Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

S L O V E N I A:
The Pursuit of Unhappiness

Ales Debeljak

Our troublesome fin de siecle seems to be a time-period marked by many "ends." Francis Fukuyama promotes "the end of history", Jean Baudrillard advances the thesis of "the end of the social", Daniel Bell talks about "the end of ideology", Michel Foucault analyses "the end of the subject", while many left-wing writers pontificate on "the end of the nation" (Kumar 1995, pp 149-200). If anything, however, the end of the 20th century is experiencing the end of the idea of a nation state, which is gradually falling prey to the global circuit of anonymous transnational capital. While the nation state, the modern form of which grew out of the 19th-century European emancipatory movements, had been in a position to more or less successfully control economic tendencies throughout its territory up until the Second World War, such control is today next to impossible. In light of the multinational corporations' efforts to establish a global market beyond any specific borders - l inguistic, political, ethnic or religious - the "national" source of capital is not only unidentifiable but also utterly irrelevant. It seems that culture in particular represents the last remaining sphere that may be able to preserve some of the features of a specific national experience.

I will draw on the case of Slovenia to demonstrate how it is possible to reconcile the particular national tradition with the universal mechanisms of globalization. In this regard, Slovenian examples should be seen as an illustration of larger processes that may be applicable, with a certain degree of caution, to the situation of other similarly sized Central and East European nations.

A nation with a fully developed cultural identity of course has no problem in facing the challenges and influences of the outside world. Indeed, facing up to different mentalities and forms of behavior is the only attitude Slovenians can adopt if they are to avoid succumbing to the alluring sirens of self-sufficiency, provincial xenophobia and the consequent national withering. The "other" becomes an enemy only when a given national body is unsure of its own core identity. In the case of Slovenia there should be little doubt about the existence of such a specific national identity. The accomplishments of the leading writers, artists and other creative minds provide the Slovenian nation with a strong sense of identity regardless of its small population. I hasten to add that a small number of people, two million, does not necessarily make a nation small. Moreover, it would not be impossible to argue that the "metaphysical smallness" of a nation may be measured first a nd foremost with respect to how much the people believe in their nation's creative potential and the richness of its cultural tradition.

The argument of small numerical size as evidence in support of the claim concerning the inevitable, if gradual, absorption of the Slovenian nation into the "larger context" is often used today in Ljubljana, the capital city of the nation, as well as in Brussels, the capital city of the European Union. However, it is far from new. A quick glance at Slovenian history reveals a long tradition of this erroneous, albeit politically potent, "argument of numbers." Such was the 19th-century Illyrian tradition of literary writers such as Stanko Vraz and Ljudevit Gaj, who called for the unification of the Slovenian and Croatian languages on the basis of alleged "linguistic pragmatism." After the First World War, this argument, advanced by the central Communist authorities of the federal state, manifested itself in the ideological straightjacket of "integral Yugoslavism" (Wachtel 1998, 78 et passim). Today, the argument is often promoted by members of the political elit e who do not understand politics in the ancient Greek sense, that is, as a discussion of res publica or "public affairs." Instead, they view it as nothing else but a sheer technology of power. As such, they mistakenly believe that Slovenians can somehow be European in a direct, unmediated and "natural" sense, without first being who Slovenians really are: the citizens of the Slovenian nation state. In other words, the fact that Slovenians are Europeans only insofar as they are citizens of the Slovenian nation state is almost entirely lost in the folds of the "argument of numbers."

I am convinced, though, that the issue should be reversed. It was precisely the numerical limitation of Slovenians as a people that forced the key players in Slovenian national culture to interact with foreign strategies of creativity and thinking, critically appropriating them according to their own will and principles. After all, the small population, coupled with a fruitful, if troublesome, geographic location at the crossroads of the Romanic, Hungarian, Germanic and Balkan cultural traditions has always presented Slovenia's ancestors with the impossibility of an ideal of bucolic "sameness." The concept of a self-absorbed and uncontaminated Slovenian culture in which national ego in Arcadia would be quietly nurtured is of course but an illusion. Slovenian creative minds have been traditionally engaged in a dialogue with the gospel of Western civilization, drawing on the linguistic self-confidence of Protestantism, the Italian Renaissance, the Central Europ ean baroque, French rationalism, German Romanticism and Expressionism, historicist Viennese architecture, English rock and roll, American pop art and French "new-wave" films, not to mention the allure of Hollywood and the intricacies of Balkan folk blues.

