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According to Andrew Baruch Wachtel, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of fledgling societies in Eastern Europe brought an end to the conditions that put the region's writers on a pedestal. In the euphoria that accompanied democracy and free markets, writers were liberated from the burden of grandiose political expectations. But no group is happy to lose its influence: despite recognizing that their exalted social position was related to their reputation for challenging political oppression, such writers have worked hard to retain their status, inventing a series of new strategies for this purpose. Remaining Relevant after Communism considers these strategies—from pulp fiction to public service—documenting what has happened on the East European scene since 1989.
"Carefully reasoned and researched."
— Robert Murray Davis
"A timely and interesting perspective on significant trends in 'Writings from an Unbound Europe.'"
— Harold B. Segel
"For specialists in a particular region or literature, this book offers a comparative overview of postcommunist literary strategies across national borders. For advanced undergraduates, this book will provide a highly informative, always clear and interesting textbook on the intersections between politics and culture, markets and society. Reading East European literature may suddenly become relevant again."
— Yvonne Howell
"Ambitious, bold, and engagingly written; it will serve as a helrful introduction to the recent cultural poitics of the region. . . . A book that will not leave its readers indifferent, and will likely provoke impassioned response from some of them--and this is surely a remarkable accomplishment for a scholarly monograph."
— Vitaly Chernetsky
The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe
Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Writer as National Hero
In the introduction I asserted that a good definition of Eastern Europe would be the part of the world where serious literature and those who produce it have traditionally been overvalued. If my definition does indeed capture some truth about the region, it is logical to wonder how this situation came about. What cultural and historical factors thrust writers into positions of esteem and status that in other parts of the world have been reserved for statesmen, philosophers, businessmen, or entertainers? The short answer to this question is that the majority of East European countries were in substantial measure invented by writers. Literature here, far from being a reflection of reality, was very frequently a creator of new identities and new social and political realities.
In the year 1800, only one of the countries that exist today in Eastern Europe (Russia) was independent. The other peoples of the region were ruled by three empires. The Russian empire controlled what are now Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, and part of Poland. The Austrian Habsburgs ruled over what are today Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, thenorthern part of Serbia, and part of Poland. And the Ottoman Empire held sway in Albania, Bulgaria, the rest of Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania. In most cases, imperial control had been a long-term fact of life for the peoples in question. One result of the domination of foreign powers was that the vernacular languages were generally not employed in political, juridical, or even urban contexts. Even in Russia, nominally a political powerhouse, cultural discourse had in the course of the eighteenth century been denationalized to such an extent that, as Lev Tolstoy pointed out at the beginning of War and Peace, most Russian aristocrats were more comfortable in French than in their native tongue.
When national "awakenings" occurred in this region, they invariably began with cultural and linguistic movements rather than with political ones. This was the result not only of the political weakness of the peoples of Eastern Europe but also of the source of national ideology in the area, which derived primarily from German thought (and to a lesser extent from French). In the German model the nation was defined, following Johann Gottfried von Herder, first and foremost by linguistic categories. A nation was a nation (and could, therefore, hope for an independent political existence) insofar as its putative citizens spoke a common language. Perhaps the most extreme linguistic definition of the nation can be found in the thought of the Slovak L'udovit Stúr: "Every nation is most ardently coupled with its language. The nation is reflected in it as the first product of its theoretical spirit; language is, then, the surest sign of the essence and individuality of every nation. Just like an individual human being, the nation reveals its deepest inner self through language; it, so to speak, embodies its spirit in language." But in most of these lands the vernacular had become primarily a language used by peasants and in the marketplace. Before a national revival on the basis of language could begin, the language had to be recreated (or simply created) as a vehicle for the expression of cultural and political thought.
One can find the first conscious stirrings of what could be called patriotic linguistics in Eastern Europe as early as the mid-eighteenth century. As Russia's great eighteenth-century Renaissance man, Mikhail Lomonosov, put it in his defense of the Russian language, "The Holy Roman Emperor Carl the Fifth used to say that one should speak Spanish with God, French with one's friends, German with one's enemies, and Italian with the fair sex. But had he been skilled in Russian he would of course have added that it would be appropriate to speak with all of these in it, for he would have found in it the greatness of Spanish, the liveliness of French, the force of German, the tenderness of Italian, and, in addition, the richness and strong terse descriptiveness of Greek and Latin." Lomonosov wrote the above in his introduction to a Russian grammar, and indeed, the first step in national revivals, even before the creation of literary work, was often a codification of the language through a grammar or dictionary.
