Alexander Maxwell v Brne

Jana Bujnáková a Eliška Gunišová

Alexander Maxwell, slavista a historik z Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand navštívil Masarykovu univerzitu. Prednáška s názvom Sorbian and the Slavic World: Taxonomy and Imitation sa uskutočnila 3. októbra 2017 na pôde Filozofickej fakulty MU pod patronátom brnianskej pobočky Jazykovedného sdružení ČR. Jadrom výkladu bola klasifikácia lužickej srbčiny v rámci rozdelenia vetiev slovanských jazykov, eventuálne dialektov. Historicky mali jednotliví literárni vedci na túto problematiku vlastné názory, ktoré pretavovali do svojich jazykovedných výskumov. Alexander Maxwell poukazoval na zásadné až dramatické zmeny, ktoré sa v uvedenej sfére odzrkadlili hlavne v posledných dvoch storočiach.

Lužická srbčina však nie je jediným Maxwellovým odborným záujmom. Rodák z americkej Kalifornie pôvodne študoval históriu so zameraním na moderné európske dejiny. So študijným pobytom v Nemecku prišiel aj záujem o vtedajšie Československo a následne slovenskému územiu venoval aj svoj výskum v rámci dizertačnej práce Choosing Slovakia (1795-1914): Slavic Hungary, the Czech Language, and Slovak Nationalism. Počas svojej kariéry profesne pôsobil hneď v niekoľkých európskych, ale i v konkrétne stredoeurópskych mestách, ako napríklad v Prahe a Bratislave.

Od roku 2007 Alexander Maxwell pracuje na Novom Zélande, kde sa odborne venuje európskym dejinám so špecializáciou na problematiku nacionalizmu v stredoeurópskom kontexte.

Táto neobvyklá životná cesta nás veľmi zaujala, a preto sme si dovolili požiadať profesora Maxwella pri jeho návšteve Brna o rozhovor. A tu je výsledok.

How does a man growing up in the US become a historian and slavist with the focus on the Central Europe?

I started off with an interest in Germany. I took German at university, and was fascinated by all things German. I spent the summer of 1989 in Germany and hoped to continue my studies in Berlin. It turned out that the University of Berlin lost my application. So, that September, I went back to California to continue my university studies.

When the Berlin wall fell a few months later, I felt like I had missed everything. To compensate, I read everything I could in every newspaper I could find. In this way, I became interested in the figure of Václav Havel and began reading books about Czechoslovakia. The next thing I knew, I had lost interest in Germany and was obsessed with Bohemia and all things Czech.

This pattern later repeated. I eventually lost interest in Bohemia and now tend to view the world from the perspective of the „bývalé Království Uhorska“! Well, it’s a big interesting world, and I fundamentally think it’s a good quality to take an interest in new things.

More generally, however, I got interested in history because I was interested in the rest of the world. People often want to know if I have east European ancestry. I don’t. I didn’t study history to study myself, and I am not studying my own ancestry. I wanted to learn about exotic places I initially didn’t know anything about.


What inspired you to go to New Zealand? / Why did you decide to go to New Zealand?

I basically went to New Zealand for a job. It’s very difficult to get a job as a historian, you don’t pick where you live. That said, New Zealand is a good place for me on a personal level. I met my wife in Budapest, but she’s a born New Zealander, and she left Hungary and followed me to New Zealand partly because she was homesick.


Have you ever considered coming back to Europe for good?

All things being equal, I would prefer to live in Europe. However, all things are not equal. I am very happily married, cozy and settled with a house and two cats. My wife and I also both have very good jobs at the same University. It’s extraordinary good fortune for an academic couple to both get jobs at the same university, we can’t expect to have such brilliant luck again. I therefore expect to spend the rest of my active career in New Zealand.


Are there students who are interested in studying Czech or Slovak languages at the Victoria University of Wellington?

Language departments have suffered from the neo-liberal turn in university administration. University faculty are measured on how much they publish. Well, the essence of historical work is to research and publish, and the essence of sociological work is to research and publish, but the essence of good foreign language teaching is teaching, which can’t be measured by pages published. As a result, language departments often suffer from poor funding. Victoria University used to offer Russian, but no longer. Recently the University has made drastic cuts to German and Italian. I think there’s no prospect for regular courses in Czech or Slovak.

Additionally, interest in foreign languages is falling across the English-speaking world. If a person wants to be educated in the broader sense, it’s important to learn a second language. Nevertheless, the increasing hegemony of English as the global language of science, commerce, education, etc., means that native speakers of English have a unique ability to work or travel without learning a second language.

The increasing hegemony of English means that there’s also no obvious second language Anglophones should study. If you’re interested in Japan, you study Japanese; if you’re interested in Greece maybe you learn Greek. But if you don’t have geographically specific interests and you already speak English, how can you decide which language to study?


Living outside of Europe, do you feel that the access to the literature from Central Europe concerning history and Slavic studies is harder?

There are obvious challenges studying the Slavs in the Habsburg Empire in New Zealand. The archives I need are on the other side of the world. That said, more and more material is available online all the time. The Austrian National Library has a terrific project to digitize newspapers and law books. Google Books has almost all key polemics from leading intellectuals. The Croats have also digitized a lot of stuff. When I started my Ph.D., there was nothing online from nineteenth-century Slovak history. By the time I finished revising my Ph.D. as a book manuscript, all sorts of things were online.


