TRANSLATED FROM THE GERMAN BY AARON CARPENTER
Thinking about taboos is no walk in the park, even if it can start out that way. You go on your way and open the reflection with a short, unserious fantasy on the topic of whether, in the meantime almost all taboos are open to question and circulate on the market. You dawdle, stumble, and ponder, quickly lose your orientation, and find yourself abruptly in a proper crowd of taboos, back in a large taboo arena, which is swarming with would-be taboos. You see numerous costumed showmen, who peddle and offer as a reward new and exciting taboos which you can transgress with delight. Nothing is dangerous anymore, everything was already there, everything devoid of meaning, the marketers seem to broadcast. The more taboo laws you break, the more you can experience, earn, move. Didn’t Sigmund Freud say that taboos have the tendency to multiply and divide, I think briefly and set the thought aside.
I leave the carnival of artificial uproar and think of a quiet place, where it is about more; where suspicious, contested, fragile terms like angst and pain, defense and shame, guilt, disgust, fear, and punishment are still made of flesh and blood, still have meaning. No one really wants to consort with them, it seems, they linger about somewhat bashfully, the down-and-out forms of words with names like reserve and shyness, cruelty, death, horror, delusion, dislocation, infringement: the Furies of Taboo.
In the back of the arena, I can feel my own breath and consult my memories, go deeper, there, where the dark, the shut-out live. As that is what it’s about, to test which border of angst and prohibition you banged into in life, to find your bearings in the attempt.
I find my exit again off to the side, from where I set out. I want to hold on to something as fragile and indistinct as my perceptions, something very contradictory, I know, but it seems to me, in the style of Alexander Kluge , that the only practical possibility is to rely on an inventory of qualities that you have at your disposal to contact the monstrous.
The question is, what happens when you enter the danger zone. What you find out, when it gets serious, and fear begins to run rampant.
I keep a lookout for an allegory for this danger zone, that could exemplify the societal space of angst, that menaces and fetters, and remember Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the room of shadows, in which shadows appear as reality, which the images are the only reality. An analogy never to be completely decoded because it is populated with spirits of perception, that we are always able to invent and design anew.
It’s no special accomplishment to get into such a room of shadows. It happens on its own, by being born in Lepena, for example, a narrow valley in southern Carinthia. It doesn’t take more. I neither chose the location freely nor willingly sought it out. Others determined the exit point, others also decided how people think of us and how you feel if you come from this place.
Over the years, from this place of origin I could observe the adults, how they sat in their dark caves of fear and could sometimes hardly move, while the shadows of their lives and pasts triumphed above and behind them. They sat there captivated, bound by something that was invisible but that still had power over them.
What were the people that I lived with so afraid of?
Grandmother, for example, was afraid of the revenants, of the ghosts of the dead, the murdered and battered, of those who, as she said, she had seen too much of. She was still afraid of the Nazis and of antagonizing the heavenly powers and the angry powers of the saints. In everyday life she adhered to strict rules that she demanded we all observance. On Friday after 5pm, no more clothes could be washed, no more bread baked, the animals in the stalls had to be fed, the weekly work performed. On Saturday, you couldn’t burden yourself with new work, only do what was necessary. She thought she could hold off evil with her discipline. She was not afraid of Lucifer, the fallen angel, to whom she ascribed the darkness, she feared hell, with which she believed she had already become acquainted, encountered it, been poisoned by it. This hell was her taboo, which was to be avoided and warded off.
Father on the other hand seemed to be in contact with something destructive, to be on familiar footing with damnation, to borrow the Catholic word in all its solemn meaning in this instance. He lashed about, went down in his gloominess for a few moments, only to pop back up at some point later and be sickened with horror. He seemed to consider sometimes what was happening with me. He had no protective magic ready, in which he could believe, like grandmother, which could save him from the inevitable, the overpowering: no amulets, talismans, no blood magic, no salve.
Grandmother and father were the guardians of the big secretes of history and the war that they worshiped in a way that was barely comprehensible to me.
At the same time there was no taboo of death and the dead in our house. You could always view the murdered up close, you could touch and handle them. There was the blood and entrails of the slaughtered animals, nothing that rotted and stank was taken away rashly. The dead with their waxen faces, with their smooth skin were not hidden, rather put on display. The blood-smeared knife, the rifle and shotgun, the death-dealing tools lay around on the tables and benches. Those who had committed suicide had right-of-residence, the illnesses, the festering, stinking wounds, the bodily fluids were impressive and frightening.
