ESSAYS: Europe Re-Visioned

A bee stings a boot
Nora ikstena_harijs bekeris_photo_10
Nora Ikstena. Photo: Harijs Bekeris
by Nora Ikstena
"We are not doctors, we are the pain" - Belorussian writer Vasil Bikav uses this penetrating and embracing sentence to describe the essence of an artist. Latvian poetess Vizma Belsevica calls this essence "a bee sting to a boot".
An artist is not interested in just stinging. He wants to explore the emergence of the pain that makes him defend and sting. He delves into the depth of his experience, trying to locate the source from which the pain springs and drink from it before it rushes into the collective waters. It is exactly this gulp of power that makes an artist create. Without it, he either thirsts to death or drinks anything he can find, risking a loss of the very senses that make him seek out the spring.

No wonder that a person who has chosen to search for his spring instinctively resists any attempts to direct his "live water" to the open sea until he has filtered it through his individual consciousness. He has to protect his ground water and he stings in defense. He stings the systems created by civilization. By refusing to allow the systems to breed comfortably, he retains tension, interferes with them and threatens to sting again.

At first glance, Europe as a common home seems to be an enticing slogan full of happiness and security, particularly for small nations that suffered under the Soviet system. An invitation to join the European superpower reduces the inferiority complexes of small nations and makes them feel more proud and secure. Skepticism is combated with the thought: "They don't need us - we need them".

This approach works particularly well at convincing poor yet doubtful people of the economic advantages of joining the common home. The same argument is useless for discussion of the interaction of European cultures in a shared socio-cultural space. Because there we have long been in need of each other.

We are more tied to each other than we think. We are tied by common myths, symbols, folklore and faith. We also share the pain I was talking about earlier. What differs is our ground water. Our experience.

A fugitive will know what is implied by the Biblical question: How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? A mother will know pain for a child killed by a religious or nationalist fanatic. A writer will know what it means to write in the language of a small nation and to encounter the unshakable rules of the free market. A dissident will know the price for his choice under an authoritarian regime. A civilian will never get rid of images of wartime horror - here, in the middle of Europe, at the turn of the millennium. A person who has lost his dearest will not be comforted by realizing that this is the law of nature.

These experiences are our burdens. We have to carry them from the moment we are detached from the umbilical cord to the moment we hope to reunite with it. And this is not a ghostly past that we need to get rid of in the name of the beautiful future. This is subsoil water, a gulp of which helps us understand ourselves and others in this world.

The groundwater is the people we meet on our way, the languages we think in, the traditions we cherish, the glimpses of history in which we become participants, places where all three times - past, present and future - turn out to be simultaneously existent. Ground water is self-reflection and understanding. Whatever globalized and unified future of the world we envision, the moment of grasping will always remain individual. It will remain distinct for every country and nation.

I do not think terms like "fatherland", "mother tongue", "exile", "roots", and "nostalgia" will fade away. They are closely connected with any process of understanding. As T.S.Eliot wrote,

So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

We cannot deny that the common European home is largely a subject of discussion for politicians, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. What we might call "the conscious masses" or "the crowd" are often left out. But it may well turn out that the silent presence of many people constitutes an artist's subsoil water. And if this is so his sting will be even more painful.
Unlike a bee, an artist does not die after the first sting. And it is a great gift of God to be able to bite several times. We need to appreciate this and every bite needs to be well thought out. We may draw water from the same well for economic and political reasons, but each of us will have a different spring of experience. We need to protect our own special spring, to honor the suffering that makes us sting.

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