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On Wittgenstein’s Steps

A letter from unified Europe
Illustration by Lewis Koch.

Pigeons are crazy about public sculptures. For pigeons there’s no greater happiness than perching down on the head of a sculpture and taking a dump. Sculptures are for people to consecrate and pigeons to desecrate. The truth is that, for some reason, people are crazy about public sculptures too.

Last year, unidentified vandals attacked a sculpture of Marija Jurić Zagorka, a Croatian journalist and novelist. Zagorka’s literary production never got its due in her lifetime or for many years after her death in 1957. Had it not been for the efforts of the Zagreb Center for Women’s Studies, which, inter alia, had a statue erected in her honor in downtown Zagreb, her work would today be forgotten. The vandals sawed off the bronze umbrella on which the bronzed authoress stood leaning in repose, the Center for Women’s Studies whipped up a media frenzy, and the city fathers promptly committed to appropriating funds for a new umbrella. Appalled by the ugly incident, many Zagreb residents laid old umbrellas at the statue’s feet. There you go, that’s canonization for you!

Croats may not be pigeons, but they still suffer a fatal attraction for public monuments. Since Croatian independence in 1991, many monuments to the victims of fascism have suffered damage; those keeping score have tallied up a total of 2,965 attacks. The majority took place in the immediate post-independence years, a time of anti-Yugoslav, anti-Serbian, and anti-Communist hysteria, meaning the new authorities had a fair degree of empathy for vandal passions provoked by collective Croatian traumas. In historical perspective, the Croatian reaction confirmed a paradox: trauma is greatest where there is least cause. Anti-Communist hysteria proved most vehement where Communism itself had been most benign. Twenty years ago many monuments by the well-known sculptor Vojin Bakić were destroyed (his monument on Petrova Gora is a pearl of international monumental architecture), yet the authorities were again benevolent toward the vandals. Vojin Bakić was, after all, a Croatian Serb. In contrast, back then and still today, any “vandal” tempted to burn the Croatian flag would have to reckon with a substantial fine.

I didn’t pay monuments much mind until I discovered a surprising truth: most people engage in vandalism for the cash, not out of ideological or aesthetic conviction. Everyone in Holland knows who’s most enamored with copper and bronze. Yes, the Poles. In February of last year statues were stolen from atop graves in the Dutch settlements of Norg and Vries. Rheden lost a statue of the writer Simon Carmiggelt, and, wary of new thefts, Dutch officials spirited a statue of Queen Beatrix into storage. A couple of years ago a public sculpture of a mother and child, erected to honor the memory of victims of the Second World War, was stolen from Marienberg. In 2007 a copy of Rodin’s The Thinker was stolen in Laren. The cities of Zwolle and Nijmegen recently resolved to put their public statues in safekeeping, and in Eindhoven the police have fitted public sculptures with GPS units. If sculptures from Eindhoven go walkies, police will know where to find them.

The list of Polish sins is long: anything with a glint of copper is a target for Polish thieves. If the trains aren’t running, it’s because the Poles have ripped out the copper cables. If there’s a power outage, it’s because the Poles have pilfered the cables from a few windmills, the pride of the Dutch national landscape. If a remnant from the First World War explodes in the Ypres region, it’s because the Poles (ah, those moles!) have been burrowing in the fields in search of copper. The Dutch—for whom the Germans, who thieved Dutch bicycles at the close of the Second World War, had long been the preferred enemy—now blame the Poles for everything. In the settlement of Menaldum, police seized the bicycles of Polish workers living at the Schatzenburg trailer park, convinced they’d been stolen. It turned out the bikes had been given to the Poles by their employer so they’d be able to ride to work.

Everyone in Holland knows who’s most enamored with copper and bronze.

