Dubravka Ugresic's latest essay collection, Nobody's Home, is published by Telegram.

Rebranding the footnotes

A ten-year-old nephew of mine recently spent his Easter holidays with me in Amsterdam. I took him to the Anne Frank Museum. He had never heard of Anne Frank. I tried to recall whether I had known of her when I was his age. Then my childhood diary came to mind. I had written to an imaginary friend in my diary and that imaginary friend's name was – Anne Frank.

Last year I spent two months teaching students of comparative literature at a German university. I was free to speak on whatever I liked. At one point I realized that out of a natural desire to help the students follow me I was turning my lectures into a list of footnotes. My students knew who Lacan, Derrida, and Zizek are, but the number of books they had read was astonishingly small. I would mention a name such as Ceszlaw Milosz. My students did not know of Ceszlaw Milosz. I would give them a word such as samizdat. It meant nothing. This is entirely understandable, I thought, and I did what I could to explain: that in some former communist countries manuscripts were distributed clandestinely, in copies made on a typewriter. Then I realized that it was more than I could do to explain what carbon paper was – let alone a typewriter. Typewriters now dwell in the limbo of oblivion: they haven't yet surfaced in museums, yet they can no longer be found in stores.

All East European culture that had been created under communism dwells in a similar limbo. This was an intriguing culture and the shared ideological landscape – the landscape of communism – gave it a certain consistency. It was a fact that the finest part of that culture was born of its defiance of communism, split into the "official" and the "underground" sides. Aspects of that cultural landscape are a part of many of us. Among us there are many who remember the brilliant Polish, Czech and Hungarian movies, the stirring theatre, the culture of samizdat, art exhibits and plays held in people's living rooms, critically oriented thinkers, intellectuals and dissidents, great books, experimental books whose subversive approach was built on the tradition of the avant-garde movements of Eastern Europe. All of this has, regrettably, gone by the board, because all of it has been stymied by the same merciless stigma of "communist" culture. There are not many today in the younger generation who know who Bulgakov was, though his and other books have been translated, the movies have had their audiences, and artists such as Ilya Kabakov have been enshrined in Russian coffee-table picture books.

But is the stigma of communism at fault for the lack of interest, if "fault" is the right word? Of course not. Much of this cultural oblivion can be ascribed to the global marketplace. Global culture means the global marketplace first and foremost, and like any market it is guided by a simple law: survival of the fittest.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac.



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