Isaac Passy (1928-2010)

August 19, 2010 at 5:16 am

A few days ago, early in the morning, my mother called from her summer house in a Bulgarin village a to tell me that my one time professor, the venerable Isaac Passy, had passed away the previous day. He had been born on a Friday, the 13th, back in 1928, and it was again on a Friday, 13th that he had passed away. His life spanned over 82 years. Born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, in 1928, he came from a family of Sephardic Jews and was one of those Jewish Bulgarian intellectuals who opted to stay in Bulgaria rather than emigrate to Israel, even though they had the chance to do so. Had he emigrated, Passy would have been much better known today in international academic circles. However, for whatever reason, he chose to stay on and worked most of his life as Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Sofia. People like me undoubtedly benefited enormously from his presence on the faculty as he largely set the tone for our academic futures.

He was Chair of the Aesthetic section but I understand he resigned from the University in 1993 in order to protest the blanket lustration measures taken against all those who had previously been members of the Communist party. As a principled man, he thought that the approach was inconsiderate and rude.

At the time when I arrived as a freshman in  Philosophy at Kliment Okhridsky University (my B.A. studies spanned over the normal course of five years, 1978-1983), he must have been 50 years old. To the students, Isaac Passy always looked the same, precisely the same as in the picture above: always wearing a turtleneck sweater, glassess, a reddish beard, his red hair brushed to the back. This ‘informal uniform’ of Passy encoded an intended message of non-conformity: most of the other professors wore nondescript suit and ties. Attending his lectures in the large 63rd auditorium of the University had some ceremonial nature to it and made everyone feel special. We all sat there quietly in anticipation of his arrival; he would be always punctual to the second, would speak slowly (reading from notes, of I remember correctly), disbursing of aesthetic wisdom with controlled elegance. There was little improvisation, everything was professionally rehearsed and his presentation style, which I would judge as somewhat stiff today, nonetheless relied on impeccable delivery carried out to highest standard. He spoke in official tone, slowly, occasionally interjecting measured jokes that were delivered in an accessible way, and were always of a kind memorable enough as to ensure they would be repeated by members of the audience later on. He knew how to control our admiration all the time.

Whatever he did, Isaac Passy was one of these academics who knew how to create incessant esteem. He managed to maintain the high level of appreciation to whatever he would be engaged with steady over the years. Everything that he put out was immediately celebrated as a great contribution to aesthetic scholarship (not a small achievement for a country where the cultural sphere is markedly skeptical and nihilistic to any intellectual achievement). There was, of course, quite a bit of posing and showing off in all this. But it was all for the purposes of building respect to intellectual inquiry and lofty ethical principles. Thus, it is all natural that the tone of perpetual admiration that accompanied this man’s life would not recede after his death. The obituaries compete in bestowing praise, and speak of him as a ‘brilliant’ philosopher whose ‘works blazed pioneer paths’.

Trying to assess Passy’s work objectively, one should say that he was producing regularly lucid and elegant writing, even if on subject matters that appeared quite traditionalist, preoccupied with explorations of classical thinkers mostly in the area of aesthetic (and, like in the case of Nikolay Berdyaev, spirituality). His works included treatises on “The Tragic” (1963), “The Comic” (1972), “The Aesthetics of Kant” (1976), “German Classical Aesthetics” (1982), “The Metaphor” (1983), “Friedrich Nietzsche” (1996), “Arthur Schopenhauer” (1998), “Contemporary Spanish Philosophy” (1999), “Russian Thinkers” (2000), and so on. For a more detailed listing, see the Wikipedia entry on Passy, which contains a reliable account on his published work. His most original writing, in my view, was to be found in the studies that he produced in the 1980s in order to resurrect somewhat forgotten Spanish philosophers like Jose Ortega-y-Gasset or Miguel Unamuno (Passy was a polyglot and in command of Russian, French and German; in this case, however, he was clearly benefiting of his fluency of Ladino, a variant of Spanish which is spoken by Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, and which was also the maternal tongue of writers like Elias Kanetti). As Head of his department, he was not dictatorial and was not trying to impose his own view of things — he was letting others work on the material and in the manner they wanted. It created a good creative atmosphere that allowed younger people develop in the way they felt it was right for them.

After the end of communism and well into his 17 year long period of retirement, Isaac Passy did not retire. He maintained an active programme of publication in Bulgarian media over all these years; it was great to see him persevere in placing his sober intellectual texts in a variety of newspapers that had in the meantime gone down in the world and now bordered on vulgarity and profanity for the most part of their content. Evidently, Passy had belief in the intellectual capacity of the nation even during periods of intellectual impoverishment and decline. He was one of the people who would persistently water in a place in hope to see green sprouts come out some day.

