Confession of a Croatian Witch

Nedjeljna Dalmacija, May 5, 1993, “First person”, pp. 24-25


Vesna Kesić

Of course I am scared, of course I am terrified and sad because of what is happening to people and to the countries of my former homeland. I became a witch here for the first time and early traumas are so-called formative traumas and they are never forgotten. Some people call it “Yugo-nostalgia”

I’m almost 45 and am finally a witch! And, the more I think about it, I have never wanted to be anything else. But since young witches aren’t emancipated enough, those phantasies appeared in other, socially more suitable forms in early childhood. I remember that one of my first answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was resolute: “A stewardess!” I dreamt about travels all over the big unknown world, cities such as New York, Berlin, London, about exotic countries and encounters with interesting people. I am sure that a male psychiatrist would find in this the desire to fly (according to Erica Jung – the absence of a fear of sex) and a hidden desire to leave the family, home and tribe.

In the next phase of socio-libidal maturing, I started dreaming about the sea. I wanted to be a captain on a big overseas ship. However, shortly afterwards, I had to face at least two obstacles: my former milieu did not like this and my wider community showed even more aversion to it. Women were not admitted to nautical schools at that period. Afterwards, when the door of that little segment of male empire was opened, it was clearly understood that women would not be able to sail. They would work in shipping companies and ports, keep accounts, give send-offs and welcomes to ships and sailors. Just like my grandma did. How boring! Nevertheless – a woman on board a ship brings bad luck – says an old maritime proverb.

So I gave up my romantic dreams about flying and sailing and decided to become a doctor. I suppose it was a case of one of those “inborn” needs of women to be useful, to help their fellow beings, and heal their bodies and souls. The healing of everything is the oldest female profession. In the end, I graduated from the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. By then I had already and all too well learnt that I was different, a witch, although I still couldn’t admit that to myself. And witches have always been interested in human souls.

Accidental journalist

At the eminent psychology school in Zagreb, a strange conglomeration of 19th century psycho-physiology and American experimental and functional psychology, they fiercely rejected even the mere existence of the term soul. However, they taught me a lot of other, supposedly scientific and useful knowledge, such as statistical and psychometrical methods for calculating various “parameters”. For example, how to calculate valid data about the difference between male and female intelligence. Male intelligence is on average slightly higher and female intelligence is concentrated around extremes values, mostly lower ones. Or, how to measure the limit (limens) of the sensitivity of tongue sensorial receptors when they are stimulated by a salty (and never sweet!) substance. I successfully and gladly forgot all these methods the moment I graduated.

And so, quite coincidently, I became a journalist. They say a successful one, especially known for skilfully led interviews. However, objective parameters for the evaluation of professional journalistic achievement in a controlled and ascetic socialist public did not exist. Communist machinery was precise at shifting people all over the party’s hierarchy ladder. Success was replaced with advancement. Still, it was easy to be “successful”, having been deprived of the ambition to advance. It just took some civic courage, independence of thought and avoiding being banal and obedient. Finally, one was required to consent to being a witch. Maybe they might not like you that much but you are respected and slightly feared, which is a sound reputation for a witch.

Despite everything, Yugoslav “totalitarianism” did not at all resemble the Bulgarian, Romanian or even Czechoslovakian or Hungarian one. Perhaps the definition by one of my friends portraying it as an “enlightened socialist monarchy” is the most suitable description. A regime which could send national poets and philosophers to jail or silence critical journalists was, of course, undemocratic, repressive and stupid, but it was not automatically a totalitarian communist dictatorship. Unlike the quiet majority, I have always, in the Voltairean sense, acted for those who thought differently to have the right to express it. But, I could not, neither then nor now, share the paranoid passions of national intellectuals, especially not their cultural racism which was often expressed by the syntagm “We Croats, one of the oldest cultural nations of Europe...”, we were dancing Viennese waltzes here while those “Byzantine savages” were not even using forks over there...

The silent majority was pushing out nationalists as well as leftist and liberal regime critics from its lines. This was done by the same collective consensus with which it nowadays among the nationalists recognizes the leaders of its newly freed political sentiments.

Regardless of the economical-social and ideological basis of socialism, psychologically it was founded on mass conformism, limitless hypocrisy and moral corruption. The marginalized Church, with all its secular functions, was successfully substituted by the Communist party. It was the ultimate criterion of good and evil, justice and injustice, and the creator of public opinion and morality. And whether we like it or not, at least 25 percent of all important male Croats were members of the Party. By no coincidence, only one of those five well-known Croatian feminist witches was a member of the Party.

