The Balkan Myth of the Sacrifice of Creation:
A Plea for Redeeming Self-Respect
If the Balkans didn’t exist, they should be invented. (Herman Keyserling)
Could we get a glimpse of contemporary society, which is suffocated by the preoccupation for immediate efficiency of its actions and by the benefits resulting from the above, of the founding myths and legends, which carry within the essential traits of those who gave us birth and which reflect the image of the experiences that have preceded us?
The construction and expansion of the EU as a political project, which tries to build on diversity in national, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural identities a milestone for the political and economic success of Europe in a globalized world, brings back into debate the importance of political myths.
Raoul Girardet bets on the filiations between the contemporary political imaginary and the great myths of mankind, while the latter offers the conceptual material needed by the present to get the name of non-temporality. Out of this symbiosis derive contemporary myths, either political or of a different nature, getting validation both by their connection to the past and by the exceptional influence they can get in a modern reality, which is still re-writing its history. The French political analyst identifies four myths, which he thinks essential for the entire contemporary European society: the myth of conspiracy, the myth of the saviour, the myth of the global age and the myth of unity. All four refer to the social and political events that have radically altered the face of Europe over the two decades. If we should talk about the revolutions of 1989 which have led to the fall of the iron curtain and to the fall of communism, or about the evolution of European nations in the period immediately consequent to the said revolutions; if we should approach the idea of European unity or the danger of a could-be return to communism, we will discover throughout the lines manifestations of the four above-mentioned political myths.
We could raise the question to which extent these myths can support a positive direction or reversely lead to derails and failures? And last, but not least to which extent one could avoid an excessive mythologizing and implicitly the deformation of both history and reality.
A large part of the Balkan countries, which have been for half a century within the area of influence of communism, have crossed such dramatic challenges. The idea of a national saviour, so widely used in the period foregoing and preceding World War II, has turned into the reality of burdening dictatorships. The myth of unity and that of a golden age degenerated into the process of becoming soviet and into the pathological denaturizing of history and reality. The myth of conspiracy has lead to the demonization of the West, seen as the main adversary of the pretence welfare of communist countries.
The fact that the policy of states within this geographic space has been associated to these myths, in an almost identical manner, has drawn the attention to a common psychology: the psychology of Balkan peoples, which integrates the former into a special unity. What does “special” mean in this case, and how it shows in the image of the Balkan peoples about themselves and that of the West about the same?
The answer comes from a rather remote past, as, being more than a geographic or historic concept, the Balkans represent an imaginary space, which hosts a paradox: Primordial Europe that has become a region opposite to Europe.
The expression “Balkan Peninsula” has dated since 1808, whereas the negative connotations have become evident only since 1918. While over the 19th century the reticence of the West derived from the images of wild regions, scarcely populated and backward, where it is dangerous to venture (Hic sunt leones), the beginning of the 20th century brings about the image of a permanently conflicting area, “Europe’s barrel of powder” that could inflict danger in neighboring regions too.
The images were covering a reality that nobody could deny, but which was turned by politics into accentuated stereotypes, such as “Balkanizing”, while literature and later cinema transformed them into simplifying myths fixed in universal sensibility.
In the period of the Cold War, the Balkans vanished from the interest of the West, which was promoting a two-fold perception, one where political and military arguments were violating geography, by pacing Communist Germany and Czechoslovakia in the East of Europe, as they were part of the Warsaw Treaty, whereas Turkey and Greece were labeled Western, as they were members of NATO. Once Southeastern Europe was freed from communist dictatorships, through its own effort and peacefully, the fears of the West, which was unprepared for such a radical change, emerged in the shape of the theory of “clash of civilizations”, according to which only the catholic and protestant West was qualified for democracy and a market economy. I had the chance of replying to the late Huntington at Harvard, during a conference on the “dialogue of civilizations”, arguing that he was extending an economic and political experience of two centuries to a history probing a survival capacity of two millennia. Huntington’s theory, as well as the reticence of the West, kept alive by the blood-covered conflicts in former Yugoslavia, have already been surpassed today by the new European political and economic framework.
Europe’s stability will, yet, be truly ensured at the point when the cultural model of unity in diversity will become reality.
The Balkan experience can become again a
term of reference for the “other Europe”, at the beginning of the 21st
80 years ago Herman Keyserling was writing in his famous “Spectral Analysis of Europe”, that Europe was in its essence a “Balkan Peninsula”. If it was wide-ranging and united as the United States and Russia, its meaning would fade away, as its spirit was born on the field of tensions between state-towns fighting each other in Ancient Greece and which have perpetuated from one people to another, leading Europe to present the same dynamic unity, as that of the Ancient Balkans. Since tensions in Western Europe have faded, we should be grateful, so Keyserling, that there is a modern Balkan Peninsula, where we can learn what should be avoided. Yet, I would rather say that now, when the tensions within the Balkans seem to have faded too, we should, as well, learn from ourselves how we can avoid them. Yet there is something else that we should learn: how to build a cultural model of dignity which should not be based on despising others, but on understanding each other’s values.
At this point we cannot be silent on the fact that, so far, the Balkan peoples have been the first to disregard Balkanhood. They have placed themselves in the outskirts of Europe, considering that the West was the only “true Europe”. In the collective mind of the Balkans a trip to the West was becoming a trip to Europe bearing an initiation feature. Even if this vision was favored over the 19th and 20th century progress and modernity, the extension of this subordinate pose of humiliating subordination becomes counterproductive in the new European and global political reality of the 21st century.
