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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europa’s Lovers

Durs Grünbein
Traduction de Michael Hofmann

Texte intégral

Heute erst fühle ich mich, nach mehreren
Amerikabesuchen, wieder als frischgebackener
Europäer. So geht einem die Lieblichkeit der
Lagunenstadt Venedig erst so richtig auf, nachdem
man etwa Las Vegas gesehen hat, die aufgedonnerte
Hure unter den Städten der Neuen Welt.

1The first of them was, of course, Zeus. He whisked her away in the typically macho costume of a bull. The place where he first set eyes on her — the beautiful princess who gave her name to our common continent — was on the coast of Phoenicia, which nowadays is shared between Lebanon and Syria. In other words, the girl was not just some unspecified and interchangeable trophy, a mere sex object, something for the young bull to frisk with. She was from the opposite shore, from the Levant. Her home was actually on the western edge of the continent we know as Asia.

2Let’s listen to the story of the abduction as Ovid tells it in the Metamorphoses: “Until the princess dared to mount his back, / Her pet bull’s back, unwitting whom she rode. / Then — slowly, slowly down the broad dry beach — / First in the shallow waves the great god set / His spurious hooves, then sauntered further out / Till in the open sea he bore his prize.” Once on the other side — you’ll not find this in Ovid — the god did to her what he liked best to do, and then he left her to her fate. One wonders whether her nomination as playmate for an entire continent can have been sufficient compensation for what she was put through: abduction, rape, and presumably life in exile. The only thing we know is that her case took a sudden turn, and became a typical instance of the etiological, or founding, fable. No girl’s name can ever have caught on more dramatically. However elusive the connection between this daughter of Oceanus and the subsequent naming of a continent, that’s what happened. Whole countries and regions identify themselves by her name. It takes up its own space in the world atlas. And, furthermore, we’ve recently even named a currency after her.

3At first, when the wicked act was fresh in memory, the name was only applied to the Greek mainland, as opposed to the windswept Aegean islands. Only subsequently was its cover extended to take in all of Hellas, and thence the entirety of that landmass that stretches from the Peloponnese peninsula in the South to Lapland in the North, and from the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland to the much fought-over milestone on the banks of the Volga, in deepest Russia. But in the beginning, the name was far from having a continent in its grasp. It took extreme pressure to spread its suzerainty. But once the aggressor had been sent packing to the desert from which he came, then the barbarian belle — or belly — began to spread. The new shape resembled the swelling of pregnancy. The continent’s self-confidence grew with the geographical distance from its original birthplace.

4To say it again, by today’s standards Europa was an Oriental gal. That, in and of itself, is already more than a little unexpected. Then, not only did she bestow her name in all perpetuity to the place of exile to which the wanton god had dragged her, she also left the stamp of her own origins on the area. Would that not help to explain the persistence and obsessiveness with which cavaliers born on her native soil have sought to woo her? Cherchez la femme. Maybe not all the robbing expeditions, but a good many, certainly can be laid at the feet of the lady. Beginning with the Greeks — the only people in history that got double value from their mythology, once as philosophy and once as poetry (and then both in the form of tragedy, and as individual poem) — through the Romans — their natural heirs and policemen of the continent — on down to the colorful tournament of nations that formed as the Middle Ages came to an end, this wooing process was always the bloodiest imaginable. In the pre-Christian era, it usually took the form of — no pun intended — defensive engagements. On several occasions, it looked as though Europe were about to be gobbled up from the East, a recurring nightmare for her young defenders. Some violent breed of Assyrians, or Persians, or Mongols, or Huns was forever rising up out of the depths of space, fleet as the wind with their horses and their scything chariots, and it was always a near thing. The delicate seeds of civilization on European soil were always within an ace of being trampled by despotic armies and nomadic hordes. The cute beauty would surely have been stolen away and repatriated by her admirers, if the small troop of confident beaux that were the European nations had not, on each occasion, somehow managed to surmount their numerical inferiority, and, in some utterly improbable way, win the day. On each occasion, something happened that, like the sea-battle at Salamis, was all but miraculous, and that in turn created something like a special historical aura.

