Snakes in Iceland

One Europe: The Historic Background of European Unity

by René Albrecht-Carrié
Doubleday, 360 pp., $5.95

Decline and Rise of Europe

by John Lukacs
Doubleday, 295 pp., $4.95

Europe is a peninsula at the western end of the land mass which we call the Old World. Its climate is, for the most part, fertile. Over many centuries, various Asiatic tribes wandered into Europe. Finding it agreeable, they settled down. In any case, the Atlantic prevented them from going any further until a few hundred years ago. Large parts of Europe have been civilized (whatever that may mean) for a very long time, though with ups and downs. This civilization has many special characteristics. All Europeans are pinkish in color. Virtually all, except the Jews, profess some form or other of the Christian religion. Urban life predominates. Europeans have been mechanically gifted, at any rate in recent centuries. They have discovered how to grow rich and have now passed on their secrets to the rest of the world.

They have also developed special ideas. They believe, for instance, in Progress. They expect everything to get better all the time. For them, History is a record of improvement, not a mere record of events. They attach some importance to the Individual, an idea which has broadened into various forms of Democracy, Freedom, and even Socialism. The rest of the world has followed their example in ideas also. Wherever you may be, you have only to look out of your hotel window, and you will see people dressed like Europeans, behaving like Europeans, thinking like Europeans. Abyssinia might perhaps claim to have a non-European form of government. Some monks in Tibet would like to spin their prayer-wheels if they were allowed to, and no doubt there are still a few head-hunters in Borneo. These are trivial exceptions of no account. The entire population of the world, as near as makes no difference, sings the refrain: “We are all Europeans nowadays.” A delightful prospect, one might suppose, for the originators of the whole performance. What could be more flattering than universal imitation?

Yet Europeans are not gay. Or more precisely, those who write about Europe are not gay. The silly inhabitants are given over to worldly pleasures, driving around in their automobiles when they are not watching television. With one accord, the social scientists rebuke them. Europeans, it seems, ought to be weighed down with gloom. They should lament the vanished days when they alone knew the tricks and when they were superior in wealth, power, and confidence to the rest of mankind. They should feel guilty at throwing away their birth-right—a famous old record played, for instance, to exhaustion by Churchill when the British were very sensibly handing India to the brown Britons. What is the cause of this dreadful decay? Europeans are lazy, corrupted by easy living, indifferent to their Imperial past. They do not work hard enough. They spend their money on personal pleasures instead of on economic growth—though no one in his senses would want to go on growing for ever. Worst of all, the Europeans will not unite. They insist on living in separate countries …

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Letters

Snakes in Iceland April 22, 1965