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Terror(ism) and Aesthetics (2015)

“Waxworks, Penny Dreadfuls, and Puppet Shows”: Danilo Kiš, Totalitarian Regimes, and Terror through Taboo



I am a historian of South-Eastern Europe, especially Serbia, and my current project focuses on the intellectual life of Danilo Kiš. In addition to historical and biographical research that is gradually finding its way into print in a variety of journals (in the hope, I’ll admit, of someday writing a biography of Kiš), I am in the process of publishing a number of translations of works by Kiš. So far, my renditions of one of his plays, his first novel (Mansarda), and a number of short stories have found English-language publishers. A new edition of Mansarda as The Attic, along with the eight stories of The Lute and The Scars and Kiš’s second novel, the hitherto largely unknown Holocaust work Psalm 44, will be released in 2012. I have also translated about half of his poetry, grouped in a collection I call “Apollinaire Dreams of Love,” and I hope to translate his remaining short stories, plays, and a selection of his little-known essays in the next few years.

It seems appropriate to be speaking of Danilo Kiš (1935-1989) here, because he was a child of the Délvidék, born right across the border in Szabadka. His mother, Milica Dragićević, was Montenegrin, and it was, ultimately, in the Serbian intellectual world that Kiš primarily was active. But his father was Hungarian; between the wars he worked for the Yugoslav state railways; and in the course of World War II he was eventually deported from the family’s rural hiding place in Zala megye and murdered at Auschwitz. Kiš learned Hungarian from his father, spoke it for much of the first decade of his life, and later translated a vast amount of Hungarian poetry into Serbo-Croatian (as he called his other native language): Endre Ady, first and foremost, but also József Attila, Ottó Tolnai, Ferenc Juhász, and György Petri.

I am certain that you are familiar with some of his works. The canonical short list, translated into many languages, includes the novel Garden, Ashes and the short story collections A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and The Encyclopedia of the Dead, as well as the novel I consider his greatest, Hourglass. Much of Kiš’s prose fits into two overarching categories: the family cycle (or “family circus,” as Kiš insisted — in either case consisting of the short stories in Early Sorrows along with Garden, Ashes, and Hourglass) and what has been called the “hermetic” historico-political collections of interlocking stories (Tomb and Encyclopedia, along with many of the posthumously published stories in The Lute and the Scars). In terms of literary approach, Kiš’s semi-autobiographical and documentary tendencies intertwine in an atmosphere of great compression, concision, poignant detail, enumeration, and intimacy; in terms of thematics, I think that Kiš is mainly concerned with the fate of the outsider, however variously defined — though it is usually a person “on the periphery,” exposed to exclusion, misinterpretation, and violence, but not to a whole group. With his overwhelming emphasis on exclusion, misappropriation, and political persecution in the 20th century, much of which he witnessed himself, Kiš presents history as little more than a campaign of annihilation, or at least an inimical environment of enormous menace; the artistically logical and emotionally understandable extension of this thesis is his embrace of what I call Cold War equivalency, or the adoption of the concept and very word “totalitarianism”[1] to identify the lethal long-term political dramas of the last century.

This equivalence is not at all universally accepted by historians, but that is a topic for another essay. But it is the right of, and the advantage of, artists to upset the methodological “apple-carts” so venerated by scholars in the humanities and social sciences. I would argue that Kiš also does this in a second way with his inversion of the usual hierarchy of Central Europe and the Balkans; he shears away much of the negative baggage of the term Balkan and replaces it with other perspectives that are either more positive or merely clinical, while simultaneously expanding both the borders of and the adversity associated with the region. He also delineates, in his essays, a problematized version of the “(Western) European idea” and breathes life, almost Braudel-like, into other regional associations such as the Mediterranean, the Russian, and, especially, the “Pannonian.” These two strategic facets of Kiš’s work — the intimacy and concreteness on the one hand, and the historico-political struggles on the other — merge flawlessly if painfully, in what Kiš once called “the muddy tale of his father.” I have elsewhere termed this blending a “bridge to nowhere.”

In this essay, it is my goal to examine another of the proverbial apple-carts upended by Kiš. Spending most of his life in a part of the world tormented by twin forms of mass ideological dictatorship, Kiš was forced to confront ideas of taboo and virtue originating with the elites of party and state. Concretely, he encountered and, predictably, rebelled against socialist realism in the arts, especially literature and painting. But how exactly did Kiš campaign against the instrumentalization of art? Was his approach unique, and can the concept of taboo — a usefully plastic term with positive and negative applications — be useful in laying bare the mechanics of ideologically inspired alienation and even terror?



Kiš, then, is a force to be reckoned with in intellectual history as well as in literature. The idea for this essay occurred to me as I was working on the recent Kiš translations that I mentioned above. I saw Kiš, in his creative works in many genres, tracing the operation of taboos — in intellectual and emotional life — taboos that I would define as violently enforced and ideologically motivated restrictions intended to re-educate and guide individuals, to engineer new “souls,” to instrumentalize art and enlist it in the service of revolution from the left or from the right.

