionary of the Khazars but on which, following Pavic's poetic principle of the correspondence of all parts, his subsequent novels Landscape Painted with Tea (1988) and The Inner Side of the Wind (1991) are also based, namely: Memory + Oblivion; Identity + Metamorphosis; Particularity + Unity.

Memory + Oblivion

That the monk Theoctist (from the Greek theos, meaning God and ktistes, meaning creator) in his letter to the Serbian Patriarch is attributed with a hypertrophic memory and that this is said to be a "frailty" refers above all to Borges's story "Funes the Memorious" but also to subtexts such as A. V. Chamisso's romantic narrative The Fantastic Tale of Peter Schlemihl (1814), in which the protagonist, after making a pact with the devil, must live without a shadow, that is, must live with a characteristic of the demonic, or to Patrick Suskind's postmodern novel Perfume, in which the protagonist is born devoid of a personal odor and spends his whole life in an obsessive quest to cure this deficit. Yet while in Borges's text it is the narrator who calls Funes's prominent characteristic a "relentless memory," in Pavia's text it is the protagonist himself who calls the inability to forget to which he is "doomed" a "punishment." It seems only consistent that Theoctist's hypermnesia, which at first appears reminiscent of a parody or persiflage of the ancient ars memoriae or mnemotechnique (Simonides), is then positively connoted as it supplies the motivation for the preservation of The Khazar Dictionary from the threat of fiendish annihilation: Theoctist had learned by heart not only the Christian and Islamic parts of the texts, which were consigned to the flames by Nikon Sevast (an allusion here to the burning of the library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose), but also the Jewish part, which was scattered by the winds on the battlefield of Kladovo in 1689. He then committed all three parts to paper and gave them to the Polish printer Daubmannus to be published, which it was in 1691, only to be later proscribed by the Inquisition in 1692 and destroyed save for a single poisoned specimen (also an allusion to Eco's novel) and its check copy.

It is this game with the text, lost in the realms of memory yet reconstructible, the mythopoetic creation and destruction of signs, which forms the central isotopia in the Pavic text. Here belongs also his version of the legend of Adam, nourished by cabalistic and apocryphal tradition, an Adam whose picture or incorporation is created through letter and text, that is, through the congealing of human perception as a recorded cultural memory, as well as through Pavic's metaphysics of dreams, derived from Sigmund Freud, as the reinspiration of forgotten signs.

That Theoctist temporarily loses his memory during his initial contact with the fiend, Nikon Sevast (from the Greek nike, meaning of Pavia) is employed as an icon painter and calligrapher in the monastery, follows from a concept that Pavic raises to an ideology: that the diabolic forces that are themselves devoid of the capacity to remember seek to annihilate the memory of human beings. It is only writing, the "hunger for writing" as it is called in the last sentences of Theoctist's report, that has been able to still his "thirst for memory," so that once the latter is extinguished, Theoctist becomes a doppelganger of the fiendish Nikon. Writing as a work of the Devil, as an alternative to memory? Borges said of himself that he forgot his stories after he had written them down. But is not Pavic rather propounding a reanimation of the myth of Mnemosyne, the poetic arche-anamnesis?

