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Imagined Identities

Imagined Geography

Publication: 17 August 2021

NO. 2 2011



The struggle between attempts at creating one coherent explanation of history and constant appeals to its revision is spread on many levels. Protagonists of this struggle are historians creating national history and scholars defining a literary canon or a compendium of art works which a nation proved capable of creating. Where does this continuous need for revision come from? Central Europe, a phenomenon very difficult to define, is a good example illustrating this process, it shows that the combat begins already inside every word.

Words influence the concepts which we construct so that we are able to understand and order reality. This arbitrary nature of signs is invoked by Czesław Miłosz in a poem from the volume Road-Side Dog (1997):

A Name
The beauty was great, but invented:
splendour lived in the name Emberiza citrinella,
not in a bird, tree, stone or cloud.

The beauty of an animal may be preserved in its Latin name. In Miłosz’s novel The Issa Valley (1981) the protagonist Thomas spends the happiest moments of his childhood on making a naturalist’s atlas where he puts down the names of animals, their characteristics, he draws animals met in the pristine woods of Lithuania. Of course, on hearing a sequence of Latin words ascribed to a species not everyone is able to imagine the smell of Northern forests, the rustle of wind and water. Only a person who knows that the poet is speaking about a yellowhammer may invoke something more than just the sound of a Latin name. Thomas’s grandmother inserted the atlas under a shaky leg of a bed – the naturalist preoccupations of her grandson did not make an impression on her.

This episode confirms a very simple truth: even the beauty of such real things as a tree, a stone or a cloud is built on emotions. Beauty must be invented anew each time.

The Northern forests, slim birches with their white bark, the spongy soil, leather boots reaching above the knee, stalking animals at dawn, the love song of grouse – all these mark yet another kind of experiences of the same literary hero. Thomas “was capable of picturing not only the details, not only the trappings, but himself in the act of registering them; he exulted, in other words, in the role as much as in the thing itself. The arching of foot while stalking, for example, was a sign of his own proficiency, all too consciously perceived. And grownups were deluded if they supposed they didn’t indulge in similar games. Were they honest, they would admit to a greater fascination with the role of lover than with the object of that love. […] No wonder their words and gestures were artificial; they were performed, under censorship, on behalf of some ideal. […] Acting was their stock and trade: one half impersonated someone the other half knew to be false.”[1]

A paradise of innocence where humans may act without thinking about their role is unachievable; the German Romantic writers already knew it very well[2]. Moreover, when the role assigned to a person is so limited that it could be described with the five words of the counting rhyme: “tired, exhausted, ill, iller, dead,” a man or a woman may suddenly realize that he or she has long been treading on air and now is falling into an abyss. The Pink Panther or Jerry Mouse are still suspended in the air, they are still running and do not know that there is no ground under their feet. They fall only when they become aware of their situation. Life becomes unbearable when a person loses a model of social behaviour and does not find a role in which they could feel at home. After the fall, protagonists of cartoons rise to their feet immediately, but it is different with humans.

In his novel A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), Peter Handke shows that absence of a socially accepted social role may lead to death. This is what happened to his mother. Looking for reasons which made her take her own life, Handke comes to a terrible conclusion that her role had been predetermined, contained in the text of a children’s song from Carinthia. His mother had to make the five steps which took her from tiredness to death. Born in Austria, in the Slovenian community doomed to destruction, imprisoned in a net of petrified social relations, she practically had no other choice – she took the five steps leading from tiredness to death. She lacked the self-confidence which energized the young Thomas Surkont when he hunted grouse in the Northern forests. We should not discard the human dimension too hastily, which can only be measured against imaginative beauty.

The grand imaginative beauty of a nation forms a framework which people accept as an image of an ideal society, as an imagined community. This framework has the same nature as the joy of a teenager before the first grouse hunt. The boy says: “I want to be precisely what I intend to be,” he is still under the spell of enthusiasm characteristic for all young people. In the case of Thomas Surkont, the arrival of the long-expected day brings a great disappointment – instead of fulfilling his dreams, he is deeply shamed. A twig cracks under his feet and he does not win the respect of the hunters.