But I saw something else, too. Or should I say that Kiš did. He saw the annihilatory power of the twin dictatorships (in the systems he would call “totalitarianism”) to clear the decks altogether of practices and sensibilities that had formerly stood on both sides of the individualist revolutionary divide. Following the lead of Zulaika and Douglass, I call these effects “second-order” taboos — because they did not so much “de-alienate” (in the words of socialist realism) as permanently “re-alienate” artists, intellectuals, and the others Kiš termed “children and sensitive readers.”

Examination of these special, taboo-related manipulations of the world of art and of individual emotions and loyalties begins in a general understanding of the way ideological dictatorships instrumentalize art. Simple terror — based on individual fear, or at the very least the shut-off of individual access to public life — was often wielded in the 20th century as a tool of political control over artists. Radical ideological movements seeking to revolutionize human society have both programmatic preferences for the style and content of art and the means of extra-artistic coercion to ensure their predominance. To put it crudely, they have doctrines and secret police (of some sort). Kiš’s essays and fiction enumerate and explore many of these ideas and mechanisms of ideological control. The toolbox of instrumentalized art includes exclusive reliance on realism and the figure of Homo politicus, reductionism, partisanship, mandatory rage, obligatory engagement, acceptance of key “giants and myths,” and the slippery category of “having balls” (a sort of reflexive and cruel and enduring national virility).[2] The taboos that are the subject of this paper are one means to a dictatorial (Kiš would say totalitarian) end that is best explored in his fiction.

Kiš’s take on what constitutes socialist realism or other ideological systems inimical to art is, of course, sui generis. But it is a good idea to review at this point some of the other ideas in circulation about instrumentalist art, since Kiš’s rebellion against them was a lifelong preoccupation and since many of the other writers we so admire from Central Europe also had to come to terms with socialist realism, as well as the closely-related (in this sense) tenets of fascism. One of the standard formulations of socialist realism, dating back to the 1930s in the Soviet Union and featuring in analyses such as those by Lahusen and Dobrenko, is that art must exhibit partiinost (political partisanship and faith in the Communist Party), narodnost (concern with daily life and accessibility) and ideiinost (the evocation of ideological context and solutions). This basic formula is very useful for historians, because it emanated from a movement actually in power and with power or significant influence over writers and artists in many countries.

But of course the evolution of this doctrine began much earlier nonetheless. To track its significance and its changing nature, it makes sense to go back to Marx and Engels, who wrote less concretely on the socialist requirements for aesthetics in literature than did Lenin, Trostky, and other political figures in the USSR and the people’s republics. But they did review works of literature, befriend various authors, and, indeed, move beyond their well-known positions that art is part of the social superstructure and that prevailing norms, forms, and discourse are those of the ruling class.

Marx, for instance, wrote in his 1844 Manuscripts of the need to emancipate human nature; the self-estrangement of property[3] is overcome when the individual is consciously recognized as a social being. Marx and Engels also laid out now-familiar contours of socialist (-realist) criticism by pillorying “poetical epigones who have nothing left to offer but formal polish”[4] and by praising “characters [that] are representatives of distinct classes and tendencies and hence definitive ideas of their time” as well as “motives [that]…are to be found not in trivial individual desires but in the historical stream upon which they are carried”.[5] In the representation of orthodox Soviet theorists, these positive contours shape a great literature that is “disalienated” — that is, it moves beyond the individualism of bourgeois formalism and the “counter-alienation” of superficial rebellion.

Leon Trotsky added to our understanding of Marxist aesthetics in practice in both state and party. His Literature and Revolution (1924) is concerned with the social bases of art. Since “[c]ulture feeds on the sap of economics”[6] and “all through history, mind limps after reality,”[7] bourgeois art, at least in Trotsky’s day, was moribund, elitist, and “wasting away either in repetitions or in silences.”[8] Evidently, it had outlived any revolutionary function it had possessed earlier.[9] But the “agonies of Revolution”[10] gave birth to “October literature” which was something radically and qualitatively new. Trotsky drew a careful distinction between “revolutionary” or proletarian art, associated with the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and “communist art”, which would appear in the new culture to be generated after the proletariat’s complete victory. Both modes represented the unleashing of creative forces within the broad population and a break with the past more complete than the experiments and rebellions of any previous artists. But the former mode is pre-eminently part of political culture: it is a “one-sided weapon of political struggle”[11] that helps the workers and party attain power in a definitive way; the second, “communist” (or sometimes “socialist”) mode is part of artistic culture: it is a “means of scientific creation, a most important element and instrument of spiritual culture”.[12] There must be a basis, socio-economic preconditions, for this latter kind of art. The first kind of art belongs to the period of the promotion of “the consolidation of the workers in their struggle against the exploiters”; the second belongs to the “kingdom of freedom”[13] wherein the “wall will fall…between art and industry”.[14] Obviously, words like “progressive” can apply to either mode, within certain contexts. Trotsky quotes the agitprop poet known as Demyan Bedny to drive these points home: “I willingly leave to others to write in new and more complicated form about the Revolution, that I myself may write in the old form for the Revolution.”[15]

