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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe Has the Shape of My Brain

Mircea Cărtărescu
Traduction de Anna Paterson

Texte intégral

Există un mare număr de Europe în spaţiu şi în timp, în
vise şi în amintiri, în real şi în imaginar. Eu îmi revendic
doar una dintre ele, Europa mea, uşor de recunoscut
prin faptul că are forma creierului meu.

1About a hundred years ago, mighty Fortress Europe was filled with the coal smoke, ruled by mediocrities, and plagued by wars and other social conflicts. Artists were trying hard to break out of it. They had not yet realized that Europe is simply a cultural construct, or an intellectual daydream — yet another copy in a world lacking the originals, “a heap of broken images.” What did Europe mean to Rimbaud? A reactionary, chauvinistic place, a shallow pond in whose unyielding mud his drunken ship would run aground. What did Gauguin think of it? A fogbound, colorless place. Mallarmé wanted to “run far away,” as soon as he had read all he could find to soothe the sadness of the flesh. Even Baudelaire’s “anywhere out of this world” should be translated “anywhere at all, only not in Europe.” Dreadful old Europe, jaded and brutal. Where did they all escape to? Where did the colors glow more truly and life become full of richness and vigor? Why, Africa, of course. And Tahiti too. It helped to add red wine and hash. And homoeroticism. Anything to confuse the senses systematically. The important thing was to get away from what was emblematic of Europe at the time: the dull, mechanistic, and conformist rationality of its ruling classes. It was the world of the pater familias, properly brought up to believe in the spirit of progress and universal order, but within that world grew a soon-to-be born hobgoblin, an unimaginably terrible creature. In less than half a century it had become clear to all that Rimbaud’s flight to Africa had been driven by an awful clarity of insight: “My heart, there’s but a sea of blood …”

2Irresistibly, my emotional response to these great artists is to believe that they knew, somehow, what the twentieth century would bring. They expected Ypres and Verdun, foresaw Stalingrad and Normandy. In their dreams they saw it all: the slaughter as the tanks advanced across the Russian steppes, the appalling submarine chases, the flattening of whole cities and laying waste of libraries and cathedrals, of historical monuments many thousands of years old. In their own ways, some artists knew that the Nazi creed would lead “logically” to the Holocaust and that the Soviet version of “social harmony” would provide the foundation for the East European terror. They had, as it were, experienced it all in nuce. There were others, too, who knew: Kafka and Trakl, Dostoyevsky and Unamuno. They saw it all coming, understood that coldly scientific crimes would soon become accepted practice under the cover of “social engineering” and in the name of “advancing human wellbeing,” crimes that entailed experimenting with the real, living bodies of individuals as well as with huge, terrorized groups of people. We have yet to overcome the consequences. Until we con-front this aspect of our continent, we have no right to self-indulgently glory in its works of spiritual greatness and attempt to add to them.

3As Europeans, we must take responsibility for the horrors of the past century and accept that it is our duty to remember them and to prevent their repetition. Still, I doubt that this would truly be enough to return our right to celebrate our belonging to Europe. Over the past few decades, waves of enthusiasm for political correctness and multicultural relativism have carried us gradually, but forcibly, into a postmodern world. For all its exaggerated, often utterly ludicrous features, postmodernism has meant that we now show a certain caution about laying claim to primogeniture in matters of culture. Diogenes Laertius quotes an arrogant declaration by a Greek philosopher, a leading witness in a trial: “I cannot but be grateful to fate for three things: first, that I was born to this world as a human being and not an animal; second, that I am a man and not a woman; third, that I am a Hellene and not a Barbarian.” Today, discriminating in this way would signify a barbaric mindset. Could it be that we have finally distanced ourselves enough from the vision of Europe as a solitary island of high culture? That we no longer think of it as a place similar to Swift’s Laputa or maybe to Goethe’s “pedagogical province,” where the spirit brilliantly illuminates all and where, historically, “the best has been thought and said” (to paraphrase Matthew Arnold). We are even less justified in identifying Europe with a mind-sphere — de Chardin’s “noosphere” — or with fantasies about Utopia, such as Hesse’s Castilia. Many of the strands in the rope binding us to our Judaeo-Hellenic traditions can be followed into other realms, some close by and others very distant. Our written characters are Phoenician, our calendar Assyrian and many of “our” inventions were first made in China. Our nightmares are stalked by the Mesopotamian monster Humbaba. We are all children of the Deluge. In our minds, Europe is a complex mental image made up from interrelated concepts, as well as a contradictory mass of sentiments, in which self-love mingles with self-hatred. Be that as it may, it is just as unreasonable and silly to believe in a cultural relativism dictating that every culture has produced heroes qualitatively as good as Homer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, as it is to swear by these “giants of the human spirit” in a straightforward, dogged expression of Euro-centricity.

