Notes on the Bulgarian Depressions

by Ivailo Ditchev


In the eyes of an explorer Bulgaria must look like the house of some depressive patient - dirt and neglect all over, the curtains are drawn the whole day, unwashed dishes pile up in the sink, the "master" of the house has cringed under the blanket, groaning for the futility of life. Something terrible has happened and this, in line with the paradoxical logic of the depressed psyche, is being projected into the future. The loss, real or imagined, is seen as an inevitable and total punishment. What else if not the catastrophe - the total, senseless and miserable end of all earthly undertakings, could fascinate this melancholic country which, according to the astrologers, is governed by Saturn. The mediatic modernity throws in the historically unprecedented dimension to go with the traditional attitudes. We are constantly reminded that the economy will not get better for at least five, ten, or even fifty years; that the old will die out and the young will emigrate; that we are facing sanitary camps where millions of people are dying of AIDS; that the Mafia has finally taken over; that everything is always a lot worse then we can possibly imagine; that not everybody will make it through the winter and those who will, will live to regret it.

Progress/Decline

The concept of the decline (decadence) of civilization is not at all a modern invention of the 20th century. All traditional cultures are obsessed by similar fears - the fear that the soil is being irretrievably exhausted; that the female fertility is diminishing; that the morals are degrading; that the gender differences are being eradicated. The cause for the cosmic wearing out is in the estrangement from the mythical origin, in the semiotic erosion of the act of creation of the world, or rather, in the suppression of the violence ingrained in this act. How could the evil be remedied and the process of degradation reversed? The only solution for the pre-modern man lies in the return to the origin, in the ritualistic reenactment of the violent act of creation which is seen simultaneously as insemination and murder - the world must be symbolically destroyed and re-created anew in order to award fresh power to the culture codes. A revolution must be made - in the etymological sense of transformation, of turning over whole layers of earth and whole generations, in order to reinstate the lost vitality. This means - to spend out, to give, to sacrifice. The deluge makes the soil more fertile, the blood shed fortifies the morals. Thus, the great sacrifice of the world is repeated in cycles. The world is demolished and recreated in turns, the boundaries are transgressed in order to get stronger. The feast is the chronotop of this joyful destruction/creation of the everyday world, of the transformation of rules and the explosion of reason. In short, traditional cultures have ritual means to repair decay and start from point zero. That's why for them the concept of irreversible and fatal decline is just as alien, as the one of some linear, uninterrupted progress - by choosing to loose and sacrifice, they win a new beginning and vitality.
Modernity will accept as a main principle the refusal of purposeless expense, the de-legitimation of all loss, in favor of some economically rationalized order of human relations (even relations to God). Georges Bataille, this Nietzschean critic of the miserable bourgeois society, will say that capital is the figure of one "gluttonous, egotistical creature which never gives anything away without calculating to profit". According to Bataille, there is the strange illusion that the motive for production is accumulation rather then the irrational, festive and joyful destruction/consumption of the product. That, which has been just means in times past, has now turned into an end in itself - accumulation for the sake of accumulation without either purpose or end.
Simultaneously, the new age finds itself in a paradoxical situation: the more it worries about preserving its precious capitals - financial, cultural, informational, the stronger is the feeling of their unavoidable loss; the more it refuses to give, the more it looses. In other words, a world that doesn't lend itself to the cyclic ritual of destruction/creation, develops a self-perception as doomed to slow and irreversible absolute death. The non reciprocated accumulation of capital in various forms breeds catastrophic visions; the accumulation of signs and texts would appear to be no exception to this rule. The egotism, hailed as the morals of the new age, is born together with its poisonous double - depression.
That's how we can understand the duality of the modern self-reflection - on one side, the triumphant exclamations of historically unprecedented progress, on the other - dismal prophecies of inevitable catastrophe and visions of decay. The old mechanism of sacrificing the part in order to save the whole (pars pro toto) has been pushed aside. This necessitates the cyclic sacrifice of the whole, the cyclic, more or less revolutionary, breaking up with the past and starting all over again, from fashion to the social order.
The chronic collapse of the world originates two opposite and irreducible to one another viewpoints: the euphoria of the new and the depression of the doomed old. Maybe this could explain the fact that there is no other culture which has been and is involved so much with discussions about its own ruin - its preconditions, inevitability, concrete forms, etc., and not just as a prophecy, not even as a result of some initial mistake but rather as an effect of its very logic of development. Cultures are born, mature and die - that's what Danilevski and after that Spengler were saying, ergo - the triumphant Western civilization is, sooner or later, doomed to death.

