– Artistic Reflections upon the Adelphic Myth in the European and Balkan literary context –
Who is it that doesn’t marvel and wonder upon this age,
And how are these times fashioned to augment our sins?
(Epistle of Jovan Zlatoust)
When we think about the secrets and taboos which, without regard to the temporal distances, perpetually astound us, we, involved in the inner dialogue with ourselves and the world, ask ourselves whether the interpretation of the myths – traces left in time – have stopped being a challenge for us?
The topic that this essay deals with will probably raise controversial thoughts. That is so, without doubt, because out of all forms of love in a contemporary and civilized society, it is perhaps only the incestuous one that raises adverse feelings, so it is no wander that many refuse to talk about it. Understood as one of the most characteristic categories of wrongdoing, it can easily cause abuse of the authority of the speaker, but when we deal with the corpus of literary works from the world and European artistic production that tackle this phenomenon, we must admit that we are faced with fascinating aesthetic achievements. It is enough to remind ourselves of the associations awoken by the great tragedy of the myth of Oedipus, or the biblical myth of Lot and his daughters, and it will became apparent that without regard to the manner in which this eccentric phenomenon has been treated in the literary tradition, for many authors it has grown into an unavoidable literary inspiration. This is what the passionate investigator of the myths of love, Denis de Rougemont, has to say with regard to this: “When we get to know the myths that tempt us better, when we discover where their logic comes from, and where it leads, we will probably be prepared, on our own risk, to responsibly accept the love, and to turn towards ourselves. Maybe we will be free to do something even more than that1F.”
But, in order to understand the dark logic of incest, and to realize the irrational strength of this eroticism, we will first have to learn to read and interpret the hidden power of myths.
1.0. Having been born in the polemics between the sacred and the profane (the taboos and their sacrilege), the incest has grown into a great literary topic at which many famous authors have tried their talents. In the myths as collective discourses2F that know not of the concept of individual subject3F, they have seen an absolute ‘original template’ for their literary works. Therefore, when we talk of a precise myth analysis, the interpretation of mythical transformations, and their paradigmatical values will always imply a diachronic perspective. But, the relationship between myth and literature is based upon a ‘secondary grammar.’ Levy-Strauss’s words apply to it4F. According to him, the myth is speech which works upon a higher level where the meaning is able to ‘raise above’ the linguistic foundation upon which the myth itself came into being.
Be as it is, within the framework of contemporary literary works, the mythical inscriptions show that their authors are able, in their own way, to raise above the original semantic dimension of a so called “mythe de référence”5F. But, although their texts represent a reflection on something that has already been created in literature, they still contain the necessary minimum of energy for all further re-creations, because the aim of a metatextual subject is not the original as a matrix, but the transformations of its building parts. But, because artistic linkings are in most cases intentionally colored, we can say that these literary works are a result of a confrontation6F with the system which we can classify under the term of tradition.
Understood as a paradigm of intertextual links and a syntagm of certain intertextual relationships, tradition is not a simple sum of texts, but a sum of all virtual relationships that exist between the texts. For these reasons, what will be important for this essay will be the issues that deal with the relationship between a paradigmatic and some previous text, but before we move to their interpretation within the framework of the Balkan context, we will say few words on the reflections upon the motif of incest in the European literary tradition. In that sense, a small digression will be useful.
2.0. As to illustrate, I will begin with John Ford, an important dramatist from the time of the English renaissance7F period. In his ‘psychopathic tragedy’ Too Bad that She is a Whore, Ford deals with the theme of the incestuous love between a brother and a sister, and their necessarily tragic end, with great psychological intensity. In this direction, Lord Byron’s, who was suspected of having a scandalous relationship with his half-sister Augustina, dark drama of Manfred also deserves our attention. Then, there are Goethe’s novel Villhem Meister, Thomas Mann’s story The Velung’s Kind, and his novel The Chosen One, Robert Muzil’s A Man with No Features, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Ana Soror and a number of other outstanding artistic works that concern themselves with the aspect of an incestuous love between a brother and a sister. But, if we ask ourselves about the reason that brings into a close associative contact the deep rethorics of these unquestionably aesthetic works, it will certainly be the Adelphic myth, as their archetypal matrix.
