Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Conlin Wagner: Don’t climb on the Union Train!

Conlin Wagner's paper carries a little introductory note: "Isms need not apply. One voice from one American on cultural diversity."

He felt that he could not speak for all Americans on how they view their own and European culture respectively, but that was not his understanding either of what was expected of him when asked by Prof. Bekemans to give this paper at the Bruges seminar called "Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002". Rather he wanted to articulate numerous, still to be answered questions connected with this question, 'what is culture'.

He used as a background for reflections his recently finished novel called 'Changing Trains". It is about the American search for identity. The metaphor of a train stems from the fact that grandfather, the main character of the book, "had always wanted to sit in the front of the train where the rails always look like they're going to join, but never do; the future is full of possibility. From the caboose, he capitulates, 'you watch the tracks zip together, as if you've parted the land and knits itself back up, like a wound."

While wondering what is going to happen once some of the wounds in the American cultural landscape begin to heal, Conlin Wagner asks, 'what does it mean to change the name from European Community to European Union'? It is an obvious question, but not simple to answer. He sees all Europeans taking the union train, but do they know where the train is heading? Will it safeguard cultural differences or cut across them as did the train in America and make diversity to be less important? He sees a possible loss of familiarity with the differences of others, something still conceived as being attainable as long as the name European Community and its value orientation prevailed. Since Maastricht that is no longer ensured.

He then turned to the real issue: "I am drawn to Europe largely because most Americans know and care little about 'foreign cultures and partly to escape the materialism that defines America. And yet, I see it here. I see the worst of American influence accepted as the sum total of our culture, and that frightens me."

In the end he posed a crucial question to the entire seminar: "Certainly we need to think of Europe in terms of the cultural differences by region, but wouldn't it be more valuable to consider as primary the differences between persons no matter in which region they live, to cultivate the individual according to his or her strengths......And yet, we are all on the same train and that train has scarred our earth with tracks that cut across tribal lands and migratory paths, dispersing tribes and eradicating species, uniting regions of great diversity."

To Conlin Wagner, it is the spirit in which European integration is brought about, which will count in future.


It is interesting to note that his literary reflections touched upon something which made many delegates feel uneasy. Not the difference of approach or his quivering hand that held the lecture notes cut down from ten to three pages could explain this jittery repercussion. Presumably in the eyes of these delegates beginning to feel uneasy was according to their judgement an overemphasis by Wagner on still unresolved problems. Or even worse, his reflections showed things still to come, if Europe develops along a similar path as America; that is, despite of all knowledge about the American way, Europe does become a similar 'melting pot' with the same multiracial problems involving crime in the streets and drugs at schools, forlorn single mothers, and apparently no way out of this search for identity in a world having succumbed to the same kind of materialism as in the United States of America.

As if a mirror for a possible future of Europe, Conlin Wagner's sentences lifted up some of the concepts like 'culture' held down until then in the seminar by scientific or administrative arguments, in order to talk only about that portion of reality with which one could identify or thought was manageable. He made some unexplainable, but equally disturbing things plainly visible. That is the function of a writer: not to offer solutions in a scientific way, but to address the issues as he sees them personally and in a language to be shared with others who have perhaps similar experiences, but different viewpoints. It is like finding in the text the plurality of voices of reality (pending on the 'middle voice' as mentioned in conjunction with Martin Jay's thesis about the novel and Walter Benjamin's thesis about the end of art in the age of reproducible forms of expression). These many voices mingle with those in search of life, solutions, some hope. These are subjective factors, but to be considered within an objective context. That is what reality is about. No single definition suffices when reality is suddenly thrown onto the table and it is realized that not everything is eatable. To learn to distinguish, that is to learn to make out categories of cultural differentiation (see here the work by Levy-Strauss). It is the beginning of perception, or the silent relationship of those things felt, but not talked about at home, given the failure of cultural dimensions carrying conversations between parents and their children. Already in 1957 there existed this song coming from America: 'que sera, que sera, what future will be, thy future is not for me to see'. Indeterminate outcomes are insofar negative since they create uncertainties, but at the same time by leaving things open, suggest that a chance still exists that something worthwhile can be developed, provided hopes are not forsaken, nor dreams abandoned.

