The Idea of Europe

The Idea of Europe

OUR EDITORS Costica Bradatan and Robert Zaretsky sat down at their computers recently to have a conversation about George Steiner’s “The Idea of Europe,” a lecture delivered in 2003 and published this year by Overlook Press. Although they both teach in Texas, Zaretsky at the University of Houston and Bradatan at Texas Tech University, Bradatan was writing from Shimla, India, while Zaretsky wrote from an undisclosed Starbucks outside Houston.


COSTICA BRADATAN: The city of Shimla, from where I happen to be writing, took shape in the first half of the 19th century. Barely a village when the British discovered it, within a generation Shimla would become a distinctly European spot. And every summer it would attract the political, military, economic, and cultural elite of British India: to escape the scorching heat of the Indo-Gangetic plain, they would climb to Shimla — more than 7,000 feet above sea level — where they could not only enjoy a British-like weather, but also live like in England. Despite the 1,000-plus miles that separate it from Calcutta, in 1864 Shimla became the summer capital of the British Raj. The result was the emergence of a European city in the full sense of the word: its infrastructure was European, and so were its institutions, as well as the practices of everyday life. The place exhibited not only visibly European architecture and European forms of public life such as libraries, theaters, and art galleries, but also a certain “European spirit”: there were balls and soirees in the city, just as there was plenty of “frivolity, gossip, and intrigue,” as Kipling complained.

Shimla’s Europeanness is obvious even today, long after the European colonists left. The architecture is there, and so are the theater and the art galleries. There are also those features — such as coffeehouses, ample pedestrian spaces, and a humanized landscape — which George Steiner finds define Europe. As I walk down the Mall Road, with its many shops and restaurants (some established during the British rule) or watch the locals promenading on the Ridge, I find myself wondering: what kind of thing is Europe if we can find part of it in the Himalayas?

ROBERT ZARETSKY: Costica, Houston, from where I happen to be writing, is a distinctly non-European spot. The scrubland of southern Texas is no less scorching, I wager, than the Indo-Gangetic plain. Unaware, no doubt, that mosquitoes as large as avocados were waiting to feast on them, waves of immigrants arrived at the port of Galveston in the second half of the 19th century. Many of these new arrivals rattled north along dirt roads to a backwater called Houston, founded just a couple of decades before Shimla became the Raj’s official summer spot. These brave souls swaying in their wagons, the ancestors of the Lexus SUVs equipped with four-wheel drive — to allow Houston drivers to negotiate the speed bumps at the Galleria parking lot — unknowingly laid the social and economic foundations for Houston’s sudden and meteoric growth in the second half of the 20th century.

As I’m sure you know, the vast majority of these immigrants were from Central and Eastern Europe. They could understand, whereas I could not, the untranslated German phrases with which George Steiner salts his short essay. And yet, here’s the rub: their “European” footprint, unlike the one you have found in Shimla, proved to be far more shallow and changing. At least, that is, if we measure it by the standards that Steiner seems to take for granted. For example, Steiner tells us that “Europe” can be walked. In his trademark style — pregnant with meaning even when there is no meaning to be found — Steiner writes that “the cartography of Europe arises from the capacities, the perceived horizons of human feet.” In Houston’s suburbs, there are often no sidewalks for human feet; sidewalks do exist downtown, but they are, in effect, waiting rooms for the city’s poor (and overwhelmingly black and Hispanic) residents, who depend on what passes for public transportation. But, of course, we’ll need to interview the feet if we wish to learn more about the horizons they perceive.

Or take the café (or pub, tavern, or coffeehouse). For Steiner, this uniquely European institution, filled with “ontological significance,” has no equivalent in the US. As he helpfully observes, “no one writes phenomenological tomes at the table of an American bar.” When I read this sort of observation, I reach for a beer and a dirty glass to pour it in. When it comes to defining Europe — or, by extension, dissing the US — why should we privilege walleyed pipe-smoking intellectuals on Paris’s Left Bank? This kind of intellectual history, or history of ideas, is as dépassé as black turtlenecks or Gauloises cigarettes. Costica, since you’re the real McCoy — a full-fledged European, and an intellectual to boot — let me ask, do you see yourself in Steiner’s idea of Europe?

