Ales Debeljak. The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. xiii + 123 pp. $77.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-1779-0; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-1780-6.
Reviewed by Patrice M. Dabrowski (Center for European Studies, Harvard University)
Published on H-Nationalism (May, 2007)
A Poet's Plea for the Value of Europe's (Smaller) Nations
This collection of four loosely connected, personal, yet theoretically informed essays has much to say to the reader who wishes to consider the dilemma of the individual in an increasingly globalized world. Its author, Ales Debeljak, is a Slovene poet and public intellectual. In the best tradition of such public intellectuals in what used to be the Eastern Bloc, he takes on big issues: here, ultimately, the building blocks of European identity. In Debeljak's own words, "Defying both the rigidity of nationalist exclusivism and the blithe nonsense of 'global citizenship,' I have attempted to trace the concentric circles of identity that emanate from images of the self embedded in communal experience and ripple through the currents of national, regional, European, and Atlantic cultures" (p. ix). This reader would contend that this ambitious effort could nonetheless have been argued in a more straightforward fashion. Nonetheless, that is not Debeljak's style here. The author has reworked a collection of three essays originally published in Slovenian, to which a fourth chapter dealing with the challenges of the expanded Europe has been added. He himself admits the work is a hybrid, "neither fully a work of academic scholarship nor fully a work of creative nonfiction, though it makes use of theoretical concepts and is not averse to the poetic impulse behind the personal anecdote" (p. xii-xiii). Those up to the challenge presented by such a work, and not averse to learning more about Slovene literature in particular, should read on.
Indeed, Debeljak underscores his own experience as he takes on these issues. He clearly has various identities, the most prominent of which is Slovene. But he is a Slovene who capably functions in an English-language environment as well, having spent time in the United States (this is clear from chapter 2, "Slovenia's Absence on the American Cultural Map"). He has an American wife and several children being brought up in a bilingual and bicultural household in the capital of Slovenia, where Debeljak is the director of the Center for Cultural and Religious Studies at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Ljubljana. Debeljak is also a poet, and as such has a particular feel for the importance of one's native tongue. Also worthy of note is the experience of the author as a Slovene in Tito's multiethnic Yugoslavia. Debeljak is, thus, "primed to understand the relationship of local and national identities" and all too cognizant of having a "layered identity": Slovene, Yugoslav, Central European, European (p. x).
Chapter 1, "National Identity and Citizenship under the Yoke of Globalization," appears to be a not-so-hidden warning to Slovenes (and, by extension, the other smaller peoples of Europe) not to devalue their own native language and culture now that they are part of a greater Europe. Debeljak admits--in a nice turn of phrase (and there are lots of nice turns of phrase, some of which demonstrate the breadth of the author's knowledge)--that the Slovenes "hopped on the last car of the last train of nationalism as a legitimate movement toward national statehood" (p. 4-5). He raises the issues of patriotism/nationalism, if not to this reader's satisfaction (merely distinguishing between "intelligent patriotism" and "crude nationalism" [p. 6]). Of greater interest is his definition of a "true cosmopolitan" as "one who can confidently move about the world without forgetting his or her national origins and ethnic background" (p. 15). This seems in a way to be a jab at those Slovenian politicians who, feeling themselves poorer cousins within the expanded Europe (although they once felt relatively advanced within the former Yugoslavia), have advocated the adoption of English as "the way to become 'closer to Europe'" (p. 11). Debeljak is not a starry-eyed, "return to Europe" public intellectual of the East: he has reservations about the European Union, some of which are voiced in this chapter but given greater coverage in chapter 4.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for students of nationalism is chapter 4, "Europe without Europeans," the chapter written expressly for this volume. Here Debeljak faults the European Union with many things, including not coming to the rescue of those trapped within the hell that was the Balkan Wars; he terms this Western Europe's "missed opportunity" to liberate itself from the legacy of the Cold War (p. 100). He still sees a split between West and East, with Western Europe treating the East like poorer cousins. To remedy this split, Debeljak cries out for a "common template for an inclusive European identity that will have wide public appeal" (p. 101). In other words, there needs to be a hidden--or not so hidden?--handshake of solidarity between the peoples of Europe (this phrase, "hidden handshake," gets mentioned elsewhere in the book but is never satisfactorily parsed). What the author also advocates is that the children of Europe be taught about the world "from part to whole"--a concept Debeljak borrows (with attribution) from Sissela Bok--that is, starting from the local and familiar, while also being given a general sense of the larger framework. He, after Bok, argues that it will make it easier for them to "shift back and forth between concentric circles of identification" (p. 107).
The two middle chapters are rich in references to Slovenian literature and--in chapter 2--its absence on American bookshelves. (Debeljak, incidentally, was the one to remedy this by publishing a collection of Slovene poetry in translation.) Chapter 3, "The Cosmopolitan Spirit under Siege," seems mainly to criticize modern Slovenian writers for not engaging "with the political and moral aspects of the collective life--for the simple reason that such involvement had been a routine part of the writer's job description before independence" (p. 62). One assumes that they are artists for art's sake, not for the nation's sake--this when Debeljak claims they, under post-communism, could write something truly significant. Less clear are his comments regarding Slovene postmodernism. Likewise the very concept of the "cosmopolitan spirit" seems to be underdeveloped.
In sum, the book is full of interesting insights into the human condition of multiple identities, if often they come in discrete doses rather than well-developed arguments. One wishes that, given Debeljak's inclination to personalize his stories (least felt in the final chapter), he might have addressed his own family's bicultural predicament. That is, how do his children see themselves: as cosmopolitans or as grounded in a certain nation? That in itself might be fodder for further essays by this Slovene poet and thinker.
. Sissela Bok, "From Part to Whole," in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 38-44. Bok finishes her essay with the following conclusion, which seems to be shared by Debeljak: "Without learning to understand the uniqueness of cultures, beginning with one's own, it may well be impossible to honor both human distinctiveness and the shared humanity central to the cosmopolitan ideal."
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Patrice M. Dabrowski. Review of Debeljak, Ales, The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World.
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