A Bewitched Place

When Alfred Jarry bid farewell to the nineteenth century with his delightfully baffling Ubu Roi (1896), he set the play in “Poland—that is to say, nowhere.” Not content with simply denying an event, Jarry negated an entire country, thereby managing to outdo Baudrillard’s polemical nihilism ninety years before the Gulf War did or did not take place.  Partitioned and re-partitioned within an inch of its life, Poland was a Real place for which there was no room on official Symbolic maps. Or perhaps one could say it survived as a literary and cultural phenomenon: simultaneously a touchstone for avant-garde pataphysicians (Jarry) and the source of fantastic modernist experimentation (such as Wyspianski’s The Wedding, written just five years after Ubu). 

Every inch a king...

Every inch a king...

It is sadly appropriate, then, that a significant chunk of Polish (non-existent) territory would eventually become part of Ukraine—nearly all of Ukraine’s land is a geopolitical Trojan Horse, smuggling in its neighbors’ territorial claims. The Russian literary tradition gives little comfort to participants in territorial disputes.  In the title of one of his many didactic fables, Tolstoy would ask, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”  Hisstory unfolds in the context of Russian colonialism, telling of a greedy Russian carpetbagger who covets Bashkir land. When the protagonist dies as a result of his overreach, we learn the answer to the title’s question: a man needs just enough land to bury him in. 

Closer to home,  the title of a lesser-known story by the Russian (Ukrainian!) writer Nikolai Gogol might well apply to Ukraine:  “A Bewitched Place” (“Заколдованное место”). In Gogol’s story, the bewitched place alternates between immobilizing the feet of the person who stands on it, magically transporting it to a cemetery, and offering a treasure that turns out to be slops and waste.  Read deliberately against the grain, “A Bewitched Place” is a cautionary tale against territorial attachment; soil (native or otherwise) is just another form of filth.   In questioning the ontological stability of the ground beneath one’s feet, Gogol’s story can remind us that  a land (here, Ukraine) is not just an exercise in magical thinking (“If we be build it, they will come”), but magical realism.  [1]

This may be its true inheritance from Poland.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Poland is definitely somewhere:  its borders consistently delineated on most maps, the country has the reassuring object permanence that only NATO membership can bring.  Meanwhile, Ukraine's status (both Symbolic and cartographic) has a tendency toward the blurry.  Recognized internationally since 1991, Ukraine nonetheless finds its very existence as a “real” country constantly called into question, which only reinforces a reflexive nationalist desire to trumpet the nation’s value. One side claps for the continued life of a Ukrainian Tinkerbell, while the other side would gladly see her fade away.

Next: This Country Which Is Not One

Note

[1] I’m tempted to explore the ramifications of trilingual wordplay with “Gogol,” the “Chochoł “ from Wyspianski, and хохол, the Russian slur for Ukrainians, but it’s hard to imagine the overlap between people who would a) understand and b) find it of any value.