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Milorad Pavic, RIP
December 20, 2009 6:39 PM   Subscribe


 
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posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by naju at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2009


Not content to subvert convention within books, Mr. Pavic also did so across books. On his instructions, “Dictionary of the Khazars” was issued simultaneously in two editions, called “male” and “female.” They differed in only a single paragraph, buried deep in the novel.

As Mr. Pavic hastened to point out, readers should not feel obliged to own both editions. “That’s like incest,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. “If you have chosen the male or female version, read it and then find somebody who has the other.”


Neat.
posted by Artw at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2009


I liked Dictionary of the Khazars. Sounds like he had a long and distinguished life.

The tag says "serianliterature" which will not be very helpful to people looking for Serbian literature, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by juv3nal at 6:47 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by b1tr0t at 6:49 PM on December 20, 2009


I have never heard of this author before, but I love writers who dissect and play with language in this way. Thanks for introducing me to him. Sorry to see him gone.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:54 PM on December 20, 2009


Ahhhhh...I loved Dictionary of the Khazars. (I have the female version.) I should read it again, because it's been almost 20 years.

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posted by bakerina at 6:58 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by Falconetti at 7:13 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by clockbound at 7:21 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by hot soup girl at 7:22 PM on December 20, 2009


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That's a real shame, I liked the way he seemed to enjoy writing his different novels in their own particular styles. I think that to mention him in the same breath as Italo Calvino is a correct thing to do.
Also, for those who haven't read it, The Dictionary of the Khazars. But buy the book too. I did. For more of his writings, an autobiobraphy, a bibliography and reviews, go here.
posted by Zack_Replica at 7:26 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Loved his books, shame about his Serbian nationalist politics. Then again, Hamsun & Pound were similarly questionable outside of their work.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:42 PM on December 20, 2009


I'm very conflicted as to how I should feel about this guy and his work. On the one hand, when I was first exposed to Dictionary of the Khazars as fiction qua fiction, it immediately established itself as one of my favorite novels. But I was horrified to discover (via, I seem to recall, a languagehat comment) that Pavić was a hardcore Serbian nationalist, having actively supported the ethnic cleansing of Croats and indeed having claimed that Dictionary was a political allegory, with the Khazars as a stand-in for the Serbs and the three Abrahamic religions representing the "inferior civilizations" threatening to absorb them.

Then again, upon the book's original publication, he appears to have denied that the Khazars were meant to represent the Serbs. So I really don't know whether I'm right in viewing the book as tainted -- perhaps Pavić wrote it without political intentions and later tried to recast it as a polemical tool. In any case, I don't know enough about Balkan geopolitical history to make that judgment on my own.

For his prose alone, though: .
posted by decagon at 7:45 PM on December 20, 2009


UbuRoivas linked to the comment I was talking about.
posted by decagon at 7:46 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by MXJ1983 at 7:47 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by phooky at 8:08 PM on December 20, 2009


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posted by Schmucko at 8:38 PM on December 20, 2009


But I was horrified to discover (via, I seem to recall, a languagehat comment) that Pavić was a hardcore Serbian nationalist, having actively supported the ethnic cleansing of Croats and indeed having claimed that Dictionary was a political allegory, with the Khazars as a stand-in for the Serbs and the three Abrahamic religions representing the "inferior civilizations" threatening to absorb them ... Then again, upon the book's original publication, he appears to have denied that the Khazars were meant to represent the Serbs.

It seems that the mind-eater operates in feilds outside Science Fiction.

I'm really not sure what happened in 1992. It sounds like the country was pretty normal and integrated till 1992, and then boom! hateful xenophobic nationalism takes root everywhere and becomes the dominant force in politics, and everything crumbles to shit.

Possibly the difference in claims made in 1988 and in 2002 reflect this.
posted by Artw at 8:43 PM on December 20, 2009


It's profoundly depressing to me that we do such a good job of discussing / memorializing genocidal actions which took places before long many of us were born, but we pay tribute to ardent supporters of similar actions which took place so recently.

I'm only in my mid-thirties today, but I was an adult even when Pavic expressed his gleeful joy at the state-sponsored Serbian actions which sought to eliminate various peoples, including my own, the Bosnian Muslims from the face of the Earth. This isn't "old" history at all. Many of Pavic's works - especially his most famous, Dictionary Of The Khazars - were essentially paranoid nationalist allegories about the holiness of the Serbian people.

I don't blame those who pay tribute to a man who served murderous monsters so easily and willingly. I'll assume they didn't know any better. Pavic was considered a treasure by the Serbian people. For many, Pavic's words shaped opinions and beliefs. His writing and his spoken commentary carried a hefty moral weight. Although he would not have ever been found guilty of war crimes himself, he gave succour and a rationale to those who engaged in mass rapes, the slaughter of men, women and children and the destruction of entire communities.

One could argue that he couldn't know the horrors his writings would support. But even after the horrors occurred, he took great joy in them. He took particular glee in the complete and utter destruction of Vukovar (a Croatian city near the Serbian border), which was among the bloodiest battles in post-WWII. It's especially depressing to note that he lived only a few dozen miles from Vukovar, knew many people there and was able to witness the slaughter nearly firsthand. And still he championed it! In Serbia, when speaking Serbo-Croatian, he happily espoused his true pro-genocidal beliefs; he denied them when Western journalists came calling. I can't respect supporters of genocide at all, but somehow I respect them even less when they disguise their true hate and intolerance.

Perhaps hundreds of years from now, his work will be enjoyed by a people who simply have no context for the sort of damage he helped cause. But I write to you as a living young person who lost everything but her own life - family, home, possessions, friends, school - because of Pavic and others like him.

btw UbuRoivas: I can't claim to know a whole lot about Knut Hamsun and Ezra Pound, but from what I've read of their work, it does not appear to be based as strongly in their repellent beliefs as Pavic's. And they have, quite rightfully, been diminished in the minds of many for their beliefs - and continue to be. Pavic's beliefs weren't only a stronger part of his work, but they appear to be overlooked. I've yet to see an obituary or American-based article in major media on him which even dares mention his support of nationalist genocide.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:08 PM on December 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


Admiring the work of the artist does not require you to agree with the views of the artist, or even like them as human beings.

that's the great thing about art.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:22 PM on December 20, 2009


I'm really not sure what happened in 1992. It sounds like the country was pretty normal and integrated till 1992, and then boom! hateful xenophobic nationalism takes root everywhere and becomes the dominant force in politics, and everything crumbles to shit.

You know, that probably sounds really crazy to you because it isn't at all an accurate depiction of anything other than (perhaps) that of the horribly misguided perception of "the West" - a part of the world that simply wasn't paying any attention at all, until things simply got too bad to ignore. For all the crap about the situation being very hard to understand, I could distill it down to about a paragraph (and have done countless times.) I don't mean to criticize you, but there are dozens of books which explain "what happened in 1992" well enough to make you readily see how your synopsis is a sad mistatement of reality. It's a sad story, but one without any sudden "boom"-style magical events.

Possibly the difference in claims made in 1988 and in 2002 reflect this.

In Serbia, even in recent years, Pavic did not shy away from claims that his books were Serbian nationalistic allegories. Nor did he ever denounce his extreme nationalism. This is acceptable enough in Serbia that one can talk about it openly. Not so outside the country, which is probably why he denied it outside Serbia. (As I've alluded to in my previous post.) But don't mistake this duplicitous banter for a change of heart.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:22 PM on December 20, 2009


I'm very conflicted as to how I should feel about this guy and his work.

Once the work is written, it leaves possession of the author. Even if he "intended" that it be an allegory in support of genocide, it is great art because it goes far beyond such ideas. Feel one way about the person. Feel another way about the art. If we judged everything produced based on the ethical and morals of the people involved in producing them, then we'd live in a vast wasteland of nothingness because we'd have to reject everything. Or, what Henry C. Mabuse said.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:31 PM on December 20, 2009


Once the work is written, it leaves possession of the author. Even if he "intended" that it be an allegory in support of genocide, it is great art because it goes far beyond such ideas.

Yeah, I can't really side with that. I don't think any artwork's aesthetic qualities can really be divorced from the context in which it was produced. (I know, this is the same Triumph of the Will debate that never goes away.)

