November 23rd, 2017 AAAA
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Genius Loci



by Martin Vlachynský
 
Could yesterday have been forty years ago? Of course. If your sweet slumber lasted exactly four decades. Just like mine - I get up in the morning, do my twenty four hours, and again, forty years of sand start running in the hourglass.
 
They say this is a pitiful existence, I hear from somewhere in the back. But I do not know any better. This is how I float through the time, ever since someone hammered a stake into the ground on a forgotten meadow. Not accidentally, in anger, or to tie an enemy to it, but with the first gleam of practical mind, and built the first log building.
 
The name Genius may seem immodest, but let me assure you, there are hundreds of thousands of us with the name Genius.
 
We reside in cities and towns around the world, we live in glass skyscrapers of metropolises as well as ruins of abandoned cities.
 
It used to be a good custom around here to live on the main square, and I am no exception. As the spirit of the place I have to absorb as much as I can on the day I awake, and this baroque fountain where I live is a great lookout standing in the beating heart of the city.
 
First, a quick look around. Buildings - they will not tell you much. Wood, stone, brick, concrete or sheet metal, their functions never change. Several streets disappeared, dozens of new ones appeared, and the city slowly crawls out of the valley onto the surrounding hills. An old monastery turned into a shopping mall, and craftsmen's huts became restaurants. Simply put, buildings come from the word build, and therefore they cannot change much, they can only be built, or they can fall.
 
My experienced eye knows where to focus. "Ecce homo!" said someone a long time ago, and us, Geniuses, immediately understood. If you want to know what is new, look at your people. Perhaps you will resent my calling them mine. But just like they are my people, I am their spirit which connects them.
 
All of them have strings running from their heads, leading in all different directions, and covering the city like an invisible cobweb. Some of them are firmly affixed to the heads of other people, others are tied to work desks, I can also see some that are disappearing in the cemetery mist. Some of them are sturdy, like steel ropes, other are just tattered shreds, some are long, others short. But each head has one that connects them to me too.
 
I like to keep them on a short leash, so I stare at the pile of freshly cut ends. A man made "snip!" and the string wriggles on the floor like a snake. "Here we go again," I sigh. But every city has to be ready for that.
 
"Hey, mister, would you also like to get your string cut?" I throw my question at a passer-by, who is nervously twitching like a dog on a leash.
 
 He hesitates for a moment. Then he starts: "I already put a knife to it several times, I admit. I am not old, I have yet to prove myself, but here you are, undermining me all the way. The H hour, the S street, the W work. Every day. The same faces, the same windows. I am not complaining, I love it here, but I would love to see a different performance. Take a step forward. So now, leave me alone, I am late for work."
 
I take a note. Last time everyone here wanted to build something. Now they say they first want to build themselves.
 
The square fills with people, whose fast steps eat away the meters towards the daily goal. I see shop assistants, bricklayers, cooks and waiters, whose proud gaze tilted to the floor while I slept. They do not feel like talking, only occasionally some of them complain. Their strings disappear somewhere in the industrial districts, which are cropping up in the suburbs and have the effect of steroids on the economic muscles.
 
The pedestrian crowd becomes mixed with splendid carriages, honking and blinking, parking directly in front of my fountain. They spit out young predators who are entering the renovated buildings on the square with a commanding strut. The municipal office became regional, a merchant office turned into a business center.
 
Every now and then it used to happen in the past that other people knocked their carriages over and set them on fire. But they found out very quickly that they could not live without leaders, that the mechanism of the world has too many cogwheels to work without the clockmaker. And like after every revolution, those with muscles quickly climbed the rope, while the intelligentsia tried to build a staircase.
 
"Sir, your carriage is obstructing my view!" I say to a young man in a dark suit. He turns around for a moment, frowning, trying to see who is getting in his way. Then he understands.
 
"Hah, just wait for a half hour, you old-timer, your "loci" will be just a parking lot," he yells at me and walks away without looking back. I watch his head with short cropped hair in the crowd until he vanishes.
 
