Europe’’s secret name

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Give Europe a soul was the motto under which one of the Fathers of the European Union, Jacques Delors, launched a campaign for the cultural consolidation of Europe a few years ago. He was convinced that a common identity needed to be developed which went deeper than the Schengen Agreement and the common currency, otherwise individual interests could break the Union. While his intent was surely as serious as it was honest, the attendant expectations were somewhat naive. For, might one ask whether a soul could be prescribed, like cost saving measures or penicillin? One might also ponder whether the continent has only one soul or many. In other words: what if we were to think about a whole legion of souls rather than just one?

The term is well-known from a scene in the Bible where Jesus crosses a lake and when he goes ashore he meets a man who had his dwelling among the tombs. Possessed by an unclean spirit, he cuts himself with stones, screams day and night and no man could bind him, no, not with chains. No doubt, Jesus has a man before him who is difficult to integrate, not only difficult to tame but also connected with the dead. Asked his name, the man replies: My name is Legion: for we are many.

A writer might reasonably read the odd statement as a pithy summary, if not of our continent, then at least of its literature. For, a strange shift takes place at its heart: the literary character who utters a sentence is not the same as the one who ends it. Between the first and the second half of the sentence, the speaker is transformed from someone who can say my, to someone who calls himself we. Do we realise that the shift precisely describes how literature works? It invites the reader to step into the shoes of every character who speaks in the text. Reading a book extrapolates every I into a we.

The transformation bears within a creative as well as a dissipative force – as much joy as calamity. If literature is to serve as an independent form of cognition rather than as a distraction, it would not stop at setting before us more or less cleverly packed contents, which merely move but do not transform us. It would abandon expectations of what it is or wants to be and instead, surprise us with what it could become. Its promise is twofold, first: no one who identifies with me shall be alone. And: no one who seeks me out shall leave as the same person. Like the answer of the possessed man My name is Legion: for we are many, literature embodies diversity and transformation.

Perhaps it is time to view such experience of differences as part of our European heritage. What if Europe doesn’’t need to be given a soul since the continent already has them in great numbers and diversity? What if its secret name were Legion? That is perhaps the most likely circumstance when the Union would discover its calling to care for differences as a cohesive force. Or to put it as Imre Kertész would: It would become the guardian of a serendipitous catastrophe.

Translated from the German by V. Srinivasan
The text appeared in a special supplement to Élet és Irodalom, part of discussions on the Europe project held in Budapest.