Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: January, 2017

Book-changing lives

My thoughts turn to Davos, just a few miles up the road from where I live. Now what do you think about when you think of Davos? The WEF. Yes, it is just over. What was it about this year? Who cares? It is such a non-event that there is little to report, except that this time Mr Xi put in an appearance. It was the annual opportunity for the élites to shake their heads over a world out of control. They came. They talked. They left again. And nothing changed.

But that is not what I want to discuss. I want to talk about a book, a story that happened in Davos. And about the strange properties that book seems to have. The book in question is Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (or, The Magic Mountain). To know what it is about, you have to know about what made Davos famous long before WEF: the air. The pure, bracing Alpine air was supposed to be very good for tuberculosis patients, and so, in the Belle Époque, Davos was the European capital of sanatoria. The novel tells the story of a young German fellow who goes there on a three week visit and ends up staying for seven years, only leaving when the First World War breaks out.

This is a very long book, and you don’t start reading it lightly. I first read it as a teenager, and thought it was marvellous and profound. About ten years later I read it again, and found it marvellous again, but this time for different reasons. In fact, I read it every ten years or so, and every time it seems like a different book. I see things in it I didn’t see before. I see parts of the story I didn’t notice before. It amazes me that a book can keep changing like that. There it is, sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, seemingly inert, and yet when you pick it up ten years later, it has changed and become a different book. It is as if the author has been surreptitiously adding new chapters or putting them in place of old ones. Or as if the book itself was alive, somehow regenerating itself and growing, all that time on the shelf when no-one was reading it! You have to give it time, mind you. If you looked at it after a week, or a month, or a year, you would not detect any change. You have to leave the book for ten years. Then it has time to do all that magic stuff that printed books are not supposed to be able to do.

We talk about “life-changing books”. Indeed, the highest praise for a book is to say “it changed my life!” But I would want to talk about “book-changing lives”. Instead of saying “the book changed my life” I would have to say “my life changed the book”. Just imagine that: merely by the fact of ten years being added to your age, the book changes. I feel in the presence of a great mystery, one involving a strange, unsuspected alchemy of books and those who read them.

So there you are. A new buzz-phrase. I give it to you for what it is worth: “book-changing lives”.

Warring states (2)

In his report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe, Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. He believes that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states. There is one gaping hole in his discussion. He doesn’t even consider the issue of language. Yet the plethora of languages, symbolizing national identities, is what has kept Europe divided for so long.

Once Europe did have a common language: Latin. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the language of that empire was kept up as the language of administration, education, and indeed most writing. When the universities were founded, they too operated in Latin. When printing was invented, the vast majority of printed books were for a time in Latin. Even Martin Luther, who struck a blow for vernaculars with his German Bible, and the other Reformers wrote in Latin most of the time. Unfortunately, with the rise of the nation-states and their languages, people who should have known better, like Descartes and Galileo, could not resist the temptation to write in the vernaculars, and made it fashionable to do so. This meant that to keep up with the movement of ideas in Europe, you needed to know several languages. Still, learned books continued to be written in Latin up till the end of the 18th century, and for a Dutchman like Spinoza, or a Swede like Linnaeus, it was the only way they could be sure of reaching an international audience.

Today the struggle for a common language has been lost, for Latin is ceasing to be taught in the schools, and indeed for generations it has been little more than a fossil. Due to external factors (the power of the USA in the world), English has been making headway in Europe and is now widely used as a vehicle of communication between people who do not speak each other’s languages. Yet it really can’t be a pan-European language any more than French or German can, for in Europe it happens to be someone’s language (embarrassingly enough, the language of someone who has just announced they’re leaving). Latin throughout the millennia of its widest use, was safely “dead” and thus not a national language at all.

Consider, in contrast, China and its history. Classical Chinese with its huge, ingenious writing system became a means of nationwide communication, at least written, between people who could not understand one another’s spoken dialects. Classical Chinese has found a workable successor in the official Putonghua variety of Mandarin.

The single most decisive factor for uniting a huge area like China or Europe is having a common language. Otherwise you’re doomed to be just a bunch of Warring States – when you could have been a Middle Kingdom.

