- Published on Friday, 06 March 2015 12:42
- Category: Articles and Commentary
- Written by Leonidas Donskis
Zygmunt Bauman once wrote about human beings and their lives being rendered useless – reduced to throwaways by globalisation. No one needs or misses them; and when they disappear, the statistics, including various economic and security indicators, take a turn for the better. For example, the emigration of nearly one million people from Lithuania in just two decades was followed by the news that the country saw a remarkable drop in both unemployment and crime statistics. These people were not missed until somebody began speaking about demographics, especially the elderly, on a grand scale; the prospect that we and the two other Baltic countries might end up with a disproportionally large segment in the EU of retirees supported by emigrants and immigrants. Before this economic logic and argumentation were allowed into the discussion, one-third of the Lithuanian nation had been successfully pushed to the very margins of our conscious public life.
This essay is from the current issue of New Eastern Europe - Love Thy Neighbour.
The superfluous human being
The turning of human beings into statistical units is one of the symptoms of modern barbarism and of the contemporary world’s moral blindness. The same is true of the demotion of men and women into factors of production and calling them human resources. In all these cases human individuality and the mystery of being in this world are negated by turning them into objects of anonymous forces and systems as exemplified by public opinion polls, technocratic networks of marketing and politics, and statistics justifying the operations of these forces and networks.
In Spain in particular, young people became the focus of attention only quite recently, when thanks to the indignados protests the realisation sank in that over half of them were unemployed. In other words, over 50 per cent of the younger generation moved from the status of virtual non-existence, from a total absence in the public eye, into the bright limelight of public consciousness only when the fact hit home that these were indeed awful numbers. It was not the dashed hopes and lives, the loss of faith in the future of one’s country and of Europe as a whole that frightened the political class and scared the masters of public opinion; it was only the blank statistics themselves that caused the anxiety.
I once asked the Russian writer Andrei Bitov to comment on the phenomenon of the superfluous human being in Russian literature. In a literary seminar that was taking place in Visby Sweden, he spoke about Alexander Pushkin, who not only used this concept but elucidated the phenomenon itself as well in his novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin. Be that as it may, prior to this work and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, the first to call attention to the superfluous human being in Russia was Alexander Herzen, who immediately after the crushing of the Decembrist Revolt realised that there were people in Russia who would never find a place in politics or even society. They were in the wrong historical period and the wrong part of the world. Something or somebody had made a mistake: maybe it was God, or perhaps history, or was it fate? Perhaps they had to be sacrificed in the name of a brighter future, as in a Greek tragedy. Bitov told me, without any agitation, that everything might be even simpler: there are, to tell the truth, situations, epochs and societies in which human beings are simply redundant.
It strikes me that our epoch, too, can do perfectly well without human beings. We just do not need each other for any social plenitude, for human fulfilment. Pars pro toto is enough. We need parts instead of the whole. During elections, we need votes; in a situation requiring the lowering of production costs, we need cheap labour; in order to create a safe, trustworthy, and business-friendly environment we need what is called solidarity (in other words, renouncing protest and not defending one’s rights, instead choosing emigration or degradation). In some cases, an anonymous mass is precisely what fits the bill: it is intensely desired and eagerly sought after by vote-hunting politicians who before every election remember emigrants as an indispensable part of their electorate while electronic voting (something which we are about to, but have not yet adopted) is taking place. In other cases, this mass is what politicians try to run away from because they understand perfectly well that the problems which cause people to leave everything behind in their homeland and move abroad are not capable of being solved in economically weak countries no longer separated by borders from economically stronger ones.
Big Mr Anonymous
Ratings are impossible without an anonymous mass of spectators and voters; that is why we love Big Mr Anonymous, as long as he legitimises us with his faceless, soulless loyalty. We cannot do without this mass if we are politicians, television producers, stars, or anyone else desiring to be publicly known with a recognisable face and name. But as soon as the mass stops legitimising us and turns to us, not in gestures of recognition and thus of repeatedly recreating us, but in demanding from us that we take notice of their individual names and faces as they step out of the anonymous mass and thereby take on personal features of human pain, drama, and tragedy, then we begin to wish and wash this mass away. Why? It is because we almost instinctively realise that its problems – the problems of the individual souls making up this mass – are insoluble in a world in which everything they seek has been promised to them but without having been told when and at what cost. In their own country? At home? Why no, no way.
