European culture is a more of a vector than a substance; it is more dynamic than static; it is characterised more by atomisation than by domination. Europe is the world’s main example of auto-culture. Europe invented the culture of the self.

In an opinion piece published in Le Monde on the eve of the European elections, the philosopher, philologist and translator Heinz Wismann observes that “Europe is not a given reality, inscribed in the natural order of things, but a human creation of the indigenous or immigrated inhabitants of this tiny promontory of the immense Asian continent that bears its name.”

Rupture and flight

Europe itself is a cultural phenomenon, a perpetual mythology lived every day

Europe itself is a cultural phenomenon, a perpetual mythology lived every day. Just as it discovered America (which is in itself a simple European episode), Europe refers to rupture and flight from itself. But that does not mean it has nowhere to go. On the one hand, there is the archeological superimposition, depth, the production of ground and underground, of conscious and subconscious; on the other, a “dislocation” or “sliding” towards the virtual, the ideal – in culture.

“No era, no country and above all no group or individual can claim to be the custodian of the European spirit,” writes Wismann. “Born from a gesture of rupture, the reality of Europe belongs only to those who dare to reinvent it,” continues this exegete of Heraclitus. Attempting a definition, Wismann suggests taking “renaissance” as a keyword: “the most appropriate for qualifying European culture’s crises of growth [...] because it is the movement that incarnates them.”

Crises recur in European culture by necessity – they nourish it and allow it to reinvent itself. European culture is a culture of crisis and criticism that places itself in a crisis situation in order to surpass it and to reinvent itself. Even the concept of culture is a European invention. However, culture, squarely in the European sense, is a series of “growth crises”. When the permanent need for “growth” no longer puts it in a position of “crisis”, European culture – which transcends even the idea of Europe – stops improving itself. That’s when it’s in danger. Such is the case at the present moment, for example. Once again!


At this moment, Europe neither desires nor dares to improve itself. It loses itself by dispersing, by becoming generalised. However, for Europe (and in the most European sense possible), no longer wishing to improve oneself means regression, the freezing of the cultural idea of Europe.

Culturally, Europe is a survival technique of self-reinvention at the expense of others. Europe projects itself: it is a project and a projection. More radically speaking, Europe is a linguistic technique of self-accomplishment: an act of language evoking success.

Except that for Europe, what is fragile, purely ideal and forced becomes a compulsively self-referential reality. Before it becomes a political reality – a goal it long hesitates to attain for fear of losing its soul – Europe begins as an idea. One after another, the “great nations” of Europe took responsibility for incarnating their own idea of Europe, and an inevitably bloody history was the consequence.

However, the project and idea of Europe have had, and still have, a double – they are permanently hounded by a ghost. The freezing of the European project and idea can stifle the conviction that Europe could be completed and alter the purely cultural essence of the idea of Europe.

Thus, as Wismann recalls, Europe is born in rebuilding itself from a flight: it is an idea “snatched away” (a mythological reference to Zeus’s abduction of Europa). Europe is an idea always being developed.

Born from chaos, Europe hesitates

It is not clear to what extent Europe was born from the chaos of this momentum, this hunger for fulfillment; but here is to be found the nexus or rallying point in the conflicting search for the idea of Europe.

Privilege of great tortured heroes, Oedipal Europe is today deserted (and not for the first time) of the very idea of Europe that fashioned the world in exchange

It could even be said that the whole world is Europe, except for Europe itself. Privilege of great tortured heroes, Oedipal Europe is today deserted (and not for the first time) of the very idea of Europe that fashioned the world in exchange.

More than a great historic project, and precisely in order to renew the great, heroic, Promethean auto-cultural idea of Europe of rebirths by self-conscious ruptures, it would be perhaps wise to make a place in the European project for its shadow, its ghost, and to project Europe not only along the auto-culture of the big traditional “subject” nations, but also by including the historic wisdom of the small “object” nations, which perhaps form a Europe closer to its absence of real origin, of its own culture of flight at home. In this sense, the only completely European cultures are perhaps the “peripheral” cultures, countries forced to realise themselves on the European stage, to accomplish something from the backyard. Perhaps only this model of marginal “survivals” can still save the model of massive “rebirths”.

If Europe, and the purely cultural idea of Europe, is stagnating, it is because, like Gulliver, it confuses size with grandeur, mass with importance. Europe can only be renewed by breaking away from itself once again. In recalling that it is no more than a stolen idea, forever seeking to build itself a home.