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Lusitania

Dejan Atanacković
(Introduction and Chapter 1)
© Besna kobila 2017

In 1912, soon after the unfortunate sinking of the Titanic, N., a renowned explorer of the great
northern oceanic expanse, informed the public of his extraordinary discovery regarding icebergs.
He was, in fact, the first explorer to establish the ratio between the visible and the submerged
portions of their ice mass and to conclude that the sections above and below the waterline always
stand in a proportion of one to eight. This, however, was not all. At a press conference the daring
adventurer declared that, in actual fact, inside each iceberg -- more accurately, in its hidden seven-
eighths -- was to be found an upside-down house. These were differently shaped houses, belonging
to various epochs, claimed N., who, in the course of his underwater exploration ascertained their
existence with his own eyes, albeit through the visor of his diving helmet. Not far from the L.
archipelago, N. asserted, an entire city, floating upside down, appeared before him. This realization
immediately offered the discerning N. a undoubtable insight into the nature and origin of icebergs.
Because, as he was soon to determine, every iceberg hosts one such house in its underwater belly.
An iceberg, announced N. to the perplexed members of the press corps, is formed when the island of
R. is gripped by such a cold winter that it, at times, freezes the entire island and frost swallows up
numerous houses -- abandoned and ice-fettered, they rise up and, severed from the ground, slide
down the steep shoreline and disappear into the sea. Some of the houses he observed were indeed
large, says N., genuine multistoried palaces (imagine, moreover, what enormity - taken
proportionally - hides under an ice mass rising several score meters above the waterline). Others
were quite modest, small homes and cottages, sheds and shanties; through the windows and glass
doors of each N. observed many well-preserved household items, kitchen cabinets and cupboards,
armchairs and chandeliers, lace curtains, libraries, toys, dishes and jugs, things that miraculously
survived -- undamaged, floating upside-down through the rooms, as if dancing. Once, before the
window of one of the smaller houses, N. watched -- long and in awe -- a glass of such delicacy that
it would apparently burst if only lightly touched, tapping gently against the window pane, as if
calling his name. It was in those rooms, N. announced in conclusion, that the greatest secret was
hidden: the secret of an abandoned house. It was a secret so big and so terrible that to some
observers -- for example to N. himself -- it must have made almost no difference whether these were
castles or log cabins. That’s just how deep their secret was. Journalists then watched N.’s
thoughtful and melancholic face as he became strangely quiet, as if the knowledge of the existence
of inverted underwater cities and the origin of icebergs appeared to him quite irrelevant compared
to that fragile, floating glass.
1

At the turn of the 20 century, Belgrade’s “Home for Those of Departed Mind” was an unusual and
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advanced institution. By the time doctor Dušan Stojimirović first stepped inside its premises, guests
were already welcomed by a committee formed of equal numbers of hospital staff and patients.
Everyone was entrusted with duties and obligations, no one was hierarchically superior to another
in the strict sense of the word -- even a quick glance at the hospital’s garden, abounding in
vegetables and flowers, and at all those dedicated to its maintenance, suggested the most singular
approach to the patient. Therapeutic methods such as immersing patients in water or soaking them
with cold showers, were strictly prohibited -- practices, then, quite frequent in many European and
American cities ordinarily associated with advanced psychiatric science. Tying patients to beds and,
generally speaking, any forms of physical restraint, were resorted to in extreme instances only.
Instead, in the spirit of the time, staff and patients alike gathered in choral singing with piano
accompaniment. The instrument was part of the legacy of doctor Romita, an exiled Carbonari from
Piedmont, whose express wish it had been for his home, popularly known as the Doctor’s Tower –
in all likelihood a faithful copy of a country villa in northern Italy – to be used for treatment of the
most challenging clinical cases of hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy and other unnamed
psychoses. As if to testify to the fact that doctor Romita had already been anticipating numerous
errors in the hastened diagnostics of his age, and sought an ally in time that invariably uncovers
truths, a mysterious inscription had been engraved into the supporting beam at the very center of the
main drawing room on the ground floor of the hospital, a single word formed by elegant floral
motifs: Pazienza.
Several decades later, in 1909, in this very hall, doctor Stojimirović introduced his renowned moral-
therapeutic practice of lecturing to patients and staff on a variety of topics, most frequently on the
diversity of social communities and their various organizations and structures. It was not unusual
for Stojimirović, for example, to devote a full two hours examining ideal cities, utopian states or
artificial languages, himself being apparently fully preoccupied with the thought that the future of
Mankind lay in comprehensive ideological principles and that the highest degree of human
happiness was attainable by proper and consistent application of formative ideas. For the sake of
completeness, Stojimirović abundantly illustrated his lectures with graphs and sketches on a
blackboard, and frequently made use of another convenient object from the legacy of the Italian
doctor, a bulky, early 19 century image projector – a lanterna magica – which, although adapted
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for electric charging, could suitably be run by lighting the originally installed oil lamp. Under its
rays of light the audience was afforded hand-painted photographs and reproductions of Urbino and
Pienza, of Palmanova fortress, of Fourier’s phalansteries, as well as pictures from the illustrated
editions of Campanella’s City of the Sun and More’s Utopia.

