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Conference information - English

Conference "Between emancipation and self-stigmatization? Modernist Bulgarian Literature within European Contexts", Berlin 06.-08.11.2008




After liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878, Bulgaria undergoes ‘national renaissance’ and social modernization in fast motion. Literature within this context plays a dominating role in the process of nation building. With the beginning 20th century Bulgarian literature though starts to inscribe itself into the pan-European movement of modernist aesthetics fostering the ideal of literary autonomy. It is inspired and influenced by such diverse aesthetic movements as French Symbolism and the “Wiener Moderne”, German Expressionism and Russian Futurism. National function and aesthetic emancipation, literary ethnocentrism and participation in the cosmopolitan formation of modernist culture are comprised within just several decades. A consequence of this evolution in fast motion is a specific culture of incorporation of foreign values and literary patterns (Lauer) as well as the formation of “hybrid styles and genres” (Koschmal).

The theoretical approach proposed in the present project in order to explain the particular appearance of Bulgarian modernist literature is twofold: it elaborates the concept of “world literature” in its emancipating and standardizing effects from the inner perspective of the Bulgarian discourse of the time as well as from the outer perspective of comparative literary studies using it as an analytical grid. The implicit eurocentrism of the concept of world literature shall than be critically challenged from the positions of post-colonial literary theory.

The terminology used in order to describe Bulgarian modernist literature within European contexts, such as “hybridity” and “marginality”, show indeed a striking similarity to the theoretic body of post-colonialism. The Bulgarian case furthermore illustrates in exemplary form the functioning of what Vesna Goldsworthy calls “imaginative colonialism”, a process deeply influencing the very foundations of culture and society. In an act of self-civilization, the foreign culture is interpreted as the superior one. Carried to an extreme, this process of self-civilization leads to “self-stigmatization” (Maria Todorova). And even more: in a compensatory reaction the acceptance of one’s own marginal position may turn into its opposite, into national messianism.

While within postcolonial studies comparative imagology has concentrated on the analysis of images of the Self and the Other, the present project focuses on the structural effects of a transfer of aesthetic concepts, literary traditions and genre models. Against this historical and theoretical background it aims to illicit the contradictory nature of the ‘Europeanization’ of Bulgarian culture at the turn of the 20th century, a historic experience that influences as well the actual transformation process in contemporary Bulgarian society (Georgiev, Kiossev).

The theoretical framework will be exemplified by biography and work of Teodor Trajanov. Trajanov (1882-1945) is a central figure within Bulgarian modernism. He has been living in Bulgaria, Austria, Poland and Switzerland criss-crossing in his life and work European languages, cultures, literatures. In his anthology Pantheon, published in 1934, the author collected 45 poems, devoted allegorically or biographically to the life and fate of European poets from East and West, presenting in one book his own vision of a world literature uniting different cultures. At the same time, his work shows an evolution from decadent symbolist aesthetics in the 1910s to aggressive patriotism in the period between the First and the Second World War. A focused analysis of the Pantheon thus opens up exemplary insights into the aesthetic, normative and political functions and implications of the Europeanization of modernist Bulgarian literature. It allows furthermore to illustrate and critically review the theoretical premise of hybridity of styles and forms.

The conference is co-organized by the Peter-Szondi-Institute for Comparative Literature at Free University Berlin (Prof. Dr. Georg Witte, Dr. Henrike Schmidt) and the Institute for Literature of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia (Dr. Bisera Dakova) in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Ludger Udolph (Institute for Slavic Literatures, University of Dresden) and Prof. Dr. Galin Tihanov (Comparative Literature, University of Manchester).




Elka Dimitrova (Sofia)

Looking for the Language of Modernity (Observations on Geo Milev’s Critical Language)

This paper exposes some observations on Geo Milev’s critical language with a view to its representative importance for the Bulgarian modernism from the first decades of the 20th century.

