Blesok no. 49, July-August, 2006
An Essay on Creation and Destruction
– A contribution instead of an epilogue –
Had there been no beginnings and endings, there would not have been stories either, is what the European Virginia Woolf used to say. However, to the Balkan Emil Cioran this game – of beginning and end – knows no boundaries, for “each of our ideas recreates the world, and each of our thoughts destroys it. Our everyday lives are alternatively influenced by cosmogony and apocalypse… apart from the creation and destruction of the world, all else is worthless” (Cioran; 1996:97). Worthless… as a soft, meaningless story, as the fiction of birth and the fact of destruction, as the endeavor to follow through the development of an idea, through myths and symbols, through stories of power and histories of weakness, through personal memories and someone else’s traumas, through their need for a (re)creation of the world…
But, let us take one thing at a time. It all began with the myth of Europe.
Denis De Rougemont’s powerful book, Twenty Eight Centuries of Europe, contains the arch-history of the continent which, before it became a nomen, was an Asian goddess, one of the three thousand Oceanids (the saintly maidens, whose cult ruled the Near East). The arch-history of Europe is an arch-history of a “continent without a name, says Denis De Rougemont, which was slowly populated, civilized and brought to life by people, ideas and crafts, arriving from the coast of the Near East (Rougemont; 1997:12). According to historian Gonzague De Reynold, Europe came to us from Asia, ‘the mother of all great religions, the parent of all great legends’, in which all was one and different at the same time. Proof for this claim can be found in the lyrical interpretation of the ancient continent creation myth, ascribed to Moshos, a Sicilian poet from Syracuse who lived in 2 B.C. According to the myth, the son of Chronos, Zeus, disguised as a bull, seduced the naïve virgin Europe. She welcomed him into her white bosom and thus became the mother of his offspring.
However, an allegory preceded this mythical abduction. Found in the dream of mythical Europe, the allegory reveals that two lands fought over the lovely goddess: the land of Asia (who claimed she had given birth to Europe), and the land across from it, which yet had no name, but believed the divine virgin Europe is hers, according to the will of Zeus. The symbolism of this dream sublimates the true meanings of ancient legends. By that I mean the interpretations of the universal movement which brought the foundations of a religion and a civilization from the East to the West. Those legends show that, whilst searching for the Western land the Phoenicians called Erebus or the Land of the Sunset, “the Hellenes created the legend of the beautiful Europa, ‘the daughter of the East’, followed by her brother Cadmus, ‘the son of the East’, whose father sent to search for her, from Phoenicia on Crete, to Boeotia and Illyria…” (See Rougemont; 1997: 32). Does this search not coincide with the historic route of the Phoenicians who, while spreading the alphabet among the ancient people, continued their ascension up the valley of Vardar and Danube, turning their search into a discovery of the European geographic reality?
It inspired the disappearing of the Goddess and the birth of the Continent.
Even centuries later – more as a result of fantasy, rather than nature – Europe was perceived as a body of a woman whose head is Spain, the heart is France, the hands are Italy and Great Britain – as a virgin Beauty whose garments, the Russian plain, overspill into the ‘dark depths of Asia’. The mind of the ancient geographers pictured her as a mobile form of a woman, ready for her prey. The spiritual geography of the Renaissance projected images of an expanding continent, whose ambition did not end solely in the desire to be a point of departure (arché to all discovery and colonization), or a middle point (the center of the center = civilization), but also a destination point (thelos = the horizon or limit for all technical achievements). She was also perceived as a head – the brain of a large body – ignoring the fact that she herself has always been its supplement – ‘the small nose of Asia’, as Paul Valéry would say.
