George Steiner's Europe


THE QUESTION “WHITHER EUROPE” has been asked so often that it has become a clichéd subcategory of another cliché, the headline writer’s “Whither X?” A Google search for “Whither Europe?” turns up more than six thousand uses of the phrase. People were asking the question after World War I and again after World War II; they asked it at the birth of the European Union and have been asking it, again and again, in the wake of debt crises that have threatened to tear that union apart. Last May the historian James J. Sheehan tried to answer the question in the pages of Commonweal—although the editors fastidiously avoided the word “whither” in the headline (we settled for “A Continent Adrift”).

The title of George Steiner’s recent book is The Idea of Europe, but there is a strong whiff of “whither” in the book’s nervously elegiac tone. When Steiner, who is generally the kind of writer one would expect to use that archaic word without embarrassment, finally arrives at his modest speculations about Europe’s future, he settles for the more demotic “What next?” But most of this very short book is about Europe’s past, not its future—about what has set the Continent apart from the rest of the world, including America. Steiner’s method here is impressionistic and idiosyncratic: his list of “five axioms” that have defined Europe is a hodgepodge of suggestive observations and monumental truisms. It is nevertheless an interesting list. Steiner makes it interesting by dint of style and erudition. It does not quite amount to a systematic theory of Europe, but then, Steiner does not promise one. As his title indicates, he is content to offer an idea—or several ideas.

His list of things that make Europe Europe starts with the concrete and becomes gradually more abstract. Item one is the café or coffeehouse. “Draw the coffeehouse map and you have one of the essential markers of the ‘idea of Europe.’”

A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a tea with rhum secures a locale in which to work, to dream, to play chess or simply keep warm the whole day. It is the club of the spirit and the posterestante of the homeless…. Three principal cafés in imperial and interwar Vienna provided the agora, the locus of eloquence and rivalry, for competing schools of aesthetics and political economy, of psychoanalysis and philosophy. Those wishing to meet Freud or Karl Kraus, Musil or Carnap, knew precisely in which café to look, at which Stammtisch to take their place. Danton and Robespierre meet one last time at the Procope. When the lights go out in Europe, in August 1914, Jaurès is assassinated in a café. In a Geneva café, Lenin writes his treatise on empiro-criticism and plays chess with Trotsky.

According to Steiner, cafés have the kind of cultural importance in Continental Europe that pubs and bars have in English-speaking countries. But American bars, he insists, are very different in both function and atmosphere:

[T]he American bar is a sanctuary of dim lightning [sic], often of darkness. It throbs with music, often deafening. Its sociology, its psychological fabric are permeated by sexuality, by the presence, hoped for, dreamt of, or actual, of women. No one writes phenomenological tomes at the table of an American bar (cf. Sartre). Drinks have to be renewed if the client is to remain welcome. There are ‘bouncers’ to expel the unwanted.

That’s well observed, even if cafés, and a kind of café culture, have been part of metropolitan American life for a long time now—and even if Steiner’s description of bar culture seems based more on Raymond Chandler novels than on personal experience. Even an uncouth American from the wilds of Arizona can acknowledge that a good European café is a wonderful thing; and, at least in it’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century prime, it really did serve as an agora, “a locus of eloquence and rivalry.” But most of that is history, even in Paris and Vienna. The cafés remain, some of them anyway, but their social significance is not what it once was. Which is why there is something slightly pathetic about Steiner’s promise that “so long as there are coffeehouses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.” If the idea of Europe depends on the survival of places called cafés—rather than the idea of the café, as Steiner conceives it—than Europe’s future is secure, but that security is trivial. After all, if China took over all of Europe tomorrow, it’s a safe bet the cafés would remain open.

The second item on Steiner’s list is the most interesting and original. “Europe has been, is walked.”