5What does this aura consist of? It’s possible that it was just a sort of mirage, a fata morgana; yet it’s striking how regularly such a manifestation showed itself over European soil. But there was this eerily promising intimation of a mixture of intellectual adventurousness and an almost erotic predilection for personal liberty. As rough and approximate as that is, it seems to express a pan-European attitude. You could also call it existential curiosity or a desire to think the unthinkable — there are lots of possible labels. A certain imaginary site from which the cultural life of this multiple and heterogeneous continent could at any time be rebuilt and extended, in continuation, as it were, of its geological substratum. Every dark age was followed by a renaissance, every Hieronymus Bosch Inferno by a Botticelli Spring. This appetite for freedom, this lightness and facility in starting afresh, even amidst the worst catastrophes, is a quality that in the individual is called charm, and in the life of the sexes, gallantry. Once more, it would seem as though the ancient Greeks had set the standard. It is to them that we owe certain crucial words — Goethe called them Ur-words — and still more the concepts to which they are attached. It is to the Graces (the charites in Greek), the goddesses of beauty, that Europe still owes its essential nature, the charisma of its various cultures, the charm of its best natives. A tireless clear-sightedness, the ability and the will to understand and to shape, a brave readiness to step up to the board — here is the particular capacity of Europe, transmitted on occasion across all five continents, for ill, as we have sometimes been forced to see, as much as for good. The extraordinary intellectual ferment that typified the awakening of Europe in the centuries, let’s say, from Sappho to Ausonius, was like sea foam from which there arose, Aphrodite-like, the idea of the individual, the person, in which we have since come to see as the center of creativity. And, however often its names (and qualities) would change over time, this eerie apparition emerged from the same circles of seducers and kidnappers.

6If it’s true that a woman blossoms through her lovers, then Europe was in a most fortunate position. For centuries, she was desired, as much in the most crude and rapacious way, as with the most refined etiquette. And she it was who taught manners to those who came to court her. Those young men in the paintings of the Venetian and Florentine masters that you see leaning against a pillar, with their well-turned stockinged legs, their buckled shoes, and their slashed doublets. Before or after the chase, the crossbow casually dangled over one shoulder, a winning smile on their lips, lounging around on the edge of some piazza, these dandies, watching some grim procession, bored witnesses to some martyr-dom. All of them suitors, and with an eye for beauty, it is they, in their sprezzatura, or in their cool, as we nowadays say, who courted Europa. Them of all? Granted, only a minority of them were moralists. Baldassare Castiglione’s noble dialogues on the courtier were more their cup of tea than Pico della Mirandola’s universal pensées on human dignity. And yet, however dandified they might be, they had in them the germ of what, to be elitist, one might call the flower of culture or the acme of creation. For the lover, in Latin, was many things: he was the troubadour, the man of learning, and the philosopher as much as he was the servant of a cult in which the most refined traits of social life found expression. That’s him, the European man, the one proudly portrayed in those Italian paintings. You see him everywhere, in various guises, as you trawl through museums and libraries, the worshipper with the blatant desire to conquer visible on his forehead like a brand, the mark of all Europa’s enthusiasts. Of course, he changed in the course of time. After the Roman legionary, he was the Christian, the wandering monk mapping out for himself the extent of the continent. Hewas followed by the mercenary in service of various potentates, then the traveler on his grand tour, finally the surveyor, the entrepreneur with his beady colonialist’s and geostrategist’s face. The last time you saw him, it was in the portrait of the bearded nineteenth-century theory lion, in whose life’s work, unrepeatably, old Europe found its culmination. In every one of these, there lived and breathed something of the continent’s enduring founding myth.

7As I say, after two thousand years of getting used to it, it may not be much more than a phantasmagoria; something everyone who was born and grown up here has encountered in one way or another, even if he’s only read about it. And won’t now forget it. I am talking about the desire for personal autonomy that has been vouchsafed to some, while for others it was the object of lifetime’s striving. That — in a word that combines myth and advertising — was Europe’s “halo.” It comes at you out of historical terms like humanism and enlightenment, even if not much seems to be left of it now.

8You may wonder: what has all this got to do with the girl from the Levant? Well, the myth the Greeks handed down to us, the account of the founding of our territorial identity, involves not only an act of violence, but a unique historical maturation, generosity, self-determination, and tolerance. (To return to the Persians: can you imagine a people prepared publicly to contemplate the lot of its defeated enemy, who, moreover, had been the aggressor, without glee, and with self-critical insight? But that’s precisely what was shown in the Greek amphitheatre, with the production of Aeschylus’s tragedy The Persians.) Differently expressed, and returning to the myth, Zeus compensated for his insatiable sexual appetite by giving us a model of European dynamism, on to which the philosopher Hegel later slapped the brand Weltgeist for believers in history.

9Granted, it’s a strange thing to name a whole continent after a naked woman. Others, following in the hoof prints of Zeus, chose to see Europe similarly as a sex object. That explains the violence that the struggle for her possession engendered in her suitors. What promises to be fertile and enjoyable is generally liable to the occupational hazard of conquest, and a serenade only anticipates a future land grab. That Europe, conversely, might be able to take her destiny into her own hands was a twist in the tale that it took later times to come up with. It wasn’t the assertion of boundaries so much as the cunning curiosity about something utterly foreign that was the spur to the criminal act of continent-building. Admittedly, it took a long time, with repeated lapses into the worst excesses of patriotism (which Goethe said spoiled history for him), till international agreements, national self-restraint, in a word, true courtesy became the order of the day.