However, the fact remains that the imperial idea of uniting the two continents became reality only in the time of the mighty Roman Empire. In an administrative sense, of course, since as pars orientalis, Asia became the eastern and Europe, as pars occidentalis, the western part of Great Rome. And so it was until 718 and the defeat of the Muslim fleet at Constantinople, and very likely even later, after the battle at Poatie in 732, when for the first time the term ‘Europenses/ Europeans’ was used in a chronicle. Therefore, if I am not mistaken in understanding Denis De Rougemont, in the 8th century the concept of ‘a family of nations’ was not unknown to the people of the Western continent. It was used to denote a continental community united around a common fate – defense against Islam. Yet, when the dark Middle Ages came to be with their struggles for dominance, the term ‘Europeans’ drifted into the realm of allegory. It took the threat of the Mongols and the Turks, together with the idea of defense of Christianity, for the atrophied vision of Europe to be resurrected in the beginning of the 14th century. Until then, the political and ideological rivalry of Rome and Constantinople continued to widen the gap between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, thus deepening the already irreconcilable contrast in the heart of the western continent.
As if a connective tissue, a geographical space allowed for a symbolic interaction of existing differences. It nurtured conditions for bridging over the internal binary logic and was granted, in the mutual reception of Christian West and East, the linguistic and cultural stereotype – Byzantine. Its sense of value represented the matrix through which, with its own cultural awareness, the Metropolis projected its forms of mysticism, all the contradictory fantasies of the ‘exotic Other’, making its irreconcilable Eastern origin more absolute, rather than making it more relative.
Thus a vacuum was created – the vacuum between the self-referenced and self-absorbed narratives of a non-Balkan Europe, and the glittering myth of the Hellenic culture of a non-European Balkans, the cradle of the European spirit and civilization. But, when, due to new relations of political power, the term ‘Byzantine’ was replaced with ‘European Turkey’, and this one with the term ‘the Balkans’ at the end of the 19th century, the exotic Others of the peninsula were given a marginal status of border subjects, with a sufficient Oriental contamination not to be accepted as completely European identities. Thus, through a “completely schizophrenic procedure”, Ferid Muhic says, “Europe split its own historical consciousness. It proclaimed one of its parts, the Balkans, as a Different-from-itself and ascribed to it all its traumas, syndromes, anxieties, psychotic nightmares; whereas it ascribed angelic attributes to its other part, reserving for it all the optimal ethical prerogatives. It simply objectified its struggle against its own pathological consciousness, instead of internalizing it” (Muhic; 2000/20:28).
What was ascribed to the Balkan subject as an ‘Eastern Other’ in the heart of Europe, was inspired by several factors, but mostly by the division of Christianity: the Western-Catholic on the one side (the one with a European mentality), and the Eastern-Orthodox on the other side (the one with a Byzantine and Oriental mentality). Therefore, the Balkan identity, created as a specific kind of human fate, was preordained to be the East on the West, and the West on the East. But, instead of accepting the role of the marginal, the Balkan identity has striven to make an impression of a central identity. And while the western metropolis considered the Balkan subject ahistorical, everything it touched, it turned to History. Here is the proof.
The preface of Rebecca West’s (Cicely Isabel Fairfield) travels of the land of the South Slavs, contains quite an illustrative instance on the thesis present in the intellectual (academic and political) circles of the civilization we believe we belong to – the attitude that the Balkans, i.e. southeastern Europe is the Id of the western European Ego.
“My life was marked by murders of kings, news-vendors running down the streets and shouting how someone turned a new page in history with a deadly weapon”, says Rebecca West (1990:28). Her childhood memory contained images of 1898 on the account of which she was able to reconstruct the murder of the Habsburg queen Elisabeth, committed by an Italian anarchist, and also the horrifying lynch of the royal Serbian couple – Aleksandar and Draga Obrenović in 1903, yet she failed to recall the murder of Franc Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the center of the Balkans.
“I do not remember a thing about this murder” writes West. “Each detail of the death of Elisabeth is quite clear in my mind, and I do have a vague image of the massacre in Belgrade, yet I cannot, for the life of me, remember reading anything about the assassination in Sarajevo. I was engaged at the time, as if I were an idiot, I was a private person and was very busy. My idiotism felt like an anesthetic. While I was under it, I felt cut off from everything and felt nothing, although it could not erase the consequences. The pain was compensated for afterwards…” (West, 1990:34; my italics), in 1934 when the anchor person of a radio station announces the murder of Petar Karađorgjević. At that moment, as if the repressed unconscious, or a sudden look back from her childhood stage, West realizes that Yugoslavia, or more precisely Sarajevo, was her dream screen. That is why she recognized the news from Marseilles about the murder of the Yugoslav king in the heart of Europe, as danger (“I knew a new agony might begin with it”), and the term ‘the Balkans’ as a territory of Freudian unconscious, an entirely realistic stage nowadays onto which the collective unconscious of Europe seems to be projected; its latent, symbolic meaning, its chthonic and demonic essence – that which must not be spoken of, according to the consciousness and reason of High Civilization. However, it can be dreamt of… recognized as a dream screen… That is how Europe protects itself from itself.