A final important body of theory and policy in the pedigree of the full-blown, Stalinist conception of socialist realism — against the residual effects of which Kiš and many other writers would struggle for decades — is provided by figures such as Lenin, Gorky, Aleksandr Fadeyev, and Konstantin Fedin. Their body of work built the foundations of the statist doctrine of Stalin’s and Zhdanov’s time. They argued that socialist realist art was:

  • • universal
  • • not a sterile code, art for art’s sake (aestheticism), or a passive mindset but a transformative commitment
  • • not a state whim but a reflection of freedom from greed, boredom, and elite manipulation and of a “sense of historical optimism”[16]
  • • a decisive break with the past, even with the isolated progressive tendencies that could be found in many earlier writers, regardless of their labels
  • • “an art of militant humanism”, much different from realism in its earlier forms and from naturalism and the many variants of modernism
  • • accessible (one meaning of the term “popular”)
  • • national in form (another meaning of the term “popular”)
  • • driven by partisanship and positive heroes for the purpose of “moulding the spiritual culture of the people”[17]
  • • set against all things merely formal, individualistic, and “divorced from life”[18]
  • • ultimately reflective of a particular kind of realism and truth that was dismissive of hocus-pocus such as Shakespeare’s “talking ghosts”[19]

These theorists were vague about whether this particular “truthfulness” would initially precipitate into literature by decree, at the behest of the pro-proletarian intelligentsia, or as a result of new socio-economic conditions and relations. But after being united with political power and effecting regime change, it would begin to predominate under the new conditions of communism. This stage was never reached, and active combat never diminished, but the confident prediction was in the power of “the operation of the objective law of correspondence of social consciousness to the character of social being.”[20]



It remains to unpack the functioning of these taboos in more detail. It will be carried out by presenting some examples of them from Kiš’s oeuvre, followed by some brief commentary. With the three examples below, all newly translated into English, we will look for evidence of how taboos, both negative and positive, function in his art.

The following excerpt is from the story “The Poet,” which is Kiš’s most direct fictional treatment of socialist realism. A lonely poet in post-war Belgrade has been arrested for writing a poem critical of the Party and pinning the short work to telephone poles in his neighborhood. This scene occurs as the writer is being administratively sentenced to months of imprisonment, during which time he was forced to write pro-Party lyrics.

Projević: This is really rich. Just great. Doesn’t remember the poem, doesn’t remember the people. But don’t play naïve with me. You’re no fool if you know how to write poems against the Partisans and against the people. We’ll fix you right up. Oh, yes we will. Don’t you worry about that. Here’s a pencil for you, and paper, and now produce poetry, my friend. To your heart’s content.

Mr. Ličina: Thank you, sir.

Projević: Don’t thank me, you worthless piece of…You act like this is a gift. Now get lost.

Mr. Ličina: Thank you, sir.

Projević: Don’t let me lay eyes on you till this poem is finished.

Mr. Ličina: I understand, sir.

Projević: What would be enough…Let’s say three months?

Mr. Ličina: Three days would be quite enough.

Projević: Get a move on! Three days — no way. Write it and strike it, for three months. Till it looks like it was written by Zogović. Get it? Like Zogović? Or Mayakovsky….Now get a move on!

Mr. Ličina passed three months in solitary confinement, working on his schoolboy composition. He wrote, and crossed out, exactly as Projević had told him to do. First he composed a sonnet with an abba rhyme scheme. Then he changed it (keeping the words) into abab, while leaving the tercets the same. Ultimately he modified the tercets and discarded both of the final rhymes (“Front” — Piemont), because they sounded old-fashioned to him. And then…his paper ran out. That meant he had tried all the variants. There was nothing for him to do but wait. After seventy-four days, exactly, he was led before Projević.

“Let’s see it, poet,” said Projević.

Mr. Ličina handed the paper to him across the table.

Projević: Sit down, sit down. Why are you looking at me like a deer in the headlights?… Here, in the nice chair, you wretch. Riiiiiight. Let’s have a look-see.

Mr. Ličina sat on the very edge of the armchair, holding his beret in his hand. (It was the only piece of civilian clothing he had on.) He smelled the aroma of coffee and closed his eyes, as if he were drowsy. (He was probably thinking of his dog. Who could tell, with senile old grandpas like this one?)

Projević yanked him out of his reverie.

“From the bottom of my heart — this is good. Congratulations!”

Mr. Ličina: I tried hard.

Projević: That’s plenty obvious. Bravo. So you see, you can do it when you want to.

Mr. Ličina: As far as the rhyme goes, the poem is beyond reproach.

Projević: Don’t exaggerate.

Mr. Ličina: I gave my all.

Projević: Your all, you say. All you had…Well, ol’ Ličina, you don’t know what it means to give your all…Didn’t you yourself say, you wretch, that maybe a better rhyme could be found? Eh? Well, look for it. We have time, Comrade Ličina; we have tons of time. The future lies before us, the future in its entirety! So get rolling and don’t let me see your face again until the poem sounds like something Mayakovsky wrote. Do you understand? Children should recite your poem at school festivals, and soldiers should sing it from the ranks. Here’s some more paper for you…Reckon that’s enough? Now beat it…Take him away…Good luck, poet.

