Vanda Božičević - Ideological Crossroad

Vanda Božičević, 24.05.2008, 05:05

How to take a dip in ideological swamps and keep breathing

All things will fall into place, they say
While the idiot tells his tale
And shakes his rattle of bones
Something good will come out of it, they say
And the idiot strangles yet another chicken
To pass the time
Everything happens for a reason, they say
While the idiot keeps doodling his grand design
And baring his tongue
Justice will prevail, they say
But the idiot just got hiccups
And this is all as far as I can tell
Brooklyn, 2003

This is my twelfth year in the United States. My day starts with preparing my kids’ lunchboxes and ends by coaxing them to turn off their games, and get ready for bed. Or may be I should say this is when my day actually begins, reduced to the two hours before sleep when I get to read what I want, or occasionally see a movie of my own choice. Meanwhile I rush to school, repeatedly emphasize to my students the benefits of logical reasoning, chat with my colleagues, and then rush back to take the kids home, prepare the dinner… you get the picture. It’s just an ordinary day of a suburban soccer mom who earns her living by serving digested ideas to not always hungry young minds. But then in the midst of all this I have a dream. Nothing prepares me for this dream. In the dream a man I was close to 20 years ago is killing another man in my presence, an acquaintance and a colleague of ours, but one of the wrong nationality. My friend is deformed by rage, he kicks his victim, scorns him, stabs him. “Fuck your Serbian mother!” he yells. I stand there terrified, but do nothing, say nothing. I even hold the victim for him. Definitely, I’m not only a witness, I am an accomplice. My thoughts are spinning. I’m thinking: No, I have to report this, I have to tell on my friend. But then, even if I tell, I won’t redeem myself, I’ll never redeem myself. I’ll be locked in this hell forever. I’ll never again be clean, never be myself again. I’m lost once and for all. This is when my kids wake me up.
I visit Croatia regularly each summer, and I notice one thing: nobody thinks about the war any more, people have moved on with their lives, houses were rebuilt, new malls, supermarkets, highways and billboards erected, even multiplex movie theaters with cartons of popcorn. Since I moved to America, America has moved to Croatia, or so it seems. So, if people in Croatia have moved on, what private pathology can explain my dream? I never lost a loved one in war, never witnessed a killing, never really wished to kill anyone. My whole activity in the war involved fear and trembling, hiding and running away, moving my daughter, moving my things, moving myself, to safety, away from the bombs, away from the country, away… Obviously, even an ocean apart and twelve years later, I’m still in the thick of it, my collective unconscious nicely preserved and ready for action.
No matter that I never imagined my Croatian ethnicity could have any more political relevance than the color of my hair, or the name of the street I live in, no matter that I stayed away from politics, refused to join any party, that I didn’t love my Serbian friends any less, and that I eventually emigrated and thus avoided the pressure of everyday life in Croatia under Tudjman. Still… Despite all those efforts to withdraw to my private world, to avoid compromises, to maintain my integrity, despite of the price I paid for not joining, for not cheering along, it was all for nothing, I’m still stained. An ideological crossroad indeed seems like a cross on the road to me, with all of us propped up on it, blood dripping from our wounds, unable to get down and walk away.
In the course of my life I have navigated through three ideological spheres: born and raised under socialism, trying to save my skin under nationalism, landing reluctantly in capitalism. I would describe myself as apolitical if this was a valid category, but as I learned from experience, there’s never a way out, even if the only thing you do deliberately is try to stay out. They simply count you as “not one of us”, so you get your ideological label and play your political role even while sitting home and patting your tummy, which is what I literally did during student protests against the socialist regime in the fall of 1971. While my husband and our student friends marched in the streets, got beaten by the police, and then returned home and debated long hours, I was blissfully patting my bulging belly and knitting baby blankets. But no baby blankets could have saved me from taking a dip in ideological swamps, no matter how hard I tried to wrap them around myself and my babies. Baby blankets, by the way, are known to be porous.
My ideological engagement by way of disengagement started in high school when I politely declined to join the communist party, explaining I didn’t feel mature enough. An intellectual snob with a bourgeois background, being fully immersed in reading Kafka, Camus, Proust, Bergson, Krleza, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and others, I couldn’t imagine what on earth I’d be doing in the company of the mediocre and opportunistic students who were responding to the party’s call. Politics was pushed to the margin of my awareness as something completely uninteresting, boring, and dumb, something I couldn’t even start thinking of seriously. It was all dumped into the same box of kitschy parades, stories about Tito’s childhood, war movies, men in ties cutting ribbons at the openings of the new factories. My judgment of politics was mostly based on my aesthetic sensibilities. I couldn’t take an interest in something so dull and so kitschy, geared to the mental level of five-year olds. It was a mystery to me how grown-up men could undertake this business seriously, and it never occurred to me their preoccupations could have any relevance for my life.
