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16 December, 2012

The Spenglerian Fallacy and Europe as a Mutual Rediscovery

No matter how popular Oswald Spengler is deemed to become again due to Europe's profound crisis, one thing does not allow me to take him seriously. True, he made many subtle points regarding the decline of Europe between the two world wars, yet one of the most dubious ideas defended by the author of The Decline of the West was on the parallel and separate existence of cultures.

For Spengler, event the slightest attempt to emulate or at merely draw closer to the forms of another culture is nothing short of what he termed pseudomorphosis – a false spread and interplay of cultural forms. The example that Spengler made was the "pseudomorphosis" of Westernizing policies undertaken by Peter the Great in Russia. According to Spengler, the building of Saint Petersburg was nothing but a parallel reality in non-European Russia. This was exemplified by the reaction of Slavophiles who felt deeply hostile to Europe.

Well, yes and no — that’s how I would react to this. While Russian politics had little if anything to do with modern Europe, Russian literature and culture was a miracle of Europe. Even if Dostoevsky thought that nothing was as ephemeral and remote from Russian reality as Saint Petersburg, his own novels were bound to become part of the European cultural canon. Three examples that I would like to take prove the Spenglerian fallacy better than anything else.

First, let us recall the eminent film director, Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990), who lived in the former Soviet Union, and who was a great example of the canon as a continuing rediscovery of self in the world of multiple identities and as a shared space of cultural identity. He was born into an Armenian family in Tbilisi, now Georgia, and spent much time in Ukraine and Georgia, finally settling in Armenia. All of these countries considered him to be one of their own. He spoke several languages. Incidentally, that was a time when it was possible to play the ethnocultural identity card, precisely because the Soviets started allowing such minor identity games.

Parajanov went to Ukraine to make a magnificent film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), which is regarded as a classic in Ukraine, and Ukrainians acknowledged the film as a significant part of their national rebirth movement. It is full of religious and folklore themes and did not fit the social-realism criteria of Soviet cinema at the time. That was how a person made himself up while acting in several cultures, all of which were involved in a dialogue of intertwined, constant, multiple strands.

Parajanov achieved international fame and professional credit after the triumph of his film The Color of Pomegranates. The film was a biography of Sayat Nova (1712-1795), the “King of Song,” a great poet of Armenian origin who lived in Georgia, and who wrote in Armenian, Georgian, Persian, and Azerbaijani Turkish. The greatest folk singer-songwriter that ever lived in the Caucasus, Sayat Nova would be unthinkable without the context of several languages and cultures.

Therefore, it is hardly possible to squeeze the cultural canon as it stands today in our modern world into a single culture. The ability to place something exclusively into one culture means that we have merely a political invention or a political project masquerading as culture. Instead, Europe is born each time one culture is permeated and rediscovered by another culture. Europe is not about purity; it is about the ability to live someone else’s life in terms of a plot, narrative, and memory.

Secondly, we could remember Sergei Parajanov’s classmates at VGIK (the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow): Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov, who had long worked together making several masterpieces, and who will perhaps best be remembered for their immortal films Flight (1970; based on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel White Guard) and Legend on Tijl (1970; based on Charles de Coster’s The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tijl Uilenspiegel in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere).

Legend on Tijl was simply a miracle. The mystery of liberty deeply entrenched in the Flemish masterpiece was refracted through the profound drama of Russian love for liberty – no matter how deeply abused and disappointed by the reality of the 20th century. Coupled with excellent camera work and epic brushwork, the film reveals the stunning beauty of Flemish portraits and religious painting dating back to the Flemish Primitives.

Actors’ faces, eyes, hands, and long gazes were taken straight from portraits by Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling. The film had a double plane of aesthetic existence: whereas its longing for freedom and celebration of rebellion was too obvious to need emphasis, the film was permeated by love for early modernity and for what may be described as a miracle of European culture which is so manifestly powerful in the early discovery of human individuality.

Third, it was Emir Kusturica’s first English-language film, Arizona Dream (1993), where the otherness, if not the otherworldliness, of the United States' Deep South was revealed through the surrealist interplay of love, sex and death, which was best embodied in the profoundly European music of Goran Bregović as well as in the deeply Serbian feeling of the ambivalence of multiculturalism and otherness – something the tragedy of Sarajevo alone can teach us.

Alas, Oswald Spengler saw none of this.


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