TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Carmen Andras („Gheorghe Sincai Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities, Târgu-Mureş, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Journey into the Peninsula - Identity and Self-Awareness in Balkan Literature

Marius Nica (University of Ploiesti, Romania) [BIO]



The Balkans have always been considered an image rather than a reality. They have been addressed to by the concepts of "Balkan space" or "Balkan spirit" without being fully aware of the content they refer to. From the geographical point of view, the Balkans were for the first time mentioned in the 15th century in a memorandum by Filippo Buonaccorsi Callimaco (1437-1496): "Quem incolae Balchanum vocant.(1)" The ones who would later ensure the social and political connotations of the area were the western European travellers crossing the South of the Danube with the purpose of having contacts with the Ottoman Empire. First, they were amazed by the exotic people living here and their culture. Therefore they considered the Balkan Peninsula a place outside Europe or, at most, a subdivision of it. The 1912-1913 wars cast a shadow over the exotic Balkans and the entire peninsula became an image of the national fragmentation process, being thus identified to chaotic political realities. Therefore, the idea of purlieus, of the outskirts of the continent is stressed, adding negative connotations. It is believed that the shallowness of Western civilization is too quickly borrowed by the lower social classes. The pattern to which the peninsula was reduced (its spirituality especially) depended mainly on the specific of each culture and on the relation the occidental individual has developed regarding the Balkan space. And that is because the derogative meaning of the word "Balkan" or "balkanise" is rather a cultural product than a natural one. It is a western perception which has been borrowed by the south-eastern one as it is always the case with the latter when it comes to the European world.

The imagery of Balkan literature has grown out of the social and political realities of the peninsula and is a clear and significant representation of these. To try and find definitions for such a concept would be a risky and unprofitable endeavour, as its complexity cannot be reduced to a set of words. I find more suitable the choice to pinpoint the main characteristics of this world and they will eventually work as part of an identification process. There are at least two main features that act as defining elements to the Balkan universe. On the one hand there are the associations of contrastive circumstances and, on the other hand there is the Balkan type of literature as an aesthetic compensation for a collective drama. They both create a sense of free identification within the limits of an adiabatic space to which the Balkan Peninsula has many times been reduced to. The associations of contrastive circumstances is more than mere diversity - it is, in fact, rethinking the unity by bringing into presence a dichotomy generating fundamental meanings for the Balkan spirituality. And all these are creating the powerful symbol of homo duplex. It is the individual who empathises with the two opposite aspects of the world - its existence is between extremes: between passive and dynamic, cultured and popular, sacred and profane, liturgical and carnivalesque. All these create an everlasting state of unstable equilibrium and this is what determines the polarisation of the concept of Balkan mentality. This polarisation is clearly embedded in the narrative structures of literary texts. Thus, one may find characters coming from different worlds and yet making contact creating more than odd couples. In other words, two contradictory individuals share the same destiny for a while as they are driven by the same single goal. The apathy of the loafer (coming from rich families or pretending to be so) opposes the energy of the parvenu. All this components are drawn into a movement with its own dynamic laws, of contact or rejection, and which will eventually generate the story, the linguistic display within narrative structures.

When talking about Balkan identity one should take into account the existence of certain "commonplaces" (topoi) which become metaphors for life in this peninsula. There are swamps or ponds generating a specific type of behaviour, fields and meadows which allow a horizontal development of the individual and its gestures and there is also the sea, the Mediterranean Sea which borders the Balkan spirit and nourishes it with the feeling of solar existence and open-space territories. Therefore, the self-identity and self-awareness of the people in this region is very often expressed in the literary context. And that is because in the symbolic narrative structures those motives or typologies characteristic to the Balkan universe are easily expressed. These are elements of self-establishment and self-assertion within a unitary mentality.

The literary works that materialise Balkan mentality and define this concept as an artistic reality suggest different techniques and methods, but they all form an essential synthesis of the world they present. And, after a general analysis of all these two main tendencies may be distinguished, two features which dominate the Balkan prose. Firstly, there is the negative tendency of disorder, disintegration, absurdity and silliness. It is the first and maybe the most important aspect of the peninsular literature as it was perceived by the continental civilisation and which by a process of great influence has finished by being accepted as the only major characteristic of the south-east European spirituality. As a counterweight, in the Balkan literary imagery there is another hypothesis that can be depicted - and that is the positive one which is synonym to the Oriental wisdom, to the meditative reflection and the contemplative attitude of the Mediterranean spirit. Both these artistic approaches are completed by a kind of picturesque which draws out eventually the concept of homo balcanicus, a paradoxical imagery complex which sets up and supports all the determination the concept of Balkan mentality.

