Lately I've been thinking a lot about traditions and especially our own cultural heritage here in Slovenia. To tell you the truth, I have never been much interested in our folk music, dances or even architecture and it was mainly my own ignorance to blame.
But not entirely. Because, as I see now, the problem lies in the way we - as a culture and as a society - perceive our tradition and how we teach it to the kids. Here lies the problem which was often pointed out by thinkers like Cankar or Bartol, but never fully understood by their readers, except by those who got it themselves.
As a result a term "narod hlapcev" (a nation of hinds, servants or slaves) was coined as a pejorative for a lowly nation of Slovenians. I don't know enough about history to judge if that term is statistically correct in a literal sense, but it is certainly true that our people were often servants on Austrian or Italian palaces, and it is also true that we never had any "royalty" or "noble" blood of our own. We didn't even had any bourgeoisie class that would be worth mentioning. So in reality it was more like a nation of self-sufficient farmers and craftsmen who had their workshops running. The ones who became hinds and servants were those who broke up with the traditional way of living and went seeking for a job in Vienna or Trieste. There is nothing wrong with that, I think. We all strive for a better life. Every now and then some bloke like Prešeren or Vodnik succeeded as an intellectual, but that was not very common nor very easy due to the discouragement of the environment in which they grew up. So most of the people just worked on their own; either on their own little farm (just to support their family) or in their workshops as smiths or carpenters.
Now we come to the part where it becomes really interesting. A few things strike my mind; firstly it is the level of craftsmanship which was attained by our anonymous masters; anyone who knows a little bit about wood will be able to recognize kozolec as a masterpiece in architecture, which is in technical and artistic terms comparable with anything that ancient Greeks or Romans ever produced. Then there are a number of other developed traditions; cousine, dances, woodcut and carpentry to name just a few. I am not saying that to diminish other nations or traditions; each has developed its own masterpieces over centuries, I am just pointing out that we have that too! I know it must sound ridiculous for a non-Slovenian to read such a statement, but it will get cleared towards the end of the article. Sadly, most of that tradition is lost now, and we'll return to that later.
Secondly; we actually never went into war by our own means - that is to say - we never conquered anyone, in fact, we were the ones being conquered. Only a few surviving nations can claim that. We lived of our own labor, minding our own business and left others to live the way they please. Quite civilized and even environmentally sustainable strategy, don't you think? By every existing moral standard that is something to be proud of, yet most of Slovenians are ashamed of it and take the term "narod hlapcev" as a literal pejorative description when they think about this aspect of our history.
To summarize: on one hand we have a tradition of skilled workshops and masters, on the other the fact that we never induced misery on any other group of people (but ourselves, to be a bit cynical). Both of those facts make me rather proud to be a part of this tradition. So what were people like Cankar or Bartol criticizing? Why would that be pejorative?
It is not about facts or traditions nor our history. It is about our attitude towards it. You see; most people in this shithole country are not proud of that but rather feel ashamed of it and it is exactly them who make me use this word - shithole. Submerged into their own insecurities they want to be like the nobility of London or Paris, desperately imitating them with clothes they wear, words they choose, books they read (or rather don't read), type of coffee they drink, diners they eat, employees they insult or cars they drive. Those poor lonely fucks, I almost feel sorry for them. Almost. They even try to compete on a level of entrepreneurship (most of new companies have English names). Is that slavery or what? It's so pathetic. So let's examine this in depth.
First of all; if you come from a tradition that never conquered any other country or nation, you don't stand a chance competing against the Brits, French or Germans. You just don't. I have nothing against them, I really do like and respect their culture which helped to develop our world significantly (I am apologizing in advance, I shouldn't do that anymore, it is a sign of a weak backbone), but let's just stop for a moment and honestly look at how this development came about. Mostly trough slavery. You see, it is really easy to be a successful economy if you take a huge part of Africa, ravage the land for resources, take people away from their homes and use them as slaves. It is like shopping with a stolen wallet. I really really like Oxford or Cambridge, but there would be none of those without slavery and colonialism. Try waking up at 5 AM to milk the cows, then work 8 hours on field, come home, cook your own meal, wash your own clothes, worry for your sick daughter and see if you are in a mood for some binomial theorems in the evening when your kids become restless. The great artistic and scientific achievements of western civilization rest and depend upon a tradition of slavery. There is no way around it. Oscar Wilde was quite right when he wrote in The Soul of a Man under Socialism:
At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure—which, and not labour, is the aim of man— or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. Thee Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible.
In the process colonizing nations accumulated unprecedented wealth, knowledge, sophistication and everything that goes along. Not everything is bad but it is important to realize that science, arts or medicine wouldn't be possible without some form of slavery (is just a matter of technicality whether it is Africans in the cornfield or Chinese children sewing your socks in a factory).
