Krzystof Czyżewski – practitioner of ideas, writer, philosopher, culture animator, theatre director, editor. Co-founder and president of the Borderland Foundation and director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations” in Sejny, Poland. Teacher and lecturer, professor at the University of Bologna. Among his books of poetry and essays are: The Path of the Borderland (2001), Trust & Identity: A Handbook of Dialogue (2011), Miłosz – Dialog – Borderland (2013), Miłosz. A Connective Tissue (2014), A Small Center of the World (2017), and Toward Xenopolis (2019). In 2018, as an acknowledgment of the contribution of for intercultural dialogue has been given the Princess Margriet Award for Culture by the European Cultural Foundation ( https://culturalfoundation.eu/stories/2018-ecf-princess-margriet-award-for-culture/). Krzysztof Czyżewski’s text we are publishing reflects meaningfully the philosophy of “Borderland”.
It is an old truth that only by transcending oneself one can remain oneself. This, however, would not be possible without the imagination of dialogue, the path leading man outside the individual horizons, towards a meeting.
Motivated by the imagination of dialogue we involve ourselves in a discourse with the Other, one that could be our own voice, a supernatural being, an alternative reality, existence on another plane, untamed memory, a person with whom we share our life, a neighbour with roots in a different culture, a differently minded or handicapped roommate, a fellow-citizen of other nationality or religion… The Other is part of us and part of the community we feel we belong to. The Other we are talking about here cannot be absent or indifferent to us. If we wish, for instance, to refer to a dervish of Bukhara as the Other, it is only on the condition we include him in the same community we perceive vital for ourselves and shaping our own fate. If we presume his or her world to be a separate one, ruled by separate laws, irrelevant to our own existence, he or she will remain to us alien and distant, perhaps interesting and worthy of respect, but by no means the Other. Similarly, an angel is not the Other if it remains to us an abstract being, untouched by our reality, inner experience or faith.
Only when the Other does become part of ourselves and an integral link of the community that we belong to, we will be able to stand a chance of transcending ourselves by addressing it.
The imagination of the dialogue in action becomes an ethos, a series of actions and practical skills gained through following the code of values conforming to its spirit. This ethos integrates our individuality and community entering into a conversation with the Other, not aiming to eliminate it or lay it down on the altar of a group unity. Its integrity is essential, including spiritual and family life, as well as both social and political activity. In each of these we face the same threshold, erected before us by our own ego, our own interest, possessions, complacency about what is familiar and conforming to our established notions – the threshold which holds back man’s endeavour to achieve full humanity. It is so firmly entrenched that we have learnt to build our own individuality and community shrinking from crossing over. In consequence, we have created an identity, a social development, a raison d’État, a living space based on the negation of the Other. We are trying to find different methods of denying it in our inner life and in people around us. Cowards as we are in fighting our own limitations and fears, we become heroes of fighting the Other, nothing but a form of escape, read: escape from ourselves. In this position we easily get persuaded that by doing so we will gain a good reputation and contribute to the progress of civilization.
When a man stops transcending himself, the organs and the functions responsible for achieving it decline in him. Man experiences eradication. Because what else could mean depriving one of one’s other shore – loneliness on an island set in an inaccessible archipelago? The imagination of dialogue allows also an insight into the world that has forgotten the secrets of the craft of bridge building and makes us realize the consequences of such deficiency. If we consider here addressing the Other as the binding material of individuality and community, then this lack of ability must bring about problems in the sphere of the inner life, both social and political. Looking at it from this perspective we can perceive a thread linking the problems which until now we used to attribute to different spheres of our life. The difficulties in controlling our own ego, the separation from transcendence, the alienation and loneliness of free individuals, the culture captivated by large numbers and devoid of an intimate space of an authentic meeting, the transitoriness of personal relationships, the crisis of the family, the indifference of the neighbour, the fear of your mate, the xenophobia of the fellow-citizen, the demand for a scapegoat, the inability of building federal structures, retreat from universalism… Each of these phenomena reveals man’s inability to transcend oneself.