Projević sipped at his cup of now cold coffee and started going through his stack of papers again.

Then he looked up.

Projević: Are you still here?

Mr. Ličina: I just wanted to ask, sir…

Projević (slapping his palm against his forehead): Aha, I had almost forgotten…Now we are feeding him with American canned goods from the Ministry’s warehouse. He’s gotten twice as wide as he is long. I give you my word.

Then he plunged back into his files.

In the course of the next three months (the year was ‘47), Mr. Ličina went through more paper than a rat. So much so that Projević sent this message via the guard: “The director is asking whether you are eating the paper, like a rat?” Meanwhile a performance was held in which some actors from the city recited Mayakovsky and other poets. Mr. Ličina was aglow with a fever of creativity. He didn’t like the Mayakovsky. It was a long way from Dučić-Rakić. Quite a long way. And with no rhythm. Sloppy rhymes. His sonnet was better, much better. Objectively speaking. Without even considering his biography and background. If a Partisan or some younger poet had signed his name to it, this poem would have made him famous. But now…

He placed a whole stack of papers on the desk in front of Projević.

“O Ličina the Pathetic — what’s all this stuff?” Projević asked.

“They are poems, sir.”

“Ah, so they are. Poems. And you, Ličina, you think we’re playing school here. You think I have nothing more important to do than read your poems. Or to select them myself. Get cracking! I don’t want to see you for another three months. Not until (he glanced at the calendar on his desk), not until September. Have we understood each other?”

Mr. Ličina was as silent and meek as a wet poodle. Disappointed no doubt.

“I’m asking you nicely: do we have an understanding?”

“That’s fine, sir.”

“Well now…Good. You can go. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Your bitch had puppies. Six of them about yea big (shows him with his fingers), like bear cubs.”

Mr. Ličina said nothing, his head hung low.

Projević: What’s up? You aren’t satisfied with that?

Mr. Ličina: But it was a male!

Projević: A male, you say. I thought it was a bitch…Well then, I’ve gotten it mixed up. So somebody else’s bitch had puppies.

In September Projević showed the poem to some important people in the Party. A number of them said: outstanding. The rest shrugged their shoulders: for no real reason.

Projević: (drinking his lozovača) Cheers, comrades.

Everyone: Cheers!

Projević: So, Comrade Ćićko, this means you don’t like it.

Ćićko: But I didn’t say anything.

The conversation was taking place in the office of the prison warden. It was a kind of inspection. Among colleagues.

Projević: A traitor wrote this. An enemy of the people.

Ćićko: The one Budišić arrested?

Projević: Yes, that one.

A paused ensued. Then they began talking about Budišić.

Projević: I’ll show you all the variants. Seven, eight of them. Each one better than the last. I just think it’s a shame that Budišić didn’t keep that first one.

Ćićko: It’s a pity.

Projević: I’ll show them all to you.

Ćićko: Sit down and stop acting like a child.

Projević took a seat.

They had another glass. And then another.

Projević: How about I bring him to you? So you can see how he recites.

Ćićko: Bring him.

He was delivered to them.

Mr. Ličina was squeezing his cap in his hand. They offered him a brandy. He thanked them.

Projević: Go on, recite the final version. So Comrade Ćićko can hear you.

Ćićko: Go on, go on. Don’t put on airs…If you were able to write like that…See, I give you my word: if the poem is good — we’ll release you. But make it pretty…

Projević: Like last time.

Mr. Ličina started reciting his sonnet in the manner of the actors at the recent performance for prisoners. Or so his recitation seemed to him. He raised his arms to the heavens, laid his hand over his heart, and took a bow when he finished. He all but curtsied.

Projević looked at Comrade Ćićko. Then he said:

“You’re free.”

And they released him.[21]

We see here the operation of the conflict between individualist and statist art, or between bourgeois formalism and revolutionary literature. The very idea of disinterested or free expression is mocked, as is the process of criticism or literary evaluation. In this case, the bad guys win, for the poet gives up, calling it quits in a dramatic and heart-rending fashion.

Let us now examine some passages from Kiš’s second novel, Psalm 44. This early work of his, written in 1961, is also his earliest fictional treatment of the Shoah. In these two scenes, the prisoner Jakob, who is a doctor (and who, while in the camp, falls in love with Marija and becomes the father of the boy Jan who appears in the final scenes below), is trapped in an unequal “conversation” with a Dr. Nietzsche, his Mengele-like Nazi antagonist. Soviet forces are approaching and the camp’s equilibrium is under severe strain.

“And you have always done for your patients everything that lay within your powers?

“I believe I have,” Jakob said again. “Within the limits of my powers.”

“And how many of your patients have died? – I mean from among those who trusted you?”

“No one trusts anyone any more,” Jakob answered.

“You did not answer my question, Herr Doktor. How many of them have died?”

“I don’t remember,” Jakob said. “Many of them…I don’t think it was through any fault of mine.” Then he added: “Many of them were killed.”

“You mean at headquarters and in the gas chambers?”

“Yes,” said Jakob. „In those places also, of course.”