So this is the political side of the story; what about a few steps below on a more human level? Well, there you have traditions just as well. Let's take Italy for example (it's the most obvious one). If you are a designer, trying to find a job in a company like Fiat, Armani or Gucci, I think it is a safe bet to say you'll be working for (that is to say you'll be mentored by) someone who was himself a student of a master who himself was a student (repeat that about 40-60 times) of Michelangelo or Giotto or some earlier master who was himself a student (again repeat that about 40-60 times) of ancient Roman masters who were them selves students of a master who was himself a student (yet again, repeat that about 40-60 times) of ancient Greek masters, and not to make that story too long - who were themselves students of ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian masters... There is a clear line of mastery, almost like a genetic heritage. Richard Dawkins coined a term meme for knowledge or ideas that run trough time in our society like genes run trough time in our biology. Although the internet use of this term is slightly twisted, it still hits the nail exactly where it should. There is a strong memetic line of mastery in companies like Fiat or Armani. But even if we take a look small workshops or just shops in Trieste or Roma, you'll see a father talking to a client, his wife as an accountant, his daughter behind a counter and his son in the back, sorting the boxes. It has been like that for centuries, they have knowledge, skills, connections and wealth that go back generations and are impossible to destroy without some serious nuclear warfare. How the fuck can you compete with that? You don't! It is much more wise to seek for your own memetic lines and work from there.*
Which is exactly what we - my dear Slovenians - are not doing. We are desperately trying to compete with Brits, Italians or Germans without realizing they are so far ahead of us that it is pointless to even try. They have centuries of advance... It might look the opposite on the surface; nevertheless the streets, storefronts and cars look quite similar in Ljubljana to those in Milano, but that is just the surface appearance. Suppose you want to watch an athletic event where runners run 10km run and so it happened that the first one caught up with the last and they now run shoulder to shoulder. If you hadn't watch the entire run and just turned on the TV set at that moment you might get fooled to think they are equal, but in fact the poor guy is at least one lap behind.
So what did we do instead? We were being idiots for most of the time. The nationalization process and socialist revolution after 1945 only finished what was commenced at the beginning of the industrial era. Self-sufficient farming was abolished, workshops discontinued and people were sent to work in boring menial jobs at factories. We can never know just how much knowledge was lost, but even the most modest estimates (judging from what you can see in museums) will make you shiver in pain. If we didn't have fancy names like Michelangelo, it doesn't mean we didn't have a masterful tradition. We had, it is just that cameras were not around at the time to make it famous or is it just that we are too slavish, too insecure and frightened to maintain that tradition and be proud of it? I think this is what Cankar really meant. As a consequence traditional crafts and skills are not regarded as something you can use to advance your work nor even as something you can play with, they are regarded as something that must be kept as it is and conserved in a museum. Of course great works should be conserved in their original form as a milestone in our long line of achievements, but these are exceptional works. In general that is a very unhealthy approach to tradition to simply praise it like it is some sort of a religious relic which everybody is afraid of no one really grasps. You can do a lot better if you honor it by playfully (yet still respectfully) transforming it into something new, by giving it a new life. Just like our genetics, also our language, ideas or skills (=memes) are never still, they are in a flux of changes and transformations, always answering current questions and demands. In praxis that means taking an old skill and use it for something new, simply because skills are independent of the product they produce (OK, not entirely, but you get my point, don't you). This is probably why I (and many of my peers) was not interested in the traditional stuff; it was always presented to us like some boring old shit - not something you can use to learn from or play with - but something really gray and smelly, something that is rather stupid and primitive (in the worst possible way), so it belongs to the past, which is to say, it has to be kept safe in a boring museum until it rots an really becomes drab and smelly. This view is generated by some really average and uncreative minds who just happened to be in control, because the smart and creative ones were silenced (some way or another) with the excuse of revolution. Of course that creates a negative spin so even more stupid boring people come to the positions of responsibility (government, universities, press, museums...), and everything just becomes worse and worse, because they fail to inspire us to reach for the best of our qualities.
Today it is no different. I don't see many modern Slovenian architects learning from the old heritage. The "big names" in Slovenia just imitate what they see in fancy western magazines, not realizing their handicap. At the same time they neglect so much knowledge they could use from our tradition to make something that is uniquely ours, something that couldn't have been produced anywhere else in the universe but here, something that is built by generations and generations, yet something completely new and fresh. The architecture that is produced in Slovenia for the last 30 years is soulless, devoid of meaning and simply empty. It is more like a ghost or a shadow than a real thing. I am not talking about how it looks, I am talking about how it is produced and where it stems from... It is a pathetic and desperate attempt to be like Foster or Aalto or Mies, but it fails completely because it is in denial of its origins. Nothing good ever comes out of denial and the worst lies are those you tell to yourself. As long as we lie to ourselves about who we are we have no chance to produce anything amazing or be truly great. Greatness begins by being completely honest to yourself, it begins by standing naked in front of the mirror and not feeling ashamed about by what you see.
It is also pathetic that Plečnik is our greatest architect. And not because Plečnik would be bad - no, not at all - but because the guy lived almost a hundred years ago and since then no one even attempted to do what he did. In almost every other healthy tradition in the world, the greatest one is the one that comes the last, the most recent one, the one who stands on the shoulders of previous generations and sees the furthest. In Slovenia, the greatest ones are the ones we visit at the cemetery. This is the nation in which being average is the best thing you can pick for yourself. And average can only generate more average.
Our memetic (and as a consequence also social and economic) line is broken and discontinued so many times over that we resemble a rootless tree. "We don't need that, we are modern now, this is a new age!" It is all fine untill the storm comes. It is not hard to see that the current crisis is much more devastating in Slovenia than it is in countries which have more respectful attitude towards their own traditions. Until we realize that we truly have a lot of things to be proud of - and I am not talking about plain patriotic feelings which I despise - but being proud of true achievements in architecture, craftsmanship, arts, music, dances, poetry, storytelling (etc), we stand no chance in this storm. I think we have but two options; either go back to our roots and start from scratch, or perish as a culture.
* I am not talking abut wild black swan business strategies on the level of Google or Facebook, that have a success rate of 1:1 000 000, I am talking about making a safe living.