Verba Volant, Scripta Manent

Dear Reader,

Walking through the streets of Sofia, one can’t help but think that Bulgarians are a nation of staunch supporters of written communication.

Indeed, the city is full of funny, deep, or quite illiterate slogans, short dialogues, signatures, love confessions, expletives, statements of allegiance to football teams or political causes, fully-fledged paintings, or totally utilitarian messages such as street names or numbers of buildings.

A 1965 cartoon by Tenyo Pindarev. A Bulgarian girl is taking a group of foreigners to visit what looks like a medieval Bulgarian fortress. The walls of the fortress are all covered in messages of the kind I described above. One of the foreigners points at them saying: “It’s good that alongside your historic landmarks, we’ve come to know your letters!” Source: Tenyo Pindarev Art Catalogue, Sofia, 2006.

To more enlightened minds, the world may be a chessboard or a stage, but to too many of its inhabitants, Sofia must surely be little more than a giant blackboard one can use to record thoughts at as they come.

That’s close to where I live. Dialogue goes like this: “Did You Make Somebody Happy Today?” Reply No. 1. NO. Reply No. 2. Only Through My Existence. I pictured a curious graffiti reading “Poetry Will Save Your Soul” at the end of this post.

The more civilisationally repressed of us pour our souls into blogs that they pay for, the less so act directly where inspiration strikes. What’s common however is this – everybody is a scribbler, and everybody has an agenda.

I saw this in Lovech, a town I briefly visited this weekend. The inscription, delivered in impeccable grammar and punctuation, says “The Things You Own Own You.” Hear, hear.
This is close to where my parents live. It says “Don’t Drink, Don’t Use Drugs, Don’t Watch TV.” Some smartass has corrected the anti-drug admonition to “Use Drugs” but what to do. Everybody contributes to the best of their ability.
Brandys’ book in Bulgarian, published in 1966. I took it from the village I described here.

I have recently discovered the wonderful book Letters to Mrs. Z, written between 1957 and 1961 by opinionated Polish essayist Kazimierz Brandys (1916-2000). It consists of long and argumentative letters Brandys writes to a Mrs. Z in Warsaw while travelling across Italy. Topics cover a wide choice of subjects having to do with one’s self-perception and (national or other) identity.



Turns out that Brandys’ book, which is SO not for children, was a gift my dad received from two friends of his on the occasion of his tenth birthday, if the inscription inside the book is any indication. This is what I call precocious, as my dad received Pippi Longstocking on the occasion of his ninth birthday from his dad, as the inscription inside that book tells me.

Brandys’ tone is rather aggressive and peremptory, in a way that leaves one impatiently wishing to interrupt him and argue with him, if one could. At one point he writes to Mrs. Z – I don’t care whether you’re actually pleased to receive my letters, I can’t help writing them, and I am simply following my agenda.

It may have to do with the levels of alienation of our – the Polish and the Bulgarian – societies, but I feel that the urge of Bulgarians to cover our shared urban environment with random bits of self-expression stems from a rather similar mindset that hides frustration from an unanswered need. It’s the need of human bondage.

Tenyo Pindarev’s Diogenes is looking for an honest man.
Grandpa Dobre, of whom I told you here, on the side of a building. The inscription above his head reads “Kindness and Honesty.” Source: Click here.

According to Brandys, people spend most of their time being transparent, or invisible, to those around them. This means that people interact within a city but they actually look past one another, unaware and uncaring of each other’s state, thoughts, mood, or situation. This invisibility is hard enough to bear within one’s country, but increases noticeably when one is abroad.

Consequently, polite conversation, small talk, or professional talk  do not help decrease this transparency, but rather augment it, as both forms of exchange all too often reach a point beyond which communication disintegrates by lack of resonance and lack of content. In other words, Brandys tells Mrs. Z, many of the ties binding people, often at home but even more often abroad, are not strong enough to make people want to validate each other’s existence through exchange going beyond the indispensable.

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No Hatred, these graffiti say. Source: Click here.

According to Brandys, there are two ways to deal with this situation of silence. One is to pretend that it is fine and enough, another is to face it and reach out to a far away person of one’s kind – a compatriot and/or simply one with similar views or sensibilities. In this sense, writing a letter is casting a shadow where one is not present physically, in a move decreasing one’s overall transparency and creating ties of thought anchoring one into visible existence in one’s missing milieu, whether it is their far away country or a vague constellation of attitudes and sensibilities.

The attitudes and sensibilities of an unknown author have made them draw an icon of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on a hut wall inside the Devetashka Cave I have talked for a bit here. The other scribblings are the usual silly lot, which made this icon stand out all the more.

Thus, Brandys argues, composing a written message is consoling and liberating in itself, but having messages sent in response is the balmy beginning of communication. This communication ensures one’s place in the everyday flow of things which, according to Brandys, is made up of moral categories and ordeals, obligations and responsibilities, which all shape us into who we are. 

Bulgaria is Super Cool. These graffiti are painted throughout Sofia. Source: Click here.

So, to cut the long story short, I believe that the varied and abundant messages that can be read on buildings and fences across Sofia, are invitations to other transparent individuals to beat transparency together by consolidating around a set of moral categories, obligations and responsibilities that they might want to share. 

Keeping Pace with the Times. The monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia often turns up painted according to the political passions of the day. Source: Click here.

For goodbye, an existential question that was part of a lesson on graffiti I encountered at about 11 in an English language textbook called Streetwise.

If Batman is so clever, why does he wear his underpants outside?