Witches from Croatia


Danas, May 14, 1993, p. 63


Real arguments rapidly lose their importance in the atmosphere of hysteria

Zdravko Zima

What was true yesterday is refuted or under radical doubt today. The world is worn-out, drained like a wash-cloth and one could say that it looks like Bosch’s phantasmagoria where we discover witches, werewolves and strange human beings who walk upside down out of wantonness or for some other reasons. Everyone has paid for this geopolitical image of the Balkans in their own way. Lives have been sacrificed, ideologies and names of streets changed... And not only that. It is as equally difficult to deal with dates and holidays. A person no longer knows what can be celebrated or not and whether to hang a flag on a day which belongs to someone else, in equally imperfect times.

The beginning of May used to be dedicated to the labour holiday and the marking of the triumph of the antifascist coalition. Now it has all faded away and the ordinary (dis)satisfied Croat has no other choice but to celebrate the fact that the Sun is still shining and that it did not change its usual orbit despite all the ideological naggings. A Croat might find comfort in Ionesco – an author who came from similar surroundings, but who fled to the West on time, and who dared to state that the only thing which is slipping away from us is that what is real. Since I have already started with dates, I confess that I was astounded by a peculiar coincidence. The article “Confession of a Croatian Witch” by Vesna Kesić, a journalist from Zagreb and, as she claims, a member of the first generation of former Yugoslav feminists, was published in the first May issue of Nedjeljna Dalmacija.

I don’t who has or for what reason labelled a group of Zagreb intellectuals comprised of – in alphabetical order – Slavenka Drakulić, Rada Iveković, Vesna Kesić, Jelena Lovrić and Dubravka Ugrešić – as witches, and I am not particularly interested in this. However, one can recognize the symptoms of the times, the frenzy of a world which has taken pandemic proportions regardless of who might have thought that this singling out of witches’ phenomenon seems frivolous. But what is the coincidence that we are talking about? Vesna Kesić in her text, which resembles a bed sheet, and this inevitably calls for sexuality and the semiotics of women’s writing, does not express any excessive ambition to wash off the label she was affixed with as much attention as some attach stickers to shop windows or windshields. Occasione, keep your distance, or something like that.

The problem is not just in the fact that Vesna did not protest against the mentioned attribute for when someone pins a label on you and puts you into a suitable drawer, you can protest as much as you like. When the myth takes its hold, when the atmosphere of hysteria and collective public attacks is created, the real arguments rapidly begin losing their significance. However much it is true that we believed the tales about witches and sorceresses when we were young, I was still astounded by the unbelievable coincidence. Vesna’s sheet was spread out before its audience on May 5, and only a few days before that, between April 30 and May 1, we brushed up against Walpurgis Night during which, according to an old Germanic myth, witches and sorcerers dance. Julio Caro Baroja from Castillo claims that witches legally jump out of their lairs when their surroundings are filled with overstated outpourings of passion.
In such surroundings, human beings are almost never what they are: they are given supernatural powers or distinctively negative characteristics (just think of the myths about Budak, Stepinac, Broz, etc.). They are saints or bandits, heroes or villains. And in certain cases, when one has scores to settle with members of the opposing sex who are meddling in questions of public interest, simultaneously showing suspicious discord, witches are being resurrected. The author of the confession, an article which was actually commissioned by The Women’s Review of Books from Boston and also published in its Croatian version, complains of our misogynist, patriarchal culture which is subjected to collective stereotypes and extremely intolerant to the speech of the Other embodied primarily in women’s writings/literature.

In such an environment, woman is treated either as a saint or a prostitute. Or she is perceived as Cassandra, Circe, Medea or Phaedra. Or she can be a doomsayer, seductress, avenger or committer of incest. It is the simplest when she is portrayed as a witch on a broomstick instead of a vacuum cleaner which suits her better than being beside a typewriter or computer keyboard. Vesna Kesić states that the status of women in totalitarian Yugoslavia and nationalistic Croatia was and remains the same because they were and they are, if only in jargon, defined by a rather vulgar gynaecological term. Otto Weininger, a prominent Viennese who lived at the turn of the 20th century, fiercely wanted, at any cost, to demonstrate woman’s worthlessness compared to man’s. Weininger subscribed to this position at every moment with the strength of a merciless Manichean.

Thus in his antifeminist style, he explained that Vittoria Colonna was not famous for her verses but because she was respected by Michelangelo (who sexually bonded with men only!). Furthermore, he concluded, in his discussion about woman and her universal mission, that the woman’s body is just an ‘‘annex of her sexual organs’’. However, the duality of a tragic Jewish monotheist and a convert and our hereditary vulgarity has certain common grounds. Our homeland, with its women who go to witch meetings, with its Croats and Tribals who either love each other too much or preternaturally hate one another, looks like a reserve where only some curious adventurer will wander in.

Forty years ago Arthur Miller wrote the play The Crucible. He was inspired by McCarthy’s witch-hunt. Miller himself was, as he admitted, astonished by the power of the right wing’s performance which simultaneously produced terror and new reality in which individuals were willing to sacrifice their own privacy on the altar of the state. Baroja detects a striking resemblance between them since witches and politicians are attributed with far greater abilities than they posses. The market might present a problem and perhaps that is the reason why dialogue cannot be established between Vesna Kesić’s witch gang and her direct rivals in pulling the wool over the eyes of others.