A border stone exists since a path is a print on the earth.
A man laying down a border stone is marking where his property ends, the space of his homeland. Not only is he marking his possession of it, and his belonging to it, but also his own separateness. That is how he gives himself a name.
Borders rest deep within us all, providing support for our imaginations and locating us in our place under the sun. They should not be violated.
A border stone used to be defensive.
It fortifies. It’s closing us within our own, in an introverted circle.
It defines the limes, our civilisation’s border, beyond which lurk the barbarians; or a buffer along the border, beyond which lies a different nation (since we live in nation-states); or the boundary of our farm; or our front door; or the threshold of our apartment, demarcating the point beyond which we find our neighbour – the Other.
A man who lacks the instinct of self-defence perishes.
A man who has a besieged-fortress mentality kills, and if he himself dies, a plague befalls those within the walls.
It sometimes happens that a man draws on the border stone only the defensive strength. This is how he forms his own culture, handed down from generation to generation. He feels good among his own kind. He does not like to travel much, and forgets about the code that accompanies a culture of dialogue. The Other becomes a threat. For him, it is torture every time guests must be received, and he must show a familiarity with the principles of savoir vivre in front of his neighbours. He begins to develop complexes. He reinforces his borders. He stands guard at the entrance gate.
The culture of the national state is that of the gatekeeper.
Close. This has not been brought about by a sudden slamming shut of the gate. The closening lasts over generations. It has had its inevitabilities, its triumphs and praise, as well as its heroes and geniuses. Over time, it engenders many habits, various approaches, traditions, and a certain mentality… And it erases all traces of the Other, opposing and forgetting him.
A man raised in this culture erases the foreign-sounding names on old monuments, without any sense that he is missing anything in particular by doing so.
He knows nothing about the polyphony, and is deaf to the harmony of one voice joined by others.
For him, dissonance always sounds off-key.
He strives to be self-sufficient and to encompass the universum within himself. The limes that he defines thus no longer embraces the entire civilisation, but rather his own nation – making those beyond its borders into “foreigners”, and, most often, enemies.
A closed culture is created virtually imperceptibly.
Those who believe that the gates to their world remain open until they hear them slam shut are merely deluding themselves.
The culture of private property is that of the gatekeeper.
The entire space of the Western world is delineated by private property, with signs announcing: “Keep Out”, “No Trespassing”, “No Entry”. Gatekeepers stand near these signs, on edge. They are concerned for the sake of peace and quiet, and for their own safety.
The Other appears as a threat once again, though merely keeping him at bay does not change the fact that inside the walls there is sure to be more unrest than peace and safety.
In this culture, there is no longer a servant acting as a doorman.
He was a slave yearning for his freedom.
In this culture, there is now a lord on his estate, with capital that is increasing, and it is he who is now the gatekeeper. He does not yearn for his freedom because he does not even know he is a slave.
Western culture does not yearn for its freedom.
It, too, has been in the process of closing for generations. It, too, has its lofty values, its martyrs and great victories. And it, too, has been closing imperceptibly, without any great slamming shut of its gates.
It is natural for a man to possess something of his own, to improve his property, and to protect it like his own child. There is nothing immoral about this. Worse, however, is if the agora disappears along with it – that place where people can meet others, where views can be exchanged, where there is motion, a place of confrontations and polemics.
If it does, then the places where people live turn into long, straight streets, intersecting less and less, mere extensions of people’s private property, with their own guarded gates. The little crooked streets disappear – those that become narrower the closer they get to the city centre, bringing people together more the narrower they become, tempting them with cafés and clubs, drawing them out of their homes – at least in the evenings – and beckoning them to the market square that is everyone’s to share.
Agora – that meeting place that gave rise to democracy itself – has ceased to be the centre of that space.
The culture of private property has transposed the centre there,
to people’s private possessions, which are self-sufficient, and armed with increasingly perfect technology that enables them to communicate with the outside world. Except that they are within thick wall, with its ever-vigilant gatekeeper, always on edge.
A person who has lost his agora is not capable of giving or receiving gifts.
One such gift to another can take the shape of a celebration that binds the community, creating a basis for its very existence.
