In Places, Hopes, and Memories
Images From Dreams by Ivan Cankar
This article was originally posted on August 7th, 2022. Due to some mistake of mine, what went out was actually an early draft, not the final version. The early draft was far too rough and filled with errors for my liking. Hence I am re-publishing (the corrected version of) this article.
One of the best ways to support language and culture across the world is to support publishing houses that publish and translate good, diverse books from small nations, regions, and languages. If you are interested in Ivan Cankar—or in foreign literature in general—you can buy one of his books in translation from Beletrina Academic Press. They have a little shop on the east-side of the river in Ljubljana—just below the castle—as well as an online shop.
Among Slovenians there is a writer considered their best, as perhaps the national writer, to the point of cliché. That writer is Ivan Cankar.
His reputation is partly due to his political life. Cankar was born into the Austro-Hungarian empire, in which Slovenia—then known as the Duchy of Carniola—was but one region, ruled by the Habsburgs from their capital in Vienna. By the end of his life it would obtain independence as part of a south Slavic nation state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Cankar was a public advocate for a South Slavic (Yugoslavic) nation state. He was a candidate for the Yugoslav Social Democrat Party in the 1907 elections and spent much of his free time writing, debating, and promoting the ideals of an independent Yugoslavia. A lecture he gave in 1913 even landed him in jail for 7 days.
The state detained him again at the outbreak of World War I. He was held in Ljubljana castle for a short while before being drafted into the army, but served only a few weeks before being discharged for illness. Poor health continued to bedevil him until it took his life in 1918—just as the Austro-Hungarian empire fell apart.
His last book, Images From Dreams, was written during the war years: an unnamed man recounts a series of dreams, fantasies, visions, and stories—the exact boundaries between each are unclear. Myth, fable, war, peace, nature, beauty—all mingle freely, establishing oppositions that tug at the narrator’s conscience. He is a tormented man. His suffering is sometimes so oblique and abstract that it seems directed at nothing more than existence itself, as though despair were a necessary condition for modern man.
This was an era in which all the old ways of life were being rapidly overthrown. Ancient nations, long serving their masters under divine mandates, had awoken to their slavery. Rural, oral, and traditional lifestyles were being supplanted by urban, educated, bourgeois aspirations. Religious explanations of the world fell apart in light of scientific understandings. And with the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s heir-presumptive, Franz Ferdinand, the countries of Europe mobilised all their parts to harness these new understandings for one singular purpose: total war.
War lurks beneath all of these stories, though the narrator only indirectly addresses it, whether by omen or anecdote. One of the few direct experiences of war is recounted in Extinguished Lights by an old friend. His story touches upon both the banality of sitting in a muddy trench as well as the desperation and inhumanity he was driven to:
We stumbled onto a pile of corpses, lying there perhaps three days. We kneeled, though not to pray for the poor souls… The backpacks were all empty, others must have beaten us to them. I rummaged through the coats, the pants, and finally I felt something like a crushed piece of dry bread soaked in puddles and blood, drenched with the spirit of death. I ate it to the last crumb, the last drop. (87)
War marks men permanently, whether through death or injury, or the secret traumas that lurk within them, unacknowledged even by themselves. In The Wounded, the narrator is visiting a hospital when he suddenly sees that all the injured men have disfigured hearts:
There was a young heart, wounded only slightly, yet wounded forever; a tiny drop of blood that looked like a black tear had congealed right in the middle of it. Many showed no wounds on the surface; they were only strangely shrivelled, worn out and loose, and their skin was not fiery red but rather opaque and smudged blue as if the blood had curdled inside of it. (72)
War disfigures men morally and emotionally by taking them beyond the horizon of what can be explained. Cankar personifies this in the figure of Death himself, a kind of gatekeeper standing at the boundary of our humanity. Contact with him strips one of his sanity, as in Fear, where it is revealed how the village idiot lost his wits.
One day the idiot’s neighbour put a pumpkin on his head and jumped out at the idiot and scared him. The idiot was so frightened he saw Death, who left him a shadow of what he was. What the idiot saw can never truly be explained to the people around him. Likewise, the narrator struggles to put his suffering into words, and we never quite learn what the precise source of his troubles are.
The artists of Cankar’s generation grappled with a similar dilemma. War is horrible, everyone agrees. But if it is so horrible that it cannot be put into words or brush-strokes, what is the point of representative art? Each sentence, each brush-stroke will only mislead, while war’s true meaning continues to elude us.
The narrator alludes to this contradiction when he declaims those who would seek to explain everything:
Everything a man says in his life, from the first stuttering cries to the youthful shouting and philosophizing of the adult, to the weary sighs and groans of the old man, all of it is, I think, just a constant, clumsy, and empty attempt to say that which cannot be said, to unlock that which remains mercilessly locked until the final moment. (54)
That explains the form of this novel. The individual stories are perplexing fables that don’t seem to have full story arcs. There is confusion, but no explanation; tension, but no resolution. It could not be otherwise. For those who experienced the senseless, random violence of war, the nightmare never ended. This unfinishedness is even punctuated by how each story ends in a hyphen, not a full-stop, as though the matter were incomplete, with the images or motifs of one dream threatening to reappear in another.
