Pastime and poetry – one of the last remaining domains of universal values


Davor Šalat

Pastime and poetry – one of the last remaining domains of universal values

Whether the world and man are arranged as having a purpose and value is an ancient question. Philosophical concepts and different religious systems have had many different views about this matter, ranging from cosmos to chaos. Much of contemporary philosophical thought prefers the anti-essentialist attitude, one of the first casualties of which is – purposefulness. The state of decay of natural, social and personal phenomena testifies to the above. Furthermore, a possible cosmological purpose has also been trivialised and reduced to the level of all-out functionality. Man’s functioning on a daily basis, a Kafkaesque subjugation of human integrity to the dictates of a given social system has been imposed as the purpose of man. Such dictates seem to increasingly govern human life as a whole, regardless of whether their origin is totalitarian or ultra-capitalist.

Such totalitarian organisation of social life is immune to any layeredness, to differentiating between the public and private sphere, between integral humanity and its partial abuses. Both in sometime socialism and current capitalism the functionalisation of man has, in fact, spread over man’s entire life. Socialist practice viewed the concept of pastime distortedly having reduced it to toilsome weekend rests and the repulsive-to-most-people and abstract cultural elevation. And today it is reduced to a consumerist, shopaholic validation of the capitalist hand over man’s free time as well. Given that so-called free time is nothing but an extension of social control over individuals, the concept of pastime has been emptied of its original meaning as being free for something, and not being free from something. Hardly anyone knows today what it is that man should generally be free for outside the system that permeates everything.

Owing to the vulgarisational media rule over man’s psychological and spiritual life, the extent of control has long surpassed even the abuse of labour. Contemporary man’s systems of thought, values, actions, as well as experiences, have been automatised in large measure by means of television, Internet and radio models. The domains of thought and experience, which are independent or at least significantly different from those mediated and dictated by the media, have been increasingly narrowing day by day. Nevertheless, these two reduced domains are the only space in which humanity as such – transfiguring man from object to subject – can breathe at all. It seems to me that what is synonymous with this space of integral or fuller humanity is precisely pastime. It is within this space that universal values, which presuppose a whole man, can be accomplished. This space is the exact opposite of the passivity and emptiness of simply free, or rather void time. In defiance of the prevailing spiritual idleness, this space is today yet to be seized with spiritual strength.

But what is this space like, how and when is this fuller humanity manifested, what is it that we should be free for, and when is pastime truly pastime, and not void time? There are no unambiguous answers as such to these questions that would apply to everybody. What is, nevertheless, certain is that many different ways of deautomatising man lead to the proximity of pastime, that for many individuals the different spheres of personal fulfilment and reflective research are active pastime as such, with the help of which the increasingly adhesive media network is being exposed. There is no doubt that poetry has always been considered to be part of such creative and active pastime. However, the social status and function of poetry have been changing significantly over the centuries, including the possibilities for its freedom. From the concept known as poeta vates or the poet-prophet who speaks the core truths of society, from the aesthetisising role of poetry as the social activity that refines, to the avant-gardian erasion of the difference between the text and the world acted on by the text, and to postmodernistic playful toying which has degraded the social role of poetry completely.

Besides a social role that poetry ascribed to itself with its different self-conceptions, the reverse process was just as important – the influence of society which, either directly or indirectly, either enters poetry or pushes it to the fringes. This social influence has also changed substantially – from complete control over the poetic text itself in Social Realism to total social indifference to poetry in capitalist consumerism. However, the capacity of poetry to achieve true pastime is inversely proportional to the possibility of its profitability. The weak attempts at commercialising poetry have shown that poetry that aspired after greater success on the market has been dreadfully simplified, or has rather been made more functional. This means that the structure of poetry itself has been subjected to the vulgar laws of the market, disregarding true literary competences. By contrast, poetry can indeed stay outside the system due in large measure to its invisibility for this system of usage. Even if the system manages to penetrate poetry on the thematic, as well as the structural level, the poetic sign will continue to be significantly more complex, to have multiple layers and be fuller than equivocal market motivations.

