Reviews A decolonial view of Baltic Drama. Countering postcolonial narratives
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, 83-86
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 25, 2016
The Latvian theater critic and theorist Benedikts Kalnačs’s recent monograph is a bold attempt at reading the history of modern and contemporary Baltic drama through the postcolonial lens. To most readers, a postcolonial interpretation of Baltic drama would seem unusual, as postcolonial studies have focused on the global South and seldom regarded semi-peripheral Europe as a possible focus for research. Intersections of postsocialism and postcolonialism, and issues of internal European colonization and otherness, have remained marginal. Yet intersections of postcolonial and post-Soviet sensibilities must be taken into account in any effort to further develop the postcolonial critique on a more global scale.
Not surprisingly, Baltic academics have already started to successfully apply postcolonial theory. Among such efforts, Violeta Kelertas’s edited volume Baltic Postcolonialism (2006) stands out, as do several special issues of established scholarly journals, the most recent being the Journal of Baltic Studies 47, no. 1 (2016). The decolonial option, originating in Latin-American subaltern studies and later evolving into a much more epistemologically and politically radical and global discourse on the critique of Western modernity/coloniality, has so far remained marginal in Baltic academia. This is not surprising, as decolonial thought is dissonant with the predominant post-Soviet Baltic angst of returning to the European bosom in order to finally merge with it as equal and not a second-class Europeans. In this respect Kalnačs’s work is the first and so far the only one in which the author creatively transforms the main premises of decolonial thought, analyzing the Baltic dramaturgical and wider cultural and historical material of the last century.
This book is particularly important for those who share both the postcolonial and the post-Soviet predicament, and are attracted by the decolonial existential, ethical, and political stance. Kalnačs manages to balance between pure and abstract theorizing and a meticulous, detailed reading of Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian drama which could otherwise easily risk becoming a traditional literary historical survey. As a result, readers get a fair glimpse of the enormous, diverse world of Baltic theater, previously almost unknown internationally. Even more importantly, they get a good idea of the evolution of the contradictory and changeable Baltic identity against the historical calamities of the 20th century. Not only does Kalnačs provide us with a broad picture of contemporary Baltic drama; he also offers an original analysis of more historically distant plays that differ considerably from the representations of Baltic arts that were typical for Soviet period. The Baltic difference from the rest of the Sovietized cultures was most graphically expressed precisely in theater and cinema. Kalnačs confirms this with his analysis of the hidden forms of resistance and subversion and other typically postcolonial tools, which in the Baltic case were also anti-totalitarian.
He strives to juxtapose and take into account the two main narratives of Eastern European historical and contemporary self-reflection, which seldom if ever hear each other: the fixation on the consequences of Soviet colonial politics and the postsocialist states’ discontent with finding themselves on the darker side of global coloniality today — in a sense, as objects of the global North’s neocolonial policies. Decolonial thought allows the author to make sense of these two narratives together as different manifestations of global modernity/coloniality.
The book attempts to draw the Baltic littoral into the larger picture of global coloniality instead of the habitual concentration on Soviet colonialism and its aftermath or even the unfortunate Eastern European predicament. The author reflects on the complexity and insecure Europeanism of the Baltic social and cultural profile, marked by a constant wavering at the crossroads of imperial domination by Russia and by the German-speaking nations in the West. At the same time, the colonial periphery is a looming third reference point in the awkward positioning of sovietized Eastern Europeans, from which they try to distance themselves despite subconscious feelings of affinity with their historical destinies. It is symptomatic that, after the immediate threat of the Soviet occupation is over, Kalnacš finds it important to critically revisit the neglected older historical landmarks of internal European otherness and to reflect on the contradictory European influence on the Baltic peoples that often lead to dependencies and insecurity in contemporary relations with the EU. He shows that Europeanization has become a double-edged weapon in the Baltic littoral which could and still can act as a form of voluntary self-colonization.
The program of Baltic decolonization drafted by Kalnačs aptly incorporates and creatively reworks both postcolonial and decolonial discourses and the Easterneuropean postsocialist narrative. Demonstrating the independent thinking and self-critical positionality of someone no longer happy merely to be accepted into Europe, but rather problematizing the boundaries and penetrability of the European identity as such, the scholar points out: “The Baltic peoples link future prospects to the recognition of their colonial difference as a necessary step in the more global process of decolonization. Careful discussion of their historical and present experience is vital for Baltic societies in order to get out of the shadow of internal otherness and enter into a dialogue with the European community, itself on its way toward refiguring the European consciousness of the 21st century, on equal terms” (35).
Although the plays analyzed in this work may not be familiar to a general audience, the book is engaging and structurally and logically accessible. The author offers a simple yet persuasive model of the historical development of the main dimensions of Baltic drama, corresponding to the evolvement of decolonial sensibility and agency in the Baltic littoral, closely linked to the construction of national identity. Kalnačs singles out six facets of this process which chronologically follow one another and correspond to the German/Czarist and Soviet/post-Soviet global dominations. They include national, philosophical, historical, contemporary, absurd, and postcolonial aspects; the book’s six chapters are grouped around these facets.
