I SPENT THE academic year 1975–1976 in Moscow, on an exchange program run by the education ministries of Yugoslavia and the USSR. The students who were most eager to study in the USSR were budding pianists (such as the virtuoso Ivo Pogorelić), ballerinas, and mathematicians. I had come to research material in the Moscow and Leningrad libraries about Boris Pilnyak, a Russian avant-garde writer. I began my study of Russian avant-garde culture at a time when it was still in the deep freeze as a field, despite the post-Stalin “thaw” and the official rehabilitation of the avant-garde artists. Furthermore, the political systems and the relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were of no interest whatsoever to me, even though “politics” had profoundly shaped the destinies of my parents and implicitly my own. My mother was from Bulgaria and had come to live in Yugoslavia after the war. However, because of the rift between Tito and Stalin, which isolated Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc, she became likewise isolated from her parents, and couldn’t visit them for the next 10 years, until diplomatic relations finally resumed between the two countries.
Although inseparable from it, this other dimension of the story — its “political” side — only caught my attention once I was in Moscow. There was no method to my mastery of this other dimension: it proceeded chaotically, randomly, as one detail or another jumped out at me. I studied through gestures, tastes, sounds, looks, grimaces, images, ticks, scenes. I soaked the environment up through my skin, with a disregard for data, for the testimony and experience of others. Yes, I was brash, yet I was in no hurry to face the reason for my brashness. Although I had come from Yugoslavia, I enjoyed some of the privilege of the West European students there because, like them, I was protected by a fragile, trivial, yet oh so powerful little item: my passport.
Out for a stroll, I one day happened to wander onto Red Square. It was the First of May and the famous May Day Parade was underway. The scene was neither as politically nor aesthetically exotic for me as it was for my colleagues from Western countries. Tito also had a penchant for spectacle. Still, for whatever reason, I found the sight deeply exciting. Soldiers marched through the square, their legs flung high with each step, one after another tanks crawled by at a turtle-like pace. Members of the political and military elite stood obediently in the bandstands. On the chests of the elite, like clouds of gnats, gleamed their medals. The multitudes rubbed shoulders on the square. This massive militaristic scenography was both fearsome and surreal — it was childish, as if the soldiers weren’t real but were little toy soldiers made of lead. The soldiers were in stark contrast to the surrounding festive colors. And from the hatches on the tops of the tanks, whence peered the heads of other soldiers, “grew” flowers. Next to each soldierly neck was a huge flower on a long, wire stem. The viewers greeting the parade brandished identical flowers planted on long wire stems, which made them look even smaller than they were. I recognized those flowers. The sight took me back to the “promenade of flowers,” as we’d called our childhood parades. When I was in elementary school, we marched through our little town, four abreast, like tidy flower beds. One year we — the little girls in the first and second grades — wore red dresses and little red hats. We were poppies. All of our dresses were made of the same flowing crêpe paper.
Like a powerful magnet, the scene dredged up a memory of something else. Apparently from an altogether different planet. The book I was remembering is called The Wizard of the Emerald City, or, in the language of its (false) author, A. Volkov: Volshebnik izumrudnogo goroda. Thought of this early book from my childhood had been supplanted by the memory of its cousin, with a slightly different title: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, penned by a different author, L. Frank Baum. And ultimately the movie The Wizard of Oz, was released in 1939 — based on Baum’s book. The confusion stemmed from the custom of Soviet publishers of the day to appropriate a foreign book, repurpose it in keeping with Soviet ideology, and insert a Russian author on the title page. This is how the false Volkov and the censured version of The Wizard found their way to Yugoslavia. It was only when the 1939 film by Victor Fleming, based on Baum’s novel, came out that Baum’s authorship — at least as far as the countries of Eastern Europe were concerned — was finally recognized.
At that moment, in Moscow, the First of May, 1976, I began feeling as if I could no longer say my name, or give the time, or say where I was, in what country, at what juncture of experience and culture, and on which, devil take it, planet this was all happening. I was hemmed in by a crowd of affable, colorful little Munchkins, and soon I’d be setting out with my trusty retinue along the yellow-brick road, on our way to Oz, where a famous wizard would send me back home — to Kansas.
