Enda O’Doherty writes: One of the more amusing moments in the neither long nor glorious history of far-right politics in Ireland came in the late 1990s when an election candidate carrying the banner for Ireland for the Irish expounded on the (many) reasons why immigration was a bad thing. The particular one that has stuck in my mind was its supposedly negative effect on our tourism industry. People come on holiday to Ireland, the candidate argued, not just for the scenery but to meet Irish people and to sample our culture. If the people they actually encounter, at the hotel reception desk or serving in the pubs, turn out not to be the natives but Polish, Lithuanian or Romanian, they will be missing the full Irish experience and they will be disappointed and might not come back. Our culture is a valuable possession, she maintained, something unique. And if we no longer have it in its pure form to sell to the tourists what else do we have?
The reason I have remembered this intervention is not because the sentiment expressed – the idea that culture, particularly national culture, exists chiefly to be packaged and marketed ‑ is all that unusual but that it was in this particular case so baldly stated. Governments everywhere are of course just as much for culture as they used to be for motherhood. They are, to varying degrees, prepared to finance it, to subsidise those persons and organisations who “make it happen”. Indeed in some cases they are so convinced of its importance they also wish to shape its content.
But sadly you get nothing for nothing in this world and so we find that for the state, culture, or its close cousin heritage, are often linked with tourism, which as we know does not really have a great deal to do with hospitality (hospitality is free) but is, rather, a vital national earner. And culture too, an important part of our national brand, must contribute, not just in some vague way to our general wellbeing, but to the balance sheet.
It is not just the desire to set the tills ringing (to use a somewhat antique metaphor) that leads to the instrumentalisation of culture. The national brand is not just for sale to others: it is also, one might say, for sale to ourselves. That is, it has a political function, being part of our sense of who we are, of what binds us together and perhaps distinguishes us – “sets us apart” even ‑ from other peoples. This is an understandable version of what culture means: you will not go to Holland to see bullfights, or Spain to visit the bulb fields. But it is an incomplete one. Culture is not just national. The prestige of French painting was high around the year 1900, due to the huge (later worldwide) success of the style known as impressionism. The main figures of the next generation of painters and sculptors, however, (Picasso, Modigliani, Soutine, Chagall, Lipchitz, Brâncuși) were drawn to France but they were not French. Attraction and influence operate independently of borders. Artistic antennae are not working too well if they are not attuned to what may be happening elsewhere. One might also bear in mind that national culture tends to be particularly instrumentalised by those parties who pride themselves on being more national than others.
Sensitivities about culture notably surfaced at the time of the framing of the Maastricht Treaty (enacted in 1992), which marked the first occasion on which the European Community had assumed significant powers in the cultural field. European cultures (note the plural), the relevant article of the treaty stated, were to be understood as requiring “respect” –which one must interpret as freedom from too much supranational interference, that is interference from “Brussels”: “The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity …” At the same time however, the Community was to be entrusted with the task of “[b]ringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.
There was evidently a certain anxiety here, and perhaps some confusion: cultures are understood as belonging to member states (nations) separately, while at the same time there is a common cultural heritage. But what does the latter consist of? Is it just the sum of all of the former, or could it be something else?
An interesting case study is provided by the references to culture and nationality in a speech by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962, at a time when the European Economic Community had just six members and when what it was and what it might become were hotly contested matters, particularly in France. The president touched on the perceived opposition between those who believed in a Europe of the Nations (“Europe des patries”) and those who wanted a “supranational” Europe before adding:
… you will perhaps be amazed but I have never, in any of my speeches, spoken of a Europe of the nations, even if it is always claimed that I have. Of course it’s not that I deny my own [nation]: on the contrary, I am more attached to it than ever. Furthermore, I don’t think Europe can have any living reality if it doesn’t include France with its French, Germany with its Germans, Italy with its Italians etc. Dante, Goethe, Chateaubriand belong to all of Europe, to the degree that they were, respectively, pre-eminently Italian, German and French. They wouldn’t have been much use to Europe if they had been stateless cosmopolitans and had thought and written in some artificially assembled Esperanto or Volapük [a manufactured international language that preceded Esperanto].