4I am proud of being human because I am also an animal; of being a man because I am also a woman; of being a Hellene precisely because of the vital Barbarian inside me. Following the same line of thought, the pride I take in being a European is double-edged. It does not equate with being good — or, at least, with being better than the rest — but with being complex, a creature torn by internal conflicts, somehow still able to recognize his inner contradictions and attempt finding a balance between them. My whole life, including its periods of rebellion, has been influenced by the great cultural traditions of Europe. Conventional wisdom allows no differences between Europe, America, or Asia, but what speeches, what books, what ever so monumental encyclopaedias can express collective reality on this scale?

5There are many Europes, no less than a confederation of multidimensional Europes distributed over time and space. To which one of these should I claim allegiance? Which of them do I detest? Some are as real as a handful of soil sprouting blades of grass, while others are virtual, ghostlike manifestations still haunting our imagination. If the world of the ancients really existed, could it be that Europe was simply a nymph, whom Zeus had carried off on the back of the boisterous Cretan bull? Surely there is no more persistent a symbol of our old continent? But then, what about the extraordinary, magic place, glowing with color as harshly as any computer game, where Arthur and Lancelot strode through teeming crowds of Arabs? Or what about reality as seen by Fragonard, with its unrestrained licentiousness, or by Napoleon, whose land of heroes had an apparently constant population of tin soldiers? Or even the flickering glimpses of a world full of coaches and men in top hats, as shown in black and white films from the turn of the century? Somebody or other has written that though our time on Earth is short, we are given transplants of false memories at the moment of birth.

6I do not want to wander about, lost in the caves and bewildering passages into which —according to Martin Hocke — European thought has mysteriously strayed. I feel more connected to the Europe of today than to any other of its past manifestations, but in the greater scheme of things the present-day place has no greater degree of concrete reality than do any of the previous versions. Still, the here-and-now has guided my progress through both my conscious existence and dreaming, and must be my dominant reality.

7Everything moves erratically in my Europe. For decades a perfectly idiotic wall of concrete and barbed wire divided it. Once torn down, it was obvious — maybe especially in Berlin — that the wall had kept apart two zones, defined not only in terms of geopolitics, but also of mindset. The evidence is close at hand. Even now, Europe is not united and this will not change in the foreseeable future, not even when all the nation-states in the would-be “East” have become officially integrated into that equally fantastic notion of the “West.” Samuel Huntington, who saw Europe as split along the borders between opposing Christian beliefs, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, only partly understood the reason for disunity. In his vision, the blocks of belief were colliding and crashing into each other like tectonic plates. This is far from the whole story. For Goethe and Thomas Mann the great divide opened between the cold, sensible and hardheaded North and the Dionysian South.

8From its base at the Ural Mountains, the entire, huge peninsula has now accepted as true three clichés or stereotypical habits of speech or even, fantasies of an almost sexual pervasiveness. I just don’t get it: do we exude notions of this kind continually, like a kind of secretion, or do we make them up? Do they serve to enclose us in infantile, cozy “camps” or do they support us like the buoyant bodies of jellyfish? So, here we go: Western, Central and Eastern Europe. Civilization, neurosis and chaos. Affluence, culture and chaos. Rationality, subconscious awareness and chaos. A couple of years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair I was chatting to a publisher, who told me that he was interested in eastern European writers. I replied at once that I did not see myself as one of them. Of course, the publisher said, as a Romanian you’re really a southeastern European. What remarkable precision! What crazy subdivision of a subdivision! You should know your place and stay there was the publisher’s well-meaning advice. Remain in your designated ghetto and write away on your typically southeastern European stories. Write about your Securitate and that dictator of yours, Ceauşescu, and his People’s Palace. Put in something about the feral dogs, the street kids and the Gypsies. Proudly demonstrate what a brave dissident you were during the communist era. Leave writing about love and death to us. We will deal with happiness and agony and ecstasy. As for creating an avant-garde art, supporting significant innovations and generally enjoying normal culture — better leave that to us as well. Your only option is to give expression to what is going on in your own exotic little world. Maybe, with luck, you will find a minor publisher here that will print your work. Come on, who’s worried anyway? Who’s really interested? It’s your choice: you can reinforce our cherished clichés or you can get lost.

