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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Unfinished Thoughts

Māra Zālīte
Traduction de Margita Gailitis

Texte intégral

Fausta tēlā izpauēžas Eiropas ambivalentā daba.
Garīgums un Svētā inkvizīcija. Brīvības idejas
un koloniālisms. Demokrātija un imperiālisms.
Cilvēktiesības un holokausts.

I. Europe. A Greek myth as metaphor

1Europe, the daughter of a Phoenician ruler, is young and beautiful. In her purple dress embroidered in gold, without a care, she frolics by the sea. The fields are profuse with flowers. Narcissi and lilies. Violets and crocuses. An idyll. Portrayed by the writers of antiquity and, over time, converted into an impersonal myth. Europe is wonderful. Everything is splendid.

2But then, one night Europe has a bad dream. Europe dreams that Asia, who has raised her, is at war with a country across the sea from her. The battle is over Europe. Asia loses. The young Phoenician does not find out what happens next because she wakes. The lovely cheek of Europe grows troubled. Her thoughts are preoccupied with the meaning of the dream she has seen. What could this dreadful dream augur? She should ask one of the sibyls, query one of the oracles. Try to think herself. But there is no time to think. An Event is approaching. Europe has never been able to think anything through to the end. There are always Events that interfere with contemplation.

3Then Europe is abducted. The Great ruler of the Olympus, in the guise of a bull, sweeps Europe off her feet. The breath of the beast smells as sweet as ambrosia. Europe embraces the bull’s head and kisses his golden fur. Zeus, in the guise of a bull, releases Europe’s base instincts and carries her away on his back. To steal her virginity. Take her by force to be his wife. He rapes her. But Europe is intoxicated with the sweet smell of ambrosia. The breath of her violator. Europe has kissed the golden fur of the bull. Her violator’s fur. In the dark new ties form between the victim and the rapist. An exchange? A collaboration? A symbiosis?

4The myth does say that nothing has happened but is always happening. The semantics of a myth are always unclear. Like the bad dream of Europe. A myth poses riddles.

5The only thing that can be said for certain is that a myth repeats itself. Repeats itself again and again. In the Greek myth Europe is raped by a white bull. As time passes the bull — totalitarian power — assumes different colors. In the twentieth century — brown and red. Trampled under the hooves of the bull — the ideals of humanity, culture, and reason. The bull has gold horns. On his forehead — a red star. On his forehead — a swastika. There is a desire to idealize abducted Europe. So young. So beautiful. Narcissi and lilies. Violets and crocuses. The world before it fell into sin. Yes, what Latvia was before occupation.

6During fifty years under the Communist regime the Baltic nations yearned for the abducted Europe. They, themselves, were a part of this abducted Europe. The part not raped is behind a wall. There everything is as good as it was — Europe frolics in her splendid dress. By the sea. In a field profuse with flowers. The bad dream? The captivating breath of the bull? There is no time for contemplation.

7There is time, however, for idealization. Of abducted Europe. A yearning for a humane existence, freedom, and respect for the individual. For a Europe inside oneself. For a Europe — the one behind the wall. There is a fervent desire to belong to it. To an orderly, harmonious world. To deeply internalize the classical heritage of Europe. Shakespeare. Cervantes. Goethe. Molière. Hugo ... Spirituality, humanism, civilization, democracy — the splendid garb of Europe. Lack of air experienced in a Communist reality makes one take deep breaths of this idealized Europe. Distilled, extracted, clean. The main Event is spiritual survival. With an oxygen mask. With Europe as a means of anesthesia. There is no time to think. To know is not possible.

8It is better not to know that European leftist intellectuals sang odes to the Soviet Union. As millions were slaughtered in the GULAG. It is better not to know the significant contribution of European intellectuals to the destruction of the peoples and cultures of the Soviet Empire. Of the two-hundred nationalities that lived on the territory of the USSR, less than a half succeeded in retaining their language, culture, and lifestyle. No one calls this genocide. Rare species of plants and animals — now that is a totally different thing. Europe does concern itself with these. The intoxicating smell of the ambrosia of the bull? The experience of suffering and violence, the energy generated by resistance, create a forceful cultural energy field, assign depth to art and generate a wide public resonance. It is good not to know. Not to know the marginalization and neuroticism of the culture of Europe. Better not to see the intercourse of Europe and the bull. It is better to dream an obscure dream. Not to think thoughts through to the end.

