Ansicht Villa Vigoni

Olivia Bergdahl’s Writing of “Europe”

Europe in Law and Literature: Vigoni Conversations Continued

Nicola Kramp-Seidel & Laura Zander

After a year and a half of social distancing, could there have been any better way to resume conversations on law and literature than our Vigoni symposium? While, in principle, there has never been any doubt about the superiority of face-to-face exchange over digital formats, that seemed to be even more the case with debates taking place under Vigoni’s scenic colonnade and with marvellous views of the Lago Di Como – an inspiring atmosphere indeed.

A small group of our SFB scholars from various subdisciplines such as legal studies, Slavistics, Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies and English Studies came together with some invited guests from the various fields to discuss Law and Literature in Europe. The program alternated between keynote lectures on European Literature, Comparative Law and Human Rights Discourse as well as panel discussions on Europe from the different subdisciplines, from a global perspective and as it is represented in various German and English legal and literary texts. The open format of the symposium also made it possible to link to the Conference on the Future of Europe, allowing participants worldwide to listen to the input statements and contribute to the panel discussions on human rights and some major challenges in this field in Europe, such as the (Dis)Integration of Europe, Migration or Informational Self-Determination.

The intimate character of the Vigoni venue made sure that fruitful debates were not limited to the conference program, but could be carried on in a more informal setting. We are keen to replicate this conversational nature for our upcoming Vigoni Volume on “Law and Literature in Europe”. We cordially invite experts from various fields to contribute to this interdisciplinary study. Whether a short input statement, a conversazioni format constituted as statement and reply or a regular essay, we want to bring together various disciplines and perspectives on Europe as well as discuss Europe’s representation in legal and literary texts. To provide a flashback of our conversazioni at Vigoni as well as offer a preview of what we may be looking for, we want to offer a peek into our debate on a text, which is revealing in terms of Europe’s representation as well as negotiation in legal and literary texts.

Whereas Europe, from a legal perspective, appears to be endowed with a clearly determined scope, this seems to be less the case with literature. As a result, it is not always easy to find literature that concerns or is concerned with Europe specifically, which is why it was an unexpected pleasure to discover Olivia Bergdahl’s poem “Europe”, a poem that centres on the Union not only in title, but also very much in its literary trajectory. Swedish performance poet Bergdahl won the Swedish poetry slam when only 17 years old, and took fourth place in the subsequent World Slam Cup in the following year. Her poem “Europe” can be found at Lyrikline in both a written and a performance format.

As the heated discussion at Vigoni clearly revealed, “Europe” provokes. The fifteen stanzas of the poem attempt to capture a Europe that apparently evades the poet’s grasp. In such a vein, the poem could be understood as a struggling attempt at making Europe tangible on multiple levels, qualified in geographical, historical, political, cultural, or moral terms. Yet it is also a highly personal reflection of the individual – a millennial, privileged Western European individual – with Europe’s past and present and a perceived alienation towards this entity. These two larger trajectories of conceptualizing Europe and self-positioning towards this entity oscillate throughout the poem’s stanzas in an alternating fashion. From the poem’s outset, it is made explicit that this is not a song of praise, but a confrontation perceivably reproachful in tone. In this initial framing, Europe is depicted as trading alleged safety for lingering scars and abounding excuses, ultimately constituting it as both hostile and deceitful.

In the subsequent stanzas, the poem’s quest for conceptualization touches much of an all-to familiar ground. At the beginning, we encounter a fragmented fusion of the geographical, the historical and the ideological. Without any attempt to contextualize or relativize, European capitals are grouped together with impetuous catch phrases such as “Arbeit macht Frei” and “Charlie Hebdo.” A little later, we are confronted with various forms of territorial expansion in Europe’s past (colonialism, capitalism, racism, domination), a past that is uncannily linked with the present, when “Nice” and “Lampedusa” make a later appearance. Europe’s grand cultural heritage also briefly emerges in the shape of “beautiful churches, bridges, castles” and “cities”, before the poem returns to its sweep through the history books, a sweep that is certainly painted with all too broad a brush. The wars appear twice, first in a line-up of multiple monarchs that ranges from the Leopolds, Ludwigs, Charles, and Georges to the Peters. By now, we are familiar with the poem’s habit of linking past misdeeds to present ones. The European Union’s aim of preventing war, of breaking down walls, is insinuated as a broken promise, and associated with present threats to democracy, here represented by Orban and Putin, Pegida and LePen. Finally, the colonizing tendencies of Europe are tackled in the last of these conceptualizing stanzas. The nationalistic expansions of Hitler, Stalin, Franco or Mussolini are framed as a logical continuation of an entity well-versed in all ideological manifestations of colonization, whether territorial, religious, cultural or biological. But again, the present appears unable to escape that very past. Even if Dublin, Schengen and Bossi-Fini cannot be literally accused of colonizing tendencies, territorial inclusions and exclusions – according to the poem’s implications – remain their governing ideology.