A nation also has an ideal dimension. A freely adopted and previous faith that unity is possible forms the necessary precondition for creating ties without which people would not be able to regard themselves as one nation. But, faith alone does not suffice. The concept of a nation is very pragmatic, it may rally all social classes, but it also demands some specific and real responsibilities. Patriotic songs, sanctified flags and pompous rhetoric by themselves are not enough to achieve common trust in the joint project. All willing to participate in the project have to freely legitimate it. One has to gain the necessary support which will allow the realization of the project and to get the “production credit.”[3] Denying things as they are is not very useful in such a process. Some polities, including the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, met a sad fate – they suddenly collapsed, despite the fact that they had sufficient resources to persuade people that they form an ideal society with which they should identify.

The central part of Europe, with the German giant and many other small nations, is a challenge to us: are we or even shall we ever be able to understand the patchwork continent which we live on? Are we ever going to accept the past shown from a different point of view? Are we going to stop fearing particularisms? The struggle between attempts at creating one coherent explanation of history and constant appeals to its revision is spread on many levels. Protagonists of this struggle are historians creating national history and scholars defining a literary canon or a compendium of art works which a nation proved capable of creating. Where does this continuous need for revision come from? Central Europe, a phenomenon very difficult to define, is a good example illustrating this process, it shows that the combat already begins inside every word.

Inside the word

Every definition of Central Europe is an interpretation and we should bear it in mind. Meaning comes not from the word, but from what this word represents, defines and denotes. In the way in which a word or sign acquires content a major role is played by the vision dominating in a given society.

In such a formula as “Central Europe” meanings overlap and collide. The fact that they never achieve full harmony reflects larger social conflicts. Behind every meaning there is an attempt at establishing it as the only one. But, the desire to neutralize the semantic layer of a word is a political act. It represents the desire for power, achieved in order to guarantee a permanent and stable connection between the signifying and the signified, between form and content. We will call such a desire ideology.

There is no neutral way of observing the phenomena around us and translating them into language. In order to disqualify some approach and judge it as ideological, coloured with politics and intentionality, we should have a point of reference free of any presumptions, we should use words in their pure, virginal, basic state. But how to do it when language is born of communication and every word from the very beginning implies our judgements and those of other people, and they do not necessarily accord with each other?

The sphere of communication is an arena of battle between static forces and dynamic forces generating movement, change and diversification. As a result of this battle new meanings are constantly born. By contrast, the social forms with a monologic system aim at creating an awareness akin to myth. It is an epic world which creates its image according to the rules of the genre: a homogenous and sole world outside of which there is nothing and it is the only thing spoken about. A state in which words become unambiguous. Unlike in times of crisis and revolution, the internal struggle fades and only one voice remains and dictates the truth. In its extreme form the monologue denies the existence of any awareness other than its own and it rejects the belief that some other point of view could have the same rights and the same duties. It is a discourse where all features of ideological discourse, all acts of meaning, all creative impulses are subordinated to the hegemony of one and only awareness or perspective.

Only verbal expression may organise experience and everything else; even flesh-and-blood people must turn into concepts. For this reason it is better to reject the belief that words contain an inherent, natural essence. To establish the meaning of a word, we must take into account two factors: who speaks it and in what circumstances.

In his 1975 lectures at the Chicago University Paul Ricoeur advocated a more critical approach to our linguistic and ideological circumstances, so that we understand how a word is received and understood in a given situation. This approach is the only way of escaping from the dominant ideology proclaiming that reality may be transferred to language with the use of unambiguous signs and established meanings. Social memory is a symbolic projection of a group onto its own mythical past. Politics requires a close connection with rhetoric, understood as an art of persuasion capable of stirring emotions.

We could say that ideology is a pronouncement of a creed without which we could not speak about identity. The function of ideology is to assist in the process of identification and, at the same time, just as in the case of Robert Musil’s hypothetical Kakania – the first state that God withdrew His support for, according to the writer – social cohesion requires one thing which cannot be rationally comprehended: an uncoerced faith in this order of things.

