07 April 2009

Do Latvians have a navel?

Gravely ill and suffering from the economic collapse -- dead broke and feeling somewhat like the Man in the Holocene -- I've not blogged during a period in which Latvia has been featured in the world media as "Europe's sickest country."

I was commissioned to write a brief condensation of the history of Latvia, my work on the first draft falling, par hasard, between two of our most important national holidays -- November 11th and November 18th. The celebration on the 11th -- Bear Slayer's Day -- dates to 1919, when Bermondt-Avalov's forces were driven from the left bank of Rīga by the swelling ranks of Latvian volunteers and British and French warships. November 18th is our national day. In 1918 -- a year before that victory -- the independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in the National Theater (then the Second Municipal or Russian Theater). This being the 90th anniversary of that proclamation (of which event there is only a single photo -- a freshly released documentary film on the subject is entitled The Only Photograph), this November was suffused with more patriotism than is usual (this site -- in Latvian, English, and Russian -- has a calendar of events as well as a wealth of articles and links).

I wrote about the meaning of Bear Slayer's Day last autumn. This year, between translating a cantata (Beļskis' and Kulakovs' Vēstules uz bruģa, released on DVD with English subtitles this week -- also a patriotic endeavor), a couple of hefty art books, the program for the Latvian pavilion in Gothenburg, the yearbook of the House of Language and an annual report on corruption -- and condensing several centuries of history and a few more of prehistory into twenty-five pages -- I find time only for tired debates so dismal I won't link to them here. With a host of ideas swooping down into my swirling head, however, I thought I'd sketch a few fleeting half-formed thoughts before they flew away.

I did go to the bridge that spans the Daugava to mark the rainy 20th anniversary of the founding of the Popular Front. The demographics and politics down here being what they are, it was a somewhat sad event, the police shouting at us to get out of the road in Russian (for an instant, the only difference between now and then was the replacement of "comrades" with "ladies and gentlemen," the thickness of the traffic and the lack of Ladas therein). Finally the bridge was closed as several hundred people cradled oil lamps and shielded candles in honor of the occasion. Nearly inaudibly, a choir sang what has become the Latgallian hymn -- "Skaidra volūda."

In Anna Rancāne's poem, set to music by Eugeņs Karūdznīks, language is as clear as water from a spring. The wood sings, stone exults, the corncrake calls, grain ripens, fire crackles, the dog barks -- and the fatherland speaks to us as they do, as clearly as water at its source. Despite its being wildly popular from the Third Awakening of the late 1980s, some still mistake it for a folk song -- its language is as clear as spring water in terms of sound, at least to the Latvian ear (though it is in Latgallian). As Knuts Skujenieks once pointed out to me, no Latvian poet has ever attained the clarity of the dainas and few have even come close. Though many translators have tried their hand at the dainas -- even Jerome Rothenberg -- the goose-flesh they can conjure are as elusive as corncrakes. Rancāne's poem echoes folk songs:

Grieze grieza rudzīšos,
Paipaliņa kārkliņos.

Grieze rudzus briedināja,

Paipaliņa kāsināja.

The corncrake (grīze in Latgallian, grieze in Latvian; the verb griezt means both "to cut" and "to shriek," the bird taking its name from the latter meaning, dainas usually using both senses), is a bird most often heard but not seen, associated with the ripening of rye. Without an understanding of the relations between corncrakes, grain, and even dogs, the sense of the song falters. Latvian speakers can avail themselves of resources like Elina Kūla-Braže's marvelous Putnu dienas, in which 25 of the most notable birds in Latvian folklore fly between God's gardens and Hell (the adventures of the corncrake being especially interesting). As a matter of fact, you can now search and access more than 200 000 dainas from your mobile phone. But -- if you've never seen rye ripening and never heard a corncrake call, you will still be at a loss.

