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The Telltale Scar

What is Central Europe?

Budapest—On the banks of the Danube, it is quite natural to ask whether the idea of Central Europe has been just a whim of a few intellectuals, or acquires now a new significance thanks to the aspirations for democracy that have been reawakened in many countries. The simple fact is that our perspective, whether we are Poles or Hungarians or Yugoslavs, is different from the perspective of Western Europeans, Russians, or Americans. But the common denominator cannot be established theoretically, only empirically.

According to one view that is often advanced, the notion of Central Europe is artificial, since the countries embraced by this name aspire to become simply a part of Western Europe. There is some truth in this thesis; and yet its proponents bypass certain important facts and certain durable traumas. Fifty years ago, on August 23, 1939, an event of calamitous importance took place, which became the preamble of World War II. This was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, with its confidential protocols and secret clauses that defined the so-called spheres of influence that divided our part of Europe between the Soviet Union and Germany. We are separated from this event by half a century, but also by millions of deaths, by mass deportations, by planned exterminations of civilians, by concentration camps and slave labor camps.

There is probably a basic division between the two halves of Europe in the difference between memory and lack of memory. For Western Europeans, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is no more than the vague recollection of a misty past. For us—I say us, for I myself experienced the consequences of the agreement between the superpowers—that division of Europe has been a palpable reality, as it has been for all those in our countries who were born after the war.

Therefore I would risk a very simple definition. I would define Central Europe as all the countries that in August 1939 were the real or hypothetical object of a trade between the Soviet Union and Germany. This Central Europe encompasses not only the area usually associated with the idea of “centrality,” but also the Baltic states (the area where I was born).

The reduction to the role of an object of history creates deep traumas. It explains our wariness when we think of our two big neighbors. Independence from the Big Brother to the east probably should not be equated with an unreserved acceptance of the West, which is represented in the first place by the economic power of Germany. I speak here not as a politician or an economist; yet a writer cannot abstain from delineating a territory for his or her prognosis for literature.

We are entering the last decade of the 20th century, and, taking stock, we cannot but call it a century of revolution. While the identification of revolution in politics with revolution in art or literature is misleading, the existence of a link that brings together revolutionaries in art and revolutionaries in politics cannot be doubted. The revolt of the 19th-century bohemians against the philistines and the bourgeois left a heritage clearly visible, for instance, in the history of surrealism. Now, in an era that is sometimes called postmodern, we ask ourselves whether we are thrown into a situation in which we cannot say “no” to the existing order of things, whether our dislike of the bourgeois and the philistine has lost all foundation. The disintegration of the communist doctrine—of socialist realism and so on—leaves the field for art and literature submitted to the rule of supply and demand, East or West. The image of the decadent West versus the vigorous and morally healthy East has crumbled. And our countries of Central Europe are no longer protected by artificial barriers from the words, the sounds, the colors pouring into this area from the West.

Since I live in America, since I am, to some extent, an American writer, I should rejoice in this victory of freedom—even if it is a relative freedom only, for barriers still exist. And yet it is precisely my American experience that reinforces my conviction that man does not live by bread alone. I would not be delighted to see all of us, wherever we live, in the East or the West, enter a period in which the assertion that man needs more than bread will be punished by ridicule. Or, if you prefer, that man needs more than sex and violence.

All the suffering of millions of human beings terrorized by totalitarian governments would be sentenced to total oblivion if something precious is not saved from the disaster, namely, the discovery made by those people of a clear line dividing good from evil, truth from lie. Central European countries made this discovery even as the literati of America and Western Europe were treating the opposition of good and evil as a somewhat obsolete notion.

The critical attitude of many Central European writers toward their Western colleagues finds an explanation also in the pressure of public opinion to which writers are always sensitive. Many of them have been accused of failing, in the years of Stalinism, to preserve their professional integrity, and of conniving with the terror of the state; thus, they are particularly attentive now to the notion off the moral responsibility of the writer. To the east, in Russia, this idea of the writer’s moral leadership goes even further. I have seen a kind of blacklist imposed by an independent intellectual in Moscow that includes all those in the West, beginning with Bernard Shaw, who made public pronouncements in praise of a system that kept millions of Soviet citizens in gulags.

