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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

What Can Lithuania Give to Present-Day Europe

Tomas Venclova

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I would like to think that both duties — the duty of the
poet and the duty of the essayist — are complementary.
Both might be of some use for the future Europe that at
tempts to put simultaneously into life two mutually
exclusive principles — unity and individuality.

1In December of 1978, at that time a dissident and political émigré, I visited Berlin for the first time. That is, I visited West Berlin, which was separated from East Berlin by the Wall. Now I reread pages of my journal devoted to this trip as something pertaining to ancient history. Having been divested of my Soviet citizenship and passport, I could not enter the then DDR — but I still traveled under East Berlin on the subway and got a glimpse of Unter den Linden from the watchtower specially installed for tourists at the Brandenburger Tor. I wrote the following in my journal: “On the other side of the wall and booths with guards, lies, quite simply, the zone of death, collapse, naught. A void at the very heart of the continent. Finis Europae. The point of mutual annihilation of East and West.” My native country, Lithuania, which I’d left pretty recently, was lost somewhere deep in the void: for a Western European it practically didn’t exist. In the fall of 1990, having found myself once again in Berlin, I walked from Tiergarten to Unter den Linden, not even noticing where the Wall had stood until recently. I’ll quote from my journal once again: “The ancient concept of evil as nothingness, nonbeing, lacuna has been confirmed. It vanished into thin air, leaving no traces, but the smell of sulfur and mould.” That is at least how it seemed to me at the time. Europe expanded unexpectedly: around ten forgotten countries entered it, and more had gotten in line to do the same. Lithuania had already declared its independence, but was still in fact a part of the Soviet Union. It definitively entered world society during the following year, 1991.

2Like many dissidents dreaming of the crash of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, I still thought with fear about the time when it would start to fall apart: it seemed to me that this would lead to worse bloodshed than at the time of the October Revolution and Civil War. My inner eye pictured a sort of gigantic Chechnya, extending over decades. To my great relief, this didn’t happen: the anachronistic system dissipated like a piece of wood rotten to the core. Like the majority of Lithuanians, I am proud of the fact that my native country was one of the principal catalysts in this process. In 1990–91, it acquired a status comparable to that of Greece in the early nineteenth century, or of Ireland in the early twentieth century — it became one of the timeless symbols of the fight for freedom. Although major bloodshed was avoided, there still were victims in this fight — the people who perished in the defense of Vilnius television against the Soviet army. They will never be forgotten.

3Nowadays Lithuania, like its neighbors, is quickly transforming itself into a regular democratic country and, apparently, will soon enter the European Union. Its international situation is incomparably better now than at any other time during the twentieth century: I would say that it hasn’t been so favorable since the fifteenth century, when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania played a significant political role in its own region and the rest of Europe, and was gradually becoming a developed, cultured, and tolerant state. We don’t have territorial problems and claims or any serious disputes with our neighbors; the country is urbanized, boasts a decent infrastructure, and as for culture, we have several good universities, brilliant theater, four thousand new books published each year (all of this with a population barely over 3 million). True: the economic changes, like everywhere else in Eastern Europe, lead to difficulties and unnecessary social polarization. True: the mentality that reigned in the era of totalitarianism still hinders one from breathing freely — there still remains a greater amount of intolerance, fear, and simple ignorance than one would like to see. Rather than a holiday, freedom and independence turned out to be heavy labor.

4Part of this heavy labor is the attempt to define our place within Europe. We often like to claim that Lithuania, strictly speaking, is the center of Europe: just outside of Vilnius there is a park called “Center of Europe” — quite popular with tourists — where one can see works by many contemporary sculptors from different parts of Europe. Geographically, this is indeed so: if one drew lines from the Northern Urals to Portugal and from the North Cape to Greece, they would intersect approximately on the territory of this park. But, of course, its very existence is proof of a certain psychological complex. Only a province can insist on being a center. When a country ceases to be a province, this question loses its relevance.

5On the other hand, what is and isn’t Europe? For ages it was customary for almost every European country to think that countries to its East are inferior in some sense, insufficiently civilized, resisting it just as chaos resists cosmos, or the subconscious resists the conscious. In France this myth applied to Germany, in Germany it applied to Poland. Poland, in turn, considered itself a European state, which had to civilize Lithuania, wooded and barbarian, though attractive in its mystery and antiquity. This mentality is very noticeable in classical Polish literature, beginning with Adam Mickiewicz (who, by the way, considered himself Lithuanian, as does our contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz). And those who wrote in Lithuanian pushed the border of Europe still farther: Belorussia and Russia turned out to be the realm of chaos, the subconscious, and the elements, while Lithuania stood guard at the border. Such thinking is popular in Lithuania to this day: worse still, one can encounter it among Western politicians and NATO military staff. It is important for us to understand that both ideas — the idea of the “center of Europe” as well as the idea of the “periphery resisting the non-West, the dangerous Other” — are colored to the same extent by myth. Fortunately, the young generation of Lithuanians is beginning to comprehend this.

