(originally published in: ДОМА (HOME), vol.1, Skopje: Kino oko, 2010)
The Macedonian Tower. To contemplate and write about the complex topic of ‘home’ and to share the story of one’s homeland with others seems a daunting task. It is a task that inevitably involves a bricolage of stories, of memories, of past lives, of images, of exclusion from and inclusion in the vast range of historical developments affecting that homeland—requiring us to face all that history comprehends as the present but which dances away as the past the very next moment. Yet to tell this story also honours a pledge that entails our creative responsibility towards all those who succeed us. The topic of the fatherland as a home cannot be treated solely as an intellectual topic, nor as a solely historical or emotive topic: the issue is ontological, anthropological and civilizational to an equal extent. Macedonia, my homeland, is precisely that, and the ‘monument’ of the Macedonian Tower is constructed in such a manner. However, this monument cannot be seen in any public square. Because the sea in the Macedonian Tower is never calm, because the tower is alive. To my utmost joy. And if that sea should ever calm, the Macedonian tower would solidify into a cold monument and so would our collective vigour.
The Macedonian Tower and bricolage. All nations are young at birth. What precedes them are historical divisions. No nation in the Balkans can substantiate any claim to primacy as an indigenous people. The state of Macedonia, as a constituent in Balkan history, shares the fate of its Balkan neighbours and at the same time marks its essence within national borders. Macedonian history resembles a bricolage. This attribute can be substantiated as it refers to historical crossings, mergers and dialogues between different civilizations and cultural models, each of which has left an imprint of the time when they dominated this area and all of which are reflected in the later creation of national discourse. When we discuss the development of the Macedonian state, in accordance with 19th century trends of national ideas and the creation of national states, we have in mind on the one hand a bricolage of cultural memory, oral history, myths, legendary reality, folklore, etc., while on the other hand we refer to the written documentation of this history and its often antagonistic context, where the influences of different cultural paradigms are lodged, most often applied through the discourse of war, negation, denial and humiliation.
The proclamation of the independent and legitimate Republic of Macedonia in 1991 following the dissolution of the Yugoslav federal family was a key event in the more recent history of the Macedonian state and came as a result and as a confirmation of Macedonia’s historical and cultural existence and continued survival. The bricolage of the state nevertheless lacks a definitive form. It exists in an incessant dialogue, in a process which entails antagonism: on one side are the dynamism, prudence and imprudence of strategic political discourse in the country, its past and its open intertwining with the present and its desire to join the major road of the EU and NATO, whereby these international factors have acquired exceptional importance in the present-day bricolage of Macedonia; on the other side is the intensity and reiteration of all this, so loudly and noisily, that it becomes, at this crucial moment for the homeland, an exceptionally important historical, ontological, aesthetic and civilizational issue.
One of the essential characteristics of the development and survival of ‘small’ nations—not small in terms of their civilizational and cultural input but in their economic and political power and stability, which again brings us back to the issue of nationality—is the need for continuous referral to the past. The contemporary Macedonian state has decided to adhere to this trend while following two completely different paths: the first leading to the desired past of Antiquity; the other to the larger Slavic family. By doing this, the prevalent political discourse creates a new bricolage, further supported and reinforced by the absence of any critical discourse or sufficiently powerful institutional voice, thus producing an increasingly brazen political strategy. Bearing in mind that Macedonia’s past is an amalgam of various cultural models (of Antiquity, of Byzantium, of the Slavs, of the Ottomans) and influences (Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc.) and their intermittent domination in this area, this focus on the past, this re-examination and insistence on proving one’s own authentic input, might be justified. However, this should also imply that, when past things are shared with one’s neighbours in the course of history, no one has the absolute and irrevocable right to appropriate cultural benefits as exclusively their own. In this sense, the right of the Macedonian state should also be respected as irrevocable. Unfortunately, political discourse utilizes this focus on the past as a strategy for its glorious re-actualization in order to enliven the dumb present in some miraculous manner. The past can earn a new form of existence through its co-existence with the needs of the new time and its modern aesthetics, including the drive towards the EU. Any other approach to it would only transform Macedonia into a yearning, into an emotive saga, and would operate as a non-visionary approach to its cultural semiotics while at the same time depleting its power for inclusiveness and transforming Macedonia into a dissident state. This dissident position would not be limited to a potentially isolated Macedonian stance as a mute monument, and would not affect only its status within European institutions, but also its imagological past, which is the very object of desire of political discourse. Thus the present and the future remain preserved in their mute, transfixed position while over there proceeds the glorious march back to the past.