In the language of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, the potlatch was just this kind of gift, a word that Marcel Mauss has translated as “to nourish”. In their material culture, a representation of the gift was “eaten” during the act of giving, and the gift was only consumed at that moment – here I am drawing on the work of Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift – “when it moves from one hand to another with no assurance of anything in return.”
The Indians, however, in their later ceremonies also did not do anything to prevent the erosion of the original meaning of potlatch.
In our culture, a gift has become a present, faded and multiplied to
the point of being erased completely by wealth, made into something purely material in nature, something conditional, something given without any sense of the needs of the gift’s recipients.
A present makes us dependent; a gift makes us free.
A present ensnares us through possession. A gift exists thanks to possession, but it goes beyond that, giving possession sense through the careful giving of a gift to someone else. Maybe that is why the Haida Indians called their potlatch “killing wealth”. And maybe that is why a gift hears the Other.
A present is at home in the culture of receiving, passive,
in a conditional exchange.
A gift is at home only in an active culture, in one of participation.
It leads you onto the path.
A man who looks over his shoulder, checking to see how he can get ahead and expecting some kind of reward, is not someone on the path.
A gift is the path that takes us through the agora.
That path does not go back on itself, and the gift does not expect
to be reciprocated.The path learns about returning by going forward, and a gift enriches unconditionally.
A border stone abound in ambiguities.
It influences those nearby in different ways.
And people and borders are always in close proximity, just like animals and the forest.
Man places a border stone out of his fear of infinity, of spatial limitlessness.
He places it, because to be everywhere is to be nowhere.
And “nowhere” is not a human’s real name.
So he searches for his own place.
Space without a border stone is one of rootlessness.
The path goes along, searching for a place.
How the path practices is how it finds its place – there is no other that can be found.
The path and the border stone rooted us in a space that is infinite, nameless, and overgrown.
They get our bearings in the world, as the sun and stars do.
We take our bearings from them – we who have survived
the cataclysms of the twentieth century, we who inhabit the landscape after
the end of the world, where the “exiled and lost were at home” (Celan).
An inhabitant of this areas where orchards have grown wild, where memory has overgrown, and where bridges have been torn down – mostly a newcomer from somewhere else, because there are few natives left now –
he must place his border stone anew – in other words, he must now define himself. He must do it in a new way, working out his own technique from scratch, finding himself on the path cutting through the undergrowth.
By placing the border stone, a man identifies a new u-topia.
The poet Paul Celan – a poet-survivor, who juxtaposed a new word with silence – wrote this u-topia word down in this way to refer to a place that does not exist, but which we nevertheless aspire to: thus, it actually exists, “faraway and occupiable”. He juxtaposed u-topia with another Greek word, me-topia, which describes a place that does not exist as a “non-place”.
A border stone is also a striving, transcending, start of the quest.
A journey is not undertaken by men who are everywhere and nowhere.
A non-place has no path, no memory, no border, and no name. Everything that makes the path, memory, border, and name creates
the place itself.
A man most often places a border stone where there are crossroads.
That is how he establish a meeting place.
By marking his separateness and giving himself a name, a man gets his bearings with respect to the Other, becomes more inclined to engage in conversation, watches to see if someone is coming.
Not always so that they can shut the gates and ward off intruders.
Sometimes he does this in order to get news from the outside world,
to get a taste of dialogue, and to brush up on their debating skills.
At the border stone stands not only a gatekeeper, but also a pontifex, the builder of the bridge.
He needs a clear edge for the span that is to raise the delicate construction of links, a border that will be crossed. That is why the pontifex chooses to locate his span by the same stone the gatekeeper uses to mark his property.
The construction of the span at first is like that of a tower.
The gatekeeper might believe he knows something about this field.
But bridges are not constructed alongside rivers.
A pontifex turns the tower into the bridge’s span, something that had been closed into openness. He transcends the bank that served as his foundation. He bridges that which had been divided.
This too cannot be accomplished overnight.
Culture sustains the bridge’s builder, just as it does the gatekeeper.
It provides him with his tools, which have been developed over generations.
He has been raised among people for whom their own sky does not suffice.
A culture that transcends the bank that served as its foundation
is a borderland culture.
This poem was originally published as a chapter of Krzystof Czyżewski’s book ‘The Path of the Borderland’, published in a bilingual English-Polish edition by Sitka Center for Art & Ecology (USA) and Borderland Foundation (Poland).