The Modern Balkan “Barbarian”: A Yugoslav Utopia

One of the earliest and most influential artistic and political movements based on the concept of utopia in Yugoslavia was Zenitism (Zenithism), formed with the launching of the international magazine Zenit (Zenith) first published in Zagreb (1921-1923) and then in Belgrade (1923-1926), by its main progenitor Ljubomir Micić, Serbian poet and writer (1895-1971). The journal gathered poets and writers from the cities and cultural centers across Yugoslavia: Zagreb, Belgrade, Ljubljana, Novi Sad, Vinkovci, Sombor, Split, and Zemun and it also established cooperation with Yugoslav authors then living in Prague, Paris, and Vienna. Contributions from Russia and the West were often printed untranslated, and most major European movements from the beginning of the 20th century – Expressionism, Futurism, Dada – were reflected in the journal (see Subotić).

But Zenitism as a movement transcended its apparent artistic orientation precisely because of its utopian urge to initiate a new tradition of spirituality, what Micić called the “universal human epoch”, created through a new individual, one that would reach the zenith of human nature (quoted from Zenit 21). The main personification of Micić’s utopian ideas was the revolutionary-anarchistic figure of Barbaro-Genij (Barbaro-Genius). He appeared for the first time in the 1921 Manifest zenitizma [Manifesto of Zenitism], written by Micić, Expressionist poet Ivan Goll, and Boško Tokin. Barbaro-Genius was imagined as a modern, forceful, and an “authentic Balkan” man who in the new machine age would “Balkanize” Europe. The new utopian society brought upon by this new man offers new art, new culture, and a total reevaluation of traditional values and political ideas, as, in the words of Micić, “Zenit advances to face young Yugoslavia and announces its rebirth: New Man! New Spirit! New Art!” (quoted from “Man and Art”, Zenit 1).

It is undeniable that Zenitism uses and even further solidifies orientalist, nationalistic and racist tropes, as Micić equated the West with excessive rationality, capitalist economy and formalism, while what he called “Jugoistok” (the South-East) was the embodiment of Barbarian purity, good-heartedness and Balkan male virility unspoiled by “the perverse culture of bordello keepers” and of the “coffeehouse decadents – heirs of Baudelaire …[and] of European degenerates – heirs of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade.” Micić proudly takes on the shroud of Western orientalism and turns it upside down, making Western European culture the object of inquiry, exulting in the same sense of historical inevitability which the West usually ascribes to Eastern/Balkan histories, argues Sanja Bahun (26). As with Eastern/Central Europe, the Balkans “has been, and remains, both an (ambiguous) mental map and an (uncertain) geographical entity” (ibid).

Starting from Maria Todorova’s foundational study Imagining the Balkans, in the last few decades we have witnessed the proliferation of a sizable literature that belongs under the category “Balkanism” or “Balkan studies” that critically investigates how popular Western discourses posit an ontological difference between a European “Self” and a Balkan “Other” (Mishkova 1). But it is evident that as early as the 1920s, Micić and his followers were aware of this dualism and incorporated it into their artworks and utopian manifestos in various ways throughout the different phases of Zenitism. As Esther Levinger argues, Micić coined the term “Barbaro-Genuis” wanting to indicate a specific Balkan creative energy and used it to refer to the Slavs in general and the people of the Balkans in particular. But in his early uses, the term “Barbarian” sometimes carried negative connotations in his works, as he was lamenting against the poor cultural heritage in the Balkans or refused to be a “Barbarian” any longer, deploring the fate of the “Barbarian slaves” who died for the freedom of their “race.” In this first stage, Micić declared himself the first Zenitist, replacing the last Barbarian (quotes from Zenit 8). Only later, as the terms “primitivism” and “Barbarian” appeared in the works of poets Ivan Goll and Boško Tokin in the early years of Zenit, as signifiers of “initiation, aptitude, and creation”, was the Barbaro-Genuis reclaimed and vindicated in his new role (see Levinger’s “Ljubomir Micić and the Zenitist Utopia” 271-272 in Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910–1930).

Zentism as both a Yugoslav and Balkan utopian movement, then, embodies that peculiar ambiguity of the border that seems to resurface when thinking about Yugoslav, or Balkan utopias – the flexible line between the Eastern and Western, Central and Eastern, “civilized” and “barbarian”, or the “European” Self and the Balkan “Other”. To be sure, concludes Sanja Bahun, the figure of the Barbaro-Genius, as indeed of the Balkans itself, as playfully celebrated by Micić, reminds us that concepts such as Europe or the West are equally contestable tropes, conveying historically and contextually differentiated meanings (26).

Iva Dimovska

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