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The art of difficult dialogue

Leonidas Donskis, a Lithuanian philosoper and intellectual, a long-term friend of New Eastern Europe and a member of our editorial board passed away this morning, September 21st 2016, at the age of 54. We are extremely saddened by the news and our thoughts are with his family. The following article was written by Leonidas for Issue 6 of New Eastern Europe in 2013.

September 21, 2016 - Leonidas Donskis - Articles and Commentary


I have recently had the privilege of launching a new book conjointly written with one of the greatest thinkers of our times – Zygmunt Bauman. The book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity is a high point of my life. Such an opportunity can occur only once in a lifetime. For this, I am immensely grateful to Zygmunt Bauman – a major influence, a great inspiration, and a beloved friend.

This book is a dialogue on the possibility of a rediscovery of the sense of belonging as a viable alternative to fragmentation, atomisation, and the resulting loss of sensitivity. It is also a dialogue on the new ethical perspective as the only way out of the trap and multiple threats posed by adiaphorisation of present humanity and its moral imagination. This book of warning also serves as a reminder of the art of life and the life of art, as it is shaped as an epistolary theoretical dialogue between friends. Elaborating on my thoughts, wrapping up, and summing up my hints and questions into a coherent form of discourse, Zygmunt Bauman, in this book, sounds as intimately and friendly as a Renaissance humanist addressing his fellow humanist elsewhere – be this an allusion to Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam, or Thomas More and Peter Giles, or Thomas More and Raphael Hythloday.

Such a form allows us to work out a sociological and philosophical dialogue on the sad piece of news contrary to Utopia – namely, that, as I put it in one of my aphorisms penned as a variation on Milan Kundera: globalisation is the last failed hope that, somewhere, there still exists a land where one can escape and find happiness. Or the last failed hope that, somewhere, there still exists a land different from yours in terms of being able to oppose the sense of meaninglessness, the loss of criteria, and, ultimately,  moral blindness and the loss of sensitivity.

Dialogue: Always difficult and unpredictable

The art of dialogue is always difficult. Dialogue, if properly understood, is an art of listening to and hearing each other, instead of simply exchanging two mutually opposing and exclusive discourses, or even worse, disconnected monologues. It was obvious for Plato that simple truths and truisms do not need a dialogue. It is only when you do not know where you would end up with the trajectory of your own or someone else’s thought that you can engage in a real dialogue.

The ability to listen and hear is accompanied by a sincere wish, if not theoretical or even existential urge, to check one’s own premises and to examine one’s own life. An unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates or Plato would have had it. Or an unlived life is not worth examining, as I would add myself. Dialogue does not signify the necessity to prevail over your opponent at whatever cost. Instead, it appears as our capacity to arrest our aggressive and agonistic wish to prevail and dominateat the expense of someone else’s dignity, not to mention the truth itself.

Renaissance writers and thinkers knew it so well when they emphasised empathy as a crucial element of the art of dialogue. For how can we understand our opponent without accepting – at least temporarily – his or her premises and vocabulary, and then critically examining and rethinking our own concepts and points of departure? Dialogue appears as an exciting venture and as a difficult art in Thomas More’s Utopia where all references to Plato/Socrates are of little help for the narrator in his attempt to understand the fictitious Portuguese sailor Raphael Hythloday’s incredible story.    

I can only reiterate this obvious truth: the art of dialogue is always difficult. Was it easy for Martin Luther to address Erasmus of Rotterdam in their famous correspondence on Christianity and its fate in Europe? Was it easy for Erasmus to respond to the rebellious German monk who split the Church on the grounds of his fierce opposition to earthly and political, rather than deeply religious, as Erasmus thought, problems of the Church? Or was it easy for Martin Luther to engage in an intense correspondence with Erasmus’s close friend Thomas More?     

Is the art of European dialogue a fantasy? Is European culture a fantasy? Is it more or less so than European politics?

These are the questions that cross my mind over and over again when I try to think of how to reverse the ongoing tragedy of the European Union – namely, its silent and slow demise, which is a fact of reality, to my dismay. European culture sometimes is dismissed as a fantasy or fiction inasmuch as it is argued that there is no such a phenomenon as an all-embracing and all-encompassing European culture. Is this assumption correct? No, it is profoundly wrong, misplaced, and misguided. Only those who are out of touch with the cultural history of Europe can claim Europe to have never been an entity deeply permeated by a unifying and controlling principle, be it the legacy of classical antiquity and Judeo-Christian spiritual trajectories, or be it the value-and-idea system that revolves around liberty and equality, these two heralds and promises of modernity.

