The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Art makes Europe European - Joyce's Dublin, Cervantes's Spain, Camoës's Portugal, Dickens's London, Kafka's Prague, Proust's France, Rembrandt's Holland, Bach's Germany, Sibelius's Finland, Ibsen's Norway, Mozart's Austria, Leonardo's Italy - all made common property by art's genius. You may find works by the divine Giorgione not only in his native Venice but in Amsterdam, Bassano, Bergamo, Berlin, Budapest, Dublin, Florence [...] Vienna. After a lifetime of familiarity with reproductions of his Sleeping Venus, all unexpectedly I came across its original among the war-ruins of Dresden. I was not in the least surprised. I was not even ecstatic - merely pleased to see it there. It was like coming across an old friend in the street one day, not far from home.
From Jan Morris's Europe [p54].

Though it should be pointed out that there must be, and must have been, many Spaniards who know who they are, collectively, know where they come from and what they belong to, without having to rely on Cervantes to put them straight. Which leads me to think that culture, like national identity, is expressed, not explained, and that drawing it from a book comes a very watery second to drawing it from the people around you.

If I were going to try to say what makes Europe European, I'd plump for topography, climate and Christianity before art.

I think what Morris is saying is that the European-ness of these artists comes from their work drawing on a common foundation, which makes it relevant and comprehensible to audiences in their neighbouring countries. That's the European dynamic, that torque between the provincial and the continental. I'd balk at saying it's the genius of art which permits them to be European - where present, genius makes them universal, which is why Darcus Howe could grow up in the Caribbean and still be enchanted by Great Expectations as a boy. Nor would I pick Bach over Beethoven as a typically German composer - Bach rises above not just nations but pretty much the rest of humanity.

In fact the more I look at this quote the less sure I am about whether it's profound or daffy. Sorry.


That said, I was pretty shocked to hear from an acquaintance about a recent theatre outing she'd made, in the company of two students, both of 'em well-educated and reasonably bright. Not only did they not know the story of Faust, they'd never even heard the term "Faustian pact". The common store must have been fresh out on the day they paid a visit.


I guess most people at some point have played the game of picking the literary character they feel most resembles them. Unfortunately I have just found mine: Doctor Desprez in the Stevenson story The Treasure of Franchard. The only consolation I can take is that this vain idiot is presented so sympathetically, I suspect RLS drew on some of his own worse characteristics to create him. The idea that we might now and then be pillocks in the same way is something I am, perversely, quite pleased about.

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