Books: Even As We Speak — Destination Europe |
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Destination Europe

To introduce a special issue on the subject, the New Yorker asked me to sum up the history of Europe in a thousand words. For my next trick, I will run a mile in four seconds.

Suppose the world were an animal curled up into a ball, like a threatened armadillo, and you wanted to blow its brains out: the best way to do so would be to put the barrel of your gun against Europe and pull the trigger. The United States might be nettled by this dubious favouritism; in the century now waning, it has been called upon to save Europe from itself twice — three times if you count Stalin’s opportunistic incursion. But even the United States would have to admit, if pressed, that it is itself a largely European creation, a giant offshoot of the most productive piece of geography in the planet’s history. Behind that admission would be a tacit acknowledgment that, although America may have the power, the energy, and most of the money, Europe has the pedigree. As David Copperfield (the Broadway illusionist, not the Dickens character) is reported to have said to Claudia Schiffer while they were touring the Louvre and reading the dates on the paintings, ‘Talk about your old!’

As a word, Europe goes back a long way: Assyrian inscriptions speak of the difference between asu (where the sun rises; i.e. Asia) and ereb (where it sets). As a place, Europe is old even by the standards of dynastic China and Pharaonic Egypt. As an idea, though, Europe is comparatively new: the word European didn’t turn up in the language of diplomacy until the nineteenth century, and to think of Europe as one place had always taken some kind of supervening vision. Whatever unity existed within it came not through a unifying idea but through the exercise of power, and did not last.

The Pax Romana prevailed for more than two centuries: it left us the Latin language and all its rich derivatives, and it left us the law — and slavery, and militarism. Dante spent the best years of his life in exile: a member of a political faction, he was exiled from his beloved Florence not by another faction but by another faction of the same faction. The university system pioneered the notion of intellectual unity, but intellectual was all that it was. Erasmus the wandering scholar was at home everywhere he went in Europe, but his wanderings were forced on him, and his humanism would have died young if he had been caught napping where the knives were out. The Church united Europe in the one faith — Christendom is a peaceful-sounding word — but finally the faith itself split. Nothing could stop the rise of the nation-states, or stop them from fighting once they had arisen. And those states whose destiny it was to fight one another had been forged from fiefdoms and principalities that had warred upon one another, from walled cities that had laid siege to one another, and from fortified hill towns that had laid siege to one another for the valleys in between. The colossal efforts of Charlemagne, Louis XIV and Napoleon — though they gave us, respectively, the restoration of learning, the apex of the comfortable arts, and the crucial new reality of the career open to the talents — all depended on military might. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s similar dreams seem more explicitly violent only in having left behind little that was constructive; and Hitler’s demented venture, though it united an unprecedentedly large proportion of Europe, left nothing in its wake — nothing except destruction, and this: the idea of European unity stopped being an intoxicating vision and started being a mundane necessity.

The centrifugal effect of the Nazi regime in Germany scattered the best brains of Europe all over the planet. Exiled to faraway New Zealand, the philosopher Karl Popper developed his argument that there could be no such thing as universal fixes — that the most that society could or should hope to do was to correct specific abuses. This perception surely applies to a united Europe: speculation about what utopian goals it might achieve counts for little beside a firm grasp of what it sets out to avoid — any recurrence of the internecine conflict that was already ancient when Athens fought Sparta and that reached its hideous apotheosis in the Second World War. In the middle of the twentieth century, it had become plain for all to see that Europe’s glories — justly renowned even when they had to be rebuilt stone by stone — were merely its structure. Beneath them was the infrastructure — a network of burial mounds linked by battlefields — and it stank of blood. Hegel said that history was the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself. European history has culminated — at last, and in our time — with Europe becoming frightened of itself.

As happens so frequently in human affairs, fear has accomplished what neither reason nor culture ever could. Cultural unity was no illusion — had it been one, Hitler would not have been so eager to dispel it — but cultural unity had not been enough. When the musicians played for Mengele in Auschwitz, it did not mean that art and civilization added up to nothing, but it did mean that they did not add up to everything. Beside the broken bodies of the tortured innocent, the life of the mind was felt to be irrelevant — as, indeed, in any forced comparison it is.

To make sure that no such forced comparison happens again is the task in hand. It is not an easy one. In place of the conquerors’ fevered dream of a Europe united by the sword, the peaceful commercial republics of the New Europe make do with such cultural manifestations as the Eurovision Song Contest — a kitschy classic that every year draws a huge television audience, whose more sophisticated members amuse each other with jokes about how dumb it is. The jokes keep changing. For years, Norway’s songs reliably lost (‘Norvège . . . nul points’); then they started winning. More recently, much derisive hilarity has attended the earnest efforts of Turkey. Between laughs, though, the less sophisticated but more thoughtful viewers should take heart: there was a time when the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna and bristled with the armed intention of getting into Europe by less tuneful means.

What the snobs are really afraid of is a United States of Europe that mirrors what they imagine the United States of America to be: an agglomerate dissolved into homogeneity, a consumer society consumed by mediocrity, or, at best, a mindless mimicry of Euro-savvy in which a dauntingly exact copy of Michelangelo’s David presides over Forest Lawn’s departed Angelenos and an actual-size Parthenon wows visitors to Nashville. But they are wrong about America, which is more than that; and they are wrong about the New Europe, which, as the millennium looms, bids fair to attain a last, unprecedented, and very welcome greatness, through a just peace. Talk about your new!

(New Yorker, 28 April and 5 May, 1997)