A TWILIGHT ENCOUNTER
The Ambiguity of Boring History
Rousseau’s sentence, Fortunate are a people whose history is boring to
read is usually interpreted as a desire for an absence of wars, unrest,
floods. However, it is also possible that boredom might be a
manifestation of a persistent and monotonous repetition of similar
events even though those events are not boring as such. What I want to
say is that the monotony of the endless repetition of unpleasant events
does not have that same lightness as the boredom that led to the exodus
from Eden, and which is, together with leisure, a faithful companion of
happiness. But since man calls destiny only what pounds him, even though
fortuitous circumstances are fruits of destiny, too, boredom is
generally perceived only as the monotony of pleasant events. People like
to invoke Tolstoy’s words that only misfortunes are unique while all
happiness is identical, that unhappy families and countries are each
unhappy in their own way. Heine would not have agreed with Tolstoy.
According to him, every tragedy is familiengluck. The Bosnian tragedy is
a tragedy of being stretched: on the east it is a wild frontier and
rebellious bulwark, on the west a devil’s island and the dark side of
The Weight of Smoke
However, the ambiguity of boredom is not the only historical ambiguity.
All of history is an ambiguity of a sort. Each nation has its own
history. The realization of Russell’s Let the people think is as
unattainable as is his old countryman’s state whose unreachable nature
is hidden within its very name: Utopia. A hero is always a perpetrator
too. An English nobleman and a famous navigator is a pirate and a thief
to the Spaniards. It is only certain that he brought tobacco to Europe
and that he managed to measure the weight of smoke, first by weighing a
cigarette and then subtracting the weight of the butt along with the
weight of the ashes once he had finished the cigarette. Tobacco was
brought to Bosnia as an agricultural commodity by Ali-pasha
Rizvanbegović, a Herzegovinian Sultan and a Montenegrin butcher, the
sworn enemy of Prince-bishop Petar Petrović Njegoš II, the Montenegrin
Solomon and a poet of slaughter.
Belted, and carrying a sword, according to an honorable family tradition
(whose ironic counterpoint as well as whose seamy side is evident from
the razor industry logo), Gardner Wilkinson, while traveling through
Herzegovina and Montenegro, took upon himself the noble task of
mediating between Ali-Pasha and Njegoš, hoping to abolish that ugly and
primitive custom of decapitation wherein heads later serve as trophies.
Wilkinson describes the origins of his commendable urge in the following
words, I admit that after I came to Cetinje, and after I saw twenty
Turkish heads, a very sincere desire to abolish decapitation overwhelmed
me. That feeling remained strong after I saw the same cruel trophies in
Mostar. After a conversation he had with Ali-Pasha, Wilkinson wrote to
Njegoš, I also explained to him that customs like this one make a war
even more desperate-- giving it a quality that our wars do not have. But
both Njegoš and Ali-Pasha remained deaf when it came to Wilkinson’s
cries as if the possibility of losing their own heads in an equally
concrete and metaphoric register provided them with a kind of
much-needed cold dispassionateness--almost pleasure.
They say that Njegoš, while looking at his reflection in a baroque
Venetian mirror, recited the appropriate verses under his breath:
Black moustache where will you suffer
In Mostar or in Travnik?
(It is quite another thing that, according to Wilkinson, decapitation
was something utterly alien to Western European civilization, but that
only few decades separated him from the revolutionary havoc in the
streets of Paris, the guillotines, and the barbarism of crowds tossing
severed heads around).
A Historical Note
Whose were those twenty heads Wilkinson talks about? Whose heads were on
display in that unique Cetinje exhibit? Perhaps the heads belonged to
Ali-Pasha’s emissaries who had been sent to negotiate with Njegoš and
were later decapitated by the prince-bishop's men who ambushed, tricked,
and killed the victims in a place called Bašina Voda? They murdered all
the beys except for one, taking their heads as trophies. But their
leader, Bey Resulbegović, was not among them. He had stayed behind in
Nikšić feigning illness, just like a high school student would do, and
saved his head. According to tradition, Resulbegović’s salvation should
be ascribed to something else. It is ascribed to a conversation at
Riders and a Prophet
A line of high-born horsemen moved slowly through the cruel landscape of
Herzegovinian rocks. They had already been traveling for a few days and
still had a few days to go before they arrived. One could sense the sun
at its zenith, hellish heat, crickets buzzing (like the winding of
millions of wrist watches, as the poet with a prophetic name put it),
the remote murmur of a river, stale air, tired horses, sweat on
turban-swathed foreheads, half-closed eyes, dry lips, the rhythmic
stamping of hoofs, moist hands holding the reins, the outlines of the
mountains, a delicate foretaste of twilight. Parallel with the sunset in
the West, the strange silhouette of a tall, slender man who walked
leaning on a long cane made of yew appeared against the Eastern horizon.
As he approached, his face became more and more visible, revealing its
characteristic features, blue sleepy eyes, a large long forehead, a
yellowish untrimmed beard, a long thin mustache, pale rolled-back lips.
He was about sixty. He walked around in ragged clothes, like a beggar.
He was barefoot. By now everybody should have recognized him. His name
was Mate Glušac; legends about him are still alive all across
Herzegovina. It is said that he was born in the village of Korita in
1774. He lived alone helping the baptized and the unbaptized, he
practiced magic, cured, and told fortunes. According to folk legends, he
never owned a house, never got married, always fasted and read prayers.
There was about him something of an Old Testament Hebrew prophet’s
passion, he was esoteric like Celtic druids, his mysticism resembled
that of the sorcerers in The Arabian Nights, he was as picturesque as
John the Baptist, ascetic as a monk, magical as a shaman, immersed in
faith like a dervish, charismatic as a rock’n’roll idol, poor as the
ancient Franciscans, powerful as a tribal medicine manů he had the
dignity of a priest, the shameful respect of a lunatic, and the
tranquility of a wise old man from Chinese fairy tales.
