GAITHER STEWART: In search of Europe’s roots

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<<< Statue commemorating Cervantes in Nafpaktos (Lepanto), Greece. Don Quixote’s author died on the same date as Wm. Shakespeare [April 23, 1616]. Their unfailing insights into the human character are their eternal legacy to all mankind.


Franz Kafka wrote what could be a writer’s credo: “It’s not laziness, bad will, awkwardness that causes me to fail in everything, but the lack of ground under my feet, of air, of law. My task is to create these things.”

Dateline: Rome 3.15.08

THE REACH AND THE ROLE OF LITERATURE in the unity of a Europe forever in search of its common roots is perhaps a uniquely European phenomenon. For while politics and economic issues have always divided these diverse peoples, cultured Europeans spread over the lands and seas from Finland to Sicily, from Wales to Poland, are unconsciously linked by the fine thread of their common literature.

Though like everywhere the young generation, swept up in new technologies, neglects the master writers, until recently no cultured European had not read Dostoevsky and the other greats of European literature. Today, on trains and subways of Rome and Paris, Berlin and London, many read them still.

Cervantes, Dante, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Goethe, Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Petrarch, Proust, Shakespeare, Svevo, Tolstoy. The names are familiar to cultured people of the entire western world. But they are all European names, names that have bound Europe’s peoples since long before the birth of the European Union, names that occupy the top positions in the European literary canon.

All of a European matrix, those d.o.c. names extend over national borders and languages in a way that European Union regulations cannot. Though each canonical artist is unique, tends to be rooted in one national culture or the other, and makes of his own language a great language, each is nonetheless universal. It is said that language is a dialect with an army behind it.

In that sense you can’t really grasp one single European literature, especially the novel (singled out in this article), without knowing something about the others. They interconnect and intersect one with the other. Yet so universal is the literature they have created that each of them belongs in turn to the literary canon of the entire West … if not of the world. For Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish 2006 Nobel Prize Laureate, the novel genre belongs to the European tradition. By extension then also American and Australian literatures belong to the same.

In the new millennium, the role of culture in Europe has doubtless deteriorated, overshadowed by the hegemony of an elusive economic-political power which even globalization’s creators themselves are beginning to doubt. Nonetheless a unifying cultural canon resists. And that is literature, and the European novel. It has resisted since the age of Dante and Petrarch, passing through the greatest writers of Europe of East and West. The list endures today.

Sometimes it has seemed that this prime factor of European unification was forgotten. Perhaps only Nazism and Fascism with their inherent anti-intellectualism and hypervaluation of discipline and order over self-regulated freedom—and too often the Roman Catholic Church, for pretty much the same reasons—had no use for the great literature at all. Yet it is an enduring factor and didn’t have to be invented. (The Church has a more complex even contradictory background, however, as it was often monks who served as the last remaining link in the transmission of great works, or who acted as the chief translators.)

The literary canon is free of discord, no better or worse for one nation or another, and is a fundamental feature seldom absent since the Middle Ages.

Yet, buried under EU propaganda and problems related to the introduction of the euro, stringent economic rules, the European Parliament, and the fashioning of a gigantic Euro-bureaucracy, this cultural canon has been little underlined and exploited as the natural cement of unity it is. Not until today. Well, better late than never!

Today Europeans of the culture establishment are reflecting on their common literary heritage. In recent years Italy’s two major newspapers, La Repubblica in Rome and Il Corriere della Sera in Milan, have published millions of copies of major literary works of the greatest European writers, economy editions sold at affordable prices together with the newspaper. In retrospect that apparently purely commercial effort has had a big cultural impact in Italy: even non-book readers have imported Europe’s best literature straight into their homes, some laying the foundations of home libraries.

The ongoing discussion of the idea of a European literary canon is overdue recognition of the fundamental role of culture in the formation of Europe. For as a rule the economic-political soul of Europe has surpassed the cultural. So it is a battle, a battle against incursions of and limitations placed by the political sphere.

As Italy’s major 19th century literary historian Francesco De Sanctis noted, the cultural history of Italy resides in the antinomy between the splendor of g
enius on one hand and political decadence on the other.

Nonetheless, though culture has not won out, it survives.

