The Baltic Literary Region: Some remarks on the cultural identity of a European province

The vision of building up a ‘virtual Baltic Sea library,’ raises many questions. What kinds of texts are we to collect, and how are the limits of the collecting field to be defined? Is there a common thread linking literature and art around the Baltic Sea that could serve as a guideline? Is there something that might be called a Baltic cultural identity?

There are obvious objections that could be raised to such a claim. The Baltic region currently comprises nine different nation-states and many more ethnicities, which, in the course of their respective histories, have waged countless wars against one another, speak at least 12 languages from widely differing linguistic families and are divided between at least three Christian denominations with distinct traditions and catechisms.

The Mediterranean Sea and the region associated with it are certainly bigger than the Baltic and encompass even greater cultural differences and tensions. Nevertheless, we use the word "Mediterranean" without doubting that we know what it means. Indeed, the French historian Fernand Braudel devoted a three-volume work to charting the characteristics of this Mediterranean world.[1] In this context it is thus highly significant that in the German language, for example, there is no specific adjective that refers to the Baltic region. When we say “baltisch,” we are referring to a small, clearly defined part of the coast in the northeast of the ‘mare balticum’ (and strictly speaking, in the languages that have adopted this Latin term, ambiguity can only be avoided by including the noun, as in the English ‘Baltic Sea’ and the French ‘la mer baltique’). Moreover, a recent study aims to prove that even this specific, north-eastern part of the Baltic region is in fact not perceived as a whole in its prose literature, but rather presents itself as many disjointed spheres that know nothing of each other. The author thus argues that, from a literary viewpoint, this region is more of an ideological construct than a reality.[2]

What then do the Baltic peoples have in common? Their landscape? Or is there something in their history comparable with the profound influence of the Roman Empire, or that of Greek colonisation, the Arabic conquests and the Christian crusades? Should we look to the Vikings, the German Hansa or perhaps the role of Danish and Swedish hegemony? And what of the numerous, multi-language literatures generated around the Baltic Sea? Starting with Hilma Borelius (1931) there have been many attempts to consider at least the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Scandinavian’ bodies of literature as a whole. However, the resulting literary histories for the most part consider post-mediaeval developments in the individual countries separately or only manage to synchronize the three main Germanic-language literatures in the face of numerous scruples and a considerable degree of self-doubt.[3] Furthermore, even the limited commonality that is posited does not seem capable of integrating Finnish, Sami and Icelandic literature. And what is identified as incontestably common ground relating to participation in the Renaissance, the Baroque and classicism and the intellectual movements of the Enlightenment, romanticism, realism and modernism – all of this links the Baltic Sea peoples less with each other than with overall European development.

When it comes to defining a concept for a Baltic Sea library, it would thus seem to make little sense to filter out a representative canon from each body of national literature and merely juxtapose these bodies of literature with one another. The Baltic is not a landscape in the sense defined by Josef Nadler, namely the “seedbed and bearer of a very specific breed, from both of which, from blood and earth, the finest, the highest form of mind ascends like golden vapours.”[4] In the Baltic context we are confronted from the outset with a heterogeneity whose diversity stretches across space and time.

In the German context, distancing oneself from Nadler and his concept of a "literary history of German tribes and regions" remains one of the ritual yet necessary preliminaries to any attempt to rethink the relationships between space and literature. In the same way, German historians of the ‘spatial turn’ make a point of distancing themselves from the imperialistic spatial fantasies of geo-politicians, which were particularly inspired by the two world wars. This new spatial turn, the endeavour to elaborate a “topographical hermeneutics”, has found international resonance and become a focus of several historical disciplines. In particular, the historian of Eastern Europe, Karl Schlögel, has shown us how to take a more differentiated view of what, from a Western perspective, was formerly seen as the grey, uniform space behind the Iron Curtain.[5] And a new process of discovery has emerged in literary scholarship with regard to literary landscapes and provinces.

A “literary landscape” in the sense of a continually thematised and historically verifiable space is certainly not a timeless, natural phenomenon. For the most part, the emergence of such landscapes can be dated quite precisely. Thus the English Lake District did not exist in English literature prior to the emergence of the ‘Lake Poets,’ Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey; and Galicia did not exist as a literary landscape prior to the publication of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's successful novella, Don Juan von Kolomea, in 1866, which was followed by the Karl Emil Franzos' Galician Kulturbilder (Images of culture), published between 1876 and 1888, and the latter's wonderful posthumous novel, Der Pojaz, published in 1905.[6] Sacher-Masoch’s Galician novellas and Franzos’s images of culture from “Half-Asia” were already seen in their day as Austrian “Binnenexotik”[7] – or interior exoticism – and sowed the seeds for a string of successors that extends to Joseph Roth and Soma Morgenstern. They are all texts about a region of cultural non-simultaneity, which appealed to civilised societies in the West, and were written and printed in metropolises like Berlin. I suspect that this was also the case with Russian Cossack romanticism and Gogol’s Taras Bulba as well as Hermann Sudermann’s Lithuanian Stories (1917) and the books by the Skrowronnek brothers about their home region, Masuria.[8]

