Illustration: People offering a helping hand.

I Don’t Believe in Europe, I Believe in Culture

Lyricism will founder, just like the term Old Europe. This is the prophecy of the Lithuanian author Sigitas Parulskis. Is Europe merely a poetic topos, a metaphor, the meaning of which has long been lost and is now at risk of being forgotten?

My laptop shows the wrong time – one hour early according to Lithuanian time. I lived in Berlin for two months during spring and my computer is still on German time. For me, this gap of one hour is both symbolic and ambiguous. In my novel Three Seconds of Heaven, I have included a time difference – a gap of three seconds in the life and consciousness of one human being, who served for two years in the Soviet Army. (A further coincidental analogy: I made a point of completing my military service in Germany.)

When somebody spends a long period of time in prison, exile or solitude, a gap opens up – a tear, that often goes unhealed for an entire lifetime. This is something of a drama, an existential and social drama. It is a tear that deprives people of the feeling for the here and now. This can affect an entire nation in the same way. For example, my people, the Lithuanians. Right up to the present day, this time difference of one hour is noticeable – in everyday life, education, the economy, politics and, undeniably, in our culture.

Lithuanians console themselves with the notion that Lithuania has been a part of European culture since the Christianisation of 1387. This is a notion that we have cared for and eaten out on. Essentially it is the truth but complex historical circumstances have exiled our small country into oblivion, to the very outer limits of European culture and politics.

For fifty years after the Second World War, our people were terribly injured and tormented. This left our culture in a state that can be described as perpetually schizophrenic. In reality, it was two cultures: Soviet, meaning the Russian, the foreign culture of the occupying power which was imposed on us from outside, and our own Lithuanian culture. For Lithuanians, being European meant, and still means, playing catch up, a constant struggle to try and close the cursed gap, to bridge the damned void, and to develop the right feeling for European time, tradition and values.

I do not know where to begin with the question of the role of culture in Europe. It is something that confuses me. In my opinion, culture is the sole important factor in people’s lives. If we understand it as the opposite of nature, the sum of the human race’s material and spiritual values, then everything – weapons, and idiotic, aggressive ideologies that destroy millions of lives – is a product of culture. After all, war is not seen as a driving force of progress without good reason. And as Albert Schweitzer said, culture and progress are almost one and the same.

Lithuanians console themselves with the notion that Lithuania has been a part of European culture since the Christianisation of 1387.

I would not know how to further refine the meaning of culture. One possibility could be the various manifestations of art – architecture, for example. But it is only culture that allows me to communicate with other people. I do not visit other countries to buy or sell anything, nor do I go with the aim of finding a wife or a religion. I go because of the culture, to be a part of it, to find it, to live with it. I am in no position to consider its meaning or lack of meaning because it is the base upon which I build my house, the palace of my existence: my world. In my opinion, the question of culture is similar to the question of whether it makes sense for people to have heads. I have the feeling that Joseph Guillotine would be firmly in my corner on that one.

Osip Mandelstam, one of the most interesting Russian writers, defined the Acmeism movement as “a yearning for world culture.” In Lithuania, this concept was prevalent. Artists had a genuinely heartfelt yearning for a world, or European, culture because this was something that, in terms of both quality and quantity, was in short supply indeed. For Lithuanians, the Iron Curtain was not just a convenient political metaphor but an unsavoury reality. Only works approved by the Politburo in Moscow, the censors and the KGB could pass through the Curtain.

Copyright Etiquette

The main criteria for translating a large number of foreign books was the publication date. Books published before 1972 were preferred. In the Soviet Union, works published abroad before 1972 had a copyright limited to just 15 years. Books published after 1972 had a copyright of 25 years. In fact, it has only been since 1996, as the Lithuanians ratified the Bern agreement, that a copyright of 70 years has been in place. As a matter of fact, I wonder whether the Soviets abided by any rules of etiquette at all.

Allow me to offer an example of this. I read Aravind Adiga’s novel White Tiger in its original language shortly after it was awarded the Booker Prize. Twenty years ago, this would not have been possible.

Illustration: Man holding European flag falling apart.
European culture is a piecing together of numerous national cultures, which themselves are becoming more and more cosmopolitan, illustration: Gary Waters / Ikon Images via picture alliance

Nevertheless, despite such sad and selfpitying statements, I must say that I do not believe in Europe. I believe that a European culture, as an independent phenomena with specific rules and concrete objects and subjects, does not exist. European culture is a fictional end-station fabricated by bureaucrats and politicians. European culture is a piecing together of numerous national cultures, which themselves are losing their independent characteristics as they become more cosmopolitan.

In earlier times, European culture was grounded in ancient civilizations and mixed with Christian values, complete with traditions, symbols, themes, etc. However, I really could not say how it would be defined today, now that an increasing number of other religions, cultures and traditions have found their way into the European Union. An old dictionary of foreign words offers the following definition: “Caucasians, the white (Eurasian) race, one of three primary or large races that have expanded all over the world; features include light skin of different shades, glossy or curly soft hair, lush facial hair, thick body hair, narrow face, a narrow nose with straight, rather perpendicular nostrils, high root of the nose, and thin lips.”