The thickness of the crowd (do not know about you, but I personally measure it in square cobblestones) is increasing with shirts and Bermuda shorts of foreigners. Around here, you run into two different subspecies - adventurers, disappointed that everything here is just like in the West and nobody carries a machine gun on their shoulder, and the vacationers, disappointed that not everything here is just like in the West (although the stench of burnt hamburgers from a nearby kiosk is starting to knock me off my feet). Shooting with their cameras at everything that does not move (and my fountain is a target of primary significance), slowly taking over the terraces and restaurants, they diffuse around. A nervous driver is carefully maneuvering a garish sightseeing train among the people, and the majority seems to be content with the symbiosis of the gothic city hall tower and the motorized tinny attraction made in China.
 
Fortunately, I spot some old acquaintances in the crowd. When I did not see them here last time, I thought the human society shook in its core, because they were a part of our inventory, which has been adding spice to our atmosphere since the beginning of time. Today, they kneel here again, in full strength. Each one of them has his own style - one keeps repeating monotonously: "Hello, hello,". Another one says: "Sir, please!", others produce a few harmonies on an old guitar, or even a magazine.
 
The people, whose strings I am holding, sometimes curse at them, not realizing that they belong to the city just like the square or an old church, yet their maintenance costs are so much lower. Each one of them is a tiny pulpit and altar at the same time, where you can listen to the worn-out stories of Lazarus, prodigal son or good farmer.
 
But the market and competition enter their sandboxes too. There are students that block your way, from whom you can buy a great feeling and a pin of a generous giver for a coin, agents with hot water, helping you fill out lengthy surveys, or street vendors pulling exotic fragrances and spare razor blades from underneath their coats. Altogether, they make up a cohesive army, which can ruin an inexperienced man, full of moral ideals and good will, on his way through the square, mentally, financially and morally.
 
I watched these tiny struggles for success, where winner takes very little, and do not even notice that Sisyphus just dropped the sun and it is starting to roll in the other direction.
 
Dipping my feet in the fountain (first I had to extract a few plastic containers, arranged there by someone in the name of exporting culture), I turn my attention to the shops, which, like golden veins, lace the stone square, side streets, and even giant metallic cuboids in the suburbs, which inhale the homo economicus like black holes.
 
The old Panem et Circenses is replaced by Bread and Shopping. There is something for everyone here, the billboards say. Some people are on an endless quest for the right combination of colorful fabrics in order to attract looks in the jungle, others are looking for electronics to flood their senses with audiovisual pleasures. Those who cannot afford to shop here choose the discount periphery, where they get greeted with a smile even a thin wallet.
 
I am surprised by a young girl who sits across from me and opens a book.
 
"Miss, don't you feel awkward? To sit on a bench and read. How old-fashioned!"
 
"I don't feel awkward. Or old-fashioned. Curiosity and thirst for knowledge can never get old. I have many friends who read," she smiles.
 
"What about those mocking looks of passers-by?"
 
"I don't think they are mocking me. I think they are more afraid. They like their world the way it seems. They don't want anyone to disturb it for them with their thoughts. They are scared that suddenly I will want to change something and I will drag them into it. So they'd rather go to the movies."
 
"You don't go to the movies?"
 
"Of course I do. The world can be depicted in images too. But you have to be ready for a movie because it dictates the conditions. I cannot influence the pace of thoughts, and I cannot easily go back to them either. When I read a book here, in front of a fountain, in a park, or at home, I can play with a single thought for hours," she says, and again starts to unravel those thousands of characters, so I do not want to disturb her any more.
 
Instead, I start watching a little old lady, tossing some grain to the pigeons. "Flying rats," they said about them many times, and children startle their flocks with screaming. The little old lady always saddens, and waits for them to come back. I swallow a sentimental tear. People do not want to let the building facades become ruined, but they do not seem to mind the ruined souls of their residents, looking for comfort in animals.
 
The sun slowly sets and with it the first half of my day. I always look forward to the second half more. The night life.
 
You can measure the evolution of a man depending on how his personality becomes more distant from an animal. But you have to see through all the masks that he acquires during his life. That is why I love to watch the night life. I can see the animal instincts come alive again, stripped of their mask of a thousand year blanket of civilization.
 
All those who just a moment ago were running around on the chessboard with a serious expression on their face and the thought of the today's goal ahead of them, will start losing their weariness of life, inhibitions and dignity, with every minute.
 
