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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


Over the course of the last weeks, we have received a wide range of exciting proposals from scholars from various legal and literary disciplines. We cannot wait to see how they will speak to each other in the upcoming volume on Law and Literature in Europe. This is meant to provide an overview of the respective fields and approaches our scholars are working on and enable intersections and cross-referencing between the individual contributions. Moreover, this way we can make our ongoing research visible at an early stage and for a broader audience.

⇒ See comments below. First in line is Jayana Jain, second Walter Cohen, third Katharina Pink, fourth Massimo La Torre.

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SFB 1385 (2021, 13. Oktober). Olivia Bergdahl’s Writing of “Europe” SFB 1385 – "Recht und Literatur" Abgerufen am 13. Juni 2024, von

4 Gedanken zu „Olivia Bergdahl’s Writing of “Europe”“

  1. Citizenship and advocacy. The jurist as parrhesiast

    As both an institution and living reality, citizenship has its origins in the political culture of classical Greece; especially in the history of the democratic city of Athens. In antiquity, there was much debate over this notion – one that is reflected in the entire cultural production of classical Greece, especially in its most revered literary expression, tragedy. Those wanting to study citizenship and its theory cannot avoid reading Plato and Aristotle. In such a vein, the citizen is more than a mere “part” or “member” of the city, but the city becomes real only in the citizen; in this sense citizenship is the practice in which the “form” of the city materialises.
    Today, advocacy is rendered problematic when it comes to institutions and norms, in that it reflects the dual character of law, which oscillates between a real dimension, that of facts and efficacy, and an ideal dimension, that of accepted norms or standards – or justice. Moreover, advocacy is of a dual character, in that the layer is tasked to defend the interests of a certain party, and to further a client’s particular subjective rights, but is also aligned with the public good, and with the implementation of general principles of justice. As a result, the lawyer constitutes – at the same time – an “individual” actor and a “community” representative. This article traces the historical origins of citizenship and parrhesia back to classical antiquity in order to suggest parrhesia as an attitude and practice that typifies the moral virtues of the lawyer, as these are traditionally regarded.
    Both as a concept and a practice, parrhesia embodies the political culture of Athens and of classical Greece as no other concept or term more fittingly describes the particular “spiritual moment” that occurred in that culture. Containing and interconnecting the fundamental concepts behind Greek political and civic culture parrhesia also reflects that culture’s view of the good life and the exemplary man, with a focus on free speech and liberty. Nevertheless, in the huge body of work on classical Greece, until recently, very little has been written about parrhesia. This article examines various original references to parrhesia and traces the historical meaning, use and development of this specific virtue in the context of Hellenistic culture. Ultimately a licence and indeed a “constitutional right”, parrhesia is central to the self-understanding of Athenian democracy in more than merely granting the equal right to speak by allowing the citizen to participate in discourse and deliberation, it endowed this licence with particular, targeted force, aimed at subverting the hierarchy which traditionally formed the background to discourse and deliberation.
    Ultimately, parrhesia in the form of free speech is a demand for licence, frankness, but also courage and independence, and thus can offer lawyers a constructive and convincing way to pursue their unique and combative ethical profession. Linking advocacy to the practice of citizenship embodied in the concept of parrhesia can facilitate a way of frank speaking that produces both freedom and conflict and is thus both an essential way to exercise citizenship and to sustain the professional work of the lawyer.

  2. Alternative Notions of Belonging, (European) Community and Citizenship in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet

    Hailed by critics as the first Brexit novel, Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016) as well as the succeeding volumes of her Seasonal Quartet (2016-2020) staunchly orbit the aftermath of Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union and the ensuing struggles of a society that has been torn asunder by questions of European import. The four novels self-consciously address current themes and crises: the EU, Brexit, migration, human rights and British politics, all of which are infused by populism and social media, causing public and private discord. Furthermore, they display Smith’s ongoing concern with the concepts of borders, community and refugee rights that already showed in her previous oeuvre. Despite featuring varying plots with different characters, nearly all protagonists of the four novels at some point face struggles of identification, legal status, and citizenship. The paper explores these struggles in their general legal and ethical implications, arguing that with this recurring theme, as well as the repeated depiction of strained familial ties replaced by unlikely bonds of mutual understanding among strangers, Smith’s novels contest blood- and territory-based notions of family, community, and nation. Instead, they implicitly promote an alternative, affective notion of belonging and citizenship: a post-national, trans-generational bond formed by empathy and dialogue that is based on a common acknowledgement of certain values and responsibilities (concerning nature, future generations, minorities, the protection of human rights etc.). This alternative conception can be extended to the macro level of EU membership where, in fact, these notions are not so new after all. In stark opposition to the policies of some of its members and its general border regime, the European Union has always had an ideological and affective dimension. Smith’s Condition-of-England novels ultimately remind us that joining (or leaving) the bloc has never been about access to markets and funds alone, but about commitment to solidarity, democracy and tolerance.

  3. The Europe of European Literature

    In trying to locate the distinctiveness of European literary history, what inferences may be drawn if we register both the differentiation within European literature and the relationship of European literature to the literatures of other continents? Many claims about what sets European literature apart can be challenged by registering analogous developments elsewhere in Afro-Eurasia. On the other hand, that same approach, especially when focused on forms rather than themes or mimetic representation, helps locate its singularity. First, European literature is uniquely defined by intra-vernacular leadership. Dominance has long belonged less to a prestigious Classical language than to a succession of vernaculars, primarily from among the Romance literatures. Second, European literature may be specified by its expansionist vocation, especially the overseas global conquests initiated in the early modern period. Crucially, however, this expansion is not limited to imperial power. And third – and most important – European literature can be grasped as a competitive system, with equal emphasis on competition and systematicity.

  4. Poetry from the Camps: Deconstructing Eurocentric and Colonial Remains in Immigration Policies and Citizenship Laws

    The contribution examines I am Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond (2019), the first English-language anthology of poetry written by Rohingya poets, to excavate marginalized literary perspectives on the rights to belong and citizenship laws. It begins by scrutinizing the colonial impulses palpable in citizenship laws of South Asian nation-states and the inadvertent reproduction of Eurocentrism within the EU’s humanitarian and asylum policies in relation to the Rohingya refugees living in Cox Bazar. The paper then argues that while state citizenship laws and international policies mask the violent politics of inclusion and exclusion through the legal language of necessity and rationality, literature yields spaces for uncovering violence and narrating the marginalized migrant’s trauma. By interpreting the Rohingyas’ anthology of poetry as a testimony of their historical and lived accounts, the paper discusses the significance of deconstructing the colonial and Eurocentric logics underpinning immigration policies and citizenship laws from the migrants’ perspective of rupture, crisis and disruption.

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