Antiquity and Christianity in Works of Alojz Rebula

Milica Kač

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of this symposium also by presenting this contribution. It will be far from those clear-cut philosophical approaches we enjoyed yesterday. It will lack much of the scientific apparatus, which was so skilfully applied to many relevant texts. It will sure be narrowed, but will this help me to make it radical? I will try my best to make the synthesis between the antiquity and Christianity work, but will I succeed to make it a non questionable synthesis? On the other hand, I was yesterday also encouraged by the sentences like: “Scientific means just developed commonsensical” or: “The only way to approach an author is to read it like that…. Without any afterthoughts…” or again: “The author as the subject ….is not himself nor someone else … and this enables him to be himself and someone else. ” Last not least: “Knowing is good, feeling is better. “

I sure read and enjoyed Rebula’s texts without afterthoughts and I sure felt strongly about them.

When I, I cannot say decided, I would prefer to put it ‘came upon the idea’, that I would like to share with you something about how I feel about the texts of Alojz Rebula in the context of the leading thought of this symposium, I soon realised it will be a real challenge if not also quite an embarrassment.

First: for me thinking, then speaking and finally trying to write about the texts of Alojz Rebula is not only an attempt to comment on something I read, then somehow digested, made it so in a way my own and now share with somebody else. It is also reliving those evenings in the seventies of the past century when also the largest lecture room on the Theological faculty was too small to accommodate those who wanted to attend Rebula’s contributions to the so called Theological evening lectures for students and intellectuals.

Second: Rebula’s texts are not only very versatile as his thirty or so books reach from some Slovene most known novels to fascinating diaries and very fine sculptured essays, they are also interwoven in such a way that you could often take a paragraph from a novel, put it into an assay and it would fit in perfectly and function there as its genuine part. I will not venture any answer to the question what does such a fact tells us about the novel itself, which is one of the main concerns of Katarina Šalamun-Biedrzycka in the book with which she honours Rebula’s seventyth anniversary. Nevertheless, it is somehow a clear warning that Rebula the writer and Rebula the thinker are there in one and the same text. Not only are they there at the same time, which is not a problem per se, but they are there speaking simultaneously, holding the pen at the same time. Is one telling the story and the other explaining it? Whose sentence is it I am enjoying? It does not matter as long as I am just enjoying it but as soon as I am commenting on it and trying to elaborate further on it, I am, strictly speaking, facing a rather tricky task if I have no answer to that question: Who is my partner in this dialogue?

Third: One cannot speak about Alojz Rebula without pointing out that he is one of the most outstanding representatives of the Slovene minority in Italy. If one speaks about Slovenes in Trst (Trieste) and its surroundings in the second part of the twentieth century, the first two names to appear in this context would be Boris Pahor and Alojz Rebula. Rebula is actually breathing with all those picturesque Karst villages just above and behind Trst as well as with those following the Soča (Isonzo) river to the Adriatic Sea. Standing for the Slovene language and being part of Slovene culture was for him not only developing something and contributing to something that he has felt being his mother tongue, something that has always been a literally vital part of his personality it was also the right and the noble thing to do. And he was (N.B. all at once!) standing for his mother tongue and his nation (as a member of a the Slovene minority in Italy), he has been standing for his Christian believes within the Catholic Church (in the predominantly Catholic Italy, not only remembering but also living under Italian government, experiencing the politics of official as well as unofficial Vatican and local Catholic authorities) and he was standing for the Slovene culture (the major part of which was at that time developing and trying to survive under the Yugoslav flag). Being a part of Yugoslavia meant, if we take it for the best: living in a system suspicious against everybody holding a westeuropean passport and if we take it for the worst: living in a system controlling, suppressing, persecuting and refusing free entrance to the county to everybody arousing its suspicion.

Fourth: In the above context or rather contexts one can clearly see and understand that many of Rebula’s thoughts and statements are living and life comments, reactions to what was actually going on and not well polished pieces of a mosaic, fitting perfectly into a well established theological, philosophical or whatever system. But on the other hand, when we learn how many times he has rewritten and for how long he has been working on some of his literary texts we are reassured that our feeling, namely the feeling, that what we read, feel and almost hear in those texts stands there finished, well polished till the last sound and perfect in every word. I was always fascinated and often almost taken aback by the way he makes the language work. His way of expression looks lapidary to me, not in the sense of keeping it short, on the contrary, he takes his time, but more in the sense of enjoying and sculpturing the sentence and the thought in the linguistic as well as in the phonetic way. I am never at ease of having just a small talk, even if he is telling me about yesterday’s dinner.