“She was anticipating that turn of events that now had to follow after all that Jakob had said:

Do you know, colleague, that you could try it out yourself? To look at all this from the inside,” Dr. Nietzsche said. “Maybe it would interest you to inquire about the degree to which the gas chamber is more humane than, let’s say, the guillotine. Or the hangman’s rope. Don’t forget: there is still time for everything.”

“I know,” Jakob responded. “Whenever I am about to forget that, even for a moment  — „ (but he did not finish, although she thought that she would give herself away with some desperate movement meaning “No, Jakob, don’t go on!” or that she would collapse unconscious or announce her presence from the cabinet against her will like a broken wall clock when all of a sudden it begins to clang before one of the mechanisms snaps and it finally falls silent; but nothing happened. Even Dr. Nietzsche did not demand that Jakob finish what he had started but instead as if he were saving him he brought down the blade of his axe before Jakob’s head reached the chopping block):

“Let us assume,” said Dr. Nietzsche without giving Jakob a chance to finish, “that someone orders you to carry out a certain experiment on a group of prisoners who, you have been told or have found out some other way, are going to be killed anyway,” then there was a slight pause, „would you not feel that there was a certain professional, scientific gain in that — that you could conduct observations of living beings, of human beings, actually — and at any rate you will admit that the humans are the ultimate goal of every experiment.”

“Perhaps,” Jakob said, “insofar as I had their agreement. Perhaps then…under certain circumstances.”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Nietzsche asked.

Jakob did not answer right away. Then he said:

“Let us say that I consider those experiments…reasonable. Not merely useful from the professional, scientific point of view. Let’s assume…”

“But,” Dr. Nietzsche interrupted, not allowing him to finish, while she managed for a moment to think that she understood almost nothing of this and that she could not fathom where this whole conversation was leading, although by the fear that was constricting her throat she sensed that Jakob wanted to add after his “Let’s assume” something that was dangerous for him in the extreme, and therefore dangerous for her, but at the moment she heard Dr. Nietzsche’s voice interrupting Jakob’s sentence she could still think only of how she understood nothing of what those two voices were saying, and she imagined the two of them facing off against each other in the darkness that was for her impenetrable and blotted out all distinctions and she perceived them only as some kind of half-whispers that imparted to the invisible speakers the facial expressions of tense, concealed attentiveness; after that all she could hear once more was Nietzsche’s tense and rushed whisper and now the two of them — in unseen combat — resembled more readily conspirators in some joint plan than what she knew them to be: enemies, separated by opposing convictions and prejudices about race and ideas and power and all possible and impossible differences but who for a moment accepted (illusorily at least) points of view that were in essence the opposites of their own so that in that way, by means of that ostensible identification, they could both prove to the other that their adversarial standpoints were mutual, even though they were obviously convinced that it was basically just one of the easiest ways to allow their own convictions come into view. There was no certainty of identification: a game of poker in which the king loses by virtue of his mercy only as long as he finds satisfaction in competition on an equal footing with his subjects: ultimately he must emerge as the winner because he’s holding three kings in his hand; the subject displays his hand with a triumphal smile and starts to slide the whole of the state exchequer towards him when the king gives a sign to his armed guards: Stop. Here are three kings, and I make — four. And smiling bitterly the subject gives back the money to which he had added everything he still possessed and he laughs along with the others at the king’s deceit and applauds his wit, and then he steps out and fires a bullet into his own mouth in front of the palace gates as a symbol of protest: that is all she comprehended of the proceedings when Dr. Nietzsche resumed playing and she heard the continuation of that word “But”:

“…no one is asking you if you consider it reasonable or useful or whatever else you want to call it. You have simply been handed an order — a command — to conduct certain experiments on people, although they might come across as mad or absurd to you. It’s the same as when a noncommissioned officer is issued some order (and in our case it is in fact an instance of an order of a military nature) and he is not allowed to consider and does not need to understand why he and his squad have to defend the approaches to a certain bridge. He will perish defending those approaches, along with his entire squad, without considering the context or any potential personal doubts about the appropriateness of the mission or this tactical move. — The case of a doctor is the same when he has been ordered to carry out (let us say) the complete sterilization of a certain group or even a race or to put into effect a program of euthanasia or of tests with vaccines or low temperatures: when that doctor refuses to execute the trials as ordered by the official institution in command it is assured that he will be called to account for this disobedience. In such a case — and here one must take into account the authoritarian character of our state — the individual adherence to the ethical code of a given profession had to yield to the total nature of this war”…[22]


“I’m talking to you above all as a scientist and a doctor. Bear that in mind. As a Nazi doctor, of course.”

“But of course,” Jakob said. “I’m listening.”

“You know about the collecting of Jewish skulls and skeletons?”

“I’ve heard about it.”

“So much the better. I had assumed that; it means at the very least that you’ve reflected upon all this,” Dr. N. said: “…and you have, naturally, your own opinions about it all.”

“Actually…” but he could not finish his sentence.

