Saturday, December 30, 2023

"The Closing of the Bulgarian Frontier"

From Switchyard Magazine, Issue-1:

As the plane began its final approach to the Sofia airport, I leaned to look out the porthole. Gray fields and mangy patches of overgrown post-industrial wasteland lay scattered outside the city.

Next came the monolithic mazes of Communist-era apartment blocks—blocks I had grown up in—followed by older jumbles of red-tiled roofs and, scattered in between, free-standing clusters of freshly built condos and office towers. Downtown, along Sofia’s famed yellow cobblestones (“the yellow-brick road,” as English-language tour guides jauntily refer to it) rested the triangular Stalinist behemoth of “The Party House,” the former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party, now topped by the country’s tricolor instead of its original red star. The spot nearby, where the cube-shaped mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov (“the Great Leader and Teacher of the Bulgarian people”) had once stood, was now a flat, empty lot, an oversize Malevich square. Tsarigradsko shose, previously known as Lenin Boulevard, was choked with traffic. Though everything appeared disorderly from above, it was exactly what I was looking for: a sense of things happening, a sense of time changing, a new frontier.

It was the end of 2010, and I had decided to move back to my native Bulgaria. I’d spent more than a decade in the United States, getting an education and putting a life together, and had never imagined I’d be retracing my steps eastward someday, like a criminal revisiting a crime scene. Some people considered you a failure if you came back; they said you lacked ambition and inner resources to stick it out. If you were lucky enough to get away, why throw your luck to the dogs? Wasn’t it better to settle down in a “normal” place, where buses ran on time and you didn’t need to bribe every traffic cop who pulled you over? It was perfectly fine to visit your relatives for a week over Christmas or to sprawl during the summer on the beaches of the Black Sea, splurging hard-earned cash to make the neighbors envious, but to return home for good, unforced by circumstances, bordered on madness. It was irrational, irresponsible, and possibly suicidal. The imp of the perverse. You never looked over your shoulder, lest you turn into a pillar of salt.

It was, admittedly, a strange decision on my part. I wasn’t unhappy abroad or nostalgic for home. I didn’t have trouble adjusting to the trappings of my adopted country. I was neither a desperate war refugee with only the clothes on my back, nor a political exile constantly complaining about the tastelessness of local cuisine. The concept of “culture shock” that people tended to talk so much about was foreign to me. I’d gone to the States after graduating high school in Sofia to attend on a scholarship a small liberal arts college in Vermont and, later, a graduate program in California, and had never had issues fitting in. Mine was the American dream, I suppose, the one that promised you could be nobody and thus anybody. Like Huck Finn, I felt free to “light out for the Territory,” unburdened by my history and culture, even by my language, and by all the parochial concepts of identity I had been raised on. 

As the years wore on, however, I came to make another discovery: I was late to the party. I had traveled to the westernmost frontier of the Western world, but the frontier had long since ceased being one. My dream was dated, even clichéd. The States felt like an old place, weirdly older than Europe, a place where, for all its breathless movement, time seemed to have stopped. There was too much of everything: rules, work, wealth, poverty, guns, art. Somehow, over the years, the machine had become overly complex, the foundations slowly but inexorably sinking under the weight of its ever-growing bulk. Even the road to self-renewal and originality, the road less traveled by, was now well-trodden, part of a tired discourse endlessly advertised and monetized and absorbed within a system of capital. The celebrated American self had become another commodity on the shelf of the cultural supermarket. To go to the woods “to live deliberately,” like Henry David Thoreau had done, now required submitting a twenty-page application for a research grant and at least three recommendations.

That was when an idea occurred to me: What if I moved back? Wasn’t Bulgaria, in all of its dinginess and provincialism and unpredictability, exactly the kind of frontier I was looking to explore, where the clock was still ticking forward toward some unknown horizon? After all, the world is round and if you travel west of “the West” you’d eventually bump into “the East.” To abandon my peaceful but mostly prospectless academic life in the States in order to plunge into the cesspool of my homeland was a bit of a gamble, but also, I thought, the most American thing I could do. I liked what the poet T. S. Eliot had written: “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” It was the classic narrative arc of journeys at least since The Odyssey. Could it be, I mused, that real freedom resided not in the freedom to leave but in the freedom to return?....



Over the course of the next year, As the American Presidential election approaches, we will be looking at some of the lessons:

𝐐𝐔𝐎𝐓𝐄: In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.

—Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Malcolm Daniels, M.D.)

And the psychology:
Ostalgie: Romantic Nostalgia For Communist East Germany
of living under the rule of control phreaks of the communist variety, and how the totalitarians of today will use databases and AI to shape reality and the perception thereof.

Stay tuned!

In the meantime, a couple pre-AI emergence posts: