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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Concentric Circles of Identity

Aleš Debeljak

Texte intégral

Rad bi poudaril, da kozmopolitizem črpa svojo
privlačnost iz empatičnega potenciala, ki ga je morda
mogoče prevesti v povišan občutek za potrebo, da bi se
videlo, četudi le za bežeči trenutek, svet skozi oči

1King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; the Nibelungenlied; the long campaign of Russia’s Prince Igor; the royal bones moldering in the crypt of Krakow’s Wawel Castle that dully animate the Polish imagination when the calendar of national rituals calls for a performance: most European nations are able to find meaning in a narrative about their history that, in moments of crisis, lends support to their worldly endeavors, cultural pride, and collective identity. History, as is well-known, means a story or narrative. A story helps shape the space of history from inside. There is nothing surprising in the significance of an individual biography, his and her story that can reach, I suggest, its full expression only within the circle of a particular collective tradition. A story of this tradition is able to bring meaningful order to a seething chaos of facts. In public confrontations between its multiple versions a narrative about the past assumes centrality for a community’s current sense of itself. The way you look over your shoulder determines the way you look at the present.

2What do I see when I look over my shoulder and into the reservoirs of collective tradition? I see Slovenes that find the gentle murmur of inspiration not only in the positivism of cultural history, but, perhaps most strongly, in “national mythology” — even if it is held together by a modest roster of figures such as: Beautiful Vida, tearfully longing for a homeland in her wet nurse’s exile; Črtomir, the leader of a pagan army, defeated by encroaching Christians; King Mathias, forever waiting with his soldiers of liberation in the heart of a mountain; Martin Krpan, a victorious peasant who defended the Viennese royal court against the Turks; and, last but not least, Serf Yerney, a rebellious proletarian, and Martin Čedermac, anti-fascist Catholic preacher. They entered the public mind straight from traditional Slovene folklore and early modern literature.

3But their symbolic meaning is far from fixed, as competing public interpretations negotiate the conflict between grand public deeds in the name of a larger group and the private desire for a good life. These heroes reveal how the collective dilemma of the Slovenes has been consistently linked to the dilemma of a cultural identity that is unacknowledged by their adversaries — just as it went unacknowledged by the Germans and Austrians, under whom the Slovenes lived for eleven long centuries, or by the Serbs, with whom, and often under whom, the Slovenes lived for seventy years in a “common Yugoslav house.” The heroes of Slovene national mythology first had to carve out an identity for themselves and then take pains to make it publicly recognized. Thus in Slovene culture, especially with regard to literature, the modern substitute for mythology, the archetype of “the rites of passage,” is palpable. Within this archetype are locked allusions that serve to retain its relevance for Slovenes, though I admit that in this day and age collective inspiration may be drawn more from international icons of the culture industries than from locally published novels.

4Metaphorically speaking, the Slovene nation-state exists so that the Slovene language, together with the culture it expresses as the basic structure of thought and emotion, can be used for purposes beyond that for which the Austrian emperors condescendingly used it: to communicate with their horses. The leading voice of Slovenian poetry in twentieth century, the prophetic Edvard Kocbek (1904–1981), fashioned this pregnant metaphor in his poem from the 1960s, “The Lippizaners,” which appears in Embers in the House of Night (1999):

Others have worshiped holy cows and dragons,
thousand-year-old turtles and winged lions,
unicorns, double-headed eagles, and phoenixes,
but we’ve chosen the most beautiful animal,
which proved to be excellent on battlefields, in circuses,
harnessed to princesses and the Golden Monstrance,
therefore the emperors of Vienna spoke
French with skillful diplomats,
Italian with charming actresses,
Spanish with the infinite God,
and German with uneducated servants:
but with horses they talked Slovene.

