Speech in Nitra, 2007

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The Ideal, Real and Surreal in Central European Identity

Péter Inkei's contribution to the meeting called "Middentity" at the Divadelná Nitra 2007 theatre festival

At its best, your identity gives you an extra dimension, both for artists and for common folks - but identity can also function as a self-deceiving illusion as well as a stigma. Inspection and cultivation of your identity can expand this extra dimension - but also paralyse your potentials. No identity is a static given. Identities change, they are constantly being shaped, both by those who are entitled to common identifying features, and by the surrounding world, which is always in search of clues and labels. Most of these features, clues and labels are imagined constructs. Yet they work! Identity labels work in politics, journalism, everyday life, and certainly in the arts. Therefore they deserve attention. Also the underlying facts and statistics that lend credibility and power to identity constructs. To Central European identity, for example.

The notion of identity changes in time

To begin with, I would like to quote what historians have been teaching us about the changing nature of identities. How did people identify themselves, or one another, in the middle ages, say, in the 14th century? What mattered most was religion, even though the choices were much less diverse than in our age of so many denominations. Then came feudal affiliation: one's direct lord counted more than sovereignty, nationhood. Place of birth or living naturally also importantly complemented the identity of an individual. Very differently from our modern conception, mother tongue, education or cultural background had much smaller role in defining one's identity. So did race: researchers are still wondering about the colour of St Augustine's skin, which was little relevant for his contemporaries.

Everything became totally different by the 19th century, when national identity became decisive. At the heyday of colonialism, race was similarly of absolute importance. These two overshadowed religion - although still essential in characterising people. Social class structure had become even more rigid than earlier, making it a crucial distinguishing feature. Language and cultural background in most cases were defined by the previous.   

The middle of the 20th century brought about the division of the world in three parts, when belonging to the West, East and the 3rd world respectively had an overriding significance: a Czech engineer and a Belgian mechanic were first of all an eastern of western person, often more decisive than actual class or nation.

Recalling identity patterns from selected historic periods, we could usually set up hierarchies of features: some had absolute significance, clearly more decisive than others, in answering the question: Who am I? Who is that person? In the early 21st century also in this respect strict structures gave way to less hierarchical layout. Increased mobility diminished the relevance of the question "where are you from?" (Do you mean where I was born, went to school, do I live etc?). Aspects that had earlier been of little importance, became key factors. Generation and age, for example. Or sexual orientation. And especially leisure pursuit. Common interest, even hobby used to connect individuals in the past, too. By now, however, allegiance to people with the same taste, fascination or free time occupation often constitute the single most important identification feature, especially with those (typically the young) who master the current means of communication (internet, mobile phones etc).  

This brief survey and these few illustrations serve to prove that identities really change, and are indeed products of circumstances. Identities are products, not only of objective circumstances but also of our minds. In other words, identities are imagined constructs. They not only express how we see individuals, but rather what we want to perceive in them. Which means, that it does make sense to shape one's identity: it can change, and can be changed.

Strategies to treat identities

Option one is assimilation and acculturation. In most of the cases this gravitates from the periphery towards the centre, from the weak towards the dominant groups. In our context, eastern Europeans towards western models. 

The main drivers of assimilation are twofold: interest and comfort, economic and social. The desire to acquire better chances and conditions for material any physical security and progress; as well as the desire to look like and be treated like the individuals of the dominant groups.

Option two is the opposite: efforts to keep the distinction, to protect one's original identity features.

Option three is antagonism, the extreme form of the previous. In addition to maintaining and nurturing difference from the other, this attitude is characterised by refusal of and struggle against identities that threaten to absorb and destroy our own.

Artistic strategies are analogous to these general attitudes.

Option one ranges from imitation to intercultural interaction, which leads to new qualities, new identities. One obvious example is Mozart, who followed the conventions of Italian opera, also relied on traditional German musical traditions, and applied them in an innovative manner, creating something which can be identified above all to Mozart, rather than Italian or German opera. 

Option two, in its extreme (or fundamentalist) form is the aspiration to reaching (or rather reaching back) to absolute purity, the exclusion of all foreign or alien influences. An ideal of the 19th and early 20th century, which had an important role in the formation of nations and states. Often the word "identity" automatically implies these endeavours. If this kind of search for identity becomes dominant in many places, it ends up in a mosaic of mutually incompatible cultures: which contradicts the real natures of development of human culture, which evolved through permanent interactions. 

Option three is embodied in the intolerant persecution of manifestations of divergent tastes, which fortunately is history in most part of Europe, gone with totalitarian regimes.

The name of our region

East-Central Europe - this is mainly political usage, partly denotes political correctness to please those who dislike the word "Eastern", somewhat similar to the more recent term of the Western Balkans denoting ex-Yugoslavia without Slovenia.

Eastern Europe - it is even more political, in opposition to west Europe, implying ex-communist, former Soviet Bloc countries and peoples. Those who protest against it wish to be distinguished from the real eastern end of the continent, which is Russia, although when people in the west mean Russia, call it Russia, and rarely include it in the term of Eastern Europe.

Central Europe - is probably the most neutral of all, a geographical concept rather, and when it is used in the least emphatic way it includes Germany also. Not really inviting for an identity concept.

Middle Europe - for many ears it is the imperfect variant of the real concept of Mitteleuropa, an intellectual, academic designation, or rather identification of our region. This concept was cherished as early as in the beginning of the 20th century, but it reached its greatest impact later, "launched by such intellectuals as Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz, Jenö Szücs and Karl Schlögel in order to disentangle satellite states of the 'Eastern Empire' from the dichotomous division into 'East' and 'West'. This cultural project, however loosely defined, worked, and the region managed to emancipate itself in western consciousness."

Mitteleuropa - seen differently

Middle Europe - Mitteleuropa - Middentity is dear to most of us, living in the region. There are others, however, who look upon this concept with suspicion, or even aversion. One of them is the historian in Poznań, Michał Buchowski, who was also quoted in the previous paragraph. While characterising the notion of Central Europe (clearly in the sense of Mitteleuropa), Buchowski associates it with not really attractive phenomena, such as:

  • German national consciousness, Prussian hegemony, Habsburg Austria-Hungary: against French, English, Russian hegemony.
  • Nazi Drang nach Osten, Lebensraum.
  • Anti-Soviet dissidents in the 'Eastern Bloc‘.
  • Diplomatic euphemism.
  • Discriminatory towards „economically backward, politically unstable" Balkanic and Orthodox former brothers in the communist camp.

I quote this not for sake of rectifying ourselves, as we think about our identity. Just in order to be aware, how our middentity can also be regarded.

Middentity, opportunity and mission

What to advise then? Which strategy to choose, as artists, or as private individuals? Both giving up our identity and insisting to it too much has its traps and backlashes.

However, we can rarely escape our original identity, and entirely cannot escape being put into identity boxes. Identity labels work in politics, journalism, everyday life, and certainly in the arts. Therefore they deserve attention, often careful cultivation. If Central European artists cannot escape curiosity about their middentity, they had better consider it as an opportunity to make themselves and their works distinguishable.

There is no recipe as to what distinguishes a Central European artist from colleagues of other regions. It is up to the sensitivity of each artist to find those traits, and even work upon them. Since identities not only change, but can be changed. Obviously, K.u.K. legacies of surrealism and ironic treatment of all kinds of unrealism in life are spices that cannot be neglected.

Going one step further, one can state that in the actual context of the Central European area, amidst the increasing tendencies towards national introversion and the revival of archaic mythologies, the progressive nostalgia for the tolerant, multicultural diversity in the past of our region is very welcome.