Under Eastern Eyes. A Comparative Introduction to East European Travel Writing on Europe

TitleUnder Eastern Eyes. A Comparative Introduction to East European Travel Writing on Europe
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMüller, Nils
Author(s) of reviewed materialBracewell, Wendy, and Alex Drace-Francis(eds.)
PublisherBudapest: CEU Press
VolumesSecond of three volumes in the series East Looks West
ISSNISBN 978-963-9776-11-1
Review year


Full Text

Travel accounts constitute a well-defined literary genre, but one that is supposed to deal with reality, not fiction. Accordingly, writings from Eastern Europe discussing travels within or outside the region can be a source of information on social reality by means of description and comparison. The editors of this volume chose Europe as their specific subject as it produces “dramatic semiotic oppositions within a text” (p. 50) while being accompanied by the perception of “asymmetries” (p. 66) within Eastern Europe, a region that is “marked by significant internal differentiations (marked not least by its societies’ own internal, infinitely receding and self-defining Orientalisms)” (p. IX). Europe is held for “a sign which, regardless of the specific definition of Europe being advanced, has served as a means of exclusion and drawing boundaries. The very concept of Europe emerged in a long process of repudiation and ‘mirroring’, directed not only against the Orient, America, and overseas colonies, but also against nearer or internal others” (p. VIII).
The reader is expected to view Eastern Europe as just such an “internal other.” It is a problematic assertion though to choose travelogues dealing with Eastern Europe, Western Europe and places outside geographical Europe that address different levels of intellectually constructed normative concepts of identity and to confront them with the presupposition of a “European identity” (p. VIII). The biggest flaw of the volume is thereby exposed: it lacks a coherently designated subject. Although it is acknowledged that this identity is problematic, it still passes for essential. The differentiation of a “political Europe” represented by its “powerful states” (p. IX) does not help much and it is a simplification alike.
Leaving aside the delicate question of (degrees of) European identity and reframing the topic as travel writings by authors originating from Eastern European societies who are discussing their own societies might help to highlight the merits of the volume, which are indeed numerous.
The volume is not a concise introduction to the topic at large, as it lacks a systematic scheme. But it qualifies as a “comparative” introduction covering a wide geographical and chronological range (from early modern history until the end of the bipolar world order), involving articles that are mostly excellent studies on their particular topic. The introductory part consists of three articles: Alex Drace-Francis (“Towards a Natural History of East European Travel Writing”) provides an introduction to the topic and an overview of the textual materials that were gathered in the course of the research project East Looks West, of which this volume is one of the products. [1] David Chirico (“The Travel Narrative as a (Literary) Genre”) presents tools of literary theory that are suitable for the analysis of travel literature. He develops criteria for a special genre of travel writing on grounds of Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique, a reference to the very point that makes travel literature a valuable source in discourse analysis regarding collective identities, namely that the author possesses the authority of an eyewitness.
Wendy Bracewell (“The Limits of Europe in East European Travel Writing”) offers a very valuable synthesis concerning “the uses of ‘Europe’” (p. 66) in East European intellectual discourses. Two factors contribute to the peculiar set of concepts of Europe in (South) Eastern Europe: the “Turkish mirror” (p.81) provides a sense of one’s own Europeanness in the early modern period, and “encounters with modernity” (p. 95) set going the characteristic modernization discourse in the region that started with the Enlightenment. Irina V. Popovak-Nowak’s article on (“The Odyssey of National Discovery: Hungarians in Hungary and Abroad, 1750-1850”) deals with exactly this point, analyzing the writings of travelling Hungarian intellectuals such as the famous travels by István Széchenyi to England. Modernization discourse was not only in line with developing modern nationalism. “Europe” or “The West” also signified a new sense of progress and historicity in association with experiences of modernity, as “travels to the West [...] were travels to the future, and travels to the East [...] were travels to the past” (p. 211).
In this context, traveling in either direction meant to position one’s own country on the scale of “Europeanness” throughout the continent. Slav travelers “could set symbolic frontiers, locating the Slavs – or particular Slav peoples – with reference to East and West” (p. 159), as Bracewell states in her essay on “Travels through the Slav World.” Experiences of varying degrees of modernity by travels to Western Europe or the Orient were mirrored in travels within the Slav world, like that by the Polish prince Alexander Sapieha to Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Montenegro in the very beginning of the 19th century. Sapieha stresses the modernity of Poland, compared to the “simplicity and closeness to nature” (p. 153) of the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula. But such statements strongly contradicted some central Slavophile topoi: being uncorrupted by modern progress was often remarked to be a sign of moral superiority, while widespread ideas about a different and unique Slavic character or “soul” implied sameness, not differentiation. Bracewell calls these two lenses through which the observations of the potential traveler were made “essentialist” and “developmental” (p. 184).
Zoran Milutinović’s article (“Oh to Be a European! What Rastko Petrović learnt in Africa”) on the travels of a Yugoslav diplomat in the 1920s is the only one whose topic transcends the geographical borders of the continent and it is the most striking example of reflection on European identity from an outsider perspective, or at least nearly so. That discoveries of “Europeanness” were also suited to initiate reflections on, and reformulation of national identities, becomes evident in Diana Georgescu’s contribution (“Excursions into National Specificity and European Identity: Mihail Sebastian’s Interwar Travel Reportage”). Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius’ study on the Polish cartoonist Jan Lenica (“The Cold-War Traveller’s Gaze. Jan Lenica’s 1954 Sketchbook of London”) is another detailed example of how much “European experiences” by intellectual travelers can refer to nationalist and ideological constructions of identities as well as the problematic interaction of the two.
Under Eastern Eyes can be recommended not only to readers interested in matters of Eastern European collective identities, since the studies it contains are also stimulating texts illustrating different methodological ways to combine diverse levels of research and interpretation within the wider field of intellectual history.