Ryszard Kapuściński

Lapidarium V

(A Selection)

Museum of archeology in Sofia. Roman sculptures, statues, columns, fragments of portals, ornamented ceramics. Everything created centuries ago here, in the area of today’s Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna. Works of great skill, of refinement and taste. The area of today’s Bulgaria comprised in Roman times only the farthest outskirts of the Imperium Romanum, marginal, forgotten peripheries. And yet great care was taken to assure the highest level of arts and crafts, of artistry and quality of works and products, to equal that which was created in the center—in Rome, in Milan, in Ravenna.

The visit to the museum suggests a thought about two globalizations—that one, the Roman, and the current, the newest. In the former, care was taken to assure a high quality of works and products everywhere, wherever reached the influence of the center; in the latter—exported are masses of kitsch, trinkets, shoddy products. In the former—the quality of roads, bridges and aqueducts, buildings was everywhere at the same high level; in the latter—the gulf between the developed, affluent center and the backward poor peripheries is striking and, what’s worse— steadily increasing.  [18-19]

I have a meeting with the reading public in Poznań. I talk about the contemporary world. After the meeting a couple comes up to me. It was interesting, they say, but in our view too pessimistic.

They would prefer for it to be more optimistic.

I try to justify myself, I explain that what I said was, in comparison with the reality of our planet, super-optimistic, that I looked for light hues, for warm tones.

They left unconvinced.

I meet with this reaction quite often. I face the choice: do I tell the truth or do I embellish? For the world is in a difficult situation. But if I try to develop that thought—I encounter resistance from the room. People don’t want the truth, they look for consolation, they need a cheer. Besides, their minds are dazed by the media—they spend hours on TV sitcoms, cheap romances on the radio, they live in the glow of great stars created by colorful weeklies. And here suddenly somebody comes and tells them that there are also disasters, dramas, tragedies. Why does he say that? For what?

There is another reason why we gladly share with Candide the optimism that strengthens our conviction that indeed “we live in the best of all possible worlds.” The reason is that each encounter with the hard realities of the world immediately creates an ethical problem—it forces us to take an active stance, to voice an opinion. Faced with this necessity, we try to save ourselves with a question—is this going to help? Can we change anything? Do we have any influence? But how humiliating is this sense of hopelessness! And so it’s better to not allow the situations in which we would have to force our consciousness to face such a risky test.  [22-23]

America and Europe—two different and ever more dissimilar schools of thought, ways of seeing the world. America is optimism, pragmatism, dynamism, self-assured objectivity (“if there is a problem, it must be solved”). The European thought—conversely—is doubting, skeptical, it’s a thought which values an ironic distance.  [26]        

In comparison with the spirit of the American culture, the culture of Europe is nostalgic, even—catastrophic; it’s a stubborn looking into the rear-view mirror even though we are supposed to look ahead when driving!  [27]

People of high culture powerless, deprived of their voice, living in a more and more separate, closed world of campuses, scientific institutes, private studies; and at the other end—the clan of politicians, full of demagogues and opportunists, a clan jolted over an over again by corruption scandals. But the world moves in such a direction that the clan is gaining advantage over the campus, and the role of the clan grows and that of the campus diminishes.

The democratic principle of the equality of citizens and equal laws for all, when reduced to a caricature, may create a climate conducive to corruption. For in the past—to possess something was a royal privilege, an aristocratic advantage, a right belonging only to the affluent, but today even a person of the lowest class can have everything, if only he has an opportunity to come into possession of things, to fill his pockets, his purse.

In many countries, organized crime, using corruption, blackmail and fraud, more and more clearly infiltrates and takes possession of the centers of power (including the power of the government). Eventually it will hold complete power in the state. We will be ruled by gangs, mafias, profiteers, extortionists. Newsweek (April 9, 2001) reports that as many as one-third of the parliament members in Taiwan have ties to organized crime!  [30]

Every armed conflict is preceded by a verbal clash, an ominous prelude, a growing, aggressive cacophony of invectives, slander and accusations, serving as a preparation for the deadly encounter. That is why from the language used by the two sides one can tell if there is peace between them or if, conversely, there are signs of impending war. A good illustration is the book Hate Speech published in Belgrade in 1995 by the Committee for Human Rights in Helsinki. Analyzing the changes in the vocabulary, in the language of Serbian propaganda, the authors show how in advance it prepared the society for war, for aggression.

My Serbian translator—Biserka Rajcić—tells me that the dissolution of Yugoslavia began with changes in the school programs in the area of literature. Each of the republics started teaching only the history of local, national literature. For example, the great writer and Nobel prize recipient Ivo Andrić was thrown out of all non-Serbian textbooks of literature.  [31]