The idea that art and culture, if understood only as a formal ornament to the national life, can provide neither national freedom nor unfettered flight of imagination, appeared very early in Slovenian history. The sheer decorative, insubstantial character of works of art and the cultural tradition at large would, of course, end in nothing else but a gradual decay. The leading Slovenian literary critic in the period between the world wars, Josip Vidmar, captured the importance of local interaction with the wider world in his seminal essay "The Cultural Problems of Slovenian Identity" (1932). He vividly explained that a small nation is "like a very uneven peninsula - the ocean keeps splashing against its many shores and the fresh wind infinitely blows over its entire surface" (Vidmar 1995, p. 73).

This commitment to the "winds" of the Central European sentiment and the "ocean" of the Western civilizing experience has personally helped me in two ways. Both as a literary artist using universal codes of expression to present what I believe is an individual vision and as a Slovenian with a particular collective experience in my background, I gradually came to see that it would be impossible to divorce myself from the treasure of national cultural references. A truly cosmopolitan personality can only be one which comfortably traverses various cultural meridians of the planet, while not giving up the reflection of his or her national roots. Such genuine cosmopolitanism was, for example, exercised in the creative opuses and personal biographies of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Rainer Maria Rilke, Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan.

In post-independence Slovenia, there are two types of provincialism that combat this kind of cosmopolitanism. The first kind was born out of the conservative nationalistic formula of an autarkic and often violent "navel gazing" - that is, the mentality that cannot, would not, and is unable to learn anything from "the others." The second kind of provincialism is represented by the bona fide liberal "internationalists," who despise each and every aspect of the national identity, because of fear of being lumped together with the nationalist zealots. As a result, this position drives "internationalist" liberals toward an uncritical approval of every idea that comes from "the West." Such minds offer their ingratiating and servile "Bless you!" whenever this or that fashionable cultural guru sneezes in Paris, London or New York.

Both kinds of opponents to the admittedly uncomfortable dialectics of local and global aspects of the human condition are active in contemporary Slovenia. This constellation is not all that different from other post-Communist countries. The velvet revolutions of 1989 produced a semblance of the renaissance of national ideas in Central and Eastern Europe, encouraging debates on the validity of the national cultural experience and teasing the people with the cheep utopian promise of miraculously resolved conflicts in newly independent states. Almost a decade after the annus mirabilis, however, it has become rather clear that only a very few original approaches to the relation between the national and global aspects of collective identity emerged out of the ruins of the Communist regime. Intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe have, with largely thoughtless transplantation of assorted Western stereotypes and conceptual forms, almost unanimously accepted th e role of "poor relatives," who only compete with each other in efforts to impress their rich cousins in Europe - Western Europe, that is.

However, what kind of Europe are we really talking about? I, for one, remain convinced that the discussion must primarily concentrate on the following difference between two aspects of "the European idea." One the one hand, one must entertain the project of integration of diverse European societies, an enterprise based exclusively on economic standards. This is a goal that is as interesting as it is crucial. On the other hand, one must take measure of Europe as a common, if elusive, spiritual and mental realm. What is the price of the first aspect taking over the second?

The modern European epiphany does not reveal itself solely in the noble tradition of Roman law, Greek philosophy, Renaissance art and Romantic poetry - the tradition of universal human and civil rights. The contemporary idea of Europe is also present within the increasingly popular right-wing politics of "fascism with a smile." This highly conservative gate-keeping is used not only as a tool to bolster what is perceived as a "natural" ethnic community but is no less forcefully presented as a legitimization of the global market economy. The latter is promulgated by the progeny of nefarious Lord Chamberlain, whose job it is to ram down our throats the idea that the "economics of the bottom line" is the ultimate, if not the only, purpose of modern human existence.

After the disintegration of the Berlin Wall and after the unification of Germany, Western Europe cannot, despite the ever-growing homogenization of the global markets, obscure its metaphysical failure and political sterility. Internal disintegration of its political and moral backbone was particularly well unmasked in the third Balkan war in 1991 to 1995, in which European diplomacy for the most part struggled to deny the basic right to self-defense to Bosnian and Croatian victims. This situation is painfully reminiscent of the 1930s, a period in which Europe was myopically proud of the arrogant authority of "the sick...secret diplomacy that trades with territories of small nations, calming down the rebellious looks with the League of Nations, run by the traders and oppressors themselves," as the Slovenian avant-garde poet Srecko Kosovel wrote in 1925 in his lucid public lecture "Disintegration of Society and Decay of Art" (Kosovel 1997, p 40). Kosovel was, needless to say, describing the situation in his own time. His prophetic insight, however, poetically intimates the situation today.