“Poles” (a collective term for all East Europeans, of whom Poles are simply the most numerous) most often live in what the Dutch refer to as “Polish hotels,” which, in reality, means they live in cabins or camp trailers on the peripheries of the burgs where they work. The Dutch rent camp trailers to Poles for between fifty and eighty euros a week. That’s why many Poles prefer to sleep in tents. “Poles like working in Dutch horticulture. How can I best explain it? It’s a matter of chemistry. Dutch growers and Poles are like peas in a pod.” That’s how Johan de Jong, the avuncular general director of Holland Contracting, explained things to the media. He’s just one of the many Dutch who help Poles earn a wage in Holland, the average wage for undocumented labor being about four euros an hour, and it goes without saying that most Polish labor is indeed such.

There’s a legend about how a couple of Dutch discovered copper wire fighting over who had dibs on a copper coin they’d spotted in the street. The Poles have now got themselves mixed up in the story. In almost every country the greatest thefts are perpetrated by natives—in Holland, the Dutch; in Croatia, the Croats; in Poland, the Poles—snugly protected by myths of great theft and devastation being the work of others, chiefly foreigners. Sometimes that other is a Gypsy, sometimes a Jew; other times it’s a Pole, Romanian, Serb, or Albanian. There’s no voice of reason that might prevent an embittered Dutchman from accusing a Pole of stealing cabbages from his garden. That’s just how things are for the moment.

Poles don’t steal cabbages. Poles steal bronze and copper. Not even Slovaks steal cabbage. Slovaks steal teeth. In a video clip one Slovak filmed and uploaded to the Internet, he admitted that he’d long been burgling the graves of famous people buried at the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s central graveyard. The teeth-stealing Slovak initially made off with the watches of the deceased, but soon figured he might earn better on celebrity teeth. Apart from those of Johann Strauss and Johannes Brahms, whom forensics experts have confirmed are missing teeth, the Slovak claims to be hoarding the teeth of many other famous dead, prompting the Viennese police to open the graves of Beethoven, Schubert, Schönberg, and others, just to check if all bones are present and accounted for. Charges are pending against the unusual Slovak with a fetish for disinterring celebrity skeletons’ teeth.

While some are intent on destruction, others set about healing the damage. Croatian sculptor Ivan Fijolić’s response to the destruction of monuments erected in honor of the Partisan and Yugoslav anti-fascist struggle was to erect monuments to fallen monuments. As a child, Fijolić loved Vanja Radauš’s sculpture The Bomber, that of a youthful soldier hurling a grenade at the hated German enemy. Fijolić thus dreamed up a new “bomber,” this time a bulbous nappy-wearing toddler who instead of holding a grenade in his hand is flipping the bird. When vandals lopped the head off Antun Augustinčić’s famous Tito monument, Fijolić reproduced the sculpture with stunning precision, but replaced the head with that of Tito’s wife Jovanka. In Fijolić’s sculptural imagination, another Partisan legend, teen solider Boško Buha (buha meaning flea in Croatian), is reincarnated as a burly specimen of his insect namesake.

Artist Siniša Labrović is also a kind of repairman. Labrović symbolically performed his Bandaging the Wounded project on the public holiday in remembrance of the anti-fascist struggle, tending to a devastated monument the way emergency services might to a wounded human being. Labrović cleaned the monument’s injuries of debris, removing the shrapnel, dousing its abrasions with disinfectant, and rubbing antibiotic cream in its cuts before binding its wounds in real bandages.

How does one send an artistic message in a situation that resembles the children’s game Broken Telephone? One thief steals a bronze sculpture for the cash, and does so in a given historical moment and context, safe in the knowledge that his theft will be viewed not as a criminal act, but a political one, and that as such he’ll never face the force of the law. After all, he’s stolen a bronze sculpture of a Partisan, and in the new political circumstances the Partisan is a loathed symbolic figure. Twenty years later—in somewhat changed political circumstances, interpreting a distant criminal act as a political one, because most similar acts were indeed politically inflected—an artist responds to an internal call to arms and protests an act of vandalism with an artistic gesture. For the majority, the gesture will prove incomprehensible (a new time, a lost context); for the minority, it will be a somewhat retrospective polemic between a pair of incompatible combatants: an artist and a small-time thief. This is but a sliver of the story about the spectacularly fraught relationship between art and reality.