One day, accompanied by Aunt Leni, the sister of my grandfather, an elegant woman from Ljubljana appeared on our farm. She wanted to write an account of our family for a newspaper of the resistance veterans in Slovenia. Grandmother should talk about her past and about grandfather, who had been with the partisans. At the time our house was a construction site. Grandmother stood in a dirty apron with wooden blocks on her feet in front of the door and I came out of the barn with filthy boots, as both women arrived at our home. The construction site was not inviting; therefore, the women conducted the interview standing. What I will always remember was the perfume that the woman from Ljubljana exuded. It was somewhat penetratingly sweet with lily of the valley. Her cloud of scent built a barrier between us, it seemed to keep the wearer downright at bay from us. In an unobserved moment, the woman looked around for help and seemed to consider whether she shouldn’t run away, but then she decided to stay. She raised her notebook tight under her breast, propped her arms on her hips and again bent over the rail of her perfume, to note down my grandmother’s sentences.
Grandmother recounted why she believed she survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp , with prayer she said, she prayed to Saint Maria whenever she could and kept a lookout for signs in the sky. The elegant woman looked at her almost aghast. In her bafflement, she then asked Aunt Leni to describe to her the events of the Nazi period more precisely, and Leni recounted the history of our family in a practiced staccato. She seemed to have experience summarizing things and without taking big detours. First was the forbidding of the language, she began, then the pressure to Germanize, the suspicion, the imminent deportations, the support of the partisans, the arrests, then the torture, the flight into the forest, the resistance. The pretty woman was astonished and smiled as soon as Leni mentioned our family’s spirit of resistance, this word seemed to be familiar to her. The war must have resulted finally in an outcome, at the end of the war there should naturally be a victory monument to the heroes, for the murdered and fallen like in her home country of Yugoslavia. Our Austrian forsakenness and desertedness must have struck her as a setback.
Why am I saying this? Because in the eyes of this woman, I registered for the first time the look of an outsider, which in this case was the look of a pitying stranger, who stumbled on to us from another political reality. From her other historical perspective, she recognized in us people living on the edge of society and I was appalled by this and was ashamed of our backwardness and forsakenness.
In the following years, I observed how the surprise of the pretty woman changed into something else, detached itself from her person and became a symbol for the deep and grievous incomprehension, with which the country in which we lived, Austria and the state of Carinthia, regarded the history of the Carinthian Slovenes . The difference between the attitude of the woman, who asked about the history of my family with sympathy and interest, and the Austrian silence, ignoring, and making the past taboo couldn’t be greater. In this way, my private history mixed with the political post-war history of Austria. Both areas can’t be separated.
After the war, Austria had trouble developing its own “Austrian” identity in contrast to Germany. The history of the Carinthian Slovenes was hard to integrate into this process of nation building because their fate couldn’t be harmonized with the rest of Austria’s sense of self. The history of the ethnic Slovenes in Carinthia was therefore separated and put onto its own little shelf with the inscription unimportant.
At the beginning of the second Austrian Republic, stood the never openly expressed political understanding, to put a restraining order on the preoccupation with the time of national socialism and the involvement of Austrians therein. After the end of the war, Austria saw itself as Hitler’s victim and did everything to make a taboo of its own political role, that was not to be scrutinized. The Second Republic was based on this taboo, even the statement of independence of April 27th, 1945, only referred to the part of the Moscow Declaration of November 1st, 1945 that assigned Austria’s role as the first victim of the Nazi regime. The second part of the declaration, that adhered to Austria’s complicity, was concealed. From then on it was made taboo, “that the percentage of Austrians in the NSDAP was at least proportional to the percentage of Austrians in the Greater German Reich, and that the percentage of Austrians among the perpetrators responsible in the Nazi extermination camps was disproportionately high.” The complicity stayed taboo for many years, to say nothing of, almost three decades.
Kurt Waldheim ’s candidacy and assumption of the office of President of Austria first put things into motion. The disclosures of Waldheim’s history in the Wehrmacht in the Balkans, about his membership in the National Socialist German Students’ League and in the Mounted-SA forced Austrians into a debate about their involvement in the Nazi Regime and proved in the end to be a great chance to break down the encrusted post-war relationships in Austria.
In Carinthia, however, this development was not tolerated. After all, there was more to lose than just an idealized self-image. A whole wall of myth was up for grabs there that had been built by politicians and the heritage societies in the southernmost Austrian state.
