Stephan Gechev. (2000.) Know Thyself: A Pseudophilosophical and Pseudobiographical Novel. Sofia: Zahari Stoyanov Publishing House.

Review by Georgi Vassilev


      It is time to say that East European cultural area disclosed by the process of democratization after 1989 is offering sometimes real surprises. Such is the case of the Bulgarian writer and thinker Stephan Gechev. His achievements fully entitle him to world recognition. When awarding him the Greek Golden Cross of the Legion (1996), Ambassador Atanasios Sideris called him “kalos kai agathos,” borrowing a term from the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato to compliment the Bulgarian author on his spiritual greatness. A year later France made him “Chevalier de l’Ordre de l’art et de la littérature” for his “contribution to world art.” Despite such international signs of appreciation, his achievements were not duly recognized in his native country. The former communist governments took repressive action against him in 1967 when his modernist poetic Notebook was denounced for its “bourgeois decadence.” For almost thirty years he was silent as no state publisher would agree to publish his work. Things did not change drastically immediately after 1989: no sign of official esteem was ever shown to him.


   Stephan Gechev’s last book constitutes a valuable contribution to both Bulgarian and world literature. The poetry of Stephan Gechev may be said to have literally come from the future. As may be expected, this is an experimental novel, which purports to initiate readers into the mystery of life “on the threshold”. The story opens around the beginning of the Second World War or a little bit earlier. The author significantly deviates from the tradition of hermetic initiation, which demanded that secret knowledge be granted only to a small minority of very special people. His aim apparently is to disclose his “secrets” to a circle of readers wide enough to include the whole of Bulgaria’s intelligentsia. It may be of some interest to inquire into the reasons for such a break with the age-old tradition of mystic lore and practices by which the late Gechev was so fascinated. Although we can never know for sure why the author made such a choice, we may safely conjecture that he addressed his discourse to such a multitude of readers because he saw the 21st century as the time when a great number of people would need “special” knowledge to cope with the mysteries of the Universe on a daily, practical basis. Several of the novel’s characters — Nausicaa’s father, who is an awe-inspiring mystagogue, the Slovaks Pan Smrek, Maria and Miro, the Italian Giovanni and the American Smith – embark upon a similar project. The novel’s setting, like its character cast, is international: the action takes place in Greece, Slovakia and Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Stephan is one of the most important characters in the book. After his death, his quest is taken up by his son, a representative of the post-war generation, whose name, Shtefan, is a Slovak version of his father’s.

   For the sake of brevity I shall reduce the novel’s complexity to only a handful of important questions to which I shall attempt to provide tentative answers:

(1) Why does the quest for “new” knowledge start during the Second World War? Because thinking people are still shocked by the apparently universal human drive to self-annihilation which this historical conflict unleashed. The tremendous disaster of September 2001 only augments the meaning of this discussion.

(2) What “lesson” are the novel’s central characters taught by this suicidal situation? “Life without consciousness” is the answer Stephan gives. This means giving up our “received” socio-historical consciousness, which would only narrow down and restrict our day-to-day experience of the world. Harmony is inherent in this experience and is, in fact, its most distinctive characteristic. The concept of harmony should therefore replace the self-satisfied rationalism which humanity has followed blindly for many years on end. This rationalism fostered petty selfishness and also gave rise to some of the most pernicious and fallacious political doctrines in human history.
(3) What is the source of the “new” knowledge, which should adequately embody the complexity of the Universe and human life? According to the Bulgarian Stephan, it could be attained through a strenuous development of one’s intuitive powers and this should also have a purgatorial effect upon the human psyche. The idea of such a program of self-regeneration is relying on Gechev’s expert knowledge of ancient Orphic philosophy. In the context of the novel, the wisdom of that philosophy may be recovered either through a long and persistent individual quest or a total exposure of humanity at large to Orphic lore and practices.

   The “new” knowledge is thus shown to be intimately linked with humanity’s return to God. This return cannot be brought about by any form of fundamentalist puritanism or ecstasy; rather, the instrument is to be sought inside the human soul. The human rediscovery of the divine implies, above all, a profound change of heart, a modern version of the maxim Nosce te ipsum (Know thyself).
Such a reading of the novel may at first glance appear to be at variance with its “texture” of erotic detail. An emphasis on the merely physical aspect of human relationships is, on the whole, untypical of Gechev and cannot be found in any of his other novels. For me, the introduction of eroticism into this one on such a large scale is part of an ironic authorial strategy. The strategy aims at exposing the omnipresence of sex in 20th century culture as one of the most dubious “discoveries” of the “modern” age. Gechev’s point is that relationships – irrespective of the gender of the people involved in them — are truly “cosmic” and should not be reduced to the merely physical.


May 2001