One couldn’t help but get the impression that these phenomena, in large measure, express the present spiritual condition of man and describe the reality on the threshold of the third millennium after Christ. Alienation or hostility towards your fellow man based on racial or religious prejudice is, of course, nothing new in itself. The figure of the scapegoat is as old as that of man living in community with other people. None of the mentioned above phenomena is completely new. We should, however, feel concerned about the fact that man again finds transcending himself a great problem and in so many fields simultaneously. Additionally, we should feel warned by the fact that we perceive the disappearance of the ethos of dialogue at a special moment in time indicating a new reality surrounding us – never in the history has man lived in the condition of close neighbourhood of such a great variety of cultures, so apparently separate and at the same time, so violently changing the world around him. Never, as well, have borders been so often crossed over such wide areas of the world, and physical distances have been so easy to surmount.
Obviously then, the mentioned above phenomena cause mounting tension, and addressing the Other becomes a true civilizational challenge. The contemporary world cannot as yet face up to it. The opposite of globalization and the superficial unification becomes the never ceasing differentiation and ennoblement of separateness. The common cult of identity replaces the waning community, a result more of deficiency and alienation than inveteracy in what is common and general. Those distant and alien live ever closer to us, conscious of their own separateness and defensive about their own identity. It is more and more difficult to isolate ourselves, different and separate as we are, with a border or wall. This intensifies tension, threatens with a conflict, not so much ethnic or national, as it used to be not so long ago, but a cultural one, within one state, city, district, the globe…
None of the notions of the age of modernity have suffered lately such a spectacular defeat as the notion of tolerance. Let us admit it, the rich societies of the West have been concealing behind it a great deal of superficiality, evasion of touchy issues, prudery of the political correctness and plain falseness. But does it mean that, in return, we should be just granted, a thing that has already become a cultural norm, the right to manifest particularistic interest and strongly defend our own identity? Those who claim that tolerance can be effectively replaced by good laws seem not to remember that the ethos of dialogue includes the spheres of our life where no laws apply and concerns the acts that man does not have to do unto others but nevertheless can still wish to. Finding ourselves in the situation of the ever closer neighbourhood we do not augment our understanding of tolerance but incline more towards its rejection, mocking it and rendering it a commonplace (it is clearly visible in the equation of tolerance with moral relativism.)
Essential then becomes the question of the base on which one could build solidarity of the society so diverse and split inside, apprehensively helpless towards otherness, the otherness itself growing ever closer and by the same token cherishing its separateness, boasting economic and cultural contrasts and the uses of democracy. The rule of law is a significant notion, but by far too insignificant to meet the challenge. We need to create a connective tissue for the spreading borderlands, without it, and as we learned by the tragic lesson of the previous century, we shall witness the reappearance of yet another outburst of lust for domination and hatred, manipulated by yokels and their complexes. One of them, Adolf Hitler, just about a hundred years ago perceived the realities of a western metropolis saying: “More and more I hated this tangle of races, this mixture of Slavs, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Serbians… and mostly Jews – Jews were everywhere. The two-headed imperial eagle seemed to be the fruit of some incest!” Commenting on this fragment of Mein Kampf, Vaclav Bélohradský wrote: “Hitler’s complex – the fear of plurality (from which he originated) is still with us, and more common than it seems. Each of us can suddenly feel the fear of plurality, and (soon) behind every corner all set lie in wait politicians ready to feed on it. All western metropolises are today the Viennas whose streets every day are filled with waves of a mixture of nations and races, and where the same accent or the same facial features do not mean that we live in the same world”. (1)
In this situation a chance is offered by a distant and alien person who becomes the Other. We mean here a process that while not being an artificial or affected acculturation, it offers an authentic response to the changing reality around us. It is, indeed, a natural phenomenon that someone living so near to us, though coming from far away and rooted in a different culture, becomes internalized by us so that as the Other may become an integral part of the whole we belong to. With all the difficulties and, apparently indeterminable dilemmas accompanying this process – once again man is offered both a chance and fear of transcending himself.