Time runs differently in Carinthia not only in this respect, even the political situation after the end of the second World War presents itself as more complex in Carinthia than in the rest of Austria. The Slovenes who were forcibly resettled in the Nazi period, who returned, found it difficult to assert themselves in their new circumstances and had to combat the suspicions and mistrust of the German-speaking population. A few years before, people still wanted to “put an end to” the so-called Slovene minority in the area north of the Karawanks, as the leader of the Main Gau Office for Ethnic Questions, SS Obersturmbannführer Alois Maier-Kaibitsch declared about the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after the assault on Hitler’s Germany.
The surviving Carinthian Slovene resistance fighters too for the most part returned to to their farms and their work in southern Carinthia. Their service in the liberation from National Socialism received only brief recognition from the Austrian political side. Soon after the end of the war, the Carinthian partisans were turned into the old and new enemies of Carinthia, on the one hand because of territorial claims that communist Yugoslavia had made in the meantime, and not least because of the Yugoslav People’s Army’s acts of reprisal at the end of the war in southern Carinthia, which left 92 Carinthians dead. Not only their persecution under the Nazis, but above all the bitter resistance of the Partisans was taboo for decades. The peace was a short peace, as Peter Handke had his alter ego in the book Storm Still say: “It was there barely two weeks. You smelled the morning May air for just ten days. See no more blood, but life. Peace! Then the good peace reverted to a bad one; once again the unsuspecting. It had been planned that way, long beforehand. The warm, warm peace was ten days, and then the cold war – which persists.”
Early on, the pillars of Austria’s political post-war efforts shifted away from the prosecution of the perpetrators and the guilty to the cementing of political conditions in Austria. That meant, as the political scientist Anton Pelinka writes, that in Austria there was no civic learning process that would have dealt with the consequences of National Socialism and that the anti-communism very quickly ousted anti-fascism as the basis for legitimizing government policy. In the whole of Austria, and especially in Carinthia, huge concessions were made to the interests and historical self-mage of the Nazis, or the enemies of yesterday as they were called.
In an essay, the Austria historian Wolfgang Neugebauer succinctly asserted that the abatement of the anti-fascist spirit of 1945 and the connected process of integration and reassessment of former national socialists at the end of the 1940s also made resistance against the Nazis a political taboo. This taboo hindered the formation of a culture of collective remembering. At the same time, it had the function of stabilizing the politically ailing state of Austria.
In Carinthia, this taboo imposed on the Carinthian Slovenes’ resistance served to mobile people politically against the rights of the Carinthian Slovenes laid out in the treaty of 1955. Over decades, the phantom that the land was threatened by the Yugoslavs from the south, was played with at the political level, Austria found itself in an invisible, undeclared so-called state of war. This imaged state of war or “Defensive”, as it was called in Carinthia, was almost seen as fact, and was disseminated in all possible discussions about the rights of the Carinthian Slovenes. Naturally, as far as the politics of Carinthian Slovene organizations were concerned, there was no cause to question Austria’s borders, but the logic of war, the black, white attributions, the history of betrayal and the coercion to avow one’s homeland, as it is called, seeped into daily life.
So begins my journey to the ghosts, my expedition into the Carinthian political underworld, where spirits dwell. Over the decades, alongside the official state government, Carinthia seemed to have a shadow government that concerned itself above all with the supposed and artificially created fears of the German Carinthians and saw to it that the rights and political interests of the Carinthian Slovenes were frustrated. The German-speaking population was kept in a state of mobilization by the homeland associations, which allowed for mobilization at any time. In hindsight, you can study how well this functioned in the example of the violent Carinthian Ortstafelsturm of 1972, when in a night and fog operation the just-erected bilingual road signs in Carinthian were torn out and demolished by a mob.
I come back to the question of what happens when you enter the danger zone, where reality and perception cannot see each other and a third thing arises, a kind of zone phantom.
I want to report on an incident and how as a youth my demeanor and speech in public adapted to something intangible like the Carinthian sensitivities. They are short stories, accompanied by shame, shameful for all who got involved in them. The reservation on the one hand has to do with my personal constitution, above all with the pressure that weighs on those who avow themselves to their Slovenian mother tongue and who also wanted to show this publicly. As youths we adapted, lowered our voices on the school bus, spoke quietly, almost whispered or switched to German. Every student at the Secondary School for Slovenes in Klagenfurt in the sixties and seventies of previous century had their own experiences with verbal harassment, with attempts at mockery and intimidation on the part of the German-speaking population. These assaults happened almost casually and with an awareness that they were doing something for the Carinthian homeland if they stuck it to the insubordinate Slovenes. At the time, I became cautious in way that was sometimes wholly unbearable to me. If I went shopping with my mother in Klagenfurt and we spoke in Slovenian in the stores, I was often uncomfortable because the jumpiness of the saleswomen was palpable, as you lived with the knowledge that the Slovenian language was a nuisance and a provocation. A nervous irrationality dictated daily life, you felt you were constantly in a state of emergency, in which different rules apply than in peace time.
