ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 52, No.1 - Spring 2006
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas

A Comparative Study of the Region’s Literatures


Endre Bojtár, Professor of Philology and Head of the Department of Central and Eastern European literature at the University of Budapest. Author of many books on East-Central Europe, his most recent is Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People.

A comprehensive, seriously researched literary history of Central Europe has not yet been written. I am somewhat skeptical about the feasibility of such a history, although all efforts are, of course, very useful in moving towards an unattainable goal.

Doubts about a comparative literary history of the re­gion have three reasons. The first is theoretical. We must re­alize that, in the great majority of cases, compara­tive litera­ture does not deal with fundamental features of literature, be­cause unique features make comparison im­possible. Strictly speaking and pointedly formulated: comparative literature is not a scholarly discipline of literature, but a servant of history writing. As Arnold Hauser writes concerning the unbridge­able gulf that separates a literary work from all historical generalizations about literature:

Artistic styles, achievements, and personalities are, as all historical phenomena, unique. What remains permanent in them or repeats itself belongs to those of their features that are historically least interesting and relevant. Typologically similar constellations do arise in the course of history, but none that are completely identical with each other. Accordingly, one typology of artistic phenomena, which, however, never does justice to the fine branching of the true development. (Hauser 355)

Furthermore, the higher the generalization (the more literatures we compare) the thinner the conclusions are going to be concerning their common features. What remains is perhaps that it is useful for neighboring coun­tries to live in peace with each other – and this is, let us admit, not a lesson (however important and commend­able it may be) for literary aesthetics, but a conclusion concerning literature’s external conditions.

The second doubt about a synthesis is related to the impossibility of defining, once and for all, the con­cept of regions. As the geographer H. Schmitthenner wrote: “vouloir trouver les ‘vraies’ régions, c’est vouloir réaliser la quadrature du cercle” (cited by Veyne 50). This does not imply that the concept is a mere fancy but that regions or civilizations are a question of point of view (Veyne 58). All we can say on the basis of “objective” scientific information on geology, cli­mate, or the flora and fauna is that our region, in the middle of Europe, represents some kind of transition between East and West as well as North and South. Depending on the his­torian’s perspective, this can include Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Albania and Greece, as well as Finland, the Baltic countries, Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus.[1]

A further complicating factor is that the region’s culture, especially its “elite” culture, is mostly “Western,” while its political-economic structure and general life is Eastern. This explains why economic histo­rians who privilege the “base” include the largest part of the region in Eastern Europe, while humanists count it, with equal justification, as part of the West.

The region was originally split into east and west, or, in the bureaucratic language of the Monarchy, into “Zisleithanien” and “Transleithanien” (meaning east and west of the Leitha River), which usually identified Western Europe with Europe as a whole. This is what the notorious remark of Klemens Metternich meant: “Asia begins at the end of the Landstrasse” – which rhymes with Tomas Venclova’s bon mot from the 1980s: “In Eastern Europe, that is in Western Asia.”[2]

The bipartite division continued throughout the Cold War and survived even the collapse of the Berlin Wall, since the 1989–1991 change of power meant that the Germans and Austrians “permanently” joined the West, the Russians, Ukrainians and the Belarus the East. Many of Huntington’s followers believe that the civilizational border moved to the east, now cutting in half the mid-Europe that lies between the Germans and the Russians, disregarding even national and ethnic bound­aries. Some believe that Western Europe no longer ends at the Leitha, but divide Hungary at the Danube (which would mean that Hungary’s trans-Danubian territory be­longs to the East); others draw the line within Romania (Transylvania and the Banat belonging to Central Europe, the rest of Romania to the Balkans).

Since all definitions and demarcations of the region (Mitteleuropa, Zwischeneuropa, Südosteuropa, Central Europe, East-Central Europe, Central-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe, Central- and Eastern Europe, etc) includes Hungary, it is per­haps not surprising that the problem has been most widely discussed there.[3] The discussions reveal that it was not his­tory that gave meaning to the concept, but rather the political interests of the day, which were more often than not deter­mined by the great powers outside the region. Witness the only definition that does not include Hungary, the Europe Centrale con­cept invented by the French in the early 1920s and propagated by a weekly published under that name by the government of Czechoslovakia, which includes in the ter­ritory only the countries of the Little Entente (Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia) by claiming that the Hungarians are merely lackeys (Hilfsvolk) of the Germans, or even just of the Prussians.

