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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe, a Blot of Ink

Emil Tode
Traduction de Susanne Höbel

Texte intégral

Loodetakse nähtavasti, et euroopa identiteedi
arendamine võtab agressiivsel natsionalismil tuule
tiibadest. Mina aga kardan hoopis vastupidist.

1Ten years ago, in the late autumn of 1992, I spent a month on a farm in the south of France, in the Département of the Ardèche. As it turned out it was an important time for me. For the first time in my life I came in contact with those beings commonly called Europeans and had the opportunity of meeting them on their home ground. Up to that point I only knew of them from legends and fleeting encounters on my travels abroad. But to be able to stay with real people in their own house is a different story. It gave me the opportunity of detailed anthropological studies.

2My hosts — let’s call them Françoise and Gérard — were a delightful elderly couple. They were lawyers and had retired to a farm belonging to the wife. There was a large house, and they took in visitors as paying guests. Officially they farmed, which meant that a neighbor planted a small field in springtime and in the autumn he harvested the crops. This way they avoided paying taxes and managed to earn just enough to live on. I was working for them as an unpaid laborer, and they gave me free board and lodging in return. This enabled me to stay in France and learn some French, which up to that point had only been a book language for me. I chopped wood and did general farm work. At mealtimes I joined my hosts at the long table in the large, cold kitchen and partook of their ratatouille, quiche, and roast lamb. Employing me on the farm seemed to be more an act of charity for them than a worthwhile investment. Perhaps it was also an interesting way of passing the time; for like me, they had the opportunity of conducting their anthropological studies, with a native of the former Soviet Union as their subject. The tourist season was over and there was a profound stillness everywhere. The most exciting, and in actual fact only, event during the course of the day was the arrival of the mail van, a small, yellow Renault that approached the farm on a dirt road leading through a small stand of oaks. Apart from that, the only other person that came along the road was a tiny, wizened old man with luminous eyes who passed through the woods with his herd of goats. He lived in a small cottage in the valley below, and each morning at precisely the same time smoke issued from the chimney on the roof. As Françoise explained to me, these people had refused kindly but firmly to allow progress into their lives. After a lot of urging they had agreed to have electricity brought to their house, but they never used it apart from operating one small light bulb with it. They cooked their meals over an open fire and the man sawed and chopped the wood for the fireplace himself. Sometimes you could hear the saw going down below. They made small, hard cheeses from the milk of the goats, which my hostess occasionally brought from them, though she was not very enthusiastic about it. Frequently the old woman, even smaller and more wizened than her husband, accompanied the goats. Both seemed to have formed a symbiosis with the animals. The most stunning thing for me was the luminous smiles on the creased, weatherbeaten faces of these old people. I always felt that they were sincerely delighted, overjoyed even, to see and greet me, a complete stranger, in their parts. In Europe, and — as the European spirit spreads further afield — also in our part of the world, particularly in the cities, where most Europeans nowadays live, you come across laughing faces as soon as you enter into a commercial relationship with someone, or at least express your intention to do so. Often, when the open indifference or downright hostility of these smiles saddens me, I try to recollect the enigmatically joyous faces of those two old people. Are they still alive, herding their goats, I wonder? For me they were the last happy people on this continent.

3At the time I did not know that the area where I spent those late autumn days was part of the “desert français,” the French waste land, a term used for more or less all the country outside the sprawling urban district of Paris. It is an arid plane where chestnuts, wine, olives, and wheat used to be cultivated. Today the only industry that yields an income is the tourist trade, for the area is picturesque and rich in testimony of the past: medieval villages with fortifications, Romanesque churches, and suchlike. My hostess praised the German tourists above all others: they were never choosy about their food, and whatever the fare was, they said, “Bon, bon!” The French, according to her, were far more difficult in that respect.

4Françoise’s frank and lively opinions about all questions of morality and politics were generally charming, if occasionally questionable. She blamed the disastrous situation of the French farmers, for example, on East European cattle farmers “who had no idea how much a cow cost.” This subject came up repeatedly, at dinner or when watching television (although these two activities generally coincided) or when one of their children came down from university to visit. At the time France was preparing for the referendum on the Maastricht Agreement. Some of you may remember that the vote was practically a tie, with a majority of only one or two percent in favor. Anyway, there was heated debate and the differences of opinion divided the family. Gérard, the more quiet, and reticent, and conservative partner (he came from Normandy) was determined to cast a “no” vote. Françoise, on the other hand, was undecided, oscillating between the two positions. On the one hand she rejected the idea of the European Union; on the other hand she feared the consequences should the agreement be rejected by the majority of the French. I remember her lively tone of voice when she summed up the situation with the words, “C’est la guerre en Europe!”

