Orientalism, Occidentalism and Cosmopolitanism: Balkan Travel Writings on Europe
When I was a girl I loved reading travel writing, but it was always a slightly doubtful pleasure. Travel writing was suspiciously fun to read for something that claimed to be non-fiction: it offered all the charms of escapism and vicarious adventure, but at the same time it purported to tell you facts about the real world out there. Yet even when the account was focused on the particularities of landscapes, cities, architecture, politics or food, these were seen through the eyes of an individual with very specific characteristics – and in reading these travels, you usually learnt as much about that person’s opinions and prejudices as you did about the countries and customs described. And despite the ways these accounts were so loosely strung together, given a plot by the one-thing-after-another of the journey, they also seemed to be deliberately shaped to convey some more coherent message (something my own journeys rarely did). So what was travel writing? Was it just creative writing masquerading as non-fiction? A species of autobiography? How much could you trust the information it offered about the foreign parts it described and the people it pigeonholed? Wasn’t the pleasure it offered concealing something else, more complicated than the excitement of the exotic?
More recently, I’ve been asking the same questions, but this time the hybrid nature of the genre is one of its pleasures – and the hidden work that it does in creating notions of home and the world is the source of my interest in it. For the last year or so I’ve been reading travel accounts as part of a research project on ways that people from the Balkans have written their travels and their own relations to ideas of Europe. Part of the impetus for this project came from work done on Western (mostly British and French) travel writing, and the ways this has both defined the world for a domestic readership and simultaneously set out what ‘the West’ is in explicit or implicit counter-distinction to these non-Western others. Eastern Europe and the Balkans have been among these ‘Others’ – ambiguous and hybrid, perhaps, but still different from the Western Self, within Europe but never ‘properly’ European or Western: ‘Orientalized’ in order to affirm the meaning of the ‘Occident’.
But West Europeans haven’t ever been the only ones travelling and writing – and defining the world and its divisions through their travel accounts. From at least the sixteenth century, travellers from Europe’s eastern margins have done the same. They have produced a rich and diverse body of writing about Europe and the rest of the world, ranging from diplomatic reports, to letters, to travel journalism, to literary journeys, and more besides. Some are well-known, at least in national literary histories, some are more or less obscure. There is a great deal that is familiar in these accounts – not just the places described, nor even the excitement of discovery or the struggle to make well-trodden paths seem new and unfamiliar. This writing, too, is concerned with locating and evaluating the divisions of the world, and defining oneself – and one’s society – with reference to these divisions. The strategies used are often strikingly similar: over and over travel writers from the Balkans pinpoint the traits of lands and peoples and characterize these as ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ – in order to make a point about themselves and their own societies as similar or different, positive or negative.
It’s been argued that this sort of binary opposition is pervasive and inevitable, and that the moral geography that contrasts an abstract East and West goes back to the Greeks and Persians. It is hard to escape the impression, though, that travellers from Europe’s margins have been constrained to orient themselves using a map with such coordinates, precisely because of the ways that observers from outside the region have used it to situate them. But some travellers have resisted this particular way of dividing up the world with other, more or less inclusive discourses of identity. ‘Internationalism’ has been one option that cut across East/West boundaries, though after the Second World War the political project that took this as its slogan only reinforced a new East-West division of Europe. In travel writing, discourses of cosmopolitanism have offered still other ways of seeing the world. As well as considering a range of Occidentalisms and Orientalisms in Balkan travel writing, I want to ask how far cosmopolitanism has offered travellers a way off this all-too-familiar map. In what follows, I’m going to cite a series of travel accounts published in Serbian/Croatian/Serbo-Croatian, partly because it’s these literatures that I have been reading most closely. Judging by the selections made by my colleagues on the project, and by my own rummagings, these texts could easily be expanded with very similar citations from any of the Balkan literatures.
Is there anything distinctive about the ways Balkan travel writers use – and abuse – the mental maps of East and West? I need to stress that Occidentalism as a symbolic map of an essentialized West doesn’t arise only out of non-Western perceptions, any more than Orientalism as a moral geography characterizing (and simultaneously constructing) a useful East has been the monopoly of Western philosophes, ethnographers, novelists, colonial administrators or travel writers. Every version of the Orient necessarily produces its own complementary Occident – and vice versa. It is tempting to try to list the characteristics of ‘the West’ as implied by Western Orientalisms. But to do this would be to succumb to the essentializing and totalizing logic of such definitions. Occident and Orient are defined in terms of selected features that claim to express the quintessence of each half of the pair – but only in contrast to the other. And because the definition is contextual, it changes along with the context.