Mobility, freedom of movement and the freedom of choice – were these not promised to them? And was not one of the promises a world without borders as well? But such a world would not be conducive to small, economically and politically unstable countries who aim to gain strength. In such a world, powerful states would get stronger and weak ones would get weaker. Hungarians who protest Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian politics and his disgracing of liberal democracy are leaving their country in droves instead of creating their own parties, forming opposition groups and undertaking themselves to change Hungarian politics.
Unlike Slovakia or Hungary, Lithuania fortunately did not have a Vladimir Mečiar or Viktor Orbán: we are a democratic state with a reasonably liberal economy; we are more or less respectful of minorities as well as observant of human rights. Nevertheless, the absence of borders has become an existential threat for us. If you do not like Lithuania’s system of higher education or its political class, or if you have lost your confidence in the Lithuanian state or its institutions, you just move to London, Dublin or Alicante. Instead of changing your country, you leave it. What effect will that have and on whom? That is the question. Will your country change you so much that you will no longer believe in the possibility of your changing anything at all in the world? Or will you change your country so much that you start to believe you are changing not something remote and abstract but changing yourself and your relations to people?
I will put the situation in the words of a character in Marius Ivaškevičius’s play Expulsion as staged by Oskaras Koršunovas. Eglė, the protagonist, states that crossing the border will be easy, but there is one thing you will have to leave behind, one thing you will not be able to take with you: your self-worth. When did this change happen: before the expulsion or after? And what kind of expulsion are we talking about here? Is it a self-expulsion in the sense of “let’s get out of here?” Or is it an expelling in the sense of “let’s get rid of it” – a deliberate jettisoning of something that painfully testifies to your own or the system’s faults? Moreover, will you be allowed to be yourself? Or will you have to transform yourself into a monkey, a pitiful socio-political parakeet parroting the accent, vocabulary, manners, tone, timbre, and body movements of upper-class people?
The collective actor in the drama of expulsion is Big Mr Anonymous. By the latter name I have in mind not so much the referent of a concept originally proposed by the Lithuanian philosopher Arvydas Šliogeris, but rather the whole anonymity-enabling system that consists of operators and those operated upon; of repressive organs and their victims trying to survive. The main characters in Expulsion, who before all else possess nicknames and only then first and last names, constitute our Lithuanian precariat. This is globalisation’s new lower class in place of Karl Marx’s proletariat: they are the precariously, unsafely situated people living in a zone of ever-present danger and risk. Nothing is guaranteed to them, they cannot be certain about anything. Yes, they can attain some prosperity, but only through a kind of social suicide by becoming part of the great nothing in a foreign country.
This precariat embodies and serves the global network of anonymous persons and organisations, a network which starts with statistics and ends with a truly existing variety that is held to be sufficient proof of the fact that society allows the impregnable existence of shocking social contrasts and inequalities. These will be liberally explained away by cultural differences and their right to exist in dignity, as they are, and to be left alone, without imposing sensitivities and interpretations that are foreign to them, or even giving them any political or economic power. Thus, you become part of the workforce, with the right to imitate appropriate local accents and the consumption patterns of the jet-set classes, but without the right to your own authentic historical-political narrative and your own cultural ways of interpreting yourself.
In Ivaškevičius’s Expulsion, a perfect representative of the precariat is the character Benas Ivanovas, who achieved something in a foreign professional system that was better than his previous one: a lowly policeman in Lithuania where this profession is openly denigrated, he turned into an honourable law enforcement officer in England – but he could have been, and still can be, expelled at any time, in Lithuania or in England, in the old system as in his new, foreign one. He will never experience peace, quiet and happiness: he will always have to put on a good face and make the best out of what is around him: parrot an accent, engage in mimicry, become a human being and move out of Genghis Khan’s world (Eastern Europe) into Christ’s world (the West). This play, perfectly illustrating and at the same time satirising Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations, not only brilliantly hits upon the very nerve of Russia’s revisionist politics and war with Ukraine, but also reminds us of the fragile foundation underlying the promise that in the West we will find jobs and be treated with dignity.
