Europe Has The Shape Of My Brain

*More than a century ago Europe was not yet known as a cultural construction, an intellectual day-dream, "a heap of broken images," a copy in a world without originals. Artists tried to escape the big fortress ensconced in coal smog and torn by wars, social conflicts, and bourgeois mediocrity. What was Europe for Rimbaud? A rancid moor where his inebriated ship ran aground in reactionary, chauvinistic mud. For Gaugain? A country of mists and of the absence of color. Mallarmé wanted to "run away" after having read all books, to somehow heal the sadness of the flesh. Even that "anywhere out of this world" of Baudelaire meant just "anywhere but in Europe." Frightful Europe. Cruel, blasé old Europe. Where could you run, where could you find real life, true sap, and true colors? In Africa, naturally, in Tahiti, naturally. In red wine. In hashish. In homosexuality. In the systematic derangement of all the senses. The thing was to extricate oneself from Europe's emblem of those times: the mechanical, stupid, leveling rationale of the bourgeois world. What hideous nightmare that world of family fathers brought up in the cult of progress and universal harmony was to trigger? Only fifty years afterwards would it become clear that if Rimbaud had after all fled to Africa he had been driven away by a terrible prophesy: "Oh, heart, what do billows of blood mean…" I cannot keep back the feeling that all these great artists knew what would happen at Ypres and at Verdun in the following century. That they intuited Stalingrad and the coast of Normandy; they had dreamt of the tank confrontations in the Russian steppe, the awful submarine hunt, the razing of entire cities, of thousands of ancient historical monuments, libraries, and cathedrals. They knew in their own way for they had learnt in nuce about Nazi "logic" leading to the Holocaust, about Soviet "harmony" that engendered the horrors of the socialist camp. Just as Kafka, Trakl, Dostoevsky, and Unamuno knew it. Cold-blooded crime, experiments on the most concrete human flesh, on the flesh of terrorized numberless populations dominated Europe until not long ago, and their echoes have not yet died down. Until we assume this face of our great spiritual continent, we do not have the right to see (again), to remember (again), to build (again) its splendor and grandeur.And even if we understand that deep down, as Europeans, we are responsible for the atrocities of the past century, and also duty bound not to forget and not to repeat them, still we are not yet duly entitled to celebrate our Europeanism. Anyway, not anyway. The waves of cultural relativism, of multi-culturalism, and political correctness of the last decades brought about by our ineluctable sliding towards a postmodern world have accustomed us, despite their sometime farcical exaggerations and aspects, to be circumspect about asserting our right of pre-eminence in the great culture. A Greek philosopher quoted by Diogenes Laertios said haughtily that: "I am happy to have been born a man and not an animal, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian." Today these very discriminations seem a token of barbarity. After all, Europe is far from being an isolated isle of the spirit, like Swift's Laputa or the Pedagogical Province of Goethe where lofty culture, "everything that has been said or thought of more elevated along history" (according to the definition of Matthew Arnold) shines a dazzling light upon everything. And it is no nouscracy or jocular utopia like in Hesse's Glass Bead Game. Our Greek-Judaic tradition is actually made of several interwoven threads leading to the neighboring or "over the seas" worlds. Our writing comes from the Phoenicians, our calendar from the Assyrians, our "inventions" are Chinese, our dreams are populated by a monster called Humbaba, and we are all the children of a universal deluge. Europe is a gooey relational concept, a complex mental structure, a contradictory feeling where love and hatred converge. At the same time to veer towards total relativism, to claim that all cultures have created value equivalents of Homer, Shakespeare and Cervantes would be just as immature and stupid as being a tough and pure Euro-centrist who swears only by the mentioned "geniuses of the human spirit."I am proud to be human because I am also an animal; to be a man because I am also a woman; to be Greek exactly because the barbarian in me is so full of life. At the same time, I am proud to be a European. To be a European means for me not to be good (better than others) but to be complex, to be a complicated character, riddled with internal contradictions but able to accept and reconcile them. The great European tradition has guided