CB: I almost always find reading Steiner to be a very stimulating experience. Even when I disagree with him. What’s important to me as a reader is not whether he is right or wrong, but the place to which he is taking me, and the intellectual process of which he makes me part. He calls that — a touch too pompously perhaps, but not exactly wrong — an “invitation into meaning.” I, for one, feel very much at home in Steiner’s way of thinking, of addressing an issue, of framing and asking a question. Steiner is the European intellectual par excellence: polymath, polyglot, culturally self-aware, firmly rooted in a body of complex intellectual, philosophical, and literary traditions — not only shaped but perhaps even dominated by it. In Errata (1997), which is a half-memoir, half-essay, he confesses: “I have scattered and, thus, wasted my strengths.” He regrets having covered too many topics in his research and writing, having reached too widely, but not deep enough, having opened up too many roads only to abandon them later. He admits, in other words, to having succumbed to the “encyclopedic temptation,” which is familiar to many European intellectuals and a very, very sweet temptation to succumb to, but which could be fatal, especially in North America. Stanley Rosen once made a quip along these lines about Leo Strauss: he said that “Strauss was an extraordinary scholar who knew so much more than his colleagues [at the University of Chicago] that they regarded him as incompetent.”

You will not be surprised, then, that I find Steiner’s description of the “idea of Europe” quite seductive, although only to a certain degree. I don’t know much about writing in cafés (I can only work in solitude), but what he says about walking, for example, is quite insightful, I think. I registered your irony, Robert, but you know, feet have a perception — and, indeed, a memory and an understanding — of their own. To grasp the spirit of a place you have to walk it, to read it closely with your feet. I can say that I know a city — be it Mumbai, Istanbul, Sydney, São Paulo, or Nagoya — only insofar as I’ve walked significant parts of it. For discovering a place is a profoundly bodily experience: you have to feel it under your feet, you have to learn its smells, to listen to its sighs, whispers, and the whole music of its invisible life, you have to see it from different angles and at different times of the day. Your comprehension of that place comes to you gradually through your exhausted body, your accumulated thirst and hunger, through every inch of your tired flesh. Only then can you say that you know it. And that knowledge is as intimate as it gets.

RZ: Don’t get me wrong: I, too, find Steiner stimulating, especially After Babel (1975), his sustained reflection on translation. Though more indirectly than Errata, After Babel, too, is autobiographical. Equally at ease in German, French, and English, Steiner writes somewhere in the book that he must do the work — the thinking about translation — from within. Don’t you think that he does his best work perhaps in big books like After Babel, or in slightly smaller books, like Real Presences (1989), where he can roam at will? The Idea of Europe, on the other hand, began (and finished) life as a lecture. I wonder if this is why I find the writing often sententious and weirdly suspenseful — a bit like a mash-up of Heidegger and Harlequin.

And of course I also get the importance of walking a city: I’ve shepherded too many students down too many Paris sidewalks, read too much Baudelaire and dropped Walter Benjamin’s name too often not to get it. But I’m not sure I buy the notion that worn soles alone lead us to a city’s soul. I commute from the suburbs to my university along Interstate 45. In one respect, it is a soul-numbing experience: a vast concrete Nile whose banks are lined by strip malls and strip bars, Mexican markets and gas stations, mega-churches and super-sized car dealers. Yet this Valley of Death is also a Valley of Texts: the forest of billboards and storefronts constantly changes, and they offer all sorts of insights into Houston’s character. If the foot is to have a perspective, sometimes it needs to be on the car pedal. Didn’t Kerouac write that somewhere?!

CB: That must make for a fascinating morning reading — especially that every morning the texts stay more or less the same. But Steiner’s attempt to “define” Europe neatly through “five axioms” — “the coffeehouse, the landscape on a traversable […] scale, these streets and squares named after the statesmen, scientists, artists, writers of the past […], our twofold descent from Athens and Jerusalem and, lastly, that apprehension of a closing chapter, of that famous Hegelian sunset” — intellectually seductive as it may be, turns out to be a bit problematic. There are things he does not mention in his book, maybe because he doesn’t know what to do with them. A definition should — by definition, as it were — tell us where something has its confines, its ending, its limits. Where does Europe end exactly? For Milan Kundera, communism — smuggled into his country by the Red Army — is a mostly “Asian” thing, and so is Russia. Europe, then, meets Asia somewhere in Bohemia. Another example: if you make the mistake of talking to certain Hungarian scholars about their country as part of Eastern Europe, since you brought that up, you may be in for an angry sermon-cum-geography-lesson. Especially in Hungary, some people are always keen on drawing a clear distinction between “Central Europe,” which is Europe proper and of which Hungary is part, and “Eastern Europe,” something uncertain and often of a dubious quality, stretching vaguely between Romania and the Russian Steppe — anyway, something hardly European. Indeed, if there is something even worse than being East European, it is to be from the Balkans. (Romanians are both — they are really in luck.) It is not easy to come up with a rigorous and satisfactory definition of Europe.