As I mentioned above, I was emotionally affected by the novel when I first read it (before learning anything about the author or the situation it allegorizes), and I can still, if I try hard, appreciate the craft that went into it. But a work advocating genocide is a work advocating genocide, and I don't think any amount of Borgesian fantasy can artistically salvage something in that category.
posted by decagon at 9:45 PM on December 20, 2009


the work was great; the man, not so much.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:48 PM on December 20, 2009



I don't blame those who pay tribute to a man who served murderous monsters so easily and willingly. I'll assume they didn't know any better.


Our money is adorned with the faces of men who owned slaves long after they "knew better." Truman is universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. He nuked Japan. Twice. Is he great in spite of that? Or because of it? We sent men to the moon not only with the help of former Nazi SS scientists, but under their guidance and direction. We are, today, buying products made by children and prisoners under forced labor conditions in other countries. Are we monsters?

I understand that this is very personal to you, and his personal beliefs may well be odious, but of what relevance are his beliefs? Aristotle is one of history's great thinkers and teachers of philosophy. Alexander the Great was his pupil. We revere Alexander and Julius Caesar as great, but how many did they slaughter in the name of expanding their empire? The raped their way so thoroughly across the face of the earth that even today Roman genes can in Ireland and Macedonian genes can be found in Asia. These men were great. We copy their art, their architecture, their ideas, and their societies. We have no choice but to make them great, because we believe ourselves to be great and so much of what we do emulates them.

This man's beliefs were monstrous. Did he ever order an attack, or pull a trigger?

When people's words or deeds can easily be used to serve our ends, we take them without regard to their original creator's meaning or intent in creating them. That applies to monomaniacal politicians who rely on their cultural elites for intellectual cover as it does to us today citing completely out of context the words and actions of history's greatest figures.

This guy may have been the single greatest monster in the history of the planet. But that does not in the least answer the question: are his books any good?
posted by Pastabagel at 9:59 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think any artwork's aesthetic qualities can really be divorced from the context in which it was produced.

Conversely then, how do you divorce Jefferson's words "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" from the inherent hypocrisy of them, that he himself did not treat black men as he treated white men, nor did he treat women as he treated men? In none of the state constitutions he drafted did anyone other than one men get the right to vote or serve in office, and furthermore those white men had to be landowners.

It may help to understand a text to understand the psychology of the writer or to understand the context in which a work was created to understand its importance. But for the work to be anything more than a historical curiosity, it has to stand on its own.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:05 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


a work advocating genocide is a work advocating genocide, and I don't think any amount of Borgesian fantasy can artistically salvage something in that category.

Unless, of course, the fantasy is the one in The Library of Babel, wherein the works in question are merely random arrangements of characters, which happen to end up as books that are meaningful to the human reader.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:14 PM on December 20, 2009


✡ ✝ ☪

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posted by lekvar at 10:15 PM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


As an aside, let's be clear: Pound later completely disavowed his virulent anti-Semitism.

The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism. - Ezra Pound
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:47 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think any artwork's aesthetic qualities can really be divorced from the context in which it was produced.

That is a completely different statement from, "This guy believed horrible things, and thus I can't like any of his works." I'm not talking about divorcing it from its context or not saying, Hey, Pavic wrote this book in some sense as a Serbian nationalist allegory. But reading the book and appreciating it doesn't somehow force you into alignment with his views. The text doesn't have that power over you, and reading it in light of only one aspect of its creation (the author's views) is pretty one-dimensional.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:19 PM on December 20, 2009


Our money is adorned with the faces of men who owned slaves long after they "knew better." Truman is universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. He nuked Japan. Twice. Is he great in spite of that? Or because of it? We sent men to the moon not only with the help of former Nazi SS scientists, but under their guidance and direction. We are, today, buying products made by children and prisoners under forced labor conditions in other countries. Are we monsters?

Of course, this is all misleading pap; argument via the method of throwing so many misleading rhetorical questions at the argument that most people won't bother to respond.

I'd make the argument that those who owned slaves are certainly not venerated for doing so, but for achievements unlinked to the slave ownership. I'd also argue that the sort of mindless hagiographic way in which these people are viewed has diminished in recent, more enlightened times, except by Sean Hannity types who probably do privately view slavery as a wonderful thing. From what I've read of American history, views of Jefferson, Washington et al are increasingly critical of many aspects of their lives.

But most importantly, Jefferson's writing transcended his personal flaws. Although he owned slaves himself, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence was at cross purposes with his life, promising liberty for all men . . . even if it took many years for all human beings to be fully considered "men" in the spirit we now see it. His work, in other words, was not intended to justify his less-than-noble aspects.

Truman is viewed well now, but left office with lower numbers than Richard Nixon. (And that bit about being "universally acknowledged" is crap; I've read loads of severe criticisms of his presidency.) It's generally perceived that the atom bombs dropped on Japan saved many lives on both sides. I don't envy his having to make that decision. His motivation for the decision is understood to be humane. Had he wanted to punish Japan, he could have presumably bombed the entire country into non-existence. He didn't. It was a calculated effort to end the war and save lives. One can debate whether that worked (although there's a positive consensus), but the fact is that his difficult decision wasn't made out of malice or vengeance or anything worse than faith in a mathematical calculation for the best outcome for ending the war with the fewest casualties.

You get the idea, even if you're neglecting / obscuring the fact that many people don't admire the people you mention. You're also loading your arguments with false assumptions. I find a lot not to admire in the Founding Fathers. I think those who champion Truman ignore many of his flaws, and I wish these were better known. (In his retirement, Truman met his best friend daily back in Independence, MO. But his friend never set foot in Truman's house, for the simple reason that he was a Jew.) The decision to use Nazi scientists in American scientific efforts was widely debated at the time, seen negatively by many and unknown to most Americans today - too swept up in the achivement of moon travel to understand its connection to slave labor in Nazi camps. We are not monsters in buying things made under oppressive conditions. If you want to engage in (say) any aspect of 21st Century life using electronics (like your computer) you have no practical choice, or at least no way of determining the "purity" of anything you buy. Those of you who don't fight against unfair labor practices and try your best to boycott such practices probably have something to be ashamed of, though.

The bottom line is something like this:

Slavery in the time of Washington (et al) was a de facto (and generally inherited) situation. Generally speaking, the Founding Fathers made amends. Too few for sure, and generally too late as well, but enough so that it's fair to say that in as much as slavery was even understood to be "wrong," its purpose was not to bring joy to the slaveholders.

Truman took no joy in nuking anyone, as far as anyone knows.

There is no evidence that the former Nazi scientists who worked for NASA took joy in the fact that there work had roots in real evil.

We take no joy in the fact that our clothes, toys (etc) are made in horrible conditions.

But Milorad Pavic took absolute joy in knowing that the messages he conveyed in his "art" were being carried out in real time, with devastating results for hundreds of thousands of people. Dictionary of the Khazars may be well-written or "clever," but it is, as the author intended, a work ultimately meant to justify the (false) "protectionist" genocide that Serbia committed. It's a call to murder and destruction. When these occurred, Pavic rejoiced. If you can't read it that way (and I suspect most people here don't know enough Serbian nationalistic mythology to do so adequately) then you're either not fit to judge, or you're finding something in the book which was other than what the author intended, an accident . . . in which case, why are you giving him credit?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:30 PM on December 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't think any artwork's aesthetic qualities can really be divorced from the context in which it was produced.

Conversely then, how do you divorce Jefferson's words "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" from the inherent hypocrisy of them, that he himself did not treat black men as he treated white men


I can't quite figure out how to respond to this, since I don't think it's even remotely analogous to anything I was discussing. But here's my best attempt: No, the fact that Thomas Jefferson failed to treat people equally (by, among other things, raping slaves) does not invalidate his writings in favor of legal equality and individual rights. If, however, it turned out that the Declaration of Independence was actually some kind of allegorical tribute to rape, then, yeah, its rhetorical power would be severely diminished -- even if it had never before been interpreted that way.
posted by decagon at 11:35 PM on December 20, 2009


you're finding something in the book which was other than what the author intended, an accident . . . in which case, why are you giving him credit?

One of the interesting things about Dictionary is precisely that it explicitly invites the reader to construct their own path through the text. It seems to me that all readings are accidents: the collision of our own mood, knowledge, vocabulary/facility with the language, previous readings, experiences etc. with the words on the page (this is true of any text, not just Dictionary). Are these accidents "intended"? Certainly the author puts certain cars on the road, pedestrians on the sidewalks and imbues them with directionality and speed, but what happens next is in the reader's head.
posted by juv3nal at 1:18 AM on December 21, 2009


The relationship between an artist and his or her art is one of my pet struggles. This thread has made one thing clear to me: it is as stupid to try to establish 'rules' or 'policies' that apply to everyone's relationships with all works of art at all times as it is to try to invent similar rules that might apply to all people's relationships between all people at all times.