Western Orientalism was not nearly as unified and homogeneous as Edward Said originally suggested, but rather imagined the Orient in contradictory ways depending on the circumstances. The corresponding Western images of the West have been equally diverse. Its characteristics often seem reducible to ‘modernity’ or perhaps better to priority – and power. But the ways particular aspects of this picture have been highlighted vary, both in terms of their content and in their valence. Is Western modernity mechanistic and impersonal, or a matter of individualism and spontaneous creativity? It depends what argument you are making about the East and – even more – to what end. It’s also worth pointing out that Western discourses of difference may always have been self-affirming, but that they have not always been self-congratulatory. Western Occidentalisms could serve to criticize Western practices and patterns as well as to celebrate them. We can find any number of examples among British travellers who have sought out the backwardness and primitivism seen as characteristically ‘Balkan’, but who celebrate it in their vanishing-pastoral travel accounts as tradition, authenticity, ‘organic’ totality. Rebecca West, impatient with the modern, westernized Belgrade of the 1930s, finding in Macedonia a ‘magic’ and a sense of security that Western rational secularism had abandoned, is one of these. However irrational, constricted and lacking in choice this life may be, it is made to stand as a marker of what the West has lost in its rush to modernity (seen here in terms of anomie, materialism, instrumental human relationships).
Balkan Occidentalisms haven’t been much different. There’s no single ‘Balkan Occidentalism’, at least in part because there has been no single ‘Balkans’ as such. Each separate nation has had its own historically specific encounter with Western power. True, allowing for differences in timing and circumstance, the character of the encounter has been comparable. Mesmerized by Western achievement but also struggling to meet the prerequisites for Western recognition, in the nineteenth century the Balkan peoples built their nations and states (and opera houses and novels and railway systems) according to models and standards laid down elsewhere. This was a practical Occidentalism, and it had common elements in each separate national case. But though there may have been broad agreement over what was wanted – especially political sovereignty and economic development – there were major differences over how to get it, what the costs were, which models to follow.
The notion of ‘Europe’ could stand for progress or for oppression, and Balkan Occidentalisms could be positive or negative (think of the intellectual rejection of the West in twentieth-century populist movements, or the disillusioned anti-Western reactions that followed 1989). These differences weren’t simply a reflection of the changing state of political or economic relations with the West European states, or even a measure of the degree of discrepancy between expectations and reality. The ways these ideas were formulated and put to use had a good deal to do with issues of domestic political power, social prestige and material advantage. Local purposes, as well as local conditions, shaped the ways the world was depicted. The point is that the Occidentalisms generated in the West and in the Balkans have been comparable, in terms of the range and diversity of form and of value attributed to the notion of ‘the West’ as much as in terms of the content of the idea. What is at stake may differ – authority over others at home, rather than colonial or imperialist power? – but in the end, what is important in determining their shape is the particular political context that these representations are embedded in.
There is, however, one apparent difference between these Western and Balkan geopolitical alteritisms that seems to me worth exploring, and it comes out particularly clearly in reading travel writing from the Balkans. This is the degree of freedom to manoeuvre available to travellers from the Balkans as they position themselves with relation to notions of East and West, Orient and Occident. Travellers from the developed West have little choice in the matter: they may like it or not, but their places and their identities are fixed in contrast to the Easts they deplore – or admire. (Is it different for travellers from other European peripheries: from Spain, say, or from Norway?) But travellers from Europe’s Balkan margins can deploy a wider range of strategies. They align themselves with a version of the West; or they adopt a certain distance, in-between and ambivalent; or they embrace and celebrate their ‘Oriental’ stigmata. Is this a response to the ambiguities projected onto the region by Western imaginings? A result of adopting a map of civilization drawn up elsewhere? Perhaps – but when examined closely it becomes apparent that, while Western interests may help us identify the way the coordinates have been defined, Balkan manipulations of this conceptual map reflect concerns that are often closer to home. And this makes sense, for it is generally a domestic audience that is being addressed in such travel accounts.
