Still young, as once – already old and in decay!
Or as she’s always been: Eternally renewing and ever young!
“Europe, oh Europe! We know the horned animal which has always been most attractive to you and which still remains a threat for you! Your old fable could yet become “history” once more; once again some monstrous stupidity could come over you and carry you away! And this time there won’t be a god under that hide, oh no! Just an ‘idea’ – a ‘modern idea!’” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886)
Yes, that fable is old and glutted; it has become history for – and the story of – a complex continent made up of countless countries and cultures; a continent marked by strife and the desire for harmony. But, really, aren’t we still unsure about what “Europe” actually is? Is it a political decision or vision? Is it a myth or an idea or perhaps just a dream which, upon awaking, will turn out to have been a nightmare all along? Europa! A Being from the East, from Western Asia, from the Orient. From where the sunlight hails and from where it pours itself over our countries to spread out through the lands.
Oh, Europa! What do we know of you? No one knows much for certain… which led the historian Herodotus to ask questions about it, in the fourth century BC: Who established its borders? And who took the name of a nude and nubile girl – apparently robbed from Asia for no other reason than the hedonism of a wild life – and gave it to the continent? It really was with Europa that the intricate continent came to life and that its societies began to develop that specific way of life of dynamism and power games. Vitality and force: That’s the blend that this story of Europe’s origins – the divine act of violence that was the rape of the Phoenician princess Europa – had already foretold.
The story of Europe – what we know of it – is laced with cruel, painful, incomprehensible catastrophes and doomsday scenarios. Europe knows all forms of violence and destruction; she knows of revolutions and reformations which led to severe clashes, schisms and wars. Nor was Europe content focusing on itself. Au contraire: All too often did it allow its inquisitive instincts, its urge to conquer and rape and to re-educate others in its own image, to run wild. Europe subjugated the lands and peoples of this earth. And is it a surprise now, when despair forces these peoples to leave their homelands and look to Europe to build a new existence? Or that this causes the organically grown structures of the world to be undone which in turn threatens that the whole building to come tumbling down?
But it’s equally clear that the act behind the myth of the abduction of the Phoenician princess by Zeus – mighty god and serial sex offender in bovine disguise – has caused and facilitated much good, has influenced life to improve and blossom. Nor does it seem a coincidence that the Christian message of love and of God’s willingness to share in the suffering of man through the incarnation of his son – even to fight and eventually end all suffering… that this message, this religion, was embraced in – and spread throughout – Europe. No, that is hardly a coincidence! Christianity spread in these climes and along with it entered the entire ambivalence of savagery and love into our European history. Murder and mayhem have taken place in the name of Christ – but Christianity also gave the steadfastness of faith to the lives of its people. Christianity affected and shaped Europe’s diverging cultures – which also means that the Christian outlook on life and its resulting traditions overcame barriers and borders and that, because of this outlook, the very concept of community and unity could form in the first place. This includes the escape from the strictures and provisions of the Christian churches which, for all the differences that remain even today, was a common social phenomenon.
The idea of the “Enlightenment” – triggered by the inherent contradictions in the Christian reality of faith – was a European phenomenon. It was and remains based on faith and on the utilization of man’s reason in the service of forging his own destiny. As a consequence we get human autonomy which in turn causes questions of power and security to become of even greater and more acute importance. Horrid events resulted from this: we only need to think of the Thirty Years’ War that tore through the 17th century, think of 1789 and the French Revolution, of Napoleon, of the First and Second World Wars, of the Holocaust. Anything more horrific could scarcely be imagined.
And yet, after each and every calamity, Europeans have managed to come up with new visions of mankind and the world around them and have and manifested these visions culturally. How else could it be that so much was created afresh after the 30 Year’s War? How else could it be that the world around them, still in tatters, was re-created and shone in such an illustrious, jubilantly praised light? A new and unique yearning for knowledge, for beauty, for sensual experiences, for dignity, for education, for redesigning the old maxims and forms of existence had blossomed. The cultural achievements in architecture, the fine arts, literature and music bear witness to this. What is it that causes that kind of a spirit, that kind of unswerving strength, that kind of will and courage that it takes to invent the world anew? From whence comes this impetus and this thirst for action and this ability to turn both into such a lust for life? What was it that allowed people, against all odds, to perceive the world as full of the lightest, brightest colors and moods… while neither denying nor repressing the misery and painful aspects of life, facing them head-on, instead, so that they may be overcome?
Bach and Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven: They, and many more, stand for this will and the ability of man to give meaning to life… a will born of the belief that at the heart of the creation are a father and a mother who see to it that the divinely ordained human nature, consisting of heart and reason, will eventually find the right, the true way of life. What hasn’t man come up with, to find his and her way toward this fulfillment of life?
A Johann Sebastian Bach with his undaunted faith in Christ – and yet such a strong sense of his creative self. A George Frideric Handel, who knew so well how to touch the strings of the heart and explore the labyrinths of our soul with his oratorios and operas! A Joseph Haydn: such an innovator, such a playfully self-revealing creator; the kind of phenomenon that can now and then be found among mankind. Or to think of the miracle Mozart, who could empathize so unimaginably well with the existential tensions among his fellow men – and who knew how to transform anything he encountered in life into a musical language that radiated with a longing for life, optimism, and harmony. And finally Beethoven, who proved such a guidepost to so many later colleagues – and yet also an overwhelming burden in some respects. He is the embodiment of willpower; someone who did not shrink from holding the mirror up to his audience and to appeal to reason and force of will. This is exactly what he did in the Ninth Symphony, which made civilizational history when it and its reception forever shaped the very custom of our musical culture that has since spread across the entire globe.
Our much touted “classical music” with its countless, manifold phenomena, which epitomizes Europe, also stands for the many wounds that have been the result of that original abduction and rape. (Or had it been a mutually desired act of love, after all?) It stands for Europe and this amazing transformation over time, born out of doubt and faith, hope and setbacks, visions and actions. It stands for man in his individual and social existence. And it stands for the aspiration to free man from an undignified existence and to lead him into a free, kind life amid a social community.
What images do we see when we think of Europe today? What sounds do we hear? Do we hear a ring of aspiration or a scream?
Today, at least, it shall be disintegrating beauty arisen out of wounds and wonders.