Being a modernist, who recognized his own aesthetic roots in symbolism in order later to become the leading figure of Bulgarian avant-gardism (of expressionism in particular), Geo Milev seems to be a perfect example for the dynamism of Bulgarian modernism system. (In this interpretation a division of modernism, still accepted as classical in Bulgarian literary studies, is used, even though it is not that unarguable any more. Thus, modernism is presented as a dramatically contradictive continuity of three phases, and Geo Milev is distinguished as a cross-figure in this development.)

On the other hand, and what is more relevant to this paper: being a keen follower of German modernism, Geo Milev proved to be a representative figure of another important specificity of Bulgarian modernism - the tension between its native and European identity.

So, having made these two stipulations, I will drift to the concrete problems of this paper.

The specific being of Bulgarian modernism predisposed its out-of-doctrine development and such dynamism of its processes, which seemed to be too intensive even for a priori super dynamic system of modernism. This additional specificity came from the fact that Bulgarian modernism had been initially presented by its protagonists in an ambiguous way, which was preserved in the subsequent tradition of its interpretations. So, it was thought as both introduced (from the German, French and Russian cultural reality) and spontaneously grown up (as a result from some national (social and cultural) premises: the socio-political atmosphere of crisis in the first decades of the century, on the one hand, and the exhaustion of the symbolist model, on the other hand).

By this token, the modernist tendencies in Bulgarian literature did not form such a “normal” stage in the cultural development, as they did in most European literatures, but still they proved to be equally unavoidable and essential, compared to the “original” European ones.

The problem becomes even more complicated, if we face the tendencies of the avant-garde movement. Being the latest phase of modernism, it was especially sensitive about what had already become “native” (or what had been adopted from the previous modernist periods as an already native base) and what was still being “introduced” from the exemplary model of European modernism.

This extra lability in the constitutionally labile order of modernism gives a clue about some peculiarities of the Bulgarian modernist interpretation of some concepts, which were accepted as stable or at least self-explaining in European critical thinking. Being in their natural context there, they were a part of the tradition - no matter how disputed they were, so they didn’t need introduction in the way they needed it in Bulgarian Post-Revival culture.

Thematized in Bulgarian context, concepts, such as “realism”, “naturalism”, “positivism”, “modernism”, “decadence”, “symbolism”, “expressionism”…, grew over with all sorts of meanings as a result of the author’s interpretation and the wish to be announced among the “uninitiated”. Or they even became objects of creative improvisations which moved them visibly away from their certain literary-historical meanings.

This fact gives an explanation for the terminological instability, inherent in the critical texts of a writer as categorical in his opinions as Geo Milev. Typologically similar appearances of art were formulated there once as “symbolism”, second time as “expressionism”, third time as “romanticism”, or straight as “poetry” or “real art”.

Besides, Geo Milev was obviously aware of his inductive theoretical approach - i. e. it was not a result of ignorance or lack of understanding for the specific items. It rather expressed a generalizing attitude, led by the desire to explain “in short”. In the same time though, Geo Milev’s theoretical approach reflected also the avant-garde tendency to an egocentric redefinition of the “whole” past and current culture. And if in the beginning of his literary development he had at his disposal the concept of “symbolism”, onto which he projected his intuition for modernity, later the same attitude just found a new concept to be projected onto - “expressionism”.

That is why in Geo Milev’s texts on aesthetic problems the same definitions often refer to “symbolism”, as well as to “expressionism”, but in both cases there is an attempt rather to articulate modernity than to define different trends in literature. Obviously, we cannot speak of “confusion”, as Geo Milev himself wouldn’t miss an occasion to declare the relativity of his terminology (especially of the term “symbolism”) in the general context of the “unified art” and “unified aesthetics”: “There is nothing as “modernism”, there is nothing as foreign and ours. Everything is the same: unified art, unified aesthetics (…) Symbolism is not a school; it is The Art. So why shouldn’t this art be called romanticism? It is a question of a useless term - a question of a sign-board.”[1]

In this train of thought, special attention is paid to Geo Milev’s  terminological creativity, concerning some basic concepts of modernism, such as the opposition: realism - antirealism/contra-realism/ “irrealistics”, or its more detailed projections (mimetic - abstract art, epic - lyric, materialism - idealism, rational - intuitive, analytical - synthetic, whole - fragmentary, etc.). Summed up, they give quite a full picture of the modernist aesthetical ideology in its dynamic interaction with the contested model.