More to the point: thrilled by the political proximity of Western Europe and full of resentment for the present Serbian political madness of national socialism, those who shape Slovenian public discourse all too often grow oblivious to the fact that in the contemporary world, the philosophy of postmodern domination no longer requires machine guns to express itself. The primary strategy today appears to be the use of the seemingly harmless "ethnically neutral" economy, transnational capital, uniform cultural patterns and a gradual mass-media unification of every particular mentality and idiosyncratic experience.

If Slovenia is to survive as a full-fledged nation state in the times of unavoidable economic integration and the often hollow rhetoric of a "united Europe," then one must keep in mind not only the capacities of economic productivity but also those of national operas and theatres. The variety of national TV and radio stations should thrive equally well as successful businessmen; the accomplishments of the diverse creative and intellectual impulses in the country should be thought about in the same breath as political know-how. While it is certainly not an easy job for such impulses to extend their reach beyond national borders, the importance of cultural creativity lies in that it serves as a constant reminder that, following the declaration of independence in 1991, the Slovenian dilemma should no longer be spontaneously expressed in terms of the defeatist traditional formula advanced by the 19th-century writer Fran Levstik: "We can either be Russian or Prussian." T oday, Slovenians can finally be themselves.

Having said all that, I do realize that there is no point in pretending to ignore relevant historical and socio-political processes that have led to the contemporary condition. In other words: Slovenians have gone from being the village champions (Yugoslavia) to becoming the Olympic losers (Western Europe). Instead of the colonization which accompanied the politics of Italianization, Germanization and Serbization, all of which were fought against not in the least because the enemy was possible to define, we are now facing the situation of anonymous multinational capital. Its formidable forces are discussed in Slavoj Zizek's essay "Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of the Multinational Capitalism" (Zizek 1997, pp 102-103), in which the world-renowned philosopher bitterly argues that multinational capital no longer calls for the use of unmediated violence, since particular cultures are much more effectively destroyed by the global market itself.

How to respond to this challenge? I have no original answer. As a poet, though, I simply think that inspiration may still be drawn from the rich heritage of Slovenian cultural innovation and experiment, if not directly from literary works of art. Not very comforting, I admit. Yet, it is most likely the only comfort one can get. A political program that would ignore the spiritual and cultural component of national identity in Slovenia's efforts to join the European Union would soon place the government in a position of managing a perhaps better paid yet sorrowfully hollowed-out labor force, whose main attraction for foreign investment would be its comparatively low hourly wage.

A responsible attitude towards the national tradition is essential to the extent that culture is not a gift from our ancestors but something Slovenians have borrowed from their own grandchildren. Today's situation is less than promising. In Central and Eastern Europe, one is dealing with ethnic fundamentalism which prioritizes the "Blut und Boden" ideology on the one hand and is witnessing the upsurge of a national liberalism, triggered by the social-Darwinist logic of the market.

Benjamin Barber, American theorist of communitarianism, described these intertwined processes in his meticulously researched Jihad vs. McWorld (Barber 1995) as a mixture of hatred, the exclusiveness of the tribal form and the all-embracing maximization of profit. Despite their mutual hostility, specific movements founded on the grounds of ethnic, religious or cultural obsessions with a prescribed method of communication, which Barber ominously calls Jihad, as well as movements of "McWorld" (aspirations for uniformity and homogenization promoted by global corporations) share many similarities. The underlying idea of both is a dismissal of democracy. Jihad uses the bloody policy of ethnic exclusivism, while McWorld prefers the bloodless economy of profit. The result of the former is voluntary blindness within which the traitors of the tribal "cause" are persecuted, while the latter offers up the consumerist rigor mortis, in which we all do nothing else b ut "entertain ourselves to death."