An interesting question arises: Where does the past end? Where does the past begin in the eyes of the political world? The focus on the past essentially affirms the viewpoint: backwards. This type of focalization includes abundant mythology and legendary reality, many characters, heroes and stories shared with neighbouring peoples, many wars, many different geographical maps, and ultimately, a history which belongs to us all. However, the responsibility of national discourse in modern times and its affirmation in the world of today definitely lies elsewhere: in the present. In this sense, the old stories deserve dignified and serious argumentation in reality—the key viewpoint which can make the move towards is: forward. And if we are to discuss the semiotics of axiology, the awareness of origins—this awareness understood as a constant of the feeling of belonging and ease in the homeland, then it becomes necessary to build and speak through a new discourse different from that which exists here and now. This is that key moment of shifting the viewpoint as a possibility for attaining a decisive distance from the past and for seeing the present as becoming the past. It will become and include the future. It will become remembering. A present which will become a text to be read and interpreted in the future. At this moment, the present is writing a strange text for the future. Let us clarify this. If the old forms fail to attain a new expression that correspond with the present time—time much less concerned with the imagology of the past and much more with a new reality, even in a pedagogical sense—and, above all, if they fail to attain an institutional value of the historical-culturological axiology— the semiotic-hermeneutic discourse of the awareness of origins will stay forever far removed from the sense of confidence and dignity of these two million people. This leaves a gaze frozen like the cold face of a sculpture, perfectly confident but always turned backwards because the sculptor has lost power over the creation.
The ideological stance of current political discourse remains unclear, as does its semiotic significance in the act of resurrecting a past which belongs to the void as an emotional need to institutionalize characters from the unknown past in the present, despite there being no written documents to substantiate the claims of this project. Language and writing are fundamental characteristics of every culture, nation and civilization. Macedonians attained both of these and their evolution can be followed in entirety from the second half of the IXth century to the present day. During this period, no other peoples in the world called themselves Macedonians or availed themselves of a language and writing codified with the attribute ‘Macedonian’. And this attribute is certainly not of ordinary significance but also has ontological value. It is thus incomprehensible that political strategy, through projects which are megalomaniac in character, manifests a need to establish a connection between the ethno-genetic inclusiveness of Alexander the Great of Macedon and the origins of the Macedonian peoples and its national context. Through a manifest affirmation of legendary Antiquity and its mythologized reality, the current political discourse defies scientific, objective and national discourse. On the other hand, this great conqueror and instigator of the ecumenical idea of creating a world empire spread Hellenistic thought in Greek in all his campaigns. His great civilizational ‘mistake’ was that he failed to preserve his own language and writing, thus preventing us from opening the issue of possible ethno-genetic relatedness and any attempt to institutionalize this at a national level. The language of the ancient Macedonian entity is a missing link, an absent linguistic artefact. Every unrecorded language is a dead language, a language which has failed to experience literacy. The written remnants of ancient Macedonian are merely lexical crumbs on the basis of which no reconstruction of the language of the ancient Macedonians is possible,1 let alone any discussion of its status as a subject of study. The loss of all traces of ancient Macedonian ethnicity and the fact that its language never gained written form is part of a process of oblivion and a matter for regret that a people who used to exist failed to survive through the civilisational values of the language and writting to the present day. Anything more than this would represent incomprehensible nostalgia and poetic desire which could be valorized only through the power of poetic language and not through the lens of scientific discourse.
Regarding the survival of peoples today, an approach which involves legendary Antiquity and mythologized reality differs decisively from a methodological, scientific approach to textual monuments. This is confirmed in particular by the example of the so-called ‘small’ nations, including the Macedonian. On the other hand, this comprised the basis of the national revival and the subsequent development of Macedonian language, writing and literature based upon the old Slavonic matrix that serves both as an archive and source for the tradition of the Macedonian people and of their continued existence to the present day.
The Macedonian Tower and the Renaissance. The Macedonian Tower has one crucial characteristic: it has never experienced a renaissance and the place of such cultural formation remains empty. It appears that the Macedonian Tower moved from the Slavic-Byzantine age through the Ottoman period directly into the age of communist social order. At this very moment, meanwhile, the Macedonian state is experiencing a renaissance motivated and launched by the power of the political elite—a form of renaissance which certainly merits our interest.
