“East of paradise” – the Bulgarian approach

Posted: April 5, 2012 in From Bulgaria with love
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The famous research of Edward Said on Orientalism and how Western world draw its own ideas about the East, and how the West himself creates concepts such as orientalism, oriental and others to describe the East has been a subject of discussion for more than  30 years. The problems concerning the determination of the “self” and the “others”, however, are probably part of the oldest civilizational conflict in human history.
In the numerous works and papers that have been written about it, the discussion floats between concepts of influence which explains the relation between the two parts. 
In the context of the “East” and the “West” this problem is implemented by certain elements that can roughly be summarized in 3 points: The “western” thinking about the “east”, the “eastern” thinking about the “west” and the third, which is, let`s say, the effect of the “curved mirror” – an image created by the one side and then accepted by the other as a valid notion of self-determination.  
            Of course the problem about the outlines or the borders, which separate the two sides, always exists. In the fast globalizing world one can`t always say where the west ends and the east begins. However, there is constantly some form of “clues” which points out the amendment of civilizational markers – religion, technological advancement, political regimes, forms of society etc. The most certain thing that we can say about the division between the two worlds is that the “west” is regarded as more technologically and economically developed but it lacks human and cultural understanding(or it possess a twisted one) . It promotes pure consumerism, greed, self-interest and detachment from nature. The “east” however is the opposite – while it`s not so advanced, it is built on the foundation of culture and folkloric relations, where things like “mysticism”, religion and contacts with irrational entities are still accepted as part of the daily life.
            As most obvious example we can take a look at the collision between USA and the Middle East (in general) where both of the sides don`t fully understand each other, which leads to resentment and non-acceptance, or to, as it is in present times, US domination in the region. If one decides to go even further one can see that it`s not just a matter of non-acceptance, but rather of complete rejection of each other’s values.
            To a large extent, these characteristics apply to diverse interpretations of progress and policy of the United States as a modern civilization. At the same time it indicates the prejudices that are part of human life and give a turning idea for the society of the “other”.  Like “Orientalism” takes the human nature out of its objects, so “Occidentalism” can sometimes take the world of the “Other” as inferior and unnecessary.
            The western notions of a modern city, which became a symbol of cosmopolitism, greed and ungodliness, are derived as a consequence of human interaction, beliefs and trade on the basis of parallels with ancient Babylon. There the clash between old and new, between entrepreneurial and settled is always felted. Accumulation of negative emotions, aspirations for rapid progress and industrial Western society, which forms an ideology of leaders and imitators, winners and losers, shape the character of the modern civilization. In this civilization the Enlightenment values of liberty, fraternity, and equality are long forgotten.
Even more, according to the German sociologist Sombart these values are “real commercial ideals that have no purpose other than to give a great advantage of the individual”. Personal benefits of the individual western trader and his lack of ideals are the reason for its adverse effects among the eastern world.
In American society, according to the stereotype of Tocqueville (XIXcen.), the lofty aspirations are rare at the expense of trade and money gaining.
            Reason in the West, strongly advanced by the Enlightenment as a tool for success and progress, is strongly criticized by the “Occidentalism”. In the more radical areas it is even considered to be a form of “idiocracy” (I admit that I took the term “idiocracy” from a motion picture from 2006). The “western thinking” is able to boost the economy but its civilizational effect can`t be felt in the spiritual sphere.
            It was interesting for me to read a summarized opinion of Russian critics and researchers (who also critique Romanticism) which points out that rationalistic intelligence is a Western disease; an intelligence without wisdom.

            After this introduction I would like to try to present the Balkans with certain historical approach. And more precisely the Bulgarian notion of the western civilization, which stands (by my opinion) in a false acceptance of the capitalistic virtues.

            It is well known that behind every stereotype there is much older structures and psychological mental attitudes realized in different texts, and that thinking through the myths existed in all times and has conditioned the various mechanisms through which the “other” is represented. It is clear that the notion of “other” is a form of self-determination; it is an essential part of one’s own identity. Therefore, the notion of East and West in the Balkan region depends on the perception of the Balkan nations for themselves, on how they identify themselves and in which relation they are considered to be – with the West or East, or they distance themselves from them.

