The Graves of the Ancestors


This essay was originally published in the journal “Descant” and was later reprinted in the collection “Best Canadian Essays 2103”.

The mountains of central Bosnia are covered in a carpet of lush green meadows, pierced sporadically by amorphous fragments of protruding, barren rocks. Upon closer observation the rocks reveal their intriguing shapes, imposing a quiet presence upon the sensually overwhelming vegetation. A very few finally appear moulded by a consciousness: the stećak, the graves of the ancestors. The engravings on their surfaces are fading: letters metamorphosed into the lightest shades of disconnected lines, symbols disfigured to inexplicable fragments of dumb matter. Only a passage of time reveals a lasting vitality: a subtle game of light and stone commences at dawn and draws to a close at sunset, as fragments of stories come to life through the sliding angle of the falling rays of light.
Drawn to this fragile phantasm of death, light and meaning, one is forced to discuss and debate, to dig out the ancient bones, to judge their sins anew. Ignored is their oft-repeated inscription — “do not touch into my bones” — reduced to a naïf “remnant of pagan beliefs” or, worse, a mere repetition of exclamations made by the distant, unknown Subject of History. The truth machinery gallantly rides in, equipped with a “sophisticated” theory or, better yet, with a non-committed interdisciplinarity that has, behind curtains, confessed its incurable narcissism….
There’s a video on Youtube of Derrida being interviewed by an American journalist. “Love,” she asks, “what do you think about love?” Derrida is dumbstruck, hesitates, tries to say something, then responds, emphatically, “You can’t ask me that.” On a second clip he justifies his reaction, claiming it was very American of the journalist to pose such a question. When he first visited the US, Derrida continues, he was surprised that in academic and social situations the Americans tend to ask: “Can you elaborate on that?” The question appears inappropriate in France, where there is no such thing as mere elaboration. But the timeless, seductive subject shouts “truth”; he has no notion that he is like a light directed at my naked skin and my bones. The subject shouts “truth” and who am I to question the subject — so here, I will give you my truth.
‘Twas a long time ago — some say the year was 900 AD or thereabouts — there appeared in the lands of the Bulgarian Empire a certain Bogomil, whose name means “dear to God,” preaching the dangerous doctrine of apostolic poverty and Satan’s dominion over the Earth, telling the people that bread is bread and water is water, but the Word is God. How many names were not given to them? — heretics and Bogomils, Paterens and Cathars, Babuns and Massaliani — grand words debated in the cells of those striving to destroy the evil in their bodies and this world, so that the Mother Church may reign supreme. The word, so the story goes, spread like wildfire through Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Germany and France…. Some dare to see the Reformation as one of its branches mutated almost beyond recognition. Rare voices point to the continuities between the burning heretics and the burning witches. Yet all these attempts will remain an exotic vanguard as long as the questionable rupture between the “late Middle Ages” and “the early modern period” remains deeply entrenched — not so much in what professional historians say, as in the extent to which a certain meta-discourse of Western civilization is continually perpetuated.
Due to the density of conflicting discourses in which it is included as a signified, the stećak reveals the discrepancy between mutually opposed interpretations of “raw historical facts” with particular clarity. The borders around this object of historiography are initially drawn spatially and temporally. A number of around 65 000 stones is customarily given, thus providing spatial limitations roughly corresponding to the borders of the Bosnian kingdom in the fourteenth century. Certain estimations are usually added, suggesting that the number of stones may have been twice as high in the nineteenth century. Then they are classified as “medieval,” dated between the twelfth and sixteenth century, when their production ceases after the arrival of the Ottoman Empire. But can we assume such a stable connection between space and meaning? Are we not making a fatal mistake in deciding to look only at the stones? Is the border between the “inside” and the “outside” of this object a rupture? Upon closer examination the temporal limit appears equally hasty — does the stećak truly disappear? Many of its elements can be found on Islamic, Christian and Jewish monuments of later centuries: to speak of the disappearance of the stećak is to speak of a gradual displacement rather than a sudden disappearance.
One of the most common motifs found on the stećak stone is the stag, often hunted by men and hounds, occasionally illuminated by rosettes in his antlers. In central Asian mythography the world is divided into the masculine, paternal underworld of fire and the feminine, maternal sky of water. The deer is a celestial animal, eternally descending into the underworld to carry off the sun into the sky, only to be ruthlessly hunted down again. Thus the stag is a transgressor, an intermediary between two realms within which human existence — or existence in general — unfolds. He is a figure of circular, subversive movement.