5Slovene, then, is more than just an instrument of formal communication, it is more than the language one happens to speak. When its public use is neglected, disdained, or infringed upon, the truth of the collective mentality goes steadily to waste. That which is poorly expressed is also poorly thought, remarked Theodor W. Adorno. Most likely one can “think well,” that is, with the totality of being, only in the language that allows one to express himself intimately, using the vocabulary of love, prayer, and poetry in which bodily urgency overrides critical reflection. It should thus not be impossible to see the mother tongue as the primary element of cultural identity, which an integrated Europe should honor and uphold. If we do not use the mother tongue for all the complex forms of discourse (commerce, science, administration, medicine, and so on) in which one can express only a complex view of reality, then it will remain nothing more than the language of a handicapped nation.

6I need to emphasize, however, that the separation of ethnic and civic identities is especially important. I recall that multiple identities had, up until mid-1970s, a considerable degree of public currency in the country of my birth, a member-state of the former Yugoslav federation. In it, undemocratic as it was, an individual citizen could have at least dual identity, as an ethnic Croat, Slovene, Serb, or Macedonian, and, at the same time, as a member of a larger political body. This was not only possible, but broadly accepted. In the wake of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, this historical lesson seems to have been almost entirely lost on the national communities that rose from its ashes, which have opted for the definition of their respective nation-states in terms of exclusively ethnic, rather than inclusively civic, identity.

7The recent history of Slovenian struggles to maintain ethnic identity against the perceived threat of being swallowed up in a larger ethnic framework clearly demonstrates the continuing relevance of sensitivity to the rights of ethnic minorities and to the need for multicultural competence. If anything, the refusal to attribute value to the argument of size, i.e., the size of ethnic communities as the ultimate standard of participation in international affairs, should be a necessary building block in the development of Slovenian civic identity. Why? Because the very argument of small numerical size has often been used to deny the Slovenes’ right to existence as a distinct national collective.

8I rush to add that having a small number of people does not necessarily make a nation small. It is not too sentimental to say that the “smallness” of a nation may be measured, first and foremost, in regard to how much its citizens believe into their nation’s creative potential and the richness of their shared cultural tradition, regardless of whether it is increasingly recognized as an “invented” one. The argument of the small numerical size, understood as a suggestion about the inevitable, if gradual, absorption of the Slovenian nation in the larger body, is often used today in Ljubljana, the capital city of the nation, as well as in Brussels, the capital city of European Union. It is, alas, far from being new. A quick glance at Slovenian history reveals a long tradition of this erroneous, albeit politically potent, argument of size. Such was, to name but one example, the nineteenth-century Ilyrian tradition of literary writers like Stanko Vraz and Ljudevit Gaj, who called for the unification of the Slovenian and Croatian languages on the basis of alleged linguistic pragmatism. After World War I, this argument, advanced by the communist central authorities of the federal state, manifested itself in the ideological straightjacket of “integral Yugoslavism,” as Andrew Wachtel pointed out in his lucid book Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation (1998).

9However, it was precisely the numerical limitation of the Slovenians as a people that forced its key national players in the realm of culture to interact with foreign strategies of imagination and reason, assimilating them in accord to their local needs and conditions. A productive, if troublesome, geographic location at the crossroads of the Romance, Germanic, Hungarian, and Balkan cultural traditions has ensured the impossibility of bucolic Slovenian “sameness.” The concept of self-absorbed and uncontaminated culture, in which national ego in Arcadia might be quietly nurtured is, of course, a mirage. Slovenian creative minds have been traditionally engaged in a dialogue with the gospel of Western civilization, drawing upon the linguistic self-confidence of Protestantism, the Italian Renaissance, the Central-European baroque, French rationalism, German Romanticism and Expressionism, Secessionist Viennese architecture, English rock ‘n’ roll, American pop-art, not to mention the ubiquitous attraction of the Hollywood screen and the intricacies of Balkan folk blues. Art and culture, if understood only as a dispensable ornament to the public life, can facilitate neither collective freedom nor unfettered flight of the individual imagination.