Recovering the cultural pride becomes primordial. As a matter of fact we are not only the continuators of Ancient Greece, with Aristotle, Pericles and Sofocles, of the Thracians, Orpheus and Aesop, or those of the Ottoman civilization with the sophisticated Suleiman the Magnificent. We are nonetheless contemporaries of the Greeks Seferis and Elytis, of the Bosnian Andric, of the Jewish Canetti from Ruse and of the Turkish Orhan Pamuk, all of the former laureates of the Nobel Prize for literature over the past decades. We might too easily forget that Croatia gave Mestrovic and Tesla, Albania Ismail Kadare, Turkey Orhan Pamuk, Romania Constantin Brancusi, Eugen Ionescu and Tristan Tzara, who have initiated modernism in art and literature over the first half of the 20th century.
“Balkan” still remains a “nomen nudum”, a term empirically used and never validated by a complete description of the object it refers to. It is hard to speak about cultural unity, while Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, Macedonian and Romanian belong to such different linguistic families. Nevertheless there is a common sensibility, which derives from the depth of a century-long cohabitation, marked by tragic conflicts and surprising affinities. It is revealed to us in the myths that tell whatever it is that we don’t know about ourselves yet.
Girardet was not wrong in identifying the four political myths that have lead to the shaping of the present European civilization. Nevertheless none of these four myths is representative for the Balkan world. The unique, defining myth in all its aspects for the cultural Balkan area is: The myth of the constructor. There is a wide range of Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanese, Serbian legends, which talk about a special character, identified with the “Great Constructor”, who creates through his talent and sacrifice a unique and perennial edifice. This construction is either a bridge, like the bridges over the Arta in Greece, over the Mostar in Herzegovina, and over the Struma in Bulgaria; a fortress (the Scadar) for the Serbians, (the Tesanc) for the Bosnians, a tower for the Albanians, and a monastery (the Curtea de Arges) for the Romanians. In all cases, the building master is the one to chose his supreme sacrifice so that his work could last over centuries. He is at the same time saviour, restorer of the ideal order of a golden age; he fights for the co-existence of past and present. It could be that similar elements in this legend were also found in the mythology of other peoples, outside the Balkan area, but the aspect that has granted them immortality here is the quality of the artistic and literary expression witnessed by Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Oriental Stories”, Lucian Blaga ………….. A historic milestone of the myth of the constructor is as well the legend told by the Byzantine chronicle of Ioan Malalas of the 6th century, where Alexander is told to have sacrificed at the foot of the fortress Alexandria a young girl, named Macedonia. Factual reality of such an act matters less, as it is surpassed by the symbolic importance of the gesture. The great king was sacrificing his own homeland for supporting a great idea, that of an empire built not only on military force, but also on unity in language and culture.
In the conscience of all Balkan peoples the sacrifice for creation brings into being a whole social, cultural and even religious system. It is the time that the peoples in the Balkans have a say in the innovation of politics, by shredding away humiliating stereotypes, even if at some point they had corresponded to a reality that has been overcome today. It is the time that the Balkan people should again have a vision of the world.
The basis of politics resides in the capacity of a society to adapt to one reality or another and the expression of this adaptability is represented by the myth itself. Therefore we can say that the resorts of political endeavors are rather mythical than ideological. The two levels – mythological and ideological – can cohabitate. Yet if ideology tends to substitute the myth as a defining element of a people or a civilization, the danger of derailing becomes imminent, while history fully proves the above. Legend, myth are expressions of a belief and conscience of a people, their use in the interest of a person or a restricted group of people speaks against their authority. As a matter of fact, politics itself should be anchored to the life of the entire community, to the life of the city and not just to a part of the latter. The false understanding and the misuse of the myth could lead politics to certain failure. Identifying the true original myth, which is in my belief the “myth” of the constructor in the Balkans can offer essential milestones in avoiding such a situation. It is not about a simple resort to history, a cultural gesture, but about an essential act in the existence of communities, offering a correct perspective on the present and a just estimate of the future.
At present, Balkan countries are undergoing a profound process of changing, determined on one hand by the reorganizing of former communist countries, and on the other, on the need of shaping an efficient political thinking, founded on true democratic values. We can raise the question if mythical resorts of the peoples in this region can be integrated in such a social-political context. My answer is positive. In fact, the validity of these resorts is not determined by the changes undergone by a certain civilization. They describe the intimate ground that makes these changes possible and it is this that we have to firstly take into account. The four political myths I was referring to previously can redirect their movement on the trajectory of these changes, while undergoing changes of pattern. It is only the founding myth, the myth of the creator that keeps up its position irrespective of changes that have come up in time. The 1989 revolution has been the moment when the peoples in Southeastern Europe have felt an astral moment in history and have been ready to die for freedom, truth and rightfulness, by shaping a new destiny. From this perspective, the world of the Balkans is far from being that space “ou tout est pris a la legere”, and has become again the mythical space of creation through sacrifice, an area where reality has been and still is looked at with the profound seriousness of him, who assumes the ultimate implication of a solid construction that should defy the future.
The future of a world were self-respect is the foundation of the respect of the peer, and of the peer’s respect for you.