As a rule culture follows the economic-political hegemony as best it can, or perhaps in spite of itself. Now, in the face of the growing reality of the failures of globalization-imperialism, culture sees an opening. It has the chance to lead the way.

Kings and emperors, kingdoms and empires, vanish, but Europe’s common culture, often unrecognized, has been a lasting cement for the union. This differentiates Europe from the United States. Not to gainsay American culture, which in many important respects is also powerfully “transatlantic” but it is not and perhaps cannot be the cement of the nation that culture is for the continent of Europe. I can hardly imagine subway riders in Philadelphia or Boston reading classic novels by Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes or Argentina’s Julio Cortázar. Or even leafing through that ultra-American southern classic, Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre.

In this positive sense Europe continues to be the Old World. To the chagrin of neo-liberals, Europe’s multinational, globalization-oriented economic and political institutions cannot unite the continent of the Old World alone. As an influencing machine on its peoples, the economic-political system, by definition all about power and pragmatism, is limited by its lack of depth and sentiment and compassion. Culture is thus a necessary ingredient. Like the Christian faith it rises from the roots of these variegated peoples, for millennia at war among themselves. Despite past failures of culture—no less than of religion and progressive political movements—to prevent Europe’s peoples from killing each other, in the aftermath of each war culture has emerged as a pillar of peace among yesterday’s enemies. Has everyone already forgotten the healing power of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which showed the common humanity of all combatants, or even America’s own Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms?

This is not however to suggest that culture predominates. There is no doubt that political-economic power calls the shots. And capitalist Europe remains capitalist, imperialistic, greedy and avaricious. The message carried by a common culture contrasts with the message of economic gain and political power. Culture’s message is social, inquisitive, critical, often calling people to arms for resistance. In this sense, at certain times of societal evolution, literature can be more important than economics and politics, and religion too, for that matter.

“What I cannot help taking amiss is that he[d] charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see. If my wounds have no beauty to the beholder’s eye, they are, at least, honourable in the estimation of those who know where they were received; for the soldier shows to greater advantage dead in battle than alive in flight.”
Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote – Part II, “The Author’s Preface” translated by John Ormsby)


Here I will digress in order to underline a new reality: concomitant with the neglect of culture there has occurred a dramatic turning away from basic concepts of democracy in Europe. That dangerous and misunderstood word, democracy, is increasingly problematic here as elsewhere. Italy, a parliamentary democracy in name, is taking giant steps toward the American quasi one-party model, which has little to do with democracy or a just social order. As legendary Italian Radical Party leader, Marco Pannella, pronounced in a recent TV interview, Italy today is living in a non-democracy.

In April, Italy returns to the polls. It will elect its Parliament in which two parties will dominate, a signal of a design to erase today’s multiparty system, which, despite the chaos it engenders, guarantees a minimum of genuine representation. One of the two parties, both near the center, will win and should govern Italy for five years. However, as a result of a bizarre electoral system top party leaderships name the candidates on the electoral lists, in effect nominating the deputies to Italy’s next Parliament. Moreover, the two parties are allegedly in secret accord on how the country will be governed: future electoral system, foreign policy, tax structure, labor laws, pensions, health care, European Union, NATO.

Meanwhile, from across Rome’s Tiber River, the retrograde Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Ratzinger, is inflicting his reactionary view of the Roman Catholic Church on the state of Italy. And willy-nilly he commands the conscience of multitudes of obedient Catholic faithful.

Meanwhile, organized crime commands social-economic life
in south Italy, from Naples to Palermo. And in the rest of Europe French President Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged as more of a hardliner than one imagined, a President with no faith in nor patience for his Parliament, against whom a majority of French just voted in regional elections. In Germany, the
Grosse Koalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats governs in the silence of effective opposition. In Great Britain, former Labourite Tony Blair, in his pact with “big brother George”, broke down resistance even within his own Labour Party so that the UK has blindly imitated the USA, not very surprising given Labour’s social democratic credentials. Nor is the situation of democratic representation better in the small countries from Portugal to Sweden.

Parliamentary democracy is fading and losing control. What will replace it is unclear. Most certainly national institutions are losing ground while the influence of the multinational-led European Union grows and spreads at a furious pace. The only flicker of change today are the first weak voices of opposition to unleashed savage globalization.

