The Treason of Intellectuals? Or an Identity Crisis?

September 15, 2010

By Leonidas Donskis
Tomas 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 Literature at Yale University. Far from a conservative nationalist, Venclova has always spoken out in favor 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 Eastern and Central Europe, his collection of essays, Forms of Hope, reads like a moral map of a great European public intellectual and political thinker.

Venclova recently 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 a 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 past 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 twenty-first 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 as the defense of that nation-state at any price against the supposed evils of modernity and globalization. To his credit, Venclova was correct in raising this issue, as the Lithuanian media was peppered over the past months with a number of skeptical 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 Sajudis 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 skeptical 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, Socrates, who is alive and well in present Lithuania. According to him, to defend the pattern of identity and statehood of the nineteenth 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.  

Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.    

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