10Both as a literary artist using universal codes of expression to present what I believe is a personal vision and as an ethnic Slovenian with a particular collective experience in my background, I gradually learned to cherish attractions of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism implies that one’s mode of expression, indeed, one’s being, has become enhanced precisely because of the cross-fertilization with other languages and cultural traditions. Perhaps cosmopolitanism lacks the emotional appeal of a collective identity, such as nationalism; but it gains in its accommodation of an individual attitude: it is, to a large extent, a matter of ethical choice. It may very well be true that this is one of the main reasons why cosmopolitanism does not enjoy broad attraction, though pursuit of it is crucial if we are to not only survive, but live meaningful and secure lives. “Which also entails acceptance that we are not sufficient onto ourselves, that we are inseparably tied to the destiny of everyone else on this planet, and that only with them can we construct the world of dignity and humanity. But it entails, furthermore, that only if we are totally ourselves will we be able to do so. Cosmopolitan globalism and patriotic localism are therefore two inseparable faces of the present world situation, with a degree of tension that cannot be erased,” wrote Alberto Melucci, encouragingly, in Coexisting with Differences (1998).

11The legal framework for cosmopolitanism is to be found in civic identity. One’s choice of civic identity differs sharply from a “natural” ethnic identity to the extent that it is based on a respect for differences and their active public articulation rather than on liberal tolerance. The latter camouflages its essentially passive character, which merely allows other, different and diverse, traditions to exist side by side. As such, it cannot be fully divorced from a self-congratulatory, yet profoundly patronizing, attitude to which I will return later in this paper. Here I want to stress that cosmopolitanism actively links without unifying. As such, it contributes to a transformation of “natural,” “inherited,” “genuine” identities into a civic identity based on the common body of laws accepted freely by free and equal individuals. This acceptance of rule of law can only be performed in modern, secular, democratic nation-states.

12In post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, two types of parochialism assault the cosmopolitan habitus. The first was borne by the frequently violent “navel gazing,” i.e., the mentality that cannot, would not, and is unable to learn from others, much less accept such ideas into public life. The bona fide liberal “internationalists” represent the second kind of parochialism. They shy away from each and every aspect of national cultural identity, recoiling in fear from the possibility of being lumped together with the local conservatives. As a result, they uncritically approve of each and every idea that comes from the West. Such minds wish an ingratiating bless you! when this or that fashionable cultural guru sneezes in Paris, London, or Berlin.

13The velvet revolutions of 1989 produced a semblance of renaissance to national ideas in Central and Eastern Europe, invigorating the debates regarding the validity of the collective experience, while teasing the various peoples with the cheap promise of miraculously resolved conflicts in newly independent countries. More than a decade after 1989, however, it has become rather clear that only a very few original approaches to the relation between the national and global facet of collective identity have crystallized on the ruins of communist ancien régime. Many intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe have grudgingly accepted the role of “poor relatives” that only compete with each other in efforts to impress their rich cousins in Europe, that is, Western Europe as embodied in European Union.

14However, what kind of Europe are we really talking about? I, for one, remain convinced that the discussion must concentrate on the following difference between two aspects of the European idea. On the one hand, one must regard the project of integration of diverse nations in an “ever closer” European Union as primarily an economic and technological enterprise. As such, this is a goal that is as interesting as it is unavoidable. On the other hand, one must take measure of Europe as a common, if elusively shifting, cultural and mental landscape. What is the price of the first aspect taking over the second? Modern Europe does not reveal itself solely in the noble traditions of Greek philosophy, Roman law, Renaissance humanism, Romantic poetry, and in the politically crucial Enlightenment legacy of universal human and civil rights. The contemporary idea of Europe is increasingly portrayed in popular right-wing politics as fortress Europe, the barricaded society that often amounts to fascism with a human face. This staunchly conservative gatekeeping is used to fortify that which is perceived to be a “natural” ethnic community into one is either born or does not belong. Tertium non datur.

15For me, a poet by vocation and a critic by choice, it is poetry that reveals the character of human existence in its most distilled form. Not unlike many other poets, I imagine that poetry is my true motherland: only within its geography and history can I really be at home. In the fragile palaces of poetry one could find the primordial text of life ready to release its secret. With its strange and beautiful simplicity of tender feeling and throbbing pain, it is poetry alone that could tune my heart to the grace and wisdom born where spiders silently weave their webs in the gutters of rotting dreams, to paraphrase Ben Okri. And because its social marginality makes it commercially irrelevant in today’s corporate world, only poetry could freely uncover the fear and hope that reside in those corners of the heart where only desperate adventurers dare go.