Renaissance as a stylistic period from 1350 to the first half of the 15th century is a fact acknowledged by the world and refers to a concept of rebirth sought through the restoration and regeneration of ancient values and their pedagogic function in the context of the syntagm of the free man—man removed from theological discourse. In this sense, it denotes a passage from the medieval theological epoch to modern times. The current Macedonian renaissance demonstrates certain similarities to the old renaissance model of ordering the world through the restoration of characters from the past, especially evident in the treatment of the character of Alexander the Great of Macedon, in the placing of original sculptures from Antiquity (retrieved from various archaeological sites) at the entrance to the building of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, and the concept of the Skopje 2014 project. But all this only promotes the souvenir connotations of the past through political-strategic submission and serves to augment spiritual-cultural semiotics. In this sense, not only can we descry this as a parody of a renaissance model at an ideological level in contemporary times, we can also identify in it an undervaluing of archaeological findings which have existed and been exhibited in Macedonian localities for a long time (Stobi, Carevi Kuli, Plaošnik) but which have not been affirmed in civilizational, culturological and institutional contexts in a deserving and dignified manner. Instead of contemplating a glorious renaissance at an institutional level (including developing cultural tourism in the Republic of Macedonia), and instead of showing due respect and recognition to monuments and artefacts from Antiquity that might lead to greater knowledge about the historical and spiritual contents of remnants from Antiquity on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia (remnants which, together with their Christianized variants, express the deep cultural, culturological, sociological and aesthetic virtue of Macedonia), those in political authority are developing a new type of antagonism. They desire to resurrect the past as a phoenix, one of the most significant semiotic signifiers of rebirth in the renaissance, but with some absolutely incomprehensible meaning. The dominant political discourse resembles the work of a sculptor creating a new profile of the nation on the basis of the imagological past. This political discourse attempts to function like a Pop Art cartoon; but not even in Pop Art does ‘anything go’. Political authoritarianism thus once again undermines the power of science, the power of language, the ontology of art, the hermeneutics of achievement of all that makes and justifies Macedonia and maintains the continuity of its authenticity, aesthetics and polyphony—all that truly makes Macedonia beautiful! It defies belief that the Republic of Macedonia still lacks Institutes of Byzantology or Balkanology. It is a tragic fact that the best graduates have been leaving the state University of ”Ss. Cyril and Methodius“, while the Institute for Macedonian Literature has had only three experts in its Department for Medieval Literature for a decade, and only two since last year. Not only will they have no one to replace them, but also the crucial Slavic cultural model—which has been the source of awareness of the origins of the Macedonian people and which, no doubt, should have a high priority position in the national interest—has been seriously questioned in institutional contexts. The political discourse of the renaissance revival yet again exhibits an extremely paradoxical attitude towards the Macedonian past and a complete lack of care for the present.
After the fall of Byzantium and after the slow decline of five centuries of Ottoman rule in this area, the first half of the 19th century saw a period of revival and enlightenment which should undoubtedly be considered as typically ‘renaissance’ in its attributes. This serves as an important confirmation of Macedonian openness to modern times, to European developments and trends through the value placed on human liberty. In this sense, we will only refer to care for language as a central humanistic quality, language which departed from its church-Slavonic variant of the past and adopted a form closer to the language spoken by the people—the abandonment of the theological-liturgical for the sake of a new axiological sign and a new continual educational process for the people. This development did not involve any break of continuity in the evolution and tradition of the language and its Slavic roots. Rather, this development demonstrated the essential dynamic and modelling power of language and writing in step with new times. Consequently, we can assert that Macedonian reality embraced the humanistic approach, which always entails a poly-dimensional approach to the value of the human factor, the modern individual creator positioned outside the scholastic paradigm. By contrast, the attitude of the present-day renaissance in Macedonia rather resembles a mythological return to a time when it did not exist (mythical time), in which no-one knows when anything happened (mythical reality), skipping cultural evolution and socio-cultural inclusion. The current Macedonian renaissance resembles a resurrection of the mythological beginnings of the creation of the world. This is why it is incomprehensible that we should invent new biblical beginnings when they were recorded long ago in the Book of Genesis. Why should we separate the earth from the sky when God has already done so? Why should we create Adam and Eve anew?