American economists use not only the concept of the precariat but also that of the austeriat, for those from Eastern Europe or the Baltic states whom economic hardship has forced into emigration – not indeed from the Third World to the First, but from one EU capital to another or from one EU town or village to that of another EU state. However that may be, the new Lithuanian precariat and austeriat paradoxically reveal a certain strength of ours, as well as new tensions and dramas within the world as a whole and Lithuania in particular. To my mind, Expulsion is the truest epic of today’s Lithuania. Let us recall that the Lithuanian poet and playwright Justinas Marcinkevičius had a great political and literary ambition of having his dramatic trilogy become Lithuania’s epic through tying together the birth of the Lithuanian state, its literature, and its modern culture into a single knot of the country’s political existence. It is perhaps no accident that there are resonances between Marcinkevičius’s Cathedral as directed by Oskaras Koršunovas, and Ivaškevičius’s Expulsion. One of the latter’s anti-heroes, the Vandal (real name: Andrew but, as befits a hero from the precariat, no one calls him by that name), works in London as someone who tears down buildings and breaks apart equipment on construction sites. With his immense strength he demolishes objects that have no meaning to him but whose destruction puts food on his table. The same actor (Marius Repšys) who in Expulsion plays the Vandal becomes a master builder in Cathedral, playing the architect of the Vilnius Cathedral, Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius. Here two epic structures meet. Expulsion symbolises the end of the Lithuania that was born in Cathedral, but it does not disappear; not at all. Perhaps it is stronger and even safer than ever before. But it is another Lithuania in an entirely different world.
Expulsion is a tragedy in which a non-person becomes a person with dignity, a non-human becomes a human. Thus the tragedy’s edifying consequence, like the classical catharsis of an ancient Greek tragedy, shakes us up but also saves us from mistaking bad error and sin for virtue. In our case, it saves us from the temptation to write off these people as remnants, social losses and unfit to live. This, incidentally, is the horrible Nazi concept of Lebensunwertes Leben, which the modern world has not renounced but has merely transformed and carefully hidden in democratic society under a veneer. These are people who are of no value to their home countries. They never get any attention; their death is never an event; no one who is important holds their coming to be or passing away as something that changes their own (that is, the important ones’) lives. No one interrupts a BBC newscast or even a humour show on Lithuanian commercial TV on their account. Their life, their disappearance, or even their death is not worth noticing: it is never more important than a TV star’s new love affair or weekend trip to an exotic island.
From No Man’s Land to No Place
For a westerner, “No Man’s Land” begins somewhere between Germany and Russia; therefore the difference between the good-for-nothing Ukrainian boxer Sashko and the Lithuanian police constable Benas Ivanovas, whose stolen passport allows the Ukrainian, for one round of boxing to become a Lithuanian, is something no one ever notices. Why should they? What do these people with their murky identity ever change for the better in the life of the United Kingdom? Nothing at all. What difference does a Briton see between a Lithuanian and a Ukrainian? None, at least from the precariat’s point of view. At best, only the airplane-flying classes make an effort to sort out these geopolitical details, but to the rest – the statistical beings, the lower class, inferior race, and name-changing immigrants – all this means nothing.
From No Man’s Land they are tossed into No Place. Exile is the true Utopia of the precariat. The Latin equivalent of the Greek word utopia, thought up by Sir Thomas More of London to name his famous book, is Nusquamus, meaning No Place. Only the narrator of the play changes: nowadays the precariat’s narrator in London is a Lithuanian with a Russian surname, Benas Ivanovas. His utopia is to move from the territory of Genghis Khan to that of Jesus Christ and thereupon to “form faces out of feces” while actively “ejecting shit from oneself.” Where are they? In Lithuania? In the United Kingdom? They are nowhere. They got the hell out of No Man’s Land and landed in No Place.
What do people without a clear and fixed identity (or, more accurately, with a mobile and mutually interchangeable identity) manage to change in London? Nothing. Even their names are nothing but social masks, changed and exchanged whenever one needs to become a labelled part of No Place. The constable Robert (Bobby) becomes Benas again and is removed forthwith from this festival of life as soon as his wife, a British policewoman, doubts his trustworthiness and loyalty to the system. To Paul Celan in his Todesfuge, death appeared as a maestro from Germany. In Expulsion, success is a systems engineer from calm-faced England who either accepts or expels us.
Benas Ivanovas will never find peace and happiness abroad – he will always have “to form faces out of feces.” On the one hand, “ejecting shit from oneself” becomes a pedagogical and psychological programme whose pinnacle is tolerating things that for a post-Soviet person provoke instinctive disgust. If initially the information that his beloved Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury was gay and of Iranian decent (real name: Farrokh Bulsara) caused him great anguish, later he comes to accept it readily as an everyday reality in a normal country. On the other hand, overcoming the way an East European too reproachfully looks at things, his angry reactions, and his disgust with the world, clears one’s path towards integration and success.