16Lyrical poetry, however, is wedded to the mother tongue and thus to a specific ethnic tradition. Divorces do, of course, happen, though they seldom improve the partners. For a poet, the native language is of primary importance; this is beyond dispute. For instance, the preoccupation of Czesław Miłosz’s poetry has never yielded to the temptations of career benefit; and even after half of his life spent living in California, he has never been tempted to exchange his native Polish for the ecumenical reach of English. While there are a number of excellent twentieth-century expatriate writers (Samuel Beckett, Emile Cioran, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, etc.) who successfully switched to the language of their adopted countries, these are themselves exceptions that prove the rule. A true poet is born into his native language, both its burden and inspiration. Little wonder that these expatriates are known primarily for prose, not poetry, which stems from an awareness that the totality of formative events through which the genius loci is expressed — symbolic, historical, social, and metaphysical — lie buried in the layers of a single mother tongue, suggesting a more or less hidden anchorage in ethnic tradition.

17But we don’t live ensconced in one tradition only. Concentric circles of identity emanate from most local and fecund surroundings, from the neighborhood to a region, rippling outward in an ever more abstract manner to national, state, and European identities and, for those with the most finely honed reflective instruments, perhaps ending in a common humanity.

18The cultural context of the former Yugoslavia was, for Slovenians, one such concentric circle. For Slovene writers in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, when travel abroad was still difficult and the limits on communication between Yugoslavia and the West still daunting, getting translated into Croatian, Serbian, or Macedonian was a legitimate, if not perfect, surrogate for reaching the “outside world.” The fact that Slovene literature was reaching readers in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Skopje mitigated the focus on an ethnic tradition alone. In the Yugoslav context, most of the important works of Slovene literature found interested readers beyond the borders of Slovenia. These readers could sample not only the standard translated classics, but also a multitude of small publishers, special book series, magazines, and anthologies, which frequently and willingly published Slovene writing throughout the former Yugoslavia. In short, there can be no doubt that Croatian, Macedonian, and Serbian readers know Slovene literature better than anyone else outside of Slovenia. Let me be precise, however, and note that a decade after a dispersion of this concentric circle this familiarity is increasingly dubious; with increasing frequency, former Yugoslavs read each other in English, in ephemeral magazines like Erewchton in Amsterdam and Stonesoup in London, on the Geocities web sites, and elsewhere in the consolations of virtual connection.

19In the eighties a different concentric circle of identity made itself felt. It was then that Milan Kundera, in his essay The Tragedy of Central Europe (1984), issued a passionate plea for a recognition of a common historical experience for former Habsburg lands, an experience of victimized small nations caught between the self-involved West and the despotic East. Though these days hardly anyone talks about this vigorous and far-reaching debate on Central Europe, this call for a larger common identity still seemed extremely liberating. It provided a welcome impetus for Slovene literary culture, which was trying to shake off one context and hopefully place itself within another, perhaps more amiable, context offering more support for autonomous growth.

20My generation of writers, who came of age in the eighties, had few illusions about either of these broader contexts. We could overcome the once cozy, but now ever more suffocating, cloak of Yugoslavism less comfortably than our older Slovene colleagues, wearing our Central European culture nattily, like a cap of pride, that is to say, as a mark of self-esteem that was necessary, but hardly sufficient in itself.

21But even with such efforts, Slovenes cannot simply close their eyes and hope that the legacy of Yugoslavia will disappear the way villages and towns did in the wars of the nineties. The same is true of the communist political and social heritage. It would be utterly naive to think we can put it in historical brackets. No use pretending that communism was nothing more than an accidental, if lengthy, nightmare from which Central and Eastern Europe awoke at the time of the velvet revolutions in 1989. Nor should we think it possible to go back to the pre-communist state of the nation. What a mistaken illusion! Our communist heritage will be with us for some time, since it colonized not only institutional structures and the fabric of society in general, but, most importantly of all, penetrated habits of the heart and customs of the mind that cannot be removed swiftly and with ease, in the manner of public monuments to disgraced leaders.

