Don’t go yet; tell me a story *

- European identities explored

by Zsuzsanna Ardó

 

Just as the child, by sleep already possessed,

Drops in his quiet bed, eager to rest,

But begs you: “Don’t go yet; tell me a story**

 

The time is 1937; the place is Budapest.

The poet is Attila József, and the poem is Welcome to Thomas Mann. The intention of the poet and the poem was indeed to welcome Thomas Mann at the Academy of Music in Budapest.  However, the director of public prosecution at the time banned the poet from addressing Mann directly with this poem.

Since then, Attila József’s ‘Welcome to Thomas Mann’ has become a rather well-rehearsed part of public consciousness in Hungary. Particularly the final lines of this poem are quoted often. Perhaps sufficiently often to enter the realm of proverbs and sayings.

 

Sit down, please. Let your stirring tale be said.

We are listening to you, glad, like one in bed,

To see to-day, before that sudden night,

A European mid people barbarous, white.**

 

A European mid people barbarous, white. Here it is, the poet’s understanding of what European identity is, should or should not be about in the poet’s mind, in Budapest, in 1937.

Traditionally, a ‘European’ is often visualized as ‘white’. Certainly, this would have been the case when Attila József wrote the poem almost a hundred years ago. And yet the poet chooses to contrast these two words.  His implicit interpretation of European identity presents us with European as opposed to white; the cultural versus the anthropological dimensions of the idea. The ethical versus the ethnic concept of European identities.

Almost a century later, the notion of European identity is much-contested territory. The more relevant it seems, the fuzzier and more ‘flammable’ it seems to become.

Various strands and approaches have been engaged in an ongoing, intense debate and producing extensive literature on the subject, trying to define what ‘European identity’ is and what it could or should or should not be. 

For example, communitarians are inclined to see Europe as fundamentally a 'family of nations', a community with the same grand narrative in many disciplines and fields, including history, art, science, politics, philosophy and religion. This story is about European identity rooted in shared past and European culture in the broad sense. Group affiliation and a sense of belonging give dynamics to this model.

Although this is quite a common story, it is not the only way to look at what European identity can be about.

Shared civic values, rather than shared history or culture, could also be highlighted as an alternative. This 'civic' interpretation focuses mostly on the importance of shared values in political culture, in the public sphere, rather than the cultural, historical community. The core elements of this European identity story are its citizens in the present public sphere: citizens sharing values and principles such as human rights, democracy and welfare.  In this story, cultural, historical and religious beliefs and symbols play supporting roles, confined to the private domain.

The first interpretation foregrounds the priority of groups and the historical role they play in the creation of European identity; whereas the building blocks of the second framework are values of the present rather than tribes of the past.

Dichotomy may be tempting, as ever, inviting ‘either/or’ simplification of complex issues. Not surprisingly, the range of interpretations does not stop with this particular set of dichotomy.

Between these two polarities, both of which seem relatively closed and static stories, there is another way of looking at it, argued by those who put forward a more open-ended, flexible and fluid narrative.

This European tale is a tale in flux, an identity ‘under construction’.  The 'constructivist' view of what European identity could or should be. Neither the historical/cultural, nor the civic/political have to, by definition and exclusively, underpin what European identity is. The construction of identity – be it ours or Europe’s – is a modulated, creative process. It is not a static, defined and finished state of affairs. Each new encounter, conversation and new experience could re-interpret and re-define the identifications we like to call our own, each colours the filters we apply in relating to the world, in our effort to define our respective identity/identities. For this strand of thought, European identity is process-oriented. It is in the making, through action, without boundaries.

The various interpretations of European identity have its pros and cons. And, these pros and cons can shift and change as does the political, economic and social context they are embedded in.

What is common, however, to all of these interpretations, is their abstract nature.

But it is also possible to relate to and interpret this somewhat abstract, grey matter topic by not simply relying on our intellectual, rational cognitive abilities. It is perhaps worth looking at the story, for a change, with our mind’s eye rather than our mind.

© Zsuzsanna Ardó

* First published by Culture Magazine, 2013

** Welcome to Thomas Mann, 1937, by Attila József, translated by Vernon Watkins