6What can Lithuania give to contemporary Europe? In my country one often hears voices claiming that Western Europe has lost the sense of ethnic national values, while the Lithuanians, like the other Balts, have preserved them — and preserved them in the course of a hard struggle against Soviet internationalism. Therefore, we can set an example for other peoples that have crossed over to universal, uniform, mass culture. This idea, alas, is connected to some deplorable traditions of European thinking and with right-wing conservatism. In my opinion, this only shows that Lithuania is crossing over (or, rather, has already crossed over) from nationalist romanticism, connected to the struggle for independence — and apparently useful in this struggle — to a more contemporary and rational, global thinking. The Baltic countries have always been very attracted to Herder’s theory of the “national spirit,” which postulates the equivalence of national culture to the ethnos and its folklore (strictly speaking, Herder lived in the Baltic region and came up with his theory based on his observations of our peoples). It is well known what the absolutization of “national spirit” can lead to (even if moderate Herderism is not necessarily a perilous route). Apropos, those who clamor most of all about nation and ethnos turn out, more often than others, to be collaborators: such were the supporters of Vichy in France as well as the numerous Lithuanian intellectuals who found a common language with Soviet Communism. These intellectuals are still active nowadays, but, in my opinion, they no longer control people’s minds.

7Still, Herder is not totally wrong. Each culture has its own unique face, and Lithuanian culture undoubtedly has such a face. We have a contribution to make to the “concert of humankind,” as Guiseppe Mazzini at one point defined the interaction among cultures. The Lithuanian language is remarkable in and of itself — archaic and rich, with particularly sculpted verb forms, close in many ways to the languages of antiquity. It was on the verge of extinction for several centuries, just like, say, the Celtic languages, but unlike the Celts, we managed to keep it alive and ever evolving. As many linguists have pointed out, language is mysteriously connected to the particularities of one’s worldview. Our writers — as well as the writers of other peoples — talk about a specifically Lithuanian Weltanschauung, reflected in folklore and mythology (the Lithuanians have preserved both their folklore and ancient mythology better than the majority of European peoples — even sometimes no worse than the peoples of the distant continents). Add to this the complex and unique history of the country, in which there is room for the romantic Middle Ages as well as for the no less romantic rebellions against tyrants. The history of Lithuania reminds one of the history of Poland (to which Lithuania has been closely connected), but, if you like, it surpasses Poland’s by virtue of its exotic quality. Folklore and history were and continue to be, at least in part, the underpinnings of Lithuanian literature. But important as they are for us, they are perhaps too idiosyncratic to arouse serious interest in the West. And then it’s hardly appropriate to insist on being a sanctuary of the past in the contemporary world. More important, I think, are other characteristics of Lithuanian culture, pertaining to its frontier situation, the intersection of different European zones within Lithuania, and our city life.

8The originality of Lithuanian cities is immediately apparent in their architecture. It’s a combination of Gothicism (hardly inferior to the Gothicism of Paris, Köln, or Ulm, but on a smaller scale and perhaps even more exquisite), Baroque (reminiscent of Rome, Prague, Augsburg, but singular in nature thanks to its integrity and taste), and, also, Classicism (which reflects both ancient Athens and the Enlightenment). But there is also the architecture of Orthodox churches, the synagogues, the oriental mosques, and, finally, the functionalism of the twentieth, already past, century. This architecture combines with the particular style, particular experience of a polyethnic, multicultural city life, marked by both coexistence and tragedy. Many people would perhaps understand this better if I drew a parallel to the style and experience of Danzig (Gdansk), which Günter Grass attempts to present in his novels. Nowadays this is the experience of a small country, having made the transition from totalitarianism to freedom — an experience characterized in part by some comic and grotesque aspects. It is precisely this fact that may be interesting to a wider group of people. I think that contemporary Lithuanian literature is beginning to assimilate these new possibilities — to create books that reflect adequately the complexity of our spatial and temporal situation on the frontier.