It seems to be the rule that cityscapes and landscapes first gain their profile from afar. Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks in Rome and Munich, Eduard von Kayserling wrote his Baltic novels in Munich and Uwe Johnson created his Mecklenburgian Jericho in New York. In itself the title of the four volumes making up Johnson's Jahrestage (Anniversaries)[9] points to the fact that the work is about remembered places and that the text is wholly structured through the work of memory, a memory that can be extremely painful and certainly does not ascend in any immediate sense “like golden vapours”. This memory work and the aesthetic transformation of the past would seem worth keeping in focus and investigating in terms of their function.

As already mentioned, literary landscapes are for the most part abandoned or lost landscapes. Thus, just as the bulk of the most colourful of the German-language Galician literature emerged once the country had been lost for Austria – after 1918 – so too was there a boom in German-Baltic and East Prussian literature after 1945. In this context it is often the case that compensation for the collective loss of a homeland is sought in collective nostalgia or a romanticizing ideology that tends to function as a form of national vindication. The aforementioned book on the north-eastern Baltic “narrative region” takes issue with such literature; the author, Armin von Ungern-Sternberg, a descendent of Baltic barons, directs a harsh critique at the ideological clichés and stereotypes characteristic of retrospective and often vindictive Heimatliteratur, the literature of "homeland." The historian Andreas Kossert also speaks of a “myth of East Prussia” and attempts to distinguish it from ‘true’ history.[10]

Of course the “battle for the Baltic Sea”[11] has also been waged by other abutting countries as an ideological dispute, and all the historical sciences and literary genres have been instrumentalized at some point in order to uphold or refute prevailing myths that at any one time could justify an older or better right of abode. This applies to the post-World War I era in particular, when many political borders were redrawn. Poland, which – as one scholar has pointed out[12] – had lived for centuries with its back to the Baltic Sea, now claimed that the Baltic Sea had found a place in the nation's cultural consciousness, and that only now was a Polish Baltic Sea literature emerging.

To be fair, it needs to be said that the German literature evoking the lost eastern territories is certainly not restricted to nostalgic Heimatliteratur. Uwe Johnson is only one author in a group that includes Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz; a wide-ranging arc reaches from Johannes Bobrowski to Fluchtfährte (Journeys of Escape) by his friend Manfred Peter Hein. And the newly published book by our chairman, Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke, can hardly be accused of any tendency towards national self-righteousness.[13]

The myth confronts us not only as an ideology serving political purposes. It confronts us above all in the art of symbolism seen in the great narrative works, which, rather than losing themselves in the specifics of a defined area, seek out the reflection of the universally human within a particular "homeland" context. As is generally known, Thomas Mann vehemently argued against Buddenbrooks being considered a Lübeck roman-à-clef.[14] And when he declared himself a citizen of Lübeck in a later celebratory speech before his fellow Lübeckers, it was in the sense of an urbanity pointing far beyond Lübeck itself.[15] For such a citizen and his dread of the elemental, the sea becomes the experience of the endless abyss that Thomas Mann portrayed in Buddenbrooks and which he himself compares to another experience in The Magic Mountain, where the young hero Hans Castorp loses himself in the snow of the Swiss mountains, a removal of all constraints that finally leads him back to himself and his own boundaries. And ultimately Mann himself makes us aware that the waters of the Baltic play the same metaphorical role for him as the waters of the Adriatic in Death in Venice.

In terms of his approach to the local, regional and particular, Thomas Mann had a number of notable forerunners, including the ‘realist’ Theodor Fontane. What reader of Effi Briest would recognize Fontane’s experiential substrate, the Pomeranian city of Swinemünde, in the small coastal city of Kessin? The fictive port city with the Slavic name Kessin is Fontane’s symbol for global connectedness, the invasion of the other, and also arguably of the uncanny and the foreign, which in the novel are sharply contrasted with the self-contained world of Pomeranian gentry and its pietistic bigotry. Such a transformation into the symbolic – and here we are confronted with an entire cosmos of symbols – elevates the specific place and its residents into an artistic world that is open to readings and interpretations in other times and places.