How does this work in tales of travel? One way is through the technique that Milica Bakić-Hayden has labelled ‘nesting orientalism’. In travel writing, it often looks like a game of Orientalize-your-neighbour. Listen to a certain Aleksa Stanojević, arriving in Skopje from Belgrade in 1898:
Sadly, the picture which Skoplje presents to you when seen from the train disappoints at first sight, and dispels the fond illusions you might previously have held about its significance. The Orient, the entire empire of today’s Caliph, cannot – even in Asia – present a better picture of Eastern backwardness, negligence and repulsiveness than the European can see in Skoplje! The sooty ruins of the Skoplje fortress, planted on a rise above the town, right next to the Vardar river, on its left bank, glower darkly from a distance, and greatly increase the horror and inaesthetic quality of the panorama […] To the traveller who views Skoplje from the train, the town seems interred alive in the middle of an enormous cemetery which surrounds it on all sides and coverts all its life into an eternal silence. Poor Skoplje! It is a good five centuries that it has been lying in a cemetery… [Dve nedelje u Staroj Srbiji. Putničke beleške s jedne ekskursije, Belgrade, 1898.]
Stanojević sets himself up as a European and an arbiter of Europeanness – a representative of progress and modernity identifying the dead hand of the East as the cause of Skopje’s funereal gloom. His independent Serbia is, by implication, an undisputed part of the West. This tactic of shifting the negative stigma of the Orient ever eastwards has been ably analysed by Aleksandar Kiossev as an aspect of Balkan nation-building, a response to the persistent Western conflation of the peoples of the region into a single, undifferentiated and chaotic whole, whereby national movements attempted to distinguish themselves from one another by elaborating incompatible national ideologies, to align their own nation with all that was identified as positive and Western, and to consign hostile neighbours and competitors to the undifferentiated darkness of the Balkans and the Orient.
But note that this is not solely a matter of convincing the Great Powers that your nation can and should be recognized on European terms. For one thing, the boundaries of East and West can be drawn within the body of the nation. The same traveller felt he was leaving Europe behind even before he arrived at the Ottoman frontier:
You know that for most of us, Niš is the last point of Europe; beyond that is the Orient, Siberia and God knows what. Who hasn’t heard the lamentations over the ‘demands of duty’ that come from the greater number of our officials when they have to exchange Belgrade or Kragujevac for Leskovac, Vranje or Prokuplje? […] However, as far as we could see from the train station, Leskovac is quite an ordinary Serbian town; in all probability it is just as comfortable to live there as anywhere else, and it is certainly no different in Vranje, Prokuplje, etc. But that’s how we are: the Frenchmen of the Slavs. And every Frenchman yearns most heartily for – Paris… [Dve nedelje u Staroj Srbiji. Putničke beleške s jedne ekskursije, Belgrade, 1898.]
So, while Belgrade’s likeness to Paris is taken for granted, Leskovac’s claims to being a part of Europe end up almost as dubious as Skopje’s, once it becomes a matter of characterizing the differences between Belgrade and the provinces. This sort of operation may depend on having internalized Western discourses of difference and of value, but it does not need to be acted out before the gaze of the West for it to have significance or consequences. And legitimating Belgrade’s claims as a modern, European city with a natural right to its central role, in a society divided socially and politically between city and countryside, did have consequences.
‘Internal’ Orientalizing can reinforce other divisions, and imply other Occidents – and it doesn’t need to stay at home to do so. Moma Dimić has published several books of travels through Europe and the rest of the world: his persona is that of a knowledgeable, well-travelled, well-read, well-connected writer. In the early 1980s, in Germany, he cast a quizzical glance at some of his fellow-countrymen in the West:
Once, in nearly the same place [the Hamburg Eros-Center], I saw two of my countrymen. The farther north you go, the easier it is to pick them out. Lean, no longer quite so young, they wander indecisively through the voluptuous twilight, gaping and staring endlessly at the girls on display: the heart shapes formed by their unclad buttocks, the tender skin of their thighs, their uncovered shoulders. Anything above and beyond that would cost too many of their gastarbeiters’ marks – carefully hoarded but never enough. They will go round all the courtyards and the streets with girls on display several times. They will approach, timidly, the doors of topless restaurants and variety shows featuring female mud-wrestling or boxing, but these too will be too expensive for them. They began their free Saturday night with such excitement and such luxuriant nakedness, but they end it alone, in a cheap Oriental café, with a piece of burek [Monah čeka svoju smrt, Priština, 1983].