Decades of pain and humiliation: that is what distinguishes (Central European countries from their Western counter-parts. Literature cannot avoid being marked by this issue, often in a quite unexpected way.

Writers in Poland—and in this respect Poland may stand for several other countries—have discovered the dangers of direct commitment, of participation in political struggle.

It was not only cowardice and opportunism that inclined many writers to embrace the doctrine of the Communist Party in the postwar period. Yet even those writers who remained morally motivated did not escape lies and a travesty of reality, which seems to be inseparable from the system. In the 1970s Polish literature finally moved to the side of dissent. It soon became an ally of Solidarity, both during Solidarity’s time off triumph and time of persecution. At that time the moral issues were clear, and no serious writer sided with the Party’s apparatus.

Unfortunately, important pieces of writing do not necessarily result from pure hearts and good intentions. The poetry and the prose of the last decade have been obsessive, convulsive, monothematic: a victim of their own exclusive concern with liberation from a bankrupt political system. Liberation is, certainly, a noble task. But poetry and prose have their own rules, they are bound by exigencies of form and durability.

It is legitimate to ask, therefore, what happens if a Polish writer (or a Hungarian writer, or a Lithuanian writer, and so on) decides to lake a vacation from actuality, to deal with the “eternal” subjects of love and death. Is he in the same position as an author of poems or fiction in London, in Paris, in New York? In my opinion, he is not. Here we encounter a truly difficult problem, which has little to do with the political, philosophical, or religious options of a given writer. I refer, instead, to the whole mentality of the writer, which is acquired not quite consciously.

The specific contribution of this area of Europe to world literature may consist precisely in finding expression for its peculiar mentality, with its weaknesses and its strengths. In translating into English and preparing for print the erotic poems of Anna Swir, a Polish poet, I noticed how different her verse is from that written by women, her contemporaries, in America. Instead of a confessional tone, there appears a kind of far-reaching detachment, an amused observation of herself and of man, a surprisingly cruel objectivity. Also, there is practically no attempt at psychologizing. This is just one example. There are many others.

An American friend of mine, the poet Leonard Nathan, asked me once “Why are yon and oilier Polish poets so interested in dealing with philosophical problems through poetry?” My answer to that question might invoke the collective experience of the last decades, the specific sense of history inculcated against our will by our participation in a historical drama. Or it might simply stress the hold of society on the individual, which enforces a certain objectivity (even in love poems). But finally such answers would not be satisfactory. Perhaps the literary differences I have described are owed to a sense of proportion: certain ways of thinking and writing seem too frivolous in the face of the genocidal habits of mankind.

Whatever the answer, I have the feeling of touching something real without being able to name it. I do not mean to hide the fact that I am imbued with a dose of fanaticism, which is not (at least I hope not) of a doctrinaire kind. That fanaticism is directed against those tendencies in the contemporary literature of the West that offend my need for hierarchy—for a hierarchy of values, of forms, and of styles. I have no ready-made prescriptions. I am trying, as I said, to grope empirically toward a formulation of the Central European difference, by noticing common approaches in literary works that come from this area.

The term “historical imagination” escapes definition. Still, without a doubt, some people have it and others do not. I believe a person endowed with that type of imagination is able to grasp events precisely by associating them with a proper place and time. One of the consequences of modern technology and of mass education, particularly notable in the countries of the West, is the growing vagueness of notions related to history. The difference between the 13th century and the 18th century is blurred; languages spoken in various lands are contused; dates are mixed up.

Historical imagination is probably trained by the memory of a collective suffering. If this is true, writers of Central Europe are called to make use of it in their works. Historical imagination reconstructs the past of human societies. It makes us aware of the extreme durability, the permanence, of the past. Thus, in speaking of Central European cities for example, it is necessary to keep in mind that they bear traces of belonging in the 19th century to two different empires: the Czarist Empire in the north and the Hapsburg Empire in the south. Similarly, we may expect the totalitarian experience to leave a permanent scar—even if, as we hope, it will not be shared by the young generations.

Czeslaw Milosz’s most recent book is The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 (Ecco Press). This essay was presented at the Wheatland Conference on Literature in Budapest in June.