22In any case, it must be admitted that communism provided the reading public in the West with an immediately recognizable context. The price writers paid for this elementary recognition was linked to the fact that Slovenes belonged to a certain larger community — the Yugoslav federation and communism. Of course, this community necessitated the use of pain and melancholy, decrepitude, and resistance in its literary works, which both confused and attracted Western readers. My friend and fellow writer, Andrej Blatnik, the author of the collection of subtle stories Skinswaps (1998), might be justified in saying that the Western literary market, forever on the lookout for the unknown and the exotic, likes to “import suffering.” And although I agree that this factor plays a part in the business logic of the book trade and should not be disregarded, this tariff on imported suffering is paid only once, in the first attempt at winning the attention of Western readers and critics.

23But once a writer establishes a presence in the international arena, the factor that counts most is a highly individualized imagination: the depth and originality of the aesthetic world the writer presents. Ismail Kadare, Zbigniew Herbert, Ivan Klima, Dubravka Ugresic, Peter Esterhazy, Evgeny Popov, Ana Blandiana, Dzevad Karahasan: I don’t want to believe that the appeal these modern Central and East European writers hold for Western readers rests solely on the fact that they describe a certain historical curiosity, or that the interest in their works depends solely on external political events. We can assume, with a good measure of certainty, that in order to achieve international success and sustain interest, these writers had to create coherent literary worlds revealing multilayered images of integral experience — not only historical, but also metaphysical — and that these experiences intertwined aesthetic and ethical concerns in ways that are different from the texts of Western writers. These Central and East European writers, ultimately, present us with different moral struggles, different national cataclysms, and different involvement with emotions.

24Such writers demonstrate, each through his or her own personal style, that in order to create art that will survive its time, it is not enough to chase after fashionable new trends. Art that is faithful to its existential purpose embodies nothing less than the longing to transcend human mortality. This is what any reader seeks in a literary work that will endure even after most contemporary literature will have turned into fodder for some future palimpsest.

25But Slovene collective existence is more or less anonymous internationally. This fact hit home one summer during the midnineties, when I accompanied a foreign cultural journalist on his travels through my country. Post-communist Slovenia is gradually, and somewhat bashfully, opening itself to the wide world. Each year it receives more visitors: inquisitive Western journalists, adventurous students, businessmen, and international con artists. Slovene émigrés also return. Their children enroll in summer language classes and, in Australian, Latin American, or German accents, struggle to speak the mother tongue of their parents or grandparents. Little and irritatingly homogenous Slovenia will of course never become a Tower of Babel. A concert of foreign tongues nevertheless echoes off the cold walls of the renovated mansions that hug the river banks beneath Ljubljana Castle. This testifies to an interest in novelty, the kind of attention foreigners pay to a country that, with its newly won sovereignty, appeared so unexpectedly on the map of Europe.

26As I travel around Slovenia with some of these foreigners, I often notice that things self-evident to me appear bewildering to them. After all, have I not for several years now been explaining the peculiarities of Slovene culture and mentality not only to my American wife, but to numerous visiting writers from abroad as well? Christopher Merrill, in his Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan War (1997), certainly found some of my stabs at explanation valuable.

27Still, I am somewhat disturbed by how provisional my accounts can be, rolling off many facets of communal life like water off a duck’s back. The seductive gesture of a woman’s hand and her down-turned eyes in a courtyard in the Mediterranean town of Piran; the collective obsession with the dangers of flu-inducing wind draft; the crowds of pilgrims at the Savica Waterfall in the Alps, where, according to a locally famous epic poem by the Romantic poet France Prešeren, the Slovene people converted to Christianity, the first of many historical conversions in the name of the collective survival: in the barefoot anthropology of foreign visitors, all these things represent a kind of encrypted mental code that might just explain this unusually small, yet perseverant, “tribe.”

