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4 June, 2012

European Stories

To have a plausible political-historical narrative nowadays means to have viable politics, rather than policies masquerading as politics.

Politics becomes impossible without a good story in the form of a convincing plot or an inspiring vision. The same applies to good literature. When we fail a method in our scholarship, or when a method fails us, we switch to a story – this sounds much in tune with Umberto Eco. Where scholarly language fails, fiction comes as a way out of the predicament with an interpretation of the world around us.

The funny thing is that politics does not work without our stories. This is to say that modern politics needs the humanities much more than politicians suspect. Without travel accounts, humour, laughter, warning and moralizing, political concepts tend to become empty. With sound reason, therefore, Karl Marx once wittily noted that he learned much more about the nineteenth century’s political and economic life from Honoré de Balzac’s novels than from all economists of that time put together.

This is the reason why Shakespeare was far and away the most profound political thinker of Renaissance Europe. Niccolò Machiavelli’s works Florentine Stories and Discourses on Livy tell us much about his literary vocation and also about the talent of a storyteller– no less than exuberant comedies penned by Machiavelli, such as The Mandragola. Do we tell each other European stories nowadays to enhance our powers of interpretation and association, and to reveal one another’s experiences, traumas, dreams, visions, and fears? We don’t, alas. Instead, we confined the entire European project merely to its economic and technical aspects. Stories lay the foundation for Giovanni Boccaccio’s masterpiece Decameron; nothing other than stories about human suffering, whatever their blood and creed, made Voltaire’s philosophical tales, such as Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism), truly European stories. This reference as well as human reality behind it crossed my mind almost immediately when I started teaching the course on politics and literature at the University of Bologna. The reason was quite simple: I had the entire fabric of Europe in my class, as the course was given within the East European studies program with the participation of students from Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, including such non EU countries as Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

We easily surpassed and crossed the boundaries of an academic performance and discussion, for it was human exchanges on the newly discovered and shocking moral blindness of classmates or neighbours, human dramas of high treason, moral treachery, disappointment, cowardice, cruelty, and loss of sensitivity. How  can we miss the point talking past and present to each other or listening to someone else’s drama that it was Dante who coined the phrase “the cult of cruelty,” and the English writer Rex Warner who forged the phrase “the cult of power” – political idioms that we use constantly without being aware of the fact that they are not straight out of the vocabulary of today.

Suffice it to recall that the real founding fathers of Europe, Renaissance humanists Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam made friends in Paris conjointly translating Lucian from Greek into Latin, and also connecting their friend, German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, to the royal court of the king of England Henry VIII. Whereas the great Flemish painter Quentin Matsys saved for history the face of their friend in Antwerp, Peter Giles, Hans Holbein the Younger immortalized the faces of his benefactor Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Yet the bad news is that politics colonized culture nowadays, and this went unnoticed, albeit under our noses. This is not to say that culture is politically exploited and vulgarized for long- or short-term political ends and objectives. In a democratic political setting, culture is separated from politics. An instrumentalist approach to culture immediately betrays either technocratic disdain for the world of arts and letters or poorly concealed hostility to human worth and liberty. However, in our brave new world, the problem lies elsewhere.

We don’t need the humanities anymore as a primary driving force behind our political and moral sensibilities. Instead, politicians try to keep the academia as unsafe, uncertain and insecure as possible – by reshaping, or “reforming” it, into a branch of the corporate world. By and large, this idea of the necessity to politically rationalize, change, reshape, refurbish, and renovate the academia is a simulacrum, in Jean Baudrillard’s terms. It conceals the fact that the political class and our bad policies are exactly what desperately need the change and reform. Yet the power speaks: if I don’t change you, you will come to change me. We stopped telling moving stories to each other. Instead, we nourish ourselves and the world around us with conspiracy theories (which are always about the big and powerful, instead of the small and humane), sensationalist stuff, and crime or horror stories. In doing so, we are at the peril of stepping away from inmost European sensibilities, one of which has always been and continues to be the legitimacy of opposing narratives, attitudes, and memories. Human beings are incomplete without one another.

This is more than true with regard to Lithuania and Ukraine, or Lithuania and Poland. This applies to the EU too. Without each other’s cultures and stories we will never achieve good politics.


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