Intellectual snobbism that kept me away from the ruling ideology was soon joined by a different shield: hormones. I happily fell in love, got married right out of high school, knitted baby blankets through the student uprising, and had my baby as a college sophomore. When my professor Gajo Petrovic, a leading philosophical figure at the time, invited me to contribute to the philosophical journal Praxis he edited, I bluntly refused, explaining to him, with all the earnestness of a 20 year old, that I didn’t see myself as a philosophical writer. The only thing I wanted to be was a mom. Talk about a bad career move! But as a result of my stupidity, which I in retrospect try to explain away by postpartum hormonal perturbation, I never got connected to the Praxis school and my ideological slate remained completely clear of the traces of Marxism. Not that I was uninformed: being a nerd, I dutifully read all the Marxist works that were on the reading list, but none of my professors ever asked me one question about them. Maybe I was just emanating different kind of vibes. Instead, we had enjoyable discussions about Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.
The blank state of my ideological slate certainly didn’t help later in my job search. Although I was among the best students in my class, and started off with two parallel graduate programs and one additional undergraduate program, just to get an edge in the job market, I received one rejection after another. After long months of unsuccessful job hunting, I decided the career of a mother was more appealing, so I had another child. Finally, almost four years after graduation, I got a job at the Philosophy Department in Zadar, due to a package deal offered to my husband, a psychologist. Even years later, in the mid ’80s, the fact that I stayed out of the Praxis circle still haunted me. When I applied for the position in aesthetics at the Zagreb Philosophy Department, I was rejected once again. Although I had completed my graduate program, and was the only candidate with publications in the field, Gajo Petrovic’s protégé was hired instead. Later, Petrovic reminded me, in a moment of remorse, I guess, that I could still apply for the position at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, vacated by the person hired. Although I was eager to return to my home town, I was too proud to try that remedy.
Another shield from the ideological storms in the macho atmosphere of Dalmatia was my gender. As some feminists have claimed, women were not always the primary victims of male ideologies. In the world men have arranged more is expected of them, and they are the ones who necessarily have to show their ideological passport. The fact that I’m a woman helped me to wiggle out, and avoid the spotlight. Maybe this explains why they never again invited me to join the communist party; since my husband was a player in political charades, I was able to stay protected in the background, and focus on raising my kids and doing philosophy.
During the 80s, while the communist rule was gradually falling apart, I was able to publish my philosophical writings without ever including an obligatory mention of Marx or the Marxists, as some of my colleagues felt they had to do. Nobody ever asked me to do so. I wonder about those who have done it: gluing a chapter on Marx to a work completely unrelated to the topic. Were they asked to do this, or did they do it on their own? Was it a conscious career move, a fear of repercussions in case they omitted it, or was it simply conformism, opportunism? Would they delete it today, if they prepared a new edition?
My ideological cocoon, however, was brutally torn apart when I got divorced, assumed the position of the Chair of Philosophy Department in Zadar, and the ’90s thundered in. The joyful arrival of democracy was followed by the sobering realization that the unified front that had opposed the communists actually consisted of people whose views were radically different from my own. The comfortable feeling of being part of the crowd was replaced by an unexpected feeling of isolation. The green party for which I voted in the first democratic election got less than 1% vote in Zadar. My aesthetic approach to politics and feeling of intellectual superiority over the poor ideologues quickly gave way to fear. When Croatian nationalists started their political campaign, using my old tools of ideological trade I discarded their platform with nonchalance in the same old kitschy box, along with the communist parades, and well known ribbon cutting men in ties. In the school cafeteria I jokingly explained that even my cat knew better than to vote for Tudjman: his photo was the one my cat chose to scratch when it appeared in one of the magazines. My chuckling was cut short by a glance I got from a person sitting at a side table. It turned my blood cold: it was a glance of a murderer. That glance marked the end of my ideological virginity, I finally understood what was at stake. It’s about your life, stupid!