Just as people will not relate to other people the way you think they will, or the way you think they should, people will not relate to art according to how you think they will or should.

You will learn more about the relationship between people and art by observing how people actually do relate to art than by postulating how you think they should from first principles.

Take the example of the relationship between a daughter and her father who abused her sexually when she was young. How do you think she should react toward him? Do you think she should unequivocally despise him? Do you think she should forgive him? Do you think there should be a rule that dictates the particulars of all father-daughter relationships that fit this description?

So there is no rule for how all people will or should relate to the work of an artist who in his personal life was immoral, or any artist, or any piece of art. Regardless of how you think people should police their aesthetic life, people will continue to like what they like, and take bits of inspiration and insight where they can find it. They will also continue to feel guilty when they hear one of their favourite artists was actually a monster, moreso if it seems that that monsterness informed the propositional content of the work, moreso if it's a form of monsterness that offends them personally or for whatever reason they feel loathe to be aligned with.

They will also forget to apply this rule constantly. Just as, with extraordinarily limited cognitive resources, we for the most part only run ethical algorithms when it suits us best or when we happen to think of it or when we're told we're supposed to, and multiply that patchy/incomplete process of application many times over for the people we associate with—so an exhortation to dislike or disapprove of a work of art will probably only be met with the reaction the exhorter seeks, after the initial sensation of rhetoric fades, if it happens to be convenient for the exhorted and if that particular issue happens to matter to them. How much good does it do to point out to someone in an abusive relationship that abuses of the abuser? How much effect is there in telling a husband his wife killed someone? What would you do if you found out the love of your life was a pedophile? It's all just competing interests in irrational hearts. There are no rules for these things, and there are no rules for the relationship between a person and a work of art.

If you can't read it that way (and I suspect most people here don't know enough Serbian nationalistic mythology to do so adequately) then you're either not fit to judge, or you're finding something in the book which was other than what the author intended, an accident . . . in which case, why are you giving him credit?


This displays either a very radical rejection of Barthes' death-of-the-author thesis, or an ignorance of it. Either way, it may be helpful in this discussion to point out that many people, myself included, don't give even a little bit of a shit about what any author's intentions were for his or her work. I have no access to them (interview comments being totally prone to post-hoc rationalizations and other obscuring factors, and just generally not at all = to what was actually going on the author's brain at the time of creation), and I'm not interested in guessing them. My experience was with the text, and more specifically the interpretation of the text I happened to create as I was reading it, and as such any more “objective” instantiation of the work is not only inaccessible to me, but irrelevant to me, since it's not was I was engaging with, art-experiencer to work-of-art. I don't care if you think I'm “misinterpreting” a work, because my interest isn't in getting the “correct” experience from a work of art. “Finding something in the book which was other than what the author intended” is, for all I know or care, all I ever do. FWIW though, if I say I like a work of art, I'm not giving the artist “credit” so much as commenting on my own experience of it. To my mind, the artist gets credit for creating something which is sufficiently complex and compelling to induce an interesting experience, but no more.

I can be, and often am, interested in all those other things—the artist's intentions, what critical authorities think it “means”—but at that point I'm considering it not as a work of art but as a cultural artifact. And at that point, like with say Triumph of the Will, the idea of ethically-legislated or ethically-originating censure is moot.
posted by skwt at 1:38 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Huh, I had no idea. I was not even a particular fan, although I did enjoy that the Dictionary seemed to get more attention than similar works of non-standard narrative. I considered him worthy of a post simply due to that.

I tend to come down on the side of those who have a hard time venerating the work of artists who take odious political positions. On the one hand, I think it's very infrequent that people are able to take those types of positions without having them infect their art. On the other, I don't think that simply producing art, however defined, is enough to excuse such willful bad behavior. Obviously personal failings are legion, it is the rank political prejudices that I have a particularly hard time with. Further, frankly, I think there are enough astounding artists that we need not celebrate those who chose to advocate shitty positions.

I'm sorry that I didn't know this about Pavic as I would not have made this post.
posted by OmieWise at 5:22 AM on December 21, 2009


Oh Fuckmonster, Dictionary Of the Khazars was a Big Book for me in High School. Argh.


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posted by The Whelk at 6:28 AM on December 21, 2009


and of course I new nothing about the politics behind it so now I'm just gonna walk around feeling kinda icky all day.
posted by The Whelk at 6:30 AM on December 21, 2009


I'd like to thank Ubu and Dee for providing the necessary background. I can't mourn this man.
posted by languagehat at 7:34 AM on December 21, 2009


Hear, hear. Good riddance, great writer or not.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:04 AM on December 21, 2009


Wow. Makes me wonder whether art is worth it. Dictionary of the Khazars is a great book, and I was enriched for having read it. But learning about the man who wrote it, I have to wonder if having that in the world was worth having him in it, or if we would have been better off without the art if it meant not having quite so much hate.
posted by Naberius at 8:06 AM on December 21, 2009


I'd like to retract my .
posted by b1tr0t at 9:27 AM on December 21, 2009


Ahh crap. Guess I'll be avoiding his work after all.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:30 AM on December 21, 2009


I have to wonder if having that in the world was worth having him in it, or if we would have been better off without the art if it meant not having quite so much hate.

False dichotomy. Artists that directly and enthusiastically support genocidal regimes are the exception rather than the rule.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:32 AM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. I had no idea of Pavic's politics when making my comment, and when I was first introduced to him, finding background on the man wasn't easy. I'd originally read 'The Dictionary' at face value, and the Khazars as being a disappeared nation kept alive in memory by the three dictionaries, and nothing more than that.
After reading the comments in the thread, I retract my comment on 'Calvino and Pavic being mentioned in the same breath'. Calvino dreamt wonderful dreams for us. Pavic... apparently not really at all.
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:47 AM on December 21, 2009


I worked as a translator for Pavic briefly in the nineties, and knew him personally during that period. I feel compelled to comment as I am quite taken aback by the allegations above that he took great joy in the horrors of the Yugoslav war.

It seems only one second-hand account of his position on the conflict is actually referenced in this discussion, by a Croatian source that can hardly be considered independent.

Can someone point me to credible sources?
posted by Dragonness at 11:59 AM on December 21, 2009


Many of Pavic's works - especially his most famous, Dictionary Of The Khazars - were essentially paranoid nationalist allegories about the holiness of the Serbian people.

Well, ick. I enjoyed the book at the time particularly because of its metafictional cleverness and dream-like narrative, and certainly didn't have the historical/cultural background to see a Serbian-nationalist theme.

Assuming that what you say is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt you), I feel as though I was fooled by a really, really good three-card monte guy in some way. On the other hand, I can still appreciate the technical skill in retrospect.

There's room for Pavic in my bin of "authors whose basic philosophy I have tremendous trouble with, but whose technique and skill I admire" along with Henri de Montherlant and Celine. And Kipling, for that matter.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:18 PM on December 21, 2009


I think the disagreement being expressed here is due to a fundamentally different conception of reading. To say that I enjoyed DotK (which I did, and which I will continue to do) is not to say that I in any way endorse or agree with Pavic's alleged nationalism or genocidal fantasies (which I don't) nor that I don't understand them (although I do not know much about Serbian politics/history) or even that I like Pavic as a person.

(some jumbled and incoherent thoughts)

On the issue of authorial intention... asserting that intention trumps all other factors makes a pretty big assumption, that the author was in full and total control of everything that went into his/her text, including language, individual and social psychology, the historical/cultural context, etc. We're long past the dismantling of the humanist subject; we know that people are constructed by a vast array of forces. (Or, I know that. Others may disagree.) Pavic's alleged intention is merely one interpretation of what those forces produced.

As a reader, I play a part in the interpretation of any work that I read. To say that authorial intention determines the meaning of the text is not only very reductive to the operations of language and literature, it also makes reading an entirely passive event. That said, someone who brings to the work their information about Pavic's views and the historical situation of Serbia/Croatia is not wrong in finding his works distasteful or unlikeable, but that is, again an interpretation of the work, not the work itself (which one might say doesn't actually exist until it is interpreted).