The cartography of Europe arises from the capacities, the perceived horizons of human feet. European men and women have walked their maps, from hamlet to hamlet, from village to village, from city to city. More often than not, distances are on a human scale, they can be mastered by the traveller on foot, by the pilgrim to Compostela, by the promeneur, be he solitaire or gregarious. There are stretches of arid, forbidding terrain; there are marshes; alps tower. But none of these constitute a terminal obstacle. There are no Saharas, no Badlands, no impassable tundras. Mountain passes have their shelters as parks have their benches…. Europe has no Death Valley, no Amazonia, no ‘outback’ intractable to the traveller.

The allusion in the third sentence is to Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”), a minor masterpiece of eighteenth-century French literature, not as famous or as important as Rousseau’s political writing, but just as good in its way, and typically European in its premise: here’s what I saw and some thoughts I had while I was walking around Paris. As Steiner points out, the list of great European philosophers and poets who were walkers is a long one: it includes Kant and Kierkegaard, Hölderlin, Wordsworth, and Péguy. “Coleridge, a portly individual, with various physical afflictions, routinely covers twenty to thirty miles per diem across difficult, mountainous ground, composing poetry or intricate theological arguments as he does.”

It isn’t only Europe’s high culture that has been informed by the experience of walking. Its whole landscape is crossed with paths and others traces of human presence. “The voyager seems never to be altogether out of reach of the church bell in the next village. From time immemorial, rivers have had fords, fords also for oxen, ‘Oxfords,’ and bridges to dance on as at Avignon. The beauties of Europe are wholly inseparable from the patina of humanized time.” The case is very different in America and much of the rest of the world. The beauties of this country—of Yellowstone, say, or the Painted Desert—are separable from “the patina of humanized time”: they are the beauties of wilderness, whose appeal lies precisely in their promise of a spectacular natural world untouched by civilization.

The deserts of the Australian interior, of the American Southwest, the “great woods” of the Pacific states or of Alaska, are virtually impassable. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon, of the Florida swamps, of Ayer’s Rock in the Australian vastness, is that of tectonic, geological dynamics almost menacingly irrelevant to man. Hence the feeling, often voiced by tourists to Europe from the New World or ‘down under’ that European landscapes are manicured, that their horizons suffocate. Hence the feeling that the American, the South African, the Australian “big skies” are unknown to Europe. To an American eye, even European clouds can seem domesticated. They are so crowded with ancient deities in Tiepolo costumes.

I know that feeling well. I remember once walking around the foot of a picturesque Burgundian hill town and thinking, “This is very beautiful, but I get the impression that everything I see here—not only the streets and paths and terraced gardens, but also the river bank and the meadows beyond it—has been touched by human hands and feet. Wherever I step, thousands of others, over thousands of years, have stepped before me.” It was a mixed feeling. I would not have changed anything about the scene; it was perfect in its way. But for an American who grew up in the desert, this “manicured” perfection was alien and felt somehow confining. Even when I was outdoors and outside of town, standing on unpaved ground, I felt that I was still stuck inside—stuck inside history. The shadow of the human past fell everywhere.

Connected to this is Steiner’s third axiom:

The streets, the squares walked by European men, women and children are named a hundredfold after statesmen, military figures, poets, artists, composers, scientists and philosophers…. Very often the street-sign will carry not only the illustrious or specialized name, but the relevant dates and a summary description. Cities such as Paris, Milan, Florence, Frankfurt, Weimar, Vienna, Prague or Saint Petersburg are living chronicles. To read their street-signs is to leaf through a present past.

Steiner contrasts this with American towns and cities, where “streets are named ‘Pine,’ ‘Maple,’ ‘Oak’ or ‘Willow.’” He mentions Sunset Boulevard and Beacon Street in Boston. “Even these,” he writes, “are concessions to the humane. American avenues, roads, streets are simply numbered [mark the horror in those italics]…. Automobiles just do not have the time to ponder a Rue Nerval or a Copernicus concourse.”