This realization called to mind the image of Lacan’s boromeic knot – the three rings of string, three thoraces intertwined in firm unity. If one is removed, the entire construction falls apart, and it has a topological dimension. It is a three-dimensional body in space, a structure which finds the notions of boundary – center, inside – outside, or same – different, irrelevant. Therefore the three thoraces represent a connective tissue. The point of intersection of this triple unity is the place of the union. The union prefers an identity of differences and the unity – differences in identity.
But, to go back to the presumed ‘Euro-intellectual’ logic.
If we accept the Balkans as the Id of the western European Ego, then Asia shall be its Alter Ego, which leads to the conclusion that the topological interposition of the thoraces of the boromeic knot corresponds to the geopolitical positioning of the aforementioned regions, onto which the three order logic is reflected: the order of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. Or, to be more precise: if Europe is the realm of the real, and Asia is the realm of the imaginary, the Balkans should denote the realm of the symbolic unconscious, something similar to Freud’s identity paradox, which (just like the knot) is not monolithic, but composed of self–compensating different samenesses. That ‘sameness of differences’ actually suggests that a subject from the Balkans could never be defined ego-logically, but topologically, because – as a middle thorax in the tangled up Eurasian knot – it is the part that buffers and softens the opposition between the poles; it is that which contains and is contained; that which is – at the same time – the center and the periphery, the ergon and the parergon of what is called the European spirit and civilization, but with a prominent Balkan feature. Why?
As a meeting point between different nations and religions, this historical and geographical chronotope has always been the landmark on which a rich cultural hybrid was built. Without an assumed or imposed hierarchy which generates insurmountable differences between the Occident and the Orient, the Balkan logic of ‘in-between-moment’ seems to develop specific strategies for pacifying the rigid identities. However, aren’t those the same strategies of the Other, the beheaded today, the other heading? Derrida says: “This question is as old as the history of Europe, but the experience of the other heading, or of the other of the heading, is presented in a completely new way… the emerging of the new, the uniqueness of the other today, should have been expected… it should have been anticipated as that which cannot be foreseen… in short, as that which we have no memory of yet (Derrida; 2001:20; my italics).
There is yet another instance in the travels of Rebecca West which I find indicative. I would like for you to direct your attention to the last sentence of the following quotation, however not without the essential preceding context which is this: “It seems that violence was all I knew about the Balkans and all I knew about the South Slavs. I drew my knowledge… from the prejudice of the French who used the word Balkan pejoratively to signify a rastaquouère barbarian… Actually I knew nothing of the southeastern corner of Europe – (as if she is justifying her ignorance!) – and in the light of the fact that a multitude of events was streaming out from there… it meant I knew nothing of my own fate” (West; 1990:38-39, my italics).
The confessional tone of Rebecca West brings out to surface the European prejudice against the Balkans and its endogenous, destructive and combative subjects. Yet, is it not stigmatizations of such kind which produce mythical images of otherness?
Nevertheless, this is what Slavoj Žižek’s – one of the leading theorists of otherness alive, and originally from the Balkans – thoughts are on the phenomenon. Among the most renowned cultural stereotypes of the Balkans he includes the stereotype of it as a part of Europe constantly haunted by the evil apparitions of the past – “the part which neither forgets nor learns, but continues to fight the battles of centuries, while the rest of Europe is engaged in the rapid globalization process” (Žižek; 2001:152). But, a vital paradox in the core of this stereotype cannot escape his sharp psychoanalytical eye – the one eternally haunted by the apparitions of the past has become, in the mind of those who have created it, the haunting apparition! How?