5C’est la guerre! — “There will be war.” This sounded unbelievable to my ears, quite fantastical even. But I realized she was serious. Her fear was real and I thought about what she had said. Up to that point I was of the opinion that war could only arise in the context of Eastern Europe, in Russia, or in the Balkans, whereas for Germany or France war was a thing connected to the past. As I thought about this, I understood that Françoise and Gérard had lived through the last war between Germany and France and that this experience was with them at all times. One evening, when we were watching the news and some minister was asked about the question of unemployment, she said in the same unequivocal tone of voice, “They are frightened of having a revolution on their hands!” I don’t know which one she meant — the student unrest of 1968 that held unpleasant memories for her or the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent wave of terror, during which the village priest was hidden in the cellar of their farm house.

6Looking back I am beginning to understand. At the time Françoise’s remarks about war and revolution were a complete mystery to me. But if something is puzzling it stays in your mind, whereas if it is clear and comprehensible, you soon forget it. No doubt we all remember grown-ups saying things that we failed to understand when we were little and that never became any clearer because we could not summon the courage to ask for an explanation.

7Only ten years ago Europe was the embodiment of our dreams. Dreams of a good, and safe, and happy life. And all those people opposed to the European Union seemed to me to be reactionaries spoiled by a comfortable life or dreamers who, for lack of better things to do, had constructed an enemy for themselves that they could fight against without jeopardizing their own lives. For Europe appeared to be a fundamentally peaceful, democratic, flourishing place — the place of all things good and admirable, as those living in the vale of tears that the rest of the world constitutes saw it. In my country, Estonia, politicians and literati never tired to emphasize that, in actual fact, we had always been part of Europe and that by becoming a member of the European Union a historical injustice would finally be redeemed. However, this claim is not entirely sincere. Of course we are part of Europe — where else would we belong? Yet there are equally sound reasons — more sound today than ever before — for disputing this claim to membership. I am no longer certain which side I agree more with, just as I am not certain anymore that Europe really is “good” to the core.

8The Europe that we are dealing with is a political reality that has emerged as a product of wars and conquests. Today Europe is dominated by the European Union and by an ideology viewing Europe as an indisputably positive and benevolent construction based on shared values (which is an accurate description as far as the currency is concerned). According to this ideology, those opposed to Europe are no more than an assemblage of narrowminded and selfish nationalists, an objectionable crowd that it is best to shun. In a way there is no alternative than to be in favor of Europe.

9Interestingly the main argument in favor of the European Union is — fear. In Estonia it is the fear of Russia and of poverty (those two notions somehow being identical). Of course Europe is also something to be feared, because joining the European Union somehow means giving in, surrendering to a system of politics and legislature that was developed without our having had a share in it, entailing a voluntary submergence into a system where the old members are in charge. But the fear of Europe is far smaller than that of Non-Europe, just as Françoise feared “war” (Germany) and “revolution” more than the conditions of the Maastricht Agreement.

10I know it sounds strange, but to me it seems that right from the beginning fear has been the driving force holding Europe together. In the past it was the fear of Stalin’s Eastern bloc, the fear of famine (the impetus for a common agricultural policy), and the fear of losing the position of world supremacy that Europe had gained for itself in the course of centuries. There is a world of difference between the Europe of today and the grand Europe of the nineteenth century, with its empires, which in fierce competition with one another, ruled over large parts of the planet and exploited it mercilessly through construction of a neofeudal economic order that continues to operate on a global scale. It is an economic order in which the population of the rich industrial nations consumes, not unlike the feudal lords of the Middle Ages, all the gifts of the earth, while the population of the Third World is forced to perform physical labor of the lowliest kind and, like the peasantry of the Middle Ages, lives at the very edge of subsistence.

11Europe can look back on an incredible story of success. Viewed objectively Europe is no more than an insignificant peninsula of the Eurasian landmass that had the audacity and the entrepreneurial spirit to oppose the rest of the world. In Soviet times the maps we had in our geography lessons showed all of Eurasia; even the maps of Europe showed a Europe that extended as far as the Ural Mountains. On both kinds of map countries like France, and Germany, and Great Britain looked like miniature states somewhere on the edge of the world It seemed strange that the disputes between these dwarfs determined, to a large extent, what “world history” was all about. In the meantime I have become acquainted with a very different cartographic practice according to which a map of Europe frequently does not even show all of the former Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, but instead ends just north of the border between Germany and Denmark so that the city of Hamburg has moved to a place on the periphery. On those maps places like Italy, France, and Germany appear to be enormous and their shares in the Euro-universe of vaguely equal size.