We should also look at the books themselves. DotK requires active participation by the reader, as does any book, but it does so in a rather more insistent way. The reader not only participates in interpreting the book, but by forcing the reader to find their own path, the text makes the reader conscious of their own participation. The reader in a very real manner constructs the narrative; so, regardless of whatever Pavic's intentions may have been, the structure of the book he wrote undermines his own alleged allegory -- and allegory itself, like all figurative structures of language, inherently unstable and opens up to many interpretations.

And also everything that skwt said.

In short, I like the books. I don't like the alleged politics of the man. To me, there's no conflict between those two statements.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:37 PM on December 21, 2009


I think the disagreement being expressed here is due to a fundamentally different conception of reading.

No, that isn't true, and to assert it is to defend your position via a straw man argument.

I am no big believer in the authority of intent, but if one wants to a make a radical argument about it, as if books were not written by actual people with varied motives, then one should have no truck with memorial threads on general principle. The fact that you feel the need to keep revisiting this thread in defense of your position suggests that you aren't as blessedly post-authorial as you might believe.
posted by OmieWise at 1:11 PM on December 21, 2009


It seems only one second-hand account of his position on the conflict is actually referenced in this discussion, by a Croatian source that can hardly be considered independent.

Can someone point me to credible sources?


For what it's worth, the "Croatian source" is a Dr Boris Skvorc, Senior Lecturer in Croatian Studies at Macquarie University here in Sydney, which is a well-reputed university in these parts. His doctorate was in the area of theory and history of literature.

These facts would suggest (but not prove) that he is familiar with the subject matter, and that he would apply a degree of academic rigour to his claims.

But it's true that this particular reference is second-hand, presumably from A. Le Brun (1993): "Odgovorni su intelektualci", Lettre Internationale, 9-10/1993.

Most of her writing appears to be in Croatian (?), so that's about where my trail ends.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:35 PM on December 21, 2009


Wow. I'd read Dictionary outside any kind of contextual knowledge. While my enjoyment, at the time, was very real, I'm really wishing I could take back my "."

Thanks for the background, Dee.
posted by lekvar at 3:07 PM on December 21, 2009


I worked as a translator for Pavic briefly in the nineties, and knew him personally during that period.

Well, obviously you're somewhat partisan; that's not an accusation, just pointing out the obvious, that we humans tend to take the side of people we know. That said, I don't see how anyone familiar with the Balkans could read Dictionary and not see it as an allegory of the oppressed Serbian people (which of course is a tired trope in Serbian literature, going back to before the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes: "we Serbs have done everything for those boors, and they don't appreciate our greatness!"). Furthermore, I don't see how anyone familiar with the Balkan wars of the '90s could think it implausible that someone with that point of view would rejoice in Serbia's war activities; such rejoicing was absolutely de rigueur among Serbs in those days. What exactly is your view, that such a nice man couldn't possibly have views that most non-Serbs regard as repellent?
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on December 21, 2009


Dragoness wrote:

I worked as a translator for Pavic briefly in the nineties, and knew him personally during that period. I feel compelled to comment as I am quite taken aback by the allegations above that he took great joy in the horrors of the Yugoslav war.

Can someone point me to credible sources?

I hadn't read any Pavic prior to my arrival in America. During the war, my family's only access to "outside" media was a radio which we frequently found ways to power. Sarajevan radio stations came and went with no discernible pattern (electricity was cut off to the city in uneven fashion, especially early on - later, there wasn't any at all), so we often listened to whatever signals we could receive. Frequently, this meant that we were tuned into stations from places like Pale (a Serb-held suburb of Sarejevo.) The downside to this was having to listen to a lot of nationalist rhetoric and ridiculous propaganda. The upside for me was that there was popular music, which I loved because before the war my favorite thing to do was to go out to concerts and dancing, and I really missed music. But my poor father was book-obsessed and used to love a program they had - a few authors and literary critics sitting around a microphone discussing books, current events and the human condition. This was probably what you'd call a syndicated program - I'm sure it was recorded somewhere like Beograd (in other words, it wasn't a local Pale program.) And this was my own introduction to Milorad Pavic, who (I can attest personally) really enjoyed reports of great Serb victories and just as equally on the suffering of Croats - gloating and laughing and speaking very openly of how this was a wonderful "revenge" for centuries of the Serbian nation's suffering.

I'm sorry, Dragoness, that this is only an anecdotal account. It wasn't the only time I heard Pavic on the radio, and I'm sure that at least some of his many radio appearances must be archived somewhere. I haven't searched any of the more nationalistic Serbian online papers for reports on his death, but that may be enlightening as well.

I don't think Pavic is a big enough figure to have entered the American mainstream deeply enough to have encountered regular media scrutiny, and he seems to have kept his mouth pretty shut about his sympathies outside of Serbia. That said, there are plenty of reports of what his beliefs were. Like this.

Given that he never recanted any of his earlier statements or positions - something an honorable person with a changed mind would do (and Pavic did speak often of "honor") - I'm not too obsessed with finding more evidence, though I wouldn't mind knowing about it.

Despite what happened to me under the banner of Serbian nationalism and with the so-called righteousness of the Serbian Orthodox Church behind it, I'm not a bitter person. I have many Serbs as friends. I know many Serbs who refused to have anything to do with the hateful onslaught of nationalist rhetoric even in its "innocent" days and chose to stay in Sarajevo and suffer the consequences of that decision. I've met Serbs who openly admit to things you wouldn't believe, and honestly acknowledge the evil of their actions - seeking some measure of forgiveness and not making excuses. And I forgive them wth my heart too, even if they may have been the ones who killed my innocent parents. Most people, of any nation, are good people.

But Pavic was not one of these people. He may not have directly caused the mayhem of a Karadzic or a Milosevic, but like them he was a double coward - cowering under the banner of nationalism, too fearful to live as if all humanity were a whole, and too scared later to acknowledge that this is what he did or to refute his actions as mistaken.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:20 PM on December 21, 2009


Well, obviously you're somewhat partisan; that's not an accusation, just pointing out the obvious, that we humans tend to take the side of people we know. That said, I don't see how anyone familiar with the Balkans could read Dictionary and not see it as an allegory of the oppressed Serbian people (which of course is a tired trope in Serbian literature, going back to before the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes: "we Serbs have done everything for those boors, and they don't appreciate our greatness!"). Furthermore, I don't see how anyone familiar with the Balkan wars of the '90s could think it implausible that someone with that point of view would rejoice in Serbia's war activities; such rejoicing was absolutely de rigueur among Serbs in those days. What exactly is your view, that such a nice man couldn't possibly have views that most non-Serbs regard as repellent?

Thanks for pointing out the trope of the "oppressed Serbian people." I wanted to do such a thing, but reckoned it would appear to be partisan on my part. Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs are fundamentally the same people with - to whatever extent you believe them to exist - the same genetic predispositions to certain behaviors and outlooks. But this trope is uniquely Serbian. This is for specific reasons of Serbian history, the powerful influence of the Orthodox Church and many other factors - some real and relevant, some created and manipulated. When Slobodan Milosevic spoke about events of 600 years ago on Kosovo Polje (in 1989), the powerful response he received from Serbs seemed crazy to just about anyone who wasn't Serbian. Croats, Slovenians, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovan Albanians - none of us had a parallel to this aspect of Serbian mythology in our own cultural mythologies. The downside to a unifying idea of nationhood tends to be a destructive and war-hungry nationalism. It tends to serve no one well, so I tend to be a little sensitive to anything that comes across as nationalism, and even about patriotism, I have plenty of doubts.

On another note, if I were Dragoness, I certainly would have asked that same question in much the same way. I didn't see much evidence of bias in it - a little snipe at the credibility of Croatians aside! (But given that the Croatians had a stake in things different from the Serbs, it's not an unfair thing to wonder about bias there.) As the experiences of Dragoness do not square with what I know about Pavic, it's only fair for her to ask for more sources. I hope she'll share her experiences too. I know enough about Pavic not to change my mind, but I'd still like to hear them.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:10 PM on December 21, 2009


I retract my . as well, I had no idea.
posted by Falconetti at 7:27 PM on December 21, 2009


OmieWise: Uh, what? Talk about straw men...