The extinction of death

But death itself which is stalking culture in all its manifestations, is no longer the same. This basic existential dimension of human life would appear to have been pushed out of the sphere of modern exchange. It has been de-erotisized and degraded to the level of being a private affair of the individual, something shameful, non-shareable, futile (as we can see it in "The Death of Ivan Ilitch"). The shift could be observed in countless, seemingly unimportant, details. For instance, in industrialized societies mourning disappears at the beginning of the century - the relations between the living and the dead have become problematic. Speaking about democracy in America, Tocqueville is amazed that it's not only the links between the living that have been torn but also the links between the living and the dead - man, he says, appears from nothingness and disappears into nothingness as well.
The second half of the 19th century devalues the worth of heroic death on the battle ground - something that has been used by all previous epochs to make culture more coherent. Now there are no chronic wars and peace is the na-tural state of the world - war is a scandal, a catastrophe. And maybe because of that the two most calamitous wars in history have shattered the 20th century. The main motivation becomes happiness. Foucault introduces the concept of "biopolitics" in order to express this new strategy of power which is beginning to rule over streams of vitality, which is ruling out of life, not out of death. We can say that death looses its cultural meaning, it is pushed out of the field of culture and becomes pure horror, nature, an absurdity. Instead of taking us into something else like afterlife, moral standard or knowledge, it is just a step over into nothingness, an end which instead of making sense of all efforts turns them into non-sense.
The paradox of death has the same form as the one of capital - the more I am afraid of it, the more I am afraid. The reluctance to accept my life as something that I have been given and will give away by myself (that is, as an object of exchange), makes me see myself as the owner of a certain reservoir of vital energy which is being exhausted slowly but inexorably with my every gesture - that's why everything I do is horrifying me instead of bringing me joy because it reminds me that I am using up my reservoir of vitality and am nearing the end.
The Schopenhauerian side of the Bulgarian psyche has, of course, its own specific roots. The Bulgarian cultural norm leaves almost no room for generosity and gestures of good will, for this "pars pro toto" which sacrifices the part in order to save the whole. Such "practicality", as it is condescendingly labeled, is, of course, the inheritance of a centuries long existence without aristocracy, without masters. Because the one that gives away is always the mighty one, the one that endures time, the one that is immortalized through the gesture. When a culture does not have masters of its own there is no possible source of generosity and the related ethics. And without generosity there is no escape from the limitless pessimism of a life which is doomed to be perishable. We should not forget either that the ground laying imperative for the new Bulgarian history is the gratitude toward Russia which gave to us without us being able to reciprocate and thus rid ourselves of the dependence.
The striking lack of generosity in this culture, outside of the narrow framework of the clan, is one of the reasons for our deep depressiveness: there is no glory, no eternity, what you give will never come back to you and anything you let slip out of your hand is lost forever. Life itself is being seen as some perpetual and irretrievable slipping away, a waste of vitality - I can't do anything except to hold on to what I have until the very last moment while being horrified by the approach of the inevitable end. That's how the traditional Bulgarian person finds himself right in the middle of the frigid heart of Modernity.