The Friday night drunkenness has become a stronger commandment than the Sunday Sabbath, and beware of those who do not participate - they will have nothing to talk about for the rest of the week.
 
All members of the evening procession have their prescribed spots. Teenagers with large visors and artificially savage facial expressions first go to the park. Men with gelled hair and elegant ladies drive to exclusive bars downtown. The proletariat occupies pubs in the suburbs.
 
I am safe here - everyone who enters downtown, will be subjected to the eyes of the electronic camera, so the audacious attempt to urinate in my fountain is quickly staved off. But I prefer not to look any farther into the dark corners.
 
I pondered about the night anachronism of people many times. Perhaps it is my fault too. Maybe I tire people, make them unhappy, they say to themselves: "There is nothing to do in this city other than get plastered." But my role is passive, I am not the creator, I am being created. Those who tied their strings to another Genius soon found out that neither he had the power to liberate them.
 
With the night progressing, professionals of the oldest trades start emerging. Women, nonchalantly leaning against the walls, but despite the myths, not twirling their handbags, ogle the passers-by with looks, which drowned the attraction a long time ago. Men creeping in the shadows, looking through the pockets of street sleepers. Natural born philosophers with long beards make their beds on benches with plastic bottles for a pillow, but also the young meaning of life seekers with wild hairdos.
 
One of them is juggling torches. No string is coming out of his head. Strange.
 
"Boy, would you like to attach your string to me?"
 
"No, I'm searching," he responds, carefully watching the flames.
 
"Does it have anything to do with the meaning of life?" I inquire impatiently.
 
"Yes."
 
"Perhaps you'll find it with the help of my string."
 
"No, I already found it."
 
"I don't understand?!"
 
"The meaning of my life is to look for the meaning of life," he said, and the torches fall on the ground.
 
So he did find it, after all. I will try another group, standing in the shadow of the park.
 
"Have you found the meaning of life, boy?" I ask the biggest one of them with a shaved head.
 
"Yes, the meaning is in the nation."
 
"Which nation?"
 
"Ours, of course."
 
"So what is the meaning of life of the other nations?"
 
He hesitates. "Also nation."
 
"So the meaning of life for people on Earth collides."
 
"I guess... yes. That's why we have to defend our nation. We must not allow the foreigners to threaten us."
 
"Couldn't we agree on some kind of a common goal?" I try, sheepishly.
 
"No. If you cannot assert yourself and your thing, you're nothing. You cannot back off, because when you take a step back, somebody else will take your place and you cannot go back. Quit bothering me with these anarchist thoughts," he concludes the dialogue.
 
I let him go. Genius Loci contains everything, black and white, and closing my eyes will only make it darker.
 
I count the night wounds. A dozen broken windows, two lamps, several overturned trash cans, some litter thrown away on the ground. Some nostalgic spirits, who reminisce about the middle ages, consider these numbers cruel. They say people are pigs, that pigsties have a nicer atmosphere. But give me a break - could you break a lamp in the middle ages? Hardly. Stone pavement, stone houses, wood shutters. If you wanted to rebel, you went off to a war. And you could not spill litter from your pockets on the ground, because every tiny piece of paper was valuable. And quickly, I push out of my mind the thought of raw sewage flowing through my streets.
 
Perhaps the trash dripping from our fingers is our demonstration of a hidden lust for freedom and riddance of all tangible baggage, as my seeker with flames would say. Either way, the city quickly grew an organ in the shape of street sweepers, slowly walking the streets, who sweep the trash under the carpet at dawn.
 
It is getting increasingly difficult to absorb forty years within one day. Where are the times when I woke up five times in a row, and an hour later I was chasing butterflies. Fortunately, people are like clay figurines - you can mold them this way or that way, give them an extra arm or take a leg, but you still know what to expect from that material.
 
That is why I like my time of falling asleep. I see children squinting into the rising sun with their eyes still shut, marching to school. Next time I wake up, I will be evaluating their work.
 
Only I have to take a deep breath every time before I open my eyes for the first time. Sometimes their daily games end in ruins and chaos, and the spirit will wake up to an empty city. But I trust my own, so I fall asleep at peace.

© 2006–2017, International Visegrad Fund.
   
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