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Sunday, May 28, 2023

The value of the song

By: Dimitrij Rupel

When reviewing written exams (essays, even diplomas), which became the predominant way of testing knowledge during the epidemic, I find that students generally and increasingly cite among the resources, the resources they have found online; however, there are fewer and fewer sources of books that, regardless of the epidemic, are the main framework and guide for professional discussions and scientific efforts. In conversations with friends and even relatives, I find that young people read less and less – or even not at all. Sons and daughters answer: But it is all online!

It will be ninety years when the famous writer and politician (president of the Liberation Front) Josip Vidmar assessed that Slovenes are “a nation with a distinct artistic and cultural mission, which is completely in line with the mission of small nations.”[1] He announced that Slovenia would become a “temple of beauty and spirit”, “we will create a new Athens or a new Florence on our soil”.[2] Vidmar’s assessments and predictions received an unusual echo in the 1970s, when (Party’s) cultural politicians – such as Franc Šali, Franc Šetinc, Jože Volfand… – propagated the principle “we are all creators” or “we are all artists”, which meant the rise of mass and amateur culture, and above all the polemic with the so-called elitism or with a dedicated, uplifting mission of culture and art. In a way, it was also a polemic with Vidmar’s views, and above all the assertion of Marxist’s, in our case Kardelj’s ideas about a communist man who (of course in self-governing socialism) would build a house in the morning, work in a factory or in a field, and in the afternoon wrote songs.

See also: Non-Fiction

Certain phenomena of today’s Slovenian literature or literary production can also be explained on the basis of the mentioned principles and concepts. At the beginning it should be said that books are useful and necessary, they mean linguistically or cultural insurance company and laboratory. There is probably no dispute about that. Today, the Slovenian state takes care of (finances) a relatively large number of authors and a relatively large-scale production of books. The material crisis that was characteristic of Slovenian cultural life in the past is no more. Hundreds of authors, who publish thousands of books, work in a friendly and reasonable environment co-created by the Ministry of Culture and the Public Book Agency. While the situations on the creative side are favourable, they are – although public support also affects the accessibility of books – on the other hand less favourable. There are fewer and fewer readers who, for objective reasons, cannot be very numerous. Cultural policy encourages reading opportunities, but the situation is still relatively poor. Circulations of books are – except exceptionally – low due to the prevailing interest in television and online (entertainment, superficial…) information (“infotainment”).

If we think of the former discussions of the virtues of the socialist, i.e. planned economy, about the value and prices of its products, we will also remember the so-called working theory of value, which tried to assess and regulate the relationships between different forms of production, between different producers and their products, without regard to market conditions, the relationship between supply and demand. The value of the products was – to put it very simply – determined by the Communist Party.

If we ignore the past and focus on the future, we must conclude that in the field of culture, books and literature we will also have to pay more attention to “trade”, “consumption”, for example reading books. Better results can be achieved with better organisation of institutions dealing with consumption or trade (bookstores, libraries, online providers or intermediaries), and on the other hand by adapting production to new (demanding) conditions, e.g. by promoting a quality and attractive offer, with the media becoming an increasingly important factor: TV, radio, magazines, newspapers… with its cultural and critical sections. With all this, the older generations seem to be more in favour of the “Gutenberg” tradition, and the younger readers are, so to speak, dependent on the internet. The web and digital books are a noticeable but not yet sufficiently researched phenomenon that contains production and consumer elements.

Managers and participants in Slovene cultural life will, in accordance with their mission, be expected to respond to these phenomena and dedicate themselves to three major tasks:

  1. improvement/attractiveness of literary production,
  2. the development of institutions responsible for reading and readers (media, bookstores, libraries, fairs) and
  3. development and potential pitfalls of digital/online readers.

With statehood and integration into the European Union, the market of Slovenian producers – and, ultimately, writers – has expanded. If we exaggerate a bit, we will say that Slovenes also address other nations; Slovenian authors also other, European audiences. The Slovenian situation is specific and often different from the situation in other countries, but some circumstances and phenomena are similar. Certainly, Slovene authors have to deal with phenomena that mainly concern domestic readers, but it would be difficult to prove that Slovene phenomena/problems are completely different from phenomena/problems in others, for example in neighbouring countries. On the other hand, many participants in cultural (political) life expect foreigners to listen to Slovene questions with interest and accept Slovene information if it is interesting and important for them as well. The main question is: what do Slovenes have to say to people from other countries or speakers/readers of other languages?

Those who do not know Slovenia or Slovenes, or are just getting to know them, should first be presented with a kind of manual for Slovenia, which would gather the most important information about Slovene literature, architecture, Slovene painting and music; about historical burns with fascism, Nazism and communism, about Slovenian philosophy and politics, sports, gastronomy and, of course, about the country or independence. Such a manual, if properly compiled and well written and equipped with pictorial material, could tell foreigners interested in Slovenia many things. Regarding concrete and clear messages, Slovene authors are faced with a dilemma: will they tell their European readers about very special, even unusual, perhaps strange features of Slovene life, or will they talk about things that Europeans have in common and with which foreigners can easily identify with. In the first case, they will be told about the small but still internally divided nation, about the Balkans and Yugoslavia, about political “burns” and about the independence movement. After all, the specialties also include natural beauty, cuisine and sporting success. However, not only are stories about extremes, eccentricities and extravagances interesting, but also stories about tragic or comic life destinies, about love and hate, birth and death… In fact, for an effective Slovene performance we should choose a story at the level of world stories, such as Ajshil’s, Shakespeare’s or Sophocles’ plays, novels by Dostoevsky, Joyce or Kafka… Of course, there can be no blindness in choosing a “Slovene story”. This means that we will find it difficult to attract the attention of European readers with works that are otherwise beautiful and authentic, but their messages are limited to domestic audiences. It will probably not be easy to find more characteristic and, of course, universally understandable works about Slovenes, such as those written by Ivan Cankar, Drago Jančar, Edvard Kocbek, Dominik Smole or Vitomil Zupan.

Dr Dimitrij Rupel is a sociologist, politician, diplomat, writer, playwright, editor, publicist and former foreign minister.

[1] Josip Vidmar, “Kulturni problem slovenstva”, Srečanje z zgodovino, Maribor 1963, p. 41.

[2] Prav tam, p. 83.


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