The Party was an inexhaustible source of male patriarchal power and gender and ideological dominance over women. Being different, being a witch or existential outsider had its advantages. It displaced commitments to the internal discipline of the Party and general conformity and abolished the fear of excommunication.
But this had its price. The political and cultural establishment reacted quite nervously when the modern feminist movement (of witches) in Yugoslavia started to constitute and articulate itself in the late 1970s. The first generation of feminists was accused of the importing of bourgeois ideology and similar pro-western sins. The leading Croatian ideologist of the Party wrote an authoritarian socio-political essay against feminism from class positions; an arrogant leftist, a pseudo-dissident, proclaimed it as a mass movement without structure (read: “rightist”!) which falls below the historical-epochal level (sic!); an educationist, a leading writer of manuals on socialist morality at the time, recognized a hotbed of antisocialist fornication in it and he proclaimed feminists victims of uncontrollable and unnatural instincts. Mr. Professor is now a respected member of the Christian Democrats and preaches about national and religious spiritual renewal and the prohibition of abortion.

At the beginning of the 1980s, an ambitious young journalist openly wrote in “Studentski list”: “Feminists should be kicked in their cunts”. Women here are often, colloquially, called “cunts”. Just as it was in “totalitarian communism” back then, so it happens in “democratic nationalism” today. The continuity reflects itself in the fact that very few prominent individuals or organizations have the need to publicly react.

In the second half of the 1980s, two cultural-political tendencies existed simultaneously in Yugoslavia. Liberalization, the seeds of political pluralism, general liveliness and enhanced media criticality which was often portrayed as attacks against former socialist myths and taboos. An explosion of mass media culture, which was, as it seemed, slowly but surely repressing traditional cultural forms and values, occurred. Simultaneously, nationalistic mythology, populist “anti-bureaucratic revolution” and state-political megalomania was blooming in Serbia. (At that time, during the so-called Croatian silence, some of the five witches were among the few who openly opposed Milošević and Greater-Serbian nationalism.) This might have been the moment when one could still choose: national state socialism and a chaotic collapse of the country or an arduous but peaceful and long-term promising transformation (and a collapse if need be) with the help of the market, democracy and enlightening and tolerant political culture.

“A kick to the cunt”

During that time, even the “Yugoslav Encyclopaedia” – nowadays detested and consigned to the historic dustbin (or stakes) – registered an unusual breakthrough of women in Croatian authorial journalism. It stated five names among them the three actual witches (Lovrić, Drakulić, Kesić). The fourth one, Maja Miles, for the first time after the war (the past one) introduced into Croatian and Yugoslav journalism competent and incorrupt writings about legality, the judicial system, the police and other terms of the state of law. She bravely exposed all types of criminal acts, including economic, medical and political ones. She committed suicide at the peak of her career. It was one of those women’s stories about putting one’s head in an oven because of the unbearable combination of intimate drama and public (political and party) pressures. Slavenka Drakulić described her case in the book entitled “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed”. Obviously we did not laugh all the time.

Something else was in the game besides all the classical explanations about the promoting of women in some professions – men leaving to go into more profitable professions, the diminishing of social reputation, the upward trend of educated women. Language. I am almost positive that women introduced the First Person Singular into Yugoslav journalism. Women defied the collective male, mystic, powerful and cowardly “WE”, which was supported by the Party, with their personal views, engagement and energy. For years, I had an editor-in-chief who never said “I” when he made important political and professional decisions. He, like many others, traded in the “We the Party” with “We the Croats”.

Women journalists destructed the bleak, bureaucratic and ideologized language of agencies and reports which dominated the socialist press with concrete speech. They restored the flavours and colours of life in general and everyday life with their articles. It was a special type of journalist deconstructivism that cut into the root of totalitarian reduction, into its discourse. Back then it was, as it is even today, subversive. Of course, women were not the only ones who did this, but successful women journalists did this almost without exception.

Aren’t witches those who derived some of their powers from speech that confused and fascinated others? Subsequent analyses of texts of female journalists and writers of that period would probably indicate a high level of anticipation and dramatic warnings of impending tragedy. They could not prevent a catastrophe even this time, although they predicted it. We were Cassandras.
In any case, what is really happening with the five writers? Who are they and can they be placed under the same label – feminists, alias witches?