This points to another issue: the strong sense of fracture and inner division that sometimes shatters what we like to think of as the European identity. Emulation — even some forms of rivalry — can be good and healthy, unless it turns into strife and open hostility, reawakening conflicts people in Europe thought they had managed to put to sleep for good. The recent debates over the crisis in Greece may have done exactly that: increasingly, what separated the various parties became more important than what they held in common, and they ended up defining themselves primarily through those differences. Very often it looked as though there were only Greeks and Germans and French and Poles involved; the Europeans were nowhere in sight. You see, Robert, no matter how hard we try to escape it, the obscure memory of our tribal past still keeps us captive. And all too often it shapes the way we think and act.

So, yes, from the outside Steiner’s coffeehouse may look like a very European institution, but its exact social function? — that very much depends on whose opinion you seek. If you ask the guy from Frankfurt, he may tell you that his street-corner Kaffeehaus is just the place where he stops to grab a sandwich on his way to work. Press him a bit about those fancy cafés he has seen on vacation in Italy or Greece, and he may admit that they are just a site of laziness, the very embodiment of that despicable Mediterranean dolce far niente, from which he stays proudly away.

RZ: Yes, I have heard how touchy Hungarians — and not just scholars — are about the centrality of their country to the European scheme of things! But I didn’t know that being an East European is any more problematic than, say, being an East Texan in El Paso.

I need to say that I’m more sympathetic than you when it comes to cafés. I work in cafés when I’m in Paris. I find, as did most 19th- and 20th-century Parisians, that cafés are always warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and more comfortable than whatever apartment or hotel room I happen to be living in. But I also work in cafés in Houston, even when they are the dreaded Starbucks. In the suburbs where I live, I have found that though the Starbucks all look alike from the outside, each has a clientele and character peculiar to it. And, like the folks I write about — Diderot and Rousseau, Camus and Sartre — it is at cafés that I read the news.

It’s from cafés that I have followed what we call, for better and worse, the Greek tragedy. As you say, few other events have cast in such stark relief the “idea of Europe” as has the confrontation between Athens and Brussels — one even more lopsided than that at Thermopylae between the Spartans and Persians. Quite suddenly, the idea of the “good European” — one that, at least for Nietzsche, was defined against almost everything German — has become someone who keeps a balanced budget and views as an act of lèse-majesté the electoral victory of a political movement that dislikes the austerity policies imposed by Berlin as much as they dislike wearing ties.

Now that Tsipras’s government has been shamed and sent home for a painful timeout by the eurozone leaders, what can we say about the idea of Europe? At the very least, that the real existential threat to the idea is not, as Steiner would have us believe, Americanization — by which he seems to mean our consumerist and superficial ways — but instead “Brusselsization.” As I reread, in the comfort of my Starbucks, lines like “Nothing threatens Europe more radically than the detergent, exponential tide of Anglo-American, and of the uniform values and world-image which that devouring Esperanto brings with it,” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I suspect the Greeks, upon reading such lines, would mostly laugh.

CB: I agree. There are many other things Europe can die of before being fatally poisoned by McDonald’s cheeseburgers or by the loose informality of American English. But, to get to your other point, I wouldn’t dismiss accountants that easily. You know, I am from the school of Maria Braun, and therefore somehow inclined to look for a middle way. In Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, as you may recall, at some point we are presented with a really fine defense of accountants. Karl Oswald — the German-French businessman, as well as Maria’s employer and lover — is so taken with her that he makes some risky investments for her sake. When his accountant, Senkenberg, expresses concern, Oswald bursts out: “Senkenberg, you’re such a bore! It’s no fun being with you. You’re the best accountant in the world and the smartest financial adviser, but you don’t have a mark’s worth of imagination … a Reichsmark.” At which Maria — who had the idea of the bold investments in the first place, but who is prudence embodied, as wise as Diotima — jumps in to defend Senkenberg: “I don’t take that as an insult,” she says tenderly, looking the accountant in the eye. “In your profession, imagination would be a liability. Somebody has to keep an eye on the money, be responsible for financial planning and getting credit.” Then, to her boss: “Herr Oswald, where would you and your firm be without your Senkenberg? At the racetrack.”