9I will repeat, right now, my answer to that publisher. In no way am I an eastern European writer. As far as I’m concerned, the tripartite Europe is unreal. It has no geopolitical justification, nor a cultural one, and that includes religion as well. I dream of a Europe that can take on many shapes but is not schizophrenic. I read Musil, not because I suspect him to be, deep down, a contented Kakanian ruminant, but because I have found him to be an aristocrat of the European spirit. Which country André Bréton lived and wrote in does not concern me. I have no idea where Bulgakov’s Kiev is on the map. When I wanted to find Catullus or Rabelais, Cantemir or Virginia Woolf, I didn’t go looking on a map but in the library, where books stand next to each other on the shelves. Neither the little lambs of Romanian folklore nor the rosaries of the Orthodox faith clutter the books I have written. My writing contains much more of Dante’s stars, John Donne’s compass and Cervantes’ lance. I have pondered on Kafka’s beetle, Proust’s madelaine and Günter Grass’ flounder. I see myself as competing with writers whom I admire and love, but not with Romanians, nor with Bulgarians, Russians, Serbs, Czechs, Poles or others from my part of the world. True, if circumstances call for it, my material and stage-props may well be Romanian, and my language reflects of the psycholinguistic space to which I belong. However, my content and its themes belong to the great European tradition, which encompasses both Euripides and Joyce. I recognize influences on both my prose and my poetry, but above all on my thought — thinking being the most important task of the artist, as George Enescu once wrote — and these have come mainly from the great literature of the last century, Romanian as well as international. Happily, the Romanian literary tradition is as rich and complex as any other in Europe. Some Romanian authors have succeeded in transcending the mental borders between East and West and possibly, in doing so, have in some ways confirmed them. They became stars on the cultural firmament over Europe: Tzara, Ionescu, Cioran. There are of course many others, some no less brilliant, who were enticed into the tempting trap of a language that is endlessly rich in expressions, and so untranslatable: Urmuz, Arghezi and Blaga remain unknown outside Romania. Although I respect them, I do not in-tend to share their fate and turn into the “duty-Romanian,” who represents his country at conferences with monotonous regularity. I have no one and nothing to represent except myself and my books. My writing is my only motherland. I could be Portuguese or Estonian or Swiss. I could be a woman or a Hellene or a Barbarian. Of course the nature of what I wrote would change correspondingly, but the spirit behind the words would be the same. Valéry was completely absurd when he claimed that all the poetry ever written might have emanated from a single, timeless poet or, even, from the spirit of creativity itself. While not going all the way with Valéry, I still feel that there is indeed, almost tautologically, an element of a shared European spirit in all literature of true cultural value, wherever it has been created and however extensively it has been influenced by that locality. Once this is recognized, writers as diverse as Márquez, Pynchon and Kawabata are recognizably Europeans too. Attitudes and ideologies may well be distinctive, but differences will surely fade as one searches in works of art for their elements of a great collective subconscious, of a “philosophy” in the sense of an area of knowledge, as contemplated by the ancient Greeks—searches, in other words, for fundamental premises, which may well be unspoken, but yet decisive in shaping a literary work.

10For several decades now, postmodern thought has labored to expose all that is wrong with high culture — how, arrogant, elitist and self-sufficient, it locks itself away inside museums and so re-mains distanced from raw, real life. In a brilliant essay on art in the era of technology, Walter Benjamin has shown how the “aura” of a work of art fades in proportion to its increasing mechanical reproducibility. Both lines of thought contain truths. Back in the days of Duchamp “high” art deserved his insults — the urinal on display in a gallery, the moustache on the face of La Giaconda. Nowadays, it still deserves the attacks coming from the innumerable, almost random, varieties of new art, all seemingly more popular than the “canon.”

11However, entering into misalliances of this kind cannot destroy the European spirit of the ancient Judeo-Hellenic tradition. New art forms donate the fresh blood high art badly needs. Mona Lisa-witha-moustache is meaningless unless linked to the true, immortal Giaconda, who rather than being dragged down seems to glow with even more beauty than before. The wave of “pop culture,” which has been following in the wake of the widely dreaded “Americanization,” will not mean the end of great art. Instead, it offers it an opportunity to surf on its crest. Although art has become “show biz”—entertainment for the moment — I will not be dissuaded from my conviction that a solid education in the arts, even in the world today, will provide an immeasurable advantage over the armies of mediocre, nameless artists, who serve a public addicted to advertising and television.

12There are several Europes, in time and in space, in dreams and in memories, in reality and in fantasy. I lay claim only to one as mine—my own Europe. It is not difficult to see that my Europe has taken on the shape of my mind and that, indeed, my way of thinking has defined its structure. The surface of my brain, with its motor and sensory areas and zones for language and understanding, is a ridged and deeply grooved organ, but nowhere has it stone walls or iron curtains. It knows no borders.


Further Reading:
Poetry at Annaghmakerring. Dedalus Press, 1994.
Bebop Baby. Translated by Adam J. Sorkin. Poetry New
York, 1999.
Nostalgia. Translated by Julian Semilian. New Directions

Table des illustrations

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Born in Bucharest in 1956, the poet and narrative writer Mircea Cãrtãrescu studied languages and literature at the University of Bucharest and published several volumes of poetry between 1978 and 1985. From 1989 until 1991 he was employed by the Romanian Writers’ Union. Since 1991 he has been an assistant then a lecturer and an associate professor at the Department of Romanian Literary History at the University of Bucharest. A volume of prose Visul (The Dream, 1989), much abbreviated by the censor, was published in full in 1993 under the title Nostalgia. Cãrtãrescu’s first novel Travesti (Travesty) followed in 1994, winning several prizes in Romania. Currently he is working on a trilogy entitled Orbitor the first two volumes of which have already been published. His works are translated in ten European languages.

Anna Paterson (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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