“At this time I have no intention (after all I just told you) of inquiring after your personal opinion of the matter. I only want to remind you that the bottom line is that that these collections number among the services that I mentioned to you a short time ago (to your prodigious amazement) and that I have performed for you…”

“For me?”

“For your nation,” Nietzsche said. “Same thing.” Then he corrected himself: “For your race, actually.”

“I don’t understand,” Jakob said. “For my race…?”

“It amazes me the way your intuition…But let’s drop it for now. — It is, I believe, obvious to you that in the case of genocide (as has been planned — something you also know full well) nothing would remain of your race except this collection of skulls.”

“It’s not clear to me —“ Jakob said, “I am not completely clear on what it is you want from me. Even if I can intuit what you are getting at with this talk of favors you have done for my race, as you put it, it remains unclear to me what my return favor should, in concrete terms, consist of.”

“Simple,” Dr. Nietzsche said in confidence. “You are supposed to work to keep it from being destroyed, if this becomes necessary. I think you understand me. It is especially important (and this is part of your assignment) that this is done…” Then he stops as if looking for the right word: “…at the right time. Yes. At the right time. I think you understand me. I am speaking in the interest of science more than anything (and in this case that is the interest of your race): Do not allow this collection to be destroyed.”[23]

Obviously, here it is the Nazis manipulating taboos, not the Communists as in the first passage above. The salient re-tabooing occurs in the domain of professional research and medical ethics.

A final example comes again from the novel Psalm 44. In this post-war scene, Kiš is mocking the way the Nazis mocked philosophy, classical literature, and art, while the boorish behavior of visitors and the uninspired exhibits and docents in the museum undermine the very idea of commemoration and the importance of the academic study of memory.

In the display cases of the camp museum’s exhibits, there were purses and wallets made of human skin. Made in Germany. Human skin from the tannery, when it is thoroughly dried out, resembles parchment. And a blank white sheet of paper, almost parchment, inflames the human imagination, for all people are artists and are eager to leave some trace of themselves on earth. It is probably that very fact that impels the Übermensch to inscribe his initials on completely anonymous human skin, in this ideally white spot, thereby convincing us irrefutably of his artistic inclinations. Ars et artibus, art and delight, as venerable old Horace had proclaimed, have always been among the essential characteristics of each and every worthy creation. And love is, as always, only a stimulant. Therefore one should not wonder that an Übermensch, in the form of some artistically inclined SS officer, would choose nothing other than a lady’s toiletry case as the object of his interest. To give such a case of human skin to a lady of Aryan blood would mean not just that he was confirming, clearly and palpably, his personal power and artistic inclinations but also exhibiting and proving to the lady that human life is an extremely ephemeral phenomenon; human skin is neither as expensive nor as valuable as one might think. And, furthermore, if the stamp of the artist (that is to say, of the man who is no stranger to metaphysics) is imprinted on the bag in the form of a drawing or watercolor depicting a kitschy and infantile boat, sails filled with wind (the symbol of higher, metaphysical powers) or a stenciled lily (the symbol of the innocence of body and soul), then the effect is full and complete. The Übermensch triumphs in love and in art.

Two American women, faces freckled and wrinkled, sporting sunburns, big straw hats like chandeliers, and loud, multi-colored nylon dresses, labored, with the help of a dictionary, to decipher untranslated details about the mattresses stuffed with women’s hair. Locks of hair of various colors, from blonde to red to black, mingled together in a heap and exuded sadness like the golden crowns of famous queens, princesses, or virgins found on a battlefield or in the basement of a museum. But the essential characteristic of an Übermensch is that he is not sentimental; he knows how to counter the metaphysics of death with the hard, forceful physicality of life. He knows how to take from death almost as much as he gives it. Übermensch — the word mocks death. Such a man takes bone to make fertilizer, turns skin into purses and wallets and lamp-shades, produces mattresses and pillows from — hair. It is only the vapor of human vanity and nullity that is sacrificed to death. I will teach you life — thus spoke Zarathustra…

Jakob had stopped in front of the cabinet in which the achievements of Nietzsche’s Center for Scientific Research were on display. In alcohol-filled jars floated freakish little unborn children, monsters of artificial cross-breeding and experimentation. This was too much for the child. So she led the boy on further, letting Jakob know by way of silent gestures. A group being led by a docent stopped in front of the cases with the little malformed creatures and listened to the monotone explanation, as professional and as indifferent as it could be. When she heard the cicerone’s voice starting up again behind her back, she tugged on Jan’s hand. “Same disgusting old song,” she said to herself. “You drop in five marks and the money goes right to his tongue. And it starts spinning. Lazy and half-assed. Hideous, stupid Tower of Babel…For five marks.” Then she sensed that she was not going to be able to avoid an encounter with this disgusting old organ grinder. So when the visitors, including Jakob, started shuffling their feet and snapping photos, she let go of Jan’s hand and walked without a word into another room. She wanted to be alone, right then and there. (There are moments when selfishness and loneliness can prevail over love.) She could not bear to hear the guide’s voice or the steps of those entering a site of execution like it was a bazaar. In the room where she was, it was cool and half-dark. The touch of the cool air was pleasant to her sweat-covered palms. She was out of range of the guide’s voice. That allowed her to calm down. She could sense that Jakob and Jan were moving towards her solitude by way of the open door. They were holding hands. Without turning her head she could see the two of them, Jakob and the child. Jan was looking at the welter of unfathomable, fantastical objects without daring to ask anything at all. And Jakob still held him by the hand, tense in anticipation of questions and preoccupied with preparing answers. They had agreed to show the boy everything he could comprehend and take in without getting terrified. But at this point Jakob would have preferred for the child to ask no questions of him. She’d be better at explaining it to him.[24]