I'm revisiting the thread because I find the discussion interesting. It's about an author whose works (or, whose 1 work that I've read) is interesting but whose views (what little I know about them) I find repellent, and as such it provides an interesting and timely discussion of the issue of literary interpretation. And I never put forth "a radical argument about [authorial intent], as if books were not written by actual people with varied motives." I said that authorial intent is one, very limited part of any text that can enter into one's interpretation, but that it does not by any means exhaust the meaning of a text nor determine, in my opinion, what we should think of a text. A total piece of shit can write wonderful things with really, really bad intentions, and the sweetest guy in the world can write a bunch of crap to try to bring the world together. I'm not sure how, in your opinion, that means I shouldn't be posting in memorial threads...
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:05 PM on December 21, 2009


the sweetest guy in the world can write a bunch of crap to try to bring the world together.

Wait, did Paulo Coelho also die?
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:32 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm not saying that Dee Xtrovert is wrong in his/her attitude towards Pavic or his works. In fact, DX's engagement with the work is of a completely different nature than mine, or really, than anyone who didn't experience the kinds of horrors that happened under Milosevic. The context w/in which DX reads Pavic is one that includes war and genocide, just as the context of someone reading, say, Uncle Tom's Cabin might have been one that included personal experience or contact with the institution of slavery. [Apologies to D.X. if I'm misrepresenting you here, I'm just basing my comments on what I've seen in this thread.]

Intellectually, I can understand the distaste for Pavic and his work, and I can understand that the nationalist-racist allegorical aspect of the work could be the primary one for some people because of their perspectives/experiences. But for me personally, it is only one aspect. It will mean that I don't give the guy a . but it doesn't mean that I won't keep my copies of DotK (I have both the male & female versions, which I bought used, so I'm glad to say Pavic never got any royalties from me) and read them. It's something that, as cold as this may sound, enriches my reading of the text, just like understanding sixteenth-century anti-semitism enriches my understanding of the Merchant of Venice, although I am not an anti-semite and I deplore anti-semitic views and acts. That's not to say that knowing Pavic's views enriches my enjoyment of the work as a piece of art, an escape, whatever, but it makes my intellectual apprehension of the work more complete.

My ultimate point is, perhaps, somewhat off-topic to this discussion; I guess it depends on what's being argued, of which I'm not entirely clear as there seem to be a few different points being made. I'm not debating whether or not Pavic was a Serbian nationalist who gloried in genocide; I'm not at all an expert so I defer to people like D.X. and others who know more about him, and I'd read about this long ago anyway. Nor am I debating that he, at least in part, thought of his work as an allegory for the Serbian situation. Nor am I saying that such is not an issue to be taken into the interpretation of his work, to greater or lesser degrees depending on one's perspective. My point, which may now seem rather banal and insipid, is that by definition the author's intention does NOT determine the meaning of the work, nor does the author's personality determine the quality of the work -- there's no Platonic form of the text's meaning that resides only in the author's brain. I don't think that there's anything morally or ethically problematic about appreciating something that a piece of shit wrote (although there may be something problematic about financially supporting said piece of shit with royalty checks, but that's another issue). And I think that any work of art escapes the narrow confines of the author's intention (via the complex and unstable operations of language, the psychological complexities of both author and reader, historical, economic, and cultural contexts and how they change over time, etc), and to me it is interesting, in the case of Pavic, that DotK itself is structured in such a way as to potentially undermine the attitudes he may have had when putting pen to paper. It's been a while since I read the book, and I don't remember all the details, but I do remember coming out of the experience with a deep empathy for all the peoples involved in the story -- Khazar, Xian, Jewish, and Muslim. Maybe had I sat down with Pavic to talk to him about the book, he would have castigated me for getting it wrong, but I have no problem reading anything against the author, and I would have happily told him, "then don't write a book that demands so much overt action on the part of the reader, jerk."
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:37 PM on December 21, 2009


I agree that the Cleanth Brooksian "ignore the author's life" way of interpreting texts is a good ideal. However, it's awfully hard to turn off one's knowledge when reading. I have not read Pavic because I know too much about his beliefs to read The Dictionary of the Khazars in any other way than confrontationally. There are certain sections of Pound's Cantos that I avoid, for the same reason.

Pavic, from all I've read, was a hateful man who subsumed his personality into Serbian nationalism. There's an infinite amount of literature to read and at some point one has to decide on triage strategies. I don't feel that it's that odd to decide what to read based on the beliefs of writers. I'm a novelist and I certainly wouldn't judge anyone if they decided to avoid my writings based on the beliefs I espouse.

All that said, there's nothing bad about loving the work of writers with vile beliefs. Pound and Eliot mean a lot to me and reading them in my teens was very important to my growth of self. I recognize that their beliefs and conduct was terrible but I don't think that anyone should make any grand conclusions about my personal views based on my appreciation of Pound and Eliot. The same should go for liking Pavic' writing. Likewise I'd never think to condemn any of my friends for loving the work of Patricia Highsmith, despite her terrible racism.

Anyway... like all humans Pavic was complicated, but he was a complicated man with simplistic views, evil, reprehensible views, and it's hard not to read his work through that lens if you know about it beforehand. Or remember his work through that lens if you learn about it afterwards.
posted by Kattullus at 10:29 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well anyway, makes me almost feel lucky having old Howard Philip Lovecraft as my designated writer-with-unpalatable-views to defend.
posted by Artw at 10:32 PM on December 21, 2009


Just a point, which I think is important: I'm not talking about a Cleanth Brooks/Robert Penn Warren formalist/new critical style of interpretation, but a Roland Barthes/Michel Foucault death of the author style.

DotK (and the works of Pound & Eliot & many others) are good (IMHO) because despite the authors' terrible views, the works are much, much more than that, or they can be. For some, the nationalist part of DotK will be overpowering, but that does not mean that it is the ONLY thing in the book. But, for some readers, it will be the most salient part. That is NOT, however, because that is what the book "really" means; it is one aspect of the meaning that the author attempted to craft through language and which the reader may bring to the text, but there are a nearly infinite number of other things one can bring to the text. Or to put it another way: language controls the author, the author does not control language. And as I've said before, I find it really fascinating and, as someone who is not a supporter of Serbian nationalism or genocide, empowering that the structure of DotK can be used to read it against the author's imputed views.

Certainly, there are works that are little more than thinly veiled ideological statements; usually they are also shitty works of art as well. I happen to think that DotK does not fall into that camp. Hell, even shitty works of art that make really obvious, dumb and/or offensive statements might be interesting in some academic sense -- take the movie 300 for example. I hated that movie, not only because it was profoundly racist and homophobic, but also because it sucked and was boring and dumb. In some ways, the offensive parts of it are the only even potentially interesting aspects, because they do tell us something about the culture that produced the film. Still, I ain't gonna watch the stupid thing again.

On the other hand, take something like Lord of the Rings -- there's some really uncomfortable racism going on in there, what with the dark and evil barbarians from the south and east coming to invade Western Europe Middle Earth as part of Sauron's army. But, I still love the books, even if JRR may have been a bit of a prick in some aspects of his life, and I think the stories transcend the limitations of their author's mindset, most of the time at least.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:24 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


My point, which may now seem rather banal and insipid, is that by definition the author's intention does NOT determine the meaning of the work, nor does the author's personality determine the quality of the work -- there's no Platonic form of the text's meaning that resides only in the author's brain.

About this you and I can agree. However, the situation is both more complex and more immediate here, and it gives a bit of the lie to Barthes and Foucault. To Derrida as well, for that matter, for all he was anxious that Paul de Man not be painted a Nazi.

My point above is that you came into a memorial thread for Pavic to defend his work from the taint of his Serbian nationalism. This is inconsistent with your stated views re the role of authorial intent. If you care about the text but not the author, then you would stay out of the thread as it would be beside the point.

Your larger point, is, I think, poorly defended. It's one thing to consider sixteenth-century (or nineteenth-century) views with some distance and detachment, and another to apply the same clinical viewpoint to abhorrent views about a recent spate of hatefulness, and an allegory written to support that hate. I'm not arguing that you should throw the books out, or not read them, or not love them, but I do think your defense of them, given what you now know, is in poor taste. I also think that it highlights the limitations of talking about the death of the author when you're dealing with successful allegory.

My initial crack about the "fundamentally different conception of reading," was prompted by my extensive experience with people placing quite a bit of value on the Barthes/Foucault informed position, while deriding the attachment people have to authors. Perhaps you really have no value attached to your statement, but in my (extensive) experience, statements like yours are actually value judgments.
posted by OmieWise at 5:06 AM on December 22, 2009


My point above is that you came into a memorial thread for Pavic to defend his work from the taint of his Serbian nationalism.