It was probably the uncommon organization of this turn of the century institution -- not unlike some
secluded utopian society -- that, during the first and then also the second Austro-Hungarian siege of
Belgrade, the hospital was simultaneously given particular attention and left totally to its own fate,
perhaps precisely due to generic belief in its apparent resilience. In other words, for all those of the
“departed mind”, the hundred and twenty guests of Belgrade’s psychiatric hospital, there was no
chance of an organized evacuation or withdrawal from the bombarded city. Therefore Stojimirović,
then thirty-five years old, was entrusted with the task -- or better, was issued orders -- to remain in
the occupied capital and deal with the situation the best he could. After all, the futility of the mad in
regard to modern society – geared above all toward productivity and war as the foundations of
progress – had everywhere determined the role of the asylum as a place to practice exclusion. Like
some upturned fortress, it exposed the patients’ bodies to the examination of the limits of pain and
endurance, a practice that years of exercise would come to climax in the Nazi concentration camps.
It was just such outcomes of the practices of the modern age -- the modernity which, in many ways,
had been founded on detention and the abuse of the madman -- that the Belgrade mental hospital
had condemned, and therefore created within itself an unusual social condition. It was isolated, yes,
but within the confines of a functional world beyond whose walls, after all, wars, coups, and the
assassination of rulers had raged for years – and now even the all-encompassing destruction of
Belgrade, with its institutions and symbols of national authority being expelled. In the candlelight, a
choir of patients and staff gathered, particularly during those nights of the most horrific artillery
fire, as there was nothing else to do but redirect their thoughts and muffle the sound of the
bombardment with their voices. (The choir of the mad, it was later said -- although harmonized and
melodious -- made the Austro-Hungarian soldier’s blood run cold, as they had no clue where that
song, so contrary to the circumstances, was coming from. And, in the abrupt moments of silence,
between the rounds of shelling, they pressed their hands over ears so as not to hear the sound of the
singing, so terrible and unreal, like the song of the Sirens.) Abandoned to the flow of events, and
himself under military oath, doctor Stojimirović was almost immediately arrested by the Austro-
Hungarian army as they marched into the devastated city, and was escorted to the command for
questioning. Convinced of having left a sufficient number of qualified staff for the proper care of
the patients, an Austrian officer, along with a German army doctor, never learned that all of the
arrangements they made regarding the hospital’s maintenance after Stojimirović’s arrest were
carried out with a patient who believed himself to be a psychiatrist. Playing out his conviction, this
nameless patient, left an exceptionally favorable impression both in terms of his professional
vocabulary and his readiness to cooperate. Today we can only speculate as to why the hospital staff
yielded communication with the occupation authorities to a patient. Perhaps it was because, in the
staff’s view, no one could have played that role better? Or perhaps it was because relations between
the staff and patients at the Home were such that everything had already been determined by roles,
as in a theater?