Western perceptions of the Balkans as a region of primitive, despotic passions, ethnic terror and intolerance – have created an imago which developed another extreme among the British conservatives, the opponents of the European Union. Some are conspirators of the thesis that “the entire continental Europe today functions as a new version of the Balkan Turkish empire, with Brussels as the new Istanbul”, which, by endangering the freedom and sovereignty, threatens to consume them in its own despotic center (Žižek; 2001:153). But, does the inherited ethnic and religious mixture from the Ottoman (actually from the Byzantine and Roman) Empire, really undermine the liberal-democratic processes in southeastern Europe? Isn’t the model of post-national states just an imported fabrication from the countries of the western world, a perverted image of their mono-national state concept, as if it were a concealed truth about the repressed ideological antagonisms between the West and the East? And isn’t perhaps this fear of the ‘Balkanization of Europe’ actually a fear of ‘Europe-ization of the Balkans’?
Just see how a point is made by a rhetorical question which, as if it were a continuous pondering with a time span of seventy years, confirms the ‘thesis of fate’ by Rebecca West: “Isn’t the Balkans of the post-Yugoslav era, that whirlwind of (self)destructive ethnic passions, the true opposite (of Europe), a photographic negative of tolerant coexisting of ethnic groups, a specific multicultural dream turned into a nightmare?”(Žižek; 2001:152; my italics). The paradox is far more than obvious. As is the truth, in fact.
I will only spend a little bit more time on the European imago which defines the people from the Balkans as affective beings, closer to ‘nature’ rather than ‘culture’. The question is whether nature is really that opposite of culture, whether it is its own ‘Otherness’? The Latin words culture and civilization have a common root in colere, a word with great semantic charge: from raising and living, to nurturing and worshipping. However, according to Walter Benjamin, each document about civilization is at the same time a written account of its barbarism, so if that is why western logic has a non-defined and incomplete notion of the term ‘culture’, we can be certain that it fosters a strange uneasiness, almost abjection, toward the term ‘nature’. But, why should it, if nature is not the opposite of culture, when it is not its Other, but a weight creating an inner schism powerful enough to remind us that culture is not our nature, but what has come out of it, “what has complemented it in a way which is both essential and excessive” (Eagleton; 2002:120; my italics).
A great deal has been written about the affection and interdependence of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ of western and southeastern Europe. In the discourses of great western European ‘lovers’ – explorers and missionaries – the Balkans, as the most remote corner of Europe, has been given ambivalent descriptions: as the ‘kingdom of shadows’, something mysterious, yet tempting, as a wild mistress with a dark face which is the object of desire of all, Muslims and Christians, communists and capitalists; a half-familiar, exotic body, yielding to exploration and colonization. And, what is more important, it is within reach, in its backyard, right behind the wall and curtain of the sophisticated world, on the border between the forbidden and the permissible.
Thus created upon the strict rules of privilege and subordination, the Balkans has maintained the identity of a harem mistress until today. As long as this mistress allows her European master to enjoy the highest symbolic values, she can freely take upon herself the role of a mental vacancy, a Great Nothing, recognizable only as an internal object of desire. But, when that object/cause of desire decides to become an entity, when it decides to reach out for positive existence, its reaction will be looked upon as the awakening of the ‘objet petit a’, as a threat to the identity of the Great (European) Self caused by its barbarian Otherness. This is the root of the abjection Europe feels toward this Balkan ‘apparition’, toward the obstinate remnant of a long-denied past.
“I knew nothing of that southeastern corner of Europe… and that felt like knowing nothing about my own fate… My idiotism felt like an anesthetic…” wrote Rebecca West seventy years ago, in her travels of the land of the South Slavs. Haven’t her words intercepted the awakening of the Great European Self from amnesia of centuries, from its own unconscious?
But, that which has decided to gain a certain status – albeit a status of ‘objet petit a’ – should consider its future; if not, it would only be recognized as someone else’s fate. It calls to play the mechanisms of anamnesis which help us remember the past in order to discover that which we carry within ourselves as an ‘objet petit a’.