Although the existence of a codified language was important, it alone was not considered proof that a given people had attained a level of cultural development sufficient for its pretensions to nationhood to be taken seriously. For that, the appearance of literary work, epic and lyric poetry in particular, was crucial. The ideology underlying this worldview was again imported from Germany, in this case outlined in the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation, 1808). On this view, the task of the writer was inherently patriotic: "The noblest privilege and holiest office of the writer is to assemble his nation and consult with her about her weightiest affairs. In particular, this has always been the exclusive office of the writer in Germany while the country was split into several states. The Germans were held together in a communal whole only through the writer's instrument, that is, language and writing. Today this is also his most essential and urgent office." In the absence of political unity writers were necessary to pull a nation together, to make fellow citizens aware of their very nationhood by creating the conditions for community.
Particularly important in this regard was the appearance of a national poet capable of capturing the nation's collective spirit or essence (so, at least, claimed the nation-building intellectuals who pushed the candidacy of their "national poets"). Elites in each country mobilized fellow citizens by using the person and the work of the national poet as a source of pride and a rallying point for future cultural and political development. The result was what can only be called a cult of national literature in general and of national poets in particular, a cult whose credos were originally created by a handful of nationalist-oriented intellectuals. These authors were presented as codifiers of the national literary language (which eventually allowed for the political existence of the nation) and producers of literary work that is claimed to have expressed the nation's spiritual core, its soul. First canonized by nation-building intellectuals, then exploited by fledgling national states, and finally recanonized by communist regimes, they were accorded the status of national heroes. Their example bestowed an unprecedented prestige and status upon the literary profession. Nation-building writers are venerated to this day, lauded in the research and teaching of respected academics, in textbooks used in schools at all levels, and as part of public political discourse, long after the demise of many of the regimes and ideologies that helped to nurture their cults.
Curiously, although this phenomenon occurs throughout Eastern Europe, there has been little recognition among ethnicities that they shared it with their neighbors. Rather, each country's discourse insists not only that a given poet was uniquely able to express the nation's soul but simultaneously that no other country possesses any figure remotely similar. For our purposes, of course, it is worth emphasizing that the status accorded to figures like Alexander Pushkin in Russia (see figure 1), Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, Taras Shevchenko in Ukraine, Christo Botev and Ivan Vazov in Bulgaria, Mihai Eminescu in Romania, Sándor Petofi in Hungary, France Preseren in Slovenia, Petar Petrovic Njegos in Serbia and Montenegro, and Ivan Mazuranic in Croatia has guaranteed that generations of ambitious youngsters have wanted to become writers.
As not all readers will be familiar with the rhetoric surrounding the cults of writers canonized as nation builders in Eastern Europe, I will briefly examine the life, work, and posthumous fate of two of them here. The national poets of Slovenia, France Preseren (1800-1849), and of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), were quite different both in personality and literary output. All the more striking, then, are the analogous claims made posthumously for them in their societies.
France Preseren led no revolutions, proposed no political programs, and died of tuberculosis, impoverished and almost alone, at the age of forty-nine. What is more, with the exception of his rather odd romantic epic, The Baptism on the Savica, he confined himself to lyrical genres, and many of his works exhibit a strongly pessimistic tone. Nevertheless, Slovenes credit him with enormous positive influence. He is identified as the creator of the modern Slovenian literary language and as the nation's greatest lyric poet. In 1866, one of the central architects of the cult of Preseren, the critic Josip Stritar, concluded his introductory essay to an edition of the poet's works with the following rhetorical flourish: "We dare to say with pride that our Preseren is also one of those chosen vessels through which heavenly beauty, celestial poetry, is brought to earth. When all the nations stand before the judgment seat and are asked to explain how they used their basic talents, how each of them made their contribution to universal human culture, the small Slovenian nation will dare without fear to present a thin book with the title Preseren's Poems alongside the others." The most important assertion here is the comparative: Slovenes could justify their right to exist as a nation precisely because they had produced a single poet on par with Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dante.
Stritar's essay dates from the mid-1860s, precisely the period when the group of so-called Young Slovenes began the process of Preseren's canonization. This work was continued on a consistent basis by nationally minded Slovenian intellectuals throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. By the turn of the century, however, the Preseren cult had outgrown narrow intellectual circles and become an element of a broader civic, and ultimately political, project. This was manifest in the campaign organized by Ivan Hribar, the longtime and powerful mayor of Ljubljana, to erect a Preseren monument. Hribar, who was experienced at raising money for similar activities, commented: "It was easier to raise money for this than for any other monument. It is no exaggeration to say that people competed with each other to make their contribution." After great expense and a number of controversies regarding the style and location of the monument, the neoclassical statue was dedicated on Ljubljana's central square on September 10, 1905. It remains to this day the most prominent monument in Slovenia's capital (see figure 2).