What I find fascinating in this scene is that “someone’s got to keep an eye on the dough” doesn’t come from an accountant, or from a CEO, but Maria Braun, who is anything but. She is a dreamer and an idealist, and that’s precisely why we need to pay attention when she plays the materialist. It doesn’t take much imagination — not even a euro’s worth of it — to see that she’s right. Whether we like it or not, we are embodied creatures, spiritual and material, an impossible synthesis of high and low, noble ideas and hungry flesh. The former cannot exist without the latter. The ancient Greeks may have contributed something to the idea of Europe, but the modern Germans know only too well that, in order to materialize such a great idea, you need serious public funding, which you cannot have in the absence of fiscal discipline.

George Steiner talks beautifully of the “twofold descent of Europe from Athens and Jerusalem.” Maybe we should revise that a bit. How about: Athens and the abacus?

RZ: Come April 15, I am reminded — always already too late — of the necessity of accountants. Of course, Germany is now reminding Greece of the very same thing — an important reminder for a country that, in the mid-1990s, cooked their books in order to gain entry into the eurozone. But as you — and Steiner — will no doubt agree, the idea of Europe, notwithstanding Wolfgang Schäuble and Angela Merkel’s worldview, is more than a matter of debt ceilings and tax rates. Maria Braun’s observation that “imagination would be a liability” is certainly true for accountants, but not for statesmen. And yet, the very idea of Europe born with the Treaty of Maastricht — the one that has burdened Europeans ever since — is the work of statesmen who had little concern with either numbers or imagination: namely, François Mitterrand of France and Helmut Kohl of West Germany. Under the pressure of German unification, these leaders slapped together a monetary union that ignored the necessity of a political and fiscal union. The founding figures of a united and peaceful Europe, from Robert Schuman to Jacques Delors, were endowed with the sort of moral imagination that is now sorely lacking on both sides of the Rhine.

One of the great ironies, Costica, is that ancient Greece had served, since the early 19th century, as a model and inspiration for German writers, thinkers, and politicians. Think of the central role played by the ancient Greek tragedians and philosophers, historians and artists, in the writings of Goethe and Schiller, Hegel and Nietzsche, not to speak of the unspeakable Heidegger. Ancient Greek, I believe, is still part of the curriculum of the German gymnasium. And yet, at the same time — and it must be related, no? — the scorn shown by Germans toward modern Greeks is stunning. Five years ago, at the start of the current crisis, a headline of the mass tabloid Das Bild announced to the Greeks: Sell us your islands! This is the sort of thing Senkenberg, looking up wearily from his books, might say, no?

CB: I am not sure how much we should trust a sensationalist tabloid like Das Bild in these matters, but the fact is that there seems to have been in Germany lately an orgy of ethnic stereotyping. The Greeks are deemed irresponsible and untrustworthy, lazybones and party-addicted — better having nothing to do with them. And the other way around, no doubt: in Greece today Germans are often seen as the most humorless creatures on earth, bores and workaholics, when they are not all Hitler’s closeted admirers. At times it looks as though the countries of Europe invented the EU for no better reason than to be able to indulge in thrashing each other on a grand, European scale.

But I am glad, Robert, that you’ve brought up the formation of the European Union and of its institutional framework. I would like to consider the topic briefly in relation to Steiner’s book. When he decides to approach the “idea of Europe,” Steiner notices, correctly, that even “the most abstract, speculative of ideas must be anchored in reality, in the substance of things.” That’s why, as we discussed earlier, he goes on to show how this idea has come to be “anchored” in a handful of concrete realities, such as the coffeehouse, the pedestrian culture, or the lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) that we come across throughout Europe. What I find symptomatic is that Steiner doesn’t look for embodiments of the “idea of Europe” in the domain of political institutions such as the European Parliament or financial mechanisms like the euro. Indeed, most of the time, he leaves the institution of the European Union alone. For him, Europe is primarily a philosophical idea, not a political project.

Some might see this as a serious limitation of Steiner’s book. How can one talk, in 2003, about “Europe” without relating it, in any meaningful way, to the ambitious political project bearing the same name? If ideas have to be embodied, what better embodiment can you find for the “idea of Europe” than the European Union itself? Steiner touches briefly on institutional aspects of Europe only to dismiss their importance. Toward the end of his book-lecture, he states:

It may be that the future of the “idea of Europe,” if it has one, depends less on central banking and agricultural subsidies, on investment in technology or common tariffs, than we are instructed to believe. It may be that the OECD or NATO, the further extension of the Euro or of parliamentary bureaucracies on the model of Luxembourg are not the primary dynamics of the European vision.

