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The Myth of Unity through Culture

Some sober truth at the outset should facilitate our approach to this question of European unification, or more precisely a reflection of the kind of attitudes we have adopted in the meantime, as the process has become known more or less to us:

Unity and myth taken together in conjunction with the name 'Europe' should not be treated only as a perplexity; given the Two World Wars, Europe has but one chance: to challenge all those ideas that have led us astray from the 'Greek' wonder about life and made us more or less into destroyers of life.

By all the atomic destructibility, the 'overkill' of the Cold War becoming now subversive materials and dangerous forces in the hands of the 'Atom mafia', as dubbed by newspapers (and who knows what is behind that, if even Russia wants to retain its weapon industry as a major contributor to exports), I think it is a miracle that we are still living. This kind of marvelling needs to be brought into relation with the meaning 'wonder' had not only in the Ancient Greek world, but still holds for today when speaking about open intellectual perceptions.

Marvel and wonder are not identical; while the former expresses a passive sign of relieve that we are still alive, the latter is an active component of life itself. Indeed, a linkage between the two can be stated as follows: unexplainable things happen all the time; we can acknowledge that there is 'war' in former Yugoslavia, however explainable it is not, at least not in human terms nor linked to this wonder about life. The latter always includes 'open questions' that no one can answer for another, but which the individual must try to do so by him-/herself through living these questions. It instils the human being with respect for life; his or her attitudes take on a modest, even humble tone. Such a person filled with the thrills of life is never close to trying to encroach upon another life. Things are done in reference to 'human understanding' (Kafka tried with all the strength of his imagination to follow those scientists who had gone beyond that limit already in the First World War by testing 'gas' as a weapon - N. Sarraute). In such a case, there is no place for complacency or ill-judgements about others. Rather a true, vigorous love shakes everything out of the folds of narrow minded thinking and disregard for true differences between an angry voice and a caring one.

However, here is needed a word of caution, since in the complex world that we live in, it is no longer guaranteed that only the latter, the 'caring' voice is the one wishing to be free from 'violent acts' towards others. The German philosopher Ernst Bloch has tried to speak about 'slave languages' perverting everything that we say and due to our fear that higher up placed people in the hierarchies of society would misunderstand us. The consequence is, after Bloch, that we speak in a masked manner, in order to hide our true motivations. The result is a perversion of language in which 'a curse means a compliment, and vice versa, a compliment a curse'.

The existence of violence itself has sometimes been attributed to man being subjugated to nature and thus 'in fear', because not in control. It follows from such adopted view or attitude that any kind of salvation would come with man ruling over nature - a kind of irrational twist in the worship of being able to command things, even if not understandable. Many misleading 'political theories' are based on that premise supported by a science which tries to remain 'value free'. Criticism on that point has nothing to do with the controversy about 'objectivity' being possible or not. The fact that they exclude 'human values' is an indication of a false perception about both mankind and the world. It has led us always to misuse power while not acknowledging what humanity struggles for: continuity of survival, so that the individual can overcome his or her 'fear of death' and hence live with a 'friendly attitude' towards the world. Cassirer remarks that the true difference between earlier societies living with such an attitude had myths not yet contemplating death; the latter fact entered the consciousness with the beginnings of religion, with the concept of individual mortality and thus his or her 'potential' isolation from society. The potentialities of living, of going on, had been transformed as a result into something negative or hostile; it reflected itself in political ideas perceiving a world as being threatening and only a missioning on the basis of a religious idea could overcome that. The contradiction between the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance and the brutality enacted in the colonies can be explained in that way.

Taken into our present context, this then is of crucial importance: to live, work and discuss with such a 'friendly' attitude or not makes all the differences in the world, whether in love or in practical politics, that is, when it comes even to undertake a further step towards European integration.

Let me try to clarify that a bit more. It may make it also easier to explain, why such a title 'Myth of Europe', or how I responded to the request that I undertake the organization of the Fifth Seminar. To remind, this is meant to be a follow-up of the Fourth one held in Brugge. It ought to work out concrete proposals for 'cultural actions' to be undertaken, so that European integration does not become a 'unity' of sameness and uniformity. At the Brugge seminar this was discussed 'theoretically' in terms of what sort of integration efforts retain a critical tension to the diverse cultural elements of Europe. 'Cultural diversity' was referred to at that time in almost exclusive economic terms, that is, as 'added value' in a strategy to achieve both economic competitiveness at world level and the retention of unique, in particular regional, 'cultural identities'. In the subsequent evaluation of the Brugge seminar, however, it became a common thread, that the concept 'culture' (not that of European regions defined culturally) had not been really clarified. There was also the difference between a concept of culture derived from the arts, in the artistic sense of the word and what Peter Gut, for example, would include, namely all skills, organizational forms, technological and scientific know-how that determines not only how we try to resolve problems, but also to a large extent the way we live; i.e. the transformed urban life through the usage of the car or better, how Andrι Loeckx described impressively to us the transition of the historical city to the 'edge' and 'fragmented' city through modernisation pressures. I will want to come back to that excellent analysis of Loeckx, but right now, it is important to develop a stringent argumentation, so as to understand better the nature of Europe, or more specifically the problems of integration once the Maastricht Treaty had been signed. For I have also this hunch, that everyone, and not only politicians turn towards 'culture' because the sole reliance upon economic and political factors to unify people has failed. The nature of this failure requires a closer look.

As a positive interpretation of the political intention behind such an initiative such as that of the Government of the Flemish Community in Belgium - Prof. Bekemans referred to that in his opening speech of the Fifth Seminar - is a particular need that integration be taken further and beyond economic and political matters, in order to include 'culture' not as an abstract concept, but as a kind of 'humus'. As pointed out just before me by Eugene van Itterbeek, this 'humus' has inspired so many cultural movements in the past. Out of it many managed to create 'great works' by which culture is known, and that despite Europe's history being filled with many turmoils and even more so 'lost causes' (James Joyce). They led to a confrontation between Beethoven and Napoleon, Einstein and the German politicians of the Weimar Republic, Orwell and the poverty system in England.

In other words, history has taught us to be cautious to call upon 'culture' to salvage or correct something. The odds have never been evenly distributed. Kafka wrote to Felica when he thought her to be amongst all those business people of Frankfurt, that he had no chance for her love in such a place; he would be less than a shadow of himself besides those 'successful' men of the world, given the reality that his only place of existence is between the lines he writes. Indeed, imaginative and real existences are linked; they determine to a great extent what finally comes about, culturally or not, especially in a world which has come to believe only money makes people (Brendan Kennelly). The continuity of the 'makers' is apparently stronger, even though a Havel became president and Solshenitzyn described how prisoners of the 'Gulag' would in secret build radios so that they could hear Beethoven's Ninth. The longing for resistance is, in other words, also always there, but against what, in the name of what, that is still the crucial question.

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