Sacrificial narratives


The Literary and Theatrical Section’s Cross-sectional Panel 

Chair: Vladimir Biti

Sacrificial narratives are one of the most persistent and cross-cultural forms in which the resilience of people put under the hardest pressure comes to expression. They have played an extraordinarily important role in human history. Inspired by victimhood, they figure as the foundational narratives of empires, religions, nations and also most liberation movements. Inasmuch as the victims constitute outcasts to their communities, their existence makes an exception to the existing law. However, while they render this law illegitimate because it exempts them from its application, they turn their state of exemption into a new law that produces new exceptions.

Drawing upon Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence (Zur Kritik der Gewalt, 1920/21), Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Jacques Derrida’s The Force of Law (Force de Loi, 1992) the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben examines this vicious circle in his State of Exception (Stato di eccezione, 2003) and puts forth a provocative thesis. He claims that a state of exception was, with remarkable consequences, introduced into the public political sphere with the French Revolution and into the sphere of private self-reflection with Kant’s aesthetic. After the present was in this manner cut off from the past, it became interpretable, enfranchising many more subjects in the continual refashioning of both their nations and selves. Inspired by this ‘revolutionary atmosphere,’ Kant put every individual under pressure to pull him- or herself out of communal constraints characterized by determining judgments in order to accomplish individuality by way of reflective judgment. In other words, he called upon every human to replace the inherited ordinary reasoning with the creative ‘reasoning on reasoning.’ History thus became a relentless iteration of the new, an acceleration followed by the exclusion of individuals, groups and peoples ‘without history’. From that moment forth, everybody, and not only sovereigns as in pre-modern times, was invited to exempt him- or herself from the rules reserved for ‘underprivileged creatures.’ Concomitantly, that which Agamben dubs the ‘zones of indeterminacy’ unavoidably proliferated.

If we accept Agamben’s thesis, the consequence would be that, from the outbreak of ‘proper’ European modernity, the state of exception lost its previously self-evident, ‘providential’ character by becoming a persistent trigger of transformation. The official political state of exception imposed by so-called foundational narratives (such as Nibelungenlied or Jeanne d’Arc) now confronted the resistance of its victims in the form of individual self-exemption from its rule. Next to the individual, the social and gender sacrificial narratives opposed the national ones, calling for alternative commonalities. The covert literary sacrificial narratives countered overtly political ones. The German Bildungsroman might be taken as a case in point as it introduced the hero’s strategic identity postponement, i.e. the substitution of the formerly immediate and outright decisions with his patient and self-controlled behavior. Transferring the scene of action into consciousness, the Bildungsroman developed the itinerant technologies of the bourgeois self as the typical victim of aristocratic society. This victim’s sacrificial narrative, unlike that of political victims (Siegfried or Jeanne), did not aim at the dethronement of an external agency but the internal transformation of the self.

As a political philosopher, Agamben of course primarily deals with the public political state of exception, leaving aside the surreptitious aesthetic ones. As his range of ‘elective affinities’ (Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Arendt, Derrida) testifies, he focuses on the period between the First World War and 9/11. Although the First World War contributed substantially to the extension of the state of exception by elaborating its mechanisms and apparatuses, he remarks, it is only today’s world that “fully develops” its rule. With fresh memories of the Yugoslav and Rwandan wars, he in fact undertakes his analysis in the immediate shadow of 9/11 that knowingly triggered the Western sacrificial (meta)narrative by inducing its ill-reputed ‘war on terror’. It is telling that even if the West was armed to the teeth, its fortified wholeness came to be imperiled, subject to anxiety about the prospect of its durability, which drove it to exempt the ‘subhuman creatures’ as its alleged enemies from the protection of its jurisdiction. Since then, the worldwide rise of economic imbalances, international, intercultural and interreligious animosities, rightist populist regimes, fanatic ideologies and the concomitant “suicidal terrorism” makes the reign of sacrificial narratives even more worth pondering upon.

We will try, from our point of view, to concentrate on that which Agamben understandably marginalized in his analysis and to complete the picture by raising the following questions: How did literature and theatre respond to these political sacrificial narratives that multiply on a daily basis and take religious, class, national and gender victimhood as their mobilizing platforms, often by translating them into each other and amalgamating them? Have the twentieth century’s catastrophic events proliferated sacrificial narratives or was it possibly vice versa? How did literary and theatrical works react to the growing fascination with victimhood in the political sphere and how did they reshape this fascination’s forms? How did they reconfigure the political distinction between martyrs and assassinators, self-liberation and other-annihilation? How did they restructure the politically imposed “zones of indistinction” ─ in their most radical forms reduced to ‘bare life’ ─ by translating them into the private individual sphere? In shaping their narrative and dramatic strategies, how did they resume the strong and weak messianic projects and how did they render the relationship between them?

