Europe's Last Men
By Adam Kirsch
World Affairs, Spring 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), asks: "The
life of the last men is one of physical security and material plenty,
precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates.
Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation,
no longer human beings but animals of the species homo sapiens?"
Fukuyama foresees the danger not simply that bourgeois democracy will cause
human beings to degenerate but that degenerate human beings will be unable
to preserve democracy. Without the sense of pride and the love of struggle
that Fukuyama, following Plato, calls thymos, men cannot establish freedom
or protect it.
Is it true that Western Europeans suffer the malaise
that Fukuyama diagnosed? One way to answer this question is to listen to
Europeans themselves. Novels offer a report on the inner life of a society.
And three contemporary novelists from different European countries all seem
haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline.
The Rings of Saturn
By W. G. Sebald
New Directions, 296 pages
W. G. Sebald (1944—2001) is German but spent most of his adult life in
England. He had a reputation as a literary scholar before he began to
publish a series of unclassifiable books in the 1990s.
The Rings of
Saturn (1995) is the quiet, hypnotic monologue of an old man. The narrator —
he shares a name and a history with the author — has just suffered a
complete nervous breakdown. Sebald has not suffered from any calamity in his
personal life. His is a strictly philosophical crisis, brought on by "“the
paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted
with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past."
book is not really a novel. It is a branching series of stories and
memories, one giving rise to the next by no logic except that of free
association. Sebald is drawn to stories of abandonment and loss, to sites
where Western civilization seems to have died out, to obsolete technologies
and unrecapturable pasts. As the book goes on, he assembles so many of these
tales as to become a Scheherazade of destruction.
This vision of a
world turned into a graveyard is Sebald’s metaphor for the Europe he knows.
Born in Germany in the last months of World War II, he is naturally obsessed
with the war and its casualties. But even the war comes to seem like just
another manifestation of entropy. The book evokes a Europe where simply too
much history has taken place.
The Elementary Particles
By Michel Houellebecq
Vintage, 272 pages
Michel Houellebecq (born 1958) is French but has lived in Ireland and Spain.
He is a satirist, whose misanthropic, pornographic novels have won him a
The Elementary Particles (1998) opens by
informing us that the main character — Michel Djerzinski, "a first-rate
biologist and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize" — brought about the
end of the human race in the late twentieth century. For his discoveries in
genetics allowed humanity to replace itself with a new species that is not
dependent on sexual reproduction.
All the qualities that European
social democracy prides itself on — its sexual liberation, political
tolerance, and economic equality, free health care and the long paid
vacations — become instruments of torture to Michel and his half brother,
Bruno, the novel's unlovable heroes.
They are victims of the
zeitgeist — of "Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth
century," which Houellebecq describes as "an age that was miserable and
troubled." The most destructive agent of this indifference is Bruno and
Michel’s mother, who Houellebecq describes as concerned only with her own
Houellebecq writes that "a 'youth culture' based
principally on sex and violence" began to drive out the ancient
Judeo-Christian culture that valued monogamy, mutual devotion, and
self-restraint. He links this new hedonism with the triumph of the European
welfare state. Freed from all concern about politics and economics, men and
women had nothing to occupy themselves with but the pursuit of sensual
Houellebecq’s nostalgia leads him to a sentimental
view of women. Michel and Bruno each encounter a saintly woman who longs to
heal their psychological trauma. But both of them are unable to return the
love they are offered. By the novel’s end, Bruno has gone into an insane
asylum and Michel has withdrawn to Ireland, where he works out the
scientific discoveries that will lead to the abolition of mankind.
By Ian McEwan
Cape, 279 pages
Ian McEwan (born 1948) is English. He has been at the center of the English
literary world since the 1970s, but he has emerged in the last decade as
probably the best novelist of his generation.
dramatizes the conflict between a privileged, guilt-ridden, indecisive
civilization and an angry, jealous barbarism. McEwan asks whether Europe can
defend its values from its enemies, when those values include a principled
aversion to violence.
The whole action of the novel takes place on
February 15, 2003, the day of worldwide protests against the impending Iraq
War. Henry Perowne, the middle-aged neurosurgeon and paterfamilias who is
McEwan's protagonist, finds his day of errands disrupted by the protest.
Perowne is divided against himself on the morality of the Iraq War.
Perowne's refusal to make snap ideological judgments, is part and parcel of
being civilized. Perowne represents the best of modern European
civilization. He is healthy, handsome, reasonable, generous, a good father
and devoted husband and concerned citizen. His work as a brain surgeon is
described in minute technical detail, to underscore the miraculous prowess
that science and skill have endowed him with.
McEwan is too canny a
novelist to bring Perowne directly into conflict with a terrorist. Perowne
gets into a fender bender with Baxter, a young thug who quickly grows
violent. Based on his behavior and certain subtle symptoms, Perowne is able
to deduce that the impetuous Baxter is suffering from an incipient
neurological disease. When Perowne shows Baxter that he knows about his
condition, the thug loses his nerve.
But later that day, as Perowne's
family gathers for dinner, Baxter barges into his expensive home and holds
the whole group hostage. McEwan makes us watch as Baxter forces Perowne's
grown daughter, Daisy, to strip naked: here is passive, feminine culture
victimized by blind masculine violence. Perowne is unable to overcome the
intruder, thanks to a fatal deficit of thymos.
It is the way McEwan
resolves this deadly standoff that makes Saturday such an ambiguous and
troubling book. At the last moment, just before Baxter is about to rape
Daisy, he notices her book of poems and commands her to read one out loud.
Baxter is so overwhelmed by the beauty of the verse that he lets Daisy go
and drops his guard, allowing Perowne to tackle him. It is a totally
fantastic resolution to a horribly credible dilemma.
of Saturday makes it an apt parable for Europe's own Saturday. History does
not allow for days of rest. McEwan's vision of a civilization dragged back
into conflict and struggle seems much more likely.
AR I like Saturday. I
haven't read the other two. Kirsch has a very American view of Europe. I see
European civilization as having indeed transcended history as usual. But
Kirsch sees only the problem. I see the solution — science will change
everything — not as a curse but a blessing.