Speaking about the internalization of the Other, we mean a process understood in the perspective of its long duration. Every attempt at restricting this perspective, limiting it to suit some short-term expectations or effects may turn out destructive. The imagination of dialogue opens before us the vista for a new era we are about to enter. A challenge to it, let me repeat, is addressing the Other. Some philosophers claim that we are in the course of transition to a new epoch which will complement the threefold cycle of man’s spiritual development. Its new paradigm will be the other person – “You are”. It develops following the two previous epochs: antiquity, based on the paradigm of the third person – “This is”, whose main protagonist was Aristotle and whose determinants were mind and reality; and the modern times, based on the paradigm of the first person – “I am”, with Descartes playing the role of the original protagonist and the will and subjectivity as the main determinants. Of course, it is not that these paradigms belong today to the past – they are still present and permanently inscribed in man’s consciousness. The era whose essential reference becomes “You are” stands a chance to supplement reality with dialogic discourse, objectivity and subjectivity with empathy, and truth and freedom with responsibility.
Whatever the name we may apply to the new epoch on whose threshold we are standing, we are waking up to the awareness that our future, in large measure, will be determined by the meeting with the Other, unsettling with its threat of the possibility of defeat and never-ending cultural wars. Such a negative course of events would bring, first of all, the downfall of our personal integrity and ability of setting an authentic community in the post-modern reality. And therefore the imagination of dialogue is so essential today, offering a chance for an alternative route of development of our civilization. This calls for an innovative school of thought, able to efficiently challenge with its reflection the only just being recognized experience and the rapidly changing reality. It will, undoubtedly, find support in the philosophy of dialogue demanding continuation and development. It also, perhaps even more, requires a culture of dialogue able to build the ethos of the persons engaged in the process of its creation, expressed in the practical activities in the inter-personal space. For these activities to really come into being we need new cultural practices and modern tools of bridge building, suitably adjusted to the dialogic reflection. In other words, we are enquiring here about a new way of thinking and the accompanying craft worked out in the modern workshops of cultural dialogue.
Man’s dialogue with the Other is a process of building. It is not given unto us, nor does it simply happen on its own. Dialogue is a craft. Those practising it from the time immemorial have been compared to bridge builders. In the Balkans they were called neimars and treated with the respect due to the architects knowledgeable about the secrets of nature and being able to bring under the control the powers of chaos. Later, the name went into oblivion and together with it the secrets of the craft. Bridge building became a technique. The old tools were neglected, and choosing new ones no one cared for equipping them with the functions that neimars employed. It brings to mind a comparison to Esperanto, the language almost forgotten today as it seemed useless in the era of the general domination of English satisfying the technical need of communication in the globalizing world; the English language is devoid however, of an attitude characteristic for the ethos of dialogue, the matter of substance for Ludwik Zamenhoff and the practicians of Esperanto.
Sufficiently long we have experienced the community life without the neimar’s workshop and without the schools of philosophy of dialogue which could teach the craft of bridge building. It is not the time now for pondering over what it could be like if such workshops had existed in a significant number earlier, while – equipped in technologically more and more advanced tools – we have already practised the skill of destroying bridges. One can doubt the value of the dialogue workshop created by Martin Buber in Germany, in the fascist era. Growing up in Lviv, he became conscious of an alternative to living together in a multicultural city – after all it was not to be living in separation, such a possibility does not exist in a modern society; the alternative was to close the ranks against the Other. Someone might say it was already too late for a philosophy which seemed unpractical and unnecessary in those times. Masses of apprentices already filled then the workshops of ideology that demanded murdering the Other so that the threatened identity could re-establish the immemorial ritual of the community binding. And though the death toll among the people stigmatized as racial or class enemies was higher then ever in history, more significant was the number of the witnesses engaged, and consequently the participants in the rituals, eventually it was the decisive factor for closing of the ranks and their duration. The community collusions, instituted in this way during the murderous 20th century, proved permanent to such a degree that we can still feel them under the surface of our everyday life, not always sufficiently aware how easily they can be revived.
In spite of the durability of the matrices engraved in the studios of the twentieth-century totalitarian ideologies, it is them that eventually suffered a shameful defeat, it is these workshops that lie in ruins, compromising their usefulness proving inhuman and short-lived. What at first appeared pragmatic and conforming to the spirit of history, turned out to be a mere fantasy which could have turned out grotesquely laughable if not the size of destruction and suffering it brought about. Whereas the workshop of dialogue, also the one established, inter alia, by Martin Buber, from the beginning encumbered with the odium of unreality or utopianism, reveals to us today its amazing far-sightedness and vitality. Moreover, the theological and philosophical reflection developed in the workshop, which later acquired the name of the philosophy of dialogue, is read by us today, modern readers, as the art of life praxis expressing itself for instance in the rev. Józef Tischner’s ethics of solidarity.
