You are here : ZUSTRICH Cultural Aura of a Nation Or A Defect in the Main Mirror
Cultural Aura of a Nation
A Defect in the Main Mirror

Traditionally, Knowledge Day, the 1st of September
the inaugural lecture held in the University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy
was given by world-renowned people.

This year,
the prominent poetess and scientist Lina Kostenko
spoke before students and staff members of the University.

Photographs by Sergiy Marchenko

ISBN 966-518-126-2

Lina Kostenko, 1999
“KM Academia”, 1999

So, Cultural Aura of a Nation. It seems to be a pleasant combination of words for the ear, doesn't it? Every nation has to have its own "cultural aura" which unites the whole complex of sciences and liberal arts, dealing with all the spheres of social life, including literature, the arts — in their relation to the world culture, and in their, no doubt, unique national garb.

But let me first define more precisely the words used in the title of my presentation.

AURA. In the dictionaries of the Soviet period this word was defined as a medical term only) a warning, subjective sensation that precedes a seizure or other neurological disorder, or a specific state of the organism at the verge of being afflicted by an illness. Probably, this definition was taker from among other possible meanings of the word because of the Bolshevik dislike for the occult Aura, apart from other possible definitions, is an energy field, invisible light that surrounds material objects, human beings in particular, that can be seen only by the clairvoyants.

If we look into the etymology of the word we'll discover it comes from Latin which in its turn has borrowed it from Greek. In those languages it had several meanings, most of them centering on "a light breeze", "gust of wind" or on "gold." Ukrainian oreol (akin to "aureole") also derives from "aura." Incidentally, kamikaze in Japanese means "divine wind" but in the twentieth century this word was used to describe Japanese airplane pilots who made suicidal attacks. At first glance there seems to be no connection but if you ponder on it you come to realize that only "a gust of divine wind" could drive a pilot to do such a desperate thing.

If there is a, what is called, bio-field, "an aura" of a human being, then there must be "an aura" of a whole nation made up of these human beings, though you can't see it with a naked eye.

As far as the notion of "a nation" is concerned, it seems to have, at first glance, quite a clear-cut and easily understandable definition. But there has been so much confusion introduced into this notion recently, that a layman may find himself at a loss. I won't go into the history of this issue but I'll make one obvious statement: if the Ukrainian were not a nation they would have stopped being Ukrainians long time ago. There was some "divine wind" that kept hurling other nations, generation after generation, upon the Ukrainians in the struggle for the possession of a piece of land that God has given Ukrainians to live upon.

And another thing, not connected with terminology. Say, we hear the word "Spain", what associations it brings? Lope de Vega, Calderon, Cervantes, Goya, Prado Museum, Federico de Garcia Lorca, and other names and phenomena along these lines. But wait a minute, what about auto-da-fe, Inquisition, Torquemada, conquistadors, expulsion of Jews from Spain, bloody civil wars. All of it is Spain, too. But why the image of the Spanish nation is not associated for us with all those dreadful things? Why culture dominates? We know the poetry of Juan Jimenez, we know the canvases of El Greco, we know the music of Sarasate. That is what creates the aura of the nation. Also, the one that includes the French composer Bizet who wrote an opera about a Spanish gypsy, based on a story by the French writer Merime. American Hemingway writes a novel called "Fiesta", a movable feast.

Or take the Germans. It's a nation of philosophers and composers, isn't it? Which nation has given the world Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche? And though Buchenwald is not too far from Goethe's oak, and in fact, the oak was chopped down long ago, and the Wermacht soldiers opened beer bottles against the stump, but it is not Hitler with his Goebbels (the one who began looking for his handgun when he heard the word "culture') who represent the image of the nation. Not the commander of a concentration camp but Doctor Faust.

Or take Russia, with her perpetual upheaval, with her half-mad tsars and communist party bosses, with her ignorant, downtrodden, oppressed people. The world knows only too well that Russia is a dangerous country, anti-humane but she has her own cultural image because she had outstanding scientists, scholars, thinkers, musicians, composers and writers. Russian poets killed themselves, Tolstoy was anathematized, Sakharov was exiled to a backwoods town but it was such personalities that have created the aura of the nation, not the corrupt, savage and merciless rulers.

It was Helevetius who mentioned this saving grace of mankind. "The name of Confucius," he wrote, "is better known in Europe than any emperor's." The Humanists have worked out a concept of historical immortality. The ancient Greeks and Romans are all of them long dead but they have guaranteed themselves historical immortality for millennia to come.