Participants (in alphabetic order):

  1. Biti, Vladimir (University of Vienna): Inverse ventriloquism – Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Sacrificial Narrative
  2. Burkhart, Dagmar (University of Mannheim): Reduction to “bare life” in Imre Kertesz’ “Fateless” and Varlam Shalamovs “Kolyma Tales
  3. Daković, Nevena (University of Belgrade, Section for Film and Visual Media): Serbian Mythomoteur as Sacrificial Narrative
  4. Dukić, Davor (University of Zagreb): The Zriny Frangipani Conspiracy as a National Sacrificial Narrative
  5. Juvan, Marko (University of Ljubljana): The Aesthetic Sacrifice – Cultural Saints and the Literary Nation-Building
  6. Lachmann, Renate (University of Konstanz): The authority of the witness – A virtual controversy between Agamben/Levi and the authors of Gulag narratives
  7. Lazić, Mladen (University of Belgrade, Section for Social Sciences): „Mnemonic battles” over NATO bombing of Serbia – analyses and their critique
  8. Talvet, Jüri (University of Tartu): Literature’s Implicit Potency and the Need for Reflective Patience in Criticism


Vladimir Biti
University of Vienna

Inverse ventriloquism
Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Sacrificial Narrative

In an essay written several years before the First World War, Hofmannsthal develops a sacrificial portrait of the poet by obliging him (not her!) to speak for an entirely deprived being exposed to enormous denigration and suffering. This compassion with the dispossessed finds its more concrete form during the First World War and thereafter, a period of Hofmannsthal’s growing sympathy with the despised Slavs. Significantly, his charity for the disadvantaged coincides with the rise of German antisemitism in the Dual Monarchy. A carefully educated Catholic Viennese patrician who barely remembered his Jewish origins becomes, so to say, overnight aware of them. He engages the Slavs as his allies because they have to resist the pressure of the arrogant Austrians in the same way as the Austrians have to resist that of the arrogant Germans and the Austrian Jews that of the arrogant Austrian Germans. My claim will be that the politics of Hofmannsthal’s sacrificial narrative relies on the adjustment of the Slavs as its heroes to the needs of its narrator. While he pretends to be speaking for them, he hideously makes them speak for his own trauma. This is how sacrificial narratives use to operate.

Dagmar Burkhart
University of Mannheim

Reduction to „bare life” in Imre Kertész’ Novel Fateless and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales

For people confined to camps, the elementary storage medium for physical and mental experience was not only the brain, but the whole body, in particular the skin. It proved to be a mnemonic instrument, ensuring that communication had a corporeal expression in form of, e.g., wounds, scars, swellings, fissures, boils, tattoos and other visible imprints. When a person is largely reduced to his or her „bare life” (Agamben), it is primarily the integumentum which relays experiences for storage in the cerebral cortex. To think of “skin memory” in the sense of a storage medium seems a logical image.

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, acts of the body drama occur at the boundary between body and world. Here, on the surface of the body as “stage” for this drama, are located also phenomena, presenting themselves as skin-inscriptions and places of memory as well. The concept that the skin is man’s immediate covering, proves to be an extremely old figure of thought – the self inside the skin, or in spaces of exception as e.g. in camps – the self reduced to skin. An extended world model adds second, third and fourth “skins”, i.e. clothing, house and the environment, to the first skin. Marks and scars from injuries the body has received are stored in the individual’s skin memory. But these marks also create a characteristic signature in history’s memory, where the abuse of people and their bodies is stored. Where the Nazis were in power – as described in Imre Kertész’ novel Fateless –, these biopolitical scars testify to ill-treatment and the tattooing of numbers on concentration camp inmates in Auschwitz (1st skin). But other stages preceded the physical marks: an attack on clothing (2nd skin), in that Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David as a means of stigmatization; an attack on Jewish houses and businesses (3rd skin); deprivation of rights by the Nuremberg laws and virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric in the political and social spheres (4th skin). Compared to Kertész’ novel Fateless, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales also show that skin and tactile memory are indicators for the consequences of the camp conditions where law is suspended: As an exorbitant break of civilization people in the GULag were deprived not only of their rights as citizens but also of their former human existence and reduced to an purely physical or even animal state of being.

This “bare life” is adequately reflected in the mode of narration in both textual corpora.