12The biggest fear in Europe today seems to be of the possible consequences that this incredible success story might bear. Europe has spread its civilization across the globe and set in motion a process that is now called globalization, though it is increasingly unable to control this process. Of the new fears the biggest is that of America, which, looked at from a historical perspective, is nothing more than an extension of the old Europe. The absolute cultural supremacy that America can claim for itself in today’s world is another historical achievement brought about by Europe. In my view the attempt to create a common cultural identity in Europe (“European literature,” “European music,” “European film”) aims at constructing a counterweight to this dominant power, constituting a nostalgic reminiscence of one’s own lost supremacy. A European identity will have to constitute the cultural equivalent to the euro, the currency now in competition with the dollar. But even a superficial comparison of the bank notes shows that these two identities — the American and the European — cannot be compared or, to be more precise, that there is no such thing as a European identity. Below the famous and, seen from the outside, dubious motto “In God We Trust,” the dollar notes bear portraits of America’s founding fathers, just as, before the euro was introduced, the bank notes of the various European countries depicted images of famous people from their individual states and representatives of their individual national identities. On the euro notes, however, there is nothing but emptiness: bridges with empty arches, empty doorways, and empty windows. Possibly this is meant to symbolize openness and freedom; but an identity meant to integrate societies cannot be founded on purely abstract ideas — it requires real people and meaningful symbols.

13The problem here is that great writers, even though they may be considered to be part of a European literature (and why should Whitman, Marquez, and Mishima, not to mention Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, not be seen as standing in the same tradition as Goethe and Camus), still belong to the cultural heritage of the nation of their origin. As long as there is no common European language, a European literature as the creative force behind a common identity is unlikely to develop (and literature doubtlessly played an important part in the emergence of national identities in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries).

14To my mind, the search for a European identity has simply been taken too far, or rather, the demands made upon it cannot be fulfilled. After all, thanks to the success story described above, Europeanism is not confined to Europe and certainly not to the European Union, not even in its extended form. It is therefore impossible to compare the idea of a European identity to that of a national identity or even to consider it as the sum of the individual national identities. From a historical perspective Europeanism is of an imperialist and cosmopolitan nature. If it were to confine itself to its original home ground it would fall into a rapid decline proceeding as inexorably as its earlier expansion (whether one considers this to be a good or a bad thing is another question). In the context of the European Union, the question of European identity should, in my view, be avoided altogether, for I believe that the search for identity is based on yet another one of the European fears — the fear of nationalism. Apparently it is hoped that the development of a European identity will impede the progress of an aggressive nationalism. I fear the opposite might occur. In the last few years of its existence the Soviet Union strove towards a common Soviet identity based on the essentially cosmopolitan idea of socialism to create Soviet man — just as now in Europe the European, as such, is to be created on the essentially cosmopolitan notion of Europeanism. Far from achieving its proclaimed aim in the Soviet Union, these efforts resulted in a strengthening of nationalist thinking in its darkest and most aggressive aspects. After all, one who acts out of fear frequently ends up bringing about precisely that which was feared. It seems to me that the fear of growing nationalism and American influence leads to activities that, paradoxically, end up strengthening both. In order to counteract American influences a “European America” is created; and in order to combat nationalism the concept of supernationalism is introduced. Inherent to the idea of a European identity is the preconception that to be European is somehow better than being Chinese or American.

15It would be best if Europe stopped being so self-analytical. After all, why should a conglomerate that evolved out of a coal and steel union have a cultural identity of its own? Why does the cooperation between states necessarily involve the creation of a common culture, especially in view of the fact that this culture already exists and has grown beyond the borders of a geographical Europe?

16The two old people with their goats in the Ardèche, who refused to admit progress into their lives, or were at least indifferent to it, and whom I described as the last two happy people on our continent must surely be dead by now. Had anybody told them they lived in Europe they would probably have reacted with surprise. For Françoise and Gérard, two educated adults who lived through World War II, the question of Europe was a complex moral one. For their children Europe is probably an irrevocable reality, with its contours clearly marked in their school textbooks. As if Europe was an Island. Whereas it is hardly more than a peninsula, the westernmost edge of an enormous continent that has spread like a ink on blotting paper and colored the whole continent. And this is precisely the reason why Europe fails to find itself — there is nowhere that is not Europe.


Further Reading:
Border State. Translated by Madli Puhvel. Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Tallinn in 1962, Emil Tode studied biology and taught at a village school. He is a translator of contemporary literature into Estonian. He completed Borderland, his first volume of prose, during a stay in Paris in 1993–94. Critics praised the work, and the author has since been awarded several prizes, including the Estonian National Prize for Prose.

Susanne Höbel (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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