To understand Preseren's importance we must appreciate that tiny Slovenia had no history of national statehood and no possibility of achieving political independence in the mid-nineteenth century. Simultaneously, there was a real chance that the Slovenian language would disappear. All educated Slovenes spoke German, which was the language of civil and even cultural life in the urban centers, such as they were. What is more, some Slovenian intellectuals of the national revival period, most notably the poet Stanko Vraz, felt that Slovenes would do better to throw in their lot with their fellow South Slavs and give up their native language in order to amalgamate with speakers of the newly codified Illyrian (Croato-Serbian). This view was eventually rejected, and the national language, and primarily creative work in it, came to be seen by many Slovenes as the sole repository of the Slovenian spirit.
Through his creation, in response to the dual threat of Germanization or Croato-Serbianization, of a body of world-class poetry in his native language, Preseren is seen to have ensured the very existence of the Slovenian nation. This naturally lends his entire oeuvre a political dimension. The quote that follows, taken from a recent journal article designed to introduce Preseren to Anglophone readers, illustrates perfectly the rhetorical steps that encourage the recognition of a poet as the father of his nation: "Preseren raised the Slovene language and Slovene culture to a level that made possible the expression of the highest artistic works. As a result, by succeeding in defending the unity of the Slovene language, the middle classes were able to integrate. Later in the 19th century, this middle class of Slovenes became the elite, who put forth the March Revolution of 1848 and created the first national and political programme for United Slovenia." On this view, there is a direct causal link between the works of Preseren and the eventual appearance of Slovenian political nationalism, for had there been no Preseren, the Slovenian bourgeoisie would have had nothing to rally themselves around. Had this been the case, the Slovenes would have shared the fate of other peoples in the region-the upper Sorbs or the Morlachs, for example-who ultimately failed to create national states and were absorbed by their neighbors.
As noted earlier, The Baptism on the Savica (1835) is the only epic Preseren wrote. It is, however, hardly a work around which a program for national revival could easily be built. Set in the Middle Ages, it describes German victories over Slavs at the time when the Slovenes were Christianized and focuses on internecine struggles between Pagan and Christian Slovenes. The central character, Crtomir, "represents the free Slovene community. He stands for Slovene independence, but he is doomed from the very beginning." The majority of the poem, however, describes not national problems but the hopeless love of the pagan Crtomir for the Christian Bogomila. This plot line clearly echoes Preseren's personal life, which was dominated by unrequited love. As a result, many readers have preferred to interpret the poem in a personal context, although convincing political readings also exist.
Other than the pessimistic Baptism, Preseren's work is primarily lyrical. Among these poems, one cemented his place in the nation-building pantheon. In "A Toast" (1844), Preseren "expresses the thought of uniting all the Austrian provinces with Slovene people into United Slovenia, which was later proclaimed by the Slovene intellectuals as their national program. He personifies Slovenianism."
The vintage, friends, is over, And here sweet wine makes, once again, Our eyes and hearts recover, Puts fire in every vein, Drowns dull dare Everywhere And summons hope out of despair.
To whom with acclamation And song shall we our first toast give? God save our land and nation And all Slovenes where'er they live, Who own the same Blood and name, And who one glorious Mother claim.
Let thunder out of heaven Strike down and smite our wanton foe! Now, as it once had thriven, May our dear realm in freedom grow. Let fall the last Chains of the past Which bind us still and hold us fast!
Let peace, glad conciliation, Come back to us throughout the land! Towards their destination Let Slavs henceforth go hand-in-hand! Thus again Will honour reign To justice pledged in our domain ...
The continuing allure of the national poet can be seen in the fact that these words were adopted as the text for the national anthem of Slovenia on December 23, 1991. Along with the Preseren monument that dominates the central downtown square in Slovenia's capital, they are a potent reminder that even the most pessimistic and melancholic of national poets eventually achieve their due in Eastern Europe. As one Slovenian scholar baldly stated, "The Slovenes, both as individuals and as a people, cannot be conceived of without Preseren."
A worthy counterpart to Preseren is the Polish bard Adam Mickiewicz. Unlike Preseren, Mickiewicz actively sought a political in addition to a literary role. This was natural, for the situation in early to mid-nineteenth-century Poland was quite different from that of Slovenia. Slovenia had never been a sovereign state and had no prospects for independence in Preseren's day, but Poland had been a European power as late as the seventeenth century. Although it had disappeared from the map of Europe in the same year Mickiewicz was born, frequent rebellions, particularly in the section of the country that had been occupied by Russia (and that was the land of Mickiewicz's birth), testified to the unwillingness of the Poles to acquiesce in their new situation. Although perhaps not an unambiguous player in attempts to regain Polish independence, Mickiewicz was aligned closely enough with revolutionary circles. In 1823, the young poet, together with a number of his friends, was arrested by the tsarist authorities. He spent the years between 1824 and 1829 in exile in Russia, and the rest of his life in Western Europe.
Excerpted from Remaining Relevant after Communism by ANDREW BARUCH WACHTEL Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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