            First important factor which should be noted is that in the centuries following the Ottoman conquest to the formation of the modern nations, a major role in shaping the image of the “other” plays the religious criteria.
The Sultan orthodox religion which is common to most of the people in the Balkans connects the subjects of the empire to each other while clearly distinguishes them from Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims.
            Belonging to the Bulgarian Orthodox Christian community led by the Constantinople Patriarchate, has as its consequence that all historical layers, a product of the tension between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, play a major role in the shaping of the image of the West in the minds of Bulgarians. The West and “his” church, collectively represented by the “Latinos” or “Franks”, gives birth in the Bulgarian language to the pejorative “Papi”, which has its adequacy in the Greek language. With its appearance Protestantism also became a symbol of the hated heretical “West”. Full with negative traits, the image of the West yields particularly bright appearance throughout the vast amount of literature produced by the environment connected with the Constantinople Patriarchate, which then leads at the end of XVIII century, a true crusade against the ideas of European Enlightenment. These ideas are also promoted by highly educated peoples such as the Greek Evgenius Vulgaris, who, in the middle of the XVIII century translates Voltaire into Greek, and at the end of the century is already in the nearest environment of Catherine II.
The antiwestern feelings of the Orthodox clergy yield the most vivid form in the series of books that represent Voltaire and Rousseau as allies of Satan and expose science and morals of Western nations as leading to atheism. Compulsively was suggested that the true Christian should not send his children to study in the West, as it will inevitably become an atheist. Patriarchate related media and censorship was established in the ’90s of the XVIII century. Also an index of banned books was composed, including works by figures of the European Enlightenment and their Greek followers.

            During the last years of the Ottoman influence Bulgaria finds itself more and more in cooperation with Russia. With the rising Russian influence from the beginning of XVIII century concerning the “Eastern Question” and the Russian role as liberator during the Russian-Turkish wars in the mind of the Bulgarians has been brought forward the idea for “Great Bulgaria”. This idea which is based on the territories of the Second Bulgarian Empire was implemented by the San Stefano Peace Treaty (1878). However, trying to preserve the balance of power in Europe and fearing the establishment of a large Russian client state on the Balkans, the other Great Powers were reluctant to agree to the treaty. As a result, the Treaty of Berlin (1878) revised the earlier arrangements, and scaled back the proposed Bulgarian state.
            The nationalistic feelings in Bulgaria which were empowered by the Russian politic in the region became even stronger after this establishment. The Bulgarians became even more detached from the west, feeling betrayed by the Great Powers, which in our eyes made a bargain about our destiny without even taking in consideration the Bulgarian side.
            In the  following years with  the achievement of independence, Bulgaria was becoming increasingly militarized and was often referred to as “the Balkan Prussia“, with regard to its desire to revise the Treaty of Berlin through warfare. The partition of territories in the Balkans by the Great Powers without regard to ethnic composition led to a wave of discontent not only in Bulgaria, but also in our neighbouring countries. This and other reasons led to the so cold “Balkan wars” the first from which started in 1912 between the Ottoman Empire and the formed alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. After the victory over the Ottoman Empire conflicts about the given territories began to emerge among the allies. In result the second Balkan war took place in 1913. The aftermath of the war is regarded by Bulgaria as “the First national catastrophe”.
  In result the Bulgarian opinion turned against Russia and the Western powers, whom had done little to nothing to help. The government aligned the country with the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, even though this meant becoming an ally of the Ottomans. At that time Bulgaria didn`t have claims against the Ottomans, but was focusing on lands held by Serbia, Greece and Romania, which were perceived as Bulgarian.
The Russian Revolution of February 1917 during World War I had a great effect in Bulgaria, spreading anti-war and anti-monarchist sentiment among the troops and in the cities. Mutinies broke out in the army.
            The loss in WWI resulted in Bulgaria`s “Second National catastrophe”.
            During World War II little has changed for the country. In the beginning a neutral position was established, but because of the important geopolitical position we were forced to join the war on German side. After September 1944 and the invasion of the Soviet Red Army, Bulgaria switched sides by declaring war on Nazi Germany and joined the Soviet union. The events that followed have predetermined the destiny of the country.