One could go on, adducing further evidence from many other works by Kiš. For instance, in the recently rediscovered screenplay Končarevci, Kiš lays bare the tragic effects of denunciations and failed rehabilitations and the misplaced devotion to state-sponsored “patriotic” projects; socialist realism itself comes in for scathing mockery (of a more stylized, schematic type than in “The Poet”) via the portrayal of official industrial openings, dedications of turbines, and nascent love between clean-cut, hard-working, milk-drinking, modest boys and girls.[25] In the play Night and Fog, the exalted status of prisoners of war, the teaching profession, and even memories of young love join the line-up of institutions formerly venerated and now manipulated and, arguably in Kiš’s eyes, disabled and taken out of commission (and not merely re-purposed).[26] Finally, in Kiš’s magnum opus, Hourglass[27], Kiš plays with people playing with phenomena as various as the myth of Central Europe, family solidarity, keeping kosher and other elements of Jewish identity, the regard in which men of great learning (and their minds — literally) are kept, and the death of draftees in defense of their homeland. Kiš arguably even goes so far as to discredit the institution of death itself, or, rather, to show how the frenetic mass death of World War II did so, by having the books protagonist (modeled on Kiš’ father) die multiple deaths that overlap, compete, and remain unexplained. Any reader of this magisterial novel is left scratching his or her head over the welter of deaths, real or imagined or impending, of Eduard Sam: his house collapses on him, he dies of cold and starvation, he is beaten into an altered state while part of a slave labor battalion, and he is seen descending a giant staircase to oblivion, as an old man in a painting. All of this occurs, of course, against the backdrop of Sam’s final letter, written in middle age, before he was hauled off to the death camp in Poland. Sam’s family, also — which would have included Danilo, or the narrator — also dies at least twice in the novel: once in the forest of cold and exposure, and once in the house of starvation.



Danilo Kiš fought hard against the instrumentalization of art by the twin totalitarian systems of fascism and Stalinism. There are, of course, many lenses through which to view the aims, means, and aesthetics of directed art under ideological police states. We saw above his particular characterization of the official étatist or nationalist toolbox for the control of art. Readers of Kiš’s voluminous nonfiction will, again, also notice that he provides antidotes to, or vaccinations against, the political instrumentalization of art. For instance, writers and readers alike can save themselves — in effect poisoning the Gauleiter and kicking the commissar in the balls — by bringing a high quotient of deduction into the writing and appreciation of fiction; standing for anti-relativism and cultural pluralism (not multi-culturalism); fighting self-censorship; putting up comparisons that ventilate the provincial and weave it together with the global; practicing enumeration, defamiliarization, and documentary writing; respecting “outsiders”; avoiding the roles of persecutor and prosecutor alike; creating works that are “a dream and an escape”; and embracing technical and epistemological ambiguity. In his settling of accounts over the years with “totalitarianism,” Kiš thus presented writers and readers with a great many mechanisms of intellectual and ethical self-defense — and one could even put his occasional flashes of irreverent humor into this same category of antidotes, vaccinations, and sound approaches to literature in a politicized era.

Whether we use Kiš’s characterization of the Stalinist and Fascist toolbox, or whether we rely in this context on a historical understanding of the development of socialist realism, what we arrive at is the instrumentalization of art. This is, in turn, both cause and effect, pre-condition and result, method and goal, of a modern ideological dictatorship’s move from institutional monopoly to ideological hegemony (to paraphrase Bahro). Obviously, many authors have pinpointed and lampooned ideologically conditioned art. Kiš’s writings would seem to make a unique contribution in this field, however, by revealing a connection between taboo, terror, and this instrumentalization. Taboos, as we know, inspire awe and control behavior by their extreme sanctity or extreme profanity. What happens when a totalitarian government takes a “positive” or sacred taboo of mission, function, or structure, and vitiates its meaning by violence (terrorism) into something repulsive and repellent (terror)?