It is usually said that the Fourth World countries belong to the border cultures, the cultures of borders which stand as a metaphor for the contact with the First World countries. But, cultures are open, and the dialogue between them does not involve a common metalanguage; it recognizes the difference, not the mimicry. Yet, should we polarize in order to polemize (Baba; 2004:50); should we stand behind our civilization borders and create myths about impossible identities? Each culture in non-identical to itself, and so are her subjects: dislocated from the inside, they possess an ‘internal blind spot’ which does not give one peace. Yet, “where the Other has been dismantled into itself, where it has not been contextualized completely, only there can we face it, says Terry Eagleton. “I understand the Other only when I become aware of what is troubling me – its mysterious nature, which is its concern as well.” Also, as Žižek says: “That is how the dimension of the Universal is set into motion – when two lacks, mine and of the Other – coincide… the common denominator to us and the unreachable Other is the empty one, the one replacing the X which eludes both sides” (Eagleton; 2002:118).
Therefore, each search for an identity is a search for one’s own discourse, for the discovery of the narratives for oneself – those which help us define ourselves, and tell our story of the twisted Balkan reality. The cunningness of our local mind no longer allows someone else to do that in our stead. It is the most legitimate and natural attempt to cross over from a lower to a higher status point, from an ‘object’ to a ‘subject’.
However, since each attempt to understand ourselves and the others originates in the understanding of one’s own insufficiency, in the realization of the inner schism – the fracture which, although not allowing one to identify with one self, does serve as a crossing into a different ontological order – it becomes apparent that the key to understanding the Other (other culture, other heading) – is, actually, a step out into oneself. Needless to say, that does not assume one should not insist upon ethnicity; on the contrary, but only in the frame of a universal, cultural identity in which we have to struggle for a dialogue with the point of view of the Other.
In this world of values, the future of the small Balkan ethnicities is of one such identity – universal, cultural – the one which will enable the return to the whole, the return to the lost unity. The only thing to be done is to learn its language, with all the surrounding archetypes, in order for us to be able to – while enjoying the inborn need for self–irony – deconstruct the stereotypes of the common imago, thus realizing the dream we have been longing for: the dialogue between the East and the West, nature and culture, the somatic and semiotic, the body and the spirit. Without traumas and complexes, without fear of altercations…
Translated by: Ana Kecan
Reference list (translated):
1. Rougemont, Denis De (1997): Twenty Eight Centuries of Europe: the European Consciousness Through the Texts from Hesiod Until Today, Kultura, Skopje
2. Derrida, Jacques(2001): The Other Heading, Templum, Skopje
3. Eagleton, Terry (2002): The Idea of Culture, Naklada Jesenski i Turk, Zagreb
4. Babha, Homi K. (2004): The Location of Culture, Beogradski Krug, Beograd
5. Žižek, Slavoj (2001): Less Love, More Hatred! Or, Why Is the Christian Heritage Worth Fighting For, Beogradski Krug, Beograd
6. Ugrešić, Dubravka (2002): ‘In Better Houses Such Things Are Not Spoken Of’ in: The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, Konzor, Zagreb; Samizdat B92, Beograd
7. Buden, Boris (2002): “Inconscientia Iugoslavica“ in: The Kapitol Train Station (Kaptolski kolodvor): Political Essays, Centar za savremenu umetnost, Beograd