II. The Cross and the Sword

9“The Chronicle of Henricus” (Indriķa hronika) is a historical document dating from the thirteenth century that describes the Crusades proclaimed by Pope Innocent III in 1199 against Livonia, now Latvia, and Estonia. “The Chronicle of Henricus,” the rock opera, is based on this historical document. Produced by the National Theatre of Latvia, it has enjoyed several seasons of success. The music is by Jânis Lûsens; the libretto and the text are by the author of this essay.

10The Christianization of Livonia. The Baltics become a part of the Christian cultural milieu of the West. The boundaries drawn between Rome and Byzantium at that time have been retained to this day. Latvia’s accession to the European Union is a balancing act on the same boundaries. On its crevasses. Wounds. Problems.

  • 1 Since the English language does not have a case system this masculine/feminine polarization is not (...)

11The cross and the sword are quite similar as geometric shapes. The vertical of the cross. The vertical of the sword. The horizontal line of the cross is longer than the characteristic horizontal line of the hilt of a sword. The vertical is masculine. God. Father. Global market. The horizontal is feminine. Mother. Language. Earth. Homeland.1

12In Germany the concept “homeland” has fallen into disuse. It is discredited and no longer politically correct. In Germany the word gets caught in the throat. Germany has gorged herself on the word. The small, oppressed nations have not had enough of the word. They are starving for it. For a homeland, a mother tongue, an identity — which totalitarianism, both brown and red, has stolen from them. For small nations it is their daily bread—their sustenance. They suffer from a lack of the horizontal. They see the sword. Not the cross. They remember that “New Europe” is a term first used by the Nazis.

13Too simple? Too complicated. Events. Events. No time to think. Harmonization of legislation. Standardization. Unification. The same laws for those who have lived in surfeit as for those who are starving.

14In the Greek myth, the traditional epithet for Europe is “platace” — “Polyphonous.” Polymorphous — diverse. National territories are small cultural preserves — sanctuaries for diverse forms of expression and content. The survival of ethnic cultures is a guarantee of diversity. The horizontal. Market economy and globalism shorten the horizontal. They turn the cross into a sword. Deintegrate nations as carriers of the diverse cultures of Europe. The masculine vertical fears the feminine horizontal. Sin. Celibacy. Burning of witches. “Our Father in Heaven” ... Our Mother — the Earth. A human child needs both a Father and a Mother. The crucifix. Son of a human. Child of a human. At the point where the vertical and the horizontal of the cross meet — the crux.

15In the rock opera “Chronicle of Henricus” (Indriķa hronika) the daughter of the Latvian ruler is expecting a child. It is a child of rape. Born of the seed of the enemy. The King wants to kill the child. But the child is the only possible continuation for the royal line. The King, therefore, reconciles himself to the birth, but he waits for the birth of an avenger. A son. One who will grow up, rule, divide, and hate. He will take revenge for all the wrongs that have been suffered. There is a feeling of great disappointment and betrayal when the child is born. It is a girl.

16O, for the gentleness of forgiveness. Can forgiveness be given if it has not been asked for? A child, a girl, a new concept. The enemy is no longer external. Now it is internalized, merged. Was it ever external?

III. Margaret and Faust

17It is true that there is nothing specifically German in the theme and problem of Faust. It is a human drama, wherein Faust represents humanity. Today Goethe again has become actual. Within the context of the development of Europe and the search for a new identity. Within the context of an exploited and transformed nature. Within the context of an eroding sense of what is human existence. The concept of Faust as a hero has taken a strange detour. Faust is larger than large, a great and true hero. Only Mephistopheles, that nasty Mephistopheles, is bent on ruining everything! The ruler is good; it is the courtiers who do not allow the people to breathe. The general secretary of the party is good; it is only his subordinates who interfere with the realization of sunny party ideals. Communism as an idea is good; it is only the people implementing it who have contaminated it. When Goethe created Mephistopheles as Faust’s alter ego, Faust’s shadow, could he have foreseen the surprising emancipation the image of this character would experience as a result of audience perception. An intriguing opportunity to externalize evil.

