The argument here, in Sveti Naum, which has been recognized for a thousand years, is a persuasion towards sanity; a belief that life, painful as it is, is not too painful for the endurance of the mind, and it is indeed essentially delightful.
IF REBECCA WEST had a destination in mind during her travels through Yugoslavia, it would be Macedonia. It is “the most beautiful place in the world,” she explains, and the rite observed at the end of her visit is the climax of the entire narrative, the culmination of her voyage through time and space. Macedonia is where she wanted to go.
In Skopje West sees a city that no longer exists. By chance and by politics, in 1941 West may have recorded the last comprehensive narrative description of old Skopje. In 1963, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake completely leveled the city, spurring one of the first major humanitarian rescue efforts to follow World War II, with the United States and Soviet Union both contributing to recovery and relief. Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the city came under Marshal Josip Broz Tito and at the peak of the International Style, which meant that Skopje was rebuilt almost entirely in brutalist concrete.
Ironically, one of the buildings West found most atrocious in 1937, the Officers Club, partially survived the temblor. Her claws come out for this one while also being very funny: it is “one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe,” she writes, made of “turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod.”
In 2012 Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski initiated a redesign of central Skopje that produced a Las Vegas kitsch classicism that looks like a reject bid for the makeover of Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan. The Skopje rebuild includes dozens of statutes of Macedonian national figures, including Alexander the Great on horseback; a pell-mell menagerie placed in every alcove and square inch of unoccupied space in the city center. But the Officers Club’s ruins have neither been torn down completely nor rebuilt.
West travels to Ohrid, close to the Albanian frontier. She visits the fabled Sveti Naum Monastery on the northwest bank of the lake. There is not much more than the natural environment to enjoy here, but that is quite the point: it ranks with most beautiful places in Europe. Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest on the continent; the Tahoe of the Balkans. The lake is an almost wholly contained ecosystem, with dozens of endemic species. West extols the excellent Ohrid trout, the belly scales of which the locals emulsify and shape into pearl-like jewelry.
West’s three visits to Yugoslavia each coincided with Easter. The beauty and ceremony of the Orthodox Christian rite capture something in her that she feels lacking in Western societies: magic. She moves from church to church describing the frescoes and intricately decorated iconostasis (a screen that separates the sanctuary from the altar in a church). She finds Slavic devotion intense, embodied, and sincere. Experiencing this faith is a driving motivation for her trip.
If this pilgrimage had a personality, it was Nikolai, the Orthodox Archbishop of Ohrid. She describes him:
He struck me now, as when I had seen him for the first time in the previous year, as the most remarkable human being I have ever met, not because he was wise or good, for I have still no idea to what degree he is either, but because he was the supreme magician.
Nikolai was a real person. Born Nicholas Velimirović, he was canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2003 and is considered by some as the greatest Serbian philosopher of modern times. His life was more complicated. He expressed right-wing, pro-German, and antisemitic opinions and policies. In 1926, he restored the German World War I memorial that West will soon visit near Bitolj.
But he was persecuted first by the Nazi occupiers and later by the post-war Communist government. The Germans arrested him and sacked his monastery at Žiča. In detention he was transferred to the death camp at Dachau which held political prisoners of the Reich. After liberation by the U.S. Army in Tyrol, Austria, he migrated to England. Considered a German collaborator by the victorious socialist government of Yugoslavia, he emigrated as a refugee to the United States where he taught until he died in 1956.
The pictures of Nikolai support West’s description of his spiritual presence and charisma. She describes him presiding over a meal, importing the spiritual and mystical transubstantiation of Christ in boiled eggs he passes out to the worshipers:
Bishop Nikolai stood up and cried, “Christ is Risen!” And they answered, “Indeed He is risen!” Three times he spoke and they answered, and then they stretched out their hands and he gave them eggs from a great bowl in front of him. This was pure magic. They cried out as if it were talismans and not eggs that they asked for; and the Bishop gave out the eggs with an air of generosity that was purely impersonal, as if he were the conduit for a force greater than himself. When there were no more eggs in the bowl the people wailed as if there were to be no more children born in the world, and when more eggs were found elsewhere on the table the exultation was as if there were to be no more death.
