Introduction to the electronic version of Cross Currents

Ladislav Matejka, Editor

Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture first appeared in 1982 as a publication of the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Its primary aim was to defend the spiritual identity of national cultures in the Central European region, which were endangered by the Soviet occupation. During the twelve years of Cross Currents, the publication was bringing together information on literature, visual arts, theater, music, cinema, and photography as well as philosophical essays documenting the mix and clash of cultures in the center of Europe. In its review, The Times Literary Supplement called Cross Currents "the leading English-language forum for Central European literature and criticism."

The editing of Cross Currents was substantially facilitated by the cooperation of Czeslaw Milosz, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Danilo Kis, Josef Skvorecky, Avigdor Dagan, György Konrád as well as Harvard Professors Stanislav Baranczak, Albert Lord, Viktor Weintraub and Yale Professors Peter Demetz, Jaroslav Pelikan, Thomas Venclova, and René Wellek.

The early issues of Cross Currents included contributions of Nobel laureates Czelsaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Jaroslav Seifert, and Wislawa Symborska. Cross Currents also published numerous essays and plays by Václav Havel long before he became the president of Czechoslovakia. As a matter of fact, some of Havel’s letters from jail to his wife Olga appeared in Cross Currents while he was still imprisoned by the Communists. At the same time, Czeslaw Milosz, Danilo Kis and Josef Skvorecky used Cross Currents as an outlet for their articulate defense of the Judeo-Christian hotbed of European cultural values, which were in danger of being dissolved in the vastness of Eurasia.

With the decline of the Russian colonization in Central Europe, the publication of Cross Currents lost its primary function. In 1993, when the last issue of Cross Currents was published, there was no more need to defend the identity of cultures in Central Europe. Cross Currents became a historical document. Curiously enough, however, it is still in demand. Since many issues are out of print, the University of Michigan has decided to scan the entire publication and make it accessible on the Web.

The first issue of Cross Currents was originally planned as an adjunct to the proceedings of the East European Festival that was organized in 1981 by the Center for East European Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The festival was inaugurated by Czeslaw Milosz. It is his introductory address "Looking for a Center" that is used as a preface to the first issue of Cross Currents. Here Central Europe is defined as a cultural unit maintaining its own identity while "placed in the eastern orbit by force of arms and by pacts between superpowers." György Konrád’s letter from Budapest, which defines Hungary as a place where Eastern and Western cultures collide, supplements Milosz’s claim that Central Europe is neither East nor West. Milan Kundera in his dialogue with Alain Finkielkraut shares with Czeslaw Milosz his disdain for politics and politicians and his emphasis on the power of culture; in Kundera’s view, however, Central Europe is not an entity in itself but a part of the West abandoned by the declining Western civilization.

The theme of Central Europe as an abandoned West or a place where East and West collide characterizes not only the first issue of Cross Currents but other issues as well. It provided a framework for including not only Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary but also Romania with its Romano-Slavic cultural mixture, Lithuania with its Lithuanian, Polish, and Jewish symbiosis, the Balto-Slavic Latvia profoundly affected by the Teutonic Knights, Ukraine culturally marked by its ancient struggle between the Eastern and Western Churches, and the distinct cultural zones of Yugoslavia, where both Byzantine and Roman Christianity are clashing with Islam and with each other.

Several issues of Cross Currents included essays on the Central European Jewish culture which was decimated during the Second World War but continues to be a living memory in Bohemia, where Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel were born; Poland, where Bruno Schulz was born; in Hungary, the birthplace of Miklós Radnóti and Arthur Koestler; and in Romania, the birthplace of Paul Celan, a Jew from Bukovina, who was writing in German, banned by the Nazis but recognized after the Second World War as one of the most prominent poets of German literature. In its series on Jewish culture in Central Europe, Cross Currents also included an essay on Elias Canetti, a Sephardic Jew who became in 1981 a Nobel laureate for his writing in German, although Germans did not view him as their own. He was born on the border between Bulgaria and Romania, spoke as his mother tongue an archaic sort of Spanish, was educated in Vienna and wrote in German while living as a Jewish fugitive in England. Culturally, however, he remained a typical central European intellectual all his life.

One of the leading themes of Cross Currents was the role of Catholics, Protestants and Uniates resisting the oppressive regimes during the Soviet domination of Central Europe. The essay "Silent Europe" by Cardinal Franz König, former archbishop of Vienna, asserts that in a torn Europe the relation between knowledge and belief has set in motion a great dialogue. The tension between scientific progress and the maintenance of spiritual values has made plain the contrast between a Christian religious view of mankind and a Marxist view of the world. The oppression has contributed to revival of spiritual needs and religious life. According to Cardinal König, Europe, which was for a long time silent, is again taking up her role as a spiritual leader.

In his essay "The Quest for God and Human Identity in Central Europe" Protestant theologian Jan Milic Lochman reflects on his own experiences in occupied Czechoslovakia, where the oppression actually revived the thirst for religion. Precisely on the crusty surface of the Stalinist system, the inexhaustible relevance of the theme of God was demonstrated both for the individual and for society. According to Lochman, the reference to God helped to clarify the fact that personal human existence could not be totally controlled and that this existence was set within a radically open horizon. Lochman speaks with admiration about Václav Havel’s theological reflections in his letters from prison, which were subsequently reformulated in Havel’s essays on human destiny in today’s world.