28These joint trips proved to be a most interesting cultural experiment. They were itineraries of both pride and guilt, outlining the peculiar nature of contemporary Slovenian reality in which remnants of the old communist regime crossbreed with the achievements of the emerging democratic order. I had mistakenly thought I knew this country simply because I lived within its borders. It was thus sobering to accompany foreign visitors on their travels, for I was forced to briefly explain the history and customs of the various regions we visited. I soon discovered just how difficult it is to explain in concise, clear, and simple terms the differing political opinions regarding Slovene ethnogenesis, the faded glory of the seventh-century independent state of Carantania, the religious grip of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Aquileia, and the unquestioned Slovene identification with Alpine farming culture. I had attempted to provide a literary map of my country in an essay, Slovenia: A Brief Literary History (1999), largely as a response to my frustrations with curious visitors and their lack of information. Filling the void was necessary, lest get filled with condescension that fast-track journalists frequently mouth.

29I remember one particular journalist well. He stood there, eyes wide open, out of breath after our brisk descent from the Renaissance castle in the town of Ptuj, about to step into a pub with a chrome-plated bar. The dust on the visor of his baseball cap had barely settled as he turned it around in a kind of studiously casual gesture so that the late summer sun shone on his bronzed face — a face that had seen Sudan, Ukraine, and Nepal. He was one of those visitors who get so inspired by beautiful landscapes, captivating small towns, sophisticated city life, and the easy-going local population, that when they return home they write a laudatory article about it all for the travel section of their newspaper. Now he was content simply to deliver a bit of honest, well-meaning praise: “Stay just as you are,” he approvingly said, “hidden beneath the Alps, and don’t let anyone know you’re here!”

30This is just a benign variation on that horribly persistent image of a nameless bucolic realm, where people live in fecund contact with nature and thus are not fully exposed to the harmful effects of Western technological civilization. This paradigm attracts nostalgic leftists, who for the most part still feed on the mistaken concept of “nations outside history.” In a misguided flight from the alienated society of the postmodern West, they take refuge, possibly against their own inclinations, in the ideology of “blood and soil.” The Austrian writer Peter Handke, in his provocative critique of Slovenian independence, Dreamer’s Farewell to the New Country: Memories of Slovenia (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1991), was perhaps the first to set forth this paradigm explicitly. I do not think I am being overly pessimistic if I say that this obnoxiously patronizing attitude will probably shape the Western perception of Slovenian creative efforts for a long time to come.



Blatnik, Andrej. Skinswaps. Evanston: Nortwestern University Press, 1998.

Debeljak, Aleš. “Slovenia: A Brief Literary History.” In Afterwards: Slovenian Writing, 1945–1995. Edited by Andrew Zawacki. Buffalo, N. Y.: White Pine Press, 1999.

Kocbek, Edvard. Embers in the House of Night: Selected Poems. Translated by Sonja Kravanja. Santa Fe: Lumen Press, 1999.

Kundera, Milan. “The Tragedy of Central Europe.” New York Review ofBooks, 31, no. 7 (1984): 33–38.

Melluci, Alberto. “Co-existing with Differences.” 2B: Journal of Ideas, no.13 (1998): 140–141.

Merrill, Christopher. Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997.

Wachtel, Andrew. Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Further Reading:
Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia.
Translated by Michael Biggins. White Pine Press, 1994.
Anxious Moments. (Poems) Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author. White Pine Press, 1994.
Modernity: The Institution of Art and Its Historical
Forms. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
The City and the Child. (Poems) Translated by Christopher Merrill and the author. White Pine Press, 1999.
Dictionary of Silence. (Poems) Translated by Sonja Kravanja. Lumen Press, Inc., 1999.
The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and European Postcommunism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

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Born in 1961, Aleš Debeljak studied philosophy, comparative literature, and cultural sociology in his native city of Ljubljana and in Syracuse, NY (United States), where he received his PhD. The poet, cultural critic, and translator has won many international awards, including the Slovenian National Prize for Literature. He is considered one of Central Europe’s leading poets and his works have been translated into many languages. He is an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana in the capital of Slovenia where he lives with his American wife and three children.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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