Two observations are prompted by this. First, the “Dante, Goethe, Chateaubriand” trope is a familiar one, still frequently employed today on occasions when politicians or bureaucrats feel they should gesture towards non-material values. It is particularly common in the declarations of Eurocrats, genuflecting before “the Europe of Cervantes, Molière, Schiller and [at least until recently] Shakespeare”. Painters, musicians and philosophers can get in too: Beethoven and Mozart are strong performers, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo. And the smaller nations have their worthy representatives: Rembrandt, Andersen, Joyce, Camões. All of these are the kind of figures journalists cannot keep themselves from calling “iconic”. That is to say, in the case of the writers among them, people whose works, outside their own language area, are only read because they’re on the curriculum. Their function when listed in political speech is usually symbolic: to give the impression that we care about something when in fact we don’t.
Second, the suggestion in de Gaulle’s speech that only those who are profoundly national can be genuinely European is mere intellectual sleight of hand. As the Austrian (though frequently stateless) writer Joseph Roth put it, “European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany’s eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs. These are the forces that have formed Europe … Not one of these forces was bounded by a national border.” As for language, de Gaulle might have considered that a huge proportion of the works that make up our cultural and scientific heritage was first published, not in some bizarre, artificially constructed idiom but in the non-national language once common to all educated Europeans, Latin: More’s Utopia, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Descartes’s Meditations, Spinoza’s Ethics and the chief scientific and medical works of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, Newton, Linnaeus, Huygens and Galvani. It could be said that these thinkers and their works were of some use to Europe.
The figure most frequently chosen to represent France as cultural “icon” is not in fact de Gaulle’s Chateaubriand but the seventeenth century comic dramatist Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin): indeed French is often described by linguistic patriots as “the language of Molière”. The four-hundredth anniversary of Molière’s birth is currently being celebrated by the Comédie-Française theatre in Paris and Le Monde has been running a series of articles on the playwright. In the fourth of the series, published on December 31st, two actor-directors, Christian Hecq and Denis Podalydès, discuss the nature of the comic in Molière’s dramatic art (he was an actor as well as a playwright). Podalydès is asked: “Is the comic in Molière a quintessence of what one might call the French national genius?” A leading question perhaps; the answer is interesting:
For me, this statue that has been erected to “Molière-the-great-French-comic-writer” has little substance, indeed it takes us in the wrong direction. Of course, he is part of a heritage, a French literary-intellectual one, that of the Characters of La Bruyère principally. But he is equally the descendant of the Roman writers, notably of the comic poet Terence, and of the medieval farce … he lifted a lot from the Italian theatre and its tradition of commedia dell’arte, with which he was in direct competition [the so-called Comédie-Italienne, established in Paris]. [Molière’s character] Scapin is very much inspired by [the commedia’s stock character] Scaramouche, for example. He borrows from the Spanish theatre, with its boastful captains (capitans) and swaggering killers of Moors (matamores) and the usage Corneille made of it before him. He takes his inspiration from structures which were common to all of Europe at the time. The republican tradition has constructed an imaginary being, frozen into a statue representing the national genius, but Molière’s theatre is like Harlequin’s coat of many colours.
De Gaulle of course was not, in his 1962 speech, talking about culture at all but politics: for Volapük we should understand the European Commission, an artificial, unnatural creation with the ambition of wresting power from the organic, not to say mystical, entity of the nation. One may doubt if the great statesman ever found the time to peruse Goethe or Dante – the Catholic reactionary Chateaubriand, plus royaliste que le roi, seems a more plausible hero. He was, at the time of this speech, engaged in a struggle – destined in the long term to be unsuccessful – against the supranational element in the institutional architecture of the EEC, favouring instead a Europe of sovereign states in which he saw France taking the leading role.
The tension between the desire for national sovereignty and the supranational impulse remains alive today. One of the main problems facing the more EUtopian supranationalists – particularly numerous in the liberal and Green camps – is that people on the whole still feel themselves to be French, or German, or Irish rather than European: as the question is sometimes framed, how can there be a Europe that is united and democratic if there is in fact no European demos (people)? On the other hand, more and more of us are aware that none of our biggest problems – climate change, economic and financial security, migration, taxation of the tech giants – are susceptible of purely national solutions. It is possible to see culture as something which can unite rather than something which sets us apart and many have argued that the cultural element could provide the cement that the European project currently seems to lack. An attractive idea certainly, but perhaps one that we should not expect to see realised any time soon.
Home page image: Pepe Viyuela in Tartufo (Molière’s Le Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur), which is being performed this month at the Teatro Principal in Alicante, Spain.