In yesterday’s Times, David Aaronovitch praised Emmanuel Macron for his speech on the future of the European Union: apparently, Macron can deliver “a united European approach based on a united European belief”. This plays off an odd belief that, while the British view on things must always be hopelessly, even schizophrenically, divided, there is some common view, to which Europeans instinctively refer, that is basically sensible. And that is the basis of the article, in which Michel Barnier and Macron play essentially benign roles, correcting the UK when it errs, and telling of compromise at every turn.
But what struck me was the faintly bizarre mood music that accompanied the speech: “We have been wasting our time in a European civil war of words.” Apocalyptic visions of Europe’s past are contrasted with a glorious vision of hope for Europe’s present and future. “It is a lie that hunkering down in your own country is ever going to be a successful path … this Europe which has allowed us to turn our backs on war needs to be ambitious once again.”
And by the end of the speech, Macron was looking forward to a time when both the Ode to Joy, the anthem of European unity, would be sung alongside the national anthems of Europe’s nations at medal ceremonies. Macron echoes the vaunting futurity of the European Commission’s cultural initiatives. In 2015, it launched its “New Narrative for Europe” initiative, a “project designed to give a voice to the artistic, cultural, scientific and intellectual communities to articulate what Europe stands for today and tomorrow … The EU is not solely about the economy and growth, but also about cultural unity and common values in a globalised world. Europe’s core values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and respect for human rights are an essential part of the European project”.
But this vision of the ecstatic unity generated by the European project is less benign than it might first appear.
Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish intellectual historian and dissident in the Soviet era, was one of the most strident critics of the Communist project. Some of his most original criticisms of the Soviet system were reserved for Communism’s effect on cultural life. He makes brutally clear that, for all the negative effects of the capitalist system on the higher forms of life, it comes nowhere close to the way in which collective organization degrades culture.
Kołakowski is worth a read. His work contains a highly sophisticated appreciation of Marxist thought and its significant and valuable contribution to the history of nineteenth century economic thinking, while lamenting its development into the shallow and sloganeering call to revolution that it became. In his essay “Communism as a Cultural Force”, he tries to explain why Communism continues to remain a great source of cultural inspiration (à la #Grime4Corbyn) but when applied in reality as a political and economic system, it leads to a virtual elimination of all valuable cultural activity.
He concludes that it is the utopian impulse that is Communism’s source of cultural greatest inspiration, and the source too of the total ruin it inflicts on cultural life. When we talk of cultural unities, we abstract what Blake called “the holiness of the minute particular”, moving away from the closeness and preciousness that lends things real value. To place ideological limits on cultural life is an act of vandalism: the reduction of real and rich complexity into generalisable ‘core values’; the impulse to privilege unity over pluralism; and the conviction that culture is created by cultural policy.
And this is what George Steiner gives us, in his monograph “The Idea of Europe”: a picture of a European ideal that recognises the fragility of European prosperity, and rolls back from the utopian vision of European life. His idea of Europe is a Europe of and for ideas. Europe is created in a café culture, open and cosmopolitan, where music, philosophy and literature are endlessly debated and renewed. If Steiner were to construct a map of Europe, it would be like a delicate gossamer net of threads, a fragile creation of individual instances of consciousness that meet, coalesce and separate. It is a Europe that only really exists in the mind: here there is no fixed programme of culture, or manifesto for collective change.
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For Steiner, Europe is also the continent of walking. Its highest mountains can be scaled, and its landscape is gentler than the rainforest or the desert. There is no physical obstacle to human ambition. In Europe, everything is just waiting round the corner, just waiting to be realised. Steiner also reminds us of the dark underside to the European appetite for walking: “European history has been one of long marches.” We are marked too by the enormous and traumatic failure of Napoleon’s march into Russia, and Alexander’s march into Asia.
Steiner always reminds us of the spectre of Europe’s catastrophe: “Europe is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald, where the house of Corneille abuts on the marketplace in which Joan of Arc was hideously done to death.” Europe invented the novel, but it also invented the guillotine
Henry Ford once remarked on the forward-facing character of the American national character – in the US, “History is Bunk” – but in Europe, the past is felt as a weight that is ever present. Every street in Europe is named after some great disaster, or hero of history. We have memorials to countless wars, countless murderous warlords, and they are all around us.They are every street name, every town square.
Where is this pathetic vision in Macron’s utopian future? And think what harm the utopians will do to Europe: already the blindness to the complexity of Europe is making a real and destructive effect on politics in the present. As the old national forms of authority and legitimacy are sucked into the continental centre, local identities are left perilously weak. No wonder the most extreme versions of national history are now popular again. In this way, the utopian vision of Europe has generated new constituents for the thing it sets itself against – ethnic chauvinism and nationalism. This is having a real effect on politics: Marine Le Pen supports an end to the possibility of holding dual citizenship, recasting national identity as something to be inherited rather than freely chosen. Anodyne and sickly imitations of cultural identity cannot cope with potent voices from the fringe.
From Lucy Prebbles’ “I feel nothing but rage” to Anish Kapoor’s tremulous “I am heartbroken”, an astonishing array of cultural figures came out to condemn Brexit in the aftermath of the referendum. But it is this renewed focus on the European vision that is a more obvious and dangerous violation of cultural life. I voted ‘remain’ for the European idea. And it is quite different from the community ideal championed by the European leadership, an ideal that refuses the Europe that I love: poor, tortured, wretched, beautiful Europe.