Alex Massie

Europe: Still Not Dead

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Not content with permitting itself to be swamped by Muslim immigration (Quick: man the Viennese barricades!) it seems that poor old Europe is also committing cultural suicide by forgetting to worship god. In fairness, Rod, being smart, doesn't quite share the apocalyptic vision of Europe's future that has become oddly popular amongst American conservatives. Nor, also being smart, does James Poulos who weighs in here.

In any case, the extent of European "godlessness" is exaggerated. For instance, though only 12% of Scots remain official members of the Kirk, the proportion of church going Scots rises to somewhere between one in five and one in four once all other religions and sects are added. Though these things depend upon how one defines "church attendance" other countries have rather/still higher participation rates.

Now, sure, this isn't the universal - or near universal - observance of days gone by. But in an increasingly fragmented society in which (happily) there's space for everyone to do their own thing, religion still does pretty well, even if its customer profile is aging more rapidly than the ecclesiastical authorities might like. In fact even in France more people believe in god than deny his existence.

Actually one could - and I would - make the case that given Europe's 20th century it is remarkable that the continent's cathedrals are as full as they are.

Anyway Camille Paglia complains that art and culture can't survive the death of god. Or the death of opposition to god:

"But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs -- including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite."

"Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman. Europe is becoming a museum and tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock to see the remnants of Europe's royal and religious past -- the conservative prelude, in other words, to today's slack liberalism."

"Searching, for example, for online news about Italy in recent years, I've been dismayed by its near-total domination by soccer, with archaeological discoveries and the restoration of Old Master paintings coming in second. The pope flits hither and thither, but that's it. Is there nothing new in post-Fellini Italian culture? It's as if Europe, struggling to incorporate massive Muslim immigration, has retreated into a bubble where the beautiful artifices of the past float like a mirage. Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does -- whether in the artist's soaring affirmation or angry resistance."

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. I suspect that Paglia's complaint about primary and secondary education has some value. But the rest of her complaint seems overblown. Today's "slack liberalism" after all is the product of democratisation, trade and wealth that, broadly speaking, may be said to have contributed to europe being a happier, better place than at any time in its history. Now, sure, there are grumbles and a certain wane discontent in parts of the continent (Italy, France to some extent) but these are, to some extent, features of European success, not failure. Most people lead immeasurably better lives than did their ancestors.

Paglia complains that "without spirituality" people will "anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs". Well maybe. But if that's the case then, to a very large degree, these tranquilisers have replaced the soporific, controlling, anesthetizing effect of religion itself - as anyone with any consciousness of, say, Calvinist Scotland or Roman Catholic Ireland could tell you. Clearly religion didn't prevent the expression of artistic expression in either country but it determined, within pretty narrow parameters, what was and what was not permissable. Remember that Joyce, like Wilde before him and Beckett after him, had to leave Ireland.

Man is not born happy. Or if he believes he is, he realises soon enough that the expectation that he should have been so blessed is an unkind trick. The test is how you deal with that and religion seems neither better nor necessarily worse than other approaches.

Paglia bemoans godless Europe, but for her thesis to remain valid one should expect the United States to be a hotbed of artistic achievement. After all, America is the great exception to the general rule that prosperity kills religion. And yet I doubt that Paglia thinks this a great era in American arts and letters either.

Most art, of course, is not very good and unlikely to last. 'Twas ever thus. But really Paglia's argument rests upon her distaste for "flashy, transient niche entertainment". But again 'twas ever thus. Once again, we witness a complaint about "niche". But the idea that people should be free to do their own thing - and find their own referred entertainment or vehicles for artistic expression - seems a good thing. There may be costs in moving from a world in which there were certain obviously dominant cultural narratives to one in which culture, like everything else, becomes a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet, but it seems daft not to notice that there are tremendous advantages and opportunities to this too.

Now as it happens I do think that a core, classical curriculum - including as Paglia says, impressing a knowlege of the King James bible upon young minds - is a good thing. For one thing culture that has beaten the test of time has a value of itself; for another it's part of the story of how we came to be where we are. A kind of universal, foundational grammar and the glue that binds past to present. But from that comes an opportunity to branch out in new directions, rather as the poet who has mastered technique is better placed that the poet who has not. The latter may still produce worthy material, but absent that grammar his rane is likely - most of the time - to be more limited.

As for this death of European culture - as demonstrated by the fact that Italians like reading about football, no less! (Though football can often rise to the state of art and, certainly, cultural expression) - well It all depends on what you mean by "local luminaries". But I think that any survey of post-war European - or even contemporary - European culture would reveal that there's life in the old continent yet.

To take a couple of examples that occur immediately: the short-story is an unfashionable form these days, but William Trevor is in the first rank of short story writers. In theatre, whether thy are quite your cup of tea or not, I think one would say that Harold Pinter and Brian Friel are not merely "local luminaries". In architecture, the best work of, say, Richard Rogers or Santiago Calatrava seems worth preserving.

As for literature, well, who knows how many great voice there are that we simply never hear in English? But as I've said before, I think Andrei Makine would not be embarrassed by being included in any survey of the century's finest novelists. Salman Rushdie's partisans would make the case for the best of his work too. In poetry, well, Philip Larkin and Paul Muldoon seem likely to last. A little further back, I'd suggest that Beckett and Camus can hold their own in the ring. One could go on...

And that's before one even considers popular culture: better TV than we'd seen before  - even in Europe: take Prime Suspect (UK) and The Best of Youth (Italy) for instance, while who knows what exciting projects will arise from the european melting pot in years to come, as the continent is energised by immigration from all points of the compass and its internal cultural borders continue to dissolve... 

So, yeah, absurdly, I remain cautiously optimistic. Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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