A Dramatic Omen
Bey Resulbegović greeted his old acquaintance with a smile, It’s great
to see you in good health, Mate.
Mate returned his greeting with the simplicity and spontaneity of a
feebleminded man, Where are you headed, Bey?
To see Prince-bishop Njegsoš in Montenegro, Ali-Pasha sends us – the Bey
replied in a slightly lowered voice, imitating anger as if he were
speaking to a child.
Mate’s eyes widened; he looked off somewhere in the distance, behind the
Bey and began speaking quickly as if he reciting a previously memorized
text, Listen to me, Bey, you will not see the prince-bishop nor will you
talk to him, and all but one person will see him from two places. From
the first place they will talk and look at each other for an hour or
two. From the second place they will look at each other for exactly two
months until their eyes fall out of their sockets.
Now both the Bey and Mate Glušac were silent. After some time, the Bey
asked Mate as if he were in a trance, What did you just say Mate?
Mate’s face relaxed, his gaze became crystal clear. Nothing my Bey, and
if I said something, I don’t remember it any more.
Mate then continued on his way without looking back like some desired
but unreachable and undoubting Orpheus, while the Bey, on horseback,
stared after him for a long time looking like a sculpture made of salt
or Eurydice on Pegasus.
The Phenomenology of Twilight
Twilight suddenly trampled the field. Darkness lengthens shadows and
contributes powerfully to the grayness. Night gives a certain dimension
to words and things that they do not have during daylight.
Yin replaces Yang – the Chinese would say.
The heartbeat slows, the blood pressure drops, it is the time of
parasimpaticus - doctors would say.
Infantile fears awake along with the instincts inherited from our
ancestors- claim psychoanalysts.
The Twilight Zone- announces the television.
Morning is wiser than evening- repeat the village wise men.
There is no sorrow like evening sorrow- wails an oriental love song.
A poet reveals: Darkness is the blood of wounded things.
Another poet adds: Girls sing at dusk.
The Salvational Effect of Superstition
It would be as unrewarding to guess the Bey’s thoughts as it would to
evaluate the effect the prophecy had on his decision to remain in
Nikšić. The fact is that he stayed in Nikšić while the other beys
continued their journey with its well-known ending in Bašina Voda where
they talked to the prince-bishop for an hour or two. The heads of all
the beys except for one (who was most probably spared to play a role of
ill-fated Philipidus) were taken to Cetinje and there they were able to
look at Njegoš for exactly two months until their eyes fell out of their
sockets. Two months may be the exact time period needed for eyes to fall
out of severed heads. Perhaps it would be interesting to imagine what
would have happened had Bey Resulbegović not taken the warning into
account and had he not remained in Nikšić. Would he have been saved
anyway? It is hard to imagine that the Philipedean role would have
fallen to him just because he was the highest-ranked nobleman among the
emissaries. But calling Mate’s prophecy a warning seems equally wrong.
This is not the case of Ceasar and the Ides of March. Mate did not
advise Bey Rasulbegović to be careful; he simply read his future as if
it had been written on his palm. In the end, this legend resembles the
English tale according to which the clairvoyant peasant Robert Nixon
foretold Henry the Fourth’s victory over Richard the Third. That
prophecy took place during their crucial battle, but it was uttered
hundreds of kilometers away from the battlefield, in a remote village
where no one even knew about the battle. (In his book Prediction and
Prophecy Keith Alis mentions this story). Still, the encounter between
Mate Glušac and Bey Resulbegović differs from that English story because
Robert Nixon’s role is that of a spectator who does not interact with
the protagonists. It is also different than the Ides of March because it
does not offer a choice. Mate Glušac is as merciless as destiny. But the
question arises: would something else have stopped the Bey had it not
been for Mate? Would what was predicted have had to happen regardless of
the manner in which events unfolded, or did the implicit warning in the
prophecy ensure its own realization? Did Mate address the Bey because he
was grateful for his kindness and thus saved him? Was the prediction
just a reading of something previously written or was it a correction
that led to a salvation? Whatever it was, because he remained in Nikšić,
the Bey remained alive. And this is the benefit of superstition and that
benefit should not be belittled.
A Final Note
Mate Glušac was ninety-six when he died. It is said that he foretold his
own death as well. He is buried near the Church of Saint Tekla in
Danilovgrad. There is no marker on his grave. Instead, an enormous tree
grows there, more than a three feet in diameter. Prince-bishop Petar II
Petrović Njegoš and Ali-pasha Rizvanbegović both died in 1851. From a
historical point of view they died at the same moment; like enemies
exhausted from fighting or pairs of mythical unhappy lovers. The
encyclopedias available to me at the moment mention neither Resulbegović
nor Wilkinson. However, the genius who wrote Die Welt Als Wille und
Vorstellung in the Second Volume points out the inadequacy of those
encyclopedias by mentioning the very same Mister Wilkinson in a
footnote. In so doing, Arthur Schopenhauer granted me a rare compliment.
Because in the same footnote he quoted the London Times, and he pointed
out even more clearly, more subtly and in more detail a strange and
mysterious comfort mentioning, along with everything else, the sketches
feu follet, calling of vain and lonely sensibilities in moments of
After this story was published for the first time, I read a book that
mentions, among others, Bey Resulbegović, who, I had come to think was a
mythological character since I could not find his name anywhere. The
book is entitled Crystal Bars, written by the man to whom A Knife with a
Rosewood Handle is dedicated.
Translated from the Bosnian by Nikola Petković
Edited by Andrew Wachtel