Blesok no. 47, March-April, 2006

New Europe: Blurred Visions

Robert Murray Davis

The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, by Aleš Debeljak. Translated by Aleš Debeljak and Rawley Grau. New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 123 pages.

If the EU is to inspire anything like patriotism, it must develop a sense of identity while respecting the cultures that comprise it, writes Aleš Debeljak.

Although the Slovenian poet and cultural analyst Aleš Debeljak spent enough time in America to acquire a Ph.D. and a wife, devotes one of four chapters of The Hidden Handshake to a lament that Slovenian art and history are almost unknown in America, and concedes that “at least since World War II, America’s cultural importance has transcended any single tradition; it has become a stage for the entire world,” he is, as his subtitle indicates, much more seriously concerned with the cultural and political roles, or their absence, of the newest nations within the European Union.
    Debeljak is particularly concerned by the EU’s failure to adopt some of the values of the nation-state, in his view a European creation, which at its best transformed nationalism into patriotism, allowed not only the existence but the flourishing of minority cultures, and fostered, through its cosmopolitan atmosphere, fruitful multicultural competence. (He is, of course, aware of the ways in which Germanic culture in particular inhibited Slovene political and cultural life, and he worries about majority languages becoming the exclusive vehicles of political discourse in the EU.)
    In fact, Debeljak seems to be a thoroughgoing euroskeptic, and in view of last year's French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, his analysis seems not only acute, but prophetic. He cites four reasons for skepticism: worry about diminished state boundaries; desire to protect ethnic identity; a “democratic deficit” in the management of EU affairs, from Brussels down; and “the failure to form a ‘common mental framework.’ ”
    The last concern pervades the book. Debeljak maintains that the impulses behind the EU are primarily technological and economic; that “Europe” is defined as Western Europe, which accounts for the EU’s failure to intervene in Bosnia; and that “Old Europe” is acting as if it were an American gated community, constructed to exclude lesser cultural, ethnic, and economic breeds, accepting the implications of divisions which date back not just to the Cold War and the Schengen Treaty but to the Treaty of Trianon, which concluded World War I.
    To counteract this exclusiveness – and to ensure a place for Slovenia and other smaller nations – Debeljak proposes the construction of “a common grand narrative,” “a substantial imaginative framework of general identification, material for ‘common dreams’ that can give all the citizens of Europe a certain minimum of existential meaning and emotional density, through which we recognize a commitment to something that transcends us as individuals with particular identities.”
    Just how this is to come about, and what would result, is not at all clear, and Debeljak admits that “such a construction is idealistic, hinged as it is on a search for balance between ethnic and cultural traditions on the one hand, and loyalty to a supranational, overarching cultural habitus on the other” before lapsing into near-duckspeak about the “mutual acceptance of a publicly shared sphere within which such reciprocity can take place.”

Happily, this kind of language is rare, and much of the book is devoted less to the making of a new European consciousness than to the definition and preservation of the cultural importance of small nations, specifically Slovenia, their languages, and their cultural heritages. In fact, Debeljak begins by discussing issues of national identity, particularly important to Slovenes because, beginning with independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, they have been riding “the last car on the last train of nationalism.” Like any citizen of a small country, he is, sometimes reluctantly, aware of the necessity for “concentric circles of identity.” Once part of the Habsburg Empire, then of various avatars of Yugoslavia, now of the European Union, Slovene writers must either find a way to export their visions or to retreat within their own borders. On the one hand, “liberal tolerance” (as distinct from cosmopolitanism) “camouflages what is essentially something passive” and “cannot be fully divorced from a self-congratulatory and highly patronizing attitude.” At its worst, it can reduce a minority culture to the status of folklore, or to Disneyfication. An example is the German writer Peter Handke’s desire to keep Serbia isolated so as to retain its charm. [Blind to the Truth, 20 July 2005]
    Looking up and out rather than down, Slovene writers must neither overvalue other traditions nor, like Hungary's nepi or “folk,” who wish to concentrate exclusively on local traditions and ethnicity, ignore them in ultra-nationalist fervor. Debeljak realizes “that the boundaries of my language [are,] to a considerable degree, the boundaries of my world” – not just “linguistic skills” but “a whole symbolic, mental, and social experience deposited in the layers of a nation’s historical existence and collective mentality” – and that they constitute “the encapsulation of a metaphysical worldview.” On a less abstract level, one’s language allows one to give names to everything, to understand inside jokes, and to follow the implications of subtle cultural references – the kind of things that can make poetry untranslatable.
    As a result, in Debeljak’s desire to make literature an important instrument for constructing the “common grand narrative,” he rejects purely esthetic approaches to literature. Postmodernism blurred “the distinction between the pragmatic and artistic dimensions,” so that “Postmodern art is no longer the embodiment of an alternative world that derives meaning from its aesthetic and ethical tensions with the existing order; on the contrary, postmodern art by and large supports, maintains, and justifies the existing order.” In Debeljak’s view, “the artist brings together a variety of existential, social, and national aspects of experience in a search for meaningful balance.”
    Debeljak does not always follow a consistent line of argument, nor was it his intention. The four chapters that constitute this book, revised and expanded for an American audience from a collection published in five Central European countries, are conceived as “a kind of intellectual poetry,” “neither fully a work of academic scholarship nor fully a work of creative nonfiction.” The book’s appeal should be similarly diverse, for it speaks of problems common to the so-called New Europe, presents a challenge to the older nations of the EU, and, one hopes, will shake at least some Americans out of their insularity. If Debeljak presents problems more clearly than he does solutions, that is the nature of essays, a form whose tentativeness seems particularly attractive in the current context of slogans, wild assertions, and lies. And his search for “the hidden handshake of solidarity” amid so much division can only be seen as heartening.

The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World at the TOL Store.

Published on TOL, 18 January 2006

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