my entire life just like the revolt against it. But to speak of Europe is to speak of America or Asia. What sentence is there that can contain all their reality? And what book, what monumental encyclopaedia? There are several Europes, disseminated in time and in space, a multidimensional confederation of Europes. With which of them am I solidary? Which of them do I hate? Some of them are real like a handful of dust from which grass blades shoot. Others are virtual, ghostly, haunting our imagination. Did the ancient world actually exist when Europe was no more than a nymph raped by Zeus riding his eternal Cretan bull (perhaps the most enduring symbol of the old continent)? Did the strange world of Arthur and of Lancelot exist, full of Arabs and miracles, barbarian and gaudily colored like a computer game of strategy? Or the libertine world of Fragonard? The heroic world of Napoleon, seemingly populated only by lead toy soldiers? The black-and-white film world, dim and spotted, of the 1900s, with carriages and hard-hatted gentlemen? Who wrote that the world has existed only for a few minutes now but that we all come into this world with grafts of false memory? I will not get lost in these caves and mazes specific, according to Hocke, to the thinking of Homo Europaeus. My relationship with Europe is, above all, that with the Europe of today, not in the least more real as a matter of fact than the previous ones. Yet at the same time the most concrete for me because it is the only one where I have been allowed to actually (or in my dreams) take all the steps I want.A many-speed Europe, they said. A Europe for decades severed into two by a stupid concrete and barbed wire wall. That Europe is gone. But when the concrete wall (all least the portion of it separating the two areas of Berlin) collapsed, it became obvious that it did not part geo-political zones more than it did mental ones. As a proof, today Europe still is not one and will not be for a long time, not even when all the states of the imaginary east will have been integrated in the imaginary West. Because among the phantasms in our minds there are also the Europes of Huntington, clashing and breaking into pieces like tectonic plates along the Catholic/Protestant and Orthodox line, and the Europes of Goethe and Thomas Mann who opposed the cerebral and austere North to a more Dionysiac North.Three clichés, three verbal tics, three nearly sexual fantasies still hover over the huge peninsula born in the Urals. I ignore whether we secrete or produce them permanently, whether they shut us in childish and reassuring camps, or whether we float on them like on rescuing rafts of the Medusa: Western Europe, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe. Civilization, neurosis and chaos. Prosperity, culture and chaos. Reason, the subconscious and chaos. A few years ago, I had a talk at the Book Fair of Frankfurt on the Main with a German editor and he told me he found authors from Eastern Europe interesting. I immediately replied that I did not consider myself one. "You're right," the editor said. "You, a Romanian, come from South-Eastern Europe." Wonderful specification. Superb division of a subdivision. Stay in your place was what the respective editor was telling me affably. Stay in your ghetto. Say your piece of South-East European history. Write about your Securitate, about your Ceausescu, about your People's House. About your dogs, your children of the street, your Gypsies. Take pride in your dissidence of the communist period. Let us write about love. About death, happiness, agony and ecstasy. Let us do the avant-garde, innovate, and breathe cultural normalcy. Your only chance is to express your small exotic world thanks to a small publishing house here, which could eventually accept you. For, after all who cares? Who is interested? You have to choose between strengthening our dear clichés or getting lost.I resume here the words I said then: I am not a writer from Eastern Europe. I do not recognize the division of Europe into three areas, geopolitical, cultural or religious. Or of any kind. I dream of a variegated Europe not a schizophrenic one. I have not read Musil to see in him a ruminating person from Kakania, a prince of the European spirit. I don't care in what country Andre Breton lived and wrote. I don't know the spot on the map where Bulgakov's Kiev lies. I have not read Catullus, Rabelais, Cantemir or Virginia Woolf according to any map but I have taken them from a library where books stand side by side. My books are not teeming with sheep of the Romanian folklore or Romanian Orthodox beads but with Dantesque stars, the compass of John Donne, the spear of Cervantes, the beetle of Kafka, the little madeleines of