Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Poets and the Eclipse

Dr Sam Vaknin

Poets in Somalia hold an inordinate sway over the indigenous population. They sing the praises of war with the same alacrity and vehemence that they invest in glorifying peace, and the population listens and follows these pied pipers. Lately, they have been extolling peace, and, indeed, peace prevails in Somaliland and the other state-like enclaves within this tortured shadow of a country.

In the evening, somewhere in the Balkans, we celebrate a birthday party under deciduous trees, in floodlit darkness. The voices of industrious crickets, of late-night, chirping birds, of the cesma - the fabled Balkan water fountain - all intermingle to produce auditory magic. A famous satirist and poet catapults slurred, vitriolic diatribes at a guest from the West whom I brought with me. His words ring authentic, if inebriated.

He need not learn the language, he exclaims, of people without a spirit and without a mind. He is referring, of course, to English. His country, he shrills triumphantly, is the best - an island of civilization among barbarians, who thunder at the gates. He enumerates his neighbors and proceeds to describe in vivid detail what he would do to them all, given the opportunity.

"The rotten core of our national apple," is the sole melancholy contribution from a professor of psychiatry, also present at the gathering.

Another day. The moon bites into the otherwise scorching sun. The streets are emptied, the shops closed, the traffic halted. Workers remain cooped up in steamy offices. "Why all this?" I ask my friend - a leading journalist, author, editor and media personality. He looks at me warily and proceeds to expound upon the health risks entailed in exposure to the eclipse. The fact that he is serious is evidenced by his subsequent descent into his basement and the echo of the bolt of the anti-nuclear, double-plated armored door sliding into place. He offers me the opportunity to join him and is appalled to hear that I have every intention of watching the eclipse - from the street.

The intellectuals of the Balkans - a curse, not in disguise, a nefarious presence, ominous, erratic and corrupt. Sometimes, they appear at the nucleus of all conflict and mayhem; at other times (for example, when it comes to ethnic cleansing or suppression of the media), they remain conspicuously absent. Zeligs of umpteen disguises and ever-changing, shimmering loyalties.

They exert no moderating, countervailing influence. On the contrary, they radicalize, dramatize, poison and incite. Intellectuals are prominent among all the nationalist parties in the Balkans and rare among the scant center parties that have recently sprung out of the ashes of Communism.

They fail to disseminate the little, outdated knowledge that they do possess. Rather they keep it as a guild would - jealously guarded and limited only to the chosen few. In a vanity typical of the insecure, they dismiss all foreign knowledge. They rarely know a second language proficiently enough to read it. They promote their brand of degreed ignorance with a fanatical zeal, ruthlessly punishing all transgressors.

They are the main obstacles to technological development and enhancement of knowledge in this wretched region. Their instincts of self-preservation go against the best interests of their people. Unable to educate and teach, they prostitute their services, selling degrees or corrupting themselves in politics. They constitute a large part of the post-Communist nomenclature just as they constituted a large part of the Communist one.

The results are students of economics who have never heard of Milton Friedman or Kenneth Arrow and students of medicine who offer sex, money or both to their professors in order to graduate.

Thus, instead of advocating and promoting freedom and liberalization, they concentrate on maintaining the mechanisms of control and manipulating the worn levers of power. They are the dishonest brokers of corrupt politicians and their business cronies. They are heavily involved in and are oft times the initiators of suppression and repression, especially of the mind and spirit - the black crows of nationalism perched on their beleaguered ivory towers.

They could have chosen differently. In 1989, the Balkans had a chance the likes of which they never had before. In Yugoslavia, it came in the form of the government of the reformist (though half-hearted) Ante Markovic. Elsewhere, Communism was gasping for its last breath, and the slaughter of the beast was at hand. The intellectuals of Central Europe, of the Baltic States - even of Russia - chose to interpret these events to their people, to encourage freedom and growth, to posit goals and to motivate. The intellectuals of the Balkans failed miserably.

Terrified by the sights and sounds of their threatened territory, they succumbed to obscurantism and resorted to nostalgia, the abstract and the fantastic, rather than to the pragmatic. This choice became evident even in their speech. Marred by centuries of cruel outside domination, it is all but meaningless. No one can understand what a Balkanist has to say. Both syntax and grammar are tortured into incomprehensibility. Evasion dominates, a profusion of obscurantist verbal veils - twists and turns hiding a vacuous deposition.

The Balkan intellectuals chose narcissistic self-absorption and navel gazing over "other-orientation." Instead of seeking integration (as distinct from assimilation), they preach and practice isolation. They aim to differentiate themselves not in a pluralistic, benign manner, but in vicious, raging defiance of "mondialism" to define themselves against all others, rather than to compare and learn from the comparison. (A term from Serb propaganda, mondialism is the equivalent of "cosmopolitanism" in the old Soviet parlance; it is the intellectual sin of selling out to the decrepit West and its values, and it supposedly leads directly to espionage and treason.)

The intellectuals' love affair with a mostly fabricated past, their future-phobia and the ensuing culture shock all naturally follow from the premises of their disconsolate uniqueness. Balkan intellectuals are all paranoid. Scratch the surface, the thin, bowtied veneer of "kultur," and you will find an atavistic poet, fighting against the very evil wrought by him and his actions. This is the Greek tragedy of this region. Nature here is more clever than humans. Yet, it is precisely these human conspiracies that bring about the very things humans have to conspire against - a self-perpetuating cycle.

All over the world, intellectuals represent or act as the vanguard, the fifth column of new ideas, the resistance movement against the occupation of the old and the banal. Here in the Balkans, intellectuals preach conformity and do things the old, proven way, instituting protectionism against liberal trade. All intellectuals here - fed by the long arm of the state - are collaborators.

True, all regimes had their fig-leaf intellectuals and, with a few exceptions, the regimes in the Balkans are not hideous. But the principle is the same, only the price varies. Prostituting their unique position in semi-literate, village-tribal societies, intellectuals in the Balkans have sold out en masse. They are the inertial power rather than the counterfist of reform. They are involved in politics of the wrong and doomed kind. The Balkans would have been better off had they decided to remain aloof and detached in their archipelago of universities.

There is no real fire in Balkan intellectuals, despite the fact they get excited, shout, blush and wave their hands ever so vigorously. They are empty. It is comparable to hitting full gas while in neutral. They get nowhere, because they are going nowhere. They are rational and conservative and some are emotional and "leftist." But, the situation is listless and lifeless, like the paces of a very old mechanism, set in motion 80 years ago and never unwound.

On the day of the last eclipse of the millennium, even the intellectuals stayed in their cellars and in their officesand did not dare venture out. Accustomed to the darkness, they emerged only when night fell, unable to confront their own eclipse and hiding from the evil influence of a re-emerging sun.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 24 August 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He has recently been appointed Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.




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