Europe and the fate of the Earth – Part 1 of 7

October 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]




Bengal, where I was born, is a vast delta where thousands of creeks and rivers flow into each other to form a landscape that is mapped upon a grid of interlocking waterways. Here a confluence of rivers is both a seam and a separation – it joins many shores even as it holds them apart. The Bengali word for confluence is mohana which reflects this ambiguity while also adding to it an element of beguilement that evokes, in my mind, the image of the ‘crossroads’ – a metaphor that is almost universally identified with riddles and paradoxes, confusion and crisis.

A terrain in which the mohana is the dominant feature is inevitably a landscape of ambiguity, where there are no clear lines between river and sea, earth and water, island and mainland. In an imaginative sense it is the opposite of the landscape of Europe, which has come to be powerfully identified with certainty and solidity, with sharply drawn lines and clearly demarcated borders.

The irony however, is that Europe’s neatly-mapped terrain terminates in one of geography’s great mysteries, a matter that has perplexed schoolchildren for centuries: where exactly does the continent’s eastern boundary lie? Where is the line that separates Europe from Asia? It would seem that the location of this border is largely a matter of opinion – for Europe is is not of course, a continent at all, in the geographical sense, but rather an idea, of shifting shape. Nonetheless, in the imagination of the world ‘Europe’ is still a landmass in the first instance – that is to say as a terra continens, or ‘continuous land’, as defined by the geographers of the 16th century.

But this was not how Europe was first imagined. Greece, where the concept was invented, is a region where water plays almost as important a part as it does in Bengal. The ‘Europe’ of the Greeks was defined by bodies of water – among them the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Hellespont (‘Sea of Helle’). These ‘seas’ were precisely ‘mohanas’ in that they were a kind of crossroads that served to both join and separate.

The Europe of the Greeks was thus a point in a triangle that had Africa on one side, and Asia on the other. The Mediterranean was the confluence that joined Europe to those other continents; and the Hellespont was the confluence that lay between Athens and Troy, Greece and Persia. Without these confluences ‘Europe’ would not have been imaginable. Let us recall that the word derives from the legend of ‘Europa’ who was not herself ‘European’: she was a Phoenician princess, who died, like so many modern migrants, while crossing a confluence that was also a crossroads.

But a crossroads is not just a link between points in space. It is also a junction in the axis of time, in the sense that it lies between the beginning of a journey and its end. This is one of the reasons why I want to use the twin images of the ‘confluence’ and the ‘crossroads’ to frame two issues that are of critical importance today, to Europe as well as the rest of the world.



The first of these issues is migration. In recent years, as you well know, migration has come to be associated, in the minds of many Europeans, with a failure of cultural assmilation. This is an important question and to treat it fairly I think it is important to direct our gaze across the confluences that join Europe to other continents. Let us consider the example of the hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Europeans who are are now working on other continents: for example, in Dubai, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Mozambique, South Africa, China, India, Thailand and so on. Let us ask: to what degree do these Europeans integrate into their host societies? The reality is that many, if not most of them, make every effort to maintain a strict distance between themselves and the countries they live in. They have their own clubs, they send their children to their own schools, they live in their own neighbourhoods; and very few become conversant with the languages and cultures of the places they inhabit.

To make the matter even clearer, let us turn our gaze back, by a few decades: let us consider European populations living in colonial societies – in India, Indonesia or East Africa for instance. Those circumstances were always characterized by a vast distance between Europeans and the wider population; they lived, in fact, in racially defined zones of exclusion where non-Europeans could only enter as servants. Similar situations persist even today, in the Gulf countries, and in parts of Asia and Africa. Compare this with the situation of Asian or African immigrant in Europe: no matter how sequestered their lives, it would be impossible for them to live in such complete isolation from the worlds around them.

If we look at the issue from this point of view – that is to say, if we start, not by looking at immigants in Europe but by asking what Europeans do when they are working abroad – I think it quickly becomes apparent that most human beings respond in much the same way when they find themselves in an unfamiliar place. They look for what is familiar and reassuring; and if they fail to find it they begin to create it in their homes and neighbourhoods. In that process a strange thing happens. They forget about the travails and disappointments of home – all those things that prompted them to pack their bags in the first place – and they create a new home of the imagination, a place that is imbued with a sentimental glow. This was exactly what happened with European colonialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries: travelers from England and Holland who went to India and Indonesia were often amazed by how rigid and old-fashioned their colonial countrymen were, and how they made fetishes of traditions that had long been forgotten at ‘home’.

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