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5 October, 2012

Is European Culture a Fantasy?

Is European culture a fantasy? Is it more or less so than European politics? These are the questions that cross my mind over and over again when I try to think of how to reverse the ongoing tragedy of the EU – namely, its silent and slow demise, which is a fact of reality, to my dismay.

European culture sometimes is dismissed as a fantasy or fiction inasmuch as it is argued that there is no such phenomenon as an all-embracing and all-encompassing European culture. Is this assumption correct? No, it is profoundly wrong, misplaced, and misguided. Only those who are out of touch with the cultural history of Europe can claim Europe to have never been an entity deeply permeated by a unifying and controlling principle, be it the legacy of classical antiquity and Judeo-Christian spiritual trajectories, or be it the a value-and-idea system that revolves around liberty and equality, these two heralds and promises of modernity.

Pyotr Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters appear as a profound intellectual testimony to this truth. The Russian philosopher wrote with pain that his country never experienced the great dramas of modernity; nor did it have an historic opportunity to be molded by the greatest historical-cultural epochs of Europe, such as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Baroque, or the Enlightenment. As Chaadayev argued, Russia had none of these. Therefore, European history did not speak to Russia the language of its great cravings for liberty, emancipation of the human soul, and individual self-fulfilment.

For Europe is more than merely an economic and political reality, according to Chaadayev. It is an idea, a religion, a dream, and a trajectory of the soul. In fact, modernity and freedom appear to Russia as something alien, imposed, emulated, or otherwise adopted from without; yet in Europe they became part of psychology and even physiology of human individuals. Europe is inconceivable without a certain modern faith which has become brother to liberty, instead of a tool of oppression.

Such were the ideas for which poor Pyotr Chaadayev was pronounced a madman and confined to house arrest. Today they are on the agenda of every mediocre mainstream politician, instead of shaping a dissenting theory of an intellectual naysayer.

Arguments that European culture is a fantasy can claim only those who have never understood the fact that the foundations for the art of the portrait in England were laid by a Fleming, Sir Anthony van Dyck; that the Flemish Primitives greatly influenced their peers in Venice and elsewhere in Italy; that Caravaggio was behind not only Rembrandt but the group of Caravaggisti in Utrecht as well; that Baroque music was an interplay of Italian, German and French genius (think about Bach vis-à-vis Vivaldi or Italian opera composers vis-à-vis Handel); that the greatest Elizabethan dramatists in England were under the spell of Spanish literature coming from their political foe, from the country they hated as their political arch-rival. The dialectic of politics and culture is just as much about Europe as is the dialectic of war and peace.

For me, the very symbol of Europe is the great Flemish Primitive Hugo van der Goes’ work of genius, The Triptych of Tommaso Portinari, which hangs at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. The head of the Medici bank branch in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari, was a patron of Hugo van der Goes; his family also supported a German-born genius of Bruges, Hans Memling. This economic, political, aesthetic, mental and existential knot of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, French, and German genius from the Middle Ages onward reveals what I would call the Soul of Europe.

Europestarts where we fail to classify and categorize a human individual. Europe emerged repeatedly where Martin Buber, born in Vienna, who had his Austrian and German upbringing, and who spent much of his time in Lviv, adopted Eastern European sensibilities by committing himself to Hassidic tales and by converting spiritually to Ostjuden, that is, Eastern European Jews at who German Jews used to look down as regrettable people. Europe emerges where we adopt a common destiny, and a silent and joint dedication to our history and political legacy.                                

Ironically, we fail to see that the only sphere where Europe as our common home became a fact of life, rather than a manifestation of wishful thinking, is education and culture. The future of Europe is unthinkable without the art of translation. It was with sound reason that Milan Kundera made a joke about the role of the work of interpreters in the European Parliament clearly suggesting that it is far more important for the future of the EU than the labor of members of the EP.

We will inexorably fail in our EU policies if we keep relegating literature, culture, and the art of translation to the margins of European life. If there is a chance that the EU can survive the twenty-first century as a club of democratic nations or even as a federal state able to blaze the trail to other nations seeking the rule of law and democracy, it will occur only on the condition that we give justice to education and culture.

Most importantly, culture serves as an anticipation of more just and coherent politics – suffices it to mention utopias, dystopias, social criticism in the form of humour, and similar forms of dissent, moral imagination and alternative, which are pivotal for politics. This is far from a detached and politically naïve wish; in fact, this is a matter of fact.

The EU failed where politics was unable to overcome national selfishness and disbelief in the European project. Yet the EU up to now was successful everywhere where it spoke the language of education, literature and culture. 


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