After all, the hospital’s theatric activities were practiced on quite regular basis, as part of everyday
therapeutic work in which everyone took part, in keeping with their adequacy, abilities or diagnosis:
reciting, writing texts, building the stage, singing... Thus emerged a play, of moral and curative
function, the only one of which a written trace remains, entitled What Runs Counter to Reason but
Fails to be Justified by Madness? Today, we know nothing of this play apart from the fact that each
participant was to declare in it something contrary to their own understanding of morals, as a sort of
rebuke to the world beyond the hospital walls, a world – this was already evident from the text –
perceived as essentially the opposite of everything reasonable. The fact that reason was a value
every patient, as a rule, almost religiously invoked, seeking from it both moral support and healing,
is borne out not only by the few preserved fragments of the play, but also by one clearly and
constantly evinced position reflected in all of the hospital’s activities. Reason and madness are but
two aspects of one and the same human fate that the forces of circumstance had separated. Reason,
therefore, is never opposed to madness – which is merely a stigmatized state of reason – but simply
to human stupidity. This position (which was frequently referred to in Stojimirović’s lectures) will
be discussed in more detail also in the papers he wrote during his temporary incarceration -- but
more on that later. Let us return for the moment to the above-mentioned play, to which it would be
perhaps quite unnecessary to ascribe any conventional character, as this was certainly a rather
alternative theater for its own time -- presumably without a pre-given text, rather a choral recitation
that, one may assume, unfolded in the following manner.
The play was enacted in a a dim room. One group wearing masks depicting animal faces – a badger,
an ox, a bear, a dog, a hare – would repeat in unison, as in a Greek tragedy, the title question: What
Runs Counter to Reason but Fails to be Justified by Madness? The images, lantern-projected on
walls or draperies, presented allegorical scenes – typical of drawings and photographic glass plates
of the time: comical displays of misdemeanors and felonies, thieves and political hacks, false
witnesses, fat cats, army officers, barrators... The alleged audience (alleged, since everyone present
was actor and audience at the same) would stand up one after the other and exclaim their answers to
the scenes presented: “Giving false promises! Strutting in borrowed plumes! Slander and false
accusation!” The choir then concurred, and responded as one voice: “Stupidity runs counter to
reason. Stupidity is the disease of the world”. The next series of images and responses would
follow: “Imposters! Deceiving oneself and others! Selling what’s not yours!” And the choir would
agree. Therefore the play continued until someone proclaimed they were tired, or announced that a
meal was ready to be served, or simply until someone decided it was time to do other things.

We can only speculate as to what exactly went on during Stojimirović’s absence, which lasted a full
fifteen days. The key role in his release from custody was to be played by a daring American doctor
named Edward Ryan -- of whom the international press wrote in abundance -- therefore
Stojimirović himself was well-informed even before the former’s arrival in Belgrade, about his
happily resolved troubles in Mexico. There, as an officer of the United States Army, entrusted with
the evacuation of American citizens, he was declared a spy by both warring sides, at their
convenience, until one night he was arrested twice: first, officially, by the military regime, and then,
unofficially, that very same night, in a clandestine rebel guerrillas’ operation. Blindfolded, before
realizing exactly what had befallen him, Ryan was brought to a place in which he found himself
surrounded by unfamiliar walls. There, by means of revolutionary justice, he was sentenced to death
in summary proceedings. For a number of days he was led out each morning to execution -- that is,
to a theater of execution in which victims were supposed to break down under the threat of a firing
squad. This charade was carried out up until a certain moment when the execution would suddenly
be delayed and the prisoner returned to his cell. The revolutionary authorities looked on in disbelief
at the sangfroid of this doctor who, despite their cruel game, could neither be broken, nor was it
possible to remove the defiant smirk from his face. That is, until some seasoned revolutionary got
sick of it all. Therefore, instead of the sentence being carried out, Ryan was eventually let off. Out
of spite, which presumably was the original motive for his kidnapping, he was returned under cover
of night to the same prison cell from which he had been abducted. Next morning he turned up
before the stunned guards and their superiors, who, for their part, were certainly capable of
reconciling themselves to the fact that a prisoner had disappeared, but that one should miraculously
reappear in the same cell several days later was so much outside their power of understanding that,
that very day, Ryan, like some diablerie to be avoided, he was once again freed, and soon found
himself once again on American soil.

