Matthew Boudway

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

By this author

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.

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