EURÓPSKY KÁNON: Hľadanie európskej kultúry

Terézia Moraen

Terézia Mora, © Peter von Felbert

Terézia Mora, © Peter von Felbert

A perfectly normal country

Two years ago, the Goethe-Institut launched an initiative called the Germany List. The idea behind it, based on a questionnaire, was to explore the image of Germany in regions covered by the Goethe-Institut. The positive results came as a surprise, both in terms of the quantity and content of the responses. And now, the Goethe-Institut has come up with another questionnaire, the Europe List, addressing the citizens of Europe and some of its neighbouring states, to find out about their image of Europe.

Unlike with the Germany List, we can basically assume in this case that we are not discussing “other people” (or other people discussing “us”). When we talk of Europe we are talking of ourselves.

Who is a European? A European is someone
1.) who has spent enough time in a European cultural environment to understand its everyday culture (and perhaps high culture) as something of their own,
2.) who is committed to the values we define as “European” today. It is worth acknowledging that several other cultures have defined those very same values as worth striving for. They mainly include: liberty, equality, fraternity. (democracy, unity, diversity, justice, etc.). If someone is pro liberty, equality, fraternity, but not pro women, slaves, immigrants and persons who have another religion, they may still be an antique democrat (prize question: is it possible that someone today …. etc.), but not a contemporary European. 1.) maybe yes, 2.) no.

I feel most distinctly European (1 and 2) when I leave Europe. That has been about three times so far. Once in America, once in Africa, once in Asia. I saw that things were different there. It was interesting, I was glad to be able to see it, but I was even more glad that they were able to see me, that they could see a piece of Europe in me, that I could justifiably claim: yes, where I come from, everybody is like me. More or less. Yes, that is an identity. Yes, I am glad to have exactly this one. Although I can see, of course, for I am not blind, that any other one would be just as good. But I happen to have this one. Whatever I do, I do it as a European. For instance writing. No matter what time or what place I write about, my piece will be a contemporary (central) European one. It cannot be any other way. You cannot be anything else than a child of your times, and the culture in which you spend most of your time is inside you and by your side, wherever you go.

Showing the big picture and the nuances it holds, the messages in the details, this is the aim of the new Goethe list. As far as possible in such a playful context, anyway. Questionnaires and quizzes are like merry-go-rounds: amusement (“fun”) is always guaranteed. I personally don’t really believe you can gain fundamental or even just surprising insights; but I guess that’s not really the point of such initiatives. Quite the opposite: when we Europeans ask ourselves questions about ourselves we rather hope for affirmation. And this is what actually happens. Just as with the Germany List, the results were again surprisingly positive. Positive in the sense that participants were able to give an answer. They came up with ideas about Europe, actually many similar ones. Mind you – it was possible to take first place in a given category with 9% of the votes, and second place with 2%.  11th place then goes to “Other responses: 59 %.” If you take a look at the national results one by one, there is little variation among the top ten. A couple of outliers. Hungarians regard Ferenc Puskás as an icon and their Parliament Building as a significant European building, a view not quite shared by everyone else. For the Czechs it is Prague Castle, for the Portuguese Bélem Tower etc. “We“ and “we“. The fact that in recent times a greater number regard the Brandenburg Gate as a symbol appears reasonable, but it is beyond me why everyone cries “Eiffel Tower” when they are asked about the most significant building of Europe. It admittedly has an iconic shape, everyone recognizes its silhouette, and when an American film project hints at someone planning to get in touch with Europe, the first picture to appear will be one of the Eiffel Tower … perhaps that is the answer to the mystery. Or is it the way the answer is put? Assuming that “Europe” could be represented by a building? By the way, I would have expected St. Peter’s Basilica. In my humble opinion, that’s the heart of the matter. Mind you: when St. Peter’s Basilica was built (how was it financed again? …...), Rome was a city with a population of 50,000. The same happened earlier and at the same time in Cologne. Never had the people seen anything as BIG before. It was not unusual for them to be living in shacks, with only 2 out of 10 children surviving to adulthood.. And then that came. And then Michelangelo.

Back then, the question about the most significant European artist (in all disciplines) would have been unanswerable, today there is general knowledge and agreement: Leonardo, Picasso, Goethe, Mozart, Bach etc. (Hungarians awarded 10th place to Mihály Munkácsy. Munkácsy?! What about Bartók, you sleepyheads?! Although “Christ before Pilate” is a good painting. And true, you absolutely cannot compare it with “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Not easy.) When it comes to inventions, the picture is even more coherent. When I think of Europe by night, I (we) come up with: the printing press, penicillin, the automobile, electricity, radio, etc. And the ballpoint pen, which was invented by László József Bíró. We can mention that one as ours, in all modesty. (The Italians nod happily and reply: “battery.”)

