Who are you – identity vortex* 


Are you more than a confluence of time and space? One poet's reflections on the meaning and role of identity today.

Just as the child, by sleep already possessed,
Drops in his quiet bed, eager to rest,
But begs you: “Don’t go yet; tell me a story” –**

Mint gyermek, aki már pihenni vágyik
és el is jutott a nyugalmas ágyig
még kérlel, hogy: „Ne menj el, mesélj” –

The ‘tell me a story’ moment in the poem is almost a century ago: 1937. The Hungarian poet, Attila József, wrote this poem to welcome the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist, Thomas Mann, at the Academy of Music in Budapest. The welcoming gesture was, in the end, not performed as planned. The director of public prosecution decided to ban the poet from addressing the novelist with his poem.

Almost a century has passed since state censorship embargoed in Budapest in 1937 one writer greeting another with tools of their trade – words.  

His existence and name forgotten, the state censor is long gone. The poet and the novelist have both become admired, quintessential icons of European culture. Thomas Mann lived long enough to give anti-Nazi speeches on the BBC, only to be a suspected communist by McCarthyism. Attila József, the poet and the hero of our story-telling story, committed suicide the same year, in 1937. 

But… his poem not only remains, but its relevance has been increasing over time.

‘To be or not to be: that is the question’ is part of everyday speech, a quote we might hear in a conversation (and not just in English), without referencing its source: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Similarly, some of the lines from ‘Welcome to Thomas Mann’ have entered public consciousness in Hungary.

Sit down, please. Let your stirring tale be said.
We are listening to you, glad, like one in bed,
To see to-day, before that sudden night,
A European mid people barbarous, white.*

Foglalj helyet. Kezdd el a mesét szépen.
Mi hallgatunk és lesz, aki csak éppen
néz téged, mert örül, hogy lát ma itt
fehérek közt egy európait.

A European mid people barbarous, white.

This line in particular seems to have acquired an independent life, free from its textual or historical context.

A European mid people barbarous, white.

It encapsulates József’s insight into identity. Historically, a ‘European’ tended to be visualised as ‘white’. Certainly, this would have been the case when József wrote the poem almost a century ago. At the time, ‘European’ and ‘white’ were words taken for granted as a collocation, perhaps even a phraseme, the two words expressing one idea. Yet the poet positions the word ‘European’ and ‘white’ in contrast with each other.

A European mid people barbarous, white.

‘European’ as opposed to ‘white’ (and barbarous). In one short line, the poet disentangles the cultural (European) and the anthropological (white) threads of the identity tapestry. 

He disambiguates and contrasts the ethical and the ethnic dimensions of the concept.

Not quite a century later, the same tapestry is an increasingly contested territory. The complex notion of identity, its real and perceived, manipulated and heartfelt relevance is on the rise. A torrent of molten lava. Sizzling. 

The context of the debate is multilayered and seemingly knows no boundaries. At some time or another, be it a conscious or subconscious process, we think about our sense or lack of belonging. We dive into the identity vortex.

European identity – a case in point. The vortex in action on a grand scale. 

One way of looking at this usually starts by seeing Europe fundamentally as an extended 'family’ of sorts. This ‘family’ would have acquired through its history (not to mention the re/editing, re/writing, rehearsing, interpreting its history, and highlighting different priorities at different times) an overarching narrative. This grand narrative works in a multiplicity of textures, intertwined layers, including history, art, science, politics, psychology, philosophy and religion.

Think of, say, of something we all have: a body. Now think of a European artist most people can readily relate to: Cezanne. Where would Cezanne’s perception of the human body be without Renaissance art? In turn, the Renaissance perceptional swerve builds on Giotto’s work… which, in turn, draws on the Byzantine, Roman and Greek perception of who we are, what we look like and… how we want to be seen. And so it goes. The endless ‘hyperlinks’ of the landscape of the human body in art create an interrelated family of stories with a grand narrative arch.

The (often tragically) shared, complex history and culture offers a form of identity and stories of ‘family’ affiliation. A sense of familiarity with such stories positions us in a certain set of time and space coordinates that can feel meaningful about the past and purposeful about the future. Such an overarching story can provide the comfort of coherence and belonging to some or pain and despair to others, positioned beyond the walls of the story.

This story-telling story is popular; but it’s not the only story.

Narrative twists and turns beyond the popular story of shared dates, history and culture can also include, or even prioritise, shared values, religions, mythologies and symbols in the public and political sphere. These story elements can also act as the driving force of the protagonists of the story – us. Values, socially constructed, can be just as passionately felt as dates and ideas in history: human rights and dignity, democracy, welfare and fair play.

The first story foregrounds the priority of tribes and groups, small and large, and the role of the past in how we see our identity. Whereas the second story foregrounds socially constructed values of the present rather than the tribes and tribulations of the past.

Dichotomy’s dramatic simplicity tends to be seductive – ‘either/or’ simplification of complex issues can be heuristically satisfying. Ever so efficient, but rarely helpful…or even real. 

An example of how the two different stories about identity can be seamlessly interwoven in a single, coherent story, rather then segregated in a distinct dichotomy, is Mississippi Goddam

The story-teller, Nina Simone punctuates her tale of belonging

‘Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there’

 with her story of values, in this case, civil rights, including (negotiated) desegregation

‘You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality’

The music industry at the time – in 1964! – boycotted Simone’s piece on identity. But our heroine, rather than committing suicide like our Hungarian poet in 1937, was able to reconstruct her storyline, leaving her country “full of lies” in 1970. 

Our story-telling strategies do not stop here. Like Simone in Mississippi Goddam, we can spin a yarn by zooming in and out, shifting the focus between past and the present, between the group and the individual. Still, the history- and the values-oriented stories can share a degree of static quality. They can become, and remain, closed.

Static stories. How do stories evolve, open up new dimensions? How often is the ‘same story’ really the same… or the themes and variations ripple the water in unique ways?

Our story of ‘who we are ’ has the potential to play out as an open-ended rather than a prescribed, closed and therefore static grand narrative. This story can flow out of our experiences. A tale in modulated flux. Then the narrative is not locked at a certain point, neither it is carved in stone of the past, nor etched on the retina of the present. Our story-making/identity can rely on historical, cultural story-building blocks and/or values and symbols to catalyse a sense of identity. But they can then be also modulated by experiences (in the broadest sense of the word) that flow through our life, finetuning our understanding.

In this story-telling mode, each exchange has a potential to adjust the filter we apply in relating to the world.  

 Each experience a moment of 

‘Don’t go yet; tell me a story’.

The poem, Who are you - identity vortex of time and place by Zsuzsanna Ardó was recently set to music by Hayes Biggs and performed by C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective on 10 March 2017 at the Church of the Holy Apostles, Manhattan, NY. Credits: Zsuzsanna Ardó, poem; Hayes Biggs, music; Timothy Brown, conductor; Karen Siegel, Maya Ben-Meir, Rebecca Ehren, Jamie Klenetsky Fay, soloists.

©Zsuzsanna Ardó

* Published by openDemocracy 8 July 2018.

** Welcome to Thomas Mann, 1937, by Attila József, translated by Vernon Watkins