A generation without utopia

So, through its refusal of ritualistic revolutions, modern age is a captive of cyclic social, cultural, aesthetic, scientific, etc. revolutions that will literally, and occasionally, physically, obliterate the old world and start from a zero. The figures of modern eschatology are well known - Marx's revolution as the final point of alienation, as a deluge which announces the coming of a totally new type of society, is the brightest one. Having refused to sacrifice one part for the sake of the whole, modernity is forced to repair the cosmic decay, to win over death through death and to start from the beginning by sacrificing the whole itself, by changing the entire paradigm. In the actual social practices this means that the generational links are to be severed every ones in a while. The idea that the young will live ever better than the old, and will be ever more in the right, is becoming a possibility. For, a culture of progress is the one where each succeeding generation has more knowledge, more pleasures, more opportunities, more technical novelties, health, etc. than the previous one. By the way, the euphoria of this type of modernity seems to be turning into a memory today. According to a survey published in the French newspaper Le Monde, last year one incredible phenomenon was detected for the first time in 150 years - the majority of the French no longer believe that the young will have it better than their parents. It's unlikely that the results would be much different in Bulgaria or Australia. The generation is trapped: there is no utopia, and no alternative to the slowly decaying global-liberal society; the only hope is to reproduce, at best, the model of the parents.
According to authors such as Fukuyama, utopia is impossible today because of the final victory of liberal values all over the planet - nobody could envision a radically different model for a society that would be better then the one we have now. This American political scientist1 is right in one respect: today there is some principal speech impossibility to construct utopia, to raise one's gaze above the immediate social horizon which has swallowed us. This is exactly what society of spectacle is all about (to use Guy Debord's expression). In principle, everything is visible - if something could not be seen, that's just a technical problem. Thus, there is no way an alternative to the world we live in could be born because it will be represented immediately, and will become part of it. Within the world of total visibility the only thing there is beyond the horizon is blindness, that is - the collapse of the very foundations of such a world, the catastrophe. Indeed, this is the sad specific of the last twenty or so years: a catastrophe without utopia, a catastrophe which serves no purpose, which does not inseminate neither the earth, nor the wombs, nor does it lead toward some bright future; a catastrophe for the sake of the catastrophe.
However, let's go back to the generation problem - the succession of generations is one of the most difficult tasks for each culture. Things get to be especially dramatic during the age of modernity which, on one hand, changes the rules all the time, while on the other, makes it possible for the old to live ever longer. To put it simply, it is necessary for the son to inherit the father before he has died. The theme of the necessitated war between the generations is the spine of many theoretical constructions of the last two centuries. Auguste Comte speaks of the necessity that the old should die for the wheel of progress to roll forward - he puts the good generational change rhythm at 30 years. Freud raises the status of the Oedipal crisis, the struggle between child and parent, on the level of fate for all people in all cultures. At almost the same time in Russia which is right in the process of industrialization, i.e. of severing generational links, Nikolai Feodorov, the religious utopian, will say that progress is the triumph of the young over the old. According to him, the youngsters, overburdened with gigantic guilt feelings, should start paying back the debt to their parents, who have given them life, by resurrecting them in flesh and blood with the help of the scientific and technological achievements. The Futurists will appeal not only to put libraries to fire and museums to flooding. The appeal in their technical manifesto is that they themselves should be thrown to the garbage as useless paper once they turn forty by those who will come after them. As a rule, the political Hunveibins2 are less reflexive.