Each time an image reappears it takes on a new significance. The narrator begins to adjust to a world with war by adjusting himself to a world without explanation. Thus the same images which once terrified him—wounds, skulls, stars, starvation—are re-constellated in his heart, granting him a new faith in life.
In one of his dreams he is walking up a hill strewn with corpses like “sheaves of wheat on a field.” He kneels down to listen to them, but hears nothing except his own despair: “The lips remained mute, unmoving; only the heavens heard their final terrifying word; the man who would hear it would hear nothing more.” (55)
Returning to the hill of corpses in Blood Brothers, he remarks how “these many pale faces that no longer see or breathe are all the same, as if a single thought had petrified in all of them in their last moment. . . “ (121) Death, which sends a man beyond the horizon of understanding, is re-imagined as a kind of gnostic release from the material world, a secret way of being that liberates us from our suffering.
Dying is also given a kind of dignity in A Special Sort of Chestnut Tree. The narrator recalls a golden chestnut tree that was always the first to fruit each Spring and the last to lose its leaves each Autumn. One day a woman dreams about golden bugs climbing its leaves. Interpreting this as a favourable omen, she digs at its roots, expecting to find some treasure. But:
Among the mighty roots that twisted and swaggered to all sides lay a pile of human skulls; dirt and mud filled the eye sockets… Other bones were scattered round so it could not be known to which skull they belonged. A shoulder touched an ankle. There were so many of these white, peaceful things desecrated by soil and worms that they could not be counted. (70)
A dark realisation is made in this story. The tree gained its strength because of the nameless, numberless dead lying beneath it. But unlike the dead man who was flung upon for his crumbs of bread, this story valourises the unknown dead. Their deaths were essential to upholding the innocent fabric of the fairy-tale town. The tree—an allegory for Slovenia—lives precisely because they died.
The wounds of the soldier are also transfigured. The secret injuries in The Wounded reappear in Among the Stars as the narrator lies upon the grass to admire the stars. They seem to be exactly “where God had put them” (133), like an unmoving firmament.
But as soon as he thinks that, they move: “I saw them clearly, as if their tiny silver feet were already touching the tops of the tallest pine trees.” (134) The stars are not perfect eternals but disgraced human beings. Their faces carry the same marks of suffering: clotted blood, dried tears, gaunt limbs. In spite of it, they shine with beauty.
In Sunday the wounds of the soldier are explicitly linked to the Passion. Because He suffered upon the cross, Christ redeemed man: “Good Friday was necessary for Easter Sunday; the death of God himself was necessary, so that the glory of resurrection would ring and sing in the humble heart of man.” (139) One could not have redemption without suffering, not happiness without despair.
If there can be redemption, the question remains how man can hope to endure and overcome his suffering long enough to obtain it. An early hint is given in Shades. The narrator, lying on a straw-bed in a barracks, is trying to piece together what, exactly, is happening at this moment in history. How did he get caught up in this insane war? What laws of history led him to this point?
He knew that Böcklin’s terrifying horseman, violent death, rides across the whole wide world. He knew that worlds are crumbling and being reborn under the hooves of the biblical horse… [Yet] his real life was elsewhere; it was in places, hopes, and memories that had no connection to this life among shadows. (58)
If Death is a passion, a secret knowing that is so powerful and elusive that it gives us no reason to live, then our other passions—those feelings of love and belonging and serenity which emanate from everyday acts of existence—give us even more reasons to carry on.
This culminates in the most moving story, Vrzdenec. The narrator’s mother always promises to take him to her home-town, Vrzdenec. The day before they are to finally make the journey, he finds her sleeping in a different bed in a strange room. She complains that hers was not made right: “It burned me as if embers had been poured underneath the sheets.” (116) The narrator realizes from her erratic behaviour that she is going to die. He weeps uncontrollably as his mother once more defers the trip.
Motherly love is simple and unthinking. We feel and understand its warmth long before we develop the rationality to understand it as such. But it is enough for us, and if we hold onto its essence, we are able to outlast the suffering of life:
A humble light shines for him at first, a wish for something beautiful and soft that perhaps does not exist and never will. The light becomes ever brighter and kinder as despair grows more forceful and salvation draws near… I think of Vrzdenec when the cold enters my soul, when my cheeks are chilled by an anxious fear, the memory of death… Does the time approach, that sunny Sunday? Mrovec, prepare the carriage, my mother and I are riding to Vrzdenec! (118)
The narrator comes to reject any total explanation of his circumstances. His suffering comes from a misplaced belief that the horrible irrationality of war can be ameliorated by an equally powerful rationality. But he cannot locate himself in the currents of history or mythology. His life is not found beneath the hooves of biblical War, who crushes and remakes the world. Rather, it inhabits the places, people, impressions, and dreams of his life—things which exist before the explanation that justifies them. Life must remain a mystery—or we are only helpless before Death.