EVEN IF YOU WERE previously unacquainted with Steiner’s work, I’ve quoted enough of him by now that you may have noticed he is both unabashedly elitist and less than enthusiastic about American culture. “Anti-American” would be too strong a way of putting it: he is not blind to America’s virtues or ungrateful for its achievements, and he understands there is a “dark side” to Europe’s “sovereignty of remembrance.” “Europe is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald, where the house of Corneille abuts on the marketplace in which Joan of Arc was hideously done to death. Memorials to murder, individual and collective, are everywhere.” Historical awareness can shelter, but it can also oppress, as Nietzsche understood. If there is value in remembering, it is sometimes necessary to forget. Or at least to remember less often. As Steiner writes:

Even a child in Europe bends under the weight of the past as he so often does under that of schoolbags far too crammed. How often, when plodding the Rue Descartes or crossing the Ponte Vecchio or passing Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam, have I not been overwhelmed, in even a bodily sense, by the question: “What is the use? What can anyone of us add to the immensities of the European past?”… A literate European is caught in the spiderweb of an in memoriam at once luminous and suffocating.

Americans are better at forgetting. Indeed, Steiner believes that our freedom from the “weight of the past” is the condition for our national genius, such as it is. “When Henry Ford declared that ‘history is bunk,’ he was giving a password to creative amnesia, to a power of forgetting which underwrites the pragmatic pursuit of utopia…. How much truer to Jesus’s manifesto ‘let the dead bury their dead’ are the men and women of the New World.”

That brings us to Steiner’s fourth axiom, “the twofold inheritance of Athens and Jerusalem.” “To be a European is to attempt to negotiate, morally, intellectually and existentially the rival ideals, claims, and praxis of the city of Socrates and of that of Isaiah.” Athens stands, in Steiner’s schema, for music, mathematics, and speculative thought, three uniquely human activities that “come as near as anything can to the metaphoric intuition that we have indeed been created in the image of God.”

Uniquely human, yes; but uniquely European? Steiner is flagrantly Eurocentric. He concedes that one can find “some mode of music” wherever one finds human beings. Still, he insists, it is "worth pondering...the question of whether any of these manifold [non-Western] musical constructs…entail the miracles of the meanings of meaning which are conveyed to us by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert.” It is indeed worth pondering, but Steiner, alas, spends no time pondering it, perhaps because he fears it would take him too far afield. Or perhaps because Steiner does not really believe it’s even a question, and only formulates it as one to be polite. One of the least attractive features of The Idea of Europe is its casual condescension toward the ideas and achievements of non-European civilizations. The problem isn’t that Steiner seems largely ignorant of other civilizations (there are limits, after all, to what even a polymath can be expected to know). No, the problem is that, in his search for the essence of Europe, Steiner appears strangely incurious about parallel developments outside of Europe, and strangely complacent in his belief that those developments are all overshadowed by Europe’s monumental “constructs.” Steiner’s loyalties are clear and irreproachable. At least, I don’t reproach him for them—any more than I reproach the optometrist in Auxerre who once told me that English was a good-enough language for science and commerce but that French was unrivalled as a language for literature, Shakespeare be damned. That kind of soft chauvinism is just a sign of natural affection. It may be silly, but it’s not dangerous. Let every man think, or at least say, that his own wife is the most beautiful woman in the world.

Still, one does not have to be a cultural relativist or blandly cosmopolitan to wonder whether a European intellectual who has spent his whole life studying and teaching the greatest works of European literature, philosophy, and art is really in the best position to tell us what sets Europe apart. One is likely to have something more interesting to say about the frontier between one civilization and another when one has spent some time on both sides of it. (It’s worth noting that Steiner, who has lived in the United States, has much more interesting things to say about what distinguishes Europe from North America than about what distinguishes Europe from Asia or Africa.) He does note in passing that a few places outside of Europe, notably India, have “contributed vitally” to mathematics, “but the epic of mathematical conjecture and proof, of hypotheses radically beyond material representation or common understanding is, in essence, that of Europe and, by direct transfer, of North America.” Steiner rates this epic very highly. He thinks it may be “the highest chapter, the long noon hour, in the being of man.” (Without Steiner’s taste for apposition—“the highest chapter” and “the long noon hour”—this short book would collapse into a pamphlet.) Not coincidentally, math and music are closely related to one another, and Steiner believes both are also related to poetry (“the music of thought”) and philosophy, which has its own “magic of both cadence and axiomatic sequence.” In Steiner’s view, all three belong, preeminently if not exclusively, to modern Europe by way of ancient Greece.

