What tricks does the Catholic right have to define itself as the centre of Europe

THE WEST: European culture is «characterized by a melancholic feeling due to its alienation or inferiority towards a source that evokes a nostalgic feeling.» Really?

Eksentrisk kultur – en teori om Vestens kultur
Author: Rémi Brague
Publisher: Solum Bokvennen, Norway

The erudite French philosopher and classicist Rémi Brague (b. 1947) has attempted to create a «theory of Western civilization” in his book Eccentric Culture. No less than that. In just under 300 pages, we are presented with an essayistic understanding of Europe and its relationship to Judaism and Islam.

There were many underlines with question marks in the margin during reading. Eventually, one gasps in despair at yet another one-sidedness or unsustainable generalization. Brague appears as a devout Catholic at the end of the book. Then one realizes that this is religious propaganda rather than a historical representation, despite scholarly references to research on the Middle Ages and antiquity.

But what he says about Greek culture in antiquity gives rise to contradiction.

Europe’s openness

Brague’s main point is that European culture, unlike Byzantine and Islamic culture, is open. European identity consists of being curious about other cultures, of asking what it itself consists of. Europe’s strength is its weakness, its eccentricity. Europe has preserved classical texts that did not fit with Christianity’s worldview. Islam, on the other hand, has taken what could be used from particularly philosophical and scientific texts, but has not preserved the originals. The divide is similar to the difference between assimilation and integration. Islam digests the foreign so that nothing remains, and the result is cultural stagnation, according to Brague. Christianity has preserved what it is inspired by without destroying it.

This reviewer is not competent to evaluate Brague’s claims about Islam. But what he says about Greek culture in antiquity gives rise to contradiction. According to Brague, the Greeks are not part of Europe. The reason is that the Greeks were allegedly too self-satisfied, without interest in anyone other than themselves. The Romans had the Greeks as role models. Their literature and philosophy are – if we speak in capital letters, and Brague does so consistently – poor imitations of what the Greeks had already produced. This lack of independence paradoxically justifies that Rome and not Athens becomes the center of European culture. According to Brague, ancient Athens is not part of Europe.

Zeus
Zeus

One-sided view of the ancient Greeks

Brague proclaims that Europe must once again become «the place for recognition of a close connection between man and God; a covenant that includes everything, even the most physical dimensions of humanity. (272) He fails to mention that in Greek mythology, Europe was the daughter of a Phoenician king. Zeus fell in love, disguised himself as a bull, and swam with her on his back from Sidon (in present-day Lebanon) to Crete. There he transformed back to his original form and had three children with her. Europe comes from the Middle East.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Egypt and Persia and therefore does not fit into Brague’s paradigm. But one swallow does not make a summer. According to Brague, the Greeks are allegedly not interested in the foreign, the barbaric. Two pillars of ancient Greek culture were the epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is about the war against Troy, a city in Asia Minor. The Odyssey depicts Odysseus’ homecoming, where he meets several foreign peoples on the way. Brague ignores this. He also does not write anything about the Persian Wars or the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor.

European culture is «characterized by a melancholic feeling due to its alienation or inferiority towards a source that evokes a nostalgic feeling.» Montaigne complained that he could never achieve the same as the classics. Brague claims that the Greeks’ self-satisfaction lacks nostalgia, but this is not true: Hesiod’s Works and Days (ca. 700 BC) have, according to the intellectual historian Paulus Svendsen in Golden Age Dream and Developmentalism (1940), «all the essential features that we find in descriptions of a golden age»: Primitive times were a happy time, while what «characterizes the present time is strife, enmity, and sin.» The only time Hesiod is mentioned by Brague, it is stated that philosophy gradually appears among the Greeks, «because there was already a lot of thinking, for example, in Hesiod.»

Brague reduces culture to books – economics, politics, and Roman imperialism disappear from the picture. How receptive was Columbus to the local culture when he arrived in America? According to Tzvetan Todorov in The Conquest of America (1992 [1982]), the Catholic Columbus claimed to understand the Indians without translation. Openness to the foreign in practice! The young German Catholic theologian Lars Schäfers writes in a critique of Brague that the Romans «not only acquired but also destroyed the foreign.»

Rémi Brague

Prejudice

This is a prejudiced book: the mixture of the normative and the descriptive is the recipe for ideology production. It is therefore ironic that Brague is historically wrong precisely when it comes to prejudices: «The idea of prejudices arose with Descartes and Malebranche», he claims. But Francis Bacon described prejudices and divided them into four types of illusions before Descartes. He explicitly linked them to Plato’s cave.

Brague’s concept of identity is itself a modern prejudice. Talk of a collective identity arose after World War II in the wake of the social psychologist Erik H. Erikson, who linked identity to anxiety, crisis, puberty, and uncertainty. Brague projects a modern phenomenon back into history. What the Russian formalist Viktor Sklovskij called defamiliarization (ostranenie) and Brecht’s estrangement (Verfremdung) are supposed to be part of European culture. The literary modernism’s categories are directly applied to the Middle Ages and antiquity! Brague thus imagines that people in the past were just like us. But wasn’t this self-absorption what he wanted to get away from?

A number of conservative celebrities such as Brague, Roger Scruton, and our own Janne Haaland Matlary took issue with «fake Europe” in the so-called Paris Declaration of 2017 (Paris Declaration – A Europe We Can Believe In.). Europe was to be renewed based on «theological self-insight.» Universalism was a false ideology: «What is said about diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism is nonsense.» Back to old values: «A guiding star in European intellectual life has been the strict discipline of objectivity and intellectual honesty.» Brague shows here how this ideal works in practice.

This is an instructive and engaging book. Brague ensures that one’s pulse rate rises without resorting to jogging shoes. The book reveals the tricks the Catholic right must resort to to define itself as the center of Europe.

Eivind Tjoenneland
Eivind Tjoenneland
Eivind Tjønneland is a Norwegian literary critic. Oslo/Berlin.

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