8. Kristeva, Julia (1989): The Power of Terror: An Essay on Abjection, Naprijed, Zagreb
9. Lacan, Jacques (1986): Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Naprijed, Zagreb
10. Jevremović, Petar (2000): ‘The Topology of Identity’ in: Lacan and Psychoanalysis, Plato, Beograd
11. West, Rebecca (1990): Black Lamb, Grey Falcon: Travels through Yugoslavia, BIGZ, Beograd
12. Goldsworthy, Vesna (2005): The Invention of Ruritania, Geopoetika, Beograd
13. Todorova, Marija (2001): Imagining the Balkans, Magor, Skopje
14. Muhić, Ferid (20/2000): ‘A Critique of the Balkan Mind’, Lettre Internationale: A European Cultural Review, Skopje
15. Cioran, Emil (1996): An Essay on Decomposition, Kultura, Skopje
1. A European (per)version of the Balkan original Choran.
2. It was, therefore, not the Greek who ‘discovered’ the continent, but the Phoenicians, with the help of a mystical unity of the alphabet originating in India and Persia; however, they are the ones who ‘named’ it. According to the eminent Gonzague De Reynold, the original meaning of the word Europe reveals the feminine adjective europé. In europa (a masculine adjective), found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Reynold recognized one of the attributes Homer used for Zeus, from whence he hypothetically derived the nominative eurups. The etymology reveals a two-word compound: the adjective eurus (wide, plentiful, spacious) and the noun ops (a poetic expression for an eye, view, face). “Hence, Europe Zeus is a far-seeing Zeus, and Europe is a woman with big eyes, a nice look and lovely face. It is thus that the relation between Europe and Homer’s attribute for Zeus becomes obvious”, says G. De Reynold in his La Formation de l’Europe (quotes taken from the listed work of Rougemont; 1997:37).
3. The nameless western continent adopted the name of its precious prey meaning ‘the land of the sunset’, because for the people of the East, the West was an unknown, unexplored territory, susceptible to conquest. According to Rougemont, the East was a synonym for all spiritual and enlightment values: light, soul, wisdom, revelation, rebirth… a native soil, and the West symbolized the greed and the blind force; the West was the twilight, half-shadow, humiliation, exile… So many truths on such small space…
4. In French, the word le cap is contained in the words capital (capital) and capital-major city (capitale), although at the same time it denotes direction, cape, peninsula… border (Derrida; 2001).
5. I refer to the Mozarabian Chronicle of 754, mentioned in The Twenty Eight Centuries of Europe.
6. As opposed to the prior name which, although it associated, it did not produce enough differentiating semas.
7. Here is how she noted that down in her book: “This murder remained somewhere in my memory as a half-shaded square… : a police poster from the front page of a newspaper, seen many years ago” (West; 1991:33).
8. The murder of the Austrian heir to the throne, the future father of the nation, is an event which was supposed to remain in the unconscious, as if it were a terrifying oedipal drama.
9. I knew nothing of the South Slavs, nor had I met anyone who knew them. All I knew was that they belonged to the Balkan people who have played strange roles in history… Once, in Nice, while I was eating shrimp in front of the small restaurant at the pier, I heard shots. A drunken sailor was leaving the bar next to us as the owner ran after him shouting: ‘Balkan! Balkan!’. He had emptied his gun in the mirror behind the bar. I was now faced with the flattering grace of the King from the documentary, who was also ‘Balkan, Balkan’, but who was also confronted by violence in his sound mind, confronted by imagination opposed to violence, an imagination which assimilates him as a destructive experience” (West; 1990:37-380).
10. In one of the most inspiring essays of the book The Kapitol Train Station (Kaptolski kolodvor) by the Croatian publicist Boris Buden entitled Inconscientia Iugoslavica, the following quotation by Mladen Dolar is taken as a motto: “Yugoslavia is the European unconscious, or, the unconscious is structured as Yugoslavia” (Buden; 2002:7).
11. Trinitas = Unitas
13. Aren’t the vagueness and changeability of the Balkan geography indicative of its ghastly status? It is as if there is no answer to the question’ Where does the Balkans begin?’ – The Balkans is always somewhere else, a little further away, in the southeast…” (Žižek; 2001:152; my italics).
14. If the Balkans is emotio (nature) and Europe is ratio (culture) then the wild should be tamed, colonized…
15. And, instead of materializing the lack of the subject, lower case a threatens to undermine its stability, widening the gap which serves as a reminder of the initial and never forgotten connection with it.
16. “… faced with ethnic hatred and violence, we should completely reject the standard multicultural idea that, aside from ethnic intolerance, we should learn to respect and live with the Otherness of the Other, developing tolerance toward different lifestyles. The way to really fight against ethnic hatred is not through its direct opposite, ethnic tolerance. On the contrary, what we truly need is even more hatred, but real, political hatred; hatred directed toward the common political enemy”, says Slavoj Žižek in his essay Abandoning the Balkan apparitions (2001:159). Sounds cruel, yet true. One should just carefully read his ironic discourse of genius.