Identity + Metamorphosis

The most significant subtext for Pavia's motif of transformation is obviously Ovid's hexametrical epic Metamorphoses, the poetic source of which is 250 ancient transformation myths. Just as for Ovid "myths in which people are transformed into animals, trees, and stars [are] symbolic of eternal mutability in the historical world," in Manfred Lurker's words, so there is in Pavia's mythopoetic concept of world and time (time springs from Satan, eternity from God, declares Theoctist) only a cyclically recurrent or equally preand regressive movement of creatures and events (the symbol here being Cancer, the Crab). The Khazar researchers and the devils reincarnate themselves three hundred years later; Nikon Sevast claims to have been a denizen of the Jewish hell in his previous life (a persiflage on the doctrine of rebirth), and the people say of Avram Brankovich that he transforms himself into a spirit in his sleep, a spirit who led "the winds and the clouds" and rode upon a black horse that could, in its turn, transform itself into a piece of straw, a characteristic of devils, witches, and nightmares (in this case the subtext is the keyword zduhac in the lexicon of Vuk Karadzic with its narrative-type entries). In this Pavicist reproduction of archaic creation and cyclical myths, the characters are preferably presented in pairs. Brankovich and the Jew Cohen transmigrate in their dreams (cf. Borges's "The Story of the Warrior and the Captive"), and Theoctist Nikolski loses his identity and, as a glance in the mirror shows him, is increasingly transmuted into his diabolic writer-colleague Nikon Sevast (note the similarity of names as another indicator of doubleness), by which the whole doppelganger and mirror-image theme from romanticism to modernism is evoked (Poe's William Wilson, Gogol's The Nose, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, etc.). When Sevast goes hunting to find his "true future," he encounters his soul transformed into a deer by the Archangel Gabriel (the deer being a solar symbol and a signifier of the natural cycle), and in a pact with the archangel ("a pact with an angel" as a parody of all "pact with the devil" narratives) the hitherto left-hander is transformed into a right-hander, who now begins to paint extraordinarily and who is punished with mediocrity only after breaking his pact. Finally, the grotesque body of the fiend (Sevast has an enormous phallus, has only a single nostril, and in the place of a posterior has two faces with a nose instead of the traditional devil's tail between them) presents a carnivalistic man-animal synthesis that since the Middle Ages has been modified to the ridiculous.

Just as the semiotic notion of metamorphosis in avant-garde literature is anchored as a thematic complex in the construction of Pavic's intertextuality, so too is archaic man's belief that the word is an instrument of divine power and the reflection of this belief in all higher religions and folk mythologies. The sentence quoted in the "Preliminary Notes" to Dictionary of the Khazars from the Gospel of St. John, "Verbum caro factum est" / "The Word became flesh" (referring to Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God), prefigures the passage in Appendix I in which the transforming, potentially even annihilating word is spoken of. After his initial contact with the fiend, Theoctist actually begins to transform the texts of the Lives of the Saints that had been entrusted to him for literal transcription. He begins by inserting narrative elements and then by inventing wholly novel hermits and miracles. Finally, Theoctist causes the death of a young monk when he transcribes the Life of Saint Peter of Corishia, which serves as the young monk's model, and makes a vital change increasing the number of fast days from five to fifty, a witty and ironic satire on the (alleged) power of the poetic word.

Particularity + Unity

In this complex, Pavic's intertextuality of motif is above all connected with autopoetic utterances. Here, there are allusions to all the mythical narrations in which duality (e.g., body-soul polarity; male-female duality such as in Plato's Symposium and Adam-Eve; god-devil; the dual nature of Christ, etc.), triplicity (e.g., triple time = past, present, future; triple cosmogonic space = heaven, earth, underworld; the Trinity; the Holy Family, etc.) and multiplicity (the creation of Adam in apocryphal myth from the seven parts of the world; the cosmogony of the body parts of the ancient Indian "archeman," Purusa; dismemberment as a prerequisite of rebirth in vegetation myths, etc.) are merged into unity or the holistic. In Pavic a mystification of the dominant number three, which is viewed as the holy, perfect number, is observable. Therefore there are three religions, three Khazar researchers (although, typical of Pavic's irony, countered by three fiends), and correspondingly three parts of the Dictionary of the Khazars, whose unification in both the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries is in each case attempted by a triad of researchers (dream hunters), after the efforts of a dyad, Princess Ateh and her lover, Mokaddasa al Safer, have been broken off in the ninth century (a contrafacture of motif from the relevant Borges narration, Tlon). The influence of the dualistic Bogumil heresy, which also appears in Ivo Andric's texts, is expressed in Pavic's version of the Adam-legend: Adam (Kadmon), the Hebrew "arche-man," viewed in Jewish mysticism as the first emanation of God, is interpreted as a macrocosmic creature whose icon is pieced together, particle by particle, tale by tale, illumination by illumination (the World as a text and poetry as the mythical preexistence, arche-book, arche-dream of mankind) by the Khazar dream hunters. Creative power lends this creature the internal polar principle of Adam and Eve, hypostatized in the duality of the male-right and the female-left thumb, which strain toward contact. The twinlike, conjoined figures (Sevast and Theoctist, Brankovich and Cohen, Masudi and Akshany, etc.) also bear witness to the dual nature of man and his world (divine-satanic, divine-human, spiritbody).

