EUROPE, YESTERDAY, TODAY, TOMORROW (an essay by Professor Virgil Nemoianu)
Let us begin by clarifying our terms, which is not always easy. I would describe Europe as a peninsula of the enormous Afro-Asian landmass, blessed with a favorable climate, a variety of relief forms, a rich ethnic diversity, abundant natural resources, and advantageous historical circumstances. This peninsula acquires a distinct identity around AD 500-1000 and plays a central role in human history for about three centuries, let us say approximately between 1650 and 1950. In other words, I maintain that it is erroneous and excessive for Europe to co-opt the great Mediterranean cultures (Greek-Roman Antiquity, the Egyptian world, the Judaic, Phoenician-Carthaginian, Sumerian, Islamic worlds and others). Europe emerges out of a combination between the civilization of Classical Antiquity, the spirit of Christianity and the traditions of Northern “barbarian” tribes (Germanic, Slav, Celtic, and a few others). Far from being primarily a “colonialist” force as usually accused (and often self-accused) Europe is the first great colony of the world, at least of the Western World; obviously in the Eastern world, in the world of China and India such colonizing phenomena also existed, probably even earlier.
However all along Europe was a special kind of colony. A colony that succeeded to embrace tightly the Lebensform of its masters, a colony that never seemed to lose its pride and vigor, but rather changed adroitly its status from a shameful into a haughty one. This Europe proceeded to annex its past, to a great extent to impose its values, to staunchly resist outside pressures (why don’t we re-read with fresh eyes the Chanson de Roland? – we would discover there how an uncouth peasant population kept fighting with tenacious rage to maintain its coarse identity when faced with a world-wide empire, a cosmopolitan, sophisticated adversary, intellectually and technologically well advanced and superior to it: the Arab-Islamic civilization.). More: it became aggressive and expansionist as soon as it was able to, before finally embarking upon a slow and elegant decline, one in its turn not devoid of some worth and even creativity.
Until around 1500, this Europe was not too different from other civilizations on the planet with which it was quite imperfectly acquainted. The same living standards, analogous technological levels, similar political systems, of natural (or should we say biological?) derivation (feudal/monarchist), comparable artistic achievements. As a matter of fact, more than once Europeans used to throw flabbergasted and envious glances toward the accomplishments and abundances located elsewhere, on other meridians (the Chinese world, the Arab-Islamic one and others yet, indeed the African ones, real or imaginary.) At the time one can notice that this Europe was not particularly hospitable toward the Other, it did not show itself particularly eager to establish peaceful contacts, perhaps partly because of some inbuilt psychological insecurity, perhaps also because it was still engaged in self-invention.
It is therefore only around 1500 that Europe feels emboldened and empowered to embark upon discovery, conquest, missionary work. In a relatively short stretch of time (300 years or a little bit longer) it imposes, often by dint of eloquent conviction and example, but more than once by brutal constraint (historically European civilization was by no means less cruel and violent than its Asian sisters, although it brags otherwise) its own socioeconomic and conceptual grammar over the whole planet: technological urbanization, alienated individualism, empirical rationalism, ever more tenuous ties with nature and with transcendence, the prevalence of transactional-contractual relationships between human beings, the quantifying, mathematization, and digitalizing of the universe, the speeding up of communications and of historical advance and progress.
How do we explain this formidable success, unique, one might argue, in the evolution of the human race? Let us speculate a little, thus avoiding comprehensive and definitive answers. First we explain the success through the very texture of the cultural entity in question. Precisely the colonial roots of Europe facilitated for it a certain pluri-centrism, a multiplication of layers, a diversity of angles and of positions which could provide advantages for itself, but also open it up to otherness (at least in principle or potentially!) and provide space for convenient diverse maneuvers. Again: this fundamental colonial Einstellung (the servant’s quick wits, so often portrayed in literature!) was the one which taught Europe to improvise with stunning speed practical applications of inventions that as often as not (let us not forget) were due to and initiated in other cultures: gunpowder and typography, artistic or mathematical innovations, philosophical concepts, geographical and natural-science explorations. At the same time embracing the Judeo-Christian mode of communication with transcendence ensured a Weltanschauung against the background of which are born individual freedom, linear progress, the oneness of the universe, and other concepts yet; let me state this as clearly as I can: modern science is in my view a branch of Biblical religiosity and would never have taken off without it. Finally, let us remember that for a good number of centuries, thanks to the phenomenon of subsidiarity there functioned a certain balance between unity and diversity, between “Europe” and its components, be they national, religious, local, social, or otherwise.
So here we truly have it: Europa Triumphans !