The question of how to internalize the Other is also the question of the possibility of a modern culture of borderlands. Borderlands understood here not as a territory located at some outer boundary, e.g. of a state, but as the space of common life of different people, i.e. one where borders run across the community. Today, it is no longer an area located far away from the centre, notorious for immemorial tribal skirmishes, but famous for the wealth of the preserved against the tide of modernity, various, sometimes exotic cultural traditions. Borderlands have already become the centre of the modern civilization. Necessary in such circumstances becomes the creation of the workshops of building bridges for more and more novel and difficult “crossings”, where the imagination of dialogue becomes the matter of everyday, organic work. Before it is not too late, before the work on addressing the Other once again becomes associated with something unnecessary and before new masses of apprentices begin to fill the workshops of new soul masters under the sign of Ubu the King. An alternative to such a course of events is not a festival type of multi-culti or any other form of a superficial and short-term meeting of cultures. Let me say it once again: we are facing the challenge of developing the art of dialogic thinking, of creating an active culture of dialogue in the organic process of personal and community development, in a long-term process. We shall need for that purpose to learn the long forgotten neimar’s craft, re-read and useful wherever man struggles with transcending himself.
The neimar we refer to here, is not only the builder of bridges spinning opposite banks. The craft includes also the man standing on the guard of the bridge. In the past they used to erect for that purpose towers constituting an integral part of the bridge. The guard would also have at his disposal a gate, a barrier or some other form of supervision over the space of connection with the other bank. The bridge in the form of a physical structure and the man guarding it, opening or closing the passage to the other side, only together constitute a true image of the construction recognizable as a work of the dialogic imagination. One that erects only the structure of the bridge at one moment will finish his work and continue to another place to deal with something new. Underlying the secret of the neimar is the fact that the bay bearer of his construction is the man inhabiting the place where the bridge was erected and for whom the work at the bridge never ends.
Georg Simmel in the essay The Bridge and the Door (2) writes about man that “he is a dividing being and must always divide to be able to unite – so the bare, neutral existence of two banks must first be spiritually conceived as a division if they are to be connected with a bridge”.
For the connection established by the bridge to authentically realize the possibility of dialogue and meeting, there must exist a real possibility of breaking the connection. Division and differentiation are constituent elements of communication, and of the effort to build connections. In the case of a bridge there always exists the alternative of destruction, we are aware of its fragility and vulnerability in the face of the destructive powers at the disposal of both nature and man. Perhaps, it is not apparent in the physical image of the bridge: “Generally speaking, a bridge in a scenery is usually perceived as «picturesque»” – writes Simmel. Therefore, he credited it with bringing out a mere unification and complemented its significance for the truth about man with the symbol of the door which “demonstrates that the division and the connection are only two aspects of the same act. […] The door can be opened and therefore when it is closed, it may evoke a clearer than a common smooth wall sense of separation from everything situated outside the space”.
A bridge built in compliance with the arcana of the neimar’s craft can also contain Simmel’s door. After all, the bridge might have never come to be built, and at any moment it can cease to exist. Its existence we owe to the man who erected it and the one who was built into it as a living bay by the neimar – the man in charge of it, one who closes and opens its gate. The bridge institutes only a possibility of connection. We need the nurtured by man culture of closing and opening of the gate. “The deepest essence of man – writes Simmel – is the way he sets for himself boundaries, while still remaining free, i.e. is able to remove the limitation, to go beyond it”. Man, the doorkeeper of the bridge, once again in history of our civilization stands at the crossroads of boundaries. And again so much depends on him alone…
- V. Bélohradský, Essays. transl. by V. Petrilak. „Krasnogruda” nr 2-3 (1994).
- G. Simmel, Most i drzwi. transl. by M. Łukasiewicz. Warszawa 2006.