I went to Ireland last June. A Dublin friend and I set off by car for Doolin, and from there took a small boat to Inisheer, the smallest of the three Aran Islands. Lashed by a stormy silver sea and menaced by a sky of black-gray clouds, Inisheer was a place of dramatic desolation. In a local café—the house of one of the islanders—you could buy hand-knitted scarves and caps, grab a coffee from the vending machine, and try a piece of local apple strudel, all of which we dutifully did. From the tightlipped proprietress, who never set down her knitting needles, we learned there was a doctor on the island, a Croat from Zadar. Making our way down the road to the ferry terminal, we came across a lonely figure, a man pushing two bicycles, wearing a suit splattered in white paint, on his nose a huge pair of glasses with yellowed lenses. The glasses could have been those of a con man, a motorcyclist, or a scuba diver, but who would know.

“Excuse me, do you live here?”

“Aaaa . . .” An indiscernible sound emerged from the man’s mouth.

“And might you know where the local doctor lives?”

“Aaaa . . .” He pointed off into the distance.

“You’re not Irish?”

“Iiii . . . Latvian . . .” he said, his mouth spreading into a toothless grin.

Our interlocutor had a dark-red complexion, as islanders in the north seas often do, bloodshot from constant exposure to the assaults of the wind, almost as if permatanned—but inside out. He was, I think, blind drunk.

Like our lonely Latvian on Inisheer, at least two hundred thousand Poles and other East European immigrants have made their way to and through Ireland in recent years, and it’s fair to say that the Irish love affair with “Easterners” is over. Unemployment is soaring, and demands that “Poles” be banned from residing in the country for more than two years are increasingly shrill.

In Dublin I set off for the National Botanic Gardens, where even die-hard Dubliners are thin on the ground. Home to more than seventeen thousand plant species from around the globe, the gardens were founded at the end of the eighteenth century by the Royal Dublin Society. Biodiversity is the gardens’ ideological plume and pride. My attention was drawn to plaques mounted next to certain plants, emblazoned with the question Why is it a problem in Ireland? and an explanation of said problem in somewhat smaller type.

Wherever Gunnera tinctoria takes root, native flora doesn’t stand a chance.

These eye-catching “wanted posters” taught me a lot: for example, that the South American Gunnera tinctoria, which grows to a height of two meters, is particularly invasive. Wherever Gunnera tinctoria takes root, native flora doesn’t stand a chance, and consequently this ambitious plant is soon to be banned. The same applies to the giant rhubarb, and this is entirely understandable; a fleeting glance at its mighty leaves is enough to sow fear. Sasa palmata, a wide-leafed Japanese bamboo that grows to three meters, is likewise a threat to native flora; native sons are strangled dead wherever this Japanese immigrant takes root. The impressively named Rhododendron × superponticum is a hybrid that gladly leaps garden fences, making integration and adjustment an absolute breeze. But wagging tongues say it sabotages the regeneration of native trees, and so it too is threatened with permanent expulsion from Ireland. The Asian Rosa rugosa, a pretty rose-colored shrub that grows on sand dunes alongside the ocean and speeds the erosion of native sands, is best described as a kind of floral Trojan horse. And so its time has also been called, every further contact with Irish soil to be officially banned. Crassula helmsii, an aquatic invader that launched its invasion of Ireland from far-off New Zealand, is particularly noxious; resistant to frost, once it takes root it’s impossible to uproot.

Some species propagate so quickly, they’ve changed the face of the Irish landscape. A worried taxi driver treated me to a passionate tirade against floral immigrants, singling out the cordyline palm, which in New Zealand goes by the rather unromantic name of cabbage tree.

“Ireland never looked like this!” he moaned. “It’s all because of those damn palms!” And, it’s true, some parts of Ireland, particularly at dusk, look like suburbs of Los Angeles.

