On practising the ethos of the borderland


Krzystof Czyżewski – practitioner of ideas, writer, philosopher, culture animator, theatre director, editor. Co-founder and president of the Borderland Foundation and director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations” in Sejny, Poland. Teacher and lecturer, professor at the University of Bologna. Among his books of poetry and essays are: The Path of the Borderland (2001), Trust & Identity: A Handbook of Dialogue (2011), Miłosz – Dialog – Borderland (2013), Miłosz. A Connective Tissue (2014), A Small Center of the World (2017), and Toward Xenopolis (2019).


The contemporary culture of co-existence cannot be built on lies, wishful thinking or other baseless attitudes and ideologies, especially if they are realised through one-off, short-term and media-friendly events. The power of its authenticity should draw from a firm grasp of reality and care for long-term effects, and should be organically grounded in the everyday life of the community. Hence, it is best not to speak about resolving conflicts, but rather about an ability to live with conflicts, and instead of removing borders, to think about crossing them.



We brought down the Berlin wall, we opened up our borders, we popularised the Internet, and most of us live in multicultural metropolises. And yet walls remain a familiar experience to the modern European. These are no longer walls running along national borders, between political systems or languages. The contemporary wall stands in the midst of society, on the same river bank, and it serves to divide confronting cultural identities. The ever-increasing proximity of the Alien, not outside of our world, but within the intimate space reserved for the familiar and the accepted, raises a new wall in which all our fears and inadequacies are sealed. We are realising ever more clearly that identity does not mean community and that in our battles to preserve the former we have lost much of the spirit of the latter. The problem of modern Europe, which increasingly resembles an archipelago of separate cultures, is not the presence of diversity and differences, but that which Czesław Miłosz had called ‘connective tissue’ and on which he based his concept of the ‘Native Realm’. This is why contemporary Europe must focus on coexistence, which drives a current of thought and action capable of tearing down yet another wall – not in a Cold War world of enslavement but in the face of the growing proximity of the Alien. By creating a European culture of coexistence we remake the Alien into the Other. Hence, an opportunity is born for the members of our communities, who speak different languages and have various faiths and cultures, to become one of Us.



Encountering the Other means overcoming oneself. Empathy brings us into the space of moral choices and spiritual change. Most importantly, we come closer to acting on our heart’s spontaneous reaction to another person’s real life situation and needs. In the face of this reaction all previously established rules and beliefs, and even oaths made to uphold these values, are of secondary importance. What is more, if the situation demands that these rules be broken, it also demands the courage to confront the accusations of betraying ourselves and our community.

This response to our heart’s call, the cornerstone of coexistence, is found in one of the oldest books of the Bible. In Leviticus 19,34 we read: ‘But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt…’. This admonition to Moses is brought up several times in the Pentateuch: earlier in the Book of Leviticus the love of the neighbour implies the ‘children of thy people’ (19,18); in Deuteronomy 10,19: ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’; and in Exodus 23,9: ‘Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger … seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The earliest version of the admonition, quoted first and written down in the 5th century BC, was, as we now know, based on sources as old as the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. This makes it one of the oldest, if not the oldest instruction in both the Jewish and Christian traditions for founding one’s relationships with the Other on coexistence. It merges the advice found in the two remaining Biblical quotes which commonly has been, and continues to be read separately, and even juxtaposed, as representing two conflicting realms: the rational and the irrational. Thus, the first part of the admonition speaks of treating the stranger (the alien, the wanderer, the immigrant, the exile, etc.) as a fellow countryman, which implies equality in the face of the law and the right to be different (in religion, race, nationality, etc.). Today this legislative aspect is strongly underlined in speaking about mutual coexistence, by pointing to the constitutional guarantee of human rights, rather than tolerance and other humanitarian values which are difficult to rationally define. Leviticus does not ignore this aspect of coexistence, but it also does not stop there. Its admonition reaches further, towards love, which is an overcoming hinted at in the phrase ‘as thyself’ – to love the Other in this way means changing oneself, crossing the boundaries of one’s own existence. This love is not given to us, like the love of the self, hence it can only be realised in the act of overcoming.

Overcoming is strongly connected with spiritual development, but also with the conflict created by the existence of borders and the guarding of those borders. Do we make laws, take oaths and outline borders only to break them and cross them? This conflict is seemingly irresolvable, as long as we treat the two sides of the encounter, the Self and the Other, separately, ascribing a different path to each one, and calling one’s truth absolute. In our story of coexistence they are both on the same road, both fellow wanderers. Recalling the language of the people from the borderlands, who are used to living with others and not prone to erasing differences, we might say: their road is their border. That which brings them together and sets them apart determines their coexistence. A border sets us free not by protecting us from something or holding something at bay, but by offering us the opportunity of crossing it.



While travelling to Sejny, we were approaching a place full of unresolved conflicts, issues and taboos from the past. In order to come closer to reality we constantly needed to refer to memory, which turned out to be an integral part of the contemporary world. We were not creating an open-air museum. We were working with the younger generations to shape a new future and to find our own place in Europe. And as we, the participants of this work, children, their parents and grandparents, unlocked the past of that place we were filled with a love and understanding for the people living there and the land they called their own. Of course, our work was not without pain as some grudges and tensions were still present. We were working, however, on what Czesław Miłosz in his words about the Borderland called ‘that which in our part of Europe comprises tangible, painful, yet life-giving details’. In order for these details to be life-giving we had to gain the trust of the inhabitants of Sejny without shying away from the tragic events of the past, at the same time focusing mainly on the good memories present in every person. We had to find a way, mostly through art, to excavate these memories and bring them into the light of present relationships.