I had not seen Passy in person for a number of years. During a visit to Sofia last year I called him on the phone and talked to him briefly, for about ten-fifteen minutes. One felt I was talking to an old man, who reacted slowly and kept the conversation to basics. I am not sure he recognised me, yet he was polite and encouraging in response to the brief report I gave him on the phone about my own career advancements. It was yet another encounter when I was reminded of the benevolent paternalism that permeated all interactions with Bulgarian academics. Passy was the best of them all, but inevitably they were all behaving as well-wishing mentors who were making a conscious effort to encourage women like me to persevere in intellectual endeavors (not that they really believed it was possible or desirable for us to do so). Back at the time I worked on my PhD (1983-1986) there was much less informal talking to the professors than there is now. I cannot recall ever receiving very detailed feedback from him, nor do I remember sitting in lengthy meetings, let alone being taken out for coffee or lunch (as I regularly do now with my PhD students). We would always meet in his office, the exchange was stiff and official. Professors back then did not befriend students, the distance was kept. Thus, the respect was bigger. Ultimately, it was a good experience, and I am forever grateful for Professor Passy’s unswerving support to my work.

Having worked in the context of North American and British academia for nearly two decades now, I have had many opportunities to appreciate the high quality of the education that we received in the context of my studies at the Philosophy department of Sofia University. With the exception of modern day philosophy (which was taught to us as a discipline called ‘critique of contemporary bourgeois thought’), we received a really excellent grounding in theory, studying the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome in detail, as well as engaging in extensive studies of continental philosophy and German classical philosophy in particular. My own doctoral thesis, on Schleiermacher and the Iena Romantics, was inspired by work that was going on at the time within the department, linked to scholars such as Ivan Stefanov and Iskra Tsoneva, and, most of all, by the collaboration with a friend fellow-student, Kalin Yanakiev, who went on to become a well-known academic intellectual and is now a Professor of cultural studies at the same University. Still, it was Isaac Passy, in his capacity of Head of Aesthetics, that made it all possible for us. It was his encouragement and his guidance that kept me going. Many of the choices I made for myself back in those years were influenced by remarks that he would have uttered somehow fleetingly but that would stick in my mind.

Isaac Passy was married to a beautiful white-haired woman who, if I remember correctly, was a scientist. His son, Moni (Solomon) Passy, was a friend from my high school and student years. He was a few years older and studying for a PhD in mathematical logic, a degree he obtained at some point in the 1980s. Later on, when many of us emigrated, Moni stayed in Bulgaria and got involved in politics. At one point he even served as a foreign minister, a suitable job for him as he always had a penchant to flamboyancy and liked to be in the limelight. There was also a daughter, Sophia (Lyocheto), who I believe lives in emigration somewhere in the States.

Dina Iordanova

19 August 2010

‘Ayde!’ and ‘Lele pile’

January 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Looking at the December issue of the once authoritative newspaper Kultura (which has nowadays lost much of its previous ground in Bulgaria’s social context), I see they have marked the twentieth anniversary of the changes by running a piece called 20 Years Later, referring to materials published in the newspaper back then. The author of this review does not happen to have found an article of mine, which run on their front page about April 1990, of importance. However, when I recently discovered and re-read this text, I was genuinely struck by its predictive power. It was called Ayde! (difficult to translate it, but perhaps Screw it, let’s do it may come close in this instance). It contained a forewarning to what I thought was to come: a deluge of what later on came to be known as pop-folk, turbo-folk and, a term that only came in circulation later, chalga; mass popular culture that most of us truly abhorred back then… If I remember correctly, when writing that piece, I did not even believe myself very much. Twenty years later, though, the chalga has become the mainstream and has grown really strong roots.

Thus, twenty years later, my predictions have not only come true but have far surpassed my imagination. And, as I am largely absent from Bulgaria, I am told, I have not really been exposed to the excesses that my friends and family who are based there have been treated to over the years.

In any case, my recent visit in December 2009 gave me some exposure, as it is virtually impossible to avoid the chalga; it is ubiquitous and inescapable. There are at least five or so 24-hr channels that broadcast nothing but. The first pan-Balkan channel, called Balkanika, also broadcasts mostly chalga in blocks sourced by the various nations in the region, from Croatia to Turkey. The market leader in Bulgaria is Planeta Payner, a record and events company that runs a TV channel on the side, apparently one of the few extremely successful enterprises in the sphere of the so-called creative industries. I understand that I have only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg, as all I have seen is television images, far remote from the real live contact with the range of talented and superbly looking silicone beauties that reign the show circuit in various clubs and bars (see picture, featuring here chalga performers celebrities called Andrea and Galena). The interesting thing is that there are literally scores of these women, and I am made to wonder how can a small country like Bulgaria (about 7.5 million population) sustain such a vast cohort of busty celebrity. Most of the tabloids in the UK deal with the bosoms of author Katie Price a.k.a. Jordan, and, until recently, the US had its Anna-Nicole Smith; somehow these two women seemed to provide enough tabloid material and, even though there are a number of secondary stars and starlets of this type, there is usually one larger than life undisputed queen of the bombshells that reigns. Not like this in the Bulgarian case — it seems there are at least twenty of them that have regular presence in all sorts of media. It was difficult to learn my ‘who is who’ for the short duration of my stay in December, but it was enough to establish two things: first, these stars are, among other things, also leading role models for the young generation, and, second, some of them are using their influence to sell classical feminist ideas to their audiences (perhaps one of the most interesting interviews I witnessed broadcast on Planeta Payner TV early one morning and featured one of the silicone beauties who looked as if having just come out of a night club, wearing a strapless black leather body with matching leather gloves that reached far above her elbows to foreground her sculpted exposed shoulders; at 7 a.m. a few days before Christmas she was dispensing with Betty Friedan-type feminist advice to her young viewers).