10It was Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet and one of the troubadours of Europa who wrote the important line: “O Europa’s tender hands, take — take everything!” His poem, written in 1922, describes the abduction as a foaming sea voyage with caprioles of dolphins and wild green water. It is remarkable that, in his telling, the princess on the bull’s back appears in her dual role — both as the stolen woman and the meek trophy, embracing the neck of her ravisher. That schism is there from the start, and the poem draws its tension from the ambivalence that is present in the story, and has been present throughout the entire history of this continent. The trauma of the story and its extraordinary promise have both contributed to its historical destiny. The poem begins with a snapshot of the god in his disguise: “The pink foam of fatigue on his soft muzzle, / the bull snorts his way through the green sea, / it’s not oarstrokes he loves, it’s women — / the burden is unfamiliar and hard to bear.” The author — it’s no accident — was Russian. At the time of writing, in the fifth year after the so-called October Revolution, he was further than ever from his ideal of world culture on European soil. With the clear-sightedness of disappointment and exclusion, he was one of the first to understand what was happening in the East. The Socialist steamer was pushing off from the European dock. The twentieth century brought an end to the cherished dream of union. Mandelstam was bereft. He saw, as not many did, that the European man was the man of antiquity par excellence. The great schism, the loss of the East, was the outcome of a titanic battle fought out between Hitler and Stalin, the two anti-European rivals. Each in his own fashion, they worked to destroy the common foundations. One with his idée fixe of a pan-European state under German rule, the other with his Assyrian tyranny dressed up as Socialism. The result was the post-War world into which we were born, with, on the one side, the West and European–American civilization, and on the other the East, a prison house of nations that, under Soviet influence, congealed gradually into a block of ice. But this division, this toughest test of the old Europe, also had its paradoxical good side. It wasn’t just that this continent in wartime tended to get above itself, only to have to relearn humility afterwards; no, in the long run, war, the divider of peoples, proved to be a way of bringing peoples together. The Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic era, World Wars I and II, all dug up and loosened this soil. After each bout, the warring nations understood more about one another than they did before. Behind the fraternal fisticuffs was what Mandelstam described as the appreciation of a European consciousness as a common mother. At the end of each jealous and murderous fight, there was less isolation than there had been, the patchwork of frontiers seemed more unnecessary, and communication was a little easier than heretofore.

11Finally, I want to declare that I, too, count myself among Europa’s lovers. And that’s saying something for me, because I’m not generally a joiner or a belonger. Until recently, for someone like myself, Europe was almost a byword for the unattainable. The very word made me feel a bit solemn. Born either too early or too late for Europe, all I had was its myth. I am one of those dispatriated people, who saw only the wreckage of the old Europe, in ruins like my birthplace Dresden, and to whom the new was nothing but the expressionless façades of Brussels bureaucracy. And yet I always viewed myself as a native of this continent. I say this because I was not alone, growing up as I did among people for whom a Wall had eclipsed all sense of Europe. What did you do if you were a European at heart? You looked for solace; and in the camp of daily life under Socialism, you got by on what Nietzsche called love, not of the nearest and dearest, but of the “furthest and dearest.” So great was this love, in my case, that it transported me way beyond the recently established German unity. They say travel cultivates, but sometimes it’s like root canal treatment. It’s really only now, and in the wake of several visits to the United States, that I’ve begun to feel myself truly European. It’s as though you can’t realize the loveliness of Venice until you’ve been to Las Vegas, the painted harlot of New-World cities. It was the poets, people like Ovid or Mandelstam, who professed their love of Europe over the centuries, each in his own commensurate fashion. For one man it was the purlieus of Athens, the area under the Acropolis; for another, sent to live among Scythians on the Black Sea coast, it was Rome, the Eternal City, the center of a crumbling empire; and for the last of them it was what he majestically expressed as nostalgia for world culture.

12Perhaps you will let me end with a suggestion. Whenever you’re next in Greece, take the change out of your pocket. Perhaps the national bank of the most southerly of the European nations has made you a present. Hold, if you have one, a two-euro coin in your hand; don’t look at the denomination, but turn it over, maybe for frugality’s sake, and examine the embossed motif. You will see a familiar constellation of figures — and a slim, long-legged woman. She is sitting, feet together, side-saddle as it were, facing you from the back of a charging bull.


Further Reading:
Poems on translated by Michael Hofmann.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 284k


Born in Dresden in 1962, after a short period of study he became a writer, translator, and essayist in Berlin. After the opening of the Iron Curtain, he made journeys to other parts of Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. He was a guest of the German Department of New York University and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his work, including the Peter Huchel Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1995, and the literature prize of the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2000.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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