We are entitled however to ask ourselves why, under these circumstances, with even greater speed than it had grown, Europe tumbled (from a certain point on) to a secondary place in the affairs in the world. It is easy to give a concrete and specific answer. Two great “civil wars” (as they had been labeled by Ernst Junger and by others) or “world wars”, as they are more often called, led to the internal collapse of “triumphant Europe”. But there is more to say, over and beyond this military explanation. The European self-construction, to which I just alluded above, was never truly completed. Never did Europe succeed in defining itself: what are our limits? how hospitable ought we to be toward other identities, cultures, languages? what is the most appropriate kind of unity we should select? It is perhaps not erroneous to state that precisely the virtues that nourished Europe’s victories had as the reverse of the coin the vices that ensured its defeats.
Europe received with difficulty, with unpleasant reluctance and often with merciless violence the Jews, and with greater distaste and delays, others groups coming from Africa, Asia, the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, Europe did not seem willing or able to establish a modus vivendi with its own Eastern half; as a matter of fact it usually did not even liked to conceive or admit that it was even endowed with such an Eastern half. Nor was the coexistence with its own Western extensions all too happy: Northern and Southern America were long regarded with the same suspicion as Eastern Europe. Should we add here the gradual dissipation and dissolution of Europe’s foundational spirituality? Should we add the relentless pressures of analytical empiricism and of all kinds of alienations that were slowly and surely chewing up its organicity and sacrality? Perhaps we do not even have to.
It is only in this framework of thought that we can better understand why the “civil wars” of the century that is just coming to an end were so efficient in their destructive power: all the “dossier cases” that had remained unsolved for centuries took fire in a common flame, murderous both figuratively and in reality.
Very well, you will answer, let us assume for the sake of discussion that you may be right (although in our inner selves we do not fully believe you), but will you be able to deny the radiant future of this Europe, Phoenix-like reborn from its ashes and reconstructing itself, this time in a rational way, rapidly, with vigorous deliberation? Are we not witnesses to ultimately a vast process of Wiedergutmachung, of compensation, cleansing, and repair of the vices and errors that you just enumerated for us?
With all due respect, I have some doubts. As a teenager, in the 1950s, I first heard of the early plans for European unification and I was truly enthusiastic. First and foremost because these plans seemed to irritate and worry somewhat the Communists: so they cannot be all bad, I thought in my mind. Beyond this rather childish judgment, I believed I discovered inside the preparations for European unity economic plans that seemed profound (Monnet), references to a Carolingian ideology (the horizons opened by the great Catholic statesmen De Gasperi, Adenauer, Robert Schumann), my thoughts wandered farther afield to analogies with Habsburg Austria, for me without the trace of a doubt the most judicious and inclusive system ever produced in Europe, where ethnic groups each had a substantial role and chances of progress, irrespective of their bickering and their petty dissatisfactions. In those years, Imperial Austria seemed to me (but even today my views have not changed too much) an ideal locus amoenus where the balance between advance and conservation was justly achieved.
Meanwhile (West-)European structures kept progressing with each passing decade, they became ever more complex and soon my mind and undoubtedly a number of other, better, minds, were faced with two fundamental questions. The first regarded the exterior of the building: I mean the autonomy of the construction, the other regarded the inside, let us better say the organization of the new system. In each case one could imagine a good and a negative answer.
Also zuerst Mal, the outside. For a good half-century (from 1945 to 1991 or so), a main theme of world politics turned around the tempting and rich stake of domination of Western Europe. Should the area belong to the Western extension (separated from Europe, but rooted in it: that is North America) or rather become a dependency of its own Eastern branch, that is to say the Soviet empire? This was a closer struggle than it sometimes seemed and the outcome was never truly and completely clear or categorical. Only now, as we are stepping into the dangerous 21st century do we truly know the decision: the Western (golden? olive?) branch is the winner. The much-coveted treasure has a possessor. Economically, culturally, technically this Europe means in fact little, almost nothing, it is meekly gleichgeschaltet to Wall Street, to Hollywood, to the Pentagon. Long gone are the days when a conservative like Charles De Gaulle would allow himself to cast out summarily the general quarters of NATO from the splendors of Fontainebleau Castle. Long gone are the days when a socialist like François Mitterand could forbid the American military airplanes to use the French airspace on their way to I forget what clownish aggressive frolic of the American cousins. Gone are the days when Margaret Thatcher could embark upon independent military enterprise, as well as offer socio-economic lessons and models to the United States. Even humble and timid Germany had the nerve, under the social-democrat Helmut Schmidt, to submit imperious advice to the American government. Today? In France the conservative Chirac and the socialist Jospin compete as to which of them knows how to prostrate and humiliate themselves in front of their American bosses. What would anyone expect from the laughable puppet Tony Blair but the most demeaning set of imitations? And so on, and so forth, country after country. The bottom line is that I do not see any reason to believe that the unification of Europe might lead to the emergence of an alternative center of power. I cannot imagine how this unification might be conducive to the increase and strengthening of diversity on our planet. On the contrary, this unification seems to intend an expansion, peaceful if possible, by unrestrained brutality if necessary, over other areas of Europe and Asia., it seems to pursue the imposition of “values” which are not even completely its own everywhere else. So from an exterior point of view there seem to be mighty few reasons for any optimism regarding a “renewal” of the culture and/or civilization of Europe.