Fifth: As Rebula puts it himself: when somewhere on Karst, “still full of partisans and Geman soldiers”, he was translating some aphorisms from Also sprach Zaratustra into Greek, writing commentaries on Horace’s odes and keeping his diary in French: There are things that themselves speak for the irreality of a youth… For me, as I am today, this irreality seems even sadder and more unfortunate than it really was… But nevertheless, two distinct directions formed in my life, even more:  two certainties.

First of all: for me there was only one university on this whole wide world I could long for and that was Alma mater labacensis. And second: on this university there was only one speciality on the whole wide world, classical philology. There was no alternative neither to Slovene nationality nor to antiquity.

Or, Rebula himself puts it:

(“So stvari, ki že same po sebi zarisujejo irealnost neke mladosti… Danes se mi zdi tista irealnost bolj žalostna in bolj nesrečna, kot je dejansko bila…Vendar se je v mojem življenju izoblikovalo dvoje bivanjskih usmeritev, še več, dvoje gotovosti. Prvič – zame je obstajala samo ena univerza pod soncem, kamor sem mogel hrepeneti, in sicer Alma mater labacensis. Drugič – da je na tej univerzi obstajala ena sama stroka pod soncem, klasična filologija. Ne slovenstvo ne antika nista dopuščali alternative.

Could one venture the thought that for such a man, the antiquity was not just a way of thinking, a way of expressing oneself in a noble, educated and well-read way, it was life itself. Not only “ben trovato” it was really “vero”! Especially if at this point we think also of such details as the recollection of Stane Gabrovec cited in the Introduction to Rebula’s book Through the first veil (Skozi prvo zagrinjalo). He remembers there his first encounter with Rebula in autumn 1945, as students gather to a new academic year in still half ruined building of the Slovene National Library. Rebula is a freshmen and Gabrovec is coming back to the university after the war to finish his studies. The latter just wanted to enlighten the newcomer and told him, that “he (Rebula) should not expect a philosophical approach in the sense of somebody like Nietzsche. ‘Had I only left that name unspoken’, he then continues, ‘I turned into a freshman myself as he (Rebula) said with glittering eyes that that philosophy is not worth much, but his poetry, his Also sprach Zaratustra can be compared with the greatest Greek poets’. “

Further on we read that ‘Alojz Rebula invaded the seminary, where Cicero was a must, with postclassical, sometimes medieval and even ecclesiastic Latin language. Not only he did that, he was even proud of it and quoted from St. Augustine … as if he wanted to put the rhetoric question: “Is this not classics as well?”. He was constantly making antiquity our everyday life by bringing up names of the world literature like Dante and Claudel and those of Slovene literature like Prešeren and Župančič together with the masters of the antiquity.

Sixth: And if I now quote Gorazd Kocijančič who over a glass or two of delicious red wine recently once again told me, that no commentary on the New Testament can be considered adequate if the person in question has not a sufficient background in the literature which formed the cultural and social backbone of these texts, you can well see and understand why I feel both challenged and embarrassed. Rebula’s cultural surroundings was antiquity as least as much as the world he physically lived and worked in.

If I try to summarize in a few sentences how I feel about the two traditions in the leading question of this symposium, namely about antiquity and Christianity and about those two states of mind in this same question, namely about conflict and conciliation, I would very probably end with something like the following.

Being a good, successful and believing citizen of a Greek polis or than of Rome made you live somewhere between the ideals of kalos and agathos, between metron and mysterion, making your way through a triumphant welcome of cheering crowds celebrating your achievements towards the assembly of the wise and capable man who will accept you as their own and will finally put you to that so noble position of their leader, which is so much worth striving for and longing for. And you do not allow trifles along your way to interfere with your plan and keep you from being focused. Or, on the other hand, you leave all this as not worthy of your attention and energy, learn how to do without it and proceed on your own. And you do not allow your feelings to interfere. In both cases the gods and the destiny may or may not be on your side, the situation changes constantly along the way.

It is brave, fascinating, even admirable but it somehow loses a great part of its humanity, if humanity in its deepest sense means human sympathy. The word ’empathy’ is possibly more to the point, it makes it sound more serious, more real, more ‘all inclusive’, demanding not only your real presence but giving you at the same time your real absence.

Being a Christian should be: “loving God with all your forces, with every part of your being and everybody else as yourself.” So I cannot leave anybody or anything out, behind me. I have to treat it “like myself”, not ‘instead of myself’, not ‘as my own’ but as myself. There is no luxury like that’s none of my business’, no ‘luggage’ could be comfortably leave behind. You are constantly being asked, challenged and implored to be part of everything and everybody and at the same time to have your anchor in Jesus himself. You are not making your career, but you are a part of the career of the world. And God is always on your side.