To avoid the unwanted effects of the integrative function, the society must build into itself the forces of social rebellion. Utopia is the best weapon against the negative effects of ideology. But this literary genre is a kind of two-directional nostalgia: for a paradise lost in the past and at the same time for a project of the future which is impossible to realise. Utopian thinking may easily turn into escapism. Constant balancing between fantasy and reality, between escape and return, between utopia and ideology, is therefore necessary. Ideology should legitimate a specific power, while utopia attempts at demonstrating an alternative way of using power. This seesawing between the experience of belonging to the community and the ability to maintain distance shows the way to reflection.

Social reality without some kind of mediation does not exist. The argument about what life truly is and was always becomes a conflict of interpretations. The task of utopia is to show that the current situation is not something natural and inevitable. Thanks to the ability of language to create and reshape other possible worlds, we finally become aware that the reality we live in is created in a continuous process of transformation that it is not immutable.

In the years preceding the collapse of the Berlin Wall Central Europe became the background for a utopian vision of Europe in the sense of opposition to the established order. Many imagination-defying proposals appeared, intending to show that the order which existed then was not a natural order of things and that one day it could change, which happened earlier than anyone dared to think. The utopian vision of Central Europe in the 1980s was characterised by a double perspective typical for the genre: it was directed towards a perhaps unachievable vision of the future, and at the same time its was to help in recovering the memory of the golden age from the past which from a later vantage point seemed to be a fulfilment of the utopian project.

Let us recall the classic claim of Marxism which describes ideology as a behaviour where individuals act without knowing why they are doing it. Postmodern society which knows everything about the Great Meta-narratives, which experienced and abandoned totalitarian social systems and demanded, above all from history, the dissection and fragmentation of the story about the past – this society invented a new formula of ideological obfuscation. The man of our times knows very well what he is doing, and yet he is still doing it. It means that maintaining ironic distance is not enough, that the ability to laugh about totalitarianism is not enough, for cynicism is not a subversive force, but part of the game. Negation of negation becomes a confirmation of the dominant ideology.

One year after publishing the novel Die Wiederholung (Repetition, 1986) Peter Handke received the Vilenica International Literary Award. It was a time when the concept of Central Europe was evidently turning into an important political issue, and that was to lead to significant changes in the political idea of Europe. From a position outside of any ideology, Handke said he associated Central Europe with a meteorological entity, that for him it was little more than a region where it frequently rained.

By 1987, and probably much earlier, Handke’s reactionary views had already been formed – and they led him to pronounce his regrettable remarks on the break-up of Yugoslavia. Although Handke knew how important matters were at stake, he insisted on wearing a mask. If the “non-historic” people such as Slovenians, Mayans or Jews, which so often feature in his works, are to preserve their innocence, they should eternally remain subjugated.

Nations preserve their original innocence only if they do not participate in history and particularly if they do not found a state. For Handke the state is an expression of extreme coercion. The writer himself, identifying with a nation which committed horrible crimes in the twentieth century, decided that in the light of the Third Reich all national settling of accounts should be abandoned. He is quite right when he attempts to make us aware of the huge repressive force of the state, any state. But when Peter Handke mocks the Slovenians by saying that they should “invent” a language with which to command their own army and when he says that rural areas lack national awareness because, contrary to the Serbs and Croats, they never had to defend their country in a war, he is simply cynical. There are rulers and subjects, perpetrators and victims, those who write history and those who suffer because of it. It seems that nothing can change this pattern.

In his literary journey Die Wiederholung Peter Handke describes Slovenia in such a way as if it were a country from a fable, from “the ninth land.”[4] The inhabitants encountered by the hero are just “shadows radiating warmth,” like passengers of a night bus. The force of Handke’s poetic language persuades us that strangers are just a smooth surface which we will have to fill with guesses.

Handke admits that he attempted to learn about the culture from across the mountains, that he visited this country, that he was interested in its language and customs, but he failed miserably. Even if we were flooded with appeals for tolerance and attacked with billboards on which people from all races and religions would shake hands, there would still be no understanding between cultures.