And yet in light of the recent troubles in Europe, Steiner’s comments sound more insightful than they might have a decade ago. The limitation may not be of his book after all, but of the “idea of Europe” itself. For this idea may be of such a delicate nature that it doesn’t allow just any kinds of embodiments; it may well be that you can’t push such an idea too hard without the risk of seriously damaging it. You can’t really expect parties that have spent so much time living apart — and often tearing themselves apart — to move suddenly under the same roof and be happy together.

If that’s the case, Steiner turns out to be not negligent, but wise — perhaps even prophetic. It may well be that Europe, as Kundera would put it, “is elsewhere.” And Steiner points us in the right direction.

RZ: Yes, Das Bild is not to be trusted on any matter of importance — but the worrisome fact is that it has the largest circulation of any paper in Germany. One need only glance at opinion polls to conclude that far more Germans find their voice in Das Bild’s ugly headlines than, say, in the wise warnings of Jürgen Habermas.

As for Steiner and Europe, yes, you are right to point to his conviction that Europe, whatever it is, resides not in political or financial institutions, but instead in a philosophical — or, better yet, moral — vision. But I wonder what politicians like Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand would, in 1989, have replied to such an observation. Perhaps that only someone ensconced in a Swiss ivory tower could afford such a perspective? In the storm of events unleashed by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, philosophical projects had as much appeal for political leaders as holograms of steak would have for a starving person. What began with pragmatic idealists like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, and statesmen like Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, was transformed into a Rube Goldberg–like contraption by the likes of Kohl and Mitterrand, who were scrambling to keep their heads above the whitewater of history. The monetary union at the heart of the Maastricht Treaty, itself built on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, was a Faustian bargain: Germany agreed to give up its precious Deutsche mark (all the while demanding that they be allowed to define the criteria for the new monetary union), while France smiled on reunification (which would have taken place even if France instead frowned). The marvelous thing about Maastricht, which is one of the greatest chapters in the history of money, is that it was the work of two men who knew squat about economic and monetary theory and were running around with their hair on fire.

You are right to think that it is unrealistic to hope that peoples who have spent much of their collective pasts cutting one another’s throats might live happily under the same roof. This underscores the studied ambiguity of Adenauer’s famous remark: “German problems can only be solved under a European roof.” What Adenauer’s remark leaves unsaid, of course, is that this particular roof, inspired by Berlin’s financial and monetary imperatives, remains a German roof. And should someone residing under that roof, like Greece, question the blueprint, they — not to stretch the metaphor too far — will be shown the door. Somewhere in After Babel, Steiner marvels over the fact that Homo sapiens, whose digestive tracts have evolved and work in the same way regardless of where they live, nevertheless do not share a common language. Transpose this to the eurozone: while all the members use the same currency, they do not share a common understanding of its significance. How could they in the crisis-driven moment we are now experiencing — or, for that matter, even in moments of peace?

CB: How could they, indeed? And yet here we are, in conversation, from our very different backgrounds. I feel, at the end of our dialogue, that I know more about Europe than when I was living there — Steiner is an excellent teacher and you a rare companion. Now I think I am going to take another long walk through Shimla. Strangely, I have to tell you this, as we’ve conducted this conversation over the last few days, the city — no doubt, under the influence of Steiner’s beneficent spirit — has been revealing itself to me in an even sharper European light. We need to stop — if we keep going, Shimla will become so European that it may want to join the European Union. But we can’t allow that to happen, can we? The good people in Brussels have enough worries already.

RZ: How odd — and how American — that we should live in the same state, Texas, yet our cities — Houston and Lubbock — are nearly as far from one another as Paris is from Berlin. If Angela Merkel and François Hollande can manage to meet as often as they do, surely we can do so too. Let’s make a date to meet at an ice house — as you know, Texas’s version of the European tavern — up by you or down by me, and continue this conversation!

CB: Definitely, Robert. Merkel and Hollande will undoubtedly keep giving us plenty to talk about.


Costica Bradatan is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University and an Honorary Research Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Queensland, Australia.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston.

LARB Contributors

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University in the United States and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, paperback, 2018) and In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023). His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Dutch, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Farsi. Bradatan also writes book reviews, essays, and op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Aeon, The New Statesman, and other similar venues.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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