Of course the cretin Gerda disrupts this reverie by passing out eggs herself. The spell is broken, the magic dies. This mortifying faux pas does not seem to perturb her. Nikolai rescues the moment, briefly, by ministering to a blind beggar. Then Constantine commits a second gaucherie with a harangue. Nicholas, taking all he can stand, rallies the children in three cheers for the voluble Constantine before bolting from the table in a flurry of incense and robes.
On the road from Ohrid to Bitolj, the traveling party stops near the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, a fourth-century B.C. city founded by Philip II of Makedon himself. For me what follows is the most extraordinary passage in the entire book. West describes two women as they meet each other in a nearby Orthodox cemetery (likely the Assembly of the Holy Apostles):
I have a deep attachment to this cemetery, for it was here that I realized Macedonia to be the bridge between our age and the past. I saw a peasant woman sitting on a grave under the trees with a dish of wheat and milk on her lap, the sunlight dappling the white kerchief on her head. Another peasant woman came by, who must have been from another village, for her dress was different. I think they were total strangers. They greeted each other, and the woman with the dish held it out to the new-comer and gave her a spoon, and she took some sups of it. To me it was an enchantment; for when St Monica came to Milan over fifteen hundred years ago, to be with her gifted and difficult son, St Augustine, she went to eat her food on the Christian graves and was hurt because the sexton reproved her for offering sups to other people on the same errand, as she had been wont to do in Africa. That protocol-loving saint, Ambrose, had forbidden the practice because it was too like picnicking for his type of mind. To see these women gently munching to the glory of God was like finding that I could walk into the past as into another room. (My emphasis.)
Outside Bitolj the traveling party visits a German memorial to World War I. This is an eccentric stop but it serves her narrative for here is the final confrontation and break with Gerda. The memorial is a round rampart with a squat chapel at the tangent. West and her husband are appalled. It is not a cemetery. It contains no markings, no indication of the 3,500 individual German soldiers buried there, which lend the memorial its morbid appellation tottenborg. West’s husband, who lived and worked extensively in Germany, and was interred as an enemy national during World War I, finds the structure disrespectful to the memory of the dead. West sees in its hillside position, like a fortress or garrison, overlooking Bitolj a threat of a German return (which would indeed occur the year this book was published).
Gerda, however, is enraptured. She has never seen anything so magnificent. She demands the opinion of her English companions and appears to be genuinely hurt and insulted after she pries an unvarnished opinion from West’s husband. She makes a scene and vows to return to Belgrade, refusing to remain in the company of foreigners who clearly hate Germany and Germans.
West uses this otherwise negligible side stop — who goes out of their way to visit an obscure memorial of a sworn enemy in a foreign country? — to tee up a small set piece that follows as West’s husband attempts to understand and describe Gerda. This is an insightful, psychological précis of a certain type of mind and class. “Gerda has no sense of process,” he says. “She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it.” This sounds like laziness, but it is quite more than that. It is a misunderstanding of life itself. In its fundamental miscomprehension of how the world works it encourages suspicion and resentment. If a person like Gerda cannot understand why another is rich or happily married, he implies, she is more likely to believe secret conspiracies, racialist plots, and subversion.
It is tempting to extend this examination to all Germans and all Germany at that time—and from there a description of all those in thrall to fascist or nationalist ideas throughout time. In my mind I immediately connect the misconception of “process” to the insane conspiratorialism that drove the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The attackers seem to have a juvenile understanding of political process, imagining the assault as if it were an adult game of capture the flag. The belief that disrupting a purely ceremonial process would reverse the result of a national election is like a child believing they can catch Santa Claus in the act. It has no bearing on or understanding of reality. The attackers had clearly never visited the Capitol, which is an open and public place. They believed that sacking the Senate would furnish evidence of sedition. They believed things that were not true because they did not understand how simple process works. They shared Gerda’s belief in demonstrative patriotism: that a public display of patriotic fervor, announcing alta voce that one is a patriot, flag-waving and flag-hugging, the internal conviction that one is a patriot and his enemies are traitors, were all per se the patriotic act rather than the symbolic or allegorical representation of patriotism, which is found in democratic process. But they, like Gerda, would like to be considered patriots without having to do the work that true patriots enact without complaint.