As the US economy weakens and its wars continue unabated, American authority in Europe is tainted. More than that, the contagion from its recession and authoritarianism threaten European unity. As a result, to the degree that the role of economics and politics in Europe also shrink and fail, people wonder just what the Union is to consist of in the future. What is the European Union about, many wonder? Therefore, some far-sighted people are looking again toward the role of culture to strengthen the European Union: in the sense of this article, the neglected potential role of a common literature. Especially that of the great European novel.

Why the novel?

For Albert Camus the novel is not entertainment. Art for art’s sake is the artificial art of an artificial and abstract society, nourished by preciousness and abstractions that end in sterility and the destruction of reality. European literature does not purport that happiness (bonheur, felicità, Glücklichkeit) is the goal of human society. There seems to be a universal misunderstanding at play here. A misunderstanding between happiness on one hand and civilly ordered society on the other. Camus links the American novel to this sterility in that it denies the real person … a sterility that also sterilizes revolt. Over a half century ago Camus pinpointed the gulf separating European from American literature, which was then reflected in cinema, the media and the arts in general: the European literary predilection for reality.

Kafka in his Diary wrote what could be a writer’s credo: “It’s not laziness, bad will, awkwardness that causes me to fail in everything, but the lack of ground under my feet, of air, of law. My task is to create these things.”

At an international conference on the literary roots of Europe promoted by the Humanities Faculty at Rome’s La Sapienza University, Professor Roberto Antonelli, posed the key questions: Does there exist a “European literature” that can be included in scholastic programs of the European Union as a unitary system?

Is there a shared library with which all Europeans can identify, in cultural taste and emotions?

In what terms and limits may one speak of a specific European literature?

Prior to the Rome conference of several months ago, the Rome Humanities Faculty conducted a survey among the continent’s most prestigious universities, the results of which were then discussed at the conference. The survey concerned the thirty major authors and the thirty most important works of European literature, taken as the basis for the eventual introduction of “European literature” in scholastic programs of Europe’s schools and universities.

To backtrack a bit, one forgets that emphasis on mass education and what can readily be transmitted through education is little over a century old. In the late 19th century early Social Democrats of the times of the First International preached to the illiterate that, “knowledge is power.”

Traditionally however the stability of the existing social order has required that the poor should remain ignorant.

Moreover, in Italy the most authoritative Catholic press organ under the direct control of the Holy See, La Civiltà Cattolica, once denounced the idea of mass education. “So you want to have a better life?” it preached to the working class. “Well, work hard and keep away from vice. Production needs no books; it needs strong arms and willing hands.”

Those times have changed but not the discussion as to what mass education should consist of. Since mass media can be dangerous in that they can pave the way for dictatorships, the need for “quality” mass education is all the more vital in Europe as in America. “Since the basic purpose of education is to transmit culture, culture is likely to be limited to what can be transmitted by education.” (T.S. Eliot)

In the educational sense the intention of the literary conference promoters was to make Europe’s common literature a scholastic instrument for the formation of youth of the continent so that maturing Europeans can understand what unites them. So that they are conscious of who they are.

Today there exists no “History of European literature” from an all-European point of view. Literary histories tend to be national, those that exist in the individual countries. So from that angle the ramifications of such an undertaking are gigantic since na
tional literatures rightfully dominate in each country.

The flagship positions in the canon are pre-20th century: Cervantes, Dante, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust, followed closely by twentieth century masters, Joyce, Thomas Mann, Kafka. Under consideration are only the novel and narrative poetry. The essay is excluded because too specialized, philosophy as the reserve of abstract thought pertaining to spiritual matters, and lyric poetry because of translation difficulties.

Moreover, as noted by Eugenio Scalfari, writer-journalist and founder of Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, the literary canon agreed on by European academia reflects chiefly the past because the major space once reserved for books is today filled with DVDs or American novels or comic books. The result is that the literary world of contemporary youth differs somewhat from that established by the giants of the European literary canon.

An academic exaggeration, the role of culture? Can culture sincerely aspire to change the course of economic-political development? Is it the fault of culture itself that it usually fails in its role? Or is economic-political power simply so dominant that it cannot be deterred?

The answer is unclear. But we do know that culture clearly succumbs to Power. On the other hand, it is certain that culture has a vaster base in the individual countries of Europe than the power castes consisting of a few tens of thousands. While the class of power tends to become ever narrower, culture in rich Europe has the potential for growth. That is the basis of hope for a future role of the European literary canon acting within the scholastic system.