However, neither under the Jihad's canopy nor under the McWorld's umbrella is there a place for the citizen. This is Barber's most crucial insight. While Jihad replaced this concept by a paranoid warrior, McWorld cheerfully cultivates an ignorant consumer. If the ancient Greek truth si non est civis, non est homo is as valid today as it should be, then the consequences of accepting either Jihad or McWorld will be those of a premeditated catastrophe. Without the comprehensive experience of citizenship, there is no democracy. The emphasis on democracy within this context is essential, if one is to realize that the democratic order provides conditions for the emergence of a public sphere - with its capability to allow free development of various personal practices and cultural styles.

Such a public sphere depends on the civil society which, in turn, articulates itself through the tension between it and the institutions of the nation state. This tension is a corner stone of a democratic society. In this regard, the importance of the nation state is unquestionable, since it provides the minimal regulation of conditions for the functioning of the social life. Zygmund Bauman, arguably the most lucid theorist of postmodernity in the English-speaking world, in his book Life in Fragments (1995) argues: "The greater… is the share of nation-state sovereignty ceded to the all-European agencies, the less is the chance that the nation-state-based identities will be successfully defended" (Bauman 1995, p 249). Thus, should one choose to dismiss the idea of the nation state, one would allow the proliferation of movements of local and ethnic communities and concomitantly tolerate the destructive crusade of "fast music, fast food and fast computers" of th e global capitalist machine.

Allowing both processes to grow unhindered would, in my opinion, prove disastrous. The worlds of Jihad and McWorld are by definition incapable of respecting that unity of the symbolic, cultural and social experience that builds the multifaceted history of national existence and collective mentality, which are both primarily reflected in the mother tongue. Language is not only a mechanical tool of communication but must be first and foremost understood as a metaphysical worldview. For this writer, a poet by vocation, this aspect is of fundamental relevance in discussing affairs of culture, its pitfalls and advantages.

The fateful intimacy of language and national identity was in Slovenian history best perceived by poets, starting with a founding father of modern letters, Romantic poet France Preseren. His rejection of German, the language he could bring to the highest aesthetic levels, did not imply a simple pragmatic exchange of the means of expression (in order to address a larger public, a bigger market, etc.). Preseren's commitment to his mother tongue was an embodiment of an existential and political decision, serving as an article of faith, which today seems to be gaining a renewed importance. If the mother tongue presents a particular worldview, it is possible to argue that it also represents a language of a specific comprehensive perspective that cannot be sufficiently expressed in any other language (Debeljak 1998).

Consider the following anecdote. One of my college students came up to me after a lecture and ruefully stated that he really is not sure what makes him a Slovenian. He is surfing the Internet, watching MTV and Hollywood "slash and burn" movies, dressing in Benetton clothes and listening to the Viennese international radio station, The Blue Danube, while the rural idyll of the Slovenian "hayracks" and the rituals of peasant festivities are, understandably and legitimately, lost to him. I am sure that he is not alone in facing this central dilemma. I often wonder about it myself. But when in the course of our discussion I switched to English only to prove a point, my student suddenly realized how English, despite being the lingua franca of the modern world and the language of international mass culture, radically narrowed his verbal register and flattened out his imaginative horizon.

It is thus the specific perspective of the mother tongue that integrates all the cultural, geographic, symbolic and social aspects of the national experience. The refuge of our mother tongue is the place where every single thing has a name. No wonder. Language, after all, transcends our individuality, since it is older and greater than time, which is, in turn, older and greater than space, as Joseph Brodsky illuminatingly points out in his essay "To Please a Shadow" (Brodsky 1986). Make no mistake about it, I, too, find the nationalistic logic which ignores all that is foreign and different most repulsive. But, that does not mean that I have to automatically subscribe to another extreme which would make me reject the national experience tout court.

A personal example might illustrate the point better. I happen to have spent many years in America. My second alma mater is there, as are my publisher, my friends, my editorial affiliations and professional network. Indeed, it would perhaps not be too presumptuous to claim that I figuratively live on the bridge between Slovenia and America. In my home in Ljubljana, my wife and I speak American English to each other, for she, herself an American, does not yet feel comfortable in her adopted language.

However, despite varieties of such "Americanization" of my self, I cannot and would not follow many Slovenian politicians of economic reductionism and their business counterparts, who blissfully declare that a disrespect of the mother-tongue, five hundred words in Basic English and fluency in the rhetoric of cable TV spontaneously put them on the best path to the promised land of (Western) Europe. I have no desire whatsoever to adopt this formulaic attitude. I cannot support it, because I know that a human being cannot live on bread alone. This does not necessarily mean that I support the privileges of starvation, either.