On to the fatherland. "Skaidra volūda" is clearly, at least superficially, as "primordialist" as can be, to use a term scholars of nationalism like Anthony D. Smith, the author of The Ethnic Origins of Nations, would employ; it could be a perfect illustration of the nationalist view in contrast to the perennialist, modernist, and post-modernist takes as summarized here, for example. Smith concludes: "None of these formulations seems to be satisfactory. History is no sweetshop in which its children may 'pick and mix'; but neither is it an unchanging essence or succession of superimposed strata." In the riveting Warwick Debates ("The nation: real or imagined?"), Smith identifies three problems with the modernist theories: their generality, their materialism, and -- "most crucial, since it stems from their commitment to modernism, the idea that nations and nationalisms are the product of modernisation."
What this systematically overlooks is the persistence of ethnic ties and cultural sentiments in many parts of the world, and their continuing significance for large numbers of people. Eric Hobsbawm, indeed, goes so far as to deny any connection between the popular 'Proto-national' communities that he analyses and subsequent political nationalisms.
Introducing an approach he terms "ethno-symbolic," it is here that Smith parts company with his teacher, Ernest Gellner:
This is exactly where I disagree. Modern political nationalisms cannot be understood without reference to these earlier ethnic ties and memories, and, in some cases, to pre-modern ethnic identities and communities. I do not wish to assert that every modern nation must be founded on some antecedent ethnic ties, let alone a definite ethnic community; but many such nations have been and are based on these ties, including the first nations in the West - France, England, Castile, Holland, Sweden - and they acted as models and Pioneers of the idea of the 'nation' for others. And when we dig deeper, we shall find an ethnic component in many national communities since - whether the nation was formed slowly or was the outcome of a more concerted project of 'nation-building'.
Smith's opening statement is entitled "Nations and their pasts." In his response -- "Do nations have navels?" -- Gellner wanders into our part of the world:
There are very, very clear cases of modernism in a sense being true. I mean, take the Estonians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they didn't even have a name for themselves. They were just referred to as people who lived on the land as opposed to German or Swedish burghers and aristocrats and Russian administrators. They had no ethnonym. They were just a category without any ethnic self-consciousness. Since then they've been brilliantly successful in creating a vibrant culture. This is obviously very much alive in the Ethnographic Museum in Tartu, which has one object for every ten Estonians and there are only a million of them. (The Museum has a collection of 100,000 ethnographic objects). Estonian culture is obviously in no danger although they make a fuss about the Russian minority they've inherited from the Soviet system. It's a very vital and vibrant culture, but, it was created by the kind of modernist process which I then generalise for nationalism and nations in general. And if that kind of account is accepted for some, then the exceptions which are credited to other nations are redundant.
Later in his response, Gellner says that "the Estonians created nationalism ex nihilo in the course of the nineteenth century." Gellner passed away prior to the planned third lecture. Smith offered "Memory and modernity:
reflections on Ernest Gellner's theory of nationalism" in his stead. Though it's unavailable at the London School of Economics ASEN site without a password, Tamil nationalists offer it here.
I could quibble here, and say that the issue was not whether the Estonians created nationalism ex nihilo in the nineteenth century, but whether the Estonian nation was created by the Estonian nationalists ex nihilo. And while we would both agree that Estonian nationalism, indeed any nationalism, was modern, where Ernest and I would differ is whether the nations that nationalism creates are wholly modern creations ex nihilo.


Now here lies the rub. If we pursue the analogy, we recall that God created Adam, fashioning his body and then breathing life into it. Not even the most megalomaniac nationalist has claimed quite that power. They have, of course, seen themselves as awakeners; but the body of the nation merely slumbered, it was not without life. Should we confer on nationalists that divine power, to create ex nihilo?

Of course, Ernest wants to confer that power through nationalism ultimately on modernity, on the growth society, on industrialism and its cultural prerequisites. For Ernest, the genealogy of the nation is located in the requirements of modernity, not the heritage of pre-modern pasts. Ernest is claiming that nations have no parents, no pedigree, except the needs of modern society. Those needs can only be met by a mass, public, literate, specialised and academy-supervised culture, a 'high culture', preferably in a specific language which allows context-free communication. A 'high culture' is the only cement for a modern, mobile, industrial society; and this is the only kind of society open to us today.

For Ernest, the world was irreversibly transformed by a cluster of economic and scientific changes since the seventeenth century. Traditional agro-literate societies were increasingly replaced by growth-oriented, mobile, industrial societies. The rise of high cultures and nations is a consequence of the mobility and anonymity of modern society and of the semantic, non-physical nature of modern work. Today what really matters is not kingship or land or faith, but education into and membership of a high culture community, that is, a nation.
Smith observes that "the Estonians did have a navel after all" -- the Kalevipoeg, as the Finns had the Kalevala.
Both epics traced the descent of the Finns and Estonians to Iron Age culture-communities, and thereby provided these dispossessed and subject peoples with a sense of their dignity through native ancestry and an ancient and heroic ethnic past. In this way, they confirmed the worldwide belief in the virtues of national geneologies. To dismiss this by attributing it to the ubiquitous influence of nationalism again begs the question of why so many people have been mobilised on the basis of this particular belief in the genealogy of nations. Besides, nationalists have usually managed to find some historical antecedents for their nations-to-be, albeit often embellished and exaggerated, and this suggests that there are mechanisms at work which ensure some connection and even continuity between the modern nation and one or more pasts.
Smith goes on to discuss "high" culture, key to Gellner's theory:
In an interesting section of Nations and Nationalism, Ernest contrasts the 'high' culture of modern societies with the 'low' cultures of agro-literate societies. A 'high' culture, as we have seen, is a literate, sophisticated culture, serviced by specialised educational personnel and taught formally in mass, public, standardised and academy-supervised institutions of learning. It is a highly cultivated or 'garden' culture. A 'low' culture, by contrast, is wild, spontaneous, undirected and unsupervised. These are the cultures that readily spring up, unbidden, in societies where the great mass of the population are food-producers servicing the needs of tiny specialised elites - clerisies, aristocracies, merchants and the like - who are almost completely cut off socially and culturally from the peasant masses. In such a society, there is neither need nor room for nations and nationalisms, since the many 'low' cultures of the peasants are local and 'almost invisible'. Thus, in agro-literate societies, in Ernest's words: 'Culture tends to be branded either horizontally (by social caste), or vertically, to define very small local communities'.