Whoa, whoa, what? Where did I do that? Talk about imputing false authorial intent and not paying attention to the text...

I came into the thread initially just to read about Pavic and people's responses to his death/works. Then, when some people were commenting on their conflict between liking Pavic's work but not liking him, I made some comments about my belief that one can divorce the two. I never made any statements defending him or his beliefs or saying that his intention for DotK (or anything else he wrote) was not to advance Serbian nationalist.

It's one thing to consider sixteenth-century (or nineteenth-century) views with some distance and detachment, and another to apply the same clinical viewpoint to abhorrent views about a recent spate of hatefulness, and an allegory written to support that hate.

Why? I never made any statement that everyone had to be "detached" when reading Pavic, just that it is possible, in theory, to read any work with detachment. The realities of each individual reader will determine their experience. But again, that demonstrates that the text is not itself meaningful apart from the investment of the reader, and that regardless of authorial intention, the text can mean a variety of things.

I'm not arguing that you should throw the books out, or not read them, or not love them, but I do think your defense of them, given what you now know, is in poor taste.

Why?

the limitations of talking about the death of the author when you're dealing with successful allegory.

Define "successful allegory". Allegory, like all forms of figurative language, is unstable. The allegory of the work is not some ontological reality, some platonic form we try to access. It's a construction that Pavic tried to construct in his work. It can be read in his work, it can also be challenged in his work. Any text is polyvocal, complex, and contradictory. I'm not able to find particular examples in DotK because 1) my editions are packed away, and 2) it has been a few years since I read it, so I'd have to reread the whole thing (or a major portion of it) to make a more specific argument.

My initial crack about the "fundamentally different conception of reading," was prompted by my extensive experience with people placing quite a bit of value on the Barthes/Foucault informed position, while deriding the attachment people have to authors. Perhaps you really have no value attached to your statement, but in my (extensive) experience, statements like yours are actually value judgments.

Ah, so you're saying that despite whatever intention I may have had in my statement, or even despite what the text of my post was, your assumptions colored your interpretation? Perhaps you should read the text rather than imputing authorial intention based on your "extensive experience." And that IS a value judgment.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:35 AM on December 22, 2009


Just to be clear, I didn’t question the credibility of Croatians in general, only in a context where they appeared to be the only source of a serious allegation against a very prominent member of their war-time enemy. I was looking for first-hand accounts to corroborate this. I’ve seen enough manipulation by now to know that I need to scrutinize for bias each and every report to do with the Yugoslav war.

The radio shows Dee Xtrovert refers to would be the most damning evidence against Pavic, to my mind. If they can be uncovered in some archive then the record will be set straight.

The reason I have a hard time with the image of Pavic as blood-thirsty nationalistic sadist was that I knew him to be very invested in his legacy, in Serbia but also and especially abroad.

The administration considered him a national treasure in the nineties already, and offered him an apartment in a desirable part of Belgrade, to be turned into a museum on his death. He accepted this enthusiastically and set about creating a worthy interior, designing his own desk, possibly other pieces of furniture as well. His home was featured a few times in interior decor magazines in Serbia. It was small and modest by Western standards, although there was a fair bit of art in there.

He also closely followed the progress of his nomination for the Nobel prize for literature, which came from the Slavic departments at a number of universities around the world, and was submitted for several years running, for as long as the Nobel rules permitted.

On a personal level, I exchanged a few emails with Pavic and his wife more recently. He was intrigued by my work in speech recognition, and eager to know about the next hot tech invention to come out of the US. The last thing we discussed was the Kindle. It seemed to present a source of inspiration to him.
posted by Dragonness at 10:39 AM on December 22, 2009


Artw: Well anyway, makes me almost feel lucky having old Howard Philip Lovecraft as my designated writer-with-unpalatable-views to defend.

They're both interesting cases in that, as my friend GenjiandProust has talked about at times, a lot of the force of their work comes from the same place as their most awful beliefs, the horror at the idea of miscegenation in Lovecraft and the idea of the divine suffering of the Serbs in Pavic (note: haven't read Pavic, paraphrasing what GenjiandProust said).

Saxon Kane: Just a point, which I think is important: I'm not talking about a Cleanth Brooks/Robert Penn Warren formalist/new critical style of interpretation, but a Roland Barthes/Michel Foucault death of the author style.

Not to nerd out overly but I feel that the reader can pull in anything in a Barthesian reading because anything can be valent to a story (note: this doesn't mean that any interpretation is equally valid, an interpretation can be poorly thought out or unilluminating, but there's no reason to dismiss any interpretive approach out of hand). Biography can be used as an interpretive lens but it is only one of many tools available. Barthes main point is that appealing to the authority of the author is a poor way to argue for an interpretation. What an author says is just one of many secondary sources to examine and, besides, for most questions one has the author never provided an answer (e.g. why did Tolkien have Sam present the one ring to Frodo on bended knee, like he was proposing? why did Tolstoy decide to have Levin show Kitty his diaries in Anna Karenina?). Barthesian interpretation is a riot of texts, which all can have import. In that framework the author is one text among many and doesn't have primacy over others (e.g. conclusions drawn from interpreting the relationship between Frodo and Sam in terms of romantic male attachments can't be invalidated by statements by Tolkien disavowing any such interpretation, not that he made any, to my knowledge).

Cleanth Brooks, on the other hand, is more interested in sidelining the author completely, that the author should be ignored. The difference to me is that while Barthes is arguing against the dominion of authors over their texts Brooks, to me, is arguing that the author should be cast out as any kind of secondary text. In fact, in the most extreme cases it seems that Brooks argues that no secondary text can bring any light to the primary text being interpreted, which I find much less appealing than the carnivalesque cacophony of Bathes (e.g. saying that the fact that Tolstoy showed his wife his diaries casts no light on why Levin does the same in Anna Karenina). Not to dismiss all Brooks and the New Formalists did, I much appreciate a lot of their work, especially the idea and method of close reading, and Brooks was a brilliant interpreter, I sometimes reread parts of The Well Wrought Urn for pleasure.

But yeah, so I feel that saying that Dictionary of the Khazars should be appreciated irrespective of what Pavic thought and did seems, to me, a lot more Brooksian than Barthesian.
posted by Kattullus at 11:38 AM on December 22, 2009


Why?

Best of luck.
posted by OmieWise at 12:51 PM on December 22, 2009


I came in hoping to find context from Dee Xtrovert, and I'm grateful to have found it. I think it's important to note that the NY Times obituary completely glosses over the issues DX raised, compressing them into the seemingly-mild "It [Dictionary] can also be read (or not) as an allegory of the turmoil that has roiled the Balkans for centuries." Whether this is just ignorance, or a willful blind spot in the face of "great literature," it's sad to see something that consequential omitted from a obituary, and clearly sets him up for adulation he doesn't deserve.

For me it's a big reminder that "best of the web" almost always refers to the people here. Thanks, everybody.
posted by range at 2:35 PM on December 22, 2009


The reason I have a hard time with the image of Pavic as blood-thirsty nationalistic sadist was that I knew him to be very invested in his legacy, in Serbia but also and especially abroad.

That doesn't sound like a very convincing argument you've made there.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 9:27 PM on December 22, 2009


That doesn't sound like a very convincing argument you've made there.

I don't know that I'm arguing. Just telling you my perspective.
posted by Dragonness at 5:56 AM on December 23, 2009


Dragoness didn't see this side of Pavic I describe. I believe it, and I appreciate her perspective.

But I don't see a lot of conflict with what she says about her experiences with him, and the positions of his which I've mentioned. She wrote:

The reason I have a hard time with the image of Pavic as blood-thirsty nationalistic sadist was that I knew him to be very invested in his legacy, in Serbia but also and especially abroad.

I don't doubt this one bit. In Serbia, he seemed to mirror the nationalistic rejoicing in Serbia's activities that languagehat referred to as de rigueur. (This nationalism still has a lot of weight in Serbia, and there's plenty of subtext on Pavic's own website to substantiate that he had a pretty nationalistically-oriented mentality even at the end.) It's served him well in Serbia. I quote Dragoness:

The administration considered him a national treasure in the nineties already, and offered him an apartment in a desirable part of Belgrade, to be turned into a museum on his death. He accepted this enthusiastically and set about creating a worthy interior, designing his own desk, possibly other pieces of furniture as well. His home was featured a few times in interior decor magazines in Serbia.

