21 March 2008

The Rite of Spring

I did not grok Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (performed here by Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Dance Theater) until I experienced Latvia’s spring in primitive austerity, in the early 1990s. Our dachas have no plumbing and no electricity. Before becoming a slave to cyberspace, subject to the elements more directly than I was ever before or since, I understood more of what the season means here – after stewing in boreal darkness all winter (something I still can’t deal with very well – it’s very dark here for a very long time), the augurs of spring take on an explicitly magical quality, whether that is the feeble sun gaining enough strength to warm the cheek again or returning to an angle where it strikes the wall with a shaft of light for the first time in months, longer each day, palpably so, birdsong again as snows alternate with thaws, the blades of the tulips, the crocus, and then the erotic fury of flowering trees and lilacs and blossoming roses as we climb toward what is still the main holiday here, summer solstice (even Līgo night already tinged with the knowledge that the days are getting shorter).

These coming months are so lovely that they can even seem illusory (Alberts Bels’ story in which the trees haul up their green sails in summer, whilst humans raise their illusions?), like the mystical twilight of woodlands in June, something I first saw in Sweden – the pale woods of puberty making sense of childhood dances in which the girls joined hands and the boys passed beneath the arches of their arms: Caur sidraba birzi gāju, ne zariņu nenolauzu – "Through a silver bosk I went, without breaking off a single twig."

I’ve begun translating a book about Latvia’s woodlands by Imants Ziedonis, one of our finest poets, and his son Rimants Ziedonis, a remarkable writer in his own right – the book is a guide to our forests, suffused with history and mythology (nearly half of Latvia is forested).

Over coffee, I skimmed the news and read Timothy Garton Ash’s commentary about Tibet in the Guardian. Many of the comments to Ash’s sober piece could act as emetics, but the one that struck me this morning included this tidbit: "Do not limit Tibetans to Tibet. Minorities in reality have been all over China. Stop talking about Tibet needing its own place. Migration is a natural process for every single ethnicity in the world. I personally enjoy being a Mongolian out in the U.S. We are nomads. So are Tibetans. Even the Tibetans and Mongols out here in the West need our identities. So the world is our home, but we will never ever lose the feeling of our own ethnicity, no matter what language we speak, what food we eat, what religion we decide to follow." (Italics mine.)

That is a sublime condensation of a take on ethnos – or is it really nationality? – that not a few people actually hold to, or have found. Perhaps we'll all be metrosexuals in the next life?

Identity is indeed complex, and few places on earth are ethnically homogeneous. But the idiotic pretense that there are not basic bonds between peoples and their languages, lands, beliefs, cultures and even cuisines is especially illuminating when taken to the extreme this commentator takes it to. A gutted identity would then act as a marker – why and how?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, ecology and nationalism in Latvia long ago joined hands. Politically and culturally, land was the major mover – the tens of thousands of landless Latvians, casualties of Tsarist policies, were the Bolshevik base -- whilst the agrarian reform brought about by Social Democrats and the Farmers’ Union was the basis for Latvia’s stability between the wars. After centuries of dispossession, a large swathe of the population got something to call its own. Whether this was economically brilliant or not is actually secondary; the redistributed lands were returned to those who owned them prior to 1940 in the early 1990s.

Rimants Ziedonis wrote re SIA Latviya & Co. long ago – he railed against the Russian-dominated consumerist nightmare that is dragging us into a tawdry globalist Europe, in essence. When Alvis Hermanis, our foremost genius of the theater, refuses to accept this country’s highest decoration, the Order of Three Stars, we should take heed: "Everything has been turned upside down at an ethical level. I do not doubt that Latvia will reach the standard of living of 'old' Europe sooner or later – but does that mean we have to lose all of those spiritual goods along the way? I think that this is very, very dangerous."

Alvis Hermanis declared the Republic of Latvia to be morally bankrupt. I’ll try to be more kind and say that we’re on the verge of bankrupcy. This is mostly because the political elite lives in a world of its own.

The Tibet Support Group (founded by MP Juris Sinka, who died in Lhasa -- a rightist with moral stature that dwarfs that of most of the MPs in this Parliament) is still collecting signatures for its letter to China... does it really take so long to get those of your own caucus among "the hundred wise ones" in that spiffy room to sign?

Where is our land now? Who owns it? How does one make the leap from a command economy into the ravages of an insane globalization -- one that is obviously amok in the West? Why should one apply what is a failure in the West to our country? How can one possibly preserve moral values if neoliberalism has been essentially murderous? Why does "reentering Europe" seem to entail dropping most everything that is ours?

Another take is to pretend that one cannot discuss these things because Latvians were so downtrodden and deprived that one can’t (morally) object to so-called "Western civilization," as in consumerism, filthy lucre, and vacuum cleaners for all.

And so again to the spring – this just isn’t so. There is no objective reason for Latvia’s repetition of the mistakes made in the "free world." The real core of the Third Awakening was not about getting plasma TVs and Humvees. It was about freedom in its deepest sense, which is what Latvian nationalism in a deeper sense has always looked to – Miķelis Valters mostly gets into Kant and Hegel, not kickshaws.
The fundament of the Republic was rural. It remains so – and this applies even to the city.

Gary Peach for AP: "Maija Krumina [sic], who lives in a village near Valmiera in northern Latvia, said rural residents have switched to survival mode. Many have stopped going to stores and instead are relying on their own livestock for milk, eggs and pork. What they don't consume, they sell to one another.

Back in the early 1990s, a few students would supply the entire dormitory with food – the students would take up a collection, getting bus tickets for those with relatives who actually produced food. Real food from real people – unimaginable these days, isn’t it?

Words always covered everything, lovingly, precisely, poetically – which words have we lost? How do you diddle the clitoris of spring?

The pic is by Nikolai Roerich, a set design for Stravinsky's Весна священная; Roerich is intimately tied to Riga, and one of the most beautiful places in Latvia is the Roerich room at the National Museum of Art. For information on the ties between Tibet and Latvia, see "
Tibeta – tās problēmas vēsturiskā izcelšanās, rezonanse starptautiskajā sabiedrībā un Latvijas – Tibetas saikne.

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Blogger Canterbury said...

The vice chair of the British Latvian Association has encouraged members to read your blog. I'm so glad he did, although it does mean and extra item on my to do list each week.

It looks as if you wrote of spring just before winter made a guest appearance. Latvia, like England, has opted out of the predictable weather zone and so each successive year is glorious in having a diverse weather pattern to guaranty a conversation topic in the dullest of places.

28 March, 2008 14:32  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for the comment, Canterbury!

Heavy snow here -- but cīruļputeņi are part of the vernal experience, too.

Though the weather has been weird of late, the Baltic has always been unpredictable. The 16th C saw one winter when gardens burst into flower in January, and another when Letts supposedly crossed the sea to Sweden on sleds.

29 March, 2008 08:42  

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