In Other Words

Europe’s Status Quo Left

Language, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe By Patrick McCarthy 288 pages, New York: Palgrave, 2002 At a time when "European" cultural opinion is so much sought after and discussed by Americans of liberal temper, and considered suspect by so many Americans of the conservative school, one might do much worse than to consult ...

Language, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe
By Patrick McCarthy
288 pages, New York: Palgrave, 2002

At a time when "European" cultural opinion is so much sought after and discussed by Americans of liberal temper, and considered suspect by so many Americans of the conservative school, one might do much worse than to consult the work of a man of Irish descent, reared in South Wales, who teaches in Bologna (at the Paul H. Nitze School of the Johns Hopkins University campus there) and whose expertise is the modern history and politics of France. I have derived great pleasure and instruction from both reading and conversing with Patrick McCarthy in the past, and so I opened his collection of essays on the interweaving of 20th-century Europe’s political and literary history with some impatience.

This impatience, I regret to report, still persists. Elegant and allusive as Language, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe often is, it has something inescapably blase and laconic about it. Let me simply cite what McCarthy says about European culture and Islam, on an early page of his introduction:

Culture — hopefully defined more precisely — gets a long chapter of its own because it is probably the greatest problem that young Europeans will have to face. European culture is becoming one of many and has to confront "others." In particular, it must confront "the other," namely, Islam. Europe’s record is not encouraging (nor is Islam’s), but we have the resources in our culture to create a dialogue rather than a war. Whatever President Bush may say, September 11 was not just an act of terrorism; it was the fruit of a breakdown of communications that has deep historical roots. Catching Osama Bin Laden may be an excellent undertaking, but the real goal is to learn to live with and talk to, not about, Islam.

When this passage departs from cliche and tautology, it is only to fall into error. The word "hopefully" is employed in just the way one teaches students to avoid. "Nor" should be "neither." Nothing is added, in American or European campus lingo, by putting a simple concept such as "the other" (or "others") in pseudo-significant apostrophes. Culture, however precisely defined it is "hopefully" going to be, either is, or probably is, the greatest "problem" that all humans will "have to face." (There doesn’t seem to be, in other words, any chance of something so obvious not being the case.) By the way, when exactly was "European culture" not "one of many," including many European ones? But are we therefore to view the many Islams as identical or as a homogenous "Islam"? Then one would hate to see, if only from the standpoint of metaphor mixture, the fruit of a breakdown. But no doubt this unlikely collision would have — as everything surely does — "deep historical roots."

The political references are sloppy in the same way. The U.S. president did not refer to the events of September 11, 2001, as "just an act of terrorism." Among other things, he defined those events as an act of war and meant what he said. Moreover, and whatever one may think of his choice of terms, the president made and continues to make a strenuous effort to enforce a distinction between discrepant interpretations of Islam. McCarthy’s final sentence here is merely complacent: He allows that a hunt for al Qaeda might be all very well — as if it did not concern him all that much — while taking second place to his own reflections on cultural coexistence. How searching might these reflections be? Not all that profound, if they depend upon a false distinction between talking "to" someone and talking "about" something.

I am again only taking McCarthy at his word when he makes a core announcement on the very same page:

If I were asked to sum up the book’s theme in a sentence, I would refer to Primo Levi’s statement that a man who gives up trying to be understood by those around him is headed only for the gas-chamber. (And what of Auschwitz? Is it not good that the last half-century has not produced another set of death-camps in Western Europe? Yes of course, even if that is a low target to set oneself. Moreover, the ex-Yugoslavia has witnessed forms of cruelty almost equal the crimes of the Nazis.)

This passage hovers on the verge of gibberish. In what sense did Levi say such a thing? Are we to conclude that those who despair of being understood are themselves headed for the gas chamber or instead that they are pushing others in that direction? If the first, then was Diogenes the Cynic bound for Treblinka? If the second, then are the postmodern theorists bent on genocide? Meanwhile, please bear in mind that Western Europe must have been very mutually intelligible in the last half century, since it produced no death camps. Except that there were, apparently, death camps (though they were located just across the Adriatic from Western Europe). The "stolentelling" in the subtitle of this book comes from James Joyce and implies that all language has been annexed from other languages. I knew that. I also knew that Joyce worked in Paris and Trieste as well as Dublin. But this cultural conceit is no excuse for such obfuscation.

McCarthy announces the limitations of his own concept of "Europe." He means it to comprise the British Isles and the mainland, excluding Spain and Eastern Europe and (he might have added) Scandinavia. That’s good, because many people have come to employ the terms "Europe" and "the Europeans" in a manner that is either too embracing or too finite. Within this severely circumscribed compass (I should have thought that Milan Kundera was a "Western" force by now), McCarthy’s main unintended limitation is his tendency to swing between very learned and expert micro-observations and much more questionable macro ones. Sometimes, the micro-learning has to be elucidated by the reader, which is no bad thing. McCarthy makes enough glancing references to Celtic and Gaelic nationalism, whether Welsh, Irish, or Breton, to allow the inference that there was a consistent overlap between this form of Romanticism and modern forms of fascism.

