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“Maybe an aqueduct”: Rémi Brague on Europeanness

By Andrew Petiprin

A major focus for us as we set forth on this new venture with the Spe Salvi Institute is proposing the idea of a Christian society. Robert Mixa and I have begun to articulate this vision in our manifesto.

In this article I want to begin to elaborate on our particular interest in European culture, especially as we are both Americans. My guide here is Rémi Brague’s wonderful little book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization[1](original French title Europe, la voie romaine, or Europe, The Roman Way).

Eccentric Culture proposes that Europe is not only a geographical realm and not only a collection of peoples. It is also not only an idea, “like a Platonic idea of Europe floating in an intelligible heaven” (4).[2] Rather, Europe is something more like “a variable notion. One is more or less European” (17).[3] To Brague, it is only partly correct to say that European civilization is the product of Greek philosophy and Jewish religion; but there is a third, stabilizing element to the concoction of Athens and Jerusalem. Europe is ultimately “Roman,” which represents nothing distinct, but rather embraces a disposition of stewardship, synthesis, and sending. Brague notes,

Anyone is “Roman” who knows and feels himself caught between something like a “Hellenism” and something like a “barbarity.” To be “Roman” is to have above one a classicism to imitate and below one a barbarity to subdue (39).[4]

Some admirers of Brague’s work are critical of his ignorance of Rome’s benefactions to the world. Perhaps, they say, we should not so easily overlook unique contributions like the aqueduct, cement, sanitation, newspapers, the calendar, and most of all Roman law. But even these distinct inventions ultimately represent means rather than ends, and Brague specifically singles one of them out to out as an image that captures his point. “Roman culture,” he explains, “is thus essentially a passage: a way, or maybe an aqueduct” (40).

Important for our project at Spe Salve, this Latinitas that once defined and continues to influence Europe came to define the New World too. Brague writes,

Consider the American experience which is “Roman” in that it is founded on transplantation and on the idea of establishing a novus ordo seclorum, a desire that attests to the profoundly European legitimacy of the United States (35).

Like many Americans, my heritage is pan-European, with a French surname from my paternal grandfather, two German-American grandparents from different sides, and one distantly Scotch-English grandmother with a generations-old southern American drawl. Brague’s theory has helped me understand my love for Europe not as mere fetishism, born of my teenaged viewings of James Bond movies, French and German classes, and nostalgic tales from my father, who spent part of his childhood in Paris. Nor, as I mentioned before, does Brague’s proposal make me unduly proud of my blood. Rather, it is a challenge to consider my own American Christian context not as a distinct culture, but as an expression of Europeanness that could benefit by being more European.

One major way in which I seek to deepen my own European Christian identity, as well as that of my culture, is by watching and promoting European films. Cinema remains for me the premier medium for philosophy and theology, particularly with regard to the question of eschatology, and European filmmakers lead the pack by a mile. A few generations of American cinephiles – including American Christian intellectuals – have looked to the work of the giant auteurs like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, and Andrei Tarkovsky, as guiding lights.

Less appreciated so far among American Christians have been the achievements of some of their successors, especially as relates to a post-Cold War world: Krzysztof Kieślowski of Poland, the Dardenne Brothers of Belgium, Lars von Trier of Denmark and, more recently, Paweł Pawlikowski of Poland and Paolo Sorrentino of Italy, among others. All of them, in various ways, propose Europe, and propose an end for humanity. And while most of these directors have had complicated relationships with the Catholic Church, none of them imagines a Europe without the permanent marks of the faith that created it. That is, directors depict Christian society, despite the sad state it may be in. To illustrate my point, here is an excerpt from a print-only article I wrote recently for the Pope Benedict XVI tribute issue of the Evangelization & Culture journal:

