MICHAEL FISCHER SYMPOSIUM 2016
Yearning for the unknown – Experiencing neighbourhood,
living in an ‘enlarged’ Europe

Under the patronage of EU-Commissioner Johannes Hahn


I„Wesentlich ist es zu lernen, dass wir von Menschen umgeben sind, die anders sind: die wir nicht oder nicht gut verstehen, die wir lieben, hassen, die uns gleichgültig oder rätselhaft sind, von denen uns ein Abgrund trennt oder nicht. Es ist notwendig, sich diese Fülle von Bezugsmöglichkeiten vor Augen zu halten. Wir müssen nicht nur mit Unterschieden leben, sondern auch denken und bedenken lernen ….“
(Michael Fischer)

Retrospective
In the autumn of 2015, the fourth symposium in the series ‘Rethinking Europe’ (Europa NEU denken), now dedicated to its founder, was held in Dubrovnik in memory of Michael Fischer. With EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn in the chair, well-known artists, literary figures, writers, scientists and journalists came together to discuss and deliver talks on overcoming physical and intangible barriers in Europe at large. They reflected on ‘the other side of the sea(s)’ and the contradictory debate over the notion of Europe. Distance and proximity, threat and attraction, diversity and uniformity, enclosure and migration… These are fundamental ambivalences that describe not only the metaphysics of the sea but also the dream-figure of Europe that so many are trying to reach. Summing up, then, we can say that ambivalence probably lies at the heart of the oft-invoked notion of identity – and it is precisely these paradoxes that make it so difficult to grasp the genuine essence of Europeanness.

Reflections on ‘Region, Innovation and Culturality’ were at the heart of the first Rethinking Europe Symposium, held in Trieste in 2012. In 2013 (and also in Trieste) the significance of the regions as agents of civilisation was discussed, while in 2014 in Piran we explored the ‘History of Mentality of the Adriatic’. The fourth Rethinking Europe symposium in Dubrovnik travelled to the external borders of the EU for the first time to debate ‘Enlargement of the European Union from the Perspective of the Coasts’. In 2016 we have come 400 miles further south to Syracuse on the east coast of Sicily. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and lies very close to Africa: a remnant of the land bridge that once joined Europe with Africa.

This year’s event takes place, of course, against the background of mass migration and the refugee crisis, the consequent need to reassess what should be done to ensure good-neighbourly relations, and the challenges posed for EU enlargement policy. The main emphasis must be, in Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s words, ‘to secure stability in our neighbourhood’.
Besides providing economic support and help in extending democratic structures, a key condition for political stability is to build a functioning civil society, which in turn must have responsibility for intercultural matters.
Intellectuals from a wide range of different fields recount their encounters with ‘the other’ and point to possible ways of learning about ‘the foreign’, how civil society might function and how the divide to a neighbouring culture can be bridged. They guide us along their seductive visual, historical, literary, musical, culinary and philosophical journeys to a considered awareness of cultural difference. – At a very special location. For Syracuse – like Trieste, Piran, and Dubrovnik before it – is a major crossroads of cultures. Above all, however, Syracuse has to be seen as a bridgehead between the Islamic and Graeco-Roman world. The Romans and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, and even Hohenstaufens and Aragonese have all left their mark and legacy...

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe landed in Sicily in the spring of 1787 during his Italian travels, he declared that ‘here at last is the key to everything’. For it was here, visiting the twelfth-century castle La Zisa, that this prince of poets first came into contact with the Orient that later inspired his great collection of poems, West-Eastern Divan. That summer residence of the Norman kings, west of Palermo, displays clear Arab influences, for the majority of the craftsmen and master builders were Arab, as were many of the people of Sicily.
In the West-Eastern Divan Goethe created a ‘great work of dialogue’, a ‘world book’ that represents a ‘happy coincidence of literary globalisation and benevolent cultural comparison based on his deeper understanding of mankind’s shared universal roots’ (Thomas Lehr).
All his life Michael Fischer sought to promote a dialogue of cultures, arts and disciplines, for example by establishing the forward-looking ‘Rethinking Europe’ series. His aim was to reflect on ‘culturality, openness and universal responsibility’ as a counterweight to the ‘re-erection of borders and taboos’. This applies today more than ever, and therefore here, in his memory, we want to re-think of him.