I should mention that writers and artists who spoke out against Serbia's aggressions were not similarly rewarded.

Outside Serbia, he didn't talk much about Serbian nationalism, downplayed or omitted from interviews a lot of what he said inside Serbia and spoke much more often of his (politically neutral) writing techniques than the nationalistic allegories in his work. And so, when one reads an obituary in an American paper, the nationalist stuff isn't even mentioned.

All of this squares perfectly with Dragoness' own sense that he was concerned with his legacy in Serbia and abroad.

Although I suffered a lot from the Pavic-mentality, and it would probably shame my parents in heaven to say it, even when he made ridiculously absurd nationalistic statements, they were often so ludicrous as to be genuinely funny. I remember this one, which I'd forgotten was Pavic until I saw it again, in a link I posted above:

"In Serbia people were eating with golden forks in the thirteenth century, while the Western Europeans were still tearing apart raw flesh with their fingers."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:55 AM on December 23, 2009


But yeah, so I feel that saying that Dictionary of the Khazars should be appreciated irrespective of what Pavic thought and did seems, to me, a lot more Brooksian than Barthesian.

I wasn't saying that. I was saying, to quote you, "the reader can pull in anything in a Barthesian reading because anything can be valent to a story ... Biography can be used as an interpretive lens but it is only one of many tools available."

I definitely do NOT agree with the strict New Critical idea that, again to quote you, "no secondary text can bring any light to the primary text being interpreted."

So I think you and I are probably on the same page here.

Best of luck.
Yeah, ok, whatever.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:08 PM on December 23, 2009


Just to clarify again to OmieWise, who seems to want to remain willfully ignorant to anything I was trying to say (although, I'll give him/her credit by saying that I've mostly been randomly commenting rather than trying to put together a coherent argument of any sort), I was never trying to a) defend Pavic or b) say that an interpretation of his works (or anyone else's) that took into account his biography was wrong, but rather c) make a statement in support of a method of reading that says that authorial intent is not always the be-all-end-all of the meaning of text.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:15 PM on December 23, 2009


I tend to be a little sensitive to anything that comes across as nationalism, and even about patriotism, I have plenty of doubts.

I think readers of this thread may not have an understanding of just how touchy the issue of nationalism and patriotism is to those who hail from the former Yugoslavia. Do you come from a position that all Serbs who declared themselves patriots in the nineties were nationalists who supported war crimes?

And in that context, was Pavic more criminal than other patriotic/nationalistic Serbs in the nineties?

Did he actually take great joy in atrocities, or was he in fact expressing satisfaction in those radio shows at news that his side had won a particular battle in the war, but you interpreted that to mean he took pleasure in human suffering?

It is not unlikely that the Croatian* sources quoted in this thread equated Serbian patriotism in the nineties with criminal nationalism. That’s why I ask who originated the evidence being presented to discredit Pavic.

What I know of Pavic back then was that he was very PR-savvy. He fully expected to win the Nobel prize at some point and worked hard towards that end, travelling abroad throughout the nineties to build relationships with foreign publishers and Slavic departments at universities, and to promote his books. To me it seems incongruous with the persona quoted here glibly expressing sadistic statements in a public forum.

That’s all.

*Annie Le Brun, it appears, is a French writer married to a Croat.
posted by Dragonness at 1:59 PM on December 23, 2009


Dragonness, I've been trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you're clearly determined to think only the best of your nice employer who worked so hard to win the Nobel Prize. Reminds me of Rebecca West, who fell hard for the Serbs and wrote a magnificently prejudiced book about them, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I'm sure she would have been just as eager as you are to question the credentials of someone who actually had her life destroyed by Serbian nationalism and is writing about what she knows firsthand. So never mind, enjoy your pretty picture and ignore inconvenient facts.
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on December 23, 2009


I think readers of this thread may not have an understanding of just how touchy the issue of nationalism and patriotism is to those who hail from the former Yugoslavia. Do you come from a position that all Serbs who declared themselves patriots in the nineties were nationalists who supported war crimes?

Not really. But Dragoness, your way of stating this question is a little disingenuous. Let's be frank. When you say "in the nineties," you're really talking about nearly an entire decade in which Serbia was engaged in war(s) against a variety of peoples and nation states. These were not defensive or assistive wars, but wars of aggression - condemned by nearly every international body who judgement might be relevant. The first military actions by Serbia were done under the guise of enforcing the unity of Yugoslavia. In other words, Croatia and Slovenia, from the Serbian point of view, did not have the right to become independent. The "war" in Slovenia last only ten days. (It should be noted that the Slovenian people have a language and sense of ethnicity much less similar to Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslim than the latter three parties share.) In Croatia, and later Bosnia, Serbian aggression lasted far longer than would ever have been regarded as a "civil" war - Bosnia and Croatia were soon internationally recognized as independent nations, and thus Serbia's war against them was illegal.

The irony to all this is that this war to keep Yugoslavia "unified" was largely orchestrated and carried out by people who were vehement Serb nationalists, which is why the actions of Serbia were (and still are) perceived as an attempt by Serbia to control any region with any sort of Serbian population, with little genuine concern for "Yugoslavia."

I know many Serbs - from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia - who clearly shied away from expressing nationalistic or patriotic opinions in light of the devastation and genocide which being done under those same banners. Did they still tale Serbian folk tales, cook traditional food, recite national poetry and have a love for the idea of "Serbia?" I assume so. Nothing wrong with that at all. But their sensitivity to what Serbia was doing was a natural part of their general humanity. They made sure that people knew they did not support these actions, just as I do when some jihadis do something horrific. I'm not religious and people know that, so I don't expect anyone would consider me to have sympathies with Muslim-related terrorism, but I still like to make my opinions perfectly clear. You'll notice that Pavic never condemned Serbia's actions, even when really horrific episodes came to life. Even on his webpage, his political words come down to this:

I have not killed anyone. But they have killed me. Long before my death. It would have been better for my books had their author been a Turk or a German. I was the best known writer of the most hated nation in the world – the Serbian nation.

XXI century started for me avant la date 1999. when NATO airforces bombed Belgrade and Serbia. Since that moment the river Danube on whose banks I was born is not navigable.


As I've come to like to say in America, c'mon Milorad, cry me a river! Support the NATO bombing or not, but it's not like it came out of the blue. No pun intended.

But given Serbia's actions, I have to say that anyone who spent much time extolling their patriotism without an accordant and vocal disgust for heinous actions taken by the Serbian government at that time, would be viewed by many - including me - with a reasonable suspicion. Nothing wrong with that either - one has (in my opinion) a patriotic duty to call out their country when it engages in wrongful actions - and most nations have, at one point or another. People who believe wholeheartedly that America or Serbia or Bosnia can do no wrong at all . . . are not people who should really be trusted to act in the best interest of all parties.

And in that context, was Pavic more criminal than other patriotic/nationalistic Serbs in the nineties?

Did he actually take great joy in atrocities, or was he in fact expressing satisfaction in those radio shows at news that his side had won a particular battle in the war, but you interpreted that to mean he took pleasure in human suffering?


Whether he is more "criminal" or not than other Serbs is immaterial. He supported illegal wars that resulted in mass rapes and genocide. He was not an educated person from the village, but someone with access to international points of view and people in power. He had a clearer vantage point than the majority of Sarajevans. We did not have electricity, and thus only sporadic news from "outside," at best. Pavic was regularly appearing on media broadcasts and had access to all the outside info he could want. And my point is, as cut off as we were, we knew what was going on. Pavic's knowledge of what was going on could only have been more precise and better-detailed.

But again, your statement omits a lot of relevant and necessary detail. The destruction of Vukovar wasn't a matter of the blue team defeating the red team, or vice-versa. It was a one-sided attack on a poorly defended city by a nation hell-bent on "teaching them [Croatia] a lesson," as one Serbian general put it. Those defended the town were outnumbered nearly 20 to 1. Serbs were convicted of war crimes for, among other atrocities commited there, killing and torturing innocent civilians seeking refuge in a hospital.

So was Pavic expressing his happiness at "his side had won a particular battle?" No, believe me, he was damned happy about the lives lost, the buildings and monuments destroyed and the tens of thousands forced into exile.