At the start of the 1990s, when I took up my position as dramaturge at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt, a strange and very “Carinthian” incident occurred at the start of 1992. A journalist from the Berlusconi newspaper Il Giornale from Milan was researching central European identity in Austria. She interviewed me with the help of a translator and asked questions that seemed to me harmless, but private. When her article appeared, it stated that the director of the Klagenfurt Burgtheater, a certain Maja Händerlat, claimed that all prejudices of the provinces applied to Carinthia, this was sharpened further by the hard character of the people. The city of Klagenfurt didn’t like tourists, as antisemitism and yearning for national socialism was still alive here. The article was brimming with inaccuracies, mistakes, insinuations, gross simplifications and readily recognizable as a prime example of unserious journalism. Which would be bad enough in itself. But in Carinthia the following happened: After the Kleine Zeitung, the daily newspaper with the highest circulation in Carinthia, appeared with the headline “Crass Attack against Tourist-Destination Carinthia” and inside the article it said that Il Giornale had engaged in mudslinging against Carinthia, the anger was concentrated, it seemed, on me. In angry phone calls, the management of the Stadtheater was advised to dismiss me without notice as I had become unacceptable as a Dramaturge. The governor in a press conference fiercely repudiated the, as he said, entirely invented accusations of the Italian newspaper. I publicly distanced myself from the content of the article. A hotel owner demanded, through the media, that I sue the Berlusconi newspaper, otherwise he would do everything so that I would lose my job at the Stadttheater, as I didn’t belong there anyway, I belonged in Cuba. The practiced mobilization reflex seemed to take effect. (Incidentally, in the following years, I was sent out of the country by telephone a few more times, even into the imaginary Tschuschien). Dietmar Pflegerl, the designated director of the theater found it all very amusing. He liked it when he was approached by certain people, whose names he didn’t want to divulge, about whether he knew that he had brought a partisan into the house, he should prepare for further conflict, as I would certainly also demand bilingual pieces for the Stadtteather.
At the time, I fell out of all the clouds into the Carinthian dual reality and had the feeling of being in a haunted place, in which unreal things took place. At no time was it about what I could and could not have told the journalist, it was above all about projection and what people thought I must have said. As with looking through the camera obscura, everything was turned upside down in the heads of the people and on my own.
An old story, an old souvenir picture came alive, my ancestors sitting in their holes of fear and I who was willing to fit into this picture. In the light, in the sun, the same theater, no one trusts facts, everyone sticks to their assumptions that seem more familiar than what’s visible. My sentient body bored into feelings of shame, defense, indignation, fear, aggression, anger, and was wounded by everything, until one day a momentary peace set in in my daily political and private life and I began to find my feet again in something that resembled normality.
The reason why I decided to write the novel Angel of Oblivion years later also has to do with this back story. I secretly hoped to pull the past of the Carinthian Slovenes and with it my own life’s story out of the zone of political manipulation, through language and its ability to sensually illustrate the world, and to shine a light on the suppressed and painful. To try a kind of literary exorcism, to release that neurotic charging through exactness of feeling, of thought and the formulation and not through assigning guilt.
The act of ascending into the light and descending back into the cave, as Plato writes, is painful: “And when he now comes into the light and his eyes are filled with light, he will not be able to see anything of what is now given to him as reality […] in other words I mean that he will have to get acclimated, in order to see the world above. And first I would be able to recognize shadows most easily, afterwards the images of people and the other things in water, and after than the things themselves.” The trapping and banishing of deceptive, inexact images is difficult work, a dance with shadows, who masquerade as reality. Language can trap them and put clothes on them, make them recognizable and clear. It can pave a way with words and sentences which you can walk or stroll on without fear of immediately getting off course or going astray.
In plays of shadow and light, taboos appear as shy, wild animals that can be soothed with persistent encouragement but should not be overwhelmed. You can and must write about the troubles of domesticating them. And you must accept that you do not necessarily look good on the paths made walkable by language, on which you return, after you struggled with contested terms and feelings. The traces of the argument with the dislocation can hardly be hidden. But an attempt is worth it, as the sense of orientation will be exceedingly challenged and sharpened in these fights, it is at stake.