Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999
C O N F E T T I:|
Lateral Thinking on the
Meaning of Central Europe Today
By Vaclav Pinkava
I like browsing in real bookshops once in a while. It was exciting to find a world atlas recently, in which Europe was split not into Western and Eastern, or the more politically correct Western and "Central and Eastern", but into the entirely luminary Northern, Southern and Central (I left that at the end of the sentence for more dramatic impact, you understand, not because, as some might think, Central Europe is south of Southern Europe.)
This novel demarcation was all the more interesting for its origin, for the atlas in question was, I seem to recall, some kind of Petit Larousse, or at any rate, totally French. Occidental France shared the same Central European band as the near-oriental Czech Republic. Hurrah, we Central Europeans shared a coastline with real people!
It struck me how the horizontal stratification of the map was curiously orthogonal (meaning 'at right angles' for the benefit of any Angles who might be reading) to the three vertical stripes of the French flag.
Many European countries seem to have three stripes on their flags, and the more their flag stripes go horizontally, the more their thinking goes East-West. Perhaps the direction of the stripes, not their stratification, channels the thinking like railway lines. The countries which are not at the centre of things prefer a cross, to show us where the centre really is, of course, and some go as far as to make it an asterisk, to make their point more strongly.
So what of the Czech flag?
Once upon a time, the Czech flag was exactly the same as the Polish one: white on top, symbolising peace, and red on the bottom symbolising nationalism, battle, blood, something like that.
Under the first Czechoslovak President, T G Masaryk, the Czechoslovak state adopted the now familiar blue wedge to split, or strengthen the flag. Curiously enough, so the story goes, the blue and angular bit was there to symbolise the Slovak High Tatras - albeit laterally. Blue is also supposed to symbolise freedom. Or, if you prefer, you can read into it a Freudian wish for our own bit of maritime exclusion zone, the coastline denied to us Czechs until recently.
At any rate, it is a catchy little flag and if it were not for the Philippines, an entirely original one.
So, it is not surprising that the Slovaks felt a little sore when they woke up from their hangovers on 1 January 1993 only to find that the Federal Czechoslovak Flag, which they had been demonstratively and (un)ceremoniously ripping, treading on and setting fire to in front of the TV cameras at midnight, was now the national emblem of a neighbouring sovereign state, and any further abuse of it could be regarded as war.
They were right to be peeved. After all, at their insistence the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament had passed a law prohibiting either successor country from using any of the state emblems of the former Czechoslovakia.
In true Good Soldier Svejk fashion, the neatly devious and pragmatic Czechs had sneaked into the same law that the two successor states were entirely sovereign (that went down well), and so were not bound by the previous federal agreement, because it had turned into a pumpkin at midnight. And so, the Czechs acquired an orphaned flag and all the trademark brand-loyalty that went with it. It was just lying in the gutter, you see, the poor bedraggled thing.
Do I hear you asking what this has to do with the first point I was making, or with the title, and how it supports my theory about stripy flags?
Czech thinking is not horizontal or vertical, I find, but tends toward sharp and critical narrowness Eastward and uncritical all-embracing or tomfool bluntness Westwards. That wedge is ours by divine right - and don't you forget it.
When CNN broadcast their European weather report on the night of 1 January 1993, they split the weather into Western, Central and Eastern European. I don't think the weather knew, but I remember it, because my Czech chauvinist heart missed a beat. Prague is north of Paris, west of Stockholm, but it scored a Central Point then.
Central Europe must be a particular place somewhere on the map, geographically speaking. Halfway from the Urals to the Atlantic, between Finland and the Mediterranean or, if you prefer, diagonally midway between Iceland and that south-easterly country which inexplicably features in the Eurovision Song Contest and also begins with 'I'. Geographical Central Europe is a particular, exact, precise place - infinitesimally small and totally irrelevant.
But Central Europe is also a state of mind, a wholly flexible and unbounded fuzzy logical illusionist Concept like the Civil Society espoused by president Havel, (which is what you get when you de-Americanise Civil(ized) Society). As such, Central Europe does not exist, except in some virtual ideological space, whose centre can be the Observer, the Spectator, the Commentator, the Pundit, but most of all the True European - even if he is Canadian.
Logically therefore, Central Europe Review must be, like our planet, bounded in volume (or at least bounded by finances), but infinite in scope and with freedom to explore, to travel, to range far and wide and even, like me, entirely off the subject. Let's also begin with 'I', shall we?
I think therefore I am. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, he was trying to get to the cardinal epicentre of logic, but he got his sums wrong.
You may detect a wispy trail of thought here, ergo there may even have been thinking going on here, ergo there must have been some form of existence sometime, someplace that would be a more precise formulation.
But who am I to say that it is I who think, therefore I am?
Buddhism puts it succinctly: "There is no thinker behind the thought, thought itself is the thinker."
We are advised that in the beginning was the Word. A mistranslation, I think you'll find, from the Greek.
"Word", but also, and more appropriately, "Concept".
In the beginning was a Concept. An Idea.
And in the end, that's all there ever is. It just leaves a trail.
What You Didn't See Is What You Got.
Laterality, and constraints, like the stripes on the flag, guide our thinking.
And something out of Central Europe guided this article, neither vertically, nor horizontally, but wedgewise.
To a point, somewhere, however obscure.
Think C E, therefore see eee.
Vaclav Pinkava, 28 June 1999
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