9The majority of Lithuanians wish to join the European Union and are getting ready for it, but in some circles — especially among intellectuals and publicists — there is a fear of losing our newly gained sovereignty, of exchanging subservience to Moscow for subservience to Brussels (or, as they also put it, of going from the yoke of Communism to the yoke of international capital). One could reply to all these concerns that a sovereignty of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century type is the equivalent of a candle in the age of electricity and a horse-drawn carriage in the age of automobiles and airplanes. What’s taking shape at present, though not without difficulty, is the idea not only of a unified Europe, but also of unified humankind, an idea that was preached by Diogenes Laertios and the Christian Church Fathers, as well as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Kant. It’s not superfluous, however, to also remember that the sense of ethnic and national identity, as well as the fear of losing it, is a legitimate emotion. Even if this emotion is not always civilized.

10One is always more rooted in a certain place, which produces a feeling of being “on one’s own turf.” One is always rooted in one’s own language as well. This is precisely why Marx’s nationalist nihilism and, even more so, Soviet “internationalism” (which in reality meant obedience to the Soviet Union and even to Russia) were not realistic ideologies. But this doesn’t mean at all that it’s appropriate to prefer the interests of one’s own country or ethnos always and everywhere, to blow up national egoism and territorial disputes in the manner in which this, alas, happened in the Balkans. The name of the Baltic region starts with the same letter “B” as the Balkans; the ethnic map of the Baltic region is almost as complex, and the mutual unsettled scores throughout history are not much simpler. In our countries — and those of our neighbors — there also were and are politicians (to say nothing of literary figures) ready to manipulate these authentic or fictitious unsettled scores and contradictions for their own profit. I am proud that we have managed and still manage to put a stop to this and come to civilized decisions.

11We, the Lithuanians, of course, are not going to be the leaders of united Europe, but it will grant us greater stability and selfconfidence, and will diminish (though not totally do away with) the danger of extremist dispositions. We will learn flexibility and self-criticism from the West, and will adopt the Western tendency towards self-reformation and experimentation. I have no doubt that in the final account all this will affect favorably both art and literature. And, by the way, national and traditional values won’t perish, but will only continue to exist in the united world; they will collapse in the backward, isolated countries.

12The concept of identity in this united world will also undergo changes. I don’t think there will ever be an absolutely unified and centralized world — or, for that matter, even European republic. Part of the beauty and diversity of the world lies in its borders — to the extent that they don’t become insurmountable. The cult of the national state will disappear, but the sense of Heimat and love of a certain region will, I think, always remain. Every region of this kind is a point of intersection of several cultures, and our identity will be precisely of such nature: mosaic-like, made up of segments, each of which is necessary for the overall completeness of this identity. We will not so much inherit as create it ourselves. Although one will always have one’s principal language, multilingualism will become the norm. It’s precisely writers, I think, who will become the pioneers of this future world.

13As a writer, and primarily as an essayist, I consider it one of my main tasks to contribute to the dissolving of nationalist myths, especially these concerning “the dangerous Other” and “unique ethnic spirit perennially threatened by one’s neighbors.” One of the sons of the polyethnic Vilnius, I try to continue the tradition of its founders and it best citizens, that is, the tradition of crossing over the cultural borders. Still, poetry is a different matter. It is language mirrored in itself and reflecting upon itself: its phonetics, rhythm and intonation, the peculiarities and quirks of its grammar and syntax, the multi-layered vocabulary where archaisms and borrowings coexist with words one may invent or resurrect — all this re-mains particular and inimitable. In a sense, poetry preserves these cultural borders that make our life colorful and worth living, and transforms the crossing of them into a joyful adventure. I would like to think that both duties — the duty of the poet and the duty of the essayist — are complementary. Both might be of some use for the future Europe that aims at an unattainable yet precious goal and attempts to put simultaneously into life two mutually exclusive principles — unity and individuality.


Further Reading:
Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast. Yale University Press, 1996.
Winter Dialogue. Translated by Diana Senechal.
Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Form of Hope: Essays. Sheep Meadow Pr, 2003.

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Born in Klaipeda in 1937, Tomas Venclova is an author, writer, journalist, and translator. He studied philology at the University of Vilnius and during the 1970s became involved in the Lithuanian human rights movement. In 1977 he was able, following the mediation of Czeslaw Milosz, to leave Lithuania and assume a teaching post at the University of California-Berkeley. Having stripped of his Soviet citizenship by the Soviet authorities, he was granted political asylum by the United States. Since 1980 he has taught Russian literature at Yale University, and since 1993 he has been a professor of Slavic languages and literature. He has translated texts by A. Akhmatova, B. Pasternak, J. Brodsky, T. S. Eliot, O. Mandelstam, D. Thomas, and A. Jarry. Tomas Venclova has been awarded leading literary prizes in eastern and central Europe, including the Lithuanian National Prize for Literature in 2000.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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