Particularly interesting to a wider readership is the book’s rigorous theoretical introduction which can easily be read as an independent text in which the author presents his main decolonial hypothesis with respect to Baltic cultures. He turns to postcolonial and decolonial methodologies, not for the sake of looking for mere similarities with countries of the global South, but rather to perceive the complexity of the difference-in-similarity, the dynamic commensurability of dissimilar local histories which nevertheless “point to the shared colonial difference” (33) and allow the Baltic cultures be written into the global modern/colonial discourses.
Kalnačs starts with, then departs from, the main decolonial premise that the 16th century was the beginning of the colonial matrix of power as it combined early mercantile capitalist development with the Christianization of the New World and the invention of race. The Latvian scholar attempts to rewrite this decolonial master narrative by moving its origins back to the 12th—13th century conquest of the Baltic littoral by the Teutonic knights and the subsequent turning of the Baltic lands into a German settler colony. He sees this local history as a training ground and a rehearsal for future global conquests and the emergence of the coloniality of power, claiming that the Teutonic conquest manifested such elements of future global coloniality as forced Christianization, the annihilation or assimilation of whole ethnicities such as the old Prussians, the settler colonial power hierarchies, the economic exploitation and dehumanization of people through serfdom (an analogue of slavery), and the erasing or devaluation of local cultures, languages, and knowledges.
Classical decolonial thought would disagree with this revision and claim that two important elements of the colonial matrix of power were missing in the Baltic conquest as described by Kalnačs those of capitalism and race. And in the beginning it probably was so. Yet Baltic coloniality has been dynamically changing since then, together with modifications of global coloniality as it acquired elements of various Western imperial experiences, economic models, and anthropological and political discourses. One of the strengths of Kalnačs’s book is precisely this dynamic and historically changeable picture that he tries to recreate. It refers, for example, to the ways in which ethnicity and class (acting similarly to race in the New World) intersected in discrimination against the Baltic indigenous populations by the German settler colonists, later resulting in a typically colonial image of Estonians and Latvians as the milder, European versions of the “noble savages” — the eternal peasant communities overlooked by of modernity and in need of German-style economic modernization. Yet the notorious catching-up discourse grounded in the unbridgeable gap between the metropolis and the colony has been meticulously kept intact until now. Kalnačs expresses this in the following words: the “Baltic peoples are not full members of the European narrative of modernity, but rather belong to its darker side” (216). This predictably leads to mimicry and double consciousness, linked with a chronic lack of options, as the Baltic nations are used to survival mode and maneuvering between stronger and bigger neighbors.
Kalnačs shares the decolonial view that, no matter what ideological forms coloniality might have taken, global coloniality’s logic of mimicry has remained intact. Yet the scholar is aware of the non-synchronicity in the way this coloniality has evolved. This is expressed in the asymmetrical waves of his historical timeline, which stress different speeds and directions of the processes of colonization, decolonization, and recolonization in different parts of the world and, consequently, disconnections in the ways they are conceptualized.
The book’s six chapters present a thorough analysis of several important plays written by key 20th century Baltic playwrights such as Rūdolfs Blaumanis, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Rainis, Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, Juozas Grušas, Jaan Kruusvall, and others. Kalnačs looks at these texts from decolonial, postcolonial, and at times new historicist and anthropological angles, as he realizes that Baltic drama should be evaluated within its particular complex social and political context of cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual colonization and also with regard to various anticolonial impulses it triggers in multiple hidden subtexts. According to Kalnačs , decolonial impulses in Baltic drama include the predictable national local color stage, which later gives way to allusions to and appropriation of classical European texts such as the Bible with which local colonial history is correlated through appeals to universal human values, yet always with a sense of subaltern difference. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty and Eward Said, the Latvian scholar calls this anticolonial allegorism a “charting of cultural territory preceding the recovery of geographical” space (99).
Specific attention is paid to the historical dimension of Baltic drama. The author analyzes the ways dual consciousness, mimicry, and eternal lack of choices were represented allegorically in critical Baltic rewritings of medieval imperial and colonial historical narratives. With the shift to Soviet dominance, this fictional historical allegorism became one of the very few possible ways of expressing indirect resistance. Kalnačs shows that what historians could not say was told by poets and playwrights. The scholar stresses the cathartic effect of theaters acting as replacements for lecture halls as the plays often appealed directly to people’s emotions and sensibilities, launching a painful process of existential liberation.