The transformation process may occasionally be painful, as is every uprooting. Thomas Mann speaks of the artist’s “painful maliciousness” and “recklessness”, both in relation to the coldness of observation as well as expression. “The apt expression always seems malicious.”[16] This is a statement that could be applied to every artistic endeavour – if, indeed, it is true. Detachment from reality is always part of the process. In this sense, Bertolt Brecht’s artistic technique of abstraction could certainly not be characterised as ‘symbolising.’ However, in a crucial sense, it is nevertheless comparable with it. When Brecht shifts his settings to America, Asia, the Caucuses or Denmark, Sweden or Finland, he is not interested in the “individual value” of these settings and circumstances, and therefore not in the particular or in exotic folklore, but rather in their “exemplary value”. We should be able to better recognize the familiar in the unfamiliar. How he transforms, for example, Hella Wuolijoki’s Tavastian comedy The Sawdust Princess into Master Puntila and His Man Matti is especially revealing. Hella Wuolijoki was appalled and bitterly disappointed when she received Brecht’s finished play. It was not only that her funny punch lines and lewdness were missing and that everything was “too epic to be dramatic;” her chief objection was that she no longer found the characters authentic: “Kalle is not a Finnish chauffer!”[17] Her assessment changed mysteriously when she began to translate Brecht’s work into Finnish; she now found that “the piece is very rich and Puntila has become a national character”.[18] When the leading Finnish critic, Olavi Paavolainen, told her that Puntila was “a classic Finnish comedy” and that he knew of “no other work, where so much is said about Finland so concisely”, she was more than satisfied. Brecht made reference to this assessment by saying: “I am now convinced that the Edda was written by a Jew and Jesaias by a Babylonian.”[19]

There is another important conclusion that we can draw from this statement. We should not only be looking for characteristic texts among the native-born and the indigenous! We also need to look among those who have left, among newcomers, and indeed among travellers in general! Brecht’s dual expropriation of Puntila shows us once again that the spirit of a place, the genius loci, originates not only in the “golden vapours” of the soil; it is also grasped by strangers and from a position of estrangement.

Hella Wuolijoki’s change of heart also teaches us something else: the symbol, the artistic abstraction, transcends the particular, but it does not extinguish it. It remains ‘aufgehoben’[20] in the dialectical sense of the word – an idea that is at the core of Goethe’s symbolism and his theory of the symbol. For this reason the Lübeck and Travemünde described by Thomas Mann in such rich detail, despite all their symbolism, are impossible to mistake for Venice or Davos. Alone the names of the Buddenbrooks, Krögers, Möllendorpfs, Strunck & Hagenströms, Kistenmakers and Döhlmanns provide an unmistakable local colour, heightened by the sound and melody of their language, which repeatedly dips into Low German. And when Tony Buddenbrook strolls with the son of the nautical pilot commander, Morten Schwartzkopf, along the Travemünde shore, “where small, common white shells lie scattered […], between yellow-green, wet seaweed with round, hollow fruits that pop when you crush them; […] the rhythmic crashing of the elongated waves next to you, the fresh, salty wind in your face” – the writing encompasses so much of the specificity of the genius loci that we can almost smell and taste and feel it, and our own memories of the Baltic seashore are awakened. Such a sensuously rich memory can give rise to homesickness, for example, the “homesickness for the taste of the bread in České Budějovice” that Uwe Johnson’s Gesine Cresspahl feels in faraway New York, unemotional, but all the more realistic for it.

The question posed at the outset as to whether there is a common cultural identity shared by the peoples of the Baltic region is not one I can answer. What we can observe is that almost everywhere around the Baltic Sea figures from the Nordic world of arts and letters, philosophers and scholars of all kinds, architects, painters and poets, have repeatedly had their finger on the pulse of their time, and that they have not only taken from Europe but also given something to it. There are grounds for hoping that we can find in our common European heritage a kind of "shared particularity" of the Baltic Sea peoples, as seen in the Brick Gothic style as a particular response to European Gothic architecture and Scandinavian Romanticism as a form that differentiated itself from French Romanticism. As yet we do not have an overall picture of this particularity, this ownness; we have to seek it out in the perceptions of writers, in secondary perceptions and candid interpretation.

We do not need to invent the Baltic Sea; it is there in plain view. However, in a larger sense we are required to constitute ourselves as researchers and inventors of the Baltic Sea, of a large European province with several metropolises, and seek its particularities without losing sight of its general, its European aspect. It is in this sense that Fernand Braudel ‘invented’ his Mediterranean, by narrating it; and it is only through the process of reading that his 'image' emerges. And when reading we should not forget that our sea is much younger and that we are still only beginning.

[1] Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, (Paris, 1949, 41979),  German translation by G. Seib, Das Mittelmeer und die mediterrane Welt in der Epoche Philipps II., (Frankfurt am Main, 1990, 1994); see also Fernand Braudel, Georges Duby, Maurice Aymard, La Méditerranée. L’espace et l’histoire, Les hommes et l’héritage, (Paris, 1985),  German translation by M. Jakob, Die Welt des Mittelmeeres. Zur Geschichte und Geographie kultureller Lebensformen, (Frankfurt am Main, 1990).

