Outsiders to ourselves

Outsiders to ourselves

What does “Europe” mean, and what does it mean to be a “European”?

In the 1970s and 80s I was a consultant to the Council of Europe, at a time when it was limited to the “democratic” states of Western Europe and, believe it or not, Turkey. The team to which I belonged was tasked with exploring cultural problems in member-states: how local and regional authorities, in partnership with citizen groups, solved problems relating to the community's cultural welfare. Some of the projects were grandiose – building a theater, for example – while others related much more closely to people's perception of their everyday quality of life, small but vital factors such as the future of the village brass band.

We gained an invaluable collective understanding of both the shared cultural values of Europe that we can celebrate and the cultural differences which must be respected. My experience convinced me that Europe's strength lay in a family of cultures, learning from mistakes and successes but above all in recognizing the equality between “big” and “small” nations and their cultures, regardless of how each had fared under the weight of history.

In this sense, Brexit means the withdrawal of at least some aspects of a “big” culture from the European scene. In 1948 the American poet, T.S. Eliot, who wanted so much to be an Englishman, identified what he considered to be quintessentially English: horse racing, football matches, boiled cabbage, Wensleydale cheese, and the music of Elgar. Around the same time, George Orwell, who was Anglo-Indian, saw “tea, cricket, Wordsworth, and kindness to animals” as the distinctive English characteristics. These were strange signposts to core Englishness, perhaps, but useful shorthand indicators nevertheless.

Will Greece be affected by Brexit? It's not just the comings and goings of British tourists, who are so vital to the Greek economy, bringing with them a whiff of tea and boiled cabbage. Nor the many thousands of British citizens like myself, resident in Greece, who will lose their EU citizenship at the end of this month. The issue is far greater than that: What, culturally, does Europe – and therefore Greece – stand to lose by Brexit? Is it only “kindness to animals,” horse racing and Elgar?

Eliot and Orwell were writing as outsiders. In 1960 another writer in exile, Elias Canetti, a Bulgarian philosopher who had fled Vienna in 1938, published “Crowds and Power,” a very different way of identifying national characteristics. What he called “crowd symbols” inspired people with positive and negative sensations of fear, ambition, creativity and destruction. The English, like the Greeks, were both inspired and protected by the sea, whereas the Dutch were threatened by it. The Germans derived a sense of romance from their forests, the Swiss from their mountains. The French were fascinated by revolution. All of these national symbols contributed to the emergence of a shared European culture that was put at risk in two world wars and remains at risk in their aftermath.

During the “cold war” two concepts were polarized: the West's grassroots approach, which we called “cultural democracy,” and the East's top-down policies. The collapse of communism, and the EU's outward growth, meant that these two ways of viewing the quality of life have been thrown together. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. The politicization of culture within the EU has deeply affected the way we view the individual citizen, the family, the local community, those aspects which I find most characteristic of Greekness.

Canetti didn't find a “crowd symbol” for the Greeks, and it might be difficult to reduce “Greekness” to a common denominator, because of its hazardous place between West and East, belonging exclusively to neither, but wanting to be at home in both.

In Canetti's terms, the crowd symbol not only energizes a nation, but protects it by its inclusiveness. It becomes both the identity and the narrative of that identity. Together, they should provide a cohesive sense of history pointing towards a viable future.

But the “narrative” and the “paradigm” of which we hear so much in Greece depend much more on the culture and the “crowd symbol” than on the merry-go-round of politics and the economy. It's what kept the Macedonian question open for so long and it's what keeps Cyprus divided. It's the “crowd symbol” of a nation's culture, and what that culture represents, that differentiates Greek from Turk, much more than the commercial implications of the continental shelf.

As individuals, as families, as communities, we are forever crossing emotional and psychological borders and often finding ourselves on the wrong side, on the outside. Under communism, the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare lived in exile in France, as did the Czech writer Milan Kundera. They found it necessary to live away from home in order to describe and criticize it. The “writer as exile” in fact defines the outsider as witness to displacement, the need for dissent, resistance and a sense of what it means to be lost at home.

In an age of globalization, mass tourism and social media, the concept of “home” has become alien, and this is the cultural problem of Europe: We are no longer “at home” within our own culture. “Europe” ceases to provide this stability, and its borders no longer enclose a “European” idea. We have become outsiders to ourselves.

Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu, which is hosting the symposium “Borders and Borderlands” in May. (www.durrelllibrarycorfu.org)

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