Good memories and a positive language of speaking about the borderland are essential elements in creating a culture of coexistence. Borderland narratives about the past are dominated by traumatic memories and a negative language, concentrated on conflicts, grudges, defence in the face of danger, etc. This is motivated by the tragedies of history, especially from the previous century. However, it also causes positive aspects of co-existing with others to be erased from collective memory, and leaves the community helpless in the face of expressing positive emotions and traditions. Tomas Venclova, a renowned Lithuanian poet once said about his compatriot from Vilnius, Czesław Miłosz, that he was a man dedicated to the word ‘yes’. This may sound surprising, considering the fact that Miłosz’s life led him through all the circles of 20th century hell. And yet Venclova touched upon the very essence of a man from the borderland, whose gestures never serve to separate or exclude but to embrace and welcome. It is thanks to this that he is able to establish a culture of coexistence.



I understand the culture of coexistence as a process opening up the perspective of longue durée. Any attempt to narrow this perspective, to limit it to short-term expectations and effects can prove destructive. An imagination born of dialogue creates before our eyes a vision of the era we are entering. The challenge we must face in this era is the encounter of the Other. Philosophers claim that we are passing into an age which will complete the threefold cycle of the spiritual development of mankind. The new paradigm of this age will be the second person – ‘you are’. It is shaped after the two previous ages: the ancient, based on the paradigm of the third person – ‘this is’, championed by Aristotle and valuing the mind and objectivity; and the modern age, with its first person paradigm ‘I am’, associated with Descartes, subjectivity and human will. Of course, these two philosophies of are not yet gone – they are still present, permanently wrought into human consciousness. The upcoming age of the second person paradigm, however, stands a chance of completing subjectivity, objectivity, truth and freedom with the culture of coexistence, empathy and responsibility.

One way or another, by naming the upcoming age we acquire an understanding that our future will be largely decided by the problem of our encounter with the Other. An encounter which unsettles us with its potential for failure and endless cultural conflicts. Such a failure would bring about the defeat of our ability to integrate with each other, and of forming authentic communities in a post-modern reality. That is why we need the culture of coexistence, forming an ethos for those involved in its creation, and expressing itself in practical ways in our everyday relations. If this is to be possible, we need new cultural practices and new tools for constructing bridges of understanding.

The encounter with the Other is an act of construction. It is not given to us, and does not happen on its own. Such an encounter is a craft. Those who practised this craft throughout the ages were frequently compared to builders of bridges. In the Balkans these people were called neimar, and accorded with the respect usually given to an architect who knew the secrets of nature and could impose order upon chaos. With time this name was forgotten, and along with it the secrets of the neimar’s craft. Constructing a bridge became a technological issue. Old tools were misplaced, and the new tools which replaced them could not fulfil all the functions the neimar could utilise.

For too long we have lived in communities lacking the neimar’s craft, where no schools of the philosophy of dialogue exist, and the art of constructing bridges is absent. This is not the time to consider what might have been if such schools existed in any significant number in the past, when we were trained, using increasingly more advanced tools, in the ways of destroying bridges. One might doubt the sense of the existence of Martin Buber’s workshop for dialogue in Nazi Germany. Brought up in Lvov, Buber knew the alternative to living together in a multicultural city – there was no option of living separately in a modern society, so the only alternative was conflict with the Other. One might say that it was too late for his impractical philosophy, seemingly out of place in that time. Armies of journeymen already filled the workshops of ideologies which craved murder upon the Other, in order to entrench an endangered identity in its position as a binding element of the community. And although the number of deaths among people branded as class or racial enemies proved to be the highest in history, even more important was the number of guilty witnesses, participants of the binding rituals, who have formed lasting covenants. Such covenants, created in the murderous 20th century, have proven to be so enduring that we still feel them beneath the surface of our lives, usually unconscious of how easily they may re-emerge.

And yet, despite the resilience of the forms cast in the workshops of 20th century totalitarianisms, it is these workshops that now lay broken, compromised by their inhumanity and temporary usefulness. That which seemed pragmatic and consistent with the spirit of the times was unmasked as but a foible, which might even prove grotesquely amusing if not for the extent of suffering and destruction it had caused. On the other hand, the workshop of dialogue, established by such people as Martin Buber, which always bore the odium of utopian idealism, now shows us its amazing vitality and wisdom, realised by contemporary man as the art of life’s praxis, expressed by such endeavours as the ethics of solidarity.

For the connection established by the neimar’s bridge to truly realise the possibility of coexistence, there also needs to exist a real chance for breaking that connection. Separation and differentiation create the need for communication and the effort of establishing a connection. In the case of a bridge there is always the possibility of destroying it – we are aware of its vulnerability, and our helplessness in the face of the destructive powers that nature and man can use against it. This may not be apparent in the physical image of a bridge. Georg Simmel wrote that “a bridge in a landscape is usually perceived as a scenic element”. Which is why he ascribed to it only the meaning of unification, and he completed its symbolism for the truth about humanity with the symbol of a door, which “demonstrates that separation and unification are but two aspects of the same act … Doors can be opened, and because of this, when they are closed, they embody the sense of separation from whatever is behind them much more strongly than a wall.”

A bridge raised in accordance with the neimar’s craft includes within it Simmel’s door. We must remember, that the bridge might as well not exist, and that it may cease to exist at any given moment. That it exists at all is the neimar’s work, and the work of the living element he used to hold it together – its human caretaker. It is that caretaker who opens and closes the bridge, which on its own offers simply the possibility of a connection. It requires the attention of the caretaker for opening and closing its gates. This caretaker and warden once again stands at the border in the history of civilization. And once again so much depends on him…