About three and half minutes into one of his latest short talks, Steve Turley drew attention to an 800 word manifesto that had been published in a number of European newspapers:
I hunted the article down in the Guardian:
Fight for Europe – or the wreckers will destroy it
The continent faces its biggest challenge since the 1930s. We urge European patriots to resist the nationalist onslaught
Europe ‘coming apart before our eyes’, say 30 top intellectuals
The idea of Europe is in peril.
From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause.
“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry. Let’s reconnect instead with our “national soul”! Let’s rediscover our “lost identity”! This is the agenda shared by the populist forces washing over the continent. Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues.
Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes…
Among the authors or signatories (whose names I recognised) were Bernard-Henri Lévy, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Simon Schama, Mario Vargas Llosa.
And I was very struck by the first sentence in the manifesto:
The idea of Europe is in peril.
They weren’t claiming that Europe was in peril. Nor were they saying that the EU was in peril. They were saying that the idea of Europe was in peril. And what was this idea of Europe? There were an almost infinite number of possibilities of what it might be.
The idea is mentioned again and again:
Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes.
Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited
…the gravediggers of the European idea.
We must now fight for the idea of Europe…
I kept waiting for the great idea to be explained, or at least briefly summarised. I was looking for a sentence that began: “The idea of Europe is…” But I was disappointed. There was no explanation of the idea, which we were being told was a ‘great’ idea, but was ‘falling apart’, yet in which we were supposed to have ‘faith’, and for which we were even supposed to ‘fight’, presumably against the army of ‘gravediggers’ that were trying to bury it.
If one has an idea of some sort, isn’t it necessary to try to explain the idea, so that people can gain some notion of what it is? Yesterday I gave a brief explanation of an idea of mine: an “orbital siphon”. I said it was a 170,000 km tower sticking radially outwards from the equator of the Earth nearly half way to the Moon. I could have drawn a picture of it as a red line (right). People may have thought it a highly implausible idea, but they would have at least known what it was.
So if you’re going to write a manifesto in defence of an idea – the “European idea” – shouldn’t you at least try to explain what the idea is? Shouldn’t you draw a thumbnail sketch of it?
Many of the signatories of this manifesto were authors. Couldn’t one of them have taken the trouble to add the sentence I was looking for: “The idea of Europe is…”?
There were faint clues in the text about the origins of the idea. We were told that it was
the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius
Erasmus was a Dutch author, born in 1466. Dante was an Italian poet, born in 1265. Goethe was a German writer and statesman, born in 1749. Comenius was a Czech philosopher and theologian, born 1592. About the only thing they seem to share in common was that they were Europeans, and they were authors. And since they all lived long before the European Union was even a twinkling in anyone’s eye, they had nothing whatever to do with the EU, and so the “idea” of Europe could have nothing to do with the EU either. It was something much older and more mysterious.
Given that many of the signatories to the manifesto were also authors, and indeed authors of fictional novels, and I began toying with the idea that their manifesto was itself a work of fiction, in which a ‘great idea’ is hinted at, but never explained, and readers are required to discover for themselves what the idea is, before the army of gravediggers bury it. After all, if you’re writing a detective story, you usually leave it to the readers to guess whodunnit, only revealing his identity in the last chapter, rather than the first. You keep them guessing. So while other manifestos might be tedious lists of things to do, their manifesto was to be a work of art and imagination.
But another possibility was that The Idea was one of such depth and beauty that it was impossible to put it into mere words, and this was why none of these illustrious writers had tried. The Idea could only be comprehended by a very few people, for whom knowledge of it came in the form of divine revelation.
And yet another possibility was that there was no idea there at all. There was no there there. The Idea was a void, an emptiness, a vacancy waiting to be filled. Or it was a book called The Idea Of Europe which was filled with blank pages waiting to be written upon. It was a book that the reader had to write himself. It was a book that had yet to be written. And if it was not written, it would fall apart, and be buried by the gravediggers who bury unwritten books.
It reminds me of how, as a boy, I had once read a book which featured various cats, one of them called Twinkle, and another Captain Jake, who lived around an old mill pond. I was so taken by the story, that, disappointed to learn that it was the only book about them, and there were no subsequent books in a series, I set out to write them myself.
Perhaps this is what I will need to do with The Idea Of Europe. I should buy myself a sturdy notebook with 600 or so blank pages in it, and write on the front The Idea Of Europe by Frank Davis, and then wait for inspiration for the words to fill it with.