[2] Armin v. Ungern-Sternberg, "Erzählregionen". Überlegungen zu literarischen Räumen mit Blick auf die deutsche Literatur des Baltikums, das Baltikum und die deutsche Literatur, (Bielefeld, 2003).

[3] Hilma Borelius, Die nordischen Literaturen (Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft), (Potsdam, 1931); Mogens Brøndsted (ed.), Nordens litteratur, (Copenhagen, Oslo, Lund  1972), German translation by H.-K. Müller, Nordische Literaturgeschichte, (Munich, 1982-1984); Fritz Paul (ed.), Grundzüge der neueren skandinavischen Literaturen, (Darmstadt, 1982); Jürg Glauser (ed.). Skandinavische Literaturgeschichte, (Stuttgart, Weimar, 2006).

[4] Josef Nadler, Literaturgeschichte der deutschen Stämme und Landschaften, Vol. 1, (Regensburg, 1912), p. VII: "Nährboden [und] Trägerin eines ganz bestimmten Menschenschlags, von der aus beiden, aus Blut und Erde, das Feinste, das Geistigste wie in goldenen Dämpfen aufsteigt."

[5] Karl Schlögel, Go East oder: Die zweite Entdeckung des Ostens, (Berlin, 1995); Karl Schlögel, Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit. Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik, (Munich, Vienna, 2003, Frankfurt am Main, 2006) (p. 39: "topographische Hermeneutik" [Nikolaus Sombart])

[6] Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Don Juan von Kolomea. Galizische Geschichten, edited and afterword by Michael Farin, (Bonn, 1985); Karl Emil Franzos, Vom Don zur Donau. Ausgewählte Kulturbilder, (Berlin (East) 1970); Karl Emil Franzos, Der Pojaz. Eine Geschichte aus dem Osten. With an afterword by Jost Hermand, (Hamburg, 1994, 62002).

[7] The expression was coined by Norbert Mecklenburg, Erzählte Provinz. Regionalismus und Moderne, (Königstein/Taunus 1982, 21986), here p.14  (et passim)

[8] Hermann Sudermann, Die Reise nach Tilsit und andere Litauische Geschichten, (Munich, 1989); on the  Skowronneks see Helmut Motekat, Ostpreußische Literaturgeschichte mit Danzig und Westpreußen, (Munich, 1977), p. 370-372, and above all, Miroslaw Ossowski, 'Masuren in der deutschen Literatur nach 1945'in Regina Hartmann (ed.), Literaturen des Ostseeraums in interkulturellen Prozessen. Deutsch-polnisch-skandinavische Konferenz Külz/Kulice vom 7. – 10. Oktober 2004, (Bielefeld, 2005), p. 123-143, here p. 126-129

[9] Uwe Johnson, Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl, 4 volumes, (Frankfurt am Main, 1970-1983).

[10] Andreas Kossert, Ostpreußen. Geschichte und Mythos, (Munich, 2005).

[11] Wacław Sobieski, Der Kampf um die Ostsee. Von den ältsten Zeiten bis zur Gegenwart, (Leipzig, 1933).

[12] Hans-Christian Trepte, 'Regionale kulturelle Identität im "Europa der Regionen" – die Ostsee im polnischen Kulturbewußtsein', in Regina Hartmann (ed.), Literaturen des Ostseeraums in interkulturellen Prozessen. Deutsch-polnisch-skandinavische Konferenz Külz/Kulice vom 7. – 10. Oktober 2004, (Bielefeld, 2005), p.25-43, here p.36 f.

[13] Manfred Peter Hein, Fluchtfährte. Erzählung, With a commentary by Andreas F. Kelletat, (Regensburg, 1998, Zurich, 1999); see also Andreas F. Kelletat. Stichwörter. Aus einem Zettelkasten zu Manfred Peter Heins Prosabuch Fluchtfährte, (Regensburg, 2003) and Jürgen Joachimsthaler, '"Fluchtfährte" zwischen den Kulturen. Zu Manfred Peter Hein' in Regina Hartmann (ed.),. Literaturen des Ostseeraums, p.45-66; Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke, Die versunkene Welt. Ein ostpreußisches Dorf in Erzählungen der Leute, (Frankfurt/Main, 2008).

[14] Thomas Mann, Bilse und ich (1906)

[15] Thomas Mann, Lübeck als geistige Lebensform (1926)

[16] Thomas Mann, Bilse und ich: "Der treffende Ausdruck wirkt immer gehässig."

[17] Bertolt Brecht, Journale 24.9. 1940, GBA vol. 26

[18] Ibid. 3. 10. 1940

[19] Ibid.  28. 10. 1940

[20] The German "aufgehoben" means both preserved as well as cancelled out, anulled.