The Atrophy of Intellectual Thought

This definition could not stand up to an explanation of today’s Europeans. I mean, what else could this unhappy Europe or its culture be, aside from its population, the people? More and more, we serve up definitions and terms, projects and visions, all the while forgetting the most fundamental thing of all: these abstractions are simply an aide that should help us to live and communicate with each other, and to prevent us from killing one another. Europe, politics and even God are really nothing more than aides of this kind, to help people come to terms with terrible loneliness and the tragedy/comedy of fate.

I do not believe that writers can make fundamental differences because nobody listens to them, which is probably for the best. A real author creates an unreal or ideal world that real people can only dream of.

Culture supports our human nature. That means sensitivity, sympathy and making sacrifices for others […].

Of course, under special historical circumstances, writers, in a certain sense, articulate the will of the society they live in. In Soviet-occupied Lithuania, the people were always waiting for words of truth. The Sajudis Reform Movement in 1987/88 showed us just how much authority an author can have when the people need nice, sharp, rhetorical words, strong comparisons or shocking images.

As the time came for Lithuania to deal with its fate, the poetry of demonstrations and barricades faded very quickly. As politicians, businessmen and bankers took the initiative the role of the author became marginal. I do not believe that their influence is any greater or less in countries with a long democratic tradition. Art and politics should not be mixed, they have different origins.

Culture supports our human nature. That means sensitivity, sympathy and making sacrifices for others, for somebody who is weaker, more fragile or simply different than us in some way and is nevertheless a person, just like us. OK, pop culture has dedicated itself to entertainment, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nevertheless, according to British author John Fowles (whose work I adore), this superiority of entertainment culture has become so powerful that serious culture pales in comparison. This restricts a person’s opportunity to oppose a handful of cunning, educated cynics who refer to themselves as politicians and businessmen. More and more people have stopped reading books and this leads to a wasting away of intellectual capacity.

Deceiving the Well-Read

Personally, I view culture through the window of literature. In other words, my access code to the world of culture is the written word. And for this reason, I agree with Joseph Brodsky, who once said a well-read person is not easy to deceive. A wellread person is not easy to manipulate, something that politicians and businessmen often try to do, out of pure egoism.

Over the past few years, I have travelled extensively through Europe. Up north, to Trondheim in Norway, and as far south as Rhodes in Greece. I have visited Poland, Italy, Slovenia, Germany, France and Israel. My books have been translated into eight European languages. But despite all of this, I still could not say exactly what Europe is. I often feel the desire to say, in the style of Louis XIV: Europe – that is I. Because if I cannot describe myself as a European then who can I? What kind of education does this person need, what origins, what opinions?

I generally return from travels in Europe with the same peculiar, ambivalent feeling: if a product of culture or art cannot be turned into a marketable good then it leaves a rather strange feeling behind. And cultural events with no stars or those described as intimate, small, etc, do not really appear to be happening. They are aimed at a limited audience and come across as a little old fashioned, demotivating and slightly tragic. Art needs to be sold well, people ought to like it. If it is only done for the tastes of a select few it is destined to be a flop – that is the law of the markets, elementary and merciless.

When I see a handful of writers who take turns reciting their work to one another, with hardly any audience, I am overcome with a sense of repugnance. What is the point? Why bother with prose or poetry that is only of interest to writers and publishers? This is an awful thought. Should we view this handful of writers in the same light as we would a small sect of early Christians? As apostles who will bring good news to the masses? No, this will not work. Verse will perish just like the notion of Old Europe. Ah ha! Maybe I’ve finally found the right comparison: the notion of “Europe” is probably no more than a poetic motif, a metaphor that has almost lost its age-old meaning and has now fallen into oblivion.

Illustration: Hands drawing the world.
This is exactly the point of cultural connection – sensing the inner life of your fellow human being, illustration: Gary Waters / Ikon Images via picture alliance

P.S. But later, after I have returned from my journey – usually not right away, but a month or even a year afterwards – I suddenly remember something. Something small, a story somebody told me or a specific detail of the landscape and I feel more human. When I know how people live in a certain country then it is difficult for me to feel any contempt towards them, to envy them, to speak ill of them or to act as if they do not exist. And I think that this is exactly the point of cultural connection – sensing the inner life of your fellow human being. Realising that it is similar to what you yourself feel, what you live for and toil for, what you regret and what makes you happy. Your fellow human being is a reflection of yourself and it doesn’t matter where he lives, a thousand kilometres away or next door. We are capable of this without Europe (whatever on earth that might be) but without culture, without art, we are not.

Translation: Jason Humphreys

About the Author
Sigitas Parulskis
Poet, novelist, essayist

Sigitas Parulskis, born in 1965, lives in Vilnius. He published his first volume of poetry in 1990, and in 1991 won the Zigmas Gele Award for the best literary debut of the year. Parulskis’ first novel Three Seconds of Heaven, wherein he draws upon his experiences as a member of a Soviet paratrooper division based near Cottbus, was judged the best book of the year and given the Lithuanian Writer’s Guild prize in 2002. In 2004, Parulskis was awarded the National Prize in literature. His writings have been translated into eleven languages, and Three Seconds of Heaven was being made into a film.