Still, when we deal with a narrower cultural context, as the Balkans is, for example, it would be logical to attempt to identify and locate the artistic beginnings of this phenomenon.
2.1. The direction of this topic brings us to an ancient Greek tragedy in which for the first time in the world’s artistic literature, the drama of incest is explored. The drama in question is Aeshil’s Beggars8F in which the female offsprings of the ruler Danaj refuses to marry the male offsprings of his brother Aigipid, refusing to participate in an incestuous relationship with their cousins. The hatred of Danaj’s daughters towards Aigipid’s sons is caused by the latter’s insistence to marry their cousins against their will, and is so great that it will lead to mass murders on their wedding night. But, historical considerations within the Balkan framework show that the ancient Greek literature has taken this motif from the Asyro-Babylonian or Egyptian myths, which leads us to the fact that in the literature there is a kind of symbiosis of cultures and motifs. This phenomenon as an ancient Greek symbol, has first appeared on the medieval margins of the unconscious, and then spread out into the Balkan oral tradition.
So, starting from the early Middle Ages, burdened with old mythical memories, the Balkan peoples have incorporated the motif of forbidden love between a brother and a sister in their folk songs. An unavoidable example of this is the popular medieval hagiography by the Byzantinian saint Pavle Kesariski9F. Here we can see how the date of the first appearance of the motif of incest moves not only to 6th century and the Byzantine literary tradition, but even further, in the old cosmogenic myths of the androgen. To support this phenomenon, even in its rudimentary form, we will mention the Serbian folklore and the poem of Nahod Simeon – an incestuous offspring from a brother and a sister – based upon the elements of the mentioned Christian hagiography.
There is no doubt that works with incestuous content have appeared in the folklore of other Balkan people, but when it comes to the oral tradition which has in regard the demands of the community, it is important to mention the community’s preventive censure. As a minimal degree of communication between cultures, as a mechanism called “interrupting the bad dream at the last moment”10F, it assures us that the reactualization of the poetic elements in the folklore tradition appears in significantly lesser degree than in the individual one, and gives us the right to describe this motif of incestuous love as a common ballad of the Balkan people.
2.2. If we stay with the Macedonian and Albanian oral tradition, or – even narrower – with the Macedonian versions of the epic about Bolen Dojcin and Lepa Angelina and the Albanian versions of the ballad about Konstantin and Doruntina11F, we will notice that in certain contemporary artistic works based upon examples from the folklore tradition, there is a specific attempt t tackle the motif of incestuous love. The question is, to what degree were the authors successful in transforming the folklore template and accentuate the forbidden love. Here is the answer.
Working upon the story Who has brought Doruntina?12F, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has dedicated a specific artistic development to this motif. It is different from the folk ballad, in that Kadare places the dark secret of the latent and mystical love of the brother toward his sister in the discourse of the Mother, or to be more precise, in her correspondence with the nobleman Karl Topija. They have not only seen Konstantin’s strange and unnatural attachment to his sister Doruntina, but have also interpreted all his possessive and jealous scenes as a tendency towards incest. Still, Kadare directs our attention towards another direction: removing himself from the matrix of the folk ballad, and avoiding in a sophisticated manner the theme of perversions, he managed to demystify the Adelphic myth and create an apology of the ‘besa’13F with which Kostantin, who has been dead for three years, has committed himself in front of his mother, to return his sister. In such manner, the incest which could have been put in the text of the Albanian author, is in fact left at the margins of the story.