Dimić’s co-nationals have little in common with him but nationality. His account makes it clear that he can take for granted what they desire, but cannot afford. It implies that it is he who is the European, with experience, savoir faire, and economic power, while these emasculated gastarbeiters are doomed to stay mired in the Balkans, wherever they may travel, work and live. In such texts, Dimić – and other writers – underlines the social distinctions that persist at home, as well as abroad, between an educated elite and a working class. Experience of the world counts for nothing in this account unless it translates into understanding, discernment and the power to chose. The contrast helps Dimić stake a claim for the prestige and authority that ought to accrue to an intellectual such as himself (and, incidentally, allows him to assert a masculinity – self-assured, virile, well-off – that might not always be conceded to the intellectual in a society where a man-of-letters is not necessarily a proper man at all).
In short, characterizing domestic divisions, whether between the capital and the provinces, or between social classes, or men and women, in terms of European and less-than-European has often served domestic political agendas that have little to do with relations to the West as such. But even when the ostensible topic is the relationship with the West, the fact that the account is addressed to an audience at home has a specific effect. In the following passage the writer casts doubts on Bulgarian claims to a European identity, but the subject seems less Bulgarian behaviour than Serbian self-image:
In the ship [from Venice for Rijeka] it was buzzing like a beehive. Very many travellers of both sexes and various ages. We even found a few brother Bulgarians. They too had been ‘vov Evropa’. They travel a fair amount and this is one of their pleasant characteristics. Girls, boys and students; the more intelligent and the better off all dash gladly off on extensive travels. Of course, they also put on a little outward affectation, with the intention of showing themselves, outwardly at least, as citizens of the world. Whether they are in the position of being recognized as such by European society – that is another question entirely. [Staniša Stanišić, Putnička pisma sa puta po srednjoj Evropi, Belgrade, 1925.]
But would his own self-valuation elicit any more satisfactory reaction from the Western arbiters of belonging? The way Stanišić phrased his scornful put-down somehow begs the question and reveals his anxiety, assuaged only by reassuring himself that at least the Bulgarians are less convincing.. An even more comforting reassurance could be derived from pointing out how far Western neighbours could fall short of their own standards. Ljubomir Nenadović, on a walking tour in Prussia in the 1840, described the filth and disorder of village taverns, and concluded his account by pointing the moral:
I am describing all this to you in minute detail so that you should understand how Germans live outside the towns. We are constantly hearing and reading them ridiculing and deriding the domestic life of foreign nations, and especially the Slavs, but they don’t take into account their own poor. From this village to Stettin is less than two miles, and you can travel to Berlin by rail, through Stettin, in a morning. Everywhere that they travel through foreign lands, Germans censure the inhabitants and commiserate with their lovely, fertile lands for not being settled by a better people. When they travel through Serbia or any other foreign country and find nothing but soup, they raise their complaints to the skies, and trumpet to the whole world, through the papers, that such a country is worth nothing, and is even barbaric; and yet there is scarcely a one who asks himself what people, what misery and what poverty exists within that very nation that gave him birth. [Pisma iz Grajfsvalda, Belgrade, 1846]
Miroslav Krleža’s description of Vienna takes this strategy only a small step farther. By making class divisions and moral geography coincide he condemns Vienna itself, with its slums and its poverty, to the world of the only dubiously European. The effect is to lift much of the burden of the Balkans from Zagreb (poverty and a rural economy, after all, can be addressed; civilizational differences are harder to erase):
The northern Danube quarter [of Vienna] is wretched and empty. There the swamps have frozen in the greenish-grey light of the late winter afternoon, and glisten dully in the smoke from the mouths of the factory chimneys. There the beggars and the slaves have their wooden huts, roofed with boards and tar-paper, the same as in Zavrtnica and Zaselka at home, and the windows in the dirty, terrible new blocks of flats sit askew in lop-sided parallelograms, as though drawn by some feeble-minded illustrator of Fedor Dostoevskii. Here the Danube flows, and one can see the scorched, fallow fields across which, in this same light, the cavalry rode in the battle of Austerlitz, as described by Tolstoi – with Stendhal’s clarity – in War and Peace. Children slide on the frozen marsh, wretchedly, provincially, penuriously, on a single skate; geese honk and somewhere in a sty pigs grunt. This is where the village and the provinces begin, and they extend from here all the way to Linz and Passau with their straw thatch, accordions and pig-raising. At Passau the straw stops. By that point it is already Europe. [Izlet u Rusiju, Zagreb, 1926.]