Quite parenthetically, in Dublin I was a guest at a literary festival, which had nothing to do with my native soil, with the former Yugoslavia, present day Croatia, or the Balkans. The moderator at my event, an affable fellow, confessed to me that he had no connection with what I was to talk about either, but that the organizers had asked him to be involved when they found out his long-deceased mother was a product of Croatian terroir. Who knows, perhaps the organizers had visited Croatia at some point and it’d seemed to them that Croats could manage only alongside other Croats, or perhaps they’d simply thought I’d feel more at ease with an Irishman whose mother was a Croat than an Irishman whose mother was an Irishwoman, or who knows what. I felt a bit like a cabbage they’d intercepted at the border without a botanical visa, but I certainly didn’t hold it against the fine people of Dublin.

Dublin—a city that has named its two imposing bridges after writers, one after Beckett, the other after Joyce—won my heart forever. The Croatian mother thing could’ve happened anywhere, because as far as that thing is concerned, it’s just how most Europeans are. Yes, Europe is organized like the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin; everyone wears a plaque bearing his details around his neck, point of origin, level of invasiveness, and threat posed to native specimens all clearly documented.

T he National Botanic Gardens are also home to a glasshouse full of tropical plants, which you enter down three steps. Ludwig Wittgenstein spent the winter months of 1948–49 in Dublin. A bronze plaque mounted on one of the steps claims that Wittgenstein liked to sit on the steps and write. I sat down and let my mind wander. What did I think about? Nothing very scientific. About how Europe in its entirety is irreparably tribal, how practiced it is in the art of world wars, and how this makes a new one a constant possibility. This time because of a “Pole”; because of that Latvian on Inisheer; because of a Serb or a Croat, both practiced in desecrating each other’s headstones; because of that Slovak who steals teeth from skeletons; or for some other reason—for money, the usual reason.

Then the thought occurred to me that Wittgenstein might well have been sitting on these steps at the very moment my mother gave birth to me. And then, having severed the umbilical cord, I asked myself what in my life—a chaotic hold in which a socialist childhood, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, civil war, new passports and fractured identities, betrayals, exile, and a new life in a West European country all mix and mingle—what in my lifetime had actually been realized of all the things promised to us by Communist ideologues, Hollywood films, the dapper ideologues of consumerism, the homespun ideologues of nationalism, the ideologues of European unification, by gurus of every stripe and shade?

The question bore into me like a poisonous thorn, my heart began to pound, and I was overcome with fear, a sudden fear of the empty screen, of the absence of future projections . . . So what, said a consoling internal voice, why do we need future projections—in the near future we’re to live much longer, at least on average (who still wants to live longer in a world like ours?!); and we’re sure to live better (no one’s promising that anymore!); and even if we don’t live better, we’re definitely going to live in greater freedom (yeah right!), in a world without borders (pull the other one!); in a world of solidarity and justice (enough already!); in a world of solidarity and justice, we’re going to live like slaves: like s-l-a-v-e-s (hey now, hey now!); don’t get hung up on the details, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one; you’re bleating, Christ, that’s all you know how; I’m not bleating, I just know that a man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards, as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push . . .

And amazingly, just as Wittgenstein said, my terrified thoughts pried open the door, fluttered their way outside, and raced off towards the Asiatic steppes; my thoughts deftly leapt the frothy crests of waves on the Indian Ocean, soaring above the snowy Nepalese peaks: my thoughts skated the slipstream down onto the plains, slinking through the grass like tigers; God, there was almost nothing that my hypermobile thoughts, my sensuous thoughts, my thoughts, seductive like a National Geographic clip, couldn’t manage. There, on Wittgenstein’s steps, I calmed my racing pulse, ssshhh, and renounced the prognosis I’d just offered: bury those fears, forget that nonsense, it’s just these damn gardens. I’d completely forgotten. I was in the stifling heat of the tropics.

Translated from the Croatian by David Williams.