Text by Ruska Jorjoliani
Photographs by Adrianna Glaviano
Georgia is like a chalked-off space where the obsession with time and, to a lesser extent, individuality, all of a sudden seem to lose their grip.
The Georgians’ best trait may be their ability to step beyond their singularity, not consider themselves for their own sakes, but project themselves into the other and be open to the possible. And the traditional dinner table gathering, the supra, is a sort of embodiment of this. It sums up both the Georgians’ worst defect and their worst ancestral nightmare: of exaggerating to the point of losing their senses, of sinking into and giving themselves to the outside; and of unwittingly eating human flesh and drinking blood instead of wine. Indeed, they are recurrent themes in numerous oral legends and written stories.
The evil event is always there, lying in wait to jump out from under the festooned table and prevent true reciprocity between one person and the other. Everything becomes mixed up, unrecognizable, merging together in a formless and unstructured way, swallowing each other up. There are two ways to avert the evil: song and water. When several voices sing together, rising up vertically from their anchor on the earth, they blend without mixing. Hence, one of the Georgians’ most finely tuned senses is hearing: when the darkness of reason and sight falls, the voice is the only way to tell other people apart from yourself.
In The Legend of Suram Fortress, the young Zurab is walled up alive – the utmost expression of merging with, dissolving into the outside – to strengthen the fortress walls against enemy attacks. Conscious until the plaster covers his head, his mother’s voice reaches him and he answers her.
And then there is water, which can wash all nightmares away. “Tell the water about your bad dream!” would be my grandmother’s advice when I said I’d had a nightmare. “But it has to be flowing water and you have to be good at telling it. If you don’t want to go down to the river, turn on the tap and let the water run a bit!”.
The Black Sea must be a sort of cemetery of bad dreams. The deepest layer, the one said to be dead, could be one big, solidified nightmare. In any case, it’s the border. In Georgian, “sea” (zghva) and “border” (zghvari) are almost the same word. It’s also where the tired sun (“By the grace of the tired sun!” is an oath of the Pshavs in the mountains of north-east Georgia) goes to rest, to set for the living and rise for the dead.
The Black Sea, which is the western border for almost all Georgians, is therefore the kingdom of the dead, the other side of life. So, in Georgian, the setting sun is also called “the sun of the dead”. Not the “dead” or “dying” sun but the sun “of the dead”. There’s a belonging, a strong tie, an incision. And it’s the sun that therefore averts the Georgians’ worst nightmare of not being able to recognize themselves or tell themselves apart from the turgid darkness that stagnates in certain fissures of life and beyond. The word for “sun” (mze) pairs up with the word for “sight” (mzera). The large eye that closes on the realm of the living and opens on the kingdom of the dead. In this journey the water acts as an intermediary, a filter, a medium, and it is thanks to its fluidity that the sun manages to swim cross the sea (for example for the Svans, the mountain dwellers of the north-west) and comes to rise, lifting its eyelids in a completely different place.
When the eye opens to the east, on the living, on the vineyards of the Alazani valley, when the union of the sun and water is concentrated in the ripe bunches of grapes, Georgian farmers say: “The eye has come down into the grapes!” Then though, the sun-drenched liquid returns to the earth, to the damp darkness of a buried jar, where it’ll patiently wait for the eye to reopen, the lid (made of stone, like a tombstone) to move, and life, in the form of wine, to reappear, to breathe.
Air is also a filter, an intermediary, but it is more intangible, and therefore more unstable than water. Air, in the form of wind, can cause one of the Georgians’ axles on earth – the voice – to wobble. It can take it off track, deform it, tear it away from the choir. This is why the supra is an event that usually takes place indoors. In this small space, when the wine finally joins the air, the voice’s meaning reaches its peak both in the active – in the words of the toast, the sounds of the song – and in the passive – when it has to be reduced to silence in the acts of listening to another person and drinking.
Everything is concentrated around what is called “the passage of the soul” (sasule), since, like in Greek, the “soul” and “breath” are the same thing in Georgian too. A word said or a drop of wine that goes down the wrong way can block that tightest of passages, that amount of air which is a tiny gateway between the two worlds. So, we give to both what they deserve: the earth is offered the wine poured to the ground so that it should “reach the dead”, and the air, the sky is offered the song that rises up clearly on high.
However, people can arrive from the outside, from the winds’ domain. Georgians always know this can happen. Right in the middle of the banquet, someone can knock on the door. And this is the Georgians’ greatest dilemma: do I open the door or not? Do I trust the words, the voice, of a stranger? The sacredness of the rite of the supra, and therefore of hospitality, makes you open it. Georgians hardly ever ignore this command, but they have two objects at hand: a sword and a glass of wine. Which one is used, depends on the stranger.
The statue looking down on the capital Tbilisi perhaps symbolizes this in too blatant, too material a way. The visual, physical crystallization of a metaphysical vision is almost always a trap. When I read America by Kafka for the first time, I didn’t “realize” that the Statue of Liberty that the author described had a sword in its hand. It’s all the norm for me, so normal that I didn’t even notice.
It’s neither water nor air but fire that is the most tangible point of contact between the two worlds. Fire only exists, is only sparked if there is both the earth and air, and then a third element, a force that puts them together: the force of doing, of techne, of art.
Amiran, the Georgians’ Prometheus, he who dared to challenge God, is chained to the Caucasus. The Svans still celebrate the lamproba at the start of each spring. They put up poles made from whole tree trunks, with a flame lit at the top. With these enormous torches, they proceed in the dark, at the foot of the Caucasian mountains, almost as if to let whoever it is, whether Amiran or Prometheus, know that he is not alone, that in spite of everything, the real things endure.
It’s the fire of art that destroys the crystallizations, the fossilized images, that clears the chasms of the conscience that have remained in the dark for too long. And Georgians know this, seeing as in 1924 their best-loved poet, Galaktion Tabidze, exhorted them to: “Rise up in the midst of the tempest, where the bloody angel appears.” This was 15 years or so before Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” whose “face is turned toward the past”, with the storm caught in its wings pushing it to the future.
So, don’t wait for some stranger to knock on the door, don’t lose your senses to the point of mistaking a sword for a glass, don’t grope your way while laying all your trust in a voice. In the midst of the storm, you can hear very little. You can try to sing together, nice and loud, but it might not be much use. You need to regain the sense of time, get up from the supra at the right moment and go outside to meet the other.
Georgia’s rugged geography and its tormented history go hand in hand, struggling uphill and lurching downhill, with hardly any time to relax to catch your breath. Just like life, you might say. And as you trek along, it becomes more and more clear that the senses go beyond words. Once you’ve felt them to be real, it’s right to leave real things to their own devices, to go on doing the usual work, to silently wait for whoever it is, dumbstruck, to discover them. In the end, in the spectacle of real things, words are always the next to last to make an appearance.
There’s a Georgian word that describes the left-overs of the banquet: nasuprali. A noun that derives from the same word supra, it describes the chaos, the crumbs and the untidiness left after an extra-vagant feast. Georgians know that this cannot and must not be their last word. Maybe the next to last.
“Grandad, how can I find you when it’s all dark?” I used to ask my grandfather, a Svan from the mountains, who’d been blind for years. “I’ll light the fire and you’ll find me!” he answered. “But if I’m blind too, how can I see the flame?” I carried on. “You’ll call me!” “But if I didn’t have a voice?” I kept on. “Well,” he became pensive, “as soon as you feel some heat, even just a little bit, that’ll mean that I’m nearby!” It could be the heat that endures between one fire and another, inside a chalk circle, after the last word has been said, that defines us more than all the rest.