Pyotr Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters appear as a profound intellectual testimony to this truth. The Russian philosopher wrote with pain that his country never experienced the great dramas of modernity; nor did it have an historic opportunity to be moulded by the greatest historical-cultural epochs of Europe, such as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Baroque, or the Enlightenment. As Chaadayev argued, Russia had none of these. Therefore, European history did not speak to Russia the language of its great cravings for liberty, emancipation of the human soul, and individual self-fulfilment.

For Europe is more than merely an economic and political reality, according to Chaadayev. It is an idea, a religion, a dream, and a trajectory of the soul. In fact, modernity and freedom appear to Russia as something alien, imposed, emulated, or otherwise adopted from without; yet in Europe they became part of the psychology and even physiology of human individuals. Europe is inconceivable without a certain modern faith, which has become brother to liberty, instead of a tool of oppression.

Such were the ideas for which poor Pyotr Chaadayev was pronounced a madman and confined to house arrest. Today they are on the agenda of every mediocre mainstream politician, instead of shaping a dissenting theory of an intellectual naysayer.

Culture of openness and dialogue

That European culture of openness and dialogue is a fantasy can claim only those who have never understood the fact that the foundations for the art of portrait in England were laid by a Fleming, Sir Anthony van Dyck; that the Flemish Primitives greatly influenced their peers in Venice and elsewhere in Italy; that Caravaggio was behind not only Rembrandt but the group of Caravaggisti in Utrecht as well; that Baroque music was an interplay of Italian, German and French genius (think about Bach vis-à-vis Vivaldi or Italian opera composers vis-à-vis Handel); that the greatest Elizabethan dramatists in England were under the spell of Spanish literature coming from the political foe, the country they hated as a political archrival. The dialectic of politics and culture is just as much about Europe as is the dialectic of war and peace.

For me, the very symbol of Europe is the great Flemish Primitive Hugo van der Goes’ work of genius, The Triptych of Tommaso Portinari, which hangs at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. The head of the Medici bank branch in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari, was a patron of Hugo van der Goes; his family also supported a German-born genius of Bruges, Hans Memling. This economic, political, aesthetic, mental and existential knot of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, French, and German genius from the Middle Ages onward reveals what I would call the “Soul of Europe”.     

Europe starts where we fail to classify and categorise a human individual. Europe emerged repeatedly where the philosopher of dialogue par excellence Martin Buber, born in Vienna, who had his Austrian and German upbringing, and who spent much of his time in Lviv, adopted Eastern European sensibilities by committing himself to Hassidic tales and by converting spiritually to Ostjuden, that is, Eastern European Jews at who German Jews used to look down on as regrettable people. Europe emerges where we adopt a common destiny, and a silent and joint dedication to our history and political legacy.          

Ironically, we fail to see that the only sphere where Europe as our common home became a fact of life, rather than a manifestation of wishful thinking, is education and culture. The future of Europe is unthinkable without the art of translation. It was with sound reason that Milan Kundera made a joke about the role of the work of interpreters in the European Parliament clearly suggesting that it is far more important for the future of the EU than the labour of members of the EP.

We will inexorably fail in our EU policies if we keep relegating literature, culture, and the art of translation – that is, the crucial instruments of dialogue – to the margins of European life. If there is a chance that the EU can survive the 21st century as a club of democratic nations or even as a federal state able to blaze the trail to other nations seeking the rule of law and democracy, it will occur only on the condition that we give justice to education and culture.

Most importantly, intellectual and cultural dialogue always serves as an anticipation of more just and coherent politics – suffice to mention utopias, dystopias, social criticism in the form of humour, and similar forms of dissent, moral imagination and alternative, which are pivotal for politics. This is far from a detached and politically naive wish; in fact, this is a matter of fact.

What is the role of a difficult dialogue in Polish-Lithuanian relations? The role is crucial, and the example of some of the most eminent Polish writers and culture personalities shows how culture can anticipate and pave the way for better politics. This is certainly the case with, first and foremost, Czesław Miłosz.   

Searching for the Europe of Czesław Miłosz

The year 2011 was the year of Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). The centenary of the greatest modern Polish poet allows us a glimpse of Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 21st century. An eminent and cosmopolitan, albeit deeply rooted in the Lithuanian and Polish historical and cultural sensibilities, European who felt at home in several European languages and cultures, and who spent much of his time in the United States, Miłosz anticipated the crucial dilemmas of European identity and memory which we started tackling immediately after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The paradox of Miłosz is that it was through the fame of his eye-opening and captivating political essays on the mindset of the Eastern European intelligentsia, rather than his superb poetry and literary essays, that he became a central figure among Central and Eastern Europe’s émigrés in the US and all over the world. The Captive Mind came as a shock to the West. The same applies to Joseph Brodsky and other great Central and Eastern Europeans who captivated the West as public intellectuals and social critics, rather as brilliant writers or living classics of literature.