Nevena Daković
University of Belgrade

Serbian Mythomoteur as Sacrificial Narrative

The aim of this paper is to explore the development and the transformations of the Serbian   mythomoteur as a sacrificial narrative, from the myth of Kosovo to its contemporary variations that meet the demands of the modern /Serbian/ nation rebuilt after the democratic changes of October 5th, 2000.  The mythomoteur of Kosovo – based upon the legend of the prophet Elijah and the emperor Lazar – is the paradigmatic narrative saturated with martyrdom, Heavenly kingdom, moral triumph, national victimisation and death. The Serbian allegiances to the memories of the medieval glory and the promise of national salvation allow its preservation and assimilation (Smith 1991, 1999) into the narrative of the Great War as the changed mythomoteur. Unlike the one from the “ethnic fund”, new mythomoteur is turned toward life and not toward death; while the nation moves from ”heavenly” to ”earthly” kingdom and toward different ethnoscape (Smith 1999)  – such as Greek island Corfu, the river Drina, peak of  Kajmakčalan). Patriotism regains its perennial meaning of nostalgia as the return to homeland.

The contemporary mythomoteur is complex multilayered structure combing old and new narratives rewritten in the changing historical and political contexts of WW2, 1999 NATO bombing, turbulent transition and EU integration of the post-national era.   The  (re)construction of modern nation of XXI century reveals  multiple modernity of its mythomoteur –  image of modern (Serbian) nation, formed in delayed national modernism and  through the ethnosymbolism appropriated by  and in medias of   modernity (cinema, photography, television).   

Davor Dukić
University of Zagreb

The Zriny Frangipani Conspiracy as a National Sacrificial Narrative

The Zriny Frangipani Conspiracy is a series of related events in the 17th-century history of Croatia, which ends in the year 1671 with the execution of two leaders and most prominent members of the two most powerful magnate families of the time: Petar Zriny (Zrinski) and Fran Krsto Frangipani (Frankopan). The Conspiracy can be narrated and explained from at least three different perspectives. From the point of view of experts in European history or history of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Conspiracy is interpreted as a mere attempt of the magnates to reduce the power of the monarch, and vice versa, as a typical occurrence in the process of establishing of an early modern absolute monarchy. From the point of view of Hungarian history, the context becomes narrower: the Conspiracy is only a stage in the struggle for national independence. From the perspective of the Croatian national narrative, the Conspiracy is perceived in an even narrower context because it focuses only on the Croatian aspect of the Conspiracy and ignores the wider Hungarian one (the Wesselényi Conspiracy). It is from the Croatian perspective that the Conspiracy has a potential of becoming a true national sacrificial narrative. However, this narrative was created 200 years after the execution of Zriny and Frangipani, at the time of the modern national integration and it was based on the existing ideological dichotomy of the foreign and domestic government, projected into the past. The potential contestation points in this narrative are brought to the fore if we consider a wider historical context, as well as evaluations of the Conspiracy in the Croatian early modern literature. My analysis encompasses, first and foremost, the 19th– and 20th-century Croatian literary works about the Conspiracy, and focuses on the strategies for creating the sacrificial narrative and its integration into the paradigm of a great national narrative.

Marko Juvan
Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana

The Aesthetic Sacrifice
Cultural Saints and the Literary Nation-Building

Nineteenth-century national movements in the East-Central European peripheries produced multifaceted narratives representing their respective histories in terms of victimhood and sacrifice, the most notable among them being the Slavic messianism. The present paper, however, focuses on a different sacrificial narrative. In it, the figure of the national poet was canonized as a cultural saint who, with his troubled life and poetic suffering, made sacrifice for the international recognition of the emerging national literature. Based on the case of the Slovenian national poet France Prešeren (1800–1849), Slovenian literary scholars of the post-WWII modernist period arrived to a critical notion that Slovenian literature sacrificed its intrinsic individualism and aesthetic function because of its nineteenth-century engagement in the national movement. Consequently, Slovenian literature was thus supposed to suffer from artistic insufficiency, underdevelopment, collectiveness, and belatedness. This frustrating self-image evolved from comparisons with Western cultural centers, whereby Slovenian letters were seen as a unique case. Dimitrij Rupel’s sociological theory on the “Slovenian cultural syndrome” (SCS) of 1976, as well as Dušan Pirjevec’s philosophical elaboration of the “Prešernian structure” (PS) of 1969, explain the aesthetic and ideological belatedness of Slovenian literature as a consequence of its national function, i.e., serving as a substitute for politics and the ideological “superstructure” of a national movement lacking statehood. Both theories have become a commonplace in representing Slovenian literary history. Although Pirjevec’s PS and Rupel’s SCS are meant to be meta-descriptions of the role of literary discourse in Slovenian society, they are themselves embedded in the very practices and ideologies they criticize. The theory of SCS has been reproached recently with being derived mainly from self-perceptions of nineteenth-century Slovenian writers (Prešeren and others). It further neglects the role of music and visual arts, as well as other cultural, educational, and political practices, which had no lesser part in nation building. The SCS thesis, above all, lacks a broader comparative scope, which would show that the metalanguage that diagnosed a pathological “syndrome” of Slovenian literature was rooted in the same ideological tradition as its object of study. From the perspective of recent nationalism studies, it turns out that SCS is not a Slovenian peculiarity, but only one variety of European cultural nationalism.