Jozef Tischner, a Jesuit philosopher and leading figure in the Polish revolt against Communism asserts in his essay "A Dispute about Man" that the resistance against Marxist neo-paganism transformed Polish Catholicism into a religion of human dignity. He points out that a particular witness of this religion was the figure of Father Jerzy Popieluszko with his life principle, "Repay evil with good," with his readiness for sacrifice, and, in the end, his martyrdom.

The conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church, which was manipulated by the Communists, and the Western-oriented Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church, which was persecuted in occupied Central Europe but did not cease to exist, is discussed by Bogdan Bociurkiw in his essay "Religion and the Law." There he points out that all ruling Communist parties viewed religion as their rival in ideology and potential threat but never succeeded in defeating religious resistance.

Bociurkiw’s essay is supplemented with the article "Religion and the Identity in the Carpathians" by Paul Robert Magocsi, an ardent Canadian defender of the Rusyns squeezed by the Polish, Hungarians, Slovak, and Ukrainian regions on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains. Their local dialect is close to Ukrainian but some of the Rusyns feel that they are distinct ethnically. Their prevailing religion is Greek Catholicism with Church Slavonic as the language of the liturgy. Religious identification merges here with national identification and helps to resist political oppression whether Soviet Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak or Ukrainian. Amazingly enough, the small homeland of Rusyns is located in the geographic center of Europe, where the latitude and longitude lines intersect, if measured from the Arctic shores of Norway in the north to the beaches of Crete in the south, and from the coast of Ireland in the west to the Ural mountain in the East.

Ivo Banac discusses the clash of religions in Yugoslavia in his essay "Universalist Religions in a Multinational Society," where he reflects on the Yugoslav conflict between Christianity and Islam and between the East-oriented Serbian Church and West-oriented Croatian Catholicism. In many respects the essay anticipates the subsequent destruction of Yugoslavia with the continuing clash between Christianity and Islam and between the West-East orientation in the Balkans.

Paul Wilson, a Canadian journalist and English translator of Vaclav Havel’s essays, who participated as a young student in a popular underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, describes his experiences in the article "Religious Movement in Czechoslovakia: Faith or Fashion?" In 1985, Wilson took part in a massive assembly of Catholics, who were celebrating at Velehrad the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Methodius and his part in bringing Christianity to Central Europe. Wilson was particularly amazed by the fact that many pilgrims to Velehrad were young people. As a proof of the religious revival among young people he also cites the immense popularity of the Rock Passion Play, written, directed and performed by Vratislav Brabenec, who was educated in the Protestant theological seminary in Prague. Although the rock version of the Passion Play was not intended as an allegory on the political situation, the intensity of the performance and the resonance that it evoked inside Czechoslovakia is interpreted by Wilson as an indication that Brabenec’s rock version of the story of Christ’s betrayal, arrest and trial by the priest and people of an occupied outpost of the Roman empire spoke directly to something fundamental in the culture and experience of Central Europe.

Avigdor Dagan, who as a Zionist emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Palestine and later became the first Israeli ambassador in Vienna, reflects in his essay "Continuity and Change in Jewish life in Central Europe" on the decimated Judaism after the Second World War. By citing the horrifying number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, he shows that Judaism could have hardly participated in the religious revival in the Communist ruled states of Central Europe. He admits, however, that the low-keyed resurgence of religiosity among the Jewish remnants in Central Europe is noticeable, although it is not as dynamic as the case of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. Compared with the towering flames of that fire, the newly found religiosity among the handful of surviving Jews is something like still-smoldering embers. Yet, in Dagon’s view, even that shows that the fire is not dead.

For Cross Currents the principal source of information about literature, visual arts, theater, music, and cinema in the occupied Central Europe was the "samizdat" outlet using typewriters and carbon papers for private publishing. The development of this barely tolerated press in Czechoslovakia is described by Gordon Skilling, Professor at the University of Toronto, in his essay "Samizdat: A Return to the Pre-Gutenberg era?" He asserts that the producers of "samizdat" resemble the medieval scribes, who were copying their own texts and at the same time functioned as their own editors and publishers, so that the analogy between "samizdat" and the pre-Gutenberg era is tempting. In Czechoslovakia, "samizdat" publishing was able to produce typewritten, bound books which included novels, short stories, poetry, plays, literary criticism, historical and philosophical essays by many outstanding authors, who chose to publish without censorship. The book series Petlice [Padlock] under the general editorship of the novelist Ludvík Vaculík succeeded, while harassed by the police, to publish several hundred manuscripts. In the late seventies, Václav Havel started his own series known as Expedice [Dispatch]. He signed each volume himself and assumed the responsibility of selecting the manuscripts. Most of the texts, which were published by the Czech "samizdat," reached the West by means of clandestine contacts. Gordon Skilling himself assembled at the University of Toronto a large "samizdat" library containing several hundred volumes. Although the communist police tried hard to stop the clandestine communication between Central Europe and the West, it was never fully successful. Gordon Skilling was even able to deliver the first issues of Cross Currents to Václav Havel in his retreat "Hrádecek."

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