By Leonidas Donskis
Once I became witness to a stunning dialogue between a celebrity jazz musician and the audience. It happened on October 22, 2006 during the show of Arturo Sandoval, a Cuban-born American jazz trumpeter, in the Kaunas Jazz festival, Lithuania. A most revealing dialogue occurred after a couple of opening pieces which proved Sandoval one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of our time.
He paused and addressed the audience: “Who of you know the great trumpeter Timofei Dokshizer, who lived in Vilnius and who just passed away?” The mortal silence came after the roar of fascination with which the audience greeted and celebrated a great musician, giving him warm standing applause. The question took the audience by surprise. People came here to rejoice in a worldwide famous celebrity, instead of breaking their heads trying to learn about the existence of a local unknown.
“Timofei Dokshizer was a tremendous trumpet teacher and musician” – continued Sandoval. “I want to pay tribute to him by playing a piece dedicated to him. Is his wife here tonight?” A small and humble lady stood up and lifted her hand. “Thank you” – said the Maestro. For a moment, the audience seemed moved by this episode, but then it was again totally absorbed by an unforgettable performance from a Cuban magician of jazz.
Who was Timofei Dokshizer (1921–2005)? Why did Sandoval decide to interrupt his show to pay tribute to a musician whose name was an enigma for me, until I uncovered a story behind the name? To my great astonishment, I realized that he was the same Ukrainian-born master of trumpet whose sound mesmerized me in my young days when I studied music and had auditions of classical music. One of the miracles for me was the beauty of the trumpet sound in “The Neapolitan Dance,” from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Another highlight of his glowing mastery was “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The trumpeter whose records were inseparable from our music education was him, Timofei Dokshizer, who would have turned 90 on December 13, 2011.
Even I, a music lover, was unaware of the fact that Dokshizer spent many years in Lithuania, working in Vilnius. It took a Cuban-born American genius of jazz to set a lesson in cultural memory and local sensibility. And it made me think about memory. Where does it live? What does it dwell on? Are we more sensitive to our history and culture only due to the fact that we live here? What if everything is the other way around? What if we need the Other to experience ourselves and to get a sense of reality and history? What if memory lives elsewhere?
Memory comes from without. It comes from the Other. We console and deceive ourselves by telling a fairytale about how we, not others, preserve the history and memory of our country. And the disturbing fact is that memory comes from without and preserves us from ourselves. What we need in our times of incessant change is a sweet self-deception about the past, our protective armor and strength. Yet the fact is that what we need is a political-historical narrative which would justify our present choices and actions. Sometimes, this narrative is needed merely as an aspect of our foreign policy.
In our self-revealing and self-exposing age, we need a motivation and legitimation discourse, which often seeks and finds its strength in various sensations, inventions of the grandeur of the past, and other sorts of stories that would found and legitimize us, and then would herald to the world about how unique we are. Yet the point remains that others, not us, need us as part of reality and history, rather than a kind of imagined community of shared sentiment and sensitivity. Memory that preserves us from non-existence comes from without. Memory does not live here. Memory lives elsewhere.
A true danger is that of willful forgetting. In many ways, we are a community of willful forgetting, rather than community of memory. The historic lot of our society, the totalitarian version of modernization and two world wars with all their calamities and identity-obliterating, memory-erasing staggering blows, deeply affected Eastern and Central European countries.
And recalling the interpretation that Milan Kundera provided of Central Europe’s tragic, anonymous, and memory-erasing modernization in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting, we may assert that Central European modernity is an organized process of forgetting; a phantom city alienated from its own history and obsessed by a desire to begin that history anew, or to reject its real history and in its place exhibit a souvenir history; and its ghostly inhabitants, people without a history or a memory. Such a destructive version of modernity is purveyed in the recently deceased Lithuanian writer Ricardas Gavelis’s novels Vilnius Poker, 1989, and Vilnius Jazz, 1993.
We choose to forget what is unbearably close to us, what painfully reminds us of our misery and anguish, what deals a blow to our self-esteem destroying a romanticized and sugary version of our history. The heroic version of history is always little more than sheer self-deception, as we prize what others despise. We celebrate what signifies a tragedy for other people. We satisfy the thirst of our monument-erecting, self-aggrandizing, self-establishing, and self-celebrating imagination to live up to our present needs and expectations. What we call collective memory and history usually become merely a means to set up a pragmatic policy of today.
This is why we shouldn’t be surprised at a lesson in memory and local sensibility of a Cuban-born American jazz trumpet virtuoso who comes to Lithuania to remind us of his deceased peer, a great, albeit neglected and semi-forgotten, Ukrainian-born and Russian-speaking trumpeter, an unforgettable soloist in “The Neapolitan Dance.”
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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