It is not unlikely that the Croatian* sources quoted in this thread equated Serbian patriotism in the nineties with criminal nationalism. That’s why I ask who originated the evidence being presented to discredit Pavic.

What I know of Pavic back then was that he was very PR-savvy. He fully expected to win the Nobel prize at some point and worked hard towards that end, travelling abroad throughout the nineties to build relationships with foreign publishers and Slavic departments at universities, and to promote his books. To me it seems incongruous with the persona quoted here glibly expressing sadistic statements in a public forum.


I don't doubt it seems incongruous to an extent. But he was very nationalistic and supported the politicians who brought Serbia to war. (That's easy to prove.) So it's not that hard to believe. And what you call a "public forum" was (in my case) a propagandistic radio program broadcast in a sort of forbidden zone, and then only in Serbo-Croatian . . and at a time when Western inaction and an arms embargo disproportionately unfair to everyone but the Serbs made it seem likely that the Serbs would end up with all the spoils. And as we all know, history is told by the victors.

If I were to follow your skepticism about Pavic to a logical extent, the questions I would have would be:

1) Why did he never condemn illegal Serbian war aggression?
2) Why did he never renounce his ardent support for war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic?
3) Why is his characterization of Serbia as "the most hated nation in the world" without any context?

That last question is the most interesting for me. Everything I've read or heard from Pavic about Serbia's "superiority" and "victimhood" - starting with the superior Serbs eating with golden forks eight hundred years ago to their being bombed by NATO roughly a decade ago - implies a jealousy of Serbia by the rest of the world which is . . . simply crazy. Dragoness, we're from the same part of the world and share much of the same culture - you know I'm right. Serbia's not alone in this thinking. I know Hungarians who ardently desire a return to "Nagy Magyarország" and Romanians who maintain that Transylvania should be theirs simply because they were feudal peasants for Saxons and Hungarians for centuries. It's a part of the world that thrives on perceived victimhood. Serbia's misfortune (and mine!) is that it fell in to a situation where it could actually live out its irredentist fantasies. Most Serbian nationalists rejoiced. Pavic was among them. As a sort of spokesperson for Serbia - he certainly would be happy to see himself that way - he bears responsibility for his very vocal opinions. Even as I heard them myself, I'd forgive this otherwise great author if he'd renounced them later . . . as I have many others.

But he didn't.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:19 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dee Xtrovert: If I were to follow your skepticism about Pavic to a logical extent, the questions I would have would be:

1) Why did he never condemn illegal Serbian war aggression?
2) Why did he never renounce his ardent support for war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic?
3) Why is his characterization of Serbia as "the most hated nation in the world" without any context?


Although I have my ideas about some of this I don't have direct knowledge of Pavic's reasons, and I certainly did not set out to defend him. In fact, I am quite upset at having prolonged a discussion that made you think back to a horrific period in your life for which my own people were responsible. But the gravity of the allegations here didn't make sense to me.

languagehat: you're clearly determined to think only the best of your nice employer

If you reread my comments, you'll find I have not given my personal opinion of the man. It's immaterial to this conversation, which for me is really about evidence.

Now Dee Xtrovert has given us more context for her position I am ready to let the matter rest.
posted by Dragonness at 6:26 PM on December 23, 2009


Just to clarify again to OmieWise

Saxon Kane, given the tenor of your posts I'd venture to say that I've spent much more time with the texts you allude to in your argument than have you. I understand the (very banal) argument you're trying to make about authorial intent. I was trying to suggest to you that those textual arguments fall a bit flat when one is discussing (essentially) hate speech. I'm frankly surprised that this isn't an argument with which you're familiar, as it too is a banal observation about your banal argument.

But, just to clarify for you, when I clicked through to your user profile and read the juvenile rape fantasies you've written there, I realized that you probably don't give a shit about whether your arguments are insensitive and willfully unengaged with history.
posted by OmieWise at 6:48 PM on December 23, 2009


Saxon Kane, given the tenor of your posts I'd venture to say that I've spent much more time with the texts you allude to in your argument than have you.

Or, perhaps not, I see from some of your other comments that you're a PhD candidate in English. I would not have suspected that.
posted by OmieWise at 6:57 PM on December 23, 2009


In fact, I am quite upset at having prolonged a discussion that made you think back to a horrific period in your life for which my own people were responsible.

First of all, don't worry about it. I wouldn't talk about it if I felt it were causing me undue stress. And I hate to see someone I've no reason to suspect of bad thoughts taking responsibility for the actions of others.

As I've said before, I had fine neighbors who were Serbs during the war. They could have left at any time and been free from harm and gotten on with their lives. They didn't. Some of them didn't make it through the war. Others still suffer today in other ways because they didn't leave. They were viewed by suspicion by many other Sarajevans simply because they were Serbs, but still they stayed. I don't know if I would have done the same if our roles were reversed; I certainly hope I would. Their actions were a simple kind of heroism that served no purpose other than to honor their sense of the moral right. So they're heroes of mine. Just as some Serbs killed my parents for what can only be seen as sport, other Serbs tended to me in the hospital, saw that I had some food now and then while I recuperated (when no one had much food) and were the best sorts of friends and neighbors. So I don't think "your own people," as such, had anything to do with the horrific period I lived through. If it seems that I do, that's just because language makes it unwieldy to say something like "those Serbs whose nationalism was so intense it caused them to support genocidal maniacs and caused them to look away from or deny the horrors that were being perpetrated in their names" every time you want to mention that one side of the equation.

I'll admit that I'm a bit confused that Serbia is so unwilling to attempt to make amends or to even admit much of what the nation did. Germany (via West Germany), committed unspeakable crimes with similarly warped nationalistic rationale in WWII, but managed - for the most part - to have owned up to most of its mistakes and made real inroads into building stable and positive relationships with its neighbors fewer than ten years after WWII. Ten years later, Serbia still clings tightly to its idea of itself as a victim - as did Pavic, judging by words on his website. This victim mentality is a self-fufilling prophecy, and aside from some smug sense of superiority, I don't know what the point is. Serbs may have eaten with golden forks eight hundred years ago (though of course, that's a wild exaggeration), but nearly a millennium of self-righteousness hasn't done them much good. In actual numbers, Bosnian Muslim may have been the biggest victims resulting from Serbian aggression, but Serbia's actions gave Croatia ammunition to do its own empire-building and ethnic cleansing. The end result of all this was that plenty of innocent Serbian people were displaced and killed too. Many of my Serb friends are refugees like me. Serbia's economy, fragile even then, was destroyed. NATO bombed Serbia and more people died, Montenegro left its union with Serbia, and Serbia fundamentally lost Kosovo, its poetic heartland. I can't speak to the mood in Serbia today, but when I visited Sarajevo, there was a palpable sense of unease, insecurity and unfinished business. I wouldn't want to live there, or raise a family there. The legacy of Serbia's aggression was as bad for Serbia as it was for its victims.

How anyone can fail to regret this is beyond my understanding.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:35 PM on December 23, 2009


My "clarifying" comment above is a bit too harsh, and I regret writing it the way I did. I should have stayed out of the thread after wishing you well, Saxon Kane.
posted by OmieWise at 7:46 PM on December 23, 2009


If you reread my comments, you'll find I have not given my personal opinion of the man. It's immaterial to this conversation, which for me is really about evidence.

Oh, bullshit. You obviously like the man and want to think well of him, otherwise your participation in this thread is completely inexplicable. People don't just out of the blue start asking for "evidence" about matters they care nothing about, particularly when such evidence has already been presented. I would respect you if you said, as you have every right to, "Look, I knew Pavic as a fine man, he was always good to me, and I'm not interested in dancing on his grave. His politics are not my concern." But your fallback position—"Who, me? Why, I have no opinion about the man, I'm just interested in the abstract truth"—is disingenuous and, in this context, fairly repellent.

Now Dee Xtrovert has given us more context for her position I am ready to let the matter rest.


You mean, "Now that my position has been thoroughly dismantled I'm going to back away quietly and hope everyone forgets this whole unfortunate incident." Don't worry, it's the holiday season and you'll get your wish.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on December 24, 2009


Hello, I never said I had no opinion about him, but simply that I think my opinion of Pavic the man is of no interest in this thread.

If anything, his politics were not my concern at the time I knew him, but have become so in the course of this conversation.
posted by Dragonness at 7:59 AM on December 24, 2009


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