Whose Byzantinism – Ours or Theirs? On the Issue of Byzantinism from a Cultural Semiotic Perspective

From a cultural semiotic perspective, inspired by Yuri Lotman and Itamar Even-Zohar, it is demonstrated in this article that the notion of Byzantinism is used in both the Western semiosphere, relating to Paris as its cultural centre, and the Byzantine semiosphere, relating to Constantinople. Since Byzantinism functions in different ways and carries different meanings and values in these semiospheres, it has often been used to separate the semiospheres from each other. In this sense, the notion of Byzantinism marks the cultural border between ‘us’ and ‘them’, from the point of view of the Western as well as the Byzantine semiosphere. An all too simple and superficial understanding of this phenomenon has been challenged however by various writers and intellectuals, who represent different languages and cultures, and who operate within either the Western or the Byzantine semiosphere, yet who all say ‘our Byzantinism’. 

Byzantinism might strengthen the sense of belonging to a Byzantine community, or articulate the desire to do so, as in the case of Konstantin Leontiev’s Russian article on ‘Byzantinism and Slavdom’. In the French avant-garde context of La Revue blanche, the notion of Byzantinism, might be brought from the periphery of the Western cultural system into fin-de-siècle Paris, right into the heart of the Western semiosphere. Cavafy’s poem ‘Στην Eκκλησία’ (In the Church) represents a case of interference between the Western and the Byzantine cultural systems. Rather than adherence to any culturally central norms it articulates a state of cultural change.

Byzantinism conceived as ‘ours’ is not a culturally centralised notion carrying positive value only within the Byzantine semiosphere. This complex and enigmatic notion can be characterised by its tendency to cause interference and transfers in the peripheries of both the Western and Byzantine cultural systems. The notion of Byzantinism has proved to be able to both separate and unite East and West, i.e. the Byzantine and the Western semiospheres. From within either, Byzantinism can be shown to be not only theirs, but also ours.

author Helena Bodin

In The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture Since 1500, edited by Dion C. Smythe and Przemysław Marciniak, 11-42. Aldershot, Hamps: Ashgate.

published 2016