So, several things are relatively unambiguous, so called “facts:” X was invented in Europe, Y created their works here, and building Z is on European ground. However, several other topics showed how crucial the manner of asking is. For instance, the most “important” politician (living or from the past) was asked for. I assume the question was quite deliberately not about the “most significant” one (from the past). Nor is there any question on the “most consequential historic event.” So, of course, no one will say “Crusades” or “Holocaust”. But on the other hand this means that they cannot speak of “the end of the Cold War”, and the “discovery of America” had to be sneaked into the “inventions” category by subversive Portuguese participants.

No, I don’t want to spoil the fun. (I’m just saying it, etc.). The test is designed such that the result must be a positive overall image. We not war or other invasions, we culture. Gutenberg. Leonardo. Bach. Eiffel. Obviously, this is what we need at the moment. Something integrative. A collective Yes. I understand that and agree, from all perspectives that I can imagine. Yes, for me, too, Europe means “continent”, “home”, “cultural community”. And I also support the current topical peace project. They call it: the European Union. My impression is that this is frequently forgotten. The EU is not only and not primarily about “business.” After the experience of the hot and cold wars, its existence is a promise that things can also work differently. In fact, collectively. (See above: 2.))

Whether the 43% of all respondents (and 52% of Hungarians) meant the European Union or actually the Cultural Community, when they answered that they felt they were “full-blooded Europeans,” well, this is something we won’t find out from this questionnaire. Note the word, again. Full-blooded. I can’t help it, it comes with the job: I wonder how the others would describe themselves if they wanted to stick to the metaphor. Half-blooded? Trotter? Or, if one of the options had been “Of course I am a European, what else?”, how many percent would have chosen that? And how many would have chosen “Basically I am European, I’m just not absolutely sure what that means”?

By the way, when it comes to the answerability of the questions my favourite was no. 6. The question was about “the  greatest literary figure in European literature.” Around half the respondents misunderstood the question. Some cited Don Quixote, others Shakespeare. Or in fact Attila József. The latter would indeed have made for quite a literary figure, so the answer is wrong, but right.

As regards the future of Europe, it did not come as a surprise that one half each of all respondents said “good to very good” or “OK to bad”. Hungarians did it in style – after all, we have a reputation to uphold – with 25% voting for “good to very good” and 75% for “OK to bad”. (Good heavens, that’s more than two thirds!) But I guess we will manage somehow. It will work, it has to. This is the general attitude, or so it seems to me, in the countries currently affected by crises (economic, political, moral). Europe is basically something we can identify with. Democracy, automobiles, Leonardo. In our daily lives, we go by Achternbusch: “It would be nice if it was nicer.” The work of Angela Merkel, seen by many as the “most important politician”, embodies this attitude most poignantly. In Europe things are somehow working. In Germany, it seems, a bit better than in other European places, and Ms. Merkel at least does not seem to be vehemently counteracting the fact that things work. She may be the one who currently delivers speeches with the largest number of insignificant sentences, but that is still better than saying “We won’t let ourselves be colonized by the EU” on Monday, and “By the way, we managed to obtain this much more money from the EU than the previous government” on Wednesday. “Voglio vivere in un paese normale“, as an Italian song by the band Arpioni goes: I want to live in a normal country. When asked in which country they would like to live other than their home country, an overwhelming majority of participants answered “Germany.” Some of them may have wanted to show some politeness towards the host country, but I think most simply wanted to say: I would like to live in a “normal” country. Where bus drivers don’t get into fights with passengers, and laws are more or less transparent and are observed, and politicians don’t mind being visible. This doesn’t come as a surprise, but in fact I would no longer want to say that it doesn’t have a deeper meaning. In the end, the result of the survey points in the right direction. The beautiful, true, good things inside us. Liberty, equality, solidarity.

Incidentally, the Goethe-Institut’s Hungarian counterpart is Balassi Intézet. Established in 2002. Perhaps it will soon come up with a questionnaire, too. I would be interested. I have a feeling that we are keen to know what we look like today, but unfortunately we have been a bit clumsy lately and broken our mirror. Dear neighbour, could you perhaps lend me yours? Here you are. Thank you.