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Establishing a continental balance

A review of The Temptation of Homo Europaeus: An Intellectual History of Central and Southeastern Europe. By: Victor Neumann. Publisher: Scala Arts Publishers, London, 2021.

September 12, 2021 - Jacek Hajduk - Books and ReviewsIssue 5 2021Magazine

When we think of Europe, it is often through its contradictions upon which it is built. Consequently, we can have a (Latin) Western Europe which is a continuous follower of ancient Rome and a (Greek) Eastern Europe, rooted in the post-Byzantine period, which was enriched by Middle Eastern influences. There is also a Southern Europe which is traditionally Catholic (Italy and Spain) or under the influence of Eastern Orthodox (in the Western Balkans or Greece); and there is Northern Europe, home to the 16th- and 17th-century Protestant Reformation.

We can also make a distinction between Europe’s centre which belongs to the most affluent states (Germany, the Benelux countries and France) and its periphery which can be found in those regions where developmental dynamics are less visible (Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary). The distinction between continental and non-continental Europe became relevant again when the United Kingdom left the European Union. However, historically and culturally speaking, the UK has always kept close ties with North America.

Universal and European

The history of the continent (even before it became known as Europe) has always been authored by those from a privileged background. Initially these were few literate men who had exclusive access to sources. In fact it was not until the world became more globalised and digitalised that voices from outside the privileged (namely, Western European) circles were taken seriously. For a long time the following mind-set prevailed: what could those living in Paris or Rome learn about Europe (!) from somebody from Poland or Romania? Perhaps the only exceptions to this were the Latin-language writings of the baroque poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, and the Renaissance political essayist Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, also known as the “father of Polish democracy”. Their texts, which were universal in their content, were once widely read across Europe. Sadly, they later went into oblivion – probably because they were written in Latin. In my view, we – Eastern Europeans – should feel ashamed about this.

Given the above, it is remarkable that this year, 2021, an English-language version of a book devoted to Europe’s history, by an author from Central and Southeastern Europe, has recently been released. The work in question is Victor Neumann’s The Temptation of Homo Europaeus: An Intellectual History of Central and Southeastern Europe. Even though Neumann adopts the perspective of a “claimant-region”, the book is very all-inclusive in its message. After first being published in Romania, it now has a chance of reaching a wider audience with its English edition.

The mere fact that Neumann is not French, German, Italian or Greek, but Romanian seems important to me. To explain why let us move back 2,000 years when the territory of today’s Romania – an area whose natural borders are marked by the Carpathian Mountains (in the north), the Prut river (in the east), the Danube (in the south), and the Danube and Tisza (in the west). Historians called this territory Dacia after it had been conquered by the Romans, at the turn of the second century AD. During the invasion, first led by Emperor Domitian and then Emperor Trajan, the Roman legions brought the territory to ashes, massacred its people and turned the survivors into slaves. From today’s perspective, we can say the Roman soldiers were undertaking genocide. As a result, the area, earlier known as the Kingdom of Dacia, became a Roman province called Dacia Traiana. Indicatively, it took months for the caravans with valuable treasures to arrive in Rome. For the Roman Empire, which at that time was entering its Golden Period, Dacia’s gold mines were what oil and natural gas extraction sites are for some states today.

The question that emerges is what does being Romanian mean today? Which tradition is at the root of this identity? Are “true Romanians” descendants of the ancient Dacians? Their ancient roots could of course justify this, but it can also be denied by their later almost disappearance from Europe’s map. Therefore maybe it is more correct to say that ancestors of today’s Romanians were the Romans? Indeed, they were conquerors of this territory but they also brought it triumph and economic benefit.

Today’s Romanians need to address these questions to grasp what constitutes their identity. They need to reflect on not only what happened in ancient history but to analyse the impact of the later periods when the territory of Dacia/Romania was conquered by other peoples, including the Huns, the Pannonian Avars and the Bulgarians. In more recent times, Romania’s territory fell under foreign rule, first by the Mongols, then the Ottomans, followed by the Habsburgs. The national revolution that erupted here, just like in other parts of Europe, was a part of the 1848 Spring of Nations. However it did not take long for the so-called Greater Romania (România Mare) to become established in the interwar period and become a rivalry field between Hitler and Stalin.

The word “Romania” derives from “Roma” which is a reference to ancient Rome. This makes this Eastern European (!) country one of its kind. Not only does its name derive from the most influential empire in the history of our continent, but so does its language, which is the only Romance language used today by a large number of people outside of the former Western Roman Empire. With all this in mind, it has clearly left a mark on Neumann and is reflected in his study of Homo Europaeus.

Grand dialogue

What Neumann describes as the “starting point” of his analysis is actually the issue of communication. More specifically, it is the assumption that the grand dialogue between West and the East has always been at Europe’s core. This, however, as Neumann wittingly and correctly notes, has not been adequately recognised by western scholars. For them, Europe still tends to end in Vienna. Beyond it is a blurry belt of Europe’s borderland shared with Asia (that is Russia) and the Middle East. It is thus necessary to put aside this geographic and cultural preconception and start looking at Europe as a whole. The path to this change, according to Neumann, comes from communication.

Neumann uses theoretical concepts which are indicatively western. Thus, the book was clearly written under the influence of the French style of historiography known as the Annales School. There are notable references to Lucien Fabvre and Fernand Braudel, for example. I have no doubt he is also influenced by the German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius, specifically his 1948 breakthrough study Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter. In this work – translated into English as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages – Curtius argued that the “Classic-Medieval-Renaissance-Modern” division in the West (!) was counterproductive given the continuity between these periods. The Temptation of Homo Europaeus can be treated as a continuation of Curtius’s writing – one that is enriching with its Eastern European perspective. What characterises this work, and how it can inspire others, is that Neumann openly presents the geographic location and intellectual traditions (primarily Romanian) with which he himself associates.

Europe is undoubtedly more than a collection of national states. It is more than the European Union. Europe is more than a continent.

Homo Europaeus – or, more precisely, European man (or woman) – without any other adjectives (such as western or eastern) is a term that is both understandable and enigmatic, yet at the same time, ambiguous. It refers to an identity that is mature but still in the process of becoming. Following Neumann’s line of thought, we can agree that, from the perspective of establishing a European identity, the most important period was between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The “human metamorphosis” together with the permanent dialogue between the West and East has led to the emergence of what we can call the “continental balance” and which can be observed, at least on an intellectual level.

This sounds very promising as it opens up new ways of thinking. Even when we talk about such an unfinished (or actually unfinishable) process, we need to realise that the transformation of a human soul is permanent as is the changing nature of cultural dialogue. Hence, the aspiration to reach a balance between West and East (as well as South-North, Centre-Peripheries, Continent-Islands) is an unstable aspiration, one that gets permanently tested. And nonetheless it remains an aspiration.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Jacek Hajduk is a Polish writer and associate professor at the Institute of Classical Philology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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