The narrative climax comes at the end of the chapter on St. George’s Eve. St. George is not well known in modern America because St. George is an Anglican and Orthodox icon with little purchase in mainstream American Protestantism. (See Expedition.) St. George’s standard, the red cross on a white field, forms the national emblem of England. Its apotheosis is in the flag of Georgia. St. George was the original hero who rescued the damsel from the dragon, another threat of virgin sacrifice. In the former Yugoslavia St. George’s Eve is called Đurđevdan, and it is marked by Christians, Romani, and Muslims alike.
Here West observes the fertility rite of the Sheep’s Field (Oveche Polje) near Veles. There stands a large flat rock where families sacrifice animals to cure barrenness. West finds the site covered in blood, viscera, and the bodies of sacrificed animals. She is revolted and not just by the carnage. Her reaction is strong and requires close examination: this is the apex of her argument, the closest to the theme of the book. The entire narrative has been driving to this point. This is the Black Lamb of the title.
In her disgust, she attributes the same cruel, unnecessary, and futile death and sacrifice seen at the rock to the larger notion “that Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretense that pain is the proper price of any good thing.” The expulsion from the Garden to Abraham’s willing sacrifice of Isaac, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the first Christian martyrs, from the death of St. George to the Crusades against Jerusalem, all that is considered holy and good in the Western Christian tradition are made that way through pain, exile, violence, and death.
A thousand generations have sacrificed animals on this rock in a rite that includes all – Muslims, Roma, Christians – in its promise of fertility. While it is easy to dismiss West’s harsh sentence of this site as the hyper-sensitivity of a germ-phobic foreigner, a closer examination of the rite supports its strangeness. The rock is filthy, matted brown from constant blood-letting that is left to coagulate and dry out where it falls. It stinks. Animal parts and carcasses attract flies in the sun. It is the very picture of bestial horror. And it is therefore supremely strange given the faith traditions that participate in the rite.
Muslims are well-known for their ritual sacrifice, particularly during Eid Al Adha. That marks the day God spared Isaac from death and Abraham sacrificed a ram in his son’s place. Muslims ritually slaughter lambs to mark al Adha. But Muslims are meticulous in their hygiene. They incorporate ritual ablutions before prayer. In ritual sacrifice and for human consumption animals are bled completely from the neck before being fully cooked. Blood per se is considered haram.
Christians sublimate sacrifice in their ritual Communion of bread and wine, but these are only symbolic acts invoking the death of Christ. The very literal sacrifice of animals for the purpose of worship has not been present since the earliest days of the faith, when Christians tried to distinguish their faith from Judaism. Jews, for their part, ended ritual animal sacrifice with the destruction of the Second Temple, substituting symbolic gifts made as offertories to God.
That leaves the Roma, known to West as gypsies, the itinerant population of south-eastern Europe. Despite pejorative stereotypes in European communities that attribute child abduction and sacrifice to the Roma community, they have no known tradition of ritual sacrifice not borrowed from host populations. The Roma migrated from northern India, where the rise of Hinduism ended ritual animal sacrifice.
Which leaves the ancient pagan or Roman practice of animal slaughter that has somehow preserved itself at this rock in Macedonia. This obscure and ancient rite supports West’s argument that ritual sacrifice manifests an instinctive, even genetic, death wish—an impulse toward self-destruction inherent to the human condition. “Only part of us is sane,” she writes:
only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
This is as good as any explanation for the human tendency toward self-immolation. It explains death cults, family annihilators, political violence, and suicide pacts. It explains hate crimes, serial killers, and active shooters. It explains the cynical nihilism of Nazism and its successors: hatred and violence stoking death and destruction for their own sake. Death comes for every man but often he appears all to willing to hasten the inevitable.
Feb. 24, 2022 update: This post has been updated with two photographs taken by Dragana Jurišić and first published in her book “YU: The Lost Country” in 2015. Photos are reproduced here with permission.