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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe or “Eleuthera, City of the Mnemosyne”

Adolf Muschg
Traduction de Susanne Höbel

Texte intégral

Das begründete Erschrecken Europas über sich selbst
heilig zu halten und eben daraus Gelassenheit zu
schöpfen, ist ein anspruchsvolles Geschäft: Aber seine
Geschichte hat Europa kein geringeres auferlegt.

1You are likely not to have heard of the invitation extended to the European Union to become part of Switzerland rather than the other way around. This is what Christoph Blocher of the Swiss Tribune proclaimed two years ago in his so-called Albisgüetli speech, which is most appropriately compared to the Ash Wednesday speeches of the CSU (Christian Social Union) pronounced in Passau in the tradition of the late Franz Josef Strauß. Here the ordinary party members are being told what’s what, while the rest of the world can discover where God resides: in the unspoiled soul of the province, neatly segregated, a demonstration of worldwide diligence. Mr. Blocher’s recipe for success is based on a combination of a patriotic self-consciousness and global enterprise. He represents a miniature version of the political prototype to be recognized today in the person of George W. Bush. Ever since the era of Jefferson and Madison the explosive force of the Republican Party has rested in this mixture of patriotic self-interest — at the time with regard to Virginia — and the claim to universal validity of its norms and maxims. It is this revolutionary nuclear energy that prompted the Bush administration to set off on its God-pleasing unilateralist path toward establishment of a global empire, which gratified the nationalist conservative Mr. Blocher to such a degree that he offered his insular Switzerland as a free port and offshore facility to the Americans for their European business enterprises — at least before the Jewish World Congress spoiled it all by raising embarrassing questions about the Switzerland’s role in World War II. In 1992 Mr. Blocher managed to prevent Switzerland from becoming a player on the European economic platform, pointing it instead toward the rocky road of bilateral negotiation, which will lead to the predictable conclusion that the tail does not, indeed, wag the dog. And now that the Swiss bankers’ obligation to discretion has been called into question, interest in the European Union has reached its lowest point.

2It has been a Swiss characteristic throughout the centuries to never trust any kind of peace. The country has learned, almost too well, to look at an emergency situation as the norm and to turn an unequivocally normal situation into an emergency. As late as 1982 the basement of my study had to be equipped with a bunker, complete with six sleeping berths, a chemical toilet, and a ventilation system — just to be on the safe side. A situation free from danger is not something that my country envisages. Any such thing would pose a risk to Swiss identity.

3At this point the story of the Japanese Christians comes to mind. Iberian missionaries converted them to the only true faith in the seventeenth century, after which they became the target of persecution by Japanese officials. This had the effect of forcing the community to celebrate mass only behind closed shutters. When the missionaries returned to Japan about 250 years later they couldn’t remove those shutters. The blackout had become an integral part of the dogma of the community.

4This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Preventative defiance and unyielding stubbornness have acted as lifesaving forces for my country. Most events in history had the potential, one way or another, of dividing Switzerland. Owing to its diverse cultural com position, the country could have disintegrated in the manner of the former Yugoslavia on several occasions during the course of its history. Is it therefore surprising that the paradoxical weapon of neutrality is one of the instruments used to safeguard the identity of a nation that would prefer to reserve the unloved notion of state for each of its own cantons? If the Swiss are not threatened by any “significant or immediate danger,” then simulation of this — the ever useful “danger of suspicion” — must stand in its place. It is the fear of dissolution (like sugar in tea, as Dürrenmatt put it) that frightens the Swiss, and it is this fear that represents Blocher’s strongest ally.

5The problem is, though, that his image of Switzerland can no longer do anything to save the country — at most it will prevent general recognition of the fact that the country does not need to be saved “from Europe.” On the contrary: a Europe that evolves into a federation of civil societies not only represents the best guarantee for Switzerland’s security, it would also provide an appropriate political home for my country. What Switzerland has to offer, its historical-genetic dowry of reflexes, customs, and institutions, does not deserve to be buried like the talents in the Bible. Europe clearly could make use of them. Switzerland would not just be a net contributor to the European Union, it would be a donor country.

6I am not talking about federalism versus subordination, about direct democracy versus the autonomy of communities. I am talking about something less tangible, an existential minimum so to speak, corresponding to an optimum of European civilization. Switzerland’s most reliable characteristic has always been its refusal to be submerged under a single, monochrome identity; in fact, if there is one achievement worth celebrating with regard to this federal state that has recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, it is this instinctive resistance to any rigid form of identification, be it on a national, social, or cultural plane. Not suitable for celebration, yet remarkable in its own right, is the fact that in spite of this blurred identity, the men and women of Switzerland have maintained a common household, that they have mastered the everyday tasks of life honorably, that they have practiced good governance, and they have not, on the whole, put up with injustice; in short, they have established an acceptable society. Switzerland is a federation of the late Middle Ages that did not have to first establish itself as a nation in order to function as a modern federal state. If you like, it is the stubborn decision to muddle through in this way that provides the foundation of its eligibility for membership in a community.