What followed before my final move to the States in September 1995 was a series of panicked attempts to stay away from the chaos evolving around me. In the wake of it, I found myself running away in fright from the political gathering at the Roman forum in Zadar when I saw some of our students stepping onto the podium in black shirts. My aesthetic criteria didn’t fool me this time: I clearly recalled Bertolucci’s Nineteen hundred and felt what was coming. After failed attempts to make our students of different ethnicities express mutual solidarity, I resigned my position as Chair of the Philosophy Department. As the bombs started falling on Zadar, I moved my daughter to Zagreb, and found myself touring Croatia each week, hiding in the basement, removing broken glass from my apartment and my car, attempting to save water, save my photo albums, save my skin. I was certainly getting a different perspective on the meaning of my ethnic identity: regardless of the fact that I refused to assign any significance to it and refused to capitalize from it, regardless of the fact that I boycotted the referendum for Croatian independence because I was fearful, as it turns out justifiably, of the consequences a positive outcome might have, I was still just a Croatian, and, as such, a target for attack by the Yugoslav army. Lying in the basement on a makeshift sponge bed my good neighbors offered to share with me, listening to the thunder of bombing outside, I finally felt, without any reserve, that I belonged to my nation, to a part of suffering humanity which was under attack solely because it was what it was. In this sense nationalism and racism are worse than communism or religious discrimination. With the latter, one always has the option of joining the party or converting, but no personal engagement can change your race or your ethnicity, so there are no cures once your group gets targeted.
Not that I had any inclination to join the people in the neighboring Serbian village where the shells came from. I watched the roofs of their houses from my bedroom window and couldn’t comprehend what made these people fire on the town where they had their jobs, where their kids were in school, where they did their shopping, visited doctors’ offices, went to the beach. I was equally unable to understand what made my fellow Croatians hate their Serbian neighbors who sat under the same shells. I was shocked when a colleague of mine, a psychologist, greeted me one day screaming: “I hate them, Vanda, how I hate them!” Taken by surprise I enquired who she hated. She was referring to the Serbs, of course. I saw my male colleagues, who only yesterday were discussing logic and philosophy of mathematics, suddenly sporting guns in their pockets and telling dirty jokes about the Serbs. A fellow aesthetician took over the ministry of war. A good friend of mine advised me against dating a man whose paternal grandfather was Serbian. Another colleague, who happened to have a Croatian last name, confided in me that he was actually a Serb. Soon my own nation started committing atrocities against others, smearing me with a sense of guilt. The world around me was changing rapidly in unpredictable, and to me incomprehensible ways.
In my naiveté I felt ethnic conflicts belonged to the prehistory of rational civilization, along with stone spears. I tried to make sense of what was happening, wondering what lessons could be derived from the war, besides what we already knew from before, i.e. that it was the worst of human inventions. My wiser philosopher friend brought me to my senses. In his ho-ho-ho Santa Claus manner, he laughed and said: “Gee, Vanda, you would like to become a war profiteer, wouldn’t you? To get epistemological profit from the war, that’s what you want?!” Indeed, how selfish of me to seek personal insight as a comforting byproduct of a historical tragedy! The tragedy is just what it is: tragic, not in any way meaningful, or useful. The best we can do is empathize with the victims, acknowledge the tragic fact, not try to hush it down with some wise commentary, or the smarmy feeling of self-elevation occasioned by the suffering of others. If in my dream I focused on helping the victim, instead of despairing over my dirty conscience, I might have had some chance for redemption. But, no, I’m no role model myself, thinking too much and doing nothing, fretting over the nuances of my own physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being, instead of actively contributing to a cause.
At that time, though, I had my hands full trying to keep myself and my family safe. I was thankful that my son got a scholarship from Yale, and was able to get out of the chaos. My daughter, however, was in the midst of her turbulent teenage years and the fact she had to stay in Zagreb with her seriously sick grandma certainly didn’t help. I was torn between staying with them and maintaining my job in Zadar, which required commuting under the bombs on a weekly basis.
My war experiences intensified. Once a shell fell on the stairs of an underpass into which I had just run. I spent five days in my friend’s apartment during an attack from the land, sea, and air. Her father, a retired Yugoslav army officer, was calculating the possible trajectories of the rockets, making sure we were sitting next to the firmest wall. Her Serbian mom fed us from her food supplies. There were at least 6 of us lying on mattresses on their living room floor. I held my office hours in a packed café, the popularity of which was secured by its safe location in the city walls. I pulled three of my philosopher colleagues from the town under shells, in my little Fiat with the broken rear window. I pushed through a crowd of people, many of them refugees from the neighboring Croatian villages, carrying plastic bags with their only belongings, trying to get on any bus leaving the town. The greatest fear was that we would be cut off from the rest of the country, sharing the destiny of Vukovar, a city the Yugoslav army had, along with its citizens, leveled to the ground. And I knew that after I managed to escape from the city, I would have to return to it again in a week if I wanted to keep my job. To say that I was freaked out is to put it mildly.