In 1990, the Danish director Lars von Trier made a Kafkaesque drama called Europa, which sets the stage for our study. Trier establishes what we shall see in various ways in the works of the other directors in this book – namely, that Europe is an idea, and an idea conceived in long centuries of Christian culture dating back to the arrival of Saints Peter and Paul. As Ratzinger wrote in 2004, shortly before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, “Europe is not a continent that can be comprehended neatly in geographical terms; rather, it is a cultural and historical concept.”[5]

In an interview in 1991, Trier confessed that “Europe has been the destination of my dreams”[6] – on the surface, an odd thing to for a man to say who was born in Denmark and famously hates to travel. But with Europa, set at the end of World War II and filmed in Denmark and Poland just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Trier anticipates Ratzinger’s comment, but also draws on the psychoanalytic perspective of Karl Jung.

Aesthetically and thematically, Trier’s film follows Wenders’ Wings of Desire, perhaps most strikingly in the mix of black-and-white and color photography, and in the common setting of Berlin – in 1945, as in 1987, a city offering itself to the world as a place of intriguing possibility. In the opening scene of Europa, we find ourselves on railway tracks, as if looking out from the front of a speeding train. We then hear the voice of the actor Max von Sydow – a famous alumnus of the films of Ingmar Bergman, another major influence on Trier – playing the part of the hypnotist, telling us, “On the count of ten, you will be in Europa.” The audience then enters the continent through the eyes of the main character, Leopold Kessler, played by the Franco-American actor Jean-Marc Barre.

The Church lurks in the background throughout Europa, and it comes to the forefront in significant scenes. When asked whether he is a Catholic, Kessler replies that he is not religious, and Max Hartmann, once a wealthy German industrialist now trying desperately to bury his Nazi past, praises Kessler for being sensible rather than superstitious. But Max’s son Lawrence, played by frequent Von Trier collaborator Udo Kier, is a believer who admits that the Church presents a “sophisticated waste” to those without eyes to see. But when a priest later encourages Kessler to attend Midnight Mass in a bombed-out church, he decides to go, finding himself enraptured by the natural religion of snowfall and candlelight, but also by the traditional liturgy happening at the altar.

Pope Benedict XVI believed Christianity and Europe were destined to rise or fall together, and as he became Pope, he worried that Europe was “internally paralyzed” by the diminishing of the continent’s “sustaining spiritual forces.”[7] But he concluded hopefully that Christians could and should embrace their identity as “creative minorities” in a Church-haunted culture, and “help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of humankind.”[8] Europe simply had too much Christianity imbedded deep in its foundations to shake it off easily or imminently.

The Spe Salvi Institute looks to this aesthetic legacy for inspiration in our work of re-Europeanizing the Christianity of the United States and, in turn, helping Europe wake up to the treasures of its own inheritance. Here at our website and elsewhere on the web and in books and magazines, look for me to continue advocating for contemporary European cinema as a dignified and effective medium for evangelism rooted in eschatological contemplation. These are also the kinds of things Bobby and I will discuss on our podcast and incorporate into our future plans for seminars, conferences, and study tours.

Finally, Brague nears his conclusion of Eccentric Culture with a relevant message for our project:

The “non-Europeans” have in any event a non-negligible advantage over the Europeans, that of being conscious of the distance which separates them from Europe (real or imagined), of that painfully felt distance whose courageous admission has been the mainspring of European dynamism. As a result, it could be that Rome is no longer in Rome, and that the “non-Europeans” are fundamentally better able to take on the Roman attitude that has been Europe’s good fortune, and to become more European than those who believe themselves already to be European (p. 151).[9]

Let our task begin!

[1] Trans. Samuel Lester (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002). [2] Eccentric Culture, 4. [3] Eccentric Culture, 17. [4] Eccentric Culture, 35. [5] Europe Today and Tomorrow, Trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 11. Originally published in Italian as Europa: I suoi fondamenti oggi e domani, 2004 by Edizioni San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan) [6] Trier’s Element, directed by Nikolaj Buchardt, 1991. [7] “The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Trans. Michael F. Moore (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 66. [8] Without Roots, 80. [9] Eccentric Culture, 151.


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