Renate Lachmann
University of Konstanz

The authority of the witness
A virtual controversy between Agamben/Levi and the authors of Gulag narratives

The authority of testimonial texts (camp narratives) appears to be contestable,  when taking into account Levi’s statement that their authors, the survivors (including himself) are not the real witnesses, since  the real witnesses are the perished, i sommersi, who are the only ones legitimized to testify, to give evidence. In his interpretation of Levi’s self-accusation Agamben develops a theory of authorship referring to its legal aspects. The commitment of writers to bear witness with their texts, their claim to be obliged, or driven to give evidence (which most of them manifest in the preface of their reports, memoirs) turns out to be based on self-authorization. Questioning the legitimacy of those who ‘speak instead of the mute’ means to question the truth, i.e. the authenticity of their texts. The authors of Gulag narratives – in case they were confronted with Agamben’s/Levi’s statement – would have insisted on the legitimacy of their authorship and the authenticity of their testimony. It seems that auctoritas and authenticity are the central notions in this virtual controversy – and my paper will discuss them.

Mladen Lazić
University of Belgrade

Mnemonic battles” over NATO bombing of Serbia – analyses and their critique

‘Kosovo war’ that ended by NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 resulted in mnemonic battles which are supposed to legitimize confronted sacrificial narratives: Kosovar/Albanian, Serbian, Western/pro-NATO and ‘analytical/critical’. Albanian memories celebrate their ‘liberation war’ and mourn numerous civilian victims of ‘Serbian aggression’. (Official) Serbian memories repeatedly recall the civilian victims of ‘Albanian terrorists’ and ‘NATO aggressors’. Western media and NATO officials explain intensive three-month- long bombing of military and civilian targets as a ‘humanitarian intervention’ which – killing hundreds – saved thousands of people. Finally, a perspective which from the beginning of the Kosovo conflict tried to analyse the responsibilities of all sides for the increasing spiral of violence inevitably leading to war failed to secure a meaningful share in the memories of war held by its protagonists. It has become obvious that in the confrontation with sacrificial narratives the critical/analytical approach to the past is fatally disadvantaged in mnemonic battles. The analysis of different interpretations of the causes and consequences of the Kosovo war will mostly be based on papers dealing with ‘Memories and narratives of the 1999 NATO bombing in Serbia’, printed in a special issue of the journal Sudosteuropa (64/4, 2016).

Jüri Talvet  
University of Tartu

Literature’s Implicit Potency and the Need for Reflective Patience in Criticism

Violence and its victims abounded in the world that surrounded Thomas More, when he ingeniously coined the title for his slender book Utopia (1516). They abound today, half a millennium later. In his book Thomas More imagined a ‘no-place’ full of ambiguities and irony. The island of Utopia was very far from perfection in its arrangement of social, economic and political life, yet its image has supported ideologies and historical developments that during the subsequent centuries became often immersed in violence and victims.

Notwithstanding, more than most other books that in the following have been qualified in the genre of “utopia”, the impact of  the image provided by Thomas More has persisted. It has not been exhausted at all by tragedies of modern history but has gathered and gradually revealed its deeper moral / spiritual significance. It has paved the way to democratic habits and sensibility, as well as to the ideal of a peaceful, non-violent co-existence of people and nations, and of public welfare shared by as many as possible members of a community, despite their gender, race and religious creed. 

The same could be said of a great number of masterpieces of world literature (including the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg, first published in 1861 as a mystification, under the protective robe of a scientific text, by F. R. Kreutzwald ). Many ideologies, sociological as well as formal approaches, which in the rush of political conjuncture have resorted to some fragment or external aspect of these works of world literature, have themselves proved to be short-lived, whereas the implicit image philosophy of greatest literary creativity has survived, ever open to a fertile renewed dialogue with talented and sensitive critical minds and societies.

Just now M. Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais was translated into my native Estonian – even before the translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua et Pantagruel itself has been completed in our language. It shows the real maximum height of a truly original literary-cultural philosophy at work – to inspire those who beyond power-manipulated temporary political or cultural discourses have patience to seek spiritual balance and moral support in great literary creation either of the past or the present.

In other words, there is an obvious need for renewed interpretations of the sacrificial image both in ancient and modern world literature, both of traditional centers and peripheries, but even especially of the large world (linguistic-cultural) periphery which until now has been insufficiently researched by international scholarship.

Literary works and literary- cultural scholarship can hardly hope to contribute to political-ideological changes in the world and in concrete communities by their immediate impact. However, in the longer run, by the force of their often occult and ambiguous image philosophy they have prepared and continue to support the ground for a moral and spiritual resistance to vice and injustice in physical-vital developments as well as to ideologies (narratives, discourses) reflecting and manipulating them.