In view of this overall project of “touching” Europe (emphasized by the poem’s recurrent line “I touch it,I touch it to give it a name”), of grasping Europe’s essence, one may find the poem’s tendency to link various fragments in a highly associative fashion not only provocative but rather unnerving. While there is no doubt that all of them are central to or even characteristic of Europe, their undifferentiated stringing together like beads on a necklace allows the poem to imply teleological and causal connections where there are not necessarily any to be found and to liken past to present evil, perhaps without the necessary contextualization. Yet on the other hand, one has to admit how cleverly this accusation is made by means of mere implication. Due to the reduced syntactic structure and limited use of metaphors and similes, the poem never explicitly claims that Europe’s politics in Nice and Lampedusa are as evil or as problematic as, for instance, the deeds of the East India Company. The argument is only implied and concluded by the audience rather than by the poem itself. Moreover, one can hardly dispute a poet’s right to reduction and hyperbole, fragmented association or provocation. As far as our discussions at Vigoni went – so much ultimately became clear – people indeed felt provoked.

But what is perhaps more interesting than the question of whether this undifferentiated take on European politics is within or beyond the poet’s artistic license, is the poem’s second large trajectory, a trajectory concerned with the individual’s alienation from the political entity of Europe made problematic here. The deliberate inquiry of the lyrical I speaks to the struggle to find a place or, maybe even more importantly, to find a stance towards this Europe. “I own you Europe” the lyrical I claims, “but Europe – you’re supposed to be a place/ so why do you act like mother?/Like a blood tie/a family” a set of relations that were – according to the poem’s speaker – never intended. A little later, the reverse is claimed: “You own me Europe!” A fundamental contradiction becomes visible here between being from a place, being shaped by a particular perspective and setting out to shed a skin that is very much inscribed into one’s very sense of self. It is in the course of this confrontation of the individual with Europe that the legal aspects of such a negotiation become particular significant. Does a European own Europe? Is the status of relative safety and freedom of mobility a birthright? “these borders, these seas” the poem asks of us in such a vein “how can they be mine if they are not mine to share?” Precisely at the poem’s center, the lyrical I’s attitude shifts, no longer enquiring but apologetic towards the ones excluded, and ultimately accusatory towards the attitudes of this Europe. While in the first half of the poem, it seems that the individual can get a grasp on Europe, can approximate Europe, the volta at the poem’s center indicates a reversal. The trajectory in the second half of the poem marks a process of increasing distancing of the individual from the Europe it has come to encounter. Some may consider democracy to be one of the salient achievements of this Europe, but in the poem, it is pitched before us more as a painful reckoning of our own failings, since “we choose our own abuses and then we choose our shame.” The democratic nature of European politics which has long since ceased to be controlled by a few autocratic monarchs is not only democratic in the sense of formalized decision-making processes, but also reflects the broad public sentiment, the poem seems to argue: “when words become language and languages law.” What appears to be at stake here is accountability, accountability for legal demarcation in terms of place as well as people, but also linguistic or narrative framing and its eventual impact on the legal discourse, which subsequently facilitates both inclusions and exclusions.

Ultimately, the underlying argument seems to span the discursive space between a necessary and also justified Eurocentric perspective and an international ethical human rights discourse. How much self-preservation, how much privilege does an ethical consciousness allow for? For the lyrical I of this poem, the answer seems unequivocal. In the last stanzas, the process of disentanglement is completed. The voice no longer speaks out of Europe, but positions itself clearly against it, raises a voice against this unloved counterpart: “So Europe, j’accuse … I deny you and I know/you give me all the world except generosity/so I christen you HYPOCRITE/KILLER MILLER WILD.” Yet, ultimately, Europe’s reaction, as described in the poem, appears almost inconsequential. Towards this deliberate denial of belonging, of sharing in and accepting this lack of generosity “you shrug your shoulders as at one you love, your problem child.” Europe, as the lyrical I sees it, seems content to know that its own family members are safe, to be able to protect them by means of their citizenship. The poem’s speaker, on the other hand, cannot enjoy this security, according to her own words, as long as she knows that this is such a privilege, so very limited to some.

Needless to say, the question of possibly unjust discrimination by citizenship law with all its legal and practical consequences is far too complex for a single poem, our debate at Vigoni, or this blog post here to resolve. What is safe to say is that the poem offers rich food for thought for our debate on Europe in Legal and Literary texts. Neither the question of liminality in a geographical, conceptual, or ideological respect nor the negotiation of identity politics within these various entities is new. Yet the poem very well illustrates the struggle of conceptualizing both, while our ensuing discussion perhaps showed us more than anything else what the fluid concept of European literature can facilitate in the face of a much more clearly demarcated European law: To provide a space for reflection, a space that certainly does not prescribe meaning, direction or instruction, but instead may offer intricate possibilities for framing such a Europe. This is by no means a conclusion, but is rather intended to mark the dawn of further discussions. We are looking forward to new ideas and different takes on Bergdahl’s poem in particular, as much as on the larger debate on Europe in Law and Literature. Please feel free to join in with a comment to this blog! This is only the beginning…


Fotocredit: Villa Vigoni / Lake Como / Italy / September 2021 © J. Noack

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