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."

The 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 scandalous reputation.

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 pleasure.

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 gratification.

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.

Saturday (2005) 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.

The wishfulness 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.