The Poets and the Eclipse

Intellectuals and War in the Balkans

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: August 14, 1999

Poets in Somalia hold an inordinate sway over the indigenous population. They sing the praises of war with the same alacrity and vehemence that they invest in glorifying peace. And the population listens and follows these dark skinned pied pipers. Lately, they have been extolling peace and peace prevails in Somaliland and the other state-like enclaves in this tortured shadow of a country.

In the evening we celebrate a birthday party under deciduous trees, in floodlit darkness, somewhere in the Balkans. The voices of industrious crickets, of late chirping birds, of the cesma - the fabled Balkan water fountain - all intermingle to produce an auditory magic. A famous satirist and poet catapults slurred, vitriolic diatribes at a guest from the West that I brought with me. His words ring inebriatedly authentic. He need not learn the language, he exclaims, of people without a spirit and without a mind. He is referring to English. His country - he triumphantly shrills - is the best, an island of civilization among the barbarians at the gates. He enumerates his neighbours and proceeds to describe in vivid, gut wrenching detail what he would do to them all, given the opportunity. "The rotten core of our national apple" - a melancholy contribution from a professor of psychiatry.

Another day. As the moon bit into the otherwise scorching sun - the streets emptied. Shops closed, the traffic halted, workers remained cooped up in steamy offices. Why all this - I asked my friend. He is a leading journalist, an author, an editor and a media personality. He looked at me warily and proceeded to expound upon the health risks entailed in being exposed to the eclipse. He was serious as was evidenced by his subsequent descent into his basement and by the resounding bolting of the anti-nuclear double plated armoured door. He offered me to join him and was appalled to hear that I had every intention of watching the eclipse - and from the street.

The intellectuals of the Balkans - a curse, not in disguise. a nefarious presence, ominous, erratic and corrupt. Sometimes, at the nucleus of all conflict and mayhem - at other times (of ethnic cleansing or suppression of the media) conspicuously absent. Zeligs of umpteen disguises and ever-changing, shimmering loyalties.

They exert no moderating, countervailing influence - on the contrary, they radicalize, dramatize, poison and incite. Intellectuals are prominent among all the nationalist parties in the Balkans - and rare among the scant centre parties that have recently sprung out of the ashes of communism.

They do not disseminate the little, outdated knowledge that they do possess. Rather they keep it as a guild would, unto themselves, jealously. In the vanity typical of the insecure, they abnegate all foreign knowledge. They rarely know a second language sufficiently to read it. They promote their brand of degreed ignorance with religious zeal and punish all transgressors with fierceness and ruthlessness. They are the main barriers to technology transfers and knowledge enhancement in this wretched region. Their instincts of self preservation go against the best interests of their people. Unable to educate and teach - they prostitute their services, selling degrees or corrupting themselves in politics. They make up a big part of the post communist nomenclature as they have a big part of the communist one. The result is economics students who never heard of Milton Friedman or Kenneth Arrow and students of medicine who offer sex or money or both to their professors in order to graduate.

Thus, instead of advocating and promoting freedom and liberalization - they concentrate on the mechanisms of control, on manipulating the worn levers of power. They are the dishonest brokers of corrupted politicians and their businessmen cronies. They are heavily involved - oft times the initiators - of suppression and repression, especially of the mind and of the spirit. The black crows of nationalism perched upon their beleaguered ivory towers.

They could have chosen differently. In 1989, the Balkans had a chance the likes of which it never had before. In Yugoslavia, the government of the reformist (though half hearted) Ante Markovic. Elsewhere, Communism was gasping for a last breath and the slaughter of the beast was at hand. The intellectuals of Central Europe, of the Baltic States - even of Russia - chose to interpret these events to their people, to encourage freedom and growth, to posit goals and to motivate. The intellectuals of the Balkans failed miserably. Terrified by the sights and sounds of their threatened territory - they succumbed to obscurantism, resorted to the nostalgic, the abstract and the fantastic, rather than to the pragmatic. This choice is evident even in their speech. Marred by centuries of cruel outside domination - it is all but meaningless. No one can understand what a Balkanian has to say. Both syntax and grammar are tortured into incomprehensibility. Evasion dominates, a profusion of obscuring verbal veils, twists and turns hiding a vacuous deposition.

The Balkan intellectuals chose narcissistic self absorption and navel gazing over "other-orientation". Instead of seeking integration (as distinct from assimilation) - they preach and practice isolation. They aim to differentiate themselves not in a pluralistic, benign manner - but in vicious, raging defiance of "mondialism" (a Serbian propaganda term). To define themselves AGAINST all others - rather than to compare and learn from the comparison. Their love affair with a (mostly concocted) past, their future-phobia, the ensuing culture shock - all follow naturally from the premises of their disconsolate uniqueness. Balkan intellectuals are all paranoids. Scratch the surface, the thin, bow tied, veneer of "kultur" - and you will find an atavistic poet, fighting against the very evil wrought by him and by his actions. This is the Greek tragedy of this breathtaking region. Nature here is cleverer than humans. It is exactly their conspiracies that bring about the very things they have to conspire against in the first place.

All over the world, intellectuals are the vanguard, the fifth column of new ideas, the resistance movement against the occupation of the old and the banal. Here intellectuals preach conformity, doing things the old, proven way, protectionism against the trade of liberal minds. All intellectuals here - fed by the long arm of the state - are collaborators. True, all hideous regimes had their figleaf intellectuals and with a few exceptions, the regimes in the Balkans are not hideous. But the principle is the same, only the price varies. Prostituting their unique position in semi-literate, village-tribal societies - intellectuals in the Balkans sold out en masse. They are the inertial power - rather than the counterfist of reform. They are involved in politics of the wrong and doomed kind. The Balkan would have been better off had they decided to remain aloof, detached in their archipelago of universities.

There is no real fire in Balkan intellectuals. Oh, they get excited and they shout and blush and wave their hands ever so vigorously. But they are empty. It is full gas in neutral. They get nowhere because they are going nowhere. They are rational and conservative and some are emotional and "leftist". But it is all listless and lifeless, like the paces of a very old mechanism, set in motion 80 years ago and never unwound.

All that day of the eclipse of the last millennium, even the intellectuals stayed in their cellars and in their offices and did not dare venture out. They emerged when night fell, accustomed to the darkness, unable to confront their own eclipse, hiding from the evil influence of a re-emerging sun.

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