Camus’ problem

by Terence MacNamee

If I was asked what kind of a country Greece is, I would put it something like this: a bridge between Europe and the “East” that used to belong to Europe but no longer does.

Europe extends to the Mediterranean, its civilization began there, but for a long time now the Mediterranean doesn’t just belong to Europe. I call this “Camus’ problem”, since Albert Camus devoted much of his life and talents to writing about it, although he never solved it. He came from Algeria, which in his day was politically a part of France, and he always believed that the Mediterranean world still had something to say to the rest of Europe. In fact, it is apparent in retrospect that his issue was culture. France is dominated by Paris and the northern culture, whereas the culture of the South of France and the Mediterranean are marginal. Camus never felt at home in Paris, and he tried to interest French readers in the Mediterranean and its sane, balanced, relaxed outlook on life. But which Mediterranean did he mean? Camus exalted the supposed Greek heritage of the Mediterranean but ignored the Arabs under his nose. And look what happened. By no stretch of the imagination could most of the Mediterranean be called European today.

Now we come to Greece. The Greeks have always wanted “back” into Europe, after their long domination by the Ottoman Empire, and their symbolic value (to people like Camus) allowed them to do that. But recent events have made the rest of Europe uneasy about the issue of cultural compatibility with the Greeks (and the Cypriots). Their links are as much with the non-European Mediterranean as with anything else.

The Greeks are oddly like the Turks, their old enemies. They cultivated a European nationalism on the German model. They always wanted to be European like Western Europe. Under the dictatorship of Metaxas, the unfortunate rembetiko players were told to be less Oriental and more Western in their chord progressions and ornamentations! But you can’t legislate or censor that “Oriental” or “Anatolian” element away. Similarly, under Atatürk, the Turks tried to transform themselves into good Europeans, adopting the Roman alphabet, replacing the Sultan with a secular republic, and so on. But again, you can’t change culture by decree. The Turks are no more European now than they were then.

In fact, what Europe needs now is bridges and bridge-builders. Greece can do that (so can Cyprus). It can link Europe to the Middle-Eastern and Arab world. This would mean accepting the country’s historic mission – not as the Greeks would like it to be, but as it is. They are not going to lead Europe into a new Renaissance. But they can build a bridge to what Europe once included. And Europe cannot afford to be isolated. It cannot turn its back, as it did before, on the Southern and Eastern flank of the Mediterranean, mare nostrum, “our sea” (as the Romans called it, because they owned it, all of it). To what extent is it still mare nostrum? Who is nos?

Europe has basically “done a Camus”, turning its back to the Arab and Middle-Eastern world so it can focus on solving its own problems. There has been talk about including the Mediterranean in economic expansion, but it is no more than talk. There is no political will, no sense of priority. But the problem will not go away. It might just be a job for the Greeks.