Who is the most interesting personality for you from Slovak history?

The person who keeps coming up in my work is Jan Kollár. I see his influence everywhere. I’ve published several articles which have the basic narrative „Jan Kollár’s linguistic thought was influential.“ Specifically, I have published about how Kollár’s linguistic ideas influenced a Polish intellectual named Krasiński, language debates in Podkarpatská Rus, and on Slavic ethnography. I also translated his Wechselseitigkeit into English, and there wrote about Kollár’s legacy in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Then, for a while, I worked on „everyday nationalism“ instead of linguistic ideologies, and I found Kollár came up there, too. I’ve done some fun work on nationalism and sexuality, and songs in Kollár’s Narodnie zpiewanky proved relevant to that: he includes a poem called „Národnost w lásce“ that was sufficiently influential that it was later translated into Serbian. Anyway, I find Kollár an interesting figure.


What is your future professional interest? Where do you see yourself in the future?

I like my work and will continue teaching, researching and publishing on whatever catches my interest. I hope one of my books will cause a stir in the scholarly world, I would like to be a more famous name in Habsburg studies than I am. But even if I don’t ever experience that sort of fame, I enjoy researching and teaching, and I am glad to have chosen the career I did.


Currently you are travelling across Europe for several months. What are your aims you wish to accomplish on this work trip?

I’m researching a new book on Panslavism and linguistic classification, and I wonder if the project may be splintering into two books: one on Panslavism, and one on linguistic classification. I have a lot of work ahead of me to think about chapter structure and so forth. In Zagreb, I have become particularly interested in the imagined division between štokavština, kajkavština and čakavština. Both for theoretical reasons and because of my work on „why Slovak has three dialects,“ I am suspicious that e.g. kajkavština is a meaningful analytical category. Its popularity, however, suggests that it is a useful political category: so what are its political uses? I am also trying to compare the linguistic ideas of Slavists (the Slavic language divided into branches, branches divided into dialects, dialects divided into subdialects, etc.) with the linguistic terminology of Habsburg law: Landessprache, Curialsprache, Nationalsprache, Unterrichtssprache, Sprache des täglichen Gerbrauchs, etc. Do Slavists have any influence on state administration? Or does state administration influence the thinking Slavists? Fun stuff, and I have spent time in national libraries looking for information.

My other main objective is to publicize my work and make scholarly contacts. So, I’ve been giving a lot of talks about my work. On this particular trip I may have spent too much time giving talks, and perhaps should have spent more time in the library! But I have met a lot of interesting colleagues, and those sorts of personal contacts are important.


Undoubtedly, you have a lot of experience from your stay in Japan.

I did not like Japan very much, but I got a lot out of my time there. I think European historians often need to have their horizons broadened. Europe is not an island, but part of global networks of trade, power, and so on. While living in Japan, I saw the world from the vantage of East Asia, and that’s a good experience to have. I also benefitted a lot from a trip to Istanbul.

European intellectuals sometimes think they are worldly and cosmopolitan if they become familiar with more than one European country. I suggest that it’s important also to view Europe from non-Europe. So, I urge readers to visit Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, or the Middle East: get out of your comfort zone and see the world from a different perspective.


In 2002, in the discussion for the daily paper SME you stated: „There was a long tradition of multiculturalism in Slovak thinking, such as that people of various nationalities and ethnic groups should live together in one state. I have a feeling that this tradition disappeared. Nowadays, an idea that Slovakia belongs to Slovaks prevails…“ Today, this idea is more real than before as the nationalistic thinking is spreading throughout the Europe. What would be your advice on how could we prevent this?

I was a young man in the 1990s, which looking back on it seems like a time of progress, at least for Europe. The main theme in European politics was to integrate former Communist countries into the European Union. Yugoslavia suffered, but the rest of the continent got richer and more stable, and the future promised even greater prosperity and peace. Now, it seems, everything is going wrong: populism and xenophobia are growing and the project of European Unity has lost support.

I fear that because of the folly of elite politicians, or the folly of ill-informed electorates, European powers will stumble into a major military confrontation. I sometimes ask the following question as a thought experiment: how many times in the last 500 years has there been a major war in Europe? Let’s define a „major war“ as a war between coalitions: you need several countries on both warring sides. Well, we can count the two world wars, the Napoleonic wars, the Seven Years’ war, and the Thirty Years’ War; and perhaps the War of Austrian Succession. So, that’s five or six major wars, then? On average, that’s about one a century. Politicians, it seems to me, have not collectively become any wiser. So, doesn’t this line of reasoning lead us to believe that another major war is possible in the next century? I admit there’s no prospect of war in the foreseeable future, but I think history teaches you that the unforeseeable future isn’t that far away. Wars can start suddenly, and catch people off guard.

So, I think Europeans need to be more afraid that the postwar peace might break. Fear of war can restore the willingness to compromise that made the wealth of the EU possible. In this sense, perhaps Russia’s resurgence can be good for Western and Central Europe: if European politicians regain their fear of Russia, maybe they will rediscover their interest in the European ideal.

Článek neprošel jazykovou korekturou

Mgr. Jana Bujnáková a Mgr. Eliška Gunišová pôsobia na Ústave slavistiky FF MU, kde sa venujú slovenskej literatúre, česko-slovenským vzťahom a menšinovej problematike.

Kontakt: bujnak.jana@gmail.com, egunisova@gmail.com


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