The most recently broadcast chalga musical clip this season, I believe, was the one I feature below. It is fairly representative of the genre and is called ‘Lele pile‘ (again difficult to translate, perhaps something like ‘come on my birdie‘ would come close). The perhormer is Milko Kalaidjiev, previously unknown to me but, as I am told, a man of robust presence in the respective chalga circles and referred to as ‘the republic’s first moustache’. Indeed, I saw this song performed not only on the specialised television channels but also on some of the terrestrial channels that broadcast to the entire population. The singer is using some local rap talent as support, as well as the usual entourage of chalga groupies; the text of the song is structured as advice to the ‘birdie’ of the title, suggesting that she gets ‘out of these clothes sooner, it is so hot here’ and that he would be her real fan if she lost two pounds, and more along these lines. Ayde!

© Dina Iordanova
16 January 2010

Bulgarian Feminist Icons: Stoyanka Mutafova (87), Lili Ivanova (70)

January 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

There wasn’t much new for me to discover during the brief December 2009 visit to Bulgaria. Re-discoveries dominated the experience; two of the most important ones were linked with the manifestations of high professionalism displayed by women of advanced age who I cannot help admiring: comedian Stoyanka Mutafova (born2 February 1922, currently 87 years old) and pop-singer Lili Ivanova (born 24 April 1939, currently 70 years old). Perhaps there is already writing that has given called these remarkable women Bulgarian feminist icons (in the vein of Svetlana Slapsak’s book which did the same in regard to remarkable women from former Yugoslavia), even if I have not seen it. If I were to write on the subject matter, however, these two women probably would have come on the top of my list. Among many other things, the longevity of their creative careers is truly amazing and admirable.

I had the chance to see Stoyanka Mutafova in Ionescu’s The Chairs on 23 December 2009 (pictured); she played along Ilia Dobrev (who is also in his late 70s), was as funny as ever, and at one point nearly performed a strip-tease. Mutafova’s long-time stage partner, Georgi Kaloyanchev (b. 1925), has already retired from the stage, yet she continues appearing in several plays and on television. There is a clip on YouTube which features an event from earlier in 2009 where the two of them are celebrated as stars in an impromptu ceremony in front of the NDK (National Culture Palace) in Sofia.

Lili Ivanova (pictured in a recent photograph) featured extensively on various TV channels during my stay. In addition, an authorized biography (marketed as a biography) called Istinata/The Truth, has appeared in 2009 (published by Ciela and edited by controversial journalist Martin Karbovski) and I had the chance to browse through the book: A model motivational reading for someone who needs role models for focus and ambition! The only disappointing feature of this inspirational text is that in it the author frequently goes on the defensive and feels obliged to address a variety of idiotic allegations and comments that have been made about her in the context of Bulgaria’s media and profane public discourse; she could have done better to ignore them altogether. The book is also full of photographs, the most intriguing were the ones for which she has posed for Playboy around the year 2000, slightly above the age of 60. Unfortunately, I cannot locate them on-line to display here.

Listening to the singer on television was an amazing experience: Her voice seems to be as strong and amazing as ever, she does not hesitate to dance on stage and shows off her legs. She is still capable of sustaining a two-part concert of about 150 min. duration, and it is a show that is of higher quality and professionalism than anything else one can come across in Bulgaria these days. It is from the perspective of the decades mostly that Lili Ivanova’s remarkable achievement can be appreciated. I also understand she has held a concert at Olympia in Paris in January 2009 (there is a poor quality recording of the event on YouTube). I cannot find a good quality recent clip on-line that would show the phenomenon Lili Ivanova, so I am including here a clip dated from two years ago, in which she performs one of her enduring songs, U doma/At Home (music Toncho Rusev, text Damyan Damyanov), a song which must be from the late 1970s originally.

Apparently, there has been a special concert to mark the 50th anniversary of Stoyanka Mutafova’s stage career on 25 May 2009. Here is a clip featuring a moment of the concert, where Lili Ivanova appears to deliver a pop-version of a famous Bulgarian folk song that tells the story of a young Stoyana in love with a shepherd. It is a rare chance to see these two feminist icons next to each other.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2010