In any case, in the times of modernity, an age that has elevated peace and happiness to cult status, the generational relations are not that violent. The problem is that the young should take care of the debts and not of the persons. And in the modern age the debts are separable from the persons because of the social representations that have infiltrated everything. The old could very well stay in front of the fireplaces, provided their symbolic (in Bourdieu's words), as well as, actual capitals are foolproof. Progress, the process in which each day we have more then yesterday, presupposes the periodic liquidation of debts and the clean beginning. If I am to discover new knowledge, somehow the knowledge of my father should become false, useless. If I am to discover a new style of poetry, fashion or love, the corresponding practices of my predecessors should become unacceptable and droll. That's why turning the past into a tabula rasa is the constitutive principle of modernity - the son refuses to follow the example of the father, he is not even going to struggle with him. He will simply slip aside, will discover other worlds, will live differently, will worship other gods. That's how, on one side, the utopian dimension is releasing the energies of the new generations, and, on the other, is liberating them from the feeling of guilt for dethroning their parents while making it possible to avoid a direct confrontation. The lack of utopia3 , on the contrary, is not only condemning the young to lifelong indebtedness to the old who have accumulated their capitals, but is also smashing them with guilt for any attempt to get rid of the old and take over their places.
In a patriarchal country such as Bulgaria all these world processes have acquired a lot more radical character. From the very beginning of the changes after 1989 voices were heard to claim that things will not get better until the generation which has been damaged by Communism beyond repair, dies out. The purges, the devaluation of symbolic capitals, which were not carried out, are blamed to be the reason for the lack of success in various spheres of life. Another figure of the catastrophic deliverance is offered to us by the economists - today they are almost unanimous that the only way out of the economical crisis is the hyperinflation, the "burning up" of savings and internal debts, followed by a currency change and a new start. Renewal must go through the destruction of the world and its re-creation, the symbolic accumulations should be wasted, releasing the vital energy of the new generations. However, since there is not a sight of utopia, no escape into new worlds, a confrontation between the generations could hardly be avoided through the bloodless inflation of symbolic capital and the guilt feelings are ever more crushing. Should we be surprised then, that nobody has accepted the responsibility for the radical gesture, that the catastrophe will happen - is happening already by itself, while people in authority will keep on claiming till the end that they are safe-guarding peoples' savings? Thus, in the collective unconscious, the catastrophe will become a natural form of punishment for the unrealized desires of the young to get rid of their parents.
We should not forget either that the Bulgarian family is ruled by relations of pre-modern indebtedness and suffocating affection. Here emancipation is a lot harder then in the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, where at the age of eighteen the youngster is simply kicked out on the street to find his fortune. God forbid! A Bulgarian parent would shower his child with all kinds of sacrifices, would move to live in the closet and give him the bedroom, would take care of his children, would give him cigarette money out of his miserable pension. That's why, in his despair, the young Bulgarian often emigrates to the farthest corners of the world, camouflaging his escape with various ideological and economical arguments. There, in Canada for instance, he, for the first time in his life, will rent his own flat, will iron his shirt by himself, will take care of his own family. In a certain sense, the catastrophe "without a subject" has the same function - if the youngster could not leave the world of his parents, then the world itself can go to hell.
So, there is no utopia which can connect the two worlds and avoid the confrontation between old and hew generations - the game must be played on their turf, their places are to be taken over. That's why the guilt feelings grow to be too big to handle. The Bulgarian starts to envision some total catastrophe / punishment without a subject, and lends himself to sweet illusions about a total conspiracy and complete doom, which make it possible for him to contemplate the slow sinking into the abyss. This is the way he is punishing himself for the aggressive desire to get rid of the parents. The aggression is turning inwards and breeds feelings of guilt. And by the way, in his fear to take responsibility for the symbolic death of his parents he is only accelerating their real one.