They are, of course, women. They, however, besides their gender and age, do not necessarily share the characteristics by which groups of men are usually identified: standpoints, professional interests and orientations. Firstly, they aren’t all feminists. Jelena Lovrić was one of the most influential and respected political analysts in former Yugoslavia and still is in independent Croatia. The field of her interests included top-level politics, criticism of authorities, power games among and inside parties, important politicians, their faults and virtues. She has never dealt with so-called Women’s issues. On the contrary, she has always energetically refused to be labelled as a “feminist”, whatever that means. Here, the term itself is still over-burdened, controversial and even compromised for most of the female intellectuals to be easily identified with it, like they do in the USA and Europe. Rada Iveković, Slavenka Drakulić and I belong to the first generation of Yugoslav feminists. To those who were once accused of “decadent bourgeois deviations”. We have, thanks to unlimited and chameleon-like potentials and an inclination to forgetfulness of local opinion makers, become “Marxist feminists”. Rada Iveković is a philosopher and an indologist and currently teaching at a Parisian university. She has, just as with India, approached the woman’s issue from the theoretical viewpoint of French post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and women’s writing – as the “speech of the Other”. Over the last years, Slavenka Drakulić has written internationally successful autobiographical novels and stories where she described the destinies of women in communism and post-communism. These stories are not published here and the public only learns of her achievements through public disqualifications of the mentioned author. During the transitional years, I mainly dealt with the criticism of popular culture and art, the analysis of media ideology and its influence on pre-war and war reality. Dubravka Ugrešić was, until recently, both recognized and praised. Her novels and stories were real little bestsellers and publishers were fighting for them. They were translated into numerous languages, adapted for films and theatre plays. In her descriptions of fragments of everyday life and with her use of popular stereotypes, she superiorly plays with different literary genres and styles. Although acknowledged as the most talented local writer, she is also a disciplined literary theoretician (Russianist) who refuses, in a neat academic manner, the division of literature into “male” and “female”. And she has never belonged to any feminist group. 

Disputed but influential

They, consequently, might be witches, but not necessarily feminists. They share something else: they have written critically about the war and nationalism in Croatian and foreign newspapers and magazines; they have confronted Serbian and Croatian war-mongering machinery, and opposed media manipulation, corruption and authoritarian tendencies of the new authorities. They write and speak publicly. They are quite brave and dare to be eccentric, curious, competitive and independent. They have been disputed but influential ever since they were publicly acknowledged. This is probably what irritates this deeply patriarchal, heroic, collectively misogynist and nationally homogenized local community beyond their tolerance. They were finally proclaimed for what they really are: “Witches!”, which is what new spiritual leaders and intellectual executors are shouting while invoking a historic context of those several centuries in Europe and the USA when 9 million women were burned at the stake.

The new political system did not change anything in the political culture of the “old nation”. Hypocrisy, greed and personal ambitions are larger than ever before. The president of the Croatian P.E.N. Centre preferred to estrange his Centre with the entire world and attempted to show it as an alleged clash between fascist and anti fascist forces – than to admit his own mistake. The misinformation he placed at the international P.E.N. congress in Rio de Janeiro generated an avalanche – a witch hunt. Instead of issuing a civilized rebuttal, like he was asked to by international P.E.N. Centres, the president of the Croatian P.E.N. Centre kept entangling himself in a net of further misinformation, petty-political labelling and banal lies. How Balkanic, how Byzantine, how Levantine! Described exactly in those terms that national renovators like to use. Finally, he kicked the ball into his own, his nation’s and his Centre’s net, and this will, indirectly or directly, just hasten the atmosphere of the witch hunt.

Luckily we live in an age of television. Everything moves much more quickly. I suppose that the witch hunt won’t last for centuries, and burning at the stake in reality might not be necessary. One just needs a surrogate in the media, virtual reality.

If you ask me how I feel – very well, thank you! I have been expelled from my own tribe, I fly a lot from country to country, I meet interesting people and I don’t see myself as a victim of some dark forces but of my own character and temperament. Of course I am scared, of course I am terrified and sad because of what is happening to people and to the countries of my former homeland. I became a witch here for the first time and early traumas are so-called formative traumas and they are never forgotten. Some people call it “Yugo-nostalgia”.