How then can we judge the inner self of a reinvented Europe? Perhaps there is more hope in that respect? Here, likewise, there seem to be two main options, common sense tells us. A unified Europe might well act as a kind of roof for a certain “regionalization” of the continent: a genuine federalization in the frame of which Burgundy, Catalonia, Bavaria, Flanders, Toscana and so many others might counteract the cold and hard systematization of the implacable national state, such as it had emerged in the 19th century, the very same national state that had pushed us toward disastrous developments, all too well-known and all too close in time to us. The second option. Full and real unification, in the strong sense of the word. Let us institute an additional level of oppressive bureaucracy over and above those that already plague us; let us erase local diversities (the few that have somehow still survived) and establish a central power with eliminatory purposes and severe commandments. So what is the direction chosen today by semi-federalized Europe? You will answer: well, we do not know yet, it is too early to say anything categorically. Perhaps I am ready to agree: indeed, we don’t have an absolute certainty. But, alas, I worry earnestly that the marching orders point in the second direction, not the first, toward compulsory homogeneity, rather than toward the creative carnival of multiplicities.
Therefore, I feel that I am entitled, looking at both aspects, to remain a pessimist and a skeptic when debating the putative “renaissance” of Europe.
It seems to me that that the circle of European history is now closing: this part of the world started and was born as colony, it fades away and comes to an end as a colony again. A number of events (partly economic, partly political) in the first half of 2001 gave the impression to some that indeed we can begin to speak about a certain independence or autonomy of unified Europe. I have the opposite impression. The behaviours and declarations coming out of the leading strata of Europe indicate the increasingly static, rigid, and inertial nature of the conglomerate, characteristic of colonized systems. Whereas in the case of America (and even China or Russia) one observes movement, change, internal contradictions, this is hardly the case in Europe. The former “centre of the world” is engaged in what one of its pre-unification prime-ministers described as “a vast anti-democratic strategy”. Its anti-American tantrums are just that: the rebellious acts directed at a parent that is known to be ultimately forgiving and benevolent. This is followed soon by re-entry into obedience.
Have I been saying all along that that the origins of Europe are rather shameful, its development short and guilt-laden, and the end inglorious? I hope I have not. Of course, I do not glimpse for Europe any admirable future. How and why should I when (West-) Europeans themselves distrust themselves: observe the nourishment of your eyes in the halls of movie theaters or on the screens of your TV right now in Paris and London, let alone Madrid and Amsterdam; watch the dress codes, the gestural behavior, the food and the music styles; notice the sterile, agitation, filled with anxiety no less than with boredom of the younger generation, as well as of people inclined toward creativity and enterprise – you will soon be convinced by the eloquence of real facts. Europe is fading away.
What survives is, in Hölderlin’s undying words that blessed summer of fertility; by the simple fact that something “WAS”, that it had existed, it continues to exist. The vital ferment in all fields of human endeavor, from the material to the spiritual ones is (let me here openly admit to sincere prejudice and preference) unparalleled in all the annals of our human race. The dynamics, the processuality of Europe are those that remain worth admiring and, yes, worth imitating. From there, from that relatively tiny geographical corner emerged the constitutive discourses of today’s world, and these continue to uns zu gestalten and to serve as a strategic reserve of images and concepts.
Perhaps in a century or so the future centers of the world will be found in Hong Kong and Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, in Sao Paolo and Pretoria, in Baghdad and Bombay. But I am firmly persuaded that the socioeconomic idioms which will shape this possible future world would be intelligible for us, precisely because they will be those that grew and matured on the mental soil of Europe. Why should it be otherwise when even today we witness a similar process of transfer, of adaptation? Evelyn Waugh has an admirable predictive and satirical short story in which a Europe of the remote future, fallen into ignorance and barbarity, is now being nurtured through the words and actions of African missionaries who have arrived to bring to it civilization and the word of the Christian God.