On the other hand, two contemporary Macedonian playwrights will introduce new content in the specific development of this theme. By encouraging the doubt in the worth of life, and undermining the established moral values, they will insist on the erotic and incestuous dimension of the sin. But since in Georgi Stalev’s14F plays the contemplative – associative development of this motif remains within the framework of the dilemmas and traumas opened by the ethic as a life category, we will direct our examination of the incestuous motif towards Blagoja Risteski’s dramatization.
Its artistic development represents a turning point in the Macedonian fictional thought.
3.0. “The myth, legend, underwaters of dreams, sociological statistics and journalistic articles, show that incest, attractive to some, repulsive to some, exists as an always present possibility within the framework of human sensibility. It can be said that for the poets it has became a symbol of all sexual passions which if repressed, punished or hidden, became even stronger… It is on the steepest rock that the waves leave deepest mark” – says Marguerite Yourcenar in the epilogue to her novel Ana Soror15F, but in Blagoja Risteski’s dramatization, the motif of incestuous love has been transposed into higher spheres in the manner of the best ancient Greek tragedies.
We will say immediately: in the artistic development of Lepa Angelina one can not speak of an unintentional attitude towards the content of the folk epic because the final goal of the author is not to deny the tradition, nor to distance himself from the old mythical values; on the contrary, everything boils down to the so called positive linking to a known motif. This is what the events in the play reveal:
Preparing himself for the defense of the city, Bolen Dojcin – the famous defender of Thesalloniki – has set his mind to find the relics of the highest Slovene god Perun under the marble floor of the Sveta Nedela church. In a moment of manly passion he reached for the chastity of the keeper of the church, thus attracting the anger of the god. He fell to the ground, being cursed with the words: “to be sick until he takes his sister in the same manner a man takes a woman.” Since one can not escape a curse, the fulfillment of the god’s punishment will be the key moment which will develop the fable of this play.
Thus, going to the lyrical part of the text, in the discourse of the gorgeous female character, the author of the tragedy Lepa Angelina, has not only succeeded to put himself above the critical censure of the community, but also by transforming the prototext – the classical epic of Bolen Dojcin – to confirm that individual literary works of this type, are in fact a testimony for the dilemmas and traumas which the humanity has gone through. But, the curse which is found in Blagoja Risteski’s play, in fact, doesn’t exist. There is the reader as a subject of a realization, for whom the victim is evident.
Before we agree with Miodrag Pavlovic’s16F claim according to which the sacrifice as a starting, cultural and symbolical act is motivated by a psychological, religious or instinctive cause, we are going to say that for the central characters of this play, the self-sacrifice of the sister Lepa Angelina is equal with the act of giving a present. Understood in such way, and expressed through a forbidden form of love, it represents a specific effort – through rebirth of a being of same epic type to sustain the recreation. But, since modern civilization grows less and less sensitive about the ancient symbolic messages, the question still remains: where to do the mythical frames of our existence extend?
Bearing in mind Risteski’s play – the action and its central characters, we could say that it, while being contemporary, posesses all dimensions of mythical/legendary character, but although we are very well aware of the fate of this forbidden form of love, it is more and more obvious that in Lepa Angelina it is not decadent – perhaps it deals in the least with incest and Eros, and more with the passion deep seated in Filia or Agape – because here it is not a case of carnal love, as it is in Sophocle’s Oedipus, for example, neither it is a case of the Platonic myth of the two halves of the being which is perpetually in search for its lost half, but it is a case of the redeeming power of the sin understood as repentance, as basic defeat of any passion. Even if we agree that death suits it fine because it can not conform to the social codex of the community, the love in Blagoja Risteski’s play represents more a divine effort to propagate life, rather than its negation. Therefore, it is very logical that the author in his artistic creation has chosen such ending: in the incestuous unfolding of the play, he equates the Tragedy with the logic of the Myth, and bought out the Eros with the help of Agape.