An unexpected beam of hope came when I received a letter from Belgrade announcing that I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship at Columbia University beginning in September. It was May 1992, I held the letter in my hand, sitting under shells in Zadar, while my mother in Zagreb went through chemotherapy. When I had submitted my application for the scholarship, Yugoslavia still existed, so the committee operated through its capital. By the time the decision was made, Croatia was under attack by the Yugoslav army. The situation seemed completely surreal; I thought there was no way I could go. Events, however, took a quick turn. My mother’s condition worsened, she died in June. My boyfriend, who was simultaneously admitted to the graduate program at CUNY, proposed to me, hoping we could leave as a couple. We got married in August, and landed in New York in September.
That could have sounded like a happy ending, except that it was the beginning of the hardest period of my life. By the time we landed in New York in an empty apartment on Riverside Drive, we were all so traumatized there was no way we could have enjoyed the advantages of a new situation. Before he left, my husband learned that the College Council in Zadar, without any discussion, declined his reappointment, in spite of the positive evaluation of the reappointment committee: his Serbian last name was a sufficient argument. The news we got from Zadar was changing from bad to worse. Our logician friend, whose parents had protected me in their home, and who was the most talented student I ever had, was the next one to lose her job. Our department had been targeted by the nationalists; more cleansing was on the horizon. From their conservative religious stance, they publicly criticized our cosmopolitan aspirations and promotion of the analytic method, dismissing us as “Coca-Cola philosophers”. Since taking over the key positions in the Ministry of Science, they had control over our research grants, job openings, reappointments, and promotions.
True, they did indirectly offer to take me under their wing. One of their eagles used my name as ammunition in a public attack against Marxists in the Philosophy Department in Zagreb. He claimed the reason they had not hired me was because I was Croatian. This was certainly my unique chance to present myself as a victim, and “secure what was rightfully mine”. In order to extricate myself from this mess, I wrote a letter to the colleague who was the main target of the attack, explaining to her that I didn’t stand behind it, and that, although I obviously didn’t approve of her decision not to hire me, since I didn’t believe it was based on merit, I doubted that she had relied on nationality as a criterion. A year later, when I ran into her on the street, she gave me a hug, thanking me for the letter. Meanwhile, she endured harassment and pressure from the nationalists, including threatening phone calls.
From our New York refuge, we tried to alert American colleagues to what was happening to Croatian philosophers, and tried to get some kind of official support from the American Philosophical Association. We did manage to get a letter sent to the Croatian Philosophical Association, but in the process we learned the attention span of people willing to listen to our lamentations was bounded by Western news coverage and their sense of comfort. Typically, this amounted to at most a few minutes. No wonder: the destruction of the bridge in Mostar got 30 seconds of coverage, while the woman who cut off her husband’s penis the same day received 2 minutes. Soon we learned to divert polite inquiries about the Croatian war to other topics, and ask for practical advice about problems at hand instead. And such problems were abundant: how to find the right school for my daughter, how to get health insurance, how to pay our bills... But our attempts to organize our life in New York didn’t get very far. All the perturbations took their toll: my daughter’s mental health was seriously endangered, and I had a miscarriage. I decided to give up on the extension of my scholarship and returned with my daughter to Croatia. My husband, who had started his graduate program, stayed.
When I returned, I realized I couldn’t continue to work in the cleansed Philosophy Department in Zadar. Meanwhile, the colleagues I worked with had either been fired, or had quit. So I quit also, hoping to get a position in Rijeka, a city that escaped nationalist control, and where I had been adjuncting for a few years. Indeed, they managed to get a line for a full time position and I applied. What happened next was that the Ministry of Science decided to withdraw funding for this line. I certainly offered them an easy way to get rid of me. A colleague of mine, who was in contact with the minister, asked him what they held against me: my history was clear of communism, my genealogy clear of Serbian blood. The minister explained that I was not a good Catholic - I got divorced from my husband. True. Stripped of my patriarchal armor, I was up for grabs. The updated information about my getting remarried to a younger Serbian guy certainly would not have helped. Thus started my 11 year long academic exile.