18The image of Faust characterizes the essence of Europe. To understand the socio-psychological genesis of Goethe’s hero and its influence, which has remained unchanged to this day, means to understand the great drama of Europe and its tragic delusions that have resulted in two totalitarian regimes. The ambivalent nature of Europe expresses itself in the persona of Faust. Spirituality and the Holy Inquisition. The concepts of freedom and colonialism. Democracy and imperialism. Human rights and the Holocaust.

19Faustian plans for revamping the world are ones with which the superpowers of both the East and the West identify. On the other hand, Gretel — this seemingly peripheral, limited, and naïve figure (as she is in the interpretation of many) is the one with which, unfortunately, small nations, cultures, and languages, are able to identify.

20In my play Margaret, we find Gretel in her prison cell twentyfive years (perhaps 250 years?) after Goethe (Or Faust? Or Mephistopheles? Or after a choir of angels?). In any case, twenty-five years pass until we again encounter Margaret — a grown-up and fully matured woman, no longer the small, naïve Gretel. The advocate arrives because finally the trial has begun (!) for this person who, from a legal point of view, has only been arrested. She has been charged with criminal offences. The charges are serious — poisoning of her mother, murder of her child, and conspiracy in the death of her brother. Only slowly it is revealed that the catalyst in all of what has happened is Faust. In the play all that has occurred is portrayed from the point of view of Margaret. It is, after all, important to give Margaret a voice. Margaret speaks. The advocate keeps strictly to the “case materials” — namely, the text of Goethe’s Faust. Margaret, in poisoning her mother, has destroyed her past. In drowning her child she has robbed herself of a future. In betraying Valentine, her brother, she has destroyed an idealist. What remains? An irrational love of Faust. The bull’s ambrosial breath. Its suggestion of strength. The body of the beast covered in golden fur. Margaret — abducted Europe. Faust — the bull.

21As it turns out, the advocate, offspring of contemporary democracy and civilization, is the child of Gretel and Faust. (No, he did not drown, he has been saved! Yes, a miracle!) A son. A human being. A child. An orphan. The young advocate sees Faust as the source of all evil. Margaret slowly wakes from Faust’s spell. Then, in some nuance, some small gesture, Margaret sees a frightening similarity between her son and his father. The son hates his father and is not aware of their similarity. He is not aware of the Faust in himself.

22Europe’s awareness is not clear. The focus on Margaret is an attempt to revise and cleanse the concept of Europe. The advocate, in interrogating Margaret, asks about the “other.” We sense that he means Mephistopheles. There has been no other Margaret swears. Faust acted alone. The “other” is a substance that is to be found in our own cells and tissues.

23There is no time to think things through. An Event is approaching. The advocate is invited to work for the European Parliament. Globalization, cultural standardization, and cultural imperialism. A transformation of the world — not included in it, the transformation of awareness, soul, and morality — the Faustian discourse. The horizontal? The eternally feminine? In it the wealth of Europe is buried, its diversity of cultures and polyphony of languages. Thus, Europe herself is threatened.

24No longer is Europe the young and virginal Phoenician. No longer is she the young and naïve Gretel. Europe is experienced. Europe dreams. In her dream someone wants to steal one of her languages, one of her cultures. Then another, and yet another. But, it is only a bad dream. What happens next Europe does not find out. She wakes.


Further Reading:
Poems in All Birds Know This: Selected Latvian Poetry.
Compiled by Kristina Sadovska, edited by Astride Ivaska and Mara Rumniece. Riga: Tapals Press, 2001.


1 Since the English language does not have a case system this masculine/feminine polarization is not as obvious. In Latvian and German, as well as other languages, in which case systems exist, the examples given in the text distinctly fall into the masculine and feminine categories.

Table des illustrations

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Born the child of deported Latvians in Siberia in 1952, the author and writer Māra Zālīte became an important spokeswoman during the “Singing Revolution” that led to the restoration of Latvia’s national independence. Indeed, in 1989 Latvian media hailed her as “woman of the year.” Her dramatic work comprises six plays as well as eight libretti to rock operas and musicals. In 1993, for her libretto to the rock opera Lāčplēsis, she was awarded the Herder Prize by the Toepfer Foundation of Hamburg. From 1989 until 2000, Māra Zālīte was editor in chief of the monthly literary journal Karogs. She lives as a writer in Riga.

Margita Gailitis (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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