The Freudian title Die Wiederholung should also be understood in this vein. Regardless of how strongly we try to repress feelings, they always reappear. In Peter Handke, brought up in the Austrian Carinthia where the pressure for assimilation was overwhelming after 1945, a recurring feeling is that of hatred for the Slovenian culture or at least its misunderstanding. In the last sentence of the novel Filip Kobal concludes that he came back empty-handed from the country of his ancestors.

How many people in Europe, having been forced to renounce their roots, could identify with the fruitless quest of Handke’s protagonist? We do not know, but certainly they are legion. Many people in Europe are moved when listening to Sunday Mass celebrated in a remote corner of their country and in a language they no longer understand, and there are also those who study old dictionaries[5], but they are outraged at attempts to use this language in the public sphere, whether to give commands to conscripts or to label the contents of a jam jar. Hence the great responsibility of artists – in their hands they hold the entire military industry of creating sublime values

Physical presence

The dominant culture is not perceived as static; it develops continuously. It may be attributed with such features as vigour, growth or depth, while peripheral cultures seem to be permeated with stereotypes which mainly serve to differentiate them from the metropolis. What is the significance of this theory for defining Central Europe?

To construct the image of the other by employing stereotypes, one must necessarily believe that the differences dividing us now looked the same in all previous epochs. Explanations of the future or prognoses for the future introduce a concept of truth which is not only possible, but also predictable. For a stereotype to work efficiently a constant stream of other stereotypes is required. Belonging to another culture or tradition is reduced to a visible fetishist attribute, for example to dark skin, and it eliminates all the features differentiating one person from another within the group. The community closes itself, being constituted. The colonial discourse depends on establishing a certain meaning which cannot be liberated and circulate freely outside the typology of difference[6].

Rejection of a social group based on such a fetish requires the creation of a symbolic order where the relationship between outside reality and inner experience is broken or replaced with something else. “There is a theatre where your truth is staged before you have learned it,” said Slavoj Žižek pointing to an essential aspect of ideology[7]. All is trapped in a closed circle. Events played out on this stage are immutable, always the same.

If we imagine reality as a rigid pattern of wefts in a fabric, all kinds of manipulation become possible. It makes no sense to claim that democracy is the destiny of Central Europe because of the Western Christianity, Renaissance, Enlightenment, the German or Austro-Hungarian Empire, Baroque or coffee with whipped cream[8], for we would have to add in the same breath that the former subjects of the Ottoman Empire are doomed to cultural backwardness, for they drink Turkish coffee.

The cloth of ideological argument is like a bedspread made of raw silk, full of knots consisting of unripe cocoons with yards of twisted thread. They are invisible arguments, arguments not taken into account. But a bedspread made of raw silk perfectly fulfils its task; it is a one-dimensional covering about which no one is going to ask if it conceals more threads than it is visible to the naked eye.

Czesław Miłosz complained about an uncharted spot on the literary map of Europe, covering entire Central Europe; he said that the extensive lands to the East of Germany could be labelled ubi leones. In this region, inhabited by imaginary wild animals, one can only see Prague (sometimes mentioned because of Kafka), Warsaw, Budapest and Belgrade. Further, a long, long way to the East, Moscow is shown on the map.

On the maps of the first explorers whole regions were left without a single mark. Uncharted spots on a map of known lands were described with ubi leones or not at all, acknowledging the fact that these were places which still required exploring, penetrating and trying to understand them. If exploration was not possible, it was better to admit one’s inability and leave these uncharted spots as they were. But, the ideological bedspread does not know such honesty and a number of features vaguely defining the essential attributes of a nation or a region are turned in the hands of professional weavers into warp and weft. A few moves of the shuttle and the bedspread is ready to be used as the ultimate answer, explaining the mysteries of strangers. Stereotypes fixed within the rigid pattern wefts in a fabric have been used as the instrument of the most horrific acts of discrimination known to humanity.