The aura of music of Grieg, Sibelius, of wonderful fairy tales of Andersen hangs above Scandinavia. Across the ocean, in South America, Columbia is shining with the aura of Markes. Do I have to explain now that England — it is Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley? That France — it's Voltaire, Rousseau, Apollinaire? That Italy is a nation of Dante, Petrarch, Raphael and Michelangelo. And it is not the thrust forward chin of II Duce that gives Italy her unique face, but her painters and poets.

So, wouldn't we look at Ukraine from such a point of view? If someone somewhere in the world hears the words "Ukraine," "Ukrainian", what kind of associations come upon this someone's mind? Isn't it a rightful question? We are an independent state now. So, isn't it high time we thought who we are in the eyes of the world, which aura we have, and if we don't have any, then why?

Once, when Americans were ready to launch into orbit an extremely powerful telescope, they discovered that the main mirror of the telescope, which had a high-precision system of lenses and mirrors inside, had a fault. The fault was corrected and only then the telescope was launched.

"Metaphorically speaking, in every society, in every nation, the whole complex of the liberal arts with literature, education and art, must be such a system of lenses and mirrors, so that in the reflections arid magnifications every society could have an objective picture of itself and present to the world an undistorted image about itself, the image that gets into focus in the main mirror. The effect of the main mirror, the precision of the lenses play a decisive role here.

Extending this metaphor, we can say that we, in Ukraine, are still using an outdated telescope that has never been renovated, those who control it and look into it are not quite qualified for the job, or they are biased and careless; the nation is reflected not in the system of wisely positioned mirrors and gets in focus not in the main mirror but in small, distorting mirrors in wrong positions. So, we have not an effect but a defect of the main mirror. And in fact, this telescope has been created not by us. It has been programmed so long ago it is hopelessly out of date and distorts badly the face of the nation. Thus we live with the ever-present sensation of things going wrong, psychological discomfort, distorted truth.

When we were part of the empire, the empire wanted to have its own image in the world and adjusted the ideological mirrors in such a way so that an illusion was created, and we were part of that illusion presented to the world. But actually, we remained behind the iron curtain. We were submerged in the mad ideological rhetoric, we lauded ourselves, we kept telling ourselves that we were a great nation, that we were champions of the most progressive ideals. At the same time, genocide of unheard proportions and cynicism were going on through cruel repression, famine and forced assimilation. The nation was purposefully discredited, such ideological cliches as "nationalists," "separatists," "traitors" were used to stamp out dissent.

But when the iron curtain collapsed with a deafening noise, it turned out that, as far as the world was concerned, we were no longer there. Ukraine is little known in the world, it is easily mistaken for Russia. Ukraine's problems are of no concern for the world. Many historical misconceptions that got attached to Ukraine have not been corrected by us.

For many people in Ukraine it was a terrible discovery, for some it was a bitter surprise and for some it was a bad shock. And it was so bad on young ambitious people, I think, who were burdened with neither reminiscences nor with any of our national complexes, and who were ready to work and live a new life. And suddenly they found themselves facing a humiliating and depressing reality.

What did Ukraine have to do immediately in this situation? The first thing — to assess the situation, to get a new set of lenses and mirrors, made in Ukraine. To develop its own cultural policy, to establish its strategy and priorities. To make itself known to the world through a paradox: a new state with a thousand-year history, whose free development had been blocked because of many historical reasons. WE should have made ourselves an exciting discovery for the world.

It is not what refuses things foreign but asserts its own that is effective.

Instead of doing all this, Ukraine kept on moving along the old lines under its own momentum. We accepted a good-natured but debilitating statement "We have what we have" as true and did not try to change the situation. Without producing anything that could oppose misinformation being spread about Ukraine, we began our entry into Europe with a bundle of anachronistic problems.

Our nation turned out to be unprotected. The aureole, aura, is very thin matter, it's not a suit of armor, it's not a shield, but those nations whose auras have been created through many centuries of development, are protected better. It has been observed though that empires are always afflicted with the megalomania and the oppressed peoples tend to self-flagellation.

Another thing — the Ukrainian writer and, incidentally, the first ever prime minister said way back that it's impossible to read about history of Ukraine without a sedative. This phrase now gets repeated over and over again in such manner that the Ukrainians of today are beginning to feel responsible for the blood-curdling horrors of our history.

