The Ambiguity of Boring History
Rousseau’s sentence, Fortunate are a people whose history is boring to read is is usually interpreted as a desire for an absence of wars, unrest, floods. However, it is also possible that boredom might be a manifestation of a persistent and monotonous repetition of similar events even though those events are not boring as such. What I want to say is that the monotony of the endless repetition of unpleasant events does not have that same lightness as the boredom that led to the exodus from Eden, and which is, together with leisure, a faithful companion of happiness. But since man calls destiny only what pounds him, even though fortuitive circumstances are fruits of destiny, too, boredom is generally perceived only as the monotony of pleasant events. People like to invoke Tolstoy’s words that only misfortunes are unique while all happiness is identical, that unhappy families and countries are each unhappy in their own way. Heine would not have agreed with Tolstoy. According to him, every tragedy is familiengluck. The Bosnian tragedy is a tragedy of being stretched: on the east it is a wild frontier and rebellious bulwark, on the west a devil’s island and the dark side of the moon.
The Weight of Smoke
However, the ambiguity of boredom is not the only historical ambiguity. All of history is an ambiguity of a sort. Each nation has its own history. The realization of Russell’s Let the people thinkŮis as unattainable as is his old countryman’s state whose unreachable nature is hidden within its very name: Utopia. A hero is always a perpetrator too. An English nobleman and a famous navigator is, to the Spaniards, a pirate and a thief. It is only certain that he brought tobacco to Europe and that he managed to measure the weight of smoke first by weighing a cigarette and then subtracting the weight of the butt along with the weight of the ashes once he finished the cigarette. Tobacco was brought to Bosnia as an agricultural commodity by Ali-pasha Rizvanbegovich, a Herzegovinian Sultan and a Montenegrean butcher, the sworn enemy of Prince-bishop Petar Petrovich Njegoš II, the Montenegrin Solomon and a poet of slaughter.
Belted, and carrying a sword, according to an honorable family tradition (whose ironic counterpoint as well as whose seamy side is evident from the razor industry logo) Gardner Wilkinson, while traveling through Herzegovina and Montenegro, took upon himself the noble task of mediating between Ali-Pasha and Njegoš hoping to abolish that ugly and primitive custom of decapitation wherein heads later serve as trophies.
Wilkinson describes the origins of his commendable urge in following words, I admit that after I came to Cetinje, and after I saw twenty Turkish heads, a very sincere desire to abolish decapitation overwhelmed me. That feeling remained strong after I saw the same cruel trophies in Mostar. After a conversation he had with Ali-Pasha, Wilkinson wrote to Njegoš, I also explained to him that customs like this one make a war even more desperate— giving it a quality that our wars do not have. But both Njegoš and Ali-Pasha remained deaf when it came to Wilkinson’s cries as if the possibility of losing their own heads in an equally concrete and metaphoric register provided them with a kind of much-needed cold dispas-sionateness—almost pleasure.
They say that Njegoš, while looking at his reflection in a baroque Venetian mirror, recited the appropriate verses under his breath:
Black moustache where will you suffer
In Mostar or in Travnik?
(It is quite another thing that, according to Wilkinson, decapitation was something utterly alien to Western European civilization, but that only few decades separated him from the revolutionary havoc in the streets of Paris, the guillotines, and the barbarism of crowds tossing severed heads around).
A Historical Note
Whose are those twenty heads Wilkinson talks about? Whose heads were on display in that unique Cetinje exhibit? Perhaps the heads belonged to Ali-Pasha’s emissaries who had been sent to negotiate with Njegoš and were later decapitated by prince-bishop’s men who ambushed, tricked, and killed the victims in a place called Basina Voda? They murdered all the beys except for one, taking their heads as trophies. But their leader, Bey Resulbegović, was not among them. He had stayed behind in Niksic faking illness, just like a high school student would do, and saved his head. According to tradition, Resulbegović’s salvation should be ascribed to something else. It is ascribed to a conversation at twilight.
Riders and a Prophet
A line of high-born horsemen moved slowly through the cruel landscape of Herzegovinian rocks. They had already been traveling for a few days and still had a few days to go before they arrived. One could sense the sun at its zenith, hellish heat, crickets buzzing (like the winding of millions of wrist watches, as the poet with a prophetic name put it), the emote murmur of a river, stale air, tired horses, sweat on turban-swathed foreheads, half-closed eyes, dry lips, the rhythmic stamping of hoofs, moist hands holding the reins, the outlines of the mountains, a delicate foretaste of twilight. Parallel with the sunset in the West, the strange silhouette of a tall, slender man who walked leaning on a long cane made of yew appeared against the Eastern horizon. As he approached, his face became more and more visible, revealing its characteristic features, blue sleepy eyes, a large long forehead, a yellowish untrimmed beard, a long thin mustache, pale rolled-back lips. He was about sixty. He walked around in ragged clothes, like a beggar. He was barefoot. By now everybody should have recognized him. His name was Mate Glusac; legends about him are still alive all across Herzegovina. It is said that he was born in the village of Korita in 1774. He lived alone helping the baptized and the unbaptized, he practiced magic, cured, and told fortunes. According to folk legends, he never owned a house, never got married, always fasted and read prayers. There was about him something of an Old Testament Hebrew prophet’s passion, he was esoteric like Celtic druids, his mysticism resembled that of the sorcerers in The Arabian Nights, he was as picturesque as John the Baptist, ascetic as a monk, magical as a shaman, immersed in faith like a dervish, charismatic as a rock’n’roll idol, poor as the ancient Franciscans, powerful as a tribal medicine men; dignified as a priest; the odious respect of a lunatic, and the tranquillity of a wise old man from Chinese fairy tales.