The paths of our destinies sometimes cross in strange ways. Essentially, every encounter is
tantamount to a miracle when one thinks of the sum of the preceding coincidences that could have
foiled it. Still, when a significant meeting takes place, it appears to one that it could not have
happened otherwise. Indeed, the arrival of doctor Ryan in Belgrade made such an impact on
Stojimirović’s life that the latter, till the end of his days, never ceased to insist upon its importance.
The two doctors, without delay, entered the battle against the typhoid epidemic that was consuming
Serbia, organized aid to Belgrade’s Gypsies, sent out teams to the surrounding villages, while they
themselves ceaselessly ran around shell-strewn Belgrade to visit vulnerable families. American
flags were flown on both hospitals -- the general and the mental -- at doctor Ryan’s initiative,
resulting in them both being spared the German and Austrian shelling, at least during that first year
of the war.

There was, at that time, a Serbian army major in charge of the last defense of Belgrade, entrusted
with making the difficult decisions that go along with such a position, including the words that need
to be said at the right place and at the right time so that history could take them down for
safekeeping beneath its fragile wing. The past in these lands, as is well known, can be quite
unpredictable -- much more so than the future, which, for good or bad, invariably lends itself to
predictability, if for no other reason than the certainty of the incurable repetition of stupidity. And,
the more stupidity is borne out by even more numerous and futile victims, the more certain is its
repetition. It befell this major – owing to some patriotic reckoning – to send to death that handful of
remaining troops who had just barely survived all those many days of siege and to dash the few
remaining hopes of their families, since there was only their collective, romantic suicide left to
stand up to the already undisputed superiority of the occupying forces. Aware that this was
precisely what was expected of him, an original idea dawned on the major, an idea that -- had that
story been diffused to the public at large in its genuine form -- was certain to have altered the
outlook upon history as a selection of usable moments that only serve to degrade the value of
individual human life, while the event itself would have become, as we would put it nowadays, an
efficient paradigm of successful media strategies. Awaiting the Austro-German army’s final assault,
the major rallied his remaining two battalions and several officers and delivered to them his
renowned, historic speech: he informed the troops that they had been erased from the list of the
living, and that, already dead as they are, should have no qualms about throwing themselves into the
jaws of the enemy to inflict upon them whatever losses they could. He then dismissed his
subordinate officers – seven in all – and ordered them to retreat forthwith, taking with them the
above-mentioned speech, written by hand on a piece of paper, so that they -- first by telegraph and
then by word of mouth -- could convey to their common superiors his historic words. For the major,
then, there was only one remaining thing to do – to carry out the final charge. Therefore, after
seeing off the bearers of his perhaps last recorded message, he quickly headed toward his already
scrapped regiment of three hundred boys, speechless with fear, and, in the silence that suddenly
ensued, he ordered in a thunderous voice:
“Heroes! Once again, listen to me carefully. At exactly 13:30 hours, while the hateful invaders’
lunch break still lasts, you will one by one sneak out behind this tavern, then proceed by the flower
shop, uphill through Dorćol, after which you’re free to do as you will – but quietly, so that no one
will hear or see you. After that, you will go on living what remains of your lives. God willing, the
remainder of your life will be a long, good, and worthy one! As for me, there’s no other choice but
to stay behind to defend the undefendable -- and that’s what is meant to be. And God willing, I’ll
survive that torment too, who knows, perhaps even by the mercy of the enemy, if they’re not too
keen on going after me. As for you, heroes, I wish you to make the nation proud by studying at
advantageous schools, raising good families, and forever keeping yourself clear of the military and
war. So onward, to glory!”
Several hours later an Austrian scout, crawling on his hands and knees, surprised by the total
silence, finally reached the Serbian army’s position. There was not a living soul to be found there,
and uniforms lay all around, as if the bodies within them had evaporated. The scout felt stupid for
having crawled for so long and, giving up crawling, he stood up as if finding himself suddenly on
some scenic promenade. The day was sunny and pleasantly breezy, ideal for a walk along the river,
so he strolled along in his usual manner until he reached the tavern before which sat the major.
There the startled scout drew his weapon in fright, and an exchange of gunfire ensued -- although
the major did so rather unwillingly, as if he were loath to get to his feet. As a result, he was
wounded and the scout ran away in dismay. Soon after, at exactly 15:00 hours, the entire host of
Austrian-German army of overtired, muddy young men with aged faces, poured in and seized the
deserted tavern, finding only an emptied glass of quince brandy and several drops of blood on one
of the chairs. As for the major, although he could not have been far, there was no trace of his
whereabouts. It was all for the best anyhow.