Those who accumulate modernization, accumulate grief

A Bulgarian welcomes despair in all of its figures, making any social activity futile and the dignity of generosity and sacrifice - laughable, in order to justify his childish, family egotism. In his memoirs Kropotkin writes that when he was young he thought that despair is a good enough cause for revolt. Gradually the revolutionary practice thought him that despair is not enough and that revolt is actually born out of hope. However, hope disturbs and confuses all plans for life. It is rather cozier to stay in despair.
That's why the outburst of protests4 in January 1997 in Bulgaria does not look like a revolution, that is - like an upturning of layers, a release of a generation from the debts with which the previous one is griping it. This is a catastrophe which Bulgaria is entering, more or less consciously, in order to dispose of the endless agony. On the level of psychology such a strategy is the strategy of masochism - I am triggering the worst in order to rid myself of the fear from this "worst"; I am triggering the catastrophe in order to stop its disturbing anticipation.
It is true that the depressive reaction is a result of the current difficulties. But it is equally true that the difficulties had been generated by the depressive/catastrophic reaction of the Bulgarian - he doesn't really believe in his initiatives and even when he has become a "businessman", he often keeps his job in a state institution (some strange hybrid mixes between a philosopher, a businessman, a politician, and what not have appeared). He has no confidence in the national currency and institutions, and, naturally, the currency is collapsing while the institutions are acting as they wish, having been released from any moral duty. The self-evaluation of the Bulgarian is quite interesting as well - according to a survey made recently by the "Sega (Now)" magazine asking "How much do you need per month in order to live well", the vast majority of people surveyed gave $100 - $150, an estimate of need which is as modest, as it is wretched.
If we were to go beyond the framework of actuality, we could say that the modern catastrophic attitude is reborn with each new wave of modernization. The first attack of depression after the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman domination in 1878, had been related to the fear from the destruction of the traditional patriarchal values and the entry into one immoral and egotistical world. By the way, such a reaction is a common place for the whole of Europe while in the process of modernization. The second5 wave of modernization was brought in by communism and was related to catching up with the West in terms of production. At that time the eschatological vision turned into an object of media production - the idea of the inevitable collision of the two systems, of the universal revolutionary deluge announcing the new world, was constantly presented. The nuclear bomb was the literalized catastrophe - ballistic missiles were marching in triumph on the Red Square, in all their ambiguity being a simultaneous symbol of, on one hand, the apocalypse and the end of the world, and on the other - the almighty human genius, the conquering of the Cosmos, the victory over decay and death. In a way, the exhaustion of this ideologically constructed catastrophe was transformed into the unofficial vision of the collapse of the socialist world itself. Because the catastrophic libido, if we indulge in the metaphor, is mobile - chased out of one figure, it is reincarnated into another.
In the time of today's third wave of modernization, we no longer desire to produce like the other "normal people" but to consume like them. The depressive/catastrophic visions no longer have any utopian or activist counterbalance, they have spread out all over the cultural continuum. We can't even see them, represent them, censor them. By the way, I am asking myself whether the abolition of rude external censorship from the media in the developed countries during the 1970-ies, in the third world - during the 1980-ies, and in Eastern Europe - during the 1990-ies, did not cause this spill of negative energy all over the social field? The transparency (which is interpreted as "audibility" in Russia through the concept of "glasnost") of the world made utopia impossible and thus the catastrophe becomes invisible, which means - invincible. Or maybe the depression, which has grasped the globalized planet, is the effect of some carried-out liberation according to the aphorism "after copulation each animal is sad", of some confusion in the face of the new liberators whom we have no language to describe yet.

(Sofia, 1997)


Notes:

1. This otherwise superficial thinker, who is insensitive to everything that goes beyond the value framework of the American social contract, is used here as an emblem of one wide spread intellectual attitude. Of course, history has not ended, it is just moving forward grippingly, through catastrophes. After the sad experiences of the 20th century, man doesn't even try to rationalize some desired future.
2. The Red Guard, used by Mao to execute the coup d'etat inside the party, and to liquidate his old political peers, is composed of youngsters whose age is rarely above twenty.
3. Generally speaking, the current values are the ones that the parents of today's youngsters have gained in the 1960-ies and 1970-ies - the priority of the individual over the collective, of consumption over production, of freedom over great causes, of the present over the tradition, of seduction over constraint, etc.
4. Outside of this intellectual reflection, the author of this text is standing by the protests and participated in them.
5. I am skipping here the transitional time of the 1930-ies which is, on one hand, a precursor of the totalitarian age, and on the other - a continuation of the post-liberation (1878) epoch.