But there is a paradox which is present in the whole content of the play, and it is a fundamental one. It is even more so, because it can be summed up in a sentence, which sounds not only paradoxically, but even frightening. According to the logic of the characters in the play, a sin is redeemed by a sin! Therefore, if the illogical is transformed into logical, and breaking of the taboo into repentance – the question is, what is it that can be felt as sin in Risteski’s play?
When by following the example of an archetypal matrix, the sin and suffering became universal, Ferid Muhic’s words perfectly reflect all human history: “Each man and each woman, from the beginning of the world until today, many times, countless times have been in love with somebody to whom they are related in blood. If Adam and Eve were the only people from whom everybody else has decended, then there is a case of incest in the second biological cycle, in the marriage between their children!”17F
In such way, formed on the border between the offense and self-sacrifice, the incest in Lepa Angelina stands for nothing else but a symbolical act of elevated emotions. Because of these very reasons we are going to see this rare model of sisterly love18F not as a common sexual intercourse, but as an example of sacrifice which creates its own space and its own logic in the text, and which are equal to the original cultural action.
However, the paradox of self-sacrifice is metaphorical in its own way. It tells us that the very act of sacrifice in front of the altar is not in vain, because Angelina has in front of her the image that she has to reproduce (in three months she gives birth to three beautiful sons whose destiny is not known, but can be felt implicitly.) This is what her discourse reveals:
I am a proud mother of three sons, a triple countenance of my brother. Dojcin, his sister’s sorrow, he didn’t die, or else he has risen from the dead when I gave birth to his sons, and went in them in three directions… to teach the world to goodness, to beautiful things, and to protect it from badness, from harshness… 19F
This, in a sense, mythical example, convinces us that the sacrificial customs haven’t disappeared from the subconsciousness of modern man, the one from the end of the 20th century, because the propensity towards sacrifice, or if you want, self-sacrifice, is somewhere deep within ourselves, awaiting the moment for its appearance.
Bearing this play in mind, I wonder, how is it still possible to write tragedies with female main character, when it is known that heroism, understood as an activity, is not a female characteristic. Why do I stress this thought? I said that because in Risteski’s play Angelina doesn’t do anything, she practically doesn’t act (except that she surrenders to the curse), she, in fact, suffers more than she acts, and she does that instinctively, as a result of a surreal love, love as sacrifice, love as bitterness towards the fate that dishonors and humiliates her. But, although this may seem so from perspective of the reader, from the aspect of discourse all her action is, in fact, contained in a monologue as a symbol of her “negative heroism”. Just to illustrate, I will quote the key words of this female character:
So it is me who is chosen from all the sisters, from all women, to take all the long centuries and join and align them in a never-ending sin, a sin that lasts over the time. Once upon a time it was a mother with her son, and now it is a sister with his brother… No, don’t wait for a scream, for me to scream so loud so heavens can hear, and gods high above… Doesn’t anybody see that my brother has a sister, sister Angelina, bodiless, above the senses, because a brother doesn’t need a body from his sister, because a sister is not a body, but a pure thought… 20F
If we accept this statement and discard the concept for “woman’s sin” through the prism of original sin, should we perpetually ask the question about its nature? Probably not, because from Lepa Angelina’s aspect, the sin is a result of God’s will, of the Strength which contains at the same time, both the prohibition of sacrilege, as well as the religious imperative as a Christian form of love.
Jose Ortega21F is right when in St. Augustine’s words finds support for the action that he calls “acting through suffering”. According to him – our love is our burden: it draws us to where we ourselves want to be drawn to.
Departing from the folk version in an inconceivable direction, Blagoja Risteski puts the stress in his tragedy on the Adelphic myth, but with the linguistic and formal aspect of its piece, with the philosophical and redeemable tendencies of his discourse, he not only hasn’t strayed away from it, but has also managed to establish a new dimension of the world.
