Solemnity and Violence in Central and Eastern European Urban Life
25. 3. 2012
Amongst the unintended consequences of Central and Eastern European accession to the European Union, particularly conspicuous was the invasion of our streets by young Britons, flying over for “stag weekends” or partying bouts. Locals found their ways truly disagreeable. Accustomed to a different regime of public space, young Britons simultaneously broke and revealed some of the tacit rules undergirding Central and Eastern European urban life.
Partying Britons stood out in the local landscape for at least two reasons: first, whatever pub or bar they went to, they rarely sat down – instead consumed their beverages standing in a tight swarm. In such an arrangement they disrupted the predominant spatial order of the region, comprising human bodies engaged in a conversation while seated and immobile. They brought with themselves elements of the uniquely British working-class public culture, which differs substantially from the Central European coffeehouse tradition.
According to Jürgen Habermas, this tradition became the very linchpin of civic life in continental Europe, whereas the British working class was made largely in pubs and taverns, as described by E.P. Thompson. First of all, this was due to the fact that these spaces provided for unfettered political contention and heated, often overheated, debate. Secondly, the zeal, chaos and mob-like atmosphere of pubs triggered a “civilizing” backlash from the working-class aristocracy that coalesced around the teetotal movement.
Perhaps because Britain is still the world’s only true class society (in the sense that “old-school” class analysis remains congruent with realities in Britain), it is also one of the few countries where the working classes developed a sense of cultural pride and independence, and where the rank-and-file frowned upon elites – rather than looking up to them. Consequently, unlike in Central and Eastern Europe, many Britons feel relatively unencumbered by highbrow “rules” of behavior in public, urban spaces.
The unruly and the blunt
A similar difference can be observed between the Netherlands and Belgium. Sights that terrify Polish urbanites, like street camera footage of a naked foreign tourist strutting on the main square of Wrocław, an event that made headlines some months back, would leave most Dutch people unimpressed. In the Netherlands, a drunken man urinating in the middle of the street is not likely to raise eyebrows. By contrast, Belgium is far more continental in its intolerance of such displays.
The key difference here is the absence of the cultural brunt of the nobility. The Netherlands is perhaps Europe’s most bourgeois society, culturally established in the “golden” seventeenth century. It was not pressed to marry into the aristocratic house and court culture in order to assume the reigns of modern society. The Dutch also “missed out” on the nineteenth century – when most continental “national cultures” were forged largely out of trickling down highbrow elements, and when, as described by Richard Sennett, the modern city life of Europe germinated. One of the key components of that development was the ushering of “silence” into the public realm.
In this sense, the “unruly” Britons or “blunt” Dutch (as they often describe themselves) remained pre-modern, and the way they jell together in urban space is similar to the public life of the ancient regime, where it was still in good form to talk, or even shout, during theater and music performances, where the demarcation line between the active performer and silent and passive audience was very much blurred. Today in the Netherlands, “silent services” on trains remain silent only in theory, and I have never seen a person admonishing others for not keeping quiet. Finally, their disrespect for silence constituted the second feature that singled out British tourists from the urban landscape in Central and Eastern Europe.
City life in Poland is marked, as the historian Błażej Brzostek put it, by its “solemnity.” A foreign visitor described the antebellum street life in Warsaw thus: it “is not good form here to whistle or sing in the street. People do not talk on the tram. Nobody laughs. Nobody is joyful and nobody smiles. Even whores strut the streets puffed up as if they were matriarchs”. Although somehow exaggerated, he captured the lineaments of the emergent urban order well, when old social and class divisions, hitherto anchored in rural life, entered the urban turf.
The key notion describing this development is chamstwo. Coined by the nobility, it used to be the derogatory notion reserved for the most destitute of the peasantry. Today, it has lost its class connotations and describes rude and disrespectful behavior in public space. Of course, Poland is not alone in this. Vernaculars in the region are replete with similar terms: paraszt, tirpák and tahó in Hungarian, hulvát, vidlák and sedlák in the Czech and Slovak. In most cases, these terms imply a peasant untutored in “proper” urban life, and have been key in the symbolic violence meted out towards new post-war urbanites by the elites, often with gentry background, who established the hierarchical foundations of urban order and public space in the region.
Uncanny visitors from the past
In order to understand this process, one needs to turn back to the 1950s and 1960s. Leopold Tyrmand captured this formative epoch in his novel The Man with the White Eyes (1955) – perhaps Poland’s only true piece of urban literature. It describes how life in Warsaw was disrupted by a mysterious superhero dubbed Zły. He appeared out of nowhere whenever “normal” law abiding urbanites were troubled by “hooligans”, beating villains to pulp. Tyrmand revealed in describing the vibrant chaos of postwar Warsaw – a “wounded city” largely reduced to ashes during World World II.
Warsaw, he wrote, resembled a giant and overcrowded tram. And when packed like sardines and no longer able to tame their seething anger, “people’s most important instincts and character traces surfaced,” and they got into fights. The young “hooligans” were the chamstwo who refused to play by the new rules, not only disrespecting the iron principle of seniority (young people were, and still are, expected to give their seat on public transport to the elderly), but also occupying seats for the disabled and telling the indignant passengers off. Or they cut in line. Or they threw things at by-passers just for the heck of it. In all these situations, Zły entered the stage, rescued the innocent victims and paid the perpetrators back for their “mindless violence”.
Zły represents the super-ego of the new, urban society. Although he breaks the law by resorting to violence, he is revered by the mass media and even by the police. Today, the structural violence underpinning the urban games of demeanour and deference are less apparent, and in some cases they have moved from custom and morality to law proper.
Contemporary cities are no longer dominated by “hooligans”. They are dominated by “average citizens” who share Zły‘s moral code. We take this regime for granted. And this is precisely why so much moral indignation has been triggered by the British tourists, who are like an uncanny visitor from Poland’s past, when the rules of the urban game were not yet set in stone, but actually were being negotiated in the millions of daily situations described by Tyrmand, when the urban cauldron was still teeming with spontaneous, if unruly, life, that has not yet been confined by a structure.
This is an abbreviated version of article published in Visegrad Insight 1/2012.