Jerusalem, by contrast, stands for “the monotheistic challenge, the definition of our humanity as in dialogue with the transcendent, the concept of a Supreme Book, the notion of law as inextricable from moral commandments, our very sense of history as purposeful time.” In the modern era, these Jewish themes have been secularized, often by secular Jews. Marx’s “rage for social justice and messianic historicism” derives from Amos and Jeremiah. Freud’s “assumption of an original crime—the killing of the father” recapitulates the story of the Fall. Einstein’s “trust in cosmic order,” his “tenacious refusal of chaos” echo the Psalms and Maimonides. “Judaism and its two principal footnotes, Christianity and utopian socialism, are descendents of Sinaï, even where Jews themselves were nothing but a despised, hunted handful.” Steiner agrees with Leo Strauss that the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, between the imperatives of philosophy and science on the one hand and those of faith and revelation on the other, cannot be resolved. Thus, the idea of Europe is, as Steiner writes, a tale of two cities—and will remain so as long as Europe lasts.

The certainty that it will not last forever is Steiner’s fifth and final axiom. For as long as there has been a Europe, Europeans have been asking themselves how and when Europe would end—or how and when the world would end, which, until a few hundred years ago, came to the same thing. The European imagination is, as Steiner puts it, eschatological. Its conception of history is linear and bounded. From Christian millenarianism to Oswald Spengler, Europeans have always been anticipating the end of days, with dread or enthusiasm. “In a secular, intellectualized format, a ‘sense of an ending’ is explicit in Hegel’s theory of history as it had been in Carnot’s momentous formulation of entropy, of the inevitable extinction of energy.” The two world wars, which together resulted in the deaths of approximately a hundred million people, appeared to confirm this persistent intimation that Europe was perishable. The only question was whether it would end with a bang or a whimper.


SO, WHITHER EUROPE? Steiner concedes that he is probably not competent to address an issue as complicated as that of Europe’s future. He says he does not know enough about economics, demography, law, or information theory. “For someone thus limited to address the agenda of a possible European renascence borders on impertinence.” He’s right of course, but no one reading this book is likely to care. The fact is, no one is competent to offer an authoritative prediction about Europe’s long-term future, and what we want from someone like Steiner is not so much a prediction as a set of suggestions about where Europe ought to be headed and what it can do to correct course. A social critic’s job is to talk about priorities, not probabilities.

Steiner believes that Europe’s biggest challenge is to reconcile political and economic unification with cultural and, above all, linguistic diversity. He accepts that, in the wake of the two world wars that almost destroyed Europe, something like the European Union was necessary. But he worries that this project, together with the larger forces of globalization, is threatening Europe’s social diversity, the “prodigal mosaic which often makes a trivial distance, twenty kilometers apart, a division between worlds.” Part of the problem is that the European Union’s centralized administration has tended to routinize and homogenize areas of life that, until recently, varied widely from one part of the Continent to another. One can lay some of the blame for this at the feet of rigid and overzealous bureaucrats in Brussels, but the truth is that, notwithstanding the official rhetoric, a unified Europe with a single currency was always going to be less various than the congeries of wholly independent nation states it replaced. Culture and politics are not independent variables; any important change in one is bound to affect the other. One important part of European integration has been the opening of the labor market: citizens of any of the E.U.’s member states are allowed to work in any other member state, a change that has accelerated the advance of English as Europe’s commercial lingua franca. It is this advance more than anything else that worries Steiner; he believes it will be the first stage in the marginalization or outright obsolescence of some of Europe’s other languages:

The death of a language is irreparable, it diminishes the possibilities of man. Nothing threatens Europe more radically—‘at the roots’—than the detergent, exponential tide of Anglo-American, and of the uniform values and world-image which that devouring Esperanto brings with it…. Europe will indeed perish if it does not fight for its languages, local traditions and social autonomies.