Academia, by the way, is the only place where a nerd can earn a decent living. Take the nerd out, and she will sink. Or almost. The situation I found myself in was not one I was prepared for. With a deeply troubled sixteen year old daughter to care for, amidst a war, and with no job. Or, later, in America, with two little children to care for, in a foreign country, without the right papers, without a steady job, with no family or friends who could have helped, in a marriage that was starting to fall apart. My mother, herself divorced, had pampered me too much, proud of my scholarly success, and made me grow up with the impression that all would be well, because I’m good and smart and do my homework on time. Yeah, yeah.
I’m certainly aware that my story is the story of a woman who was privileged in many ways. My sailing through the two totalitarian regimes was not so smooth, but I lost virtually nothing: I didn’t lose a loved one, my property was not destroyed, neither I, nor any of my family members or friends were arrested, raped, or tortured. I was not deprived of food, water, or shelter, I was not forced to do a menial job. Most of the time I was aware of the situation, and I had some options. I did have a career, nobody ever censored my writing, nobody fired me, I just chose to quit. My life looks more like a soap opera, than a tragedy. I might have even been an object of envy. Thinking of all the things other people have gone through, and are going through right now, I can hardly complain. And yet…
I wish I could have been free of the group identities, which did not depend on my own choice but nevertheless determined almost every aspect of my life, and burdened me with fear and guilt, despite the fact that I invested my energy solely in trying to break free. I know this is impossible: one is always born somewhere, sometime, to someone; our group identities enfold and protect us, and by protecting us restrict us and sometimes suffocate us. It’s a pity there is no such thing as a collective national psychotherapy, because that’s what we all need: plucking out bad seeds from our national psyche, and cleaning up our acts. Instead, we are relying on quick fixes: adopting new jargon, new policies, new ideologies.
I don’t harbor the illusion any more that my life in a new territory is a way of escaping it all. Our history has a way of trapping us and dragging us into surreal situations. On one occasion an American feminist friend of mine interested in political theories in Eastern Europe asked for my help with translating a review of Croatian political theories in English. And there I sat in the Brooklyn College cafeteria, dutifully translating a text by a well known Croatian nationalist, who was responsible for public attacks on my friends, and most probably for some of the cleansing. On another occasion, the colleague from Zagreb who failed to hire me, the former Marxist who withstood the attack of the nationalists and maintained her position, visited New York in order to give a talk. At the time I had two preschool children, my husband, chasing his own demons, unable to help. I was scraping for adjunct courses, completely desperate, convinced I would have to give up philosophy for good. After finally getting a realistic insight into the job market for philosophers, I realized the odds that a college might hire a middle-aged woman from the Balkans, with a degree from overseas, with no publications in American philosophical journals, and no recent publications for that matter, a woman with no connections, and no time to network, with no money to pay for babysitters and thus no time to do any reading, writing, or publishing, were close to zero. For the hour I socialized with my colleague from Zagreb she was happily talking about her philosophical ideas without enquiring how I was doing. When I eventually managed to tell her of my problems she earnestly advised me to emigrate to Australia.
I watch in amazement how time erases past ideological conflicts, and thus reveals their true nature and their essential irrelevance. Since totalitarian ideologies are just a means of brainwashing the masses into supporting a cause which is in the interest of their advocates, once an ideology’s usefulness wears off, it is easily discarded and replaced. I used to wonder how the most eager Stalinists could turn into the most eager nationalists overnight. The communist idea of social equality, with its international scope, could not be simultaneously upheld with discrimination on ethnic grounds, or with the market values which are now gradually overtaking the Balkans. True, these ideas were not entertained simultaneously, but successively. And those who accepted them really never had any convictions; they just had needs which were met by their adherence to the dominant ideology. Some might not have even noticed that the switch happened.
America certainly is different from the Balkans: it offers a menu of ideologies one can pick from and live by, with the only condition being that they fit within the general political, legal and economic framework. And since this framework is sufficiently flexible and comfortable, most people just take it for granted. As a not yet naturalized immigrant, who is now, after years of struggle, able to survive comfortably, I feel both sufficiently protected and sufficiently isolated, neither the victim nor the player. I’ve put the process of naturalization on hold, afraid my new identity would burden me with a new sense of guilt. I already share American fear: I lived in New York in September 2001. I am enjoying my distance from political and ideological currents, aware that it is provisional and fake. It is a momentary breathing space bought at the price of deliberate ignorance, isolation and compliance, the price I’m willing to pay in order to get to do what I love: raise my kids and teach philosophy. So, thirty years later, I’m still pushing along the same track, only this time I’m aware of what I would see if I chose to take my blinds off. Right now, I daydream and entertain the vision of myself as a free floating, frei schwebende, intellectual, free of any ideological baggage, who only wishes to be grounded in humanity on planet Earth.

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