The concept continues to be politically motivated. “Central Europe,” for instance, which was revived among the Czech, Polish, and Hungarian intelligentsia in the 1970s and 80s in a version that cleansed it of Germans and, above all, of Russians. But this notion, which had an obviously anti-Soviet edge, lost its attraction after the changeover, when it was rea­soned that “we are back in Europe” (read Western Europe). Today, those most eager to be Central Europeans have been relegated to the mar­gin by the center, namely the European Union.[4]

The third problem of a regional comparativism is practi­cal: it concerns the lack of experts. Only a few (literary) histo­rians exist with first-hand knowledge of more than one of the region’s literatures. The main source of the trouble is the worldwide problem of training ex­perts.[5]

In view of this, it will not come as a surprise that I can­not report about many comprehensive treatments of the sub­ject. We shall omit the historical treatments by Oscar Halecki, Ferenc Fejtö, Iván T. Berend, György Ránki György and Joseph Rotschild. I name only Josef Macurek’s unjustly forgot­ten excellent book, because it contains a rich bibliography as well as a serious concep­tion of cultural history. I know of only two publications that attempt to cover the whole literary his­tory of the region from its beginnings to the days of the author. The first is Die osteuropäischen Literaturen in ihren Hauptströmungen vergleichend dargestellt (1911) by Karl Dieterich, who was a Byzantologist in Leipzig. Because of his in-adequate lin­guistic knowledge, he had to work with sec­ondary sources – and he represented the ideology of the German Reich.[6] The second synthesis is László Gáldi’s study, which is an incomplete sketch.

I mention furthermore a few periodic publications in three major languages that provide material for future syn­theses of the region’s culture. Hugo Meltz, professor at the Hungarian university at Kolozsvár/Cluj, edited, be­tween 1877 and 1888, the Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum, a journal that used for the first time the term “comparative” in its title and published articles in about twenty languages (Vajda “Acta Comparationis”). The Archivum Europae Centro-Orientalis appeared in 1935–1944 in Budapest. Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, which was edited from 1983 to the mid-1990s by Ladislav Matejka in the US, is a ver­itable trea­sure chest for the region’s cultural history, espe­cially in the modern period.

In the remainder, I shall discuss studies that were not set up to cover all the literatures of the region, only to com­pare specific subgroups of it from a particular angle. Literary Slavistics adopted a linguistic point of view, and thus tried a theory of squaring the circle. As Werner Krauss wrote:

Indeed, linguistics could brilliantly demonstrate the inner relationship between the Germanic, Latin, and Slavic languages, but under its dominance corresponding literary families were invented. This approach is based on the untenable view that language relation could result in some kind of literary relation. (Krauss 305)

It is highly questionable as to whether other forms of consciousness can be parasitic upon, or to put it more delicately, could take a share of the objective existence and continuity of a language. Whether the once common Ursprache is a sufficiently solid bonding material to sustain the unity of the other forms of consciousness over several thousand years, even when the community of these forms of consciousness has long since disintegrated, is uncertain.

But the Slavic literary relations undoubtedly go beyond such linguistic and ideological (e.g. Pan-Slavic) perspectives; easier comprehension of each other and trans­latability re­sulted in frequent interrelations and mutual enrichment. Dmitrij Tschiewskij’s treatment is still the best.

How misleading the perspective of linguistic relations may be is immediately evident in comparisons of the three Baltic literatures. Latvian and Lithuanian jointly form the Baltic language group, but Latvian literature is much closer to the literature of the Finno-Ugric Estonian language (both belonged to the north-German cultural sphere) than to Lithuanian literature, which developed more under the mid- and east-European Polish influence (Bojtár Foreword 233-266). For this reason, overviews that mix the principle of linguistic relation with that of geog­raphy are not Balt but Baltistic liter­ary histories.[7]

National-political questions play a role in dividing the region into subunits. Cultures that live for a longer time in the same state or political system will ob­viously develop common features. Claudio Magris, Carl E. Schorke and others are probably right to claim that something like a common culture of the Habsburg monarchy existed. This is more evi­dent in the arts that depend on the state (architecture, public sculptures etc); in literature, which is language based, it man­ifested itself only in the enormous and decisive effect that German, with its great tradition, exerted on the “minor” lit­eratures of the empire, pushing everything else into the back­ground. But since this effect was unidirectional, we can hardly say that the monarchy had a common literature.