I wondered why the Red Square scene brought me back memories of the yellow-brick road to Oz. Could it be that only I, among the hundreds of thousands of people in the Red Square that day, was reading the mighty political spectacle as if it were a child’s fairy tale? Or was it that I was reading the child’s fairy tale as if it were a mighty political spectacle, in which the valiant crew — Dorothy Gale, that little girl, with her dog Toto and her trusty companions, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion — was setting out in search of a heart, a brain, courage, and a way home? Brain, heart, courage, home.
The transformation of this text, originally meant for children, into a megatext meant for everyone, began in 1900, as soon as Baum’s book was first published. But only when the movie came out in 1939 did the story catapult into the world canon of texts. There aren’t many texts that rise to this textual orbit. For the Christian world, one such megatext is the Bible. But it wasn’t the many cinematic and other versions of The Wizard of Oz that boosted the status of the text, nor was it the vast industry that grew up around it after the movie became a hit, nor was even the official canonization from above, from the US Library of Congress, which declared Wizard “America’s greatest and best loved homegrown fairy tale,” and the “most watched movie ever.” The Wizard did not resonate with the Bible because the name of the land of Oz could possibly have been modeled on the biblical land of Uz. Millions of people the world over have embraced the text, many of whom have never in their lives read a single line of the Bible. The vast majority of people the world over experienced Donald Trump as if he were Baum’s wizard: a cheat, a liar, a charlatan and a dilettante, a more or less dangerous shyster, even without first consulting The Wizard of Oz.
So why didn’t the multitudes rush to tear down the curtain and expose the impostor?! Toto, the little dog, did. That little demystifier. Was the pup smarter than us people? Toto followed his instinct and curiosity, while we follow faith. The little dog knew nothing of utopia — he was not dreaming of a land of luscious bones. We, however, always long for a utopia. We, humanity, are strung out on utopia. We’re utopia addicts. And we bump up against the wall every time, unfailingly choosing the worst option. We set out, brimming with the belief that we’ll find Oz and courage, heart, brain, and home, and instead bump into a wizard-charlatan. And what’s worse, though Toto the pooch tugged back the curtain so he could expose the deception, we gratefully embrace the falsified academic diploma from the charlatan certifying that the straw in our heads is a brain, that the plastic heart proves we have a heart. We proudly accept the bogus gold medal, declaring to everyone that we have courage.
Could we have done differently?
Maybe not. Who knows, maybe our behavior follows a long-set pattern, an archetype. Maybe we’re open only to mythical thinking, and know nothing else nor are able to comprehend anything else. Maybe the wizard-charlatan can also do no differently, because he has been preordained to deceive according to an ancient blue print. Weren’t Stalin and Hitler wizards of Oz? Isn’t Zeus a wizard of Oz? Isn’t God, the one who slapped the world together in a mere seven days “in his image, in his likeness,” the charlatan of Oz? Isn’t Jesus Christ — he who walks on water and feeds millions with a single fish and rises from the dead when so inclined — one of the greatest wizard-charlatans? And isn’t his mother, the Virgin Mary, she who reigns with the ruse of the immaculate conception while abandoning us to wallow in our sin — isn’t she a great wizard, who has passed her powerful genes on to her son? And furthermore, who created whom: Did we create our fairy tales, or did they create us? Are memes, our cultural genes, to be credited with civilizations and their collapse, because we are what we are, determined not to change? Is not Kim Kardashian — who entertains us by plumping up her bottom and cinching in her waist, and by batting her lashes, which she manipulates like fans — actually a latter-day Virgin Mary? We sit before our screens, as before a church altar, transfixed, poised to follow her and adore her.
So where is this Oz, anyway? And where is home? What is our true address? Where did we start, and where are we going? Where are the maps? Why do we stubbornly insist on following the yellow-brick road? Isn’t there another road we could follow? Who told us to take this one? The Munchkins?!
If, for instance, instead of voting in local elections on a Sunday, we chose to take our children to an astronomical observatory, we might cast an eye there upon a map, something we far too seldom do. We live on an insignificant little ball. It is our home. We are floating here among other similar balls. Some are smaller, some larger. Some, or at least so they appear on the map, are at the center, others on the outskirts. We are on the outskirts, living on a run-down (black-and-white) farm in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in an outer-space Kansas.
Our maps are mythical. Perhaps this is the source of our stubborn insistence to seek shelter under the roofs of vast religious, political, social, and cultural systems. Seeking Oz, we follow the good old, well-trodden yellow-brick road. And in so doing we run from our own reflection the way the devil runs from incense.