This latter is sure a very ambitious plan, but achieving the top of the former is not a piece of cake either. On the other hand, as I speak of antiquity and Christianity as of two traditions, and I am not trying to condense them in some short ideas or two well established systems it is more the question of ‘how we walk, what or Who is leading and guiding our steps along the way’ and less of ‘how far we come and what we achieve’. The ultimate achievement and outcome is in the hands of destiny or gods in the first (antiquity) and safely in the hands of God in the second case (Christianity). So we are talking about the everyday life, about my praxis, about how I react, what makes me joyful, serene on one and sad not to say mad on the other. It is a practical tradition, not a system, as someone, I think it was Gorazd, so nicely formulated yesterday: something you drank with your mother’s milk, without any afterthoughts, not as philosophically pregnant heritage.

Rebula is well known for his roots in antiquity, one cannot imagine him out of his Greek and even more without his Roman surroundings. And it is only natural to imagine that when he is writing (actually when he is doing anything!) it is all coming also out of this powerful context. But on the other hand there is also more than evident that he is not only a Christian, very much practising his faith as well as ‘faithing his practice’, he is also one of the pillars of the Slovene Catholic church. His attended many official events in Vatican, just to mention the synod of European bishops in November and December 1991, which is documented in the diary published under the title The Steps of the Apostolic Sandals (Koraki apostolskih sandal). His faith is not, ought not and cannot be discussed or even considered here, it is far beyond anything such a piece of work can, should or is even allowed to deal with, but his commitment to the Church is beyond any reasonable doubt. He is committed to the Catholic Church as it is, he is a practising member of it, but he is also one of its very severe, and concise critics and he is using all of his picturesque eloquence, especially that inspired also by all Latin masters when making a point or better to say making many points.

Finally I would present some quotations. Not the most powerful ones, not the well known ones. Had I done so, I would have been using the sentences where one could suggest that the author has taken great pain to make them polished as they should be, with other words to get them absolutely right, quantum potest humana fragilitas! I decided to finish with some casual sentences, randomly taken from some books, sentences  which caught my attention for one reason or the other. Hopefully, we will be able to look into Rebula’s backyard, to catch a glimpse of him, when he is not looking, when he is not paying enough attention to be aware of our presence. With a lot of luck, we may even come a little bit closer to that: “The author ….is not himself nor someone else … and this enables him to be himself and someone else. ” “Knowing is good, feeling is better. ” Once, attending a lecture on mass spectrometry, a chemical method that makes part of my profession as a chemist, the lecturer was explaining a new ionisation technique and said that with this new technique we hope to catch the ions before they have time to make a clever rearrangement. So in this sense I hope to get some sentences before they make ‘some clever rearrangement’ in and because of the context and because of interpretation. “Knowing is good, feeling is better. “

Year 1448, May 10, the new bishop in Tergeste addresses his secretary:
“Is it not a terrible thought Kajetan: I could nearly imagine that I could live without God but I could not imagine how to survive without my library?.
A happy thought, playing with words? Most probable.

Practically on the next page, same entrance into Tergeste, same bishop:
“He felt he had to kiss something on that green morning – he had to kiss the earth, but non primarily on its mystical map, not that, but the earth as such, in its pre-Christian glory, the goddess Gaja, daughter of Kaos, in her pagan wedding dance.”
That was a translation made for this occasion, now I quote….”je sredi tega rastlinskega jutra veljalo poljubiti nekaj – prav zemljo, a ne toliko v njenem mističnem zemljevidu, ampak zemljo kot tako, v njeni predkrščanski slavi, boginjo Gajo, hčer Kaosa, v njenem poročnem poganskem plesu.
Et statuit super petram pedes meos”.

And from six meditations published under the title Direction new earth (Smer nova zemlja):
A Christian can never be cautious enough when mingling with private revelations, but why not enjoy Christ’s words also in an innocent play? As the following answer to the question what happened to Juda: “If you knew what I did to Juda, you would take advantage of my goodness.

Maranata or the year 999 about Ulderich, the Abbot in the Benedictine cloister at Timava river:
Though his will accepted his blindness, his pride still refused to accept it.
And about Nitard, the pilgrim to the Holy land, who is taking farewell from the world in year 999 (the novel was published 1997)
Amelia, my love, I am taking farewell, I am doing it every day. Not from you, my love, but from everything that might prove corruptible. From the elements of our earth, which might melt…..

I took just a very short glimpse at a small pebble on the shore of the Mediterranean where antiquity and Christianity both emerged. Am I correct in saying that as far and as well as I can feel the conciliation between them is not needed and the conflict between them is not a must?