Celebrating Madness, Artistry, And Death: Antanas Škėma‘s “White Shroud”


An ever-changing world with ever-changing beauty depicted in Antanas Skema’s novel, White Shroud.

Art has marked a metamorphosis of the human condition, the events of World War 1 and 2 massive shifts in the whole world in terms of social paradigms, culture, politics, industry, and economics. Bringing death, change, a lack of meaning, a diminutive view of oneself in the face of war, and genocide. an ever-changing and technologically dependent, and industrialized world.

A horrible yet fascinating time such as this caused another ‘renaissance’ in art, marked by innovation, propagation of radical ideas, and new movements. These include primitivists, neo and post-impressionists, abstract artists, and many more.

In Post World War One Lithuania, after decades spent under the totalitarian rule of the Russian Empire, a political movement focusing on independence saw the fruits of their work blossomed. On the 16th of February 1918, Lithuanians finally got their freedom.

During this occupation, decades of cultural and social advancement opportunities were lost, allowing for room for cultural growth. This produced vivid, passionate movements of proud artists, ones that could finally celebrate themselves and their beloved home country freely. Impressionists, abstract artists, realists, and romantics fostered a tight knit community that resulted in some of the most iconic Lithuanian art to date.

Antanas Škėma (1910-1961), is one of the most famous Lithuanian writers.

From an educated family, his early creative work mostly centred around theatre – starting out as an actor in 1935 at the Lithuanian State Theatre, he starred in many important plays of the time, later moving on to a playwright and director role.

His greatest work was published around the time of soviet occupation: the novel ‘White Shroud’ (1958). An extremely important modernist text in Lithuanian fiction.

“Be glad you’re neurotic. Most geniuses were sick.” – A. Škėma, ‘White Shroud’ (1958)

The novel’s story follows the main character, Antanas Garšva, a self-insert of the author, in his poverty-struck life as a mentally ill Lithuanian immigrant in New York. A dead-end job fuels his creative pursuits and eccentric lifestyle, full of idiosyncratic situations, non-sensical personalities, and a complex love triangle compromised by the protagonist’s unhealthy attachment style.

The maddening nature of the whirlwind of uncertainty causes the main character great grief over the course of the novel‘s story. This provides the protagonist with an ethereal vision slicing through the lack of values, selfishess, self absorbtion, and indifference expressed by other characters in the novel.

Mental illness takes central part, as Garšva suffers from a psychotic disorder: disjointed and tangential speech are used as tools of expression in the form of visions, with shifts to them being unannounced and sudden.

Garšva‘s journey through life was typical of a European immigrant at the time: a long, treacherous road (mostly autobiographical as he escapes occupied Lithuania through Germany, witnessing poverty, suffering, crime, and a disregard for human life along the way.)

Having experienced this, the protagonist employs existential views; an automatized, cold and impersonal world with a disregard for an individual life is used to set the scene: “Blessed are the idiots, the happiest people on earth.”   

Main themes in the novel revolve around art, individuality, creativity, and suffering in the unfamiliar world of late 1940s – early 50s New York. The author‘s own experience allows him to depict the chaos. Questions about the meaning of life and existence plagues the protagonist; from this rises the depiction of a true 20th century intellectual.

Storytelling employs an unusual method for Lithuanian literature at the time: the  ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing depicts the events around the protagonist on three separate timelines and planes: his consciousness, subconscious and the ‘trance’ state, comprised of disorganized thinking and visions.

The title “White Shroud” comes from theological, folk, and academic origin. The Shroud of Turin was the linen in which the body of Christ was wrapped before his burial and, in Lithuania at the time, a white shroud used to wrap the deceased was part of the burial ritual. It is also an allegory for ‘Tabula Rasa’, Latin for the blank slate, usually depicting a loss of self.

Lucky for non-Lithuanian speakers, The White Shroud is now available on multiple online book websites such as amazon fully translated.

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