That something we call Europe is independent of treaties, tax agreements and advertising
When I was in school in Argentina, Europe (our notion of Europe) was a vast and powerful conglomerate of culture and wisdom. From there, from across the Atlantic, came the history to which, magister dixit, we owed our existence; from there came the writers whose literature we read, the musicians whose music we listened to, the filmmakers whose films we watched. From Europe came the faces of our ancestors, the accents of our grandparents, the names entered in copperplate handwriting on the front pages of our exercise books. Argentina, we were told, was brand new and we were meant to love it simply because it was ours (the word "ours" repeated itself relentlessly in our anthems, symbols, geography textbooks: "nuestra patria, nuestra bandera, nuestras Malvinas"). Paraguay or Mexico, which together with twenty other countries were supposed to constitute what some called South and others Latin America, were as mysterious to us as Newfoundland. France, instead, and Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Switzerland, the shifting nations of Mitteleuropa, even Great Britain (we never understood the old joke "Storm over the Channel; the Continent cut off") were part of one coherent, definable, dearly familiar whole.
Earlier images were less kind. For the eighteenth-century people of Benin, hell lay beyond the sea because that was where the European slave traders came from. A seventeenth-century Chinese portrait of a European shows a creature with a beak-like nose, the body covered in hair, the chest sporting a couple of lung-shaped tattoos and the mouth exhaling a dark gust of tobacco smoke. Writing about a journey through Europe in the sixteenth century, Syed Hasan Agha described the inhabitants as "short, smelly and addicted to uncomfortable clothes."
No doubt for Erasmus, for Voltaire, for Joyce, Europe was its culture and its common language or languages, Latin, French or Finneganspeak. Their roots dug down to the Greek and Roman classics and the Bible, to a source of common understanding, to a shared vocabulary of stories and symbols. By "European" they meant someone whose culture was greater than the narrow circles of their nationalities and whose duties were ethical and philosophical rather than merely political.
Such a European, however, became extinct with annoying regularity. Montesquieu believed that a European was in his time an impossibility, like the manticore, the citizen of one nation made up of many others; Rousseau believed that there were no Europeans left except in one place, Corsica ("I have a presentiment that one day this little island will surprise us"); Burke complained that "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever." Two centuries later, in 1934, Thomas Mann, recalling a meeting with his old mentor, the publisher Sammi Fischer, noted an observation made by Fischer about a mutual acquaintance.
"He is no European," he said, shaking his head. "No European, Herr Fischer? Why ever not?" "He understands nothing of the great humane ideas."
Fischer’s remark was intended both as a definition and as an elegy.
Today, bereft of a common language (computer English does not count), beleaguered by accusations of arrogance and brutishness (the term "eurocentric" has become an insult), cautious about "humane ideas" (notwithstanding the International Court at the Hague), infinitely less inclined to chivalry than to calculated sophistry (consider the invention of "guest workers" and "resident aliens"), the concept of Europe is hard to define and, in the official literature, seems too good to be true.
But a concept need not be good or true in order to exist. In spite of the efforts of the European Parliament (the abolition of customs gates, the attempt to render all cheeses equal, the opportunity to work for the same low wages in any of the member countries) and in spite of the laborious symbols (the star-studded flag that mirrors the flag of the United States, the inoffensive coinage devoid of history, the European Union Day that no one remembers), few believe that there is such a thing as a Europe that does not include Switzerland, for instance, because it didn’t sign the agreement, or that includes Turkey because it soon will. Instead, as everyone knows, there exists a Europe with its history, its literature, its cooking, its landscape, much as there exists an India with dozens of different cultures or a United States of America with barely one. It seems futile to counter that every social construct, every city, nation or continent, is a potpourri of odd bits and pieces: that "European" history is interwoven with that of the Arabs it expelled, of the Tartars it fought back, of the Africans it enslaved, of the Jews it persecuted and gassed, of the Native Americans it slaughtered; that it would take all the art of a textual theorist to lump under the banner of a common literature the writings of, say, Kafka, Zola, Lorca and Pessoa; that andouille and bratwurst, Venice and Manchester were never made by the same eye or for the same palate. As in a vast conglomeration of metaphors, all these different parts constitute, somewhere in the deepest recesses of the mind, something we call Europe and whose existence is independent of treaties, tax agreements and advertising.
And Herr Fischer’s Europeans, I believe, can still be recognized here and there, surviving who knows how, caught between the petty restrictions of nationalism that equate identity with narrow-mindedness, and the constant blurrings of globalization that advertise the merits of imbecility: among those Europeans are Roberto Calasso, George Steiner, Izaak Mansk, Marina Warner, Umberto Eco, W. G. Sebald, Claudio Magris and a few other inheritors of Erasmus. Jewish mysticism tells us that because of the existence of seven just men, God doesn’t crumple up the world. Perhaps Europe, el viejo mundo (as we called it in Argentina), owes its survival to a similar and larger meritorious lot.