Though always dominant, political power in Europe and elsewhere has had to reckon with culture, similar, it would seem, to the political world’s relation to religion in the USA. In most of Europe culture stands like a pillar, an institution in itself, not the abstraction the word implies. Political power recognizes its strength. Especially imperialism is aware of culture’s strength. Historically, imperialistic powers (with the exception of Fascism-Nazism which relied on violence and war to accomplish its ends, as does the USA today) such as Tsarist Russia and Cold War USA first attack the culture of the peoples they wish to dominate. T.S. Eliot noted that, “the more highly developed is any alien culture, the more thorough the attempts to extirpate it by elimination of those elements in the subject population in which that culture is most conscious.”

Today’s attack on Islam and all it stands for, its origins and its practices, is a glaring example of the blatant, flagrant, Islamophobic undermining of the rich and ancient cultures of the Arab and Persian worlds that are an integral part of our own cultural heritage. (Quite obviously for all to see an attack aimed at conquest and exploitation. It is obvious that the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] is right in its warning that the West’s attack on Islam is a threat to international security, noting that the war on terror cannot be successful without the support of Moslem countries.)

Again: the Marxist thinker and writer, Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, amended Marx’s conviction that social development originates only from the economic structure. Gramsci, who introduced culture into the arena, would support today’s effort to formalize the European literary canon (though he wouldn’t necessarily approve of the same writers and the same works) and its inclusion in scholastic programs. Though he believed political activity was the path to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class, his distinction of culture proved to be a major advance for radical thought. That still holds.

The literary survey in question here concerned forty professors of literature in twelve European universities, plus universities in Russia and Turkey, posing questions about authors and texts. In this new canon absolute hegemony belongs to the modern novel, beginning with the formation in Europe of the nation states. The novel is seen as the great productive reservoir of the imaginary, of sentiments and the culture of Europe. Though Dante heads all the lists—followed by Goethe, Shakespeare and Cervantes—only one modern poet enters the pantheon: Baudelaire. Surprisingly, Homer, the founder of European literature, was not at the top. This is probably because for much of literary academia European literature begins in the 16th century, by the way, reflecting changing ideas about the role of the classics.

One notes moreover that the countries most represented in this canon are those that have always had a hegemony in European culture as a whole: France and Italy, England, Germany, Spain and Greece.

Humanities at La Sapienza compiled a number of lists based on answers to the questionnaire from Europe’s universities and from 350 Rome university students. I have listed here the top ten of the lists most pertinent to this article.

Professors’ list of Europe’s canonical authors:

1. Dante 2. Goethe 3. Shakespeare 4. Tolstoy 5. Cervantes 6. Dostoevsky 7. Kafka 8. Thomas Mann

9. Flaubert 10. Petrarch

“All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women merely players:

they have their exits and their entrances;

and one man in his time plays many parts…”

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, 139–42.[29]

Wm. Shakespeare

Professors’ list of most important works:

1. Don Quixote 2. Hamlet 3. Divina Commedia 4. Faust 5. War and Peace 6. Madame Bovary

7. Ulysses 8. Recherche du temps perdu 9. Iliad 10. Odyssey

The Italian Students’ list of authors shows a surprising similarity to the selections by European professors, although the student list reflects also the Italian scholastic program (Pirandello known world-wide, less so Manzoni and Leopardi). This list also shows the preference for more contemporary authors (Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire and Joyce). Nonetheless the students’ list confirms the validity of the concept of a common European literary canon. Consider:

1. Dante 2. Shakespeare 3. Cervantes 4. Pirandello 5. Oscar Wilde 6. Joyce

7. Manzoni 8. Baudelaire 9. Leopardi 10. Goethe

GAITHER STEWART is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal and a seasoned professional journalist and essayist. His recent novel, Asheville, was published by Gaither currently resides in the hills of north Rome with his wife, Milena.

One comment on “GAITHER STEWART: In search of Europe’s roots
  1. What’s really interesting is that all great literature points to the same moral truths; like all the world’s great religions say pretty much the same in their guides of conduct; the differences are mainly superficial, cultural, liturgical. Which in my opinion means that wisdom is wisdom the world over.

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