Within the consciousness of the creative recipient of Pavic's poetics, truth (or one of many possible truths) is inferred from a multiplicity of interconnected messages: "On his frescoes," it is said of Sevast, "in the churches of the Ovchar gorge are inscriptions that, if read in a certain order from painting to painting and from monastery to monastery, form a message. It can be assembled as long as the paintings themselves exist." And from multiplicity comes unity:

"He took blue and red and placed them next to each other, painting the eyes of an angel. And I saw the angel's eyes turn violet.

"`I work with something that is like a dictionary of colors,' Nikon added, 'and from it the observer composes sentences and books, in other words, images. You could do the same with writing. Why shouldn't someone create a dictionary of words that make up one book and let the reader himself assemble the words into a whole?'"

Here, clear autothematic references to Pavic's poetics are formulated which read like a paraphrase of the point in Borges's "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," in which it is said that writers passed from a trinomial to a binomial order, but the demiurges and the gods "decided on the never-ending: never-ending stories, never-endingly intertwined." This quasi-divine, world-creating principle of writing which interweaves everything with everything else, which asserts the validity of equivalence as a third connective possibility, besides the temporal and the logic of causality, is in my view the basic principle of Pavic's poetics. It is the so-called pletenie sloves, the intertwining of word and sentence through the medium of sound repetition, such as alliteration and assonance, epanalepsis, figura etymologica, polyptoton, the recurrence of key words or key syllables, paronomasia, synonymy, tautology, etc. This technique has obviously been adopted by Pavic as a structural intertextuality from the sermons and lyrics of the Serbian baroque period, which for its part referred to and further developed the procedure of pletenie sloves of the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Russian authors of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century (the term stems from Epifanij Premudrij at the end of the fourteenth century). Not only does a phonic instrumentalization, which one also encounters in representatives of the ornamental prose of European modernism, guarantee the highest order of poeticism and density of language, but also it is the central isotopia in the text which unfolds itself in the constitution of the key lexemes. Thus it is no wonder that Pavic, to concentrate the phonic-semantic network further, utilizes a whole sequence of metaphors based upon fabric and weaving: dreams, the "moment of ultimate fulfillment," are in the conception of the Khazars the "nodes/knots" (cvorisna mesta) in the life of each individual. All three Khazar researchers or dream weavers of the seventeenth century are additionally marked by either the physical characteristic of a plait like Brankovich and Masudi or Akshany, or by the fact that they have made weaving their livelihood (Cohen, who has eyebrows like woven wings, is a horses' wig weaver in the service of a Turkish pasha). Also it is no mere coincidence that the name of the Serbian Khazar researcher of the twentieth century Suk (Pavia's alter ego) may be traced to the verb sukati (to wind, turn, twist) and substantives such as sukno (cloth, firm fabric) and sukalo (bobbin-winder).

Finally, Pavia's pragmatic, reader-oriented technique of intertwining should be stressed: special cross-reference symbols lead to an intertwining reading of the whole Dictionary of the Khazars; the crossword structure in Landscape Painted with Tea creates a reading texture spun from vertical and horizontal threads; and the mirror-image, reciprocal ordering of the two parts of The Inner Side of the Wind directly provokes a weaving-reading synthesis.

Intertextuality in its varied forms, then, serves Pavic as a medium for the multiplication and concentration of meaning. It must however first be discerned in his texts, which one may comprehend as the literary expression of theorems and ideologies of diverse philosophies, religions, mythologies, and mystic-heretical systems (and herein he is closest to Borges's Alexandrian erudition). On the question of "how much history and reality and how much fantasy and poeticism" is contained in his works, Pavic has answered "that it is not a question of turning reality into literature, but rather one of achieving reality through literature." Each reader may take from these texts, simultaneously cryptic and universalist as they are, his or her own salt, as one might say in Khazar.

DAGMAR BURKHART is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Mannheim, Germany. She writes on Slavic literatures, the theory of Slavic folklore, and the semiotics of Slavic ethnological phenomena. Her study Kulturraum Balkan. Studien zur Volkskunde un Literature Sudosteeuropas was published in 1989.
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Author:Burkhart, Dagmar
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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