This is, arguably, how Kiš describes the ways in which museums, classical poems, churches, a child’s innocent memories, etc., are appropriated not just to harness their power for “ideological remolding”[28] but also to foster aversion to the institutions themselves. Thereby a useful absence is created, one that helps rip the cultural and civic fabric. There is, ultimately, a difference between discrediting reactionary art, through establishing new taboos, destroying any art, by instrumentalizing positive behaviors and institutions to the point of annihilation; this latter process is the creation of second-order taboos. If taboos control and shut down discourse and options,[29] then governments who refashion them can be said to use terrorism to spread new and even non-political kinds of terror. This, one can argue, is the source of Kiš’s lament about the state of Yugoslav memoirs from World War II and the Soviet and Titoist Gulags. It stands as a fitting description of the power of taboos to remold all kinds of art and institutions: “We have pulped a whole branch of literature, transformed noble experiences and bloodstained facts into penny dreadfuls, turned historical truth into puppet shows and waxworks.”[30]



  • Adelman, Jonathan, ed. Terror and Communist Politics: The Role of the Secret Police in Communist States. Boulder: Westview Press, 1984.
  • Bahro, Rudolf. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. New York: Routledge, 1978.
  • Baxandall, Lee, ed. Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.
  • Baxandall, Lee, and Stefan Morawski, eds. Marx and Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings. St. Louis: Telos, 1973.
  • Buzura, Augustin. The Terror of Illusion: A Dialogue with Crisula Stefanescu. Translated by Delia Dragulescu. Boulder: East European Monographs, 2007.
  • Kiš, Danilo. Dva filmska scenarija. Edited by Mirjana Miočinović. Vršac: KOV, 2011.
  • ———. Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews. Edited by Susan Sontag. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995.
  • ———. Hourglass. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997.
  • ———. The Lute and The Scars. Translated by John K. Cox. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2012.
  • ———. “Night and Fog.” Translated by John K. Cox. Absinthe: New European Writing 12 (2009): 94-133.
  • ———. Psalm 44. Translated by John K. Cox. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2012.
  • Lahusen, Thomas, and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds. Socialist Realism without Shores. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Parkhomenko, Mikhail, and Aleksandr Miasnikov, eds. Socialist Realism in Literature and Art: A Collection of Articles. Translated by C.V. James. Moscow: Progress, 1971.
  • Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: Russell and Russell, 1957.
  • Zulaika, Joseba, and William A. Douglass, eds. Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism. New York: Routledge, 1996.



[1] Danilo Kiš, “Baroque and Truth” and “Advice to a Young Writer,” in Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995), 121-127, 262-268.

[2] Danilo Kiš, “The Gingerbread Heart, or Nationalism”, “Advice to a Young Writer” and “Homo Poeticus, Regardless,” in Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995), 15-34, 75-79, 121-127.

[3] Stefan Morawski, Marx and Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings (St. Louis: Telos, 1973), 7.

[4] Karl Marx, “Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, April 19, 1859,” in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings, eds. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos, 1973), 141.

[5] Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle, May 18, 1859,” in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings, eds. Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (St. Louis: Telos, 1973), 143.

[6] Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York: Russell and Russell, 1957), 9.

[7] Trotsky, Literature, 19.

[8] Trotsky, Literature, 56.

[9] Both artistic and political rebellion can outlive their usefulness. Trotsky writes, “Liberalism meant, in the history of the West, a mighty movement against heavenly and earthly authorities, and in the heat of its revolutionary struggle it heightened both material and spiritual culture,” Trotsky, Literature, 34.

[10] Trotsky, Literature, 82-83.

[11] Trotsky, Literature, 197.

[12] Trotsky, Literature, 203.

[13] Trotsky, Literature, 229-30.

[14] Trotsky, Literature, 250.

[15] Trotsky, Literature, 214.

[16] Mikhail Parkhomenko and Aleksandr Miasnikov, “Foreword” to Socialist Realism in Literature and Art: A Collection of Articles, trans. C.V. James (Moscow: Progress, 1971), 12.

[17] Parkhomenko and Miasnikov, “Foreword,” 18.

[18] Pavel Korin, “Thoughts on Art,” in Socialist Realism in Literature and Art, eds. Mikhail Parkhomenko and Aleksandr Miasnikov (Moscow: Progress, 1971), 91.

[19] Alexander Fadeyev, “Socialist Realism,” in Socialist Realism in Literature and Art, eds. Mikhail Parkhomenko and Aleksandr Miasnikov (Moscow: Progress, 1971), 67.

[20] Moisei Kagan, “The Formation and Development of Socialist Art,” in Socialist Realism in Literature and Art, eds. Mikhail Parkhomenko and Aleksandr Miasnikov (Moscow: Progress, 1971), 169.

[21] Danilo Kiš, “The Poet,” in The Lute and the Scars: Stories, trans. John K. Cox (Champaign: Dalkey Archive), 69-81.

[22] Danilo Kiš, Psalm 44, trans. John K. Cox (Champaign: Dalkey Archive), 38-42.

[23] Kiš, Psalm 44, 47-48.

[24] Kiš, Psalm 44, 133-137.

[25] See Danilo Kiš, Dva filmska scenarija, ed. Mirjana Miočinović (Vršac: KOV, 2011).

[26] Danilo Kiš, “Night and Fog,” trans. John K. Cox., Absinthe: New European Writing, 12 (2009): 94-133.

[27] Danilo Kiš, Hourglass, trans. Ralph Manheim. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997).

[28] Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko, “Introduction” to Socialist Realism without Shores (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 9-10.

[29] Joseba Zulaika and William A. Douglass, conclusion to Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 1996), 149.

[30] Danilo Kiš, “Banality, Like a Plastic Bottle, Is Forever,” in Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995), 177.