Ideas Letters on Democracy | 1

A letter about the future of our continent to my fellow European swingers

In this letter to a group of fellow writers on the eve of the Amsterdam Forum on European Culture, Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg sparks a conversation about Europe and democracy, and how fragile both are.

Published on 29 May 2023 at 16:03

Dear Lana Bastašić, Kamel Daoud, Drago Jančar, Oksana Zabuzhko,

How surreal, and exciting, to write a letter about Europe to four people I have never met before. There are few issues that cause as many misunderstandings as Europe. So this feels a bit like entering a swingers’ club for the first time. Europe has been the subject of many metaphors, so why not this one? A swingers’ club.

In any case, Europe must already be close to our heart – or close enough, at least – since we all agreed to participate in a forum about Europe and the Future of Democracy. You don’t have to be a cynic to sigh discreetly and ask yourself: Again? Is it Groundhog Day? Although we differ in age and background I assume that you have all participated in enough panels where the participants had to talk about more or less this topic.

The fragility of liberal democracy is a given. It is possible that liberal democracy is now a bit more fragile than it was in, say, 1990, but it has always been fragile. As to the question of how endangered and fragile liberal democracy is, that is always also a matter of time and place. I say this as a reluctant universalist. After all, the early nineties were also the era of the war in Yugoslavia, one that has largely disappeared from the collective subconscious, at least outside the former Yugoslavia. In Sarajevo in 1993 the fragility of democracy must have felt different than in Paris, London or Milan.

Susan Sontag in Sarajevo

As you all know, in 1993 Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo, a city under siege at that time, to direct Waiting for Godot. She wrote that she had been to Sarajevo before and that the people there had told her: “We’re part of Europe. We’re the people in former Yugoslavia who stand for European values: secularism, religious tolerance, and multi-ethnicity. How can the rest of Europe let this happen to us?”

Sontag had replied that “Europe is and always has been as much a place of barbarism as a place of civilization”. Unfortunately, “they didn’t want to hear. Now, a few months later, no one would dispute such a statement.”

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno stated that barbarism is inscribed within the principle of civilisation. We can discuss what exactly Adorno meant, but we can also simply conclude that all civilisations will need barbarians, outside the gates or inside the community, in order to distinguish themselves from the still-uncivilised.

I am not at all a staunch conservative but I am doubtful that we humans can live without an enemy, that it is possible to shape a collective identity without real enemies or fantasies about perceived enemies.

I also wonder whether thirty years after Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo we still can claim that secularism, religious tolerance, and multi-ethnicity are European values. If not, I would suggest that we not lament for too long. Reality did not meet our expectations, Europe may have disappointed us. But let’s move on. 

I also wonder whether thirty years after Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo we still can claim that secularism, religious tolerance, and multi-ethnicity are European values

Disappointment about the present is as common as the glorification of an almost always mythical past. The flip side of that coin is the tendency to see the past – preferably one’s own past – as a series of crimes and misdemeanours that must be prosecuted. I’m very much in favour – who isn’t? – of historical analysis that is as meticulous and unbiased as possible. Of course, a neutral historical analysis is not possible, but still. 

The tendency to see history as an exercise in prosecution is the enemy of understanding and analysis. There are times when we cannot avoid prosecution of the past in order to correct a state of affairs in the present. But, without denying that there are victims and perpetrators, it is clear that a grey zone of acts exists where morality and the choices people make are not always clear. 

The donkeys in Europe

I am not sure how I would behave in the extreme conditions of war or persecution. Ever since I reached the conclusion that I am an average sinner – I am not religious at all but the words “average sinner” summarise the grey zone neatly – my expectations of myself in these circumstances are not very high.

A friend of mine tells me every time we have dinner that a sinner needs a future and a saint needs a past. I hope that we agree that we all need a future. The question is, what kind of future do we need? And for whom? Should we include other animals in our thoughts and plans? Are the donkeys in Europe also Europeans?

The German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote: DeutschlandAber wo liegt esIch weiß das Land nicht zu finden; / Wo das gelehrte beginnthört das politische auf. (“Germany? But where is it? I don't know where to find the country; / Where the learned begins, the political ends”.) I promise that from here on I will stop dropping names. But can we practise the art of conversation without dropping any names? For one reason or another, I have always had a weak spot for Germany. Although I moved from Amsterdam to New York in 1995, I would love to become a German later in life, whatever being a German means or entails. At a minimum, holding a German passport. Or is there something more to it?

