Archive for December 13th, 2013

“Why was there no ‘happily ever after’?” Marci Shore looks at Europe post-1989

Friday, December 13th, 2013

marci-shoreWe’ve written about Marci Shore, author of the acclaimed Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, before – here.  This week, Wiesława Niziol brought the following interview from New Eastern Europe to my attention. It’s rather remarkable. A few excerpts:

One of the first, most naïve questions I wanted to understand was: Why was there no “happily ever after”? From the point of view of an American teenager, nineteen eighty-nine was a fairy tale: for all of my life and my parents’ lives, there was an Evil Empire where people were thrown into prison, sometimes beaten and tortured, at the very least condemned to live in greyness and sadness, forbidden from leaving—and then suddenly one day it was over. I thought that coming to Eastern Europe would be like arriving at a non-stop party, that everybody would be celebrating his or her liberation. Of course, it was nothing like that. The 1990s were in some ways not very happy times at all. There was a sense that now people were suffering and being exploited in entirely different ways from the ways in which they had suffered and been exploited under communism. And there was a sense of the past as tormenting.

People had made difficult choices in a world in which those choices had perhaps seemed the best possible ones. And suddenly they had to account for those choices in a new world in which all the rules had changed. What might have felt like the best possible decision in difficult circumstances suddenly no longer seemed liked the best possible decision when judged by the gaze of a new world. In some ways this book is my attempt to explain why the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not a fairy tale’s happy ending. …

marciCzesław Miłosz was right when he wrote that “the habit of civilisation is fragile”—and that “[t]he man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” That sense of the impossibility of understanding, of being understood, and the drama, the resentment, the jealousy and bitterness that often accompanied that feeling—perhaps that has not entirely disappeared, but it has faded. …

I think, in a certain sense, that nationalist populism is a response to a feeling of rootlessness, or groundlessness. It’s an attempt at psychic consolation via the exporting of guilt, the displacement of what haunts us onto “others” who are not ourselves. Nationalism is arguably always about that: a failure to take responsibility, an attempt to export that which makes us uncomfortable. It is completely understandable in human terms. I can empathise with the desire to do that. That said, I think this kind of attempt to find a safe place for ourselves in the world will always fail. There is something rootless about the human condition. We are, alas, thrown into the world and then have to go about finding—that is, creating—a place for ourselves in it.

Moreover, space has changed. The West is no longer far away, it’s no longer even so clear where the border lies, or whether there is a border. “The West” was once that place that was not accessible. Now the fall of communism, the expansion of the European Union, and the Schengen zone have created a situation in which it’s “normal” to wander around Europe without a passport.

Read the rest here.