Immediately a Christian meaning comes to mind … but what do we know about Christianity, whereby I mean not only the “we” of the academic community, but the “we” as a disjointed, post-modern collection of individuals or, better still, “intersection of discourses”? A multitude of disparate institutions, ranging from deeply entrenched national, imperial or multinational corporations to marginal appearances such as the Iglesia Maradoniana (counting a respectable 100 000 members according to wikipedia) are laying claim to be the true interpreters of the Word of God. What do they say about the Christian meaning of the stag? Who wrote the books? Who painted the paintings?
Where is it then, the meaning, I mean, of the deer? In a book? In a mind? In the stone? Where is meaning? Faced by this methodological problem, by the sand of history gliding through one’s fingers, the temptation arises to abandon the futile quest for “truth,” to remain content with observing the dumb surviving fragments, to reflect upon their coexistence with and gradual merging into the surrounding environment.
But on it pushes, a “disinterested curiosity” imposing further elaboration, for the story is disjointed, the singular moments of insight insufficient. Ruptured along and across, the tormented homeland calls out for a signifier, something to speak about so the dead may be forgotten. The mighty Astro-Hungarian Empire, to which my country was allocated at the 1878 Berlin Congress, first dared to upset the dead, setting up a representative collection of gravestones — stećak on one side, Roman headstones on the other — in front of the newly built National Museum. Strangely, it was not until I had become acquainted with issues of post-colonialism that I came to pay attention to the fact that no Muslim (or, for that matter, Catholic, Orthodox or Jewish) gravestones were included in this venerable gallery of ancestors. The Austro-Hungarian administration was focused on promoting its idea of a Bosniak identity, working hard to suppress the dissident voices among the country’s religious groups, ignorant still of the outrageous hypothesis of the return of the unconscious soon to be developed in its capital. In Stolac, a town in the south of the country, the Empire built a road right through the middle of the most famous stećak necropolis in the country, containing the largest number of engraved stones, destroying an unknown number in the process.
The Radimlja necropolis is located on the outskirts of Stolac in an environment deeply contaminated by layers of historical and contemporary significance, the disciplinary divisions inevitably collapsing. On top of a hill barely one kilometre from the necropolis lie the ruins of Daorson, the largest known town of the Balkan’s pre-Slavic inhabitants, the Illyrians. In its immediate vicinity one can see the typical burial mounds of the Illyrians, onto which stećak stones were grafted in numerous other locations. Closer still, almost merging with the necropolis, the Roma, the untouchables of the Balkans, have set up camp, waiting for a distant institution to decide their fate, waiting for the anthropologist to “give them a voice,” so that more books may be written and more words may be wasted. A flag of Herceg-Bosna, the pseudo-republic created by the Herzegovinian Croats in 1993, only to be dismantled a year later, reminds of another story to be told, the story of the destruction of the town’s architectural heritage, the fifteen-century mosques and the nineteenth-century cinemas, a vicious attack on the professed values of “Western civilization,” carried out, paradoxically, in the name of that very same civilization. On the other side, a newly constructed monument, devoted to the victims of Bleiburg, the tens — some say hundreds — of thousands of Croat civilians associated with the fascist World War II regime, captured by the British and executed by Tito’s Partisans on the Austrian-Slovenian border in 1945.… The “truth” of this event remains contested and hidden, the monument’s location creating another layer of significance, another intricate, opaque knot in this region’s volatile historical consciousness.
Finally, the unmistakable, violent presence of Capital: monstrous machinery digging out sand, diverting the course of the stream that has given the name to the necropolis.… On the other side, the signs of consumerism in its Balkanian, unsophisticated guise: a large structure, tacked together from aggressively cheap materials, serving as a car wash facility. Built during the 1990s war, it may have originally served the bourgeoning market of stolen cars, the largest of its kind in former Yugoslavia, set up only a few kilometres away due to the town’s proximity to the three warring sides. Such is the grotesque environment in which the most famous collection of the fifteenth-century Bosnian-Herzegovinian sculptures continues its unassuming existence.
But what happens to the stag at night, down in the scorching environment of the underworld, where the sun lies dormant and safely tucked away? How does he succeed in liberating himself from the stern world of the Father? Why is he allowed to steal the Father’s fire? The transgressor reveals his dual nature, his secret pleasure forever hidden from view. Thus we pray that our stones may forever remain part of the environment, never to be cleansed, whitened and fenced off, turned into a signifier of another narrative, a product to be displayed and sold. No. We pray for their sincerity, so that we may always be aware of the now in which they exist.

Forgive me, O Reader, if you find no sense in my story. I have tried to show you the bones of my ancestors, but all I have found was the barren soil underneath their withering gravestones.

Gorčin Dizdar