But how should Europeans fight for these things while simultaneously resisting the kind of blood-and-soil nationalism that tore Europe apart in the last century? Or, as Steiner puts it, “How do we dissociate a saving wealth of difference from the long chronicle of mutual detestation?” He does not have an answer; he knows only that those “wiser” than himself must find one, “and that the hour is late.”

In the meantime, as Europe seeks for a safe way to preserve its particularities, it must recommit itself to the kind of humanism that, in Steiner’s view, sets it apart from the rest of the world, and from America in particular. Steiner is grateful enough for such things as comfortable air travel and modern dentistry—for what he somewhat grandly calls “the benefits and generosities” of Americanization—but he insists that a standard of living is about more than per-capita GDP. Steiner worries that all our new material comforts are lulling us gradually into a pleasant and mostly unnoticed stupefaction. It’s up to Europe to find the vaccine for the virus from across the Atlantic that is turning people all over the world into a hoard of zombie shoppers. Here is Steiner at his most Steineresque as he launches into his peroration:

The dignity of homo sapiens is exactly that: the realization of wisdom, the pursuit of disinterested knowledge, the creation of beauty. Making money and flooding our lives with increasingly trivialized material goods is a profoundly vulgar, emptying passion. It may be that in ways as yet very difficult to make out, Europe will generate a counter-industrial revolution even as it generated the industrial revolution itself. Certain ideals of leisure, of privacy, of anarchic individualism, ideals almost stifled in the conspicuous consumption and uniformities of the American and Asian-American models, may have their natural function in a European context, even if that context entails a measure of material retrenchment. Those who knew eastern Europe during the bleak decades, or Britain in austerity, will know what human solidarities and creativities can derive from relative poverty. It is not political censorship that kills: it is the despotism of the mass-market and the rewards of commercialized stardom.

The rhetoric here reminds me of I’ll Take My Stand, the famous collection of essays by the Southern Agrarians, for whom the North represented the same kind of crass commercialism and soulless mass culture that Steiner associates with America more generally. I’m about as sympathetic to Steiner’s old-world conservatism as a proud American can be. I recognize and lament the tendency he describes; I cherish some of the values and institutions that tendency endangers, even if they do not constitute for me, as they do for Steiner, a kind of religion of high culture. Still, I am struck by the mismatch between the richness and grandeur of Steiner’s “idea of Europe” and the meagerness of his recommendations. Just one paragraph after celebrating the creative potential of “material retrenchment” and “relative poverty,” Steiner finds himself grappling with Europe’s brain drain—the loss of its most promising scholars and scientists to rich American universities. The solution he offers is the obvious one: European universities should pay their faculty more. There is nothing wrong with this solution, but it does seem odd following hard upon Steiner’s insistence that Europeans, unlike those vulgar American and Chinese moneygrubbers, know how to make do with less. If even the high priests of Europe’s high culture are being drawn away to American universities by the wicked lure of Mammon, then what hope is there for the masses?

If there is still a distinctively European way of life, it has as much to do with politics and economics as with music and metaphysics. That's why it's so strange that Steiner, who can be very good at describing Europe's material culture, should seem so uninterested in the material conditions of culture. If he were really intent on resisting the tide of globalization that threatens to sweep away Europe’s local traditions—rather than just striking an elegant attitude of regret—he'd have to pay some serious attention to the dismal science that deals with such mundane stuff as agricultural subsidies and labor regulations. One comes away from this book with the impression that Steiner considers such matters not only beyond his competence but also beneath his dignity as a man of ideas. He shouldn't. If Europe is to remain anything like Steiner’s idea of Europe, it won’t be because of the programming decisions of its museum directors or the faculty-retention rate of its universities, important as those things are. It will be because European governments, and the citizens who elect them, give as much thought to the quality of jobs and the stability of communities as to interest rates and purchasing power. The idea of Europe is about more than the glories of leisure.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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