A Dramatic Omen
Bey Resulbegović greeted his old acquaintance with a smile, It’s great to see you in good health, Mate.
Mate returned his greeting with the simplicity and spontaneity of a feebleminded man, Where are you headed, Bey?
To see Prince-bishop Njegoš in Montenegro, Ali-Pasha sends us – the Bey replied in slightly lowered voice imitating anger as if he were speaking to a child.
Mate’s eyes widened; he looked off somewhere in the distance, behind the Bey and began speaking quickly as if he were reciting a previously memorized text, Listen to me, Bey, you will not see the prince-bishop nor will you talk to him, and all but one person will see him from two places. From the first place they will talk and look at each other for an hour or two. From the second place they will look at each other for exactly two months until their eyes fall out of their sockets.
Now both the Bey and Mate Glusac were silent. After some time, the Bey asked Mate as if he were in a trance, What did you just say Mate?
Mate’s face relaxed, his gaze became crystal clear. Nothing my Bey, and if I said something, I don’t remember it any more.
Mate then continued on his way without looking back like some desired but unreachable and undoubting Orpheus, while the Bey, on horseback, stared after him for a long time looking like a sculpture made of salt or Eurydice on Pegasus.
The Phenomenology of Twilight
Twilight suddenly trampled the field. Darkness lengthens shadows and contributes powerfully to the grayness. Night gives a certain dimension to words and things that they do not have during daylight.
Yin replaces Yang – the Chinese would say.
The heartbeat slows, the blood pressure drops, it is the time of parasimpaticus – doctors would say.
Infantile fears awake along with the instincts inherited from our ancestors– claim psychoanalysts.
The Twilight Zone– announces the television.
Morning is wiser that evening– repeat the village wise men.
There is no sorrow like evening sorrow– wails an oriental love song.
A poet reveals: Darkness is the blood of wounded things.
Another poet adds: Girls sing at dusk.
The Salvational Effect of Superstition
It would be unrewarding to guess the Bey’s thoughts as well as to evaluate the extent that the prophecy had on his stay in Niksic. The fact is that he stayed in Niksic while the other beys continued their journey with its well-known ending on Basina Voda where they talked to the prince-bishop for an hour or two. The heads of all the beys except for one (who was most probably spared to play a role of ill-fated Philipidus) were taken to Cetinje and there they were able to look at Njegoš exactly two months until their eyes fell out of their sockets. Two months may be the exact time period needed for eyes to fall out of severed heads. Perhaps it would be interesting to imagine what would have happened had Bey Resulbegović not taken the warning into account and had he not stayed in Niksic. Would he have been saved anyway? It is hard to imagine that the Philipedean role fell to him just because he was the highest-ranked nobleman among the emissaries. But calling Mate’s prophecy a warning seems equally wrong. This is not the case of Cesar and the Ides of March. Mate did not advise Bey Rasulbegovic to be careful; he simply read his future as if it had been written on his palm. In the end, this legend resembles the English tale according to which the clairvoyant peasant Robert Nixon foretold Henry the Fourth’s victory over Richard the Third. That prophecy took place during their crucial battle, but it was uttered hundreds of kilometers away from the battlefield, in a remote village where no one even knew about the battle. (In his book Prediction and Prophecy Keith Alis mentions this story). Still, the encounter between Mate Glusac and Bey Resulbegović differs from that English story because Robert Nixon’s role is the role of a spectator who does not interact with the protagonists. It is also different than the Ides of March because it does not offer a choice. Mate Glusac is as merciless as destiny. But the question arises: would something else have stopped the Bey had it not been for Mate? Would what was predicted have had to happen regardless of the manner in which events unfolded, or did the implicit warning in the prophecy ensure its own realization? Did Mate address the Bey because he was grateful for his kindness and thus saved him? Was the prediction just a reading of something previously written or was it a correction that lead to a salvation? Whatever it was, because he stayed in Niksic, the Bey stayed alive. And this is the benefit of superstition and that benefit should not be belittled.
A Final Note
Mate Glusac was ninety-six when he died. It is said that hee foretold his own death as well. He is buried near the Church of Saint Tekla in Danilovgrad. There is no marker on his grave. Instead, an enormous tree grows there, more than a three feet in diameter. Prince-bishop Petar II Petrovic Njegoš and Ali-pasa Rizvanbegovic died in 1851. From a historical point of view they died at the same moment; like enemies exhausted from fighting or pairs of mythical unhappy lovers. The encyclopedias available to me at the moment mention neither Resulbegović nor Wilkinson. However, the genius who wrote Die Welt Als Wille und Vorstellung in Second Volume points out the inadequacy of those encyclopedias by mentioning the very same Mister Wilkinson in a footnote. In so doing, Arthur Schopenhauer granted me a rare compliment. Because in the same footnote he quoted the London Times, and he pointed out even more clearly, more subtly and in more detail a strange and mysterious comfort mentioning, along with everything else, the sketches feu follet, calling of vain and lonely sensibilities in moments of happiness.
After this story was published for the first time, I read a book that mentions, among others, Bey Resulbegović, who, I had come to think was a mythological character since I could not find his name anywhere. The book is entitled Crystal Bars, written by the man to whom A Knife with a Rosewood Handle is dedicated.
Translated by Nikola Petković
Edited by Andrew Wachtel