An important part of Kalnačs’s book addresses the dissolution of the “glorious narrative of victory in World War II” (124) as the central Russian/Soviet historical narrative, which still prevents the Baltic countries and Russia from having a meaningful dialogue. Kalnačs sees the Soviet interpretation of the Great Patriotic War as a stable and monolithic glorification. In reality, the myth of the war was a rather late creation of Soviet ideologues, a result of the failure of all previous propagandistic clichés and the harsh realization that communism was never going to arrive, and the general shift from the model of a future-bound society to that of one looking back to the presumably heroic past. The Great Patriotic War became the new societal glue for late Soviet culture. A nonconventional view of the war was harshly persecuted, not only in the cases of Soviet colonial cultures for which both the Nazis and the Soviets were equally dangerous and alien, but also in the works of the Russian Soviet writers who took part in this war themselves and later attempted to tell its contradictory story. Yet Kalnačs’s attempt to look at the period of Soviet occupation through the prism of coloniality of perception, memory, thinking, is quite persuasive, in contrast to both Russian imperial positions which deny Soviet colonialism altogether, and some naïve Western left and postcolonial views, which tend to idealize the presumed internationalism of Soviet policies.
One of the central ideas of Kalnačs’s book is the subversion from within of socialist realism and of, the broader Soviet literary canon by many playwrights who pretended to be loyal to the Soviet system. Their grotesque and ironic play on socialist realism is seen as a form of anticolonial resistance. It was expressed both in the use of national folklore and in a turning to the European modernist and postmodernist experiments, such as the theater of the absurd. This tool is similar to postcolonial canonical counter-discourse. Kalnačs does not mention this key postcolonial term but offers a detailed analysis of several plays written according to this principle, such as Māra Zālīte’s Margarēta, a rewriting of Goethe’s Faust. The author repeatedly claims that the audiences was not ready to accept such theatrical experiments, as their perception was colonized by the socialist realist canon, even though this audience was partial to anti-colonial and anti-Soviet resistance. One could object that the sad penchant for verisimilitude is not an exclusively Soviet feature, and the middle-brow Western audience would also prefer some version of “Bürgerliches Trauerspiel” to any Beckett play.
Addressing the Soviet and post-Soviet period of Baltic drama, Kalnačs refers to Katerina Clark’s book The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (2000), which is at times discordant with his decolonial interpretations. Clark opposes the Western novel to the Soviet one whereas in a decolonial reading, both are manifestations of modernity — one socialist, the other capitalist — but share the main modern/colonial premises. Russian, and later Soviet, literature were always marked by imperial difference and mimicry of the original Western European tradition. Presumed faults of the Soviet novel, such as deliberate myth-making or its specific package of rules to follow, are in fact integral elements of fiction as such, characteristic of any literary convention. The ideological husk of socialist realism can be easily discarded to reveal the same recognizable patterns, archetypes, and plots which we find in what is known as Western literature. A number of theorists even questioned the existence of socialist realism as a distinct literary tradition, claiming that the classical socialist realist works were often late romantic narratives rather than specifically socialist texts. Kalnačs briefly addresses this issue to explain what exactly binds all Soviet fictional works together, apart from purely external circumstances, but unfortunately he remains within the Baltic context, which is hardly enough for such broad phenomena as the mythic socialist realism.
Moreover, even restricted by the Iron Curtain, Soviet literature remained a part of global literary processes and environment and featured its own distorted versions of the main aesthetic and philosophical trends which were to be found in Europe or overseas. And if, in the Baltic case, these tendencies, as Kalnačs claims, were a form of anticolonial resistance, in the Russian Soviet literature socialist realism was equally subverted from within through various antimainstream means, such as existentialism, the mock-documentary war prose, the so-called countryside fiction with a strong anti-progressivist and ecological element, the ethnic renaissances in many national republics. These phenomena remain outside Kalnačs’s interest. Yet sometimes he involuntarily creates an impression that, while Baltic authors were practicing their resistance, the rest of Soviet literature froze at some early Stalinist level of dogmatic socialist realist aesthetics. A more dynamic way of analyzing Baltic drama in various wider contexts, both Soviet and Western, Russian and colonial, would be favorable for this otherwise great work, as it would help us see the uniqueness of the Baltic tendencies, and at the same time, be aware of their affinity with other models. One of the most interesting examples of such exclusively Baltic decolonizing techniques analyzed by Kalnačs is the creolized mimetic form of playful resistance through singing, which eventually resulted in the famous singing revolution. The ludic mixture of the absurdist and the folkloric then becomes a uniquely Baltic dramaturgical form of political and mental resistance.
In the end, Kalnačs comes back to the painful issue of rethinking European identity that was previously seen almost exclusively as postimperial, while the possibility of postcolonial Europe was often ignored. His pioneering attempt to look at Baltic drama and identity through the coloniality of power as a global phenomenon is therefore all the more important. This book is important for postcolonial and decolonial thinkers, as it offers a considerable correction to some of their assumptions, thus problematizing the possible neo-universalism of these theories and showing that each local history generates its own concepts and logic, even if it shares the predicament of global coloniality. Benedikts Kalnačs’s monograph is one of the first groundbreaking steps in the long process of Baltic epistemic, cultural, and aesthetic decolonization, which will hopefully be followed by others in the near future. ≈