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About the European House

No better moment to introduce Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book to an English-speaking public could have been found than the summer of 1989. This is turning out to be one of the big European years. It is not one of those moments when great powers reshuffle the Continent, as they did in 1919 and in 1945. This year, in contrast, counts among those rarer occasions when the peoples of Europe try to do the reshuffling themselves. If we take 1989 as the title year for a period of upheaval which began before it and will certainly extend beyond it, then “1989” will change more and for a longer time than the events of 1968, and quite possibly more than those of 1848.

The post-1945 settlement is being undone. The soldiers—grandsons of the American and Russian and British soldiers who first moved into those captured Nazi barracks—are starting to go home. The tanks are loaded onto long flatcars, heading east so far but soon west as well. The rockets are being detached from their warheads and scrapped. Above all, the huge, flat stone of Soviet power is being lifted off Eastern and Central Europe, and upon the bare space of earth underneath every kind of wriggling, sprouting, authentic life is starting to appear. The other day I was at what used to be the most iron of curtains—the Polish–Soviet frontier—and heard about the traffic springing up at the reopened crossing-points. Meat and cosmetics and even bread were going one way, while Soviet television sets bought for half the Polish prices in Grodno were being dragged back in the other direction: the “kleine Grenzverkehr” resuming its natural flow. And, not many miles away, Poland was fighting the first half-free election campaign in forty-two years. Official and unofficial Hungarian trade unionists were colliding at Lech Walesa’s door, while a Polish-American baby-powder heiress prepared to save the Lenin Shipyard from unemployment and bankruptcy.

With all this change and liberation come the slogans to advertise them, many of which are misleading. There is praise for the revival of “Central Europe,” often in terms that suggest that Germany has been towed off to some other hemisphere. There is rhetoric about restoring the “unity” of Europe—which has never known anything like political union except through the efforts of Napoleon and Hitler. There is much winning, Gorbachevian rhetoric about “our common European house,” but that phrase has been riddled now by every kind of satirical allusion to houses with upstairs/downstairs compartments or to those residents who have the best bedrooms as opposed to those who have to sleep in the corridors where they get trodden upon. Most annoying of all, there are civic speeches of welcome for the return of “European civilization.”

To all of the slogans, I find Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s reflections a fine corrective. He is alert and unforgiving. His own continent is not a comfortable or reassuring place: if Europe talks big about its achievements, then Europe is probably drunk. Visiting Warsaw, Enzensberger refers to “that smell of fire and carbolic acid, soot, and rubble that everyone who lived through 1945 remembers.” He remembers that smell, rather than scents of rosin, lacquer, old books, and edelweiss, and it is in the capacity for fantasy and self-deception against the background of such savagery that Enzensberger finds any European identity. At the end of his book, he quotes a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann about that gift for evading truth:

If Bohemia still lies by the sea, I’ll believe in the sea.
And if I believe in the sea, I can hope for land…

Enzensberger visited six nations, settling for a respectable sojourn of some months in each of them. And he studied the barbarism that all of those nations possess, in different measures, for it’s Europe that is the barbarous continent—with all the instability, vigor, and imaginative power that barbarians possess, and with all the ferocity too. I notice that Enzensberger belongs to those writers who, for sound enough reasons, don’t use the word “civilization.” Yet if it were usable, the word would apply better to the United States and to the Soviet Union, both essentially Roman in their relationship to Europe. There stand the muscle-bound imperial powers, committed to a severely moral view of the world and of their own behavior. That “civilized” outlook makes it all the harder to administer the reckless and superstitious tribes between them.

For Enzensberger, anyway, the European quality that applies to all of his six nations is dynamic rather than descriptive. The same processes are afflicting them all, but they respond in barbarously different ways. He chooses two aspects of change, but the choice itself—almost as much as his judgments—illustrates the political and moral journey that lies behind Enzensberger, some twenty years after his star first rose so brightly over German literature. I would guess that today, with Erich Fried gone, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is far the most widely read living poet in the German-speaking world. His influence, however, has been not only that of a poet, but also of an outstanding essayist and editor, of a dramatist and a book publisher. The magazine he founded, Kursbuch, formed the literary and political taste of the radical generation of the 1960s, as a pulpit periodical for the New Left and third-worldist currents of thought. His essay “Tourists of the Revolution,” first published in 1973, in which he records how sympathetic visitors to such states as Cuba can distort the reality they have seen, has been even more chastening for readers in Britain and North America than in Germany: its combined sarcasm and strict analysis, moral fire and honesty, are as effective as in the best of Orwell. (It has lately been reprinted in a volume of Enzensberger’s shorter prose, called Dreamers of the Absolute, published last year in England by Radius/Hutchinson.)