The journey as a literary motif is very powerful within Balkan prose as it generates a type of behaviour and implicitly a type of individual specific to the Mediterranean space. Dating back to Ulysses and his voyages, the journey has gathered many connotations focusing on the idea of personal development, of knowledge. Thus, drawing back on the ancient Greek culture, it generates the image of the wanderer, of the philosopher, of the one who travels and discovers existence in all its aspects. The picaresque character is the one who inhabits the Balkan imagery and provides colour and significance to it. When travelling into the peninsula, the south-eastern individual does not forget the idea of homeland, does not diminish its importance. He only travels to find out, to experience and eventually to turn back. This coming back is of great importance as it provides the opportunity of the narrator to mirror the native world of the character in the wider image of the Balkans, of what this space represents. It is in fact the space where the individual feels abroad yet at home, as he is able to recognise the mentality and behaviour.

In the Romanian literature there is a diversity of texts which underline Balkan spirituality and moreover the image of journey as a fundamental motif of existence within the boundaries of the peninsula. First of all there are the historical memoirs of the travellers who created suggestive images of what the Balkan people are like. There is Nicoalae Filimon, the musician in search of new and exotic, Dimitrie Ralet, the militant unification or Dimitrie Bolintineanu, the exiled who wants to rediscover the Romanian people south of the Danube(2). These texts are presentations of a reality which proved interesting for the travellers and therefore it is a colourful and sometimes metaphorical discourse stressing out the Balkan features. The romantic traveller is interested in the information upon the individuals, the exotic behaviour and very often the gastronomic geography. And most of the time imagination fails as the memory of the writer has the tendency to be as accurate as possible. Nevertheless, the documentary value of this writings is important as they may be considered the "official" statement of the process of self-identification within the Balkan Peninsula.

But we consider more important the narrative fictional works as they present a mental imagery which has been nourished by the people of this part of the world during their troubled history. And what can be "more real" and more representative for a type of spirituality than the fictional universe aroused by the inner self-perception of one's identity? Therefore Balkan literature has a specific image due to specific literary motifs generated by the Mediterranean space and spirituality. Critics consider that the journey image is a form of freedom within a world with endless wars and tribulations. Thus, the fictional travellers embody at least three types of being into this world, three ways of moving from a place to another: first, there is the journey as initiation. The character is in search of something or someone, of a real or imaginary thing yet very important to him. It is the case of Sadoveanu's Creanga de aur where the journey modifies the inner structure of the character. Second, there is the wandering and third, the exodus as a forced movement into the peninsular space. No matter the reason, this type of journey identifies with the search for a better existence and ends in transforming the individual. One of Panait Istrati's characters says to such a wanderer: "All the blessed territory of the Levant will open to you in all its glory and its freedom, yes, freedom." (3)

The journey pays off in the end whether is an initiation or just the simple happiness of living into this world. Greek literature has imposed the joie de vivre by creating a literary motif out of Nikos Kazantzakis's character and this has been recognized in many other texts from Balkan literature. When the individual travels he discovers the world and more important he discovers himself and this gives him a state of happiness, of easiness. And this attitude can be depicted in the prose of the Bulgarian Iordan Iovkov(4), of the Croatian Ivo Andrić(5) or in the well-known novel of the Serbian Mesa Selimović, The Death and the Dervish. The Balkan spirit is that of contradictory attitudes. The tragic existence is somehow enlightened by the happiness of being into this world, of being part of it and representing it. Because this is the ultimate advantage of the Balkan individual: he knows who he is, he is well aware of his identity and acts accordingly. Travelling into the peninsula he discovers not the others but himself, he discovers the same way of thinking and acting in a universe which has defined him as homo duplex, the individual between extremes and the individual who easily adapts to any chance in his life or his community's existence.