7Life itself — if I understand biological science correctly — works on the same principle, that is, it works without principle. In an emergency it finds a suitable niche and jogs along, moving from situation to situation, until it reaches biological equilibrium. It looks for, and finds again and again, that precarious balance between metabolism and survival. God forbid that it should have a fixed identity, or even a plan or a grand design, a living, immanent entelechy. Bricolage or patchwork would be other, more fitting terms; a hole is made in a place where it does not matter in order to fill one elsewhere where it does. It looks so simple, the makeshift approach of this trifling people; yet it is infinitely complex, like any tradeoff with the environment that serves nothing less than to safeguard existence itself.

8“La Suisse n’existe pas” — this slogan could be read in the Swiss pavilion at the World Exhibition held in Seville in 1992. The national outrage it caused was so great that nobody bothered to read further: if it doesn’t exist now, perhaps it can grow into existence. The very fact that its crypt is empty provides Switzerland with the opportunity to join those nations that first had to clear out their own crypts, by force and causing much sadness, in an effort to create a tolerable life. The open definition of a culture is its potential for growth; only if it is treated as a gap to be filled with the waste of legends and the overflow of self-pity will it degenerate into an energy-sapping vacuum. This is the material from which pride and fear are made — the stopgaps of life, its enemies, for they spoil its metabolism, the job of which is to suspend identity in order for it to become created afresh.

9Yet nobody can guarantee that as a political life form, as an extension of the Swiss Confederation, Europe will not tend toward the malignant growth that the speaker at the Albisgüetli predicted. But perhaps Switzerland’s past can serve as proof that Europe may successfully shape a pragmatic future for itself. I hold the faith, the love, and the hope that exist vis-à-vis Europe to be founded in a gap in its identity that has nothing to do with market needs, but is more like an open wound. “L’Europe n’existe pas” — it disappeared into the blackest of all possible holes, when it dug a grave for its Jews in the skies. But the zero point of its history also became the place of its rebirth. In order for that to happen, it had to put call into question the illusions of man about himself. Two European wars and Auschwitz have falsified all messianic messages, especially those constructed on the slippery slope of nationalism. After this mass production of death, the societies of Europe were condemned to resist any relativized barbarism under any condition. No economic success could release them from this obligation. For is it not in view of economic success that the concept of “life not worth living” — now disguised as gene technology — is brought into circulation? Without the courage to look back upon its past, which will never be over, Europe would be superfluous, for it failed at its task of filling the basic human needs that Europeans have always had. I confess that I am guilty of hoping that this change will come about. It has made me into a European. As a Swiss I want to go to a place where people are ready for a different history. My idea of Europe is more than a community of interest and economy, though I have to admit that it would not have happened at all had it been less. It is a topography of many gaps that continues to produce radiation. What is required now is the transformation of this deadly energy into the achievement of a common civilization. A topography of gaps is to be transformed into a continent of memory — of remembrance. Each and every scar in Europe demands a memory — it may open up again at any time. Even a fleeting look at the map reveals that Europe cannot be more than a continent, a section of the world. Yet there is no border beyond which participation is no longer required — and that applies to Europeans in global terms just as it does to the Swiss in European terms. In essence, the Europe I am speaking of is a common attitude, the fusion of national memories whose components are no longer distinguishable. A civilization of memory. I honor vision, but it can only emerge from retrospective vision. To keep alive and sanctified in memory the horror and atrocities of Europe and to use this memory as a source of equilibrium is a difficult task; but history demands that Europe not shirk this responsibility.

10In one of his later hymns, Hölderlin speaks of a duty “to hold on to much — as on the shoulders a burden of failure”: thus the sinister language of the poem dissects the fate of the Occident. The title “Mnemosyne” refers to the goddess of memory, the mother of the muses, and the poem dedicates a city to her, the city of Eleuthera, the free one. That much about the topography of my European hopes. May memory keep watch at the zero-point of history and prevent its fading into oblivion. Only then can history become a source of freedom.


Further Reading:
Blue Man and Other Stories. George Braziller, 1985.
The Light and the Key. George Braziller, 1989.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 194k


Born in Zollikon (Canton Zurich) in 1934, Adolf Muschg studied German language and literature, English language and literature, and philosophy at Zurich and Cambridge. Since 1970 he has been professor of German language and literature at the Swiss Technical University in Zurich. He co-founded the Swiss Authors’ Group, Olten. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland and was a candidate for Zurich city council in 1975. Since May 2003, he has been acting president of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Adolf Muschg has received many awards, including the Georg Büchner Prize in 1994 and the Grimmelshausen Prize in 2001. He lives and works in Männedorf near Zürich.

Susanne Höbel (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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