Optimism? More than one alternative scenario can be imagined. What if a Germany, again unified as it is, manages within a few decades to polarize around itself the Central and Eastern parts of Europe? Would this not be described as a reinvention? We can only answer in the affirmative. What if the Romance and Balkan countries of Southern Europe assemble together with the Arab World, with Greece and Israel in a new Mediterranean circle, fresh and full of initiatives? Would this not be a new, alternative construction of Europe? It would, patently so. Or what if the Black Sea, as many (M. Malita among others) suggest, begins to act as the focus for a convergence of the Caucasian lands, of Eastern Europe, of the Turkish-Greek and Levantine world? Here too, the answer is quite obvious.
The list of scenarios could well continue, but the last answer brings us to a very interesting point, one that is often overlooked. Let us envisage that erstwhile “Europa Triumphans” will continue inexorably its downward slide, moving toward the status of a “theme park” (NOTE’ DAS IST SO WAS WIE EIN DISNEYLAND, ABER THEMATISCH, JA?) attractive in an ever more emphatic and visible way for the ruins of its great cathedrals and castles, more generally for its museum-like features (which after all, are already extant). Even under such melancholy circumstances, Western Europe might preserve a certain global dignity and usefulness (provided it does not seek too obstinately the position of serf-like vassal in which it already threatens to install itself) – namely that of mediator, in other words claim for itself a place in which and through which “accelerated modernity”, more generally “the future”, can be communicated to and distilled for the rest of the planet, after a judicious process of polishing and temperation. This might prove to be an interesting, and surely not an unworthy task, an elegant, albeit modest role in the process of globalization.
I notice however that I keep talking mostly about Western Europe. This is, mea culpa, a staggering error. If we persist in feeding the illusion of a Europe that continues to flourish and engages in a quest for some mode or another of rebirth, then our eyes have to turn toward East and Central Europe. One of the main reasons for Europe’s decline and fall was, as I just said, precisely its own incomplete nature, tenaciously preserved, through economic exploitation, political or military violence (which unfortunately seems to continue), hegemonic visions and religious schisms.
Well then, why should we not rather envisage a rounded Europe, specifically a Europe in which the most dynamic and creative emphases would move considerably eastward? Since we have been considering different “scenarios” why not the following also (a possible, no, a probable one)? On a pluralist planet, such as we hope for, such as we ought to hope for, Eastern Europe might affirm itself (along with the Pacific basin, along with the Muslim world, along with the Latin-American civilization) as a major player on the fields of the world. Western Europe could well preserve, as I just said, its mediating role but how much better, how much more ably and appropriately could such a role be played when coupled with the potentials of Eastern Europe! Though more deeply integrated than usually believed in the structures and the creative discourses of its Western twin, Eastern Europe nevertheless preserves communicative attachments with nature and sacrality, a nostalgia for long tradition, underlying layers of “third world”. Communism had repressed all of these, but simultaneously, like a Paleolithic glacier, preserved them intact. That is how the conditions that encourage the vocation for mediation managed to survive in full, anarchic, vitality.
I will not deny that the same communism was the one who, alas, grave deformed (even in the long term) the communicative abilities of the inhabitants both inside this part of the world and towards the exterior. This state of bedazzlement, confusion, and deafness of East Europeans will last for a good while. They express themselves not least by economic inadequacies, social chaos, psychological inhibitions; but above all, and most seriously, by an inability of self-understanding. The North-American military-economic block provides scant help in its clumsy (sometimes brutal) attempts at mimetic reconstruction.
Still, my impression (and now, by way of symmetrical compensation, I become perhaps too optimistic) is that mimeticism has a relatively limited future, and that we should brace ourselves for some surprises. The, wounds, the frustrations, the bafflements, the psycho-repressions are temporary; the other “half of Europe” has still an abundant potential fund of genuine substance. So (realistically or not) I allow myself to envision a “renaissance” which will come from a different direction, still ambitious, still unexhausted, rather than from the bureaucratic structures of Brussels and Strasbourg. The merits of the European Abendland will remain for a long, long time staunch and majestic; the grateful appreciation we owe it must remain intact. But a renewal is, to repeat, highly improbable. If indeed, as any sane mind wants to hope, the future of our planet and species must be one of plurality, heterogeneity, diversity, then what we would like to happen is a displacement of Europe’s gravitational center and focus toward the East, toward the South; only thus can we ensure the plural balances to which (in the past) Western Europe itself knew how to participate, in an agile and productive way.
Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He is a member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences and Vice-President of the International Comparative Literature Association. He has published c. 16 books and c. 600 articles and reviews on four continents. Among these are “The Taming of Romanticism” (Harvard, 1985) and “The Theory of the Secondary” (Johns Hopkins, 1989)
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