European renaissance poetics announced a break with the theologized medieval epoch. In Macedonia today, the current renaissance model does not exclude religious discourse. On the contrary, it retains this discourse and does so through the adoption of a conservative rather than a modern approach. To clarify further, the Republic of Macedonia possesses an abundance of archaeological sites, early Christian basilicas, magnificent frescoes and church buildings, many of whose foundations were subsequently built upon by mosques but with an uninterrupted continuity of monasticism which has survived as a living institute to the present day, and not only in terms of active liturgical life but also in the continuity and legitimacy of ancient monasticism. It thus seems redundant to build new churches and mosques on Skopje’s small city square while the old religious monuments, especially those from the earliest periods, have been left to the mercy of the winds of time. Given this wealth of sacred monuments, in only some of which there continues any active liturgical life, would it not be more logical for Macedonia to strategically organize and make use of the remaining monuments as open museums, theatres, and concert halls? In this way visual semiotics could become daily, living referents of the Macedonian cultural and national milieu, and contain high axiology, artistic aesthetics making them accessible for new research at a world level. The small Macedonian space has already been densely ‘populated’ with monuments of this type. Why should these centuries-old buildings be added to with new ones when the scientific argumentation about them has not been sufficiently researched and institutionally treated? They hold within themselves not only past times, speech, civilization, originality and life, but also an entire new science. And science in Macedonia needs results, in the real sense of the word. It does not need a renaissance project as a ‘flightless flight’. Macedonia needs a science based on the treatment of original artefacts which cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Macedonia needs science. This strategic move would be a genuine renaissance within an institutional framework. What is needed is constant building and reinforcement of the country’s institutional system—a system that has long been loose and shaky. A state lacking sound and firm scientific institutions will be forced to repeatedly defend its roots—roots which, although clear and of high civilizational value, have not undergone the scientific treatment and affirmation they deserve, neither in the country of their origin or internationally. Scientific argumentation and proof is eternal; it is the greatest and irrevocable root of origin of the Macedonian state, people, language culture and life. This would be a form of renaissance we could support!
It is a matter of immense concern that an ever-higher proportion of young educated people are leaving Macedonia (brain drain) while the state fails to develop any strategy to stem this brain-drain, i.e. to motivate or retain such people as its greatest resource and potential for the future. The government campaign entitled ‘Knowledge is your strength, knowledge is your power’ may sound attractive, but in reality nothing has changed at all. Knowledge as a critical attitude towards reality is still only a dissident phenomenon in the face of the power of mechanical political ignorance of knowledge as strength and power. Meanwhile, the political campaign to encourage families to have a third child appears paradoxical, hypocritical and sad when demographic factors are ignored and the state’s existing human capital and intellectual fund is not nurtured. The continuity needed would bring self-awareness, awareness of national resources, awareness of the past, all of which would have the power to withstand denials, negations, negative naming, identity and language policies. The Macedonian Tower now faces internal antagonism of the worst type. I do not wish to believe that one day—perhaps tomorrow, for it might be very soon indeed—there will be no-one to mention us, quote us, only a colourful array of monuments and a thick layer of dust over the abundance of archaeological material stored in depots with no scientific valorisation apart from a signature and photographic copy. This would be an unpleasant image of the Macedonian Tower as a strange, mysterious Kafkaesque castle. Behind the silence of the institutions, too long closed to younger scientists, there is a terrible noise. The last only confirms the undignified handling of the power of knowledge in the Republic of Macedonia.
I believe that knowledge conquers fear. All great civilizations were born thus. They were not born for the past; but ‘when the boat reached those distant lands’2 it continued ahead. That is why I believe in science (as much I do not believe in pseudo-science) as a possible tool to resolve antagonism and bring harmony into the world—to my homeland in particular, so that dialogue can become cosmic and embrace the rest of the world not so far, after all, from the geographical borders of the Macedonian Tower and containing it within them.
The Homeland. All that has been written down is an indelible trace. Like a scar. Remembering is wisdom—an offering to the table of the future. Our ancestors remembered, and the wise Marko Cepenkov recorded memories as stories, poems, sayings, prayers… Oral history possesses wisdom. Written history possesses the truth about that wisdom, the truth about the Macedonian Tower. How can I tell the story of myself without knowing the story about my homeland, my home—the greatest of all possible authorities?
Translated and proofread by: Maria and Matthew Jones