If it is true that life without a spiritual sphere, in which existential experience of an individual and of a nation as an "imagined community" (Benedict Anderson) can be fully expressed, is but a dull vegetative life, then the Slovenian economic success in the age of newly gained independence must be accompanied by a cultural narrative. A narrative about the symbolic and the material value of language, ethics, the fateful burden of history and the mythic tradition. Such a narrative makes us see our lives against the broader background of national destiny, making us a critical link in the great chain of being that does not end with us; it makes us preserve our national culture and language in the era of the current European integration that, openly or not, considers smaller nations an unnecessary inconvenience.

Many skeptics would, of course, question the need to preserve national culture. These voices argue that the concern with res publica should be the exclusive matter of professional politicians. I cannot but think otherwise. I am convinced that the preservation of the cultural conscience in a broader environment of a civil society is essential in a democratic nation state not only because it is too important to be left to the political elite alone but also because now that Slovenians have come to the end of Yugoslav via dolorosa, the understanding of the importance of national culture may prevent the citizens of the Slovenian nation state from turning into Viennese lackeys, as the Serbian popular press is wont to call them. The crass metaphor is farfetched, but it does nonetheless forcefully dramatize the present Slovenian uncritical longing for the "European Paradise Lost."

If one attempts to resist the modern temptation of the perverted Descartesian slogan "I shop therefore I am!", then one may still find inspiration - with doubts though not without hope - in the meaning of the cultural tradition. Thus, one may perhaps figure out where one stands, while struggling to decode the signals of the modern pre-catastrophic world, in which not only individuals but entire nations are being destroyed. Under the pressure of the ideology of "cold peace," entire nations are condemned to disappearance, as the Bosnian tragedy all too painfully reminded us.

The inspiration that Slovenes use to measure the distance and proximity of the collective mentality can be probably best seen in the characters of literary works of art. Their destinies and struggles best reveal how the existential dilemma of Slovenians has always been connected with the metaphysical dilemma of cultural identity. The latter has not been automatically accepted as a given, as it was not accepted either by Germans or by Serbs.

The characters of Slovenian national literature had to fight first for their identity and then to ensure its wider public recognition. The essential archetype of these rites of passage suggests their contemporary usage. Slovenians have not created a nation state only to freely enjoy the thrills of ex Occidente luxus; the nation state should be here to help us be and not simply to have, to paraphrase Erich Fromm's perhaps forgotten though still very powerful distinction.

The emphasis that I chose to place upon language and comprehensive national cultural experience has, in the limited context of this essay, but a single ambition: to dramatize the inherent dangers of the wholly economic approach to Slovenian identity. That is, the approach which strives to put every aspect of culture, art and their social existence at the mercy of the market. If one is not aware of the history of national culture, which cannot and should not be measured according to its "marketability" alone, one may very well turn into a member of the tribe of children with no memory and no concerns and thus, by extension, no freedom. Such a tribe was completely unprotected when it faced the underground cannibalistic children of the dark, as H G Wells described the consequences of losing the sense of history in his work The Time Machine (1985).

A small nation at the end of the 20th century is thus presented both with a challenge and a responsibility to show that its members are able to bring the very notion of freedom to bear.

Ales Debeljak, 25 October 1999

The author is Associate Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, School of Social Sciences University of Ljubljana


Barber, Benjamin (1995): Jihad vs. McWorld. New York, Times Books-Random House

Bauman, Zygmunt (1995): Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford, Blackwell

Brodsky, Joseph (1986): Less than One: Selected Essays. New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux

Debeljak, Ales (1988): Individualizem in literarne metafore naroda. Maribor, Obzorja

Kosovel, Srecko (1997): "Razpad druzbe in propad umetnosti" in: Zbrana dela III/1, Ljubljana, Drzavna zalozba Slovenije

Kumar, Krishnan (1995): From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society. Oxford, Blackwell

Vidmar, Josip (1995): Kulturni problem slovenstva (reprint). Ljubljana, Cankarjeva zalozba

Zizek, Slavoj (1997): "Multikulturalizem ali kulturna logika multinacionalnega kapitalizma" in

RAZPOL 10, Problemi No. 5-6, Vol. 35

Wachtel, Andrew (1998): Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford, Stanford University Press



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