He stripped much of Western Europe and the US of their political myopia and naiveté concerning the nature of the communist regime. He did so by showing that not only coercion and violent politics, but also the vanity and fear of Eastern European intellectuals played a pivotal role in the emergence of what Miłosz described, with the stroke of genius, as Ketman – the art to act in the public concealing one’s true political views or even religious and cultural identity.

As the recently deceased British-American intellectual historian and public intellectual Tony Judt (1948-2010), who, among his other areas of competence, was knowledgeable of Central and Eastern Europe’s intellectual dramas and history of ideas, subtly noted reviewing Miłosz’s The Captive Mind and commenting on the phenomenon of Ketman, “writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty,” which is a sad lot of an Eastern European intellectual frequently bound to choose between his country and his conscience.

In the pivotal part of his perceptive review, Judt reveals fear of the indifference as a primary moving force behind mental acrobatics and immoral manoeuvring described by Miłosz as Ketman. Judt quotes from The Captive Mind: “Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.”

In fact, it is not infrequent in Central and Eastern Europe that culture precedes and shapes politics. In the case of Lithuania, it was through the words of two most eminent Polish men of letters, people of multiple identities, such as Miłosz himself and the Parisian Polish émigré Jerzy Giedroyc (1906-2000), a highly respected editor of a leading Polish-émigré literary-political journal, Kultura (1947-2000), that it became possible to confront some worn-out clichés concerning the clashes of memory that occurred between 20th century Lithuania and Poland.

From the Lithuanian side, Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet and literary scholar, who also acts as Professor of Slavic Literature at Yale, was in the lead from the very beginning of the debate on Poland vis-à-vis Lithuania. In his essays and poetry, Venclova easily and naturally migrates between Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Jewish sensibilities bridging these cultures and identities. In this, Venclova remains unique among Lithuanian writers and thinkers.

Born in Klaipeda and raised in Kaunas, Venclova, in his essays and poetry, comes to project his worldview onto Vilnius, a characteristically Central European city around whose poetic vision revolves the entire map of his thought. This is, perhaps, best revealed in A Dialogue about a City, a masterpiece of the epistolary genre written by Venclova and Miłosz. Two perspectives on Vilnius, Lithuanian and Polish, not only complement one another; they reveal how human memory and sentiment work to re-enact history, bridging it with the present. A Dialogue about a City was written in the late 1970s, yet it took quite a while for both countries to put behind their mutual animosities, which was achieved nearly overnight when Poland and Lithuania signed, in 1994, a historic treaty of friendship and cooperation. It recognised Vilnius once and for all as the unquestionable capital of Lithuania. This cleared the air and paved the way for a friendship, a natural outcome of the centuries of a common state and shared culture.

A happy combination of liberal patriotism, multiple and communicating identities, and the readiness to criticise one’s own country, instead of searching for the devil elsewhere and, first and foremost, in an opponent, best exemplified by Miłosz, still stands as his invitation to us to search for the Europe as an extended motherland, or the native Europe, to put it in his words.

Local sensibility combined with sensitivity and attentiveness to other cultures and identities could become a clue to present dilemmas of the troubled European identity. We should search for the Europe of Czesław Miłosz, instead of returning to the hibernated and frozen dramas of memory and identity, which appear as the unholy legacy of the 20th century.

The treason of intellectuals?

On the Lithuanian side, Tomas Venclova appears as arguably the most eminent figure in the art of a difficult dialogue, especially in trying to restore historically formed relations between Lithuania and Poland. Venclova is regarded as one of the most accomplished and noted Lithuanian humanists in the world, and rightly so. An eminent Lithuanian poet, literary scholar and translator, Venclova had long acted as a conscious and dedicated dissident opposed to the entire project of the former Soviet Union with its crimes against humanity, severe human rights violations, brutal suppression of all fundamental rights and civil liberties, and violent politics.

Having spent a good part of his life in Lithuania, he was exiled to the West in 1977 where he built his academic career, eventually becoming Professor of Slavic Literatures at Yale University. Far from a conservative nationalist, Venclova has always spoken out in favour of liberal values. This could be a clue to his deeply moving and sensitive essay on the tragedy of Lithuania, the Holocaust that claimed the lives of more than 220,000 Lithuanian Jews.

