- Imagining the Balkans
How do we come to imagine a particular nation? How do people invent an entire geographical region? Who has the cultural authority and knowledge to represent another people? How does this depiction take place? Maria Todorova, professor of history at the University of Florida in Gainesville, grapples with these questions as she delineates the discourse of Balkanism over the last four hundred years and considers its impact on Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia (except Slovenia, which was never part of the Ottoman Empire).
The word “Balkanism,” of course, conjures up the discourse of Orientalism and the eponymous title of Edward Said’s commanding volume. While acknowledging the influence of Said’s work on her study, Todorova also differentiates her project from the gigantic academic enterprise that examines Orientalism. She rightly points out, for instance, that whereas Said and his followers have demonstrated the egregious misrepresentation and essentialization of the orient, they have not paid sufficient attention to how their own studies essentialize the West as a homogeneous system. Ironically, the West in their paradigm becomes the necessary Other, the agent of hegemony, in contrast to a heterogeneous East. Todorova thus does not see her book as a “morality tale” seeking to narrate a story of Western treachery. Nor does she regard the various populations of the Balkans as aggrieved, innocent people, incapable of gaining control over their societies because of past injustices.
The author’s aim is to chart the discourse of Balkanism as it developed over the last four centuries in scholarly and journalistic writings (Vassilis Lambropoulos has attempted a similar genealogy of the discourses of Hebraism and Hellenism in his The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Interpretation [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993]). Rather than seeing Balkanism as a variant of Orientalism, she portrays it as an independent construction having to do with the representation of the Balkans. There are a number of reasons that account for this difference between the two systems of thought. For one, the Balkans possess a geographical specificity that the amorphous Orient never had. Second, most of the Balkan populations were on the “right” side in the crevasse separating Christianity from Islam. Related to this is the fact that the state controlling the area, the Ottoman Empire, was itself Islamic. These factors all complicate the discourse of Balkanism as can be seen in the numerous descriptions Todorova has amassed of European travelers, diplomats, and politicians that favorably compare the gallant and noble Turkish elites to the slothful and capricious Greeks. The European aristocrats and upper bourgeoisie, who could afford the Grand Tour to the Balkans and the Levant in the eighteenth century, had more in common with the Muslim rulers than their Christian peasants. The traveler John Morritt, for instance, who came to the Peloponnese in 1796, praised the civility and hospitality of the Turks, but his “English blood” made him wish to “kick a Greek for the fawning servility he thinks politeness.” Yet we know from the history of philhellenism that this [End Page 375] relationship came to be reversed, even if the Hellas with which the Europeans had fallen in love was an Arcadia of their own invention.
Having demonstrated the specificity of Balkanism, Todorova proceeds patiently to outline the roots and the evolution of this discourse. She writes with admirable clarity, formulating her arguments with style and conviction. While her Weltanschauung is expansive, her analysis is painstaking. She has conducted extensive primary research to show how Europeans came to write about the Balkan territories. Through a series of seven chapters she examines the ways in which Europeans perceived the Balkan peoples, how this perception changed over time, and how this representation has had political effects. To demonstrate these consequences Todorova devotes some time to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, which, as she rightly reminds us, reflect a Yugoslav rather than a Balkan crisis. She analyzes, for instance, how a centuries-old discourse has enabled politicians and journalists to portray the war as a function of blood-lust, of...