Sisyphus and my European soul

Friday, 01 July 2016 18:20
Alicja Gescinska

Alicja Gescinska is a Belgian-Polish philosopher and novelist. 

As the academic year draws to an end, so does my life in the US. I have spent three years on this side of the ocean, equally challenging and rewarding years. Though I will be leaving the country in a few weeks’ time, I know the country will not leave me. America has forever captured a part of my heart, soul and mind. The latter does however not alter the fact that I am quintessentially European and that living in America only increased my awareness of my European identity, regardless of how vague a thing that may be.
Every attempt to define identities is bound to fail, to end up as clichés, generalizations and partial truths. And as Benjamin Franklin knew, half a truth is often a great lie. However, despite the fact that our descriptions of identities are doomed to fail, because identities are so fluid and impalpable, the reality and significance of these identities cannot be questioned. Everyone who has lived on both sides of the ocean knows that there is something uniquely American and uniquely European. This something is real, even though it almost seems to transcend the reality of words.

George Steiner, one of the greatest essayists and philosophers of the past decades, devoted one of his finest essays on this topic. In The Idea of Europe (2015) he tries to outline the pillars of European identity and argues why they are radically different from the pillars of American identity. The result is a charming and intellectualistic portrait of European identity. Perhaps it is even an overly romantic portrait, and yet every time I read the essay, I cannot help but think how wonderfully Steiner captured something essential about the soul of Europe. 

Walking

According to Steiner, there are four key components of European identity – beside the fact that Europe is the tale of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens (by which Steiner refers to the Judeo-Christian foundations of the old continent). The first is walking. Europeans walk to get from one place to another. Americans don’t. Why else would you have a car? Walking is indeed central to European culture, think of the peripatetic walks in Ancient Greek, the concept of pilgrimage, or the glorification of the Wanderer in the best 19th century German romanticism has to offer, as captured in Schubert’s music and Friedrich’s paintings.

The danger of generalization always looms when you talk about identities, but it is true that whenever I tell colleagues or friends in America that I walked to work or that I walked my kids to school – which takes more than half an hour – their mouths fall open in amazement, as if walking were something truly exotic. I might as well have told them that I perform a rain dance each morning in worship of ancient Gods, their amazement would be the same.

Coffee shops

A second key component of European culture and identity are coffee shops. Steiner observes that coffee shops – as a lieu of intellectual discussion, artistic activity and political conspiracy – have fundamentally influenced the course of European history. What would Paris, Vienna, Prague, Brussels and all those wonderful capitals of Europe be without their coffee shops? How many ideas originated at the table of a café? How many hours a day did Sartre spend in Les Deux Magots? How did that fuel his thought? You cannot write a phenomenological treatise, Steiner observes, in Starbucks. Therefore Steiner also thinks Americanization is a threat to European culture, as local coffee shops disappear and new branches of American brands are opened each day. A lieu of thinking is disappearing. A lieu of being.

Pessimism

A third component of European identity is pessimism. Americans are optimists, Europeans are pessimists. The sense of an impending catastrophe is an integral part of the European mindset. To undergird this claim, Steiner refers to the many great works of art and philosophy that are permeated with eschatological pessimism, like Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes. There is of course a counterexample for every example you can think of. The industrial revolution of the 19th century, futurism, and the golden sixties were all major events that were accompanied by a great sense of optimism. And it is perhaps worth observing that it was not an American, but Karl Popper, an Austrian-British philosopher, who came up with the wonderful catchphrase that optimism is a moral duty. The claim that Europeans are pessimists is all too pessimistic, and thus it must be true.

The present past

A fourth and final salient feature of the European mindset has to do with history. While Americans always have their eyes on the future, Europeans live in the past. Steiner does not want to claim Europeans are backward, what he means is that the past – our cultural heritage – is much more present in Europe than in the US. This is reflected in the names we give to our streets and our squares. In Europe they tend to be named after historic figures and events. Each day we literally walk through our history, and that shapes our mindset, our attachment to the past. Americans find inspiration more in nature than in history when they have to come up with street names: Sunset Boulevard, Elm Street, Pine Street, and Oak Street.  

Multilayered identity

Though objections can be raised to every component Steiner defines as key to European identity, he definitely captured something essential about the soul of Europe. Steiner comes from an Austrian, Jewish background. He is French, but lived several years in the US, and in the UK. Identities are always multilayered, but some are more multilayered than others. And not everyone is aware of his own multiple layers. It is no coincidence that a person like Steiner has a profound understanding of different identities and a profound understanding of what it means to be European. This understanding might be impossible to adequately express, but it can be very adequately experienced and lived.

Homesick without a home

Having been born in Poland, and having moved to Belgium when I was seven, identity soon struck me as a highly complex thing. I have always had a strong desire to feel at home, to fit in, to belong, but never fully could. I have always been homesick, without knowing where home exactly is. I still don’t know, though I do know I am a European.

Sisyphus

These are the things I think of while sitting in my American garden on a lovely summer day, trying to absorb the moment. Each moment now is a farewell. Red cardinals and blue jays fly in and out of the garden and take a short rest on the wooden fence. Amherst, my hometown for the last two years, is bathing in the sun. There isn’t a cloud to be seen, though scattered thunderstorms are expected in a few hours. During the past hour, one car drove by. Amherst is deserted, now that the final grades have been submitted and students, as well as professors have left for places they’d rather spend the summer. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. A chipmunk is struggling to climb a tree while holding a piece of an apple in his mouth. Every time he climbs up half a meter, the apple falls down, so chip has to begin anew. This has been going on for ten minutes. I think I’ll call him Sisyphus. As I often feel like Sisyphus, when I try to settle in a place, to make a place home and to simplify my identity. To no avail. A dear friend of mine once called me a quintessential immigrant. I have a nomadic soul. That is often exhausting, but also exciting. After all: Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.

By Alicja Gescinska 
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