Proust, and the turbot of Guenther Grass. I feel I compete not only with the Romanian or Bulgarian, Russian, Serb, Czech, or Polish writers in the neighborhood but also with the writers everywhere whom I admire and treasure. Naturally, my subject can by the force of circumstances be Romanian, the props Romanian, and the language showing psycho-linguistic inflections from my native space. Yet, my topics are no other than the great topics of European creation, the same as Euripides' and Joyce's. The influences nurturing both my poems and my prose (and firstly my meditation which, as George Enescu wrote, is the main occupation of an artist) have been mostly those of the great modern literature of the past century, both Romanian and foreign. This because the tradition of Romanian modernity luckily is just as complex and exuberant as any other in Europe. The Romanian writers who have managed to cross the mental barriers between the West and the East (thus confirming them in a way) emerged as first-magnitude stars on the sky of European culture: Tzara, Ionesco, Cioran. Yet, many others – a few certainly more valuable – stayed sweetly trapped by a language of infinite expressiveness, therefore difficult to translate. To name only Urmuz, Arghezi, Blaga, simply unknown. With all due respect, I don't want to share their destiny. I don't want either to be the "Romanian on duty," a stereotype guest of colloquia and symposia where he represents his country. I have nothing to represent but myself and the land of my writings. I could very well be Portuguese, Latvian, or Swiss. I could be a man or a woman, a Greek or a barbarian. The texture of my writings would naturally differ all the time but their spirit would stay forever unchanged. Because Valéry was not wrong when he said that all the poems ever written could be attributed to a single atemporal poet, nobody else than the creative spirit. I won't go that far but still it seems obvious to me there is something that overruns (tautologically) all the writings that could be ascribed to lofty culture, no matter where they were written and no matter how contaminated by other types of cultures: the European spirit. From this vantage, Marquez is European, Pynchon is European, and Kawabata is European. Perhaps not in attitude and ideology but certainly in the great collective subconscious of the work of art, the "philosophy" of this domain of knowledge, as founded by the ancient Greek. In presuppositions, in what is not expressed but is determining for a literary work.For a few decades now post-modernist thinking has been endeavoring to show what is not right about lofty art: its arrogance, autarchy, and elitism. The retreat into museums, the relegation of unmediated life. In a brilliant essay, Walter Benjamin showed that the "aura" of the work of art dies out in the epoch when it can be reproduced mechanically. All this is true. Lofty art deserved the "affronts" once wielded by Duchamp – the urinal displayed on a pedestal in a museum and the mustache of La Gioconda. Just like it deserves today the aggression of the numberless types of contemporary art, ever more "popular' and randomized. Yet, the European spirit of the ancient Greek-Judaic tradition is not altered by these misalliances. On the contrary, it receives an absolutely necessary fresh blood. The mustachioed Gioconda is meaningless unless related to the true, eternal Gioconda which it does not diminish but which it further enhances. The wave of popular culture, of "Americanization," which so many abhor does not mean the end of lofty art but an opportunity to surf on the crests of this billow. Despite the transformation of art into show biz, into a one-day show, I stubbornly maintain that even in today's world a solid artistic culture gives you an incalculable edge on the hosts of mediocre, anonymous artists feeding a public high on advertising and television.There is a big number of Europes in space and in time, in dreams and in memories, in the real and the imaginary. I reclaim only one of them, my Europe, easy to recognize by the fact it has the shape of my brain. It has this specific form because it has been modeling my brain from the very first, after its own guise, and in its own liking. Its surface is riddled with deep furrows, motor and sensorial areas, the centers of speaking and of understanding. And nowhere are there concrete walls, iron curtains, and frontiers.
* Essay read at Literaturhaus Hamburg during the international colloquium Europa Schreibt, 2003. Thirty-five writers from as many European countries wrote what Europe meant for their work. The text was published subsequently in Neue Zuercher Zeitung and in Observator cultural.

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)