Europe, Europe

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The essays that constitute Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s collection of “forays into a continent” are sophisticated and darkly pessimistic views of Europe’s present and future. With the exception of the last, each represents the fruits of a protracted visit to a single country by the essayist, one of West Germany’s foremost intellectuals and writers. The countries that serve as both scene and material for his meditations range from Sweden to Spain, from Poland to Portugal, and include Hungary and Italy for good measure. The collection’s final essay, printed as an “epilogue,” is a futuristic fantasy on the state of Europe in the year 2006. Here Enzensberger pulls out all the stops. A nuclear explosion in the wine-growing region of France has made wine from before the accident the investment of choice of multimillionaires (much as Impressionist paintings are today); environmental activists are pleading for the preservation of the Berlin Wall as a wildlife habitat.

With the exception of this last essay, however, the book consists of the author’s views of six seemingly disparate European countries, based on visits ranging from 1982 (Sweden) to 1986 (Poland). They are so diverse, in fact, that the casual reader may think that the author has chosen his countries at random. The structure of these initial six essays seems random as well: They are loose collages of travel impressions, interviews, and anecdotes that do not tell coherent stories about the countries that are their subject matter. Indeed, Enzensberger makes it clear that easy generalities about nations and national qualities are exactly what he is trying to avoid; he speaks disparagingly of “’national psychology,’ that moldy garbage heap of stereotypes, prejudices, and accepted ideas.”

Yet by the time the reader has made his or her way through these complex patchworks, a pattern has become clear—and with it a vision of Europe that is in fact coherent and summarizable. The attentive reader notices that despite (and perhaps because of) the utter disparity of the countries considered, all have something in common. The six countries, whether cold, tradition-bound, and capitalist like Sweden or sun- drenched and newly democratic like Spain, are caught in constraints that render them less than full actors on the world stage. Every one of them plays a role with respect to mainstream European culture and politics that is in some sense marginal. There is, the reader suddenly realizes, no essay on West Germany, on Great Britain, or France. Yet in a sense it is precisely the more powerful countries of Western Europe that interest the author in his considerations of the less powerful. His point is ultimately that the countries he does consider bear the same relation to the more powerful center of Europe that Europe itself does to the superpowers (which are also peripheral in this book). The countries he writes about, that is, are as marginal in Europe as Europe itself is on the world stage. The powerful countries of Europe, as a result, have much to learn from a consideration of the less powerful ones. The heart of the book as a whole is therefore the passage in the essay on “Italian Extravagances” in which Enzensberger makes precisely this point.

Enzensherger believes that social and economic processes in Europe can only become more complex than they are already; the result will be that “changes can no longer be thoroughly planned and imposed, but can be achieved only through trial and error.” This realization is “likely to affect the Italians less than others,” Enzensherger maintains. “The nations of Europe now occupy only a subordinate role in world politics,” he writes, but “this situation is nothing new for the Italians.” He foresees the inevitable abandonment all over Europe, as unemployment becomes institutionalized, of Northern notions about the necessity of work for self-respect. Once again this will pose fewer problems for the Italians than for any other people. In Italy, after all, “unproductive ’spongers’ ... have never really been despised, ostracized, and condemned.” Instead, “they’ve always been tolerated, even accepted.”


(The entire section is 1708 words.)