But is there any history of any nation about which one could read without taking sedatives? And what makes our history so much worse than the history of any other nation? Can one read about the history of Britain without taking sedatives? What about Queen Mary, dubbed the Bloody, sending so many Protestants to death? What about so many heads chopped off in the times of Shakespeare at the executioner's blocks? What about the history of France with its St Bartholomew Night, with rivers of blood spilled in the revolutions? What about ancient Rome with its gladiators and wild beasts tearing Christians to pieces in the circus? Does the history of Germany present an example of an idyllic development of a nation? Wasn't Dante an exile and wasn't Bruno burned at the stake? Didn't Russia lose millions of people in its never-ending turmoil and expansions into new territories? What about colonial policies of Spain and Portugal? What about three thousand heretics tried and executed within one year only in Toledo? What about the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, the time when Ukraine began its national liberation war under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky? Europe was in ruins, wild dogs were howling on the rubble.

Every nation has what to heap ashes upon its head for. But this ash should not be blown into the eye of the new generations.

The coefficient of inefficiency of all the slogans calling to raise from the knees, to wake up, to read history taking a sedative and other in a similar vein is catastrophic. I wonder what it is — psychosis of obsessions, post-colonial syndrome or just plain ignorance?

We have excellent scholars, scientists, specialists in many fields of knowledge but for some reason it is not their voices that are heard, their figures are absent in the main mirror of the nation. Instead, show business starlets scintillate, figures of politicians of all calibers and of all leanings who throw into the masses questionable and dubious slogans, stand out. One gets an impression there is no main mirror altogether. There is just an emptiness there, a hole with a cobweb in it. It's not even a defect of the main mirror, but the presence of its absence.

Take, for example, constant appeals to culture to wait until the economy will start working better. It's hypocritical to say that the spiritual life depends upon the state of economy when we have so many Ukrainian writers who were tortured, repressed, persecuted. But it is they who have entered the historical immortality and not those who flourished under any regime. But why people still believe the lies and propaganda, why people do not give themselves the trouble to think, why do they let themselves be deluded and misled again? Because their minds got adapted, conformed. Nietzsche speaks of the mind imprisoned, enslaved. Applying it to the Ukrainian situation we can speak of the mind adapted, conformed. Maybe, it's even worse than the one imprisoned. Maybe, we have a case of "lethargic inertia that grips a nation" about which Helvetius once wrote?

And where is our universal state-building theory? I'm not advocating going down to the troglodyte-type chauvinistic ideological premises but we do have to have a clear concept of the very foundation on which our state must rest. The corner stone of such a foundation for all the civilized nations has always been the BOOK, culture. Rome conquered Greece by arms but then Greece conquered Rome with its culture, continuing itself in another antique invariant and giving Rome its historical immortality. At the renaissance times, the tribute from the conquered was taken in the form of books.

Here we can probably better understand why Herder wrote: "The Slavic peoples occupy much more space on the globe than in history." We can't accept this statement. We have had a history which is worthy of a great nation. But it is not reflected in the historical annals which are well-known throughout the world. There have been many reasons for that. One of them — isolation caused by the adoption of the Byzantine culture which was alien among the Latin-speaking cultures. But it is also evident that our ancestors were more dexterous with swords than with the quilt pens. Denmark had in the very early stages of its history someone called Saxon the Grammarian, who wrote a book called The Acts of the Danes, and so the Danes exist today both in history and their "acts," and cannot be spiritually appropriated by anyone. Historian Jordan described the Acts of the Goths. The Goths are no more but their "acts" live in history.

In the beginning of the world was the WORD.

In the beginning of a nation there also should be the WORD.

If it so happened that we do not have our own telescope with an undistorting mirrors and lenses, we should look into somebody else's without bearing a chip on our shoulder. The French historian Cherer, for example, wrote about the Ukrainians in this manner: "We see fathers who have passed on to their sons the feeling of dignity to be independent and left them a legacy of one sabre with the motto 'Die or Win.'" It gives quite a different picture of the Ukrainian nation. There is no standing on the knees here, no lethargic sleep. It was the same historian who wrote: "The merits that evoke our admiration if we speak about the Greeks or the Romans, can be looked upon as barbarian if we speak about the Cossacks." And that's what has actually happened. Why? Again we should remember the quality of the lenses and of the main mirror which refuses to focus on the truth.