The bulk of the collection consists of exegeses, either of other books or other authors. In discussing authorship, McCarthy rather tentatively proposes Roland Barthes’s distinction — which he at first terms a sharp one — between écrivain and écrivant. The first practitioner, we are informed, considers language an end in itself: a process of musing upon how rather than why. The second confronts the why or the whys. This distinction is only introduced to be dropped, since the only times McCarthy employs it are to say that two great authors — Antonio Gramsci and George Orwell — decisively combined both roles in one. (Toward the end of the book, McCarthy also says in passing that Margaret Drabble’s novels show her sometimes as écrivain and at other times as écrivant, but since he doesn’t stipulate which works are which we are no further enlightened.)

Let me give another example of the lazy transition between a specific and a general reference. McCarthy doesn’t venture far from conventional wisdom when he nominates the Dreyfus case as a defining moment in the evolution of modern France: pitting cosmopolitanism against anti-Semitism, civil society against the army, "intellectuals" against the Roman Catholic Church, and objective standards of justice against mystical ones. Later, while discussing the divorce scandal that ruined the career of Charles Stuart Parnell, so stirred James Joyce, and so greatly retarded the cause of Irish nationalism, he calls it "arguably Ireland’s Dreyfus case." This assertion is plainly ridiculous, as well as anachronistic. Parnell was dead before the Dreyfus case occurred and was never tried for anything himself. The only possible analogy is the lamentable fact that in both "cases" (in my opinion as well as that of McCarthy), the Roman Catholic hierarchy committed itself on the wrong side. The defensive word "arguably" must have been inserted in a moment of unease.

There should have been more such moments. As any student of Joyce ought to know, the "ordinary" speech of everyday discourse lies in wait for the critical writer, with its numbing cliches ready to hand. Thus, it is just as true to say, of the Northern Ireland "Good Friday" agreement, that the Irish Republican Army was brought by force "to the conference table" as it is to say the British government was. It is equally true to say the global economy increases the number of the included as it is to say the number of the excluded has risen (McCarthy’s preferred formulation).

Carelessness stalks the book in a way that might have been less irritating at a less urgent time. How can the novelist Alan Sillitoe have "supported" the "Suez fiasco" of 1956? You can be pro-invasion but not pro-fiasco, as anyone fluent in Italian may confirm. Orwell was never "invalided out" of Spain and wouldn’t have been able to write Homage to Catalonia if he had been. I would not say, reviewing Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, that "Like Orwell’s Winston, Roquentin cannot keep a diary because he has nothing to put in it." Again, the opposite is the case. Finally, it’s not undue nitpicking to notice the repeated misspelling of important names — Salman Rushdie, Jesse Owens, and Brian Friel — even though some of these must be blamed on cretinous copyediting. (Harold Macmillan, who receives more than a dozen misspelled mentions, was part owner of the family-named firm that actually published this book.)

I have a fondness for many of the same writers as McCarthy does: Levi, Oscar Wilde, Gramsci, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Albert Camus, Seamus Heaney, and the English "realist" writers of the 1950s and later (Sillitoe being the one most deserving of the revival he receives in these pages). The essay comparing Levi and Céline and their impossibly different attitudes to the German "New Order" in Europe is highly audacious and can lead to sleep deprivation. A rare fair-mindedness is displayed in considering the many-sidedness of Sartre. But I kept noticing opportunities missed: Of course it’s true, as Heaney says, that Catholics and Protestants use different idioms, and of course the Irish would not have turned the tables on England if it had tried to preserve the Gaelic language in the United States. But didn’t Wilde long ago point out the essentially liberating nature of the United States for the Irish? I can’t agree with McCarthy that Lampedusa’s The Leopard is a "right-wing novel" (it always struck me as a masterly formulation of the conflict between the forces and relations of production), but suppose that I consent for the sake of argument. Wouldn’t now — with Umberto Bossi in political alignment with Silvio Berlusconi — be the ideal moment to revisit Gramsci’s concept of Italy as two nations, southern and northern? McCarthy repeatedly passes up such cross-references, and one can’t but suspect that this is because they might interfere with a settled attitude.

Patrick McCarthy is honest enough to give us an account of his own political affiliations, which have oscillated between the Aneurin Bevan wing of British Labour, the Gaulliste and Mitterandiste interpretations of radical Francophilia, and the Enrico Berlinguer period of Italian Euro-communism. Some in the United States might think of McCarthy’s pedigree as fairly "hard" left; I think I can detect the symptoms also of the soft. But what his collection of essays illustrates is something insufficiently remarked upon: the evolution of the European left into a status quo force, somewhat inclined to sit out the storm and to content itself with essentially voyeuristic comments on the brashness of the United States. (The great exception, if it is indeed to be counted as a "left" one, is Tony Blair, who receives only the most superficial mention here.) I was once as happy as anyone to sit with McCarthy and to discuss Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks or the ambiguities of Sartre’s Les Tempes Modernes. I still enjoy these pursuits, though they occasionally strike me now as comparable to well-conducted tours of Atlantis. Perhaps that’s why the cultivated guides have such a marked tendency to gurgle, as they make their appointed rounds.

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