In a nutshell, freedom is constitutive of poetry. Throughout the centuries of its evolution poetry has had the capacity to continually reshape itself from within itself due exactly to this fundamental freedom. Poetry has changed radically the understanding of its very own function and character, the way in which the poetic is manifested as a literarily and historically changeable, yet always present category. Poetry has always been and will continue to be a condensate of the reflective, emotional, cultural, formal, linguistic and all the other capacities of the human spirit and its spatial-temporal limitlessness. Having outlined the nature of poetry in this way, it is about pastime which finds its fulfilment in the process itself, in the never-completable and never-ending spiritual-linguistic search, in the intense inner dynamism which makes pastime become the very essence of existence. Poetry, thus, conquers its content always and anew, that very purpose towards which freedom is, in fact, orientated. There is no recipe for such spiritual content in contemporary poetry, including recent Croatian poetry. This spiritual content is found in very different, often opposite poetic experiences, on the individual path of all powerful authorial expressions.

Such fulfilling occurrences happen often in contemporary Croatian poetry as well. The main distinguishing feature of the poetry of one of the greatest contemporary Croatian poets – namely, the late Slavko Mihalić – is exactly this aspiration after freedom from automatised daily functioning, this setting out on a journey in search of new inner realms. I can only sketch his wondrous, dreamy, resurrected poetic world. By means of the transformative power of poetry, his poetic world continually bursts into newly discovered content of freedom, into pastime that has been fulfilled in the fullness of its meaning. It is a world that is being created from the elements of existing objects, images and words, but their ingenious combination creates a new poetic reality peculiar to a given text, a new poetic reality which has been liberated from both all applied logic and mere imitations of reality:


From the prophecies of the deranged, stars majestically/ descend to earth. By now they already sit at each table./

You’ll see, there will come a time when furious housewives/will be chasing them over the threshold with a broom./

We haven’t yet seen a drunken star. But when soon/ The meteors arrive, anything could happen. /

Are you sorry about tranquil afternoons on the riverbank grass? / Eh, flies!/ In the future, there will be buzzing around our ears with all the cosmic / loafers, planets, shooting stars and we’ll have to go on a trip again.

The greatest living Croatian poet, Danijel Dragojević, is perhaps the most consistent in the floatability of poetic reality, in the whirling relationship between the world and the text, the interchangeability of everything with everything, in abandoning all life and reflective automatism. In marvellous poetic liberation, he manages to balance between a crumbled world and totalitarianising abstractions, finding himself at a point in which these two opposite poles, nevertheless, do touch and impregnate the event of a new creation. Dragojevićesque “parallel” genesis is not only a “paper” event, it swirls the spiritual alloy of the conscious and the unconscious, and attains the “absolute moment”, the manifestation of life itself:

“… A flock of sparrows is mainly spinning, circular both as a whole and in the details. And such is a sparrow itself: it spins finely and circularly. What is seen and heard is almost entirely without nouns and adjectives, while the tenses and adverbs play in one spot. And this means that the beginnings and ends are together, that space and time have been annulled and that – there is no sentence. Which is why, when a sparrow transmits this into a song, there is no song either, it only partakes in joint cries, chirping. But this is not simply nothing, this is not small. Instead of that which has not been attained, instead of a sentence, life and joy have appeared in abundance… when all the chirpings are added up, when all the sentenceless joy of movement and flying over is gathered, some special rapture emerges, such as the one we know when we watch (listen to) the way in which disorder and commotion change into order, never actually becoming order.” (extract from Dragojević’s prose poem “Sparrows, Sentence”)

In these examples we can observe that poetry, as an explicit realm of pastime, does not facilitate some escape from reality, a colourful escapist store whose lights will blind the beggars looking at them. On the contrary, today’s reality, which has been arranged according to the laws of greater profitability in many of its segments, is some kind of an escape from the hampered, yet irrepressible call of fundamental humanity. Pastime and poetry correct such escapism, reintroduce spiritual and artistic reality to the stage, and reprocure content for reality itself which has been reduced by consumerism and media virtuality. Which is why I consider poetry in particular and art in general to be the final frontier in which universal values can still appear, to be the pith and marrow of pastime, its densest occurrence in the fullness of the original meaning of the concept.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s