It’s not always the case that the traveller chooses to identify with the West that is held up as a mirror to the Balkan self. Self-Orientalization is another approach, with the traveller standing apart from the Europe that is being used as a standard of comparison. It might be merely a matter of degree, as for Desanka Maksimović in Paris ‘wanting to forget that I was from the Cyrillic zone, in that sea of Latinity and the West – the real West, not the sort of West we represent in the eyes of those coming from, say, Siberia, or Azerbaijan, or from Bulgaria’ [Praznici, putovanja, Belgrade, 1972]. Or the traveller might discover the shame of an Oriental identity through contact with the West. The public toilet as a marker of civilization or its opposite deserves an entire study to itself in this regard. Ivan Kušan creates a whole bathroom scale, in which filthiness acts as a moral-political and geographic indicator: ‘I’ve had many toilet encounters with my drunken double in the course of my life and I remember all of them, just as I remember the state of the urinals and the toilet bowls, from country to country. On this scale Peščenica [Zagreb] is right at the sorry bottom, right next to Egypt and Scythian Asia [Russia]’ [Prerušeni prosjak, Zagreb, 1986]. Depending on the purposes, this strategy might be tactical, challenging the reader with contrasts intended to provoke self-reflection; it might be lachrymose and self-exculpatory (‘what chance is there for Orientals like us?’), or it might be celebratory, setting a critique of Western deficiencies against the values represented by the East. Listen here to Momo Kapor, fulminating against a Europe which has excluded his country from the civilized nations, but has also lost its ability to enjoy itself:
One morning in 1980 I read in the newspaper that Europe wasn’t letting our trains in because they were dirty. They get have to halt, it said, on the western borders, and the passengers change into clean, sweet-smelling European carriages. This seemed to me the final personal insult from Europe; since if we ride in those carriages, then it means that we ourselves are dirty too! In fact, I was the most disappointed by the Danes, who shut down the direct train from Copenhagen for the same reason; and for years we fools had loved their Prince Hamlet, in spite of the fact that ‘there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark’.
After fifty years the famous Simplon-Express from Paris to Athens doesn’t pass though our territories any more; they diverted it through Italy, because it ran seven hours late. Incredible – seven hours! […] Fine, what is it with Europe? Is it crazy? What’s the big hurry that those seven hours are so important to it? It’s not going to be able to see the countryside it’s crossing because of its speed. And it won’t have the chance to chat with the train dispatchers, who keep bees in the garden behind their houses and have a Saanen goat and where at the window above the ticket office there is a marriageable daughter. All this furious speed means that it won’t have time to have a drink of water on the platform, or buy a paper, or stretch its legs at some unfamiliar station where the train has stopped. Haste makes waste! Quick-quick, round about, and back again. [Skitam i pričam, Belgrade 2001].
Freedom of manoeuvre between Orient and Occident – and a variety of political circumstances and positions. The end result is a proliferation of contradictory statements about the Balkan self in relation to the West, and a whole range of valuations, whether celebratory or stigmatic. Does this multiplicity of self-definitions mean that – in the ambiguous, in-between Balkans – the discursive strategies afforded by East and West made possible more flexible, more nuanced, more accurate representations of identity, ones that take into account the messy, complex and divided nature of Europe? I don’t think this is entirely the case. In-betweenness or ambiguity is rarely seen as a quality to be sought after, let alone providing a space of freedom in these travel accounts. Instead it is something worrying, scandalous, unwelcome. These writers are constantly being wrongly identified on their European travels, and they don’t like it. Resentment (‘why won’t they recognize us on our own terms?’) and a sense of superiority (‘we know them better than they know us’) are the most common responses. And when it comes to observing Balkan others, pointing out the neither-one-nor-the-other quality of semi-Europeanization is even more damning than consigning a nation entirely to the Orient. Thus Marko Car, describing Sofia in 1898: ‘The sharp contrast between the past and the future is evident in the town as a whole; centuries of Turkish rule have very apparently left deep traces in this nation, which is being forced to change into European dress willy-nilly, so that the Bulgarian currently presents the image of a ragged bumpkin who has pulled on a redingote and has stuck a top hat on his head, but whose feet are still shod in peasant opanci or who is – still worse – barefoot. […] In one word: the very Orient – but edged with Western decoration’ [Od Jadrana do Balkana, Zadar, 1898]. (In this travelogue, evidence of the same processes of Westernization in Car’s own Dalmatia simply pass unnoticed, while in Belgrade they are presented as symbols of progress…)
In the end, the alteritist discourse of Orient/Occident is bound by the rigid logic of the binary opposition. This binarism acts as a device for generating and evaluating difference, and it is the fact of difference that is important, not the particular character of the differences. East and West are opposites, the two ends of the earth. It is this that gives all the varied, heterogeneous manifestations of identity their unity, regardless of any specific content, and it is this that makes the ambiguous spaces in-between impossible and uncomfortable. The only alternative to Occidentalism – according to this logic – is Orientalism.