Enzensberger has lived through a great deal since the experiences of his stay in Cuba, and since the imprisonment of his friend the poet Heberto Padilla began to qualify his revolutionary faith. Never a Communist, always a free and critical Marxist, he was not obliged to perform one of the somersaults that characterize the age of “gods that failed.” Enzensberger simply grew sharper-eyed. Today, when he looks at capitalism or at socialism, he contemplates the surface first before searching below it for what he imagines to lie hidden there. He records what strikes him, whether it is welcome or “appropriate” or neither.

It has struck him that the state is in full retreat. This is his first theme. Enzensberger sees not only the decline of absolutism and the Party bureaucracy in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland are two of the countries he visits), but the crumbling of all claims to the ability to plan social and economic development at the level of governments. That collapse can be seen in Western societies, especially in those social democratic states which still defend social justice and equality of opportunity by elaborate networks of legislation, welfare provision, and control. Enzensberger starts with Sweden, where this historic collapse has scarcely begun. There the state is anything but a dirty word, and public faith in public servants remains touchingly strong.

The citizens of Sweden regard their institutions with a trust and lack of suspicion that takes good intentions entirely for granted. Such an attitude would be incomprehensible to a Spaniard, an Irishman, an Italian, or a Frenchman,…a lack of experience for which the Swedes can only be envied.

This moral immunity allows Sweden’s rulers, as Enzensberger sardonically puts it, to “appropriate the citizens’ moral values along with the lion’s share of their incomes.”

A network of administrative boards and what in Britain are called “quangos” (quasi-nongovernmental organizations) affect to stand above politics, so that statements that “society” cannot accept this or that merely mean that “the institution which I represent” cannot accept it. The good shepherd gets short-tempered as he grows older. Long ago, as Enzensberger says, it was the left which hoped to liberate human beings from dependency. But in many countries “worship of the state became the credo of the left, while the desire for self-determination came to be regarded as the quintessence of middle-class obduracy.”

Enzensberger goes to the old ironworks at Leufsta Bruk, surrounded by its wall against wolves which is also, as he recognizes, Sweden’s wall against competition, destitution, and unemployment. He thinks that the wall is giving way. A sort of subterranean anarchy is developing in Sweden, and as the authorities lose control of social life, so “new ideas of self-help and self-sufficiency” will emerge. And he welcomes it. “Even if they cannot name their own goal, people’s self-directed activity expresses a practical critique of existing conditions.”

If Sweden pushes Enzensberger toward a position that one could call anarcho-Thatcherism, the “self-help” and “self-directed activity” of Italy and the Italians’ total mistrust of all “official” communication—whether a tax demand or a report in a newspaper—give him pause. Many of the problems that afflict northern countries certainly don’t exist in Italy, where the deindustrialization of Europe is less painful since full employment has seldom existed and where, as a result, “an extremely rich culture of parasitism” has always prevailed. These people, at least, are not unnerved by the decay of the state into a “crazy quilt” of lobbies, of parties decayed into “corrupt self-service stores,” of shadow economies and business subcultures. The absence of a “social conscience” allows the bonds of connection, family, and clientship to flourish, and somehow the absence of any collective commitment to equality means that “every Italian, even the poorest wretch, is privileged. Nobody is a nobody.”

At the same time, Enzensberger writes, there are 100,000 magicians, soothsayers, and clairvoyants in Italy, and even they are less grossly superstitious than those who purvey studies of so-called public opinion. In a memorable passage, Enzensberger sets out to discover just why small coins vanished completely from the economy between 1975 and 1979, to be replaced by toffees, soup cubes, and sticks of chewing gum. Many explanations were offered to him: the Japanese took our coins for buttons, the Swiss used them to make watch cases, the Holy Year pilgrims took all the small change of Italy home as souvenirs. The real reason was simple. The mint broke down under its own inconceivable squalor and inefficiency and mechanical archaism. The reappearance of coins was equally simple to explain: the mint was removed from the Finance Ministry and made autonomous under a new director. Within months, the place was emptied, reequipped, and pouring out the latest designs in coinage under model industrial conditions. But that was not the sort of information useful or interesting to the Italians.

Is it the Italianization of Europe that Enzensberger wants? He certainly sees a lot of the future here: the “crisis of work,” the bankruptcy of the welfare state, and the defeat of the left’s concept of equality and decency, the decay of all economic and social controls, and the arrival of “new strategies of survival…and improvisation.” And yet Italy can’t be a model. Figures show consistently that Italians spend far more than they earn, but at the cost of nightmarish exploitation and poverty, visible in the slums Enzensberger visited: “The Italian model’s…spontaneous cruelty displays elements of cannibalism.” And, in the rest of Europe at least, these processes of simultaneous impoverishment and gross increase in luxury consumption prove not only obscene but explosive.

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