Catharsis in Serbia
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Stoney Creek, Canada
#1 Jul 5, 2013
Catharsis is an important element in both theater and politics. On stage, the actors enact a drama that generates a great change of emotion in the audience. Through this outpouring of emotion -- of pity, of fear -- the audience can experience some kind of spiritual renewal.
The Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade is devoted to the creation of catharsis. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say a counter-catharsis. After all, Slobodan Milosevic was, if nothing else, a consummate theater director who knew precisely how to stage his political ascension, how to dramatize the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989, and how to blow on the embers of Serbian nationalism to produce a fiery catharsis of public emotion.
In 1993, the Center for Cultural Decontamination began the long process of draining that nationalism from Serbian society. At the heart of this enterprise was a realization that pallid liberalism didn't stand a chance in Serbia. A new politics had to appeal to the emotions. There had to be a counter-catharsis to substitute for the false emotional renewal that Milosevic and his successors promoted.
Last October, I talked with Borka Pavicevic in her office at the Center for Cultural Decontamination about the failures of liberalism in Serbia.
"Liberalism is weak because it wasn't well prepared. It's weak because there were 11 wars in this area over the last century, and there was never enough time for change to take root and grow. It's weak because of the enormous propaganda from the government in the 1990s," she told me. "Liberalism is weak because there were not enough anti-nationalistic and anti-war statements inside of these parties. Liberalism is weak because we didn't have Adam Michnik and all the other who were working and preparing all those years in Poland."
The one figure who embodied the hopes of liberalism in Serbia in the early 1990s was Zoran Djindjic, a philosopher who became first the mayor of Belgrade and then prime minister of the country at the beginning of 2001. On March 12, 2003, he was assassinated.
"The assassination of Djindjic was by itself a catastrophe," Borka Pavicevic told me. "During his funeral, I thought that all these people, the next day, would finally do something different. You need a capacity for tragedy, which is also a capacity for history. You have to have an opinion about the war, about him, about everything in order to have a catharsis."
That catharsis did not happen, however. Instead, as she points out, a counter-revolution took place.
Today, the Center for Cultural Decontamination continues its job of provoking the Serbian public. When I was in Belgrade last fall, it made headlines for its exhibit Ecce Homo, which featured photo tableaux of Jesus in various homoerotic scenarios. The Center courts controversy. After all, catharsis is not something that takes place quietly in a corner. It takes place on the main stage under the lights and in front of the largest audience possible.
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