It means that we should give up even the possibility of accepting the existence of stereotypical identities. Preventing discrimination consists in rejecting not only the existing stereotypes, but also the very possibility of reducing any social group to a stereotype. This is the reason behind many attempts not to define typical features of Central Europe, not to base the definition of the term on characteristics required of everyone who wants to belong to this community. Cultural determinism, defining a region through a rigid list of attributes and creating a compendium of its characteristic features would not be very useful.

The term “Central Europe” simply contains the features present in that geographical area. Having or not having a common denominator is of no import – art, culture, politics and daily life of Hungary, Austria, Lithuania or Croatia will keep existing, evolving and changing. The great uncharted spot on the cultural map of the region in Western atlases is only a proof of ignorance, but it cannot erase anything that is going on there.

Central Europe is an area which physical presence cannot be denied. It may disappear as a name, if absorbed by some other concept, but it will keep existing somewhere. The region will last immutable in the same place for centuries, immutable despite changes of names which sometimes make it smaller, sometimes larger and sometimes wipe it out from the map altogether. Central Europe has a physical presence of its own, and therefore the only possible discussion about this term is the discussion about the meaning of the name itself.

Central Europe is indefinable. To be more precise, Central Europe cannot be defined through features sufficiently unambiguous and unique to differentiate it clearly from rival concepts.

Speaking about a distant colony, Franz Kafka connects the reality of the island and that of the metropolis with a thin thread. Binary opposition, the topos of conflict between the centre and the peripheries, is made possible by the existence of the Traveller, Forschungsreisende, visiting the island. The Traveller belongs neither to the world of the metropolis, nor to the world of the colony, he is a scholar capable of comparing various cultural systems, an objective observer free of prejudice. All that is happening in the colony makes sense only because it has been seen by someone not belonging to this confined community. At the end of the story the Traveller boards the steamship again. The infinite ocean and the mobility of the steamship are his homeland.

Kafka’s short story invites us to reflect on how we order the surrounding world. In the early twentieth century the old paradigms started to break down and they were not replaced by any new model allowing credible comparisons. After the Treaty of Versailles, which defined the frontiers of Europe after World War I, new elements constantly appeared and they had to be taken into account. The pre-1919 argument based on the relation between the centre and the peripheries is no longer possible. World War II was the second act in the process of reappraising the great paradigms. The third act of this transformation is undoubtedly the year 1989. In a plethora of nuanced categories an act of thinking based on including or excluding, on the principle of either/or from traditional argumentation, is no longer possible.

The instrument of torture in The Penal Colony carves the Commandant’s doctrine directly on the body and only a body subjected to torture is capable of reading an unequivocal, unique truth. Neither the Old Commandant, nor the officer executing the orders of the New Commandant, nor the Traveller looking on from a distance are in the centre of the narrative. The tormented body is at the centre of the frenetic activity of all these characters. The body is present as a serious warning from Kafka that law and power are never abstract forces. The struggle for domination implies imposing your own truth onto someone who possesses a body – if necessary, with as extreme brutality as described in the short story.

The tormented body is metaphoric: the lack of will to avoid punishment should not surprise us. A man laid out on the bed of torture is not an individual capable of conscious thought and therefore capable of revolting. The passivity of a tortured man is terrible. Fear is not born of the straps fixing the body to the torture machine, but of the fact that this body seems to be an empty shell without any substance. In the whole narrative there is nothing, no thought or emotion, that comes out of the tortured man’s consciousness. Is he really a human? Or perhaps just a shapeless, infinitely amorphous mass devoid of any substance?

The torture machine writes the sentence with a special device called an Inscriber, but the pain is mostly caused by the part of the machine which Kafka calls Egge, Harrow. In other words, the machine incorporates an agricultural implement used after ploughing to remove all imperfections from the surface. The body exposed to the torture machine may well be a figurative representation of this nameless and remote island. The punished human body accepts the punishment on behalf of the entire unknown colony. The fate of one person substitutes for the fate of a community, and the description of a body may describe a land. Passivity is not a characteristic of an individual who has lost all substance, but of a community incapable of self-awareness and articulating fear. Many communities, large and small, could perceive themselves in Kafka’s example, including the Jewish community in Prague, which in 1914, when Kafka wrote his short story, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and had entered the stage of inevitable decline.

