Rethinking the East-West Dichotomy: Czech Travel Writing about Portugal, Where the Earth Ends and the Sea Begins

    • Cover Conference Prague
    • Presentation speakers
      • Kamila Kinyon, University of Denver, USA


    Focusing on the relationship between East European Czech culture and West European Portuguese culture as portrayed through Czech travel writing, this paper provides an alternative perspective to the traditional East-West dichotomy discussed by Larry Wolff in “Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment.” According to Wolff, the East has, from the time of the Enlightenment, been stereotypically portrayed in terms of marginalized alterity, especially when posited in contrast to a more central Western European cultural hub such as Paris. We are forced to rethink this model when considering the relationship between Czech and Portuguese culture. My paper draws on a larger project I was invited to contribute to the University of Lisbon’s volume “Europe on Portugal”, an anthology which will provide critical reflection on the identity of Portugal in relation to other countries. As a specialist in Czech literature and culture, I address ways that Czech travel writing has portrayed Portugal within the context of how this Western European Portuguese nation is seen from its East. In Czech travel writing about Portugal, one can see a deconstruction of expected alterity making processes, especially given the reversal in how the center/periphery binary is perceived. From the standpoint of Czech nationalists, the Czech lands are the center while the Western European country of Portugal becomes the periphery, the symbolic end of the world where the earth ends, and the sea begins. Stemming from the foundational travelogue to Portugal by 15th century writer Šašek z Byřkova, Czech travelers to Portugal have been fascinated by this tradition-bound country on the edge of the ocean. My paper exemplifies the evolving relations between East and West, representing both the communist perspective presented by Roman Vlach in his 1962 book “Kde země končí a moře začíná” (“Where the Earth Ends and the Sea Begins”) and the contemporary perspective stemming from a democratic Czech Republic as embodied in Jan Burian’s 2005 “Výlet do Portugalska,” (“Journey to Portugal”), reprinted in 2014 in a second edition. The interaction between Eastern and Western Europe that is exemplified in Czech travel writing about Portugal draws attention to cultural differences and to the Czech fascination with Portugal as the exotic Other. At the same time, writers like Burian draw attention to important similarities between these cultures, affinities that make people from these two countries identify with one another’s ways of thinking. For example, both countries have lived under the shadow of a dictatorship; both share a respect for the common people; both are cultural centers that draw artists and writers much as Paris did in the 1920’s. In the larger context of East versus West relations, the example of Czech travel writing about Portugal lends credence to Leon Marc’s conclusion in “What’s So Eastern about Eastern Europe? Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall”; Western and Eastern Europe share so many values and beliefs that they should be considered parts of a single civilization.