            The joining of the Soviet bloc and the fall of the Iron Curtain putted not only mental but also geopolitical border between East and West. For the western civilization the world behind this border was covered in fog. The events that were occurring there were strange and unknown and were regarded as threat. As if history ceased to exist and this part of the world was submerged in oblivion.
            From the perspective of the people in these “mystical” lands, however, the civilizational model presented by the West became more and more tempting. Reinforced by the communist censorship, which severely restricted access of information from “outside”, the scraps of information that made their way to the society became “the forbidden fruit” that needed to be eaten. The people started to hear interesting things about the world of the “other”, where freedom was basic human right. The radio programs of “BBC” and “Voice of America” were the small informational windows. Smuggled vinyl records, playing rock and roll shaped the culture of the younger generation. The western model was perceived as the new frontier which has to be reached and crossed.
Words like “democracy” and “private property” began to appear in consciousness and were perceived as “choice” and a place where a person is released from the pressure of the regime. The future was perceived as constructed on the basis of one’s own efforts, where one can choose whom to follow.
The Western ideals, skillfully propagated by various dissidents, began to affect and influence all forms of art and social activities. The social layers gradually shift and gave way to the new generation, which clearly formed new future prospects. This new generation fed with Western habits and outlooks demanded change.
            In 1980s with the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev to power a new form of the soviet regime was established. “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” aimed to reform the existing regime and to give more economic and political freedoms to the people. But still it wasn`t enough.
            In Bulgaria people started to gather and talk about the regime, dissident movements emerged on the public scene and gained power. There were even talks about the resignation of the president and general secretary of the party by that time – Todor Jivkov.
That happened on November the 10th 1989.

            After the fall of the communist regime, with economy, entirely dependent on the Soviet Union, Bulgaria emerged “barefooted” at the international scene. With standards of living which were inadequate for the free world and political system in transition one question grew stronger in the minds of the people – “What now?” “To where shall we go now?”
   Essentially new politic, new motions of the social life had to be adopted in order to integrate the country better in the fast globalizing world from which it missed more than 50 years. And of course the most logical step was towards the integration with the west. First was NATO (the idea was formed first in 1990), then EU (following previous talks Association Agreement was established in 1993, in forced since 1995), then reestablishment of diplomatic relations with USA (in 1990 the new Bulgarian president Zhelyu Zhelev visited George H.W. Bush in the white house. In 1999 Bill Clinton became the first American president, who visited Bulgaria.) In 2002 Bulgaria joined the military actions in Afghanistan.  In 2006 Bulgaria and
United States concluded an Agreement on cooperation in defense. The same year talks emerged for establishing American military bases on our territory.
            At the same time the English-based mass culture was gaining more and more ground. The clash between isolation and outside influence during the Soviet era and the connections with the west that fallowed helped Bulgaria to implement global communication networks and open media spheres. The rapid penetration of consumer culture and its values have leaded to opportunities which became more important in constructing identity and social success. Self-positioning in the mentioned hierarchy of “winners and losers” became highly correlated with evaluation of one’s consumption possibilities.
            All of this was consequently, following certain patterns, which by that time worked. And it seemed that we finally gained the favor of the US and the EU and we are developing towards a better future.