Yearning for Europe
Another great mind is reflected in the thought and writings of the major European author Danilo Kiš, whose life and work was introduced so graphically by Ilma Rakusa at the Dubrovnik symposium. In his concept of central Europe, Danilo Kiš interwove the utopian with things lost, sought otherness in the common heritage, and retained a sceptical, because backward-looking, nostalgic view of central Europe: driven by a longing for harmony or, as Kiš put it, by ‘homesickness for Europe’. This kind of homesickness still haunts the countries of south-eastern Europe decades later – as the many, often very personal testimonies in Dubrovnik showed.
Starting from Danilo Kiš’ range of experience, which has to be classed as a ‘world of yesterday’, via the real traumas in south-eastern Europe – and thus tying in directly with the previous symposium –, we set out to trace this yearning for Europe, but in a completely new context shaped by war, terrorism, flight and xenophobia.

Homesickness, so closely related to nostalgia, suggests something absent, but also a searching, yearning for home. To find a home, a new home, is the hope of thousands of refugees from the regions ravaged by war – and close to Europe.
With the arrival of the first refugees, the vision of the hostile stranger re-awakened in Europe, nurtured by prejudices and resentments often based on a mythical view of the West derived from the 17th and 18th centuries and always implying blind animosity towards anything foreign.
Instead of borders and boundaries we advocate a sense of wanderlust, a desire to discover things new, other, foreign – in order to live as better neighbours in a challenging future. We are looking for what is other and foreign not only in language, religion, philosophy, but also in cookery and the wine cellar, the arts and couture. From Sicily we can rethink Europe working inwards from the edges.

It was in order to seek out things foreign and new, to acquire knowledge, indeed in order to gain an understanding of other civilisations, that Goethe too set out on his journey. Through his memories he lets us share in this enterprise: ‘as I strolled through that beautiful public garden, between flowering hedges of oleander, and lingered among groves of fruit-laden orange and lemon trees, and other trees and shrubs unknown to me, I felt the most pleasant sensation of foreign influence.’ But the foreign encompasses not just beauty and the sublime.

Neighbourly exploration
Loss of homeland, flight, the trials of exile – these are not only parameters of the current crisis, but also the ingredients of one of the oldest tales in Western literature, the tale of the great wandering voyage that also led Odysseus to Sicily. From Palermo, Goethe wrote to Herder: ‘As to Homer, it is as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. … Now that I have in my mind’s eye all these coasts and promontories, gulfs and bays, islands and spits, rocks and stretches of sand, bush-clad hills, gentle meadows, lush fields, ornamented gardens, tended trees, hanging vines, towering clouds and ever cheerful plains, cliffs and banks and the all-surrounding sea with its constantly varied aspect, only now has the Odyssey become a living word for me.’ – But for those who set out to sea from Tunisia and Egypt to Pozzallo, a small Sicilian port – or from Libya to Lampedusa, the voyage is not only a daunting undertaking but also one that often ends in terrible tragedy.

From Sicily the vista opens up on a different world. The close proximity of Africa, for instance, is firmly rooted in the minds of Sicilians. With all its attractions and abominations, as testified by the fate of the fruit pickers, for instance. In this atmosphere of proximity to the foreign, we want to approach and understand others in order to learn to live as good neighbours – including in terms of a globally understood neighbourliness of respect. We want to make a moral contribution in the current crisis, a crisis that is also reflected in the differences between neighbourhood and enlargement policy.
After encounters with that which is foreign we often quench our yearning for new and different worlds through words and images, things to which we attach particular importance. We are not, however, searching for the delightful ideal worlds of romanticising literature, but the longed-for worlds of here and now which, after all the devastation, we will presumably have to rebuild at the fractured interfaces between East and West.


 

Margarethe Lasinger