In mid-October Belgrade was taken. How heavy a toll the invading army paid became clear only
when the Austrian soldiers, dying as they walked, begin arriving in the city. Carrying their dead in
clusters, they huddled in throngs, and those who survived bore on their faces all of the senselessness
of waging war for an empire. Ryan was engaged in extending help to the hundreds of wounded, and
thereby gained the confidence of the occupation authorities. He learned of Stojimirović’s arrest and
day in day out insisted on his release, finally convincing the Austrian and German authorities of his
friend’s undeniable significance to maintaining the hospital. At long last Stojimirović was acquitted
of military responsibility, which, truth be told, was a relief from considerable hassle and a heavy
weight lifted from the shoulders of the invading army. No one was too keen, anyway, to take charge
of a madhouse. In an unexpected decision, even the original intention of evacuating the hospital for
military needs was altered and Belgrade’s mental hospital was granted a unique exterritorial status.
The Home became an independent territory, a state within a state, encircled by fear and the stigma
of mental illness. Like any autonomous territory, it gained the right to have no one interfere in its
internal affairs, to communicate with the rest of the world through official representatives, as well
as full respect for the inviolability of its borders.

When Stojimirović, after a fifteen-day incarceration, returned to the hospital, he found there a
somewhat changed situation. He was met, formally and with pronounced seriousness, by a fully
formed parliament made up of all one hundred and twenty patients and a few staff members who
proceeded to nominate him for the post of prime minister. They informed him about the documents
drawn up during his absence, as well as about the state-building symbols; first of all those regarding
the state anthem, scored for a choir with piano accompaniment which, as far as we know, borrowed
its opening bars from a Schubert lied, as attested to by a part of the preserved musical notation. The
title of this unconventional anthem was:

Sooner Or Later You Will All Turn Dumb

All it takes, Stupidity knows,
to obtain the most with the least trouble
is to let all the stupid ones hope
that all that’s stupid pays off double.

Some have always laughed in her face,
and many have dared above her to rise.
Some took her lightly and then went their ways
merely to leave her safe in despise.

And so, Stupidity rises, overcomes and reigns,
for all to see, or in a disguise,
for it’s through another’s errors that it gains,
and surely most excellently thrives.

To state her most irrefutable proof
before any crowd she will proudly come
shouting: “Stupidity’s always right, for
sooner or later you will all turn dumb!”

Once she wins and overpowers,
no cure will be found among the clever,
for it will be in her stupid nature
to grow and spread for ever and ever.

And when her reign, one hopeful day,
some huge obstruction does impede
even that will be nothing but
Stupidity’s own stupid deed.
(At times, at such outcome, out of pure despair
“a triumph of Reason” we tend to declare.)
Dejan Atanacković (Belgrade, 1969) teaches several university courses in the field of visual arts and culture
in Florence and Siena. He collaborates with the Florentine Museum of Natural History on his course “Body
Archives”, dedicated to the history of representation of the human body. In the past few years, he lead
workshops based on a dialogue between students and psychiatric patients. In Belgrade, in collaboration with
the Museum of Contemporary Art, he initiated “Another Gaze”, a project for “new narrative itineraries”. As
a visual artist, since the 1990s, he has realized many solo exhibitions and curatorial projects. Some of
Atanacković's works are part of museum collections. Lusitania is his first novel.