Still, when we speak of this motif of incest, I must note that in the framework of the Balkans, the research on the subject has never been complete – even this mine idea in this essay didn’t extend that much – but it is worth mentioning, as well, that this forbidden form of love has been used in a latent manner in Milorad Pavic’s22F. It is about the concealed, obscure, but still fatal love between a brother and a sister that can be found on the pages of the novel about Heroneja Bukur, and speaks of the trascedental power of this phenomenon which has left strong trace in time, because human souls, passions and sins, as the author of the novel says, float through time, from the inner side of the wind and transported to the future, as if following an unwritten rule, end fatally.
1. Denis de Rougemont, Myths of Love, Beograd, 1985, p. 37;
2. C. Levy-Strauss assures us that in the myths it is not the people who do the thinking, but the very myths within people, and without their knowledge.
3. The individual is not a myth by definition.
4. C. Levy-Strauss, Structure of Myths, in Structural Anthropology, Zagreb, Stvarnost, 1989, p. 218.
5. More about this issue in Maja Bojadzievska’s The Myth of the Androgene and the Modern Novel: Virginia Woolf and Robert Muzil (a doctoral thesis, available in manuscript)
6. Every artistic text exibits a tendency to overcome the rules of tradition and to change the system whose part it is.
7. See: Rajhna Koska – Tot, The Role, Importance and Features of the Female Characters in the English Renaissance Drama – Faculty of Philology, Skopje, 1997.
8. Refugees in: Collection of Greek Tragedies, Aeshiusl, Sophockles, Euripid, Beograd, 1988.
9. The creation of Tikves Collection of Esseys (16th c.) is connected with Sveta Gora. The Life of Pavle Kesariski (also known as The speech of Jovan Zlatoust on Spiritual Wisdom) talks about double incest – between a brother and a sister, and a mother and a son; (Tikves Collection of Essays, Skopje, 1987, p.78)
10. Ismail Kadare, Aeshilus and the Tragic, Skopje, Kultura, 1994.
11. The balad of Konstantin and Doruntina originates from Southern Albania, but according to some Albanian folklore researchers, there are versions dated as early as 9th or 11th century. It is noticable that the characters in this balad have Christian names, but in some locations there are versions with the Islamic names of Halil and Hairie (for the purposes of this research the translations of Agim Leka have been used).
12. Ismail Kadare, Qui a ramner Doruntin, Paris, Livre de poche, 1990.
14. The burden of sin that torments the brother and the sister is the basic theme in the plays Bolen Dojcin and Angelina. (Georgi Stalev, Plays, Skopje, Kultura, 1980).
15. Marguerite Yourcenar, Ana Soror, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1990, p.92.
16. Miodrag Pavlovic, The Poetics of Sacrifice Ritual, Beograd, Nolit, 1987.
17. Ferid Muhic, Poet of the Man’s Sin and Grace – afterword on the play Lepa Angelina, Skopje, Kultura, 1996, p. 121.
18. The mutual love between a brother and a sister was called philia by the ancient Greeks. According to Z. P. Vernan, and P. V. – Nake, this word had a possesive quality and denoted a close relative: “… philia implies a kind of identity between the members of a family. Each one represented an alter ego for the others, a multiplied I. In that sense, philia is in opposition with eros, the love passion, directed towards someone different from “I”, towards someone from the opposite sex, someone who belongs to a different family…” – (see Jean Pierre Vernan and Pierre Vidal – Nake: Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Novi Sad, 1993, p.106).
19. B. Risteski, Lepa Angelina, Skopje, Kultura, 1996, p. 104.
20. B. Risteski, ibid. 64-65.
21. Jose Ortega y Gasset, About Love: meditations, Sarajevo, 1989, p. 85.
22. Milorad Pavic, The Inner Side of Wind or a Novel of Henry and Leandre, Beograd, Prosveta, 1991; A Tale of a Brother and a Sister (p. 74) – contains a latent love triangle between the sister Heroneja, brother Manasija Bukur, and leutenent Jan Kobal.