Warring states

Once upon a time, there was a great civilization. It was divided up into warring states. Eventually an energetic emperor came along and united them. A long line of emperors continued the work. Finally, the emperors were no longer an option. But a powerful Party took the lead and kept the whole thing together. It still seems to work.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, there was another great civilization. At the beginning, most of it was united by a powerful empire. But the empire fell apart, and the nations went their own way as warring states mistrustful of each other. There followed a millennium and a half of rivalry and occasional mayhem. They still haven’t got it together.

These thoughts were prompted by seeing Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard’s just-out report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe. He laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. Meanwhile, the nation-states are still going strong. They are even boosted by recent manifestations of populism.

Bouchard believes that the EU is the creation of élites who have always mistrusted the ordinary people as being the source of nationalism and every kind of reaction and bigotry. As long as the peoples of Europe were prepared to let the élites run the show, things went more or less smoothly. But now the populist reaction is getting louder and stronger. What is to be done?

Bouchard is of the view that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states: stuff like glorious achievements, battles, revolutions, values enshrined in constitutions, that kind of thing.

He is probably right. No-one gets worked up emotionally about the EU; the bureaucrats tending the Commission and the Euro just serve as convenient whipping-boys. Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the EU, himself confessed: “People don’t fall in love with a currency”.

However, it was Jacques Delors and people like him who always opposed the development of a European patriotism, because it was likely to turn into something like nationalism and thus conjure up old demons and “ancestral voices prophesying war”. This was quite right too, really. The only thing Europeans ever stood for together was exploiting the rest of the world in the age of colonialism, though they did it as rivals. Before that, the only European project worthy of the name was the Crusades. It was an attempt to defeat the expansion of the Islamic world, but it achieved little in the end, and under Turkish leadership the Islamic world started gobbling up Eastern Europe as far as the gates of Vienna.

It has always been “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”, but who would want to die for the EU? People don’t even want to live for it. Yet a united Europe could play a very beneficial role in the world today if it could get its act together. How could Europeans be persuaded to rally round a European flag, for peaceful purposes? Gérard Bouchard in his report makes no real proposals. Yet it does get one thinking. More on this next week.

Space and silence

2017 is being celebrated in Germany and Switzerland as the “Reformation Year”, for 1517 was the year when Martin Luther nailed his 95 propositions to the door of the Wittenberg church and thus started the process that led to the religious division of Western Europe.

This week the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung did an interview with the German and Swiss Reformation “ambassadors” tasked with putting out the message for the year. The German “ambassador” is Margot Kässmann, the well-known German Lutheran bishop. The Swiss “ambassador” is Christoph Sigrist, and it should be noted that Swiss Protestantism has its own heroes, Zwingli and Calvin, and has always been a more severely “reformed” church, notably eschewing all ornament in its places of worship.

Asked about what abiding changes the Reformation had brought, Sigrist chose to emphasize this very aspect. “For one thing, reduction to empty space. The church space free of altars and pictures created a place where man could communicate undisturbed with man and with God. The positive experience of the filled empty space has been retained to this day by the mind of the city. So for example the empty public space of the Sechseläutenplatz” a square in Zurich, “is a social resource”.

The empty space Sigrist praises is not a space of silence, mind you, except if you slip into the church when no-one is there. No, it is very much a language-intensive space, a space of talk. With pomp and ritual gone, Protestant Christianity has has to rely on preaching, Bible-reading and hymn-singing. In the intervening centuries, the Catholic wing of Christianity has managed to do a wearisome amount of preaching too.

As a matter of fact, religion in the Western world has got to a point where it is just about all talk. Clergy of all denominations are trained to preach, and preach they do, often to gradually emptying churches. Clergy have also become media-savvy, like these two “ambassadors”, adept at discussing contemporary issues in a politically correct manner, different from the triumphalism and self-righteousness of past pulpit oratory.

Yet are they not losing sight of something? Religious tradition in the West has been not just the endless talk of the preacher, but also the meditative silence of the monk. In this it finds common ground with the religious traditions of Asia, where monks also sit and take their walks in precious quiet. Religion needs not just to make room for man with empty space, but to make room for God – whoever He may be – with silence.

Silence is indeed the perfect analogue of empty space. They go together. And in the forlorn emptiness of that space and silence, beyond preaching and all forms of eloquence, God might still welcome the weary seeker.