Alexander Kiossev (Sofia)

Self-Colonization Revised: Literature and the Institutions of Social/National Imagination.

Some Southeast European nations had peculiar position to the constitutive process of the late European modernization - the colonization and "europeanization" of the world. They were neither colonizer, nor colonized in the modern sense; yet, they accepted voluntary the cultural codes and the values of the Other. i.e. the imaginary Europe. In this context the cultural institutions of the national imagination, and especially the literature, gained a special importance. Unlike Western Europe where modern literatures were part of the Romantic counter-modernization movement, national literatures and public representation policies in these peripheral cultures were major vehicles of a peculiar "imaginary" process of modernization  and nation building. This makes the social status of literature and its institutions (its 'tradition', its 'national "genii and classics", its literary-historical Grand Narrative, its picture of the 'world literature" etc.) in these cultures a challenging research problem.


Ivan Mladenov (Sofia)

Conceptual Beauty (Penčo Slavejkov and Charles Peirce)

The end of 19th century is characterized by a deepening of human knowledge in various areas of sciences. In psychology, Sigmund Freud drew aside the curtains of consciousness to take a look inside dreams and nightmares. In physics, a corpus of brilliant scientists reached the unknown world of nuclear fission; in other words, clarification of the unseen and untouchable was under way; such was “die Zeitgeist” of the epoch. The process was typical not for physics only, but for psychology, philosophy and even for poetry. An opposite wave of resignation, in keeping with Newton’s earlier pronouncement, decadence and spleen arose in literature too. 

Is a comparison between Penčo Slavejkov and Charles Peirce relevant at all, and in what way? At first glance, the only association between them is that both were contemporaries. The enigmatic thought of Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, involves inquiry not only into virtually all branches and sources of modern semiotics, physics, cognitive sciences, and mathematics, but also into logic, which he understood to be the only useful approach to the riddle of reality. Penčo Slavejkov (1866-1912), a humanitarian, poet and philosopher, was educated in Germany and became the first modernist of Bulgarian literature, i.e. the first writer to link up more directly with the international movements. Besides his aesthetic and critical works, he wrote some short poems infused with a surprising warmth and longing but with an unveiled wisdom as well. What unites the searches of both thinkers were the common ideas they shared about ethics, aesthetics and thought. Thus, rather than attempt to compare Peirce's views to some aspect of the practice or the theory of art of Penčo Slavejkov, or even to a particular work of art, my intention is to examine how art fits into the individual conceptions of both thinkers.


Galin Tihanov

Revisiting ‘Minor Literatures’

In this paper I revisit the notion of ‘minor literatures’ by placing it in the context of recent post-structuralist and postcolonial thought. I also ask how the idea of ‘minor literatures’ came into being, and how it is being reshaped by radical developments in the discipline customarily referred to as ‘literary history’. Even though the appeals to abandon literary history have, ironically, a century-long history, the sense of crisis and methodological predicament did not begin to be acutely felt until the 1980s when attempts at reforming the craft of literary historiography culminated in the well-known A New History of French Literature (1989). Many saw this project as an assault on traditional literary history, while having to admit that its editor, Denis Hollier, had recognized the difficulties besetting the discipline upon the arrival of postmodernism and post-structuralism, including the ever more elusive distinction between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ literatures, and had responded in an innovative, if inconclusive, fashion. Whether the notion of ‘minor literatures’ can preserve its meaningfulness vis-à-vis the ongoing re-mapping of contemporary culture will largely depend on the modifications of the wider framework in which these changes take place. Understanding these modifications seems to me to be an essential first step. In this paper I discuss three factors (the nation state; the media; the evolution of society under the pressures of changing demographics), and seek to elucidate and weigh their impact on the idea of ‘minor literatures’.