The answer to unresolved questions in the context of the novel and of lived reality is to live these questions personally, in order to let experiences reformulate that question. As President Clinton said himself during the election campaign when asked about his refusal to go to Viet Nam, if he would do the same thing again today, 'yes, he would do the same thing again, but now he could explain himself better'. That is the difference life makes when living it consciously: valuable differences in the ability to articulate one's viewpoint, values and attitudes towards life. The constant reformulation of the basic questions of life determines really the 'continuity of change' in one's personal identity and attitudes adopted along the way. This aspect was singled out by Prof. Picht when he claimed that perception of reality by means of the novel was then naive if it assumes 'identity' to be of an unchanging nature. That is not true. Good novels and Dostoevsky is a case in point, show how their characters change and develop over time. Marquez in "One hundred years of loneliness" attributes, however, the greatest changes in the lives of people to the coming of the train. It divided the village, brought about the separation of the poor living on the one side and the rich on the other side, with boys and girls not allowed to date each other from the other side. Then there came the land speculators and the criminals, so that very soon they were followed by police and soldiers. That changed the entire character of the village by now a small city. All of a sudden a life thought to be eternal, became limited and finite. The biggest change was the introduction of the notion of 'mortality' in a life conceived until then infinite, that is along cultural premises thought of being unchangeable.

Generally speaking, there prevails a hostile attitude towards someone apparently just naming problems, but not offering any solutions. As Marx remarked once, 'people are only willing to recognise problems, if there is a solution for them in sight'. By contrast, a living culture, breathing and stirred up by active people, does not demand for everything immediately a solution, but rather something authentic, if it comes to a solution. For not every love is true or every novel a good novel. Such a culture is conveyed by the knowledge that things take time to develop and to mature. There has to be as much patience as perseverance, that is not the kind of impatience and discontinuities ('broken promises') politicians tend to implant artificially in societies due to their wish to do things immediately, but only that by which they can become identified as being successful while leaving the irresolvable to its own mercy. Certainly, there is a need for immediate actions, that is, when terrible things are about to happen and hence a necessity to act prevails, in order to save the child or to avert some danger threatening the entire society. The goal of such actions is, however, to be able to relax after the danger is over. Often without admitting it to themselves, politicians tend to perpetuate the situation of crisis as to elongate and to justify their actions, the role they play in that game of keeping up the pressure. That has been linked in these reflections to upholding artificially only hierarchical dispositions and explains what prevents from resolving the core issues of the crisis. But in terms of authentic cultural reflections, it will never be convincing to speak about waves when there is no wind. Rather what is needed in cultural terms is long-term understanding resting upon convictions of real needs. Part of that process towards understanding (i.e. through a novel) is the dialogue, the fact that problems are talked about, in search of solutions for them. Eventually a different viewpoint, a new approach will give a hint of a solution. The first one may not be correctly identified and hence there is still further need to reformulate the question along lines of systematisation as recommended by the European Union, in order to gain the knowledge needed to resolve that issue. Certainly a solution is in sight, if the problem talked about could be reformulated into a question to which experiences in life can give partial answers. The impact of such a clear question is felt immediately: thoughts become clearer, or as the sculptor Rodin would portray Balzac with no longer the head down, but raised up again with eyes directed towards the horizon: the future.

Certainly the European societies cannot afford it to remain within self-defined tautologies; they must find a way of making themselves understood to others, culturally speaking; questions as to how this can become possible relate to cultural identity and a systematisation of how different areas of man's activities have an impact upon cultural identities, may that be traffic, technical means of networking, regional and urban planning, vocational training programmes to face a future without unemployment or through new styles of management. This is not exhaustive, for there is as much architecture as art history to talk about as to how these related fields contribute towards the formation of 'cultural identity'. Certainly, there appears a need to synthesise all efforts made until now at cultural level, in order not to fall back or to regress from the European levels attained already back to some exclusive form of nationalism, regionalism or localism. By bringing together all the different European cultures, including their various archaeological, anthropological and ethnological layers or dispositions, then a positive confrontation may be possible with the values and demands of Western Civilisation as it has been understood until now, including the Enlightenment. Perhaps some new ideas can be shaped already with what was said at this seminar, in order to see what kind of follow-up from the Fourth Seminar held in Bruges to the Fifth one in Athens can be made possible. It may be in the sense of a new born baby be but a struggle to learn how to walk, while the ability to write about the various outcomes must remain at a still distant future. Conlin would surely add, 'a baby does not know as of yet how it is going to live, but surely it knows that it wants to live'.

^ Top

« Gilbert Lenssen: the role of the modern manager | Mr. C. Costa: Europe and Culture »