At the other, eastern end, the literatures of the so-called European socialist countries constituted a commu­nity that was forced upon them by their states. This had its good sides – jail can be an opportunity to learn more about one’s cellmates. The Soviet volumes on this literary community were also constructed in terms of parallel arti­cles that introduced the individual national literatures and occasionally added to them introductory generaliza­tions.[8] The openly ideological concept of “socialist literatures” was later exchanged for the more camouflaged “Eastern Europe.” The shift may be dated from the 1962 ICLA Conference in Budapest, which first broke through the Iron Curtain that had separated Western and Eastern literary scholarship.[9] For a while it seemed that this shift was marked in the Soviet Union by a change to the des­ignation “Central- and Southeastern Europe,”[10] but re­cent Russian studies[11] have reverted to “Eastern Europe.”[12] Similar changes occurred in other countries of the former Soviet bloc: recognizing the political implications of the term “Central Europe” was at first fashion­able, but by now we have arrived at the more neutrally understood “Central- and Eastern Europe.”[13]

[1] Our Department which has been in existence since 1986 within the Institute for Literary Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (to my knowledge the only place where institutionally organized comparative research is carried out on the region’s literature), has for this reason chosen the purely pragmatic term “Central and Eastern Europe,” which is not based on any grandiose a priori conception. Everything from Germany/ Austria to Russia, from Finland to Greece, can be fitted into it, depending on the given researcher, the concrete topic, and the period. The volumes edited by Balogh et al and Berkes, which represent the work of the Department, give, in spite of their conceptual vagueness, something like a general curve for the literary history of the Central and East European region, and have actually been used as textbooks at universities.
[2] Jakob Bleyer (1874 -1933), professor at Cluj/Kolozsvár and sub­sequently at Budapest, developed in the early years of the twenti­eth century the extreme Wiener Tor theory that every cul­tural/literary development originates in the German culture and slides down along a west/east decline (kulturelles Gefälle), arriv­ing at Eastern cultures via the filter of Vienna (Vajda, Wien 20-21).
[3] Éva Ring has compiled a complete anthology of twentieth-cen­tury views; Ferenc L. Lendvai’s monograph discusses the prob­lem from the beginning to the early 1990s. The two articles by Csaba Dupcsik offer good contemporary summaries.
[4] In Vilnius, Almis Grybauskas has edited since 1998 a yearbook in Lithuanian with the title Vidurio Europa (Central Europe). The first issue reveals that Central Europe includes (or should in­clude) not only the Lithuanians (whose most important histori­cal legitimation is that the Jagello house, which also produced Polish, Czech, and Hungarian kings, was of Lithuanian origin), but the Latvians and Belorus as well. The Romanians represent another example. Until quite recently, they were typically aloof and unwilling to cooperate even with the other non-Slavic people of the region, the Hungarians, by claiming, on linguistic grounds, to be the advanced troops of the French and of the civilized West. But at the end of the 1990s, Adriana Babeti and Cornel Ungureanu started the foundation A treia Europa (Third Europe) and a yearbook with the same title to propagate the idea of Central Europe in Romania.
[5] The Central European University, which has otherwise fulfilled a pioneering role in graduate education, is a good example of this, for it has not been able to establish a chair for comparative literature, and the program in art history has withered. The at­tempts resulted merely in a single volume of study (Bojtár ed. 1996).
[6] He probably took his data from Die osteuropäischen Literaturen und die slavischen Sprachen (1908), which contains unconnected histories of each East European literature by different authors.
[7] Giacomo Devoto’s volume merely gives separate histories of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian literatures (written by Ants Oras, Ernests Blese and Alfred Senn respectively); while Parolek and Scholz have merely listed parallel lexical data for the three literatures according to very traditional notions of trends and periods (whereby, curiously, even the German editor adopted a Soviet value system). The yearbook Balto-slavyanskie issle­dovaniya, published in Moscow from 1974 to the mid-1990s, was primarily a forum for Slavic and Baltic linguistics, but offers much valuable material on cultural history, especially in the studies by V. V. Ivanov and V. N. Toporov.
[8] These include Hudozhestvennaya forma v literaturah social-istich­eskih stran (1969), Literatura evropejskih stran socialistiche-skogo sodruzhestva (1983) and the Istoricheskiy roman v literaturah so­cialisticheskih stran Evropy (1989) edited by Toper and Yakovleva. Dion z Durißin’s ideologically highly selective vol­ume, which introduces “socialist comparative literature,” is constructed in the same manner.
[9] Sötér et al published the still useful papers of this congress.
[10] Used, for instance, in Bogdanova et al.
[11] E.g., V. A. Horev.
[12] Changes in the label are reflected in institutional organization in 1968: the “Institute for Slavic Studies,” at the Soviet Union’s Academy, was changed to “Institute for Slavic and Balkan Studies," which also became the home for studying Albanian, Greek, Hungarian and Romanian cultures. In 1998, the Institute, now in Russia, was rebaptized “Slavic Studies,” but the study of the latter cultures remained an independent part of it under the label “Central and Southeastern Europe.”
[13] The transition is evident in Sziklay’s cautious title (“East of Europe”). I myself have used Eastern Europe in my short study (1977 in Hungarian, 1992 in English), but in my book of 1986 I switched to “Central- and Eastern Europe,” as did my col­leagues/students, at the Institute Balogh, Berkes, and Krasztev.

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