The essay in question, The Jews and the Lithuanians written in the 1970s, revealed Tomas Venclova as the first Lithuanian writer who showed the real scope of the tragedy admitting the guilt and responsibility of those Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis and actively participated in the massacre of Lithuanian Jews. Deeply embedded in the best intellectual traditions of Central and Eastern Europe, his collection of essays, Forms of Hope, reads like a moral map of a great European public intellectual and political thinker.

Not long ago, Venclova made a strong and effective comeback to the public domain of Lithuania publishing, in July 2010, an elegantly written and caustic essay It Suffocates Me Here. Wittily referring to the clash of the character Strepsiades, a staunch defender of the ancient Greek tradition, and its challenger Socrates, both depicted in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, Venclova described some of the ongoing political and moral debates in Lithuania as a backlash of parochialism and moral provincialism, and as a fear of modernity, applying harsh words and judging his country from a critical perspective.

Without the shadow of a doubt, the essay became a landmark in the area of public debate. Small wonder that a dozen angry and noisy reactions to Venclova’s essay appeared over the following two months, as this piece of polemical writing dealt a blow to conservative and nationalistic writers of the country. The bitter response would not be long, though.

Adding insult to injury, Venclova’s critics came to describe him as an arrogant and rootless cosmopolitan, whereas the opposing camp, the supporters of the aforementioned essay, implied that Venclova came up with a timely and principled call upon his country to take a close look at itself at the beginning of the 21st century to be able to rethink its past and present.

Moreover, much in the spirit of Julien Benda’s manifesto on the intellectual’s responsibility, La trahison des clercs (The Treason of Intellectuals), Venclova’s essay became an attack against those who regard the nation-state as the end in itself, and who see the paramount mission of the intellectual in the defence of that nation-state at any price against the supposed evils of modernity and globalisation. To his credit, Venclova was correct in raising this issue, as the Lithuanian media has been peppered over the past months with a number of sceptical comments on the loss of Lithuanian identity and even independence after the country’s accession to the EU.

More than that, some of the former political activists and heroes of Lithuania who fought for its independence in the national liberation movement Sąjūdis in the late 1980s, had gone so far as to suggest that the European Union is hardly any different from the Soviet Union, and that both these political formations were, and continue to be, the gravediggers of the European peoples and of their independence and liberty.

What can be said in this regard? No matter how critical or sceptical we could be of European bureaucracy or the new managerial class that ignore local sensibilities and cultural differences, such a comparison does not merit serious attention. Yet this new sort of rhetoric sent a clear message that part of the former political and intellectual elite of Lithuania found themselves deeply alienated from the new political reality of Europe.

In ancient Athens, writes Venclova, Socrates died for his freedom of thought, doubt, and the right to question everything around. As we learn from Socrates, uncertainty is not the enemy of a wise man, and an unexamined life is not worth living – these pieces of perennial wisdom became an inescapable part of critical European thought. For Strepsiades and his modern followers, everything has to be certain and easily predictable. Therefore, one’s little garden becomes more important than universal humanity.

Whatever the case, says Venclova, it is Strepsiades, rather than the greatest cultural hero of Western Europe and the patron saint of the art of dialogue Socrates, who is alive and well in present Lithuania. According to Venclova, to defend the pattern of identity and statehood of the 19th century, instead of modern moral and political sensibilities, is nothing other than a betrayal of the mission that intellectuals must carry.

The question remains quite timely and serious: what is the pattern of identity that Lithuania and the two other Baltic states could maintain as a bridge between their precious cultural legacy and the world? In fact, an identity crisis is part of the search for identity. The Baltic states that surfaced to the world restoring their existence and securing their place in the political, mental and intellectual maps of the world, know it better than any other country or region on the globe.

Whatever the case, dialogue – this happy combination of curiosity, courage and empathy – would be unthinkable nowadays without what Vytautas Kavolis, an émigré Lithuanian sociologist in the US, described as Miłosz-like pattern of identity – dedication to one’s language and culture combined with attentiveness and openness to other cultures and their sensitivities.

Without this remarkable ability to reconcile fact and value bridging sensibilities, languages and cultures, the art of difficult dialogue does not exist. 

Leonidas Donskis was a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board. He was also a member of the European Parliament from Lithuania. He was a philosopher, writer, political theorist, commentator and historian of ideas. His book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, co-written with Zygmunt Bauman, is available from Polity Press.



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