“WE,” EUROPEANS?

BY CLAUDIA BARACCHI for The Philosophical Salon


Europe was made of repeated migrations from East and South, from the Paleolithic to the modern era. This is well documented in terms of cultural/linguistic legacy as well as genetic structure. Needless to say, this is particularly attested in the regions geographically more exposed and historically porous to alien migrations, invasions, and influences. Here the peopling processes proved especially complex and dynamic. A recent study focusing on Italy, for instance, exposes the correlation between linguistic heterogeneity, genetic variation, and environmental biodiversity. It concomitantly shows that the genetic differences among the variously stratified populations of Italy far exceed the genetic differences among ethnic groups living at the opposite ends of the continent (say, in Portugal and Hungary).[1]

In its own peculiar way, myth also depicts a Westward thrust at the origin of Europe (those who favor a Semitic etymology of the name, connect it with the Akkadian irib or ereb, the setting of the sun, opposed to assu, the Orient, dawn). In the Cretan stories, Európê was the daughter of the king of Tyre, in Asia minor (a Phoenician, and hence of Semitic, ancestry). Zeus saw her playing on a beach, wanted her, turned into a radiantly white bull, and abducted her—from the Asian beach to the Cretan shore. Európê remained on the island in the midst of the Mediterranean, but her brother Cadmus who, while searching for her, wandered West until the Peloponnesus, was eventually ordered by Apollo to abandon the search. And so it was the loss of a sister that led to the founding of a new city: Thebes, the site of the vicissitudes of Oedipus and the epiphany of Dionysus. Europe begins here, with this gesture of sublimation. Or, more precisely, here lies the seed of what will have been called Europe, the idea back to which European humanity will constantly turn in order to mark its own beginning and draw its own physiognomy: Greece.

The mythical plot lets transpire the mnestic trace of a dynamic origin: Asia stretches out towards the wild and unknown lands of the evening and the boundless Ocean. Europe would be the outcome of such a manifold migratory movement, on the ambiguous background of a girl carried away and violated by a god. Herodotus reads this episode of divine violence as an imaginative transposition of the tense relations between Eastern and Western peoples, which would also provide the context for the Trojan War.

For a long time “Europe” will remain the female name of a geographical region, just like Asia and Libya (Africa). But when, many centuries later, Europe will come to designate a distinctive form of the human, the emergence of such a unifying category will be due (once again) to the conflict with the “common enemy” from the East. Europenses, “Europeans,” is utilized for the first time by an unknown chronicler of the VIII c. CE, to salute those who vanquished the Moors in the battle of Poitiers in 732.

From the start, Europe was made of this—of differences. There is no prior beginning of it—no earlier epoch of native tribes annihilated by newcomers with overpowering weapons, no auroral stage of ethnic purity. Europe was made of differences in all the senses of this word, from the most dramatic clashes and manners of violation to the infinite richness of ethno-cultural layering, sedimentation, exchange, and cross-pollination.

Greece itself, to which “we” return every time we wonder about ourselves and how this pronoun is possible, originated in this ambiguity, in the incessant migratory waves, in the recurring cycles of human wandering. From the experience of utter vulnerability and restlessness on this earth, from the fragile condition of souls hovering between life and death, Greece received the depth of its tragic insight and the saving wisdom of comedy, the breadth of philosophical vision and the audacity of political experimentation, and the moods of song and the dazzling brilliance of the plastic arts. It received its spiritual form, regeneration, and future. The Greeks knew it very well, or at least the Greek philosophers.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes the Greeks not so much as initiators, as marking an absolutely new, original, and autochthonous beginning, but rather as heirs, receiving and synthesizing foreign wisdom traditions of boundless antiquity. This starkly contrasts with Pericles’ epitaph, reported by Thucydides, which celebrates Athens as owing nothing to other cultures, indeed, as a model for the surrounding world (“for we are an example, not imitators”). Foreign to the logic of political identification, politically “belonging nowhere” (atopos) and spiritually inhabiting the cosmos, the philosopher sees himself and his world drawing upon alien traditions, borrowing from diverse sources, mixing everything—Greek and barbarian alike.

When, in 1943, Hannah Arendt writes that refugees, who have lost their citizenship and wander about with no rights, are the “avant-garde” of humanity, something of the ancient experience still resonates in her surprising statement—the awareness that the question of being human indeterminately exceeds considerations of citizenship and identification, whether political or otherwise. And that nomadism, rather than autochthony, defines the human condition on this earth. For the first name of the earth is Gaia, but the second Rhea—the one who flows.

But “we” forget. And, in this general forgetfulness, Greece has recently become the protagonist of psychodramas on the stage of international politics and the financial markets. The nation-states keep Europe captive in the name of strictly national interests; they even confuse its name (the name of a girl, the history of an idea) with that of a currency, make agreements with a partner such as Turkey, and (to their lasting shame) do not seem overly outraged at the construction of walls and the closing of borders. European humanity has become harder, harsher, more somber, more forgetful and self-forgetful: it was born of flux and now wishes to stop it. And Europe is yet again carried away and raped by a bull—that of Wall Street.

[1] M. Capocasa et al., “Linguistic, Geographic and Genetic Isolation: A Collaborative Study of Italian Populations,” in Journal of Anthropological Sciences 92 (2014), 1-32.

Published by Hibamo Ayalew

Very recently I've come to the decision that I've to say what I've to say in ways I wanted to say irrespective of the "feelings" of the mediocre creatures out there crawling the earth in search of solace where there's none. Seeking wisdom in the Desert of the Real.

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