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Anyhow, Schiller’s question applies just as well to Europe. Germany has found its borders, for the time being at least, but Europe is still busy discovering where it ends. The British wanted to be Europeans hors concours, and now many of them are a bit disappointed about this status. The British have been ridiculed enough, and the British are masters in self-ridicule. Honour to whom honour is due.

Is Europe the history of Europe? Is there a common history? How much history do we need in order to shape our future? Do we need another utopia? Or, having become sadder and wiser after so many failed utopias, should we try to find some happiness in imperfection?

Prisoners of history

It is not advisable to become a prisoner of history, or a prisoner of the myths and legends so often connected to the telling of history. It is when conservatism and traditionalism allow themselves to become prisoners that their ugliest and most intolerant outgrowths start to take shape.

The possibility of escape: to me this is an essence of what it means to be a mortal, a human being, whatever you want to call it. Escape is possible, sometimes unavoidable; sometimes the escapee will be applauded, at other times the escape artist will be labelled a coward, but that is less important to me.

If I want to defend liberal democracy, and I believe I do (whether I want to die for it is a whole other question), to me that entails being able to live with people who have no admiration at all for this political system. 

Europe is also a longing, a promised land in the distance. The moment you set foot in the promised land, you forget about the promise

I don’t believe that decency means that you must want to defend liberal democracy. That would be an utter lack of imagination and it would be against the spirit of freedom. I am not even sure that we are talking about the same thing when we use the words “liberal democracy.”

It is haughty to assume that because we are authors – to name one of the smaller common demeanors that bind us – we must subscribe to the same opinions, that we must have a set of beliefs that binds us.

Live with people who want to kill me

To me, liberal democracy requires that I can live together with people who are passionate about things that I despise, that I can even have dinner with them. In a slightly exaggerated way this means that I can live together with people who want to kill me. As long as they refrain from doing so, I have no particular problem with their desires. They are entitled to their fantasies and their hobbies, as long as they respect the law. And that is for me another characteristic of liberal democracy, that I can feel protected by the law, that there is no need to take the law in my own hands or a need to bribe policemen, judges and prosecutors.

I can also live together with people who have political ideals that I deem dangerous, disgusting and probably immoral. No central authority tells us what to think and what not, who to admire and who not to admire, who to believe and who not to believe. That is the system I am talking about.

By moving to New York, I became a European. It’s probably easier to be a European when you do not live in Europe.

Europe is also a longing, a promised land in the distance. The moment you set foot in the promised land, you forget about the promise.

Needless to say, there are too many temptations. The darkness is there. Some philosopher – I promised you, no more name-dropping – said that freedom is uncanny.

But temptation is not the same as an authority with a secret police and an army to enforce a set of beliefs upon its citizens. We may be living under the yoke of commercialism – and yes, does the novel have an economical future, or should we exclude money from the equation once and for all so that the artist only needs a wealthy patron? – but that is not the same as a brutal regime. Just think of Iran.

If I believe that I am a missionary whose task it is to convert others to follow me in my beliefs, in my world view, my struggles, my ideas about justice, then I would not be taking freedom seriously. A novelist may have a worldview (he probably does), and he often uses his worldview to seduce readers to the world through his eyes. But that is not the same as the act of actively converting someone. 

The offending novelist

My discontent about so many discussions with some of my contemporaries, some of my best friends, is that they cannot stop converting other people. Do the right thing. Believe the right thing. Say the right thing. I did not become a novelist to live the life or intellectual life of a boy scout.

Is Europe more than mere geography? If it is more than just geography, then how do we define that surplus? Can we agree on values without making them so generic that it is evident that they have been formulated in order to not offend anyone?

The novelist has always been there to offend people, but not just for the sake of offence.

I expect the novelist to work hard to be as honest as possible. Honesty and agreeability do not always go together well.

On the one hand I would love to please, because I would love to be remembered also as a part-time charmer. On the other hand, I don’t want to betray our profession.

The people who invited us, the people who pay us, our readers, might not like the things we have to say. If the worse comes to the worst, we can always apologise.

I look forward to seeing you in Amsterdam.

Be well,  Arnon Grunberg

This letter is one of the “Letters on Democracy”, a project of the 4th Forum on European Culture taking place in June 2023 in Amsterdam. Organised by De Balie, the Forum focuses on the meaning and future of democracy in Europe, bringing together artists, activists and intellectuals to explore democracy as a cultural rather than a political expression.
For the Letters on Democracy, five writers envision the future of Europe in a chain of five letters initiated by Arnon Grunberg. The writers – Arnon Grunberg, Drago Jančar, Lana Bastašić, Oksana Zabuzhko and Kamel Daoud – come together during the Forum, in a conversation about the Europe that lies ahead of us and the role of the writer in it.

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