We’re waiting for an answer that is not forthcoming, perhaps because we aren’t asking the right questions. Do we, Europeans, want, for instance, to find ourselves living in microstates, as forecast by the low-budget Netflix series Tribes of Europa? The series opens with a scene filmed in my neck of the woods, on the territory of Yugoslavia, the modern Atlantis, a land that no longer exists. Serving as a symbol of destruction is Vojin Bakić’s devastated monument on Petrova Gora, one of the last exemplars of Yugoslav modernism, known as the Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija. Populism, currently ascendant, is meanwhile begetting sculptures of its tribal leaders. Local people whose numbers were already thinned by wars (World War II and the conflict we’re calling the recent war of 1991–1995) and by migrations, involuntary or otherwise, are being thinned yet again by earthquakes, pandemic, poverty. Even the “natural” post-apocalyptic scenography of Bakić’s monument is right there. Perhaps the new European political and social constellation will be marked as Europe’s return to its (better?) tribal past?
Has the digital revolution already reset our DNA, our “mythic” cultural meme, and opened new horizons, more reliable models, or has the opposite happened? Doesn’t an attractive Oz exist somewhere in the realm of post-truth? Hasn’t the internet — with its cheap technological wiles, games, and guiles so readily accessible to all — opened the door to new political constellations, to a “society of spectacle” (as Guy Debord termed it some 50 years ago), or a “civilization of spectacle” (Mario Vargas Llosa, more recently)? Is “spectacle” the new social and political constellation, which Dorothy, consoling Toto, describes poignantly as “someplace where there isn’t any trouble” “over the rainbow,” “behind the moon,” “beyond the rain”?
And then, haven’t we, barbarians, created a high-level technological civilization which our infantile mind can no longer control? Will we revert to a tribal social constellation, or will we set off again in search of Oz? Will we adapt and reinvent ourselves to become a new people, compatible with the incoming technology? If this proves impossible, will we seek the assistance of cheaters, liars, charlatans — who are the new transhuman wizards this time around?
Mark Zuckerberg, the “wizard of cyberspace,” is offering us his new Meta platform, a trouble-free place “over the rainbow,” “behind the moon,” “behind the rain.” One of the richest and, hence, most powerful charlatans in the world, he promises that instead of his Facebook chatroom, he will open a “Disneyland,” a posthuman rumpus room for adults. In this rumpus room, we’ll live a parallel life. All we need to do is follow the yellow-brick cyber road.
Elon Musk — 2021 man of the year (according to Time magazine), shaman, visionary, clown, genius, business mogul, “Minister of Magic” — has paved the road with gold brick on his spaceward trajectory. According to Elon Musk, Oz is located in outer space.
Another even more powerful financial shell-gamer, Jeff Bezos hastened to do the same. Bezos has not only confirmed that Oz is in outer space, he is guaranteeing travel to anyone who is prepared to shell out the two or three hundred thousand dollars for the ticket.
While our infantile wizards, holding us in their thrall, are currently paving a road out into space on their way to mythical Oz, 80 million desperate earthlings are stumbling along yellow-mud roads in search of Oz, hoping to find courage, heart, and brain — and possibly home. Many of them are dying on their way to Oz, they’re giving up on overcoming obstacles, and many do not even have a clear sense of where and what Oz might be.
Oz no longer seems part of Western Europe. Europe has raised barbed-wire fencing in many places, clearly signaling to the thousands of refugees, “rats,” that they are undesirable. And while the Evil Witch of the West defends her territory with the help of a pack of wolves (and flying monkeys), Western Europe is defending its borders with police “dogs,” Polish, Hungarian, Croatian. We all have our “rats” (for Croats these are Serbs), because the “rats” — who must be driven out — serve as proof that we exist. Returning from Technicolor Oz to black-and-white Kansas, Dorothy utters the oft-quoted lie: There’s no place like home.
And indeed, there’s no place like home because there’s no home anymore. How can we expect, today, in posthuman society, that ideas from the human repertoire such as heart, brain, courage, and home will have for us, new people, any meaning at all? Posthuman people bow down before their posthuman charlatans who continue to stir in us hope that an Oz really does exist. We seem to have all gone from being players to being toys. And everything may stop, just not the game.
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać
Dubravka Ugrešić is a European author whose novels, short stories, and essays have won wide acclaim, and who is the winner of, among other awards, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She is based in Amsterdam.