As I’ve tried to suggest through the examples of travels cited above, a good deal of travel writing from the Balkans accepts this logic and this framework for dealing with the world. But some travellers do not. One alternative is that of the consciously cosmopolitan traveller, whose travels trace broader versions of belonging that cut across conventional boundaries. Dositej Obradović is the exemplary eighteenth-century humanist cosmopolitan, who takes the whole earth as his fatherland, who delights in what he can learn from ‘enlightened Europe’, who expresses the same sympathies and hopes of enlightenment for the Albanians, Romanians and Greeks as he does for his own Serbs. Such cosmopolitanism is not about generating difference, but rather puts its emphasis on inclusiveness. Cosmopolitanism’s universalist aspirations are set in contrast to other possibilities, yes, but these are not complementary and self-defining binary opposites. Dositej’s inclusiveness is set against the particularism of religious creed, as much as anything; other cosmopolitanisms have been seen as alternatives to the particularisms of nation or of other partial and parochial forms of belonging. In much nineteenth and twentieth-century travel writing from the Balkans, the effect of a cosmopolitan stance has been to negate and to deny the salience of the East/West division of the European continent, redrawing the circles of belonging in ways which include our travellers. In this way cosmopolitanism acts as a counter-discourse, a means of resisting the binary opposition of Orient and Occident in a way that does not simply reverse the polarity of the opposition, and so accepting the terms already laid down by Western observers. Such a cosmopolitanism may be elicited by the prior existence of Western maps of inclusion and exclusion, but it also functions as a means of escaping from the ways that the Balkans are located on them.
However, it’s worth pointing out that these cosmopolitanisms only rarely assume a cosmic or global scale. The criteria of belonging have been set in various ways at various times. One characteristic variety in travel writing is the Republic of Letters, which asserts a shared community of culture and learning. Here the stops on the traveller’s itinerary are universities, galleries, salons, centres of wit, creativity and scholarship. Any number of ‘travels among foreign writers’ are underpinned by the same sentiments as expressed by Milan Begović, sharing his encounters with Italian poets and French critics in the 1920s:
Marvellous are the spiritual ties among intellectuals, foreign to one another in language, upbringing and way of life. […] But there is no doubt that there is something stronger in human relations than ethnographic and political boundaries, there is a spiritual homeland which is broad and vast, which encompasses much more than devotion and love for one’s narrow domestic hearth. Here you cease to be the citizen of one country, no matter how dear and cherished, and become a citizen of the world. […] There is no place here for petty egoism, for haggard envy, for the wretched quarrels of the literary or artistic demimonde: here relations become strong and warm in shared success and recognition, become firm and unshakeable in joint conceptions and ideals, become close and sincere in the pure humanity which is so strongly marked in people of spirit and culture [Put po Italiji, Zagreb, 1942].
The ostensible purpose of these literary travels is to bring a readership back home up to date what is happening in the wider world of letters, with judgements underpinned by the authority and prestige of those whom the traveller meets (Begović again: his acquaintance, the French writer Valéry Larbaud, ‘eliminated harshly the occasional personality whom Zagreb snobs have scrambled to praise to the skies. Do you remember, for instance, the fuss that was made in Zagreb over the premiere of Lenormand’s Les ratés? How amused I was, when I heard from the oracle’s mouth, in precisely what esteem this gentleman is held!’). But an important subtext is the assertion of the traveller’s place in this community, and the traveller’s prize is recognition by distinguished (Western) writers, poets and academics on equal terms. What is excluded from this cosmopolitan circle, by implication, is the irrational and the barbaric, the uncultured and Philistine masses, or anything that can be opposed to the values of ‘true culture’.