A society does not have a fixed structure, it is just a field on which opposing forces and strategies confront each other. Such a concept of society directly assaults the category of a person as a stable entity in the bourgeois society and permits its deconstruction. We exist as nodes in a network of relations, as proposed by the newest philosophy. But the problem of systematising knowledge does not end when we remove the deterministic machinery, when we introduce open systems with thousands of courses and libraries in mobile centres. This approach leaves one unsolved problem, the question brought to our attention by Kafka’s colony, the question of the physical body. We must acknowledge the importance of this presence independent of any speculation. An individual is not only a constellation of forces, a temporary node in an infinite stream of discourses and processes of signification. If we believed that, we would find ourselves in a dead end, because we would be unable to conceptualise adequately the resistance of the individual. The human factor is not mechanically determined by systems of power, for humans possess an intrinsic capacity of managing their actions in a reflexive way. Human nature has no fixed or static essence, it is a complex of historically evolving qualities, capabilities and forces. In more difficult times not only an individual, but also the whole society may preserve a healthy core making it possible to resist complete domination.

History is not an abstraction, just as Kafka’s Inscriber does not write the sentence in the air, but on a body, and although this body is inert, enslaved, we should always keep it in mind.

These reflections on the concept of Central Europe are entitled Imagined Geography. With this oxymoron I want to dilute the corrosive force of qualifying the existence of a region, any region, as invented. The epithet accompanying the word contradicts it at the same time. Who will gain from this paradox? Central Europe will, even if doubts remain.

The essay is an abbreviated version of the last chapter of the book L’atzar de la lluita. El concepte d’Europa Central al segle XX (“Of Chance and Struggle: The Concept of Central Europe in the twentieth century”), Afers, Catarroja−Barcelona–Palma 2005.


[1] Czesław Miłosz, The Issa Valley, translated by Louis Iribarne, Sigwick @ Jackson/Carcanet New Press, London-Manchester 1981, pp. 170-171.

[2] Heinrich von Kleist, O teatrze marionetek, in Dramaty wybrane, translated by Jacek St. Buras, Krakow 2000.

[3] A term borrowed from Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities (1971), where the author makes main hero, Ulryk, say the following words: Credo, ut intelligam frei ins zeitgenössische Deutsche übersetzt: Herr, o mein Gott, gewähre meinem Geist einen Produktionskredit” (translator’s note).

[4] In the Slovenian mythology a fairy-tale country across nine mountains and nine rivers, where evil does not exist (translator’s note).

[5] An allusion to the main hero of Die Wiederholung, Filip Kobal, who retrieves obsolete Slovenian words from oblivion when studying Pleteršek’s German-Slovenian dictionary from 1915 (translator’s note).

[6] See Homi K. Bhabha, Miejsca kultury, translated by Tomasz Dobrogoszcz, Krakow 2010 (translator’s note).

[7] See Slavoj Žižek, Wyniosły obiekt ideologii, translated by Joanna Bator, Paweł Dybel, Wrocław 2001 (translator’s note).

[8] Timothy Garton Ash, Does Central Europe exist?, in In Search of Central Europe, George Schopflin, Nancy Wood (eds.), New York 1989 (translator’s note).

About authors

Simona Škrabec

After graduating from German Studies and Comparative Literature in Slovenia, she wrote a Ph.D. thesis in literary theory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). She is the most important intermediary between Slovenian and Catalonian literature in the field of translations and information. Besides translating, she regularly publishes essays and articles on twentieth-century European literature. She also,along with Arnau Pons, coordinated a pioneer research on the relationship between German and Catalan cultures Carrers de frontera (Grenzen sind Straßen, 2007-2008). Her work L’estirp de la solitud (“Progeny of Solitude”, Institut d’Estudis Catalans, Barcelona 2003; Slovenian edition: Literatura, Ljubljana 2005) was awarded the Josep Carner Prize in literary theory. In the book L’atzar de la lluita (“Of Chance and Strife”) she reflects on Central Europe as the region where the main tendencies of modernity took shape.


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