            But then, after 20 years and the coming of the younger generation things started to look a bit different – economically, socially and most importantly culturally. Blindly fallowing what the “big boys” always said, got us in the situation that we no longer recognize our own social environment.
With the rising power of internet and the massmedia constantly promoting the wanted images of the consumerist west, the public life grew more distant to the situation in the country. The younger people turned their heads towards the “other” and forgot about the ”self”. They became even more misinformed about the culture and society that they are currently in. “Old” and “new” mixed, forming a specific transitional context. The more information flowed into the space, the more people were misinformed about their surroundings.
            Suddenly in the present reality one can see that the coin has turned.  The Bulgarian society has adopted a pattern, a model of life which it doesn`t fully understand and by doing so, people began to detach themselves from their own culture. But in the same time they weren`t fully integrated in the model of thinking that they were trying to copy. That way a new society was born, which has nothing to do with either of the cultures, which was built on pure consumerism, powered by the thirst of the material, beyond which there is nothing more.
            The figure of the West, as the desired “other” is present. Its values are duplicated and assimilated, regardless of what they are or whether they suit the type of society that is being built. This leads to a disconnection with the “native” and with one`s own history and it leads to distorted idolatry against the West. Distorted, because beyond the environment in which and for which they are created these ideals become irrelevant even destructive. They cannot be understood outside their social context. This creates a whole generation of people who imitate a cultural label that they think they know from the templates that are daily imprinted by the mass media and thus creating a civilizational vacuum around themselves- located neither in their cultural identity, nor very present in the newly formed. This new subculture forms within itself primitive and misunderstood values, which ultimately only hinder the self-fulfillment. Shopping Malls, lifestyle magazines, gossips, reality shows, the movie and music industry entirely build on the foundations of consumerism… the problems that come on the agenda are startling. Everything is oriented towards conveyor happiness based on products.
“Chalga” music or so called “pop folk” promotes badly interpreted western ideas in Bulgarian context. The result is type of music, which is kitschy and vulgar and which is spread on a small mental scope. Virtues like love, commitment, and self-improvement are locked in texts like “Give me money and I’ll give you my body”; “Take me to your new car and you can have me”; “God, god, please god, give me a man, who can “do it”. But If he can`t “do it” let him at least have money” etc. The whole franchise is indulged in the creation of this image – the singers can`t sing, but they look like porn stars, with breast implants, half naked in the clips or on the scene. They are intellectually challenged, with vocabulary consistent from 300 to 500 words, which describe their entire emotional spectrum. One doesn`t need to listen or watch much of these products to notice it. On the contrary, banality is so clearly established, that even shows certain pride and satisfaction.
                Shopping Malls – another creation of the West, are built in high numbers in cities which can barely sustain one. These capitalist fortresses became the monument of the new society. Cities within the city, they provide everything that the simple mind wants. In there are performed the daily cultural events, where one have to dress accordingly (with his best clothes) so one can show that he deserves to be in this high institution as a member of the wealthy class. Then the etiquette demands that one has to sit in an open café and talk about the people passing by.
            A whole generation raised and nurtured by this lifestyle. Generation which never attended theater plays (In my home town if one asks about the location of the drama theater the answer would be “It`s between “McDonalds” and Mall “City center”) nor opera or ballet. People fed with magazines instead with books.
            Modernization brings with it a new cultural set, which instills need for unnecessary things. It promotes the culture of the proud user and raises in value the so called “Shopping therapy” – horrendous psychological phenomenon, which aims to bridge emotional problems and adversity, personal obstacles with the purchasing of “stuff”. And here comes the paradox – the shallowness of the provided “medicine” leads to degeneration of life issues that concern the young mind. Issues such as self-realization, existential demands, politics, art, fantasy, spiritual enrichment and mental levels are long gone. Now the agenda is solving cases such as “which movie star got married, and which got divorced; hairstyles and brands of clothes. Given money for blessed life of motionless and ignorance.”
            The package, which had sought only to enhance product quality, has become the product itself. Below it there is nothing … Materiality, appearance is everything … no one reads between the lines, no one delves into the essence of what is happening. The ideal goal of control is achieved – the new society is shallow brood of creatures, incapable of thought and sense, interested only in momentary goods that satisfy primal needs.

            But the consequences of this cultural nihilism are more or less currently confined, unless the West does not suffer even greater and longer economic crisis. In the current society the common man is not considered wise, but still reasonable concerning the fulfillment of his basic daily human needs.  But only the reasonable are not enough for the development of society. The problem is that modern democracies are built and exist because of ordinary people who live under the motto “work-buy-consume-die”. In order to thrive, society needs the creative forces of science and art. Everyone must enter into contact with the worlds that give meaning to life. Nothing is more dehumanizing and nothing leads more surely to a crisis of thought, then the idea that our lives are meaningless events in a meaningless world.
            Market economies really created a world of unprecedented prosperity, but also a world that is increasingly impoverished spiritually. The big problem today is taking action against the spiritual poverty. The future is impossible without its solution.


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