All the changes that the Byzantium Empire underwent and moreover all the values it promoted have been poured into the Balkan individual. He is the one who, by his psycho-mental structure, belongs to all the nationalities of this area, without losing the specific, as he is "doomed" to be a multinational. And, although he asserts himself and identifies to the Byzantium Empire, homo balcanicus also claims the oriental influence of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, he becomes a behavioural synthesis and the symbol of a civilisation which preserves the historical ideals. In his masterpiece, Mesa Selimović loudly defines the people living here, in the space of "between" and the reality which has fed the literary imagery: "They inherit the laziness from the Orient and the passion of easy life from Occident; they never hurry; they are not interested in what the day of tomorrow may be like because it is already fated and there is little they can change; [...] they don't really trust anyone but is the easiest thing to fool them by nice words; they don't look like heroes but the most difficult thing is to make them afraid by threatening them; no matter what happens is all the same for them, but he next moment they begin to be interested in everything, they start to rummage and to turn things un-side down, then they fall into doze again, not feeling like reminding about what had happened; they are afraid of changes, because these have many times brought them only misery and they easily get bored with a person even if this person had been their benefactor. It is a strange world which gossips about yet it cares about you, kisses yet it hates you mocks at noble values but never forgets them.(6)"

Discussing the Balkan mentality one should take into account the literary imagery as the fictional world contains characters which are nothing else but images, reflections, more or less exaggerated, of a individual reality, specific to the behavioural area of the Balkans.

The Balkan typology displays a paradox - that homo duplex who always includes a double dimension: one of parody and the other one of evocation. Thus, the individual sets up a double determination type of connection with the universe he inhabits. On one hand he may be taken for an egocentric, a person living for himself, not caring about the world and trying to censor all relations with it. On the other hand he is the one who re-values the public space, the old Greek agora as a space of meeting and self definition. Here, the antic philosophy will make place for chattering.

The antinomy of the Balkans is perfectly symbolised by the word "between" which denotes more then mere spatial connotations. The existence into this world is of the "neither..., nor..." type and this ensures a rich imagery of many and diverse influences, from the Byzantium ideals or the solar-Mediterranean perspective to the oriental ostentation. If the peoples of the peninsula have provided a dialogue between the Orient and the Occident it is clear that the cultural manifestations will become an embodiment of this dialogue agglutinating specific themes and motives of the two major civilisations but, nevertheless, these will be re-valued in an original manner, according to the "neither..., nor..." manner of dealing with life.

The Balkan imagery can be found in those values which it can modify in a specific manner. Thus, there is a reshuffle of accents from symbolic to picturesque. It is in fact the co-existence of the sacred with the ludicrous. The values are perverted and re-shaped into forms which meet the Balkan mental imagery by the easiness they offer to life and the voluptuousness of existence. Maybe this is the reason why the Balkan literature is in debt to phantasia more than to mimesis (as the occidental literature is).

All these are part of a universe which still has its exotic behaviour and still seems to attract the occidental thinking upon it. And concurrently is trying to preserve its identity within the process of "becoming European". It is the south-east Europe, the place where virtues are tainted and misbehaviour is acknowledged as value. Here we are "at the gates of the Orient, where everything seems to be easier" and where the individual acknowledges himself as a representative figure of what history and culture have been predestined to avow: the Balkan Peninsula.



1 "The inhabitants used the word Balkan for the mountain."
2 Dimitrie Ralet, Suvenire şi impresii de cǎlǎtorie in Romania, Bulgaria şi Constantinopole (1858), Dimitrie Bolintineanu, Cǎlǎtorii pe Dunǎre şi in Bulgaria (1858), Cǎlǎtorii la romanii din Macedonia şi muntele Athos sau Santa Agora (1863)
3 "Tot pǎmantul binecuvantat al Levantului şi se va deschide cat e el de mare şi de liber in faţa ta, da, liber" (Panait Istrati, Chira Chiralina)
4 Antimovo nights
5 The Bridge Over the Drina, The Days of the Consuls (a.k.a. Chronicles of Travnik / Bosnian Chronicle)
6 Mesa Selimovi?, Dervişul şi moartea, (Death and the Dervish), Univers, Bucureşti, 1971, p. 295 (trans. M. N.)

6.7. The travel: knowledge, communication and / or power

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For quotation purposes:
Elena Butoescu: Psalmanazar's Formosa: A Pseudo-Historical Narrative and Multiple Identity Games - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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