Now, for Ernest, all these 'low' cultures are doomed. They are cut off, like so many umbilical cords, because they are simply irrelevant in an impersonal, mobile modern society. If they are remembered at all, it is only through some symbols, in the same way that navels remind us of our origins. Nationalism, Ernest claims, is basically a product of modernity. It is, he says, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low Cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases the totality, of the Population ... it is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals, held together above all by a shared Culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro- groups themselves. That is what really happens.

Nothing could be clearer. The many, old 'low' cultures vanish. They are replaced by a single, new 'high' culture, or 'nation'. This is the true meaning of nationalism.

But there are two problems here, of which Ernest was well aware. Some 'low' cultures are not severed. Instead, they become 'high' cultures. The Finns and the Estonians clearly fall into this category, as do many of the cultures of the other smaller, subject peoples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The other problem is that certain old elite cultures become 'high' cultures. The literary cultures of the Jews, the Armenians and the Greeks clearly fall under this heading, as do several of the cultures of Western peoples like the Catalans, Scots and French. Awareness of the difficulties posed for modernism by both these problems is an important source of its ambivalence.

How do 'low' cultures become 'high' cultures? Why does Estonian win out over German, Swedish and Russian cultures in Estonia, and Finnish over Swedish and Russian cultures in Finland? Both these cultures were local, popular, largely confined to the peasants, at least at first. Why do these 'Ruritanians' become conscious of their local folk cultures and seek to turn what were 'low' cultures into 'high' ones for the nation-to-be?

Or were they really such 'low' cultures? And is the contrast between 'low' and 'high' cultures as sharp as Ernest alleges? In the case of Estonia, we know of Estonian language religious texts during the Reformation; and certainly by the seventeenth century, with the establishment of the University of Tartu and later Forselius' school system, the basis of a literate Estonian culture emerged a century and a half before the arrival of the Romantic movement in the Baltic states in the mid-nineteenth century.
Nihil ex nihilo is Smith's conclusion. No primordialist he, however -- he stresses the fact that "that pre-modern ethnies are not nations"... but "what they do have, and what they bequeath, albeit selectively, to modern nations, is a fund of myths, symbols, values and shared memories, some distinctive customs and traditions, a general location, and sometimes a proper name. Without these shared memories and traditions, myths and symbols, the basis for creating a nation is tenuous and the task herculean."
So: to paraphrase Rousseau, a nation must have a navel, and if they have not got one, we must start by inventing one. And it is because nations have navels, and because those navels, and the memories and traditions, myths and symbols they represent, mean so much to the people that have them, that we are so unlikely to see the early transcendence of nations and nationalism.
I've quoted Smith at such length (though I do hope readers will read the Warwick Debates and the Memorial Lecture in full!) because anyone familiar with political and historical discourse in Latvia will immediately call to mind many a local specific that sheds light upon, and/or is illuminated by, Smith's ethno-symbolic approach. Gellner's remarks about the Estonians ("They were just referred to as people who lived on the land...") echo Pastor Brasche's response to the Young Latvians, for instance; he called them a Jung-Bauernstand -- a peasant class without a past (see this Wikipedia article about the movement, which has remained curiously intact since I wrote it). Smith again:
What 1 am arguing here is that most modern languages and cultures are not 'invented': they are connected to, and often continuous with, much older cultures which the modernising nationalists adapt and standardise. By Ernest's criteria, many of these older languages and cultures were 'high' cultures. But, even where they were 'low' (or 'lower'), spontaneous, popular cultures, they could become the basis for a subsequent 'high culture'. Ernest hints at this when he speaks of Ruritanians in the metropolis of megalomania who, faced with the problems of labour migration and bureaucracy, soon come to understand the difference between dealing with a co-national, 'one understanding and sympathising with their culture, and someone hostile to it. This very concrete experience taught them to be aware of their culture, and to love it (or, indeed, to wish to be rid of it).' In other words, it is the old 'low' culture to which they cling, or not, as the case may be. And it is the old 'low' culture which, far from being cut off and thrown away, will soon become the modern 'high' taught culture, albeit for several hundred thousands or millions of people.
These processes stand out prominently in Latvian history since Krišjānis Valdemārs -- assimilation and resistance to it, the interplay of continuity and discontinuity, and the creation of a "high culture" on the basis of a "low culture," as well as the exaltation of the "low culture" and its reshaping to meet expectations of what a "national culture" ought to look like (according to this German or that Russian, or diverse ideologues, dreamers and fantasists of our own), not rarely grotesquely.

The photograph is from a gallery at Delfi of events marking Bear Slayer's Day.