Another, somewhat different variety is what might be called a ‘Diners Club’ cosmopolitanism of privileged mobility, independent means and savoir faire. Such a traveller often situates himself in class and gender terms as a ‘man of the world’ (as opposed to the older, more general notion of the cosmopolitan ‘citizen of the world’). Moma Dimić, in the passage about the Hamburg sex scene cited above, is a good example: a traveller who admits no boundaries, whose resources permit him to make his own choices, as opposed to the gastarbeiters who cannot. But being a man of the world does not necessarily depend on economic privilege; a frequent version in Balkan travel writing is more raffish and Bohemian, not well-off, perhaps, but still enjoying a privileged mobility – and worldly, with consumption (of sex, consumer goods, popular culture) an important marker of this worldliness. (This cosmopolitanism isn’t always coded as masculine: women write travel-and-shopping accounts too.) This is the traveller in pursuit of the ‘good life’, seen in more or less material terms, and with the taste and discernment to make the most of it; defying the assumptions of socialist morality, when that was still a factor, but also chafing against the narrow horizons and constraints associated with home: poverty, lack of choice, immobility.
How much do cosmopolitanisms such as these really represent a counter-discourse that can subvert East/West mappings of Europe and the Balkans? They clearly challenge definitions of belonging that exclude or disenfranchise the travel writer. The writer might invite readers at home to imagine themselves as sharing in a cosmopolitan culture that reaches out to include like-minded individuals. (‘Do you remember the fuss that was made in Zagreb…?’) But such cosmopolitanisms can also, at the same time, create or reinforce hierarchies within the traveller’s own society. The (Western) recognition granted to the individual traveller-writer doesn’t automatically extend beyond that individual to a wider class, nation, or society – far from it, since it depends on the wit, or creativity or other trait displayed by that individual. By lining up with (Western) cultural figures and movements or flaunting knowledge of (Western) trends and access to (Western) consumer goods, the cosmopolitan traveller can also consign those outside these charmed circles to the Philistine, uncultured, backward, impoverished … Balkans. Cosmopolitanisms of culture and of consumption can therefore conceal a covert Occidentalism, recreating East/West divisions (and hierarchies of value) under a different name. Perhaps this should be no surprise. After all, even Kant imagined his ‘universal cosmopolitan existence’ as the result of Europe legislating for all the other continents.
It’s true that a focus on travel writing – a quite specific literary genre, generally produced by an educated and mobile minority – imposes a limited field of investigation into these discourses of belonging and difference. It’s certainly possible to imagine other cosmopolitanisms. Travel, for Dimić’s gastarbeiters and other migrant labourers, may not have been a matter of choice or of pleasure, but this doesn’t prevent such travel, for such travellers, from being a source of knowledge, power, and prestige, and a means of seeing the world in new ways. (We shouldn’t idealize non-elite cosmopolitanisms either, though. We could draw the same conclusions about trans-national criminal organizations.) Other types of travel and of travel writing – the exile memoir, the war diary, private letters, the tourist postcard? – might suggest other visions. More could unquestionably be done in analysing notions of the West and the self by looking outside the limited range of texts I’ve surveyed here.
But perhaps it is too harsh to dismiss the transformative potential, however modest, that even the travel accounts I have cited here can have. Travel writing’s manipulations of Orient and Occident for a whole variety of purposes may have reinforced the concept of an East/West dichotomy dividing up the world, but especially by applying these labels within the writer’s own society they have also helped detach notions of ‘the West’ from any geographical reference point. The Orient can exist within the very heart of Western Europe, its presence marked by burek, or the state of the toilets, while the Occident is everywhere by now. In this writing, ‘East’ and ‘West’ become the coordinates of a purely moral map, rather than a physical one, something which at least implies the possibility of choice and change. Similarly, cosmopolitan travellers may have denied the salience of the East/West divide in ways that only allowed a few to escape, but even such limited re-mappings of the world invite readers to imagine themselves as equal members of a more inclusive community. It’s a starting point – modest, but real. Travel writing from the Balkans, in the end, is a hybrid genre in more ways than one. It has perpetuated systems of difference that operate at the expense of others, but at the same time it has opened up different ways of seeing the world, mixing up margins and centres, positive and negative, both to reinforce and to challenge the travellers’ own societies’ social and political practices.