One person mimics the behaviour, manners, pronunciation and body language of the people he serves; in a society as sensitive to social status and class as the English are, such mimicking is pervasive and important. These English snobs were nothing but sine nobilitate – humble-origin Oxford and Cambridge students trying their best to imitate the manners and speech of aristocrats. In the case of Eddy, performing the functions of a retriever in sports hunting, a member of the precariat from Lithuania who had studied physics there becomes a grotesque snob in England. Benas tries to rid himself of the aggression, anger, and thirst for revenge which threatens to overpower him totally. In both cases we see an Eastern European become a “human being for the West” by actively renouncing his own identity. Eglė strongly opposes this: she understands that preserving one’s self-worth and self-identity is the last frontier, beyond which there is only the final renunciation of one’s honour and liberty. She finds Benas still worth something because for a time he does not demean himself and does not try to wipe out his human self-identity. Later on he becomes, in her eyes, just a collection of alien phrases and ransacked “pearls” of safe situational wisdom.
East European traumas
East European self-contempt and self-hatred has deep roots, which in Russian culture are so profound that they can lead to a philosophy of history and culture well-expressed in Pyotr Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters, not to mention his contemporary Vladimir Pecherin, the 19th-century Russian poet and thinker, who wrote the memorable lines: “How sweet it is to hate one’s native land and avidly desire its ruin – and in its ruin to discern the dawn of universal rebirth.”
This is worth calling attention to, for such self-hatred is by no means to be found only in the 19th and 20th century trajectory of Jewish identity, something that the German Jewish writer Theodor Lessing called jüdischer Selbsthass. Nor is it characteristic only of African Americans, whose own self-hatred in their childhood and teenage years has elicited myriad studies.
What then is Expulsion about? Is it about the presence of pain and profundity in a criminal’s personality? Or perhaps about the presence, in heroism and crime, of a transcendental remnant (as Tomas Venclova put it) about which we will never know, as we will never know why the criminal, Vandal, did not obey the gang leader’s orders to kill the policeman Benas, who was pursuing him and thereby cutting off the possibility of his returning to Lithuania? Was it about the fact that “human waste products” and their “lives not worth living” are just awful and ethically blinding labels, insensitive masks beneath which hide the real reasons causing Lithuanians to embark on mass-scale emigration that can no longer be considered normal by any reckoning? Or about the fact that vengeance is rarely overlaid in us by a thin crust of civilisation; that barbarism hides in vengeance but no lesser a barbarism parades under the cover of respect for justice and the law?
Is Expulsion about the fact that the native tongue heard accidentally in London at a time you feel especially lonesome can make you fall in love with someone speaking it whom you hardly ever know? About the fact that you protect, not only your dream of living honourably in your own country but also the fear of your becoming a statistic living namelessly abroad being discovered, so fiercely that you do not want to rent out your one-room flat in the Žvėrynas neighbourhood of Vilnius? Or is it about the fact that happiness and security are not friends and often negate one another, just as freedom and security do?
Expulsion enables us to traverse the existential road from dissatisfaction, non-recognition and the fluctuations of self-value in Lithuania over the trajectories of the global Lithuanian’s social and émigré masks and fates in the United Kingdom through the biographies and little tragedies of Benas (Bosh, Marek, Bob), Eglė (Miglė), and Vandal (Andrew/Andrius). Together with the actors portraying them – Ainis Storpirštis, Vytautas Anužis, Monika Vaičiulytė and Marius Repšys – and the music of Saulius Prūsaitis proceeding the same way from the fear-inspiring world beyond us to the frightening reality of ourselves in that same world already discovered and tamed by us, together with Oskaras Koršunovas’ magical contact with the Biblical theme of alienation and one’s own.
Is Expulsion about being expelled and the power and attraction of exile which, like the medieval Pied Piper of Hamelin (in reality Satan himself in disguise), draws all the young people out of town leaving only the elderly behind? Or is Expulsion about the dilemmas of freedom which it is dreadful to experience and which you have to pay for with your own security and homeland, but which give you the chance to find and speak your own language and to grow up without waiting for others convinced of their superiority to you and your land to explain your condition?
Expulsion does not answer all these questions; nor should it have to. That is not an epic’s task. Answers to them are provided by life, which is worth living, but only when you test yourself ethically in that life, perhaps even by paying the price of expulsion.
Leonidas Donskis is a member of the editorial board of New Eastern Europe, and a professor and vice-president for research at ISM University of Management and Economics in Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuania. He is a philosopher, writer, political theorist, commentator and historian of ideas.