Kant in his Anthropology from the Pragmatic Point of View has presented, as it were, on a sideline his assessment of different nations. He writes about "the national pride" of the Spaniards and their dignity; the Germans have "a temperament of cold rationalism and perseverance." The French, according to Kant, are distinguished by their civility and refined taste in socializing; the Italians have a great artistic taste. He writes with great sympathy about the Armenians and says they are a wise and hard working people. The contemporary Greeks seem to him much degraded in comparison with their great ancestors but still capable of national reawakening. His attitude to Russia is rather encouraging: "Russia is not yet ready to show in full its natural talents, but ready for development."

The English and the French for Kant are "the two most civilized nations of the world," and besides natural talents their development is enhanced by "their languages." Kant prophesied that the English language would some day become the most widespread language of business communication. It should be noted that since the eighteenth century, history has many times proved the correctness of Kant's predictions and assumptions.

The Ukrainians are not mentioned by Kant. Ukraine at the time of his writing was part of an empire and that is why, despite its national uniqueness, did not exist in the eyes of the world as a separate entity.

Montesquieu once said: "First you've got to be a bad citizen in order to become a good slave later. " Now, at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of a new millennium, it seems that the nations that have not asserted themselves, nations that are week, unstable, do not have much to hope for in the future. New mechanisms are at work now. Cruel mechanisms. The weak nations are likely to be ground to dust in this mill. Our problems are of no interest to anyone, and we should not think we are so unique in having them. The principle — we are the best, we are in the worst situation — is no good. The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Lyosa wrote many years ago that it could happen that "we, Latin Americans, would struggle with ourselves. We are burdened with the centuries in which intolerance, absolute truths and despotic governments reigned supreme, and to get off this burden will not be too easy." It seems it has been written about us. Ukraine is still better known in the world thanks to its athletes and corrupt politicians, and so little is known about its true essence.

We, in Ukraine, are discovering Ukraine for ourselves. Our search is not fraught with any loss of either territories or spiritual values. It only requires a readjustment of the established scheme. Rearrangement of the wrongly positioned mirrors.

The Ukrainians are a nation that has for centuries been under pressure that has been pushing it out of existence. The image of the Ukrainian nation has been distorted and kept distorted for centuries. It's a great miracle that this nation still exists in spite of so many efforts to have it levelled, deleted from the pages of history. As a matter of fact, we are a rarity, a nation that feels so lonely on its own land and even more lonely in the cosmos of humanity. Once the phantom of Europe, now we have begun to acquire features discernible by the rest of the mankind. We are expecting an emergence of our own philosophers, historians, sociologists, biologists, writers and artists who will create a new image of Ukraine.

Now, back to the defect of the main mirror.

Remember one of Andersen's most wonderful fairy tales, The Snow Queen? The story begins with a crafty and wicked evil spirit making a magic mirror. "This mirror had one special property: everything good and beautiful shrank, when reflected in it, to nothingness, and everything bad and ugly was blown out of proportion and seemed even worse and uglier than it actually was."

That's where the defect of mirror lies. It's been created by an evil spirit. And the followers and disciples of the evil spirit from Andersen's tale "were running around carrying this mirror here and there, and soon there was not a single country, not a single human being left that had not been reflected in the mirror in a dreadfully distorted way." Then the evil spirit's henchmen went up into the air seeking new entertainment there. But the mirror slipped from their hands and falling to the ground was smashed to smithereens.

"And those tiny pieces of the broken mirror did more harm than the mirror itself." They flew all around the world and if a sliver "got into somebody's eye, then the human being with this splinter in the eye would see the world, distorted, topsy-turvy or dreadful, because each tiny piece of the broken mirror had the same evil power as the whole used to have. Those who had a misfortune to have a sliver penetrate into their hearts, found their hearts turn into ice... And the untold number of such deadly splinters continued to fly here and there in the whole world."

They still keep flying. Fortunately, fewer and fewer people let these slivers penetrate into their eyes and hearts.

The history goes on, and if yesterday we had to take a sedative while reading about it, today we are making history and will go on making it tomorrow. One of the benefits of democracy is that under a democratic rule the state does not ruin man and man builds up the state. Man builds himself, makes decent life for himself, creates a cultural aura for his nation.

For the paper version of this inaugural lecture,
please e-mail
Volodymyr Kobzar
[email protected]
phone/fax (044) 416-15-43
(country code for Ukraine is 380)

The price of one copy is 3$

Published with the permission of Lina Kostenko.