What Was Europe? or the Feeling of Getting Old

by Kevin McLaughlin
Published October 24, 2017

The “Europe” in the title of the Collaborative Humanities seminar called “What Was Europe?” that I am co-teaching with Peter Szendy this semester is not one thing:

  1. Geographically, it is a continent: bordered by the Arctic Ocean on the north, the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and by a shifting land border with Asia to the east;
  2. Geopolitically, a multinational union starting with the Council of Europe in 1955 followed by the European Economic Community in 1957 and ultimately the European Union in 1993 which is now comprised of 27 nations;
  3. Mythologically, a Phoenician princess or queen of Crete (meaning something like “broad” [eurus] “face” [opos]).

Europe in this seminar is in fact not a thing at all: it is more like an idea or an ideal originating and projected onto ancient Greece and encompassing a range of languages that have interacted with one another. It is a configuration of traditions that has tended to imagine itself as sharing a common intellectual culture. This Europe is a cultural constellation.

Our seminar questions Europe in this imaginary sense. One important aspect of the question that concerns us is the proposition that the European project has come to an end—that the idea or ideal of Europe is over. Let me suggest that this proposition is itself part of the Europe that we are considering. In other words, it is this very existential crisis that defines and that has defined a certain Europe from the beginning. In a sense the humanities share this sense of crisis with the Europe that was indeed the birthplace of humanitas.

The European crisis is that of an aging culture: it is the feeling of getting old. This sense of Europe turns on a keen and potentially crushing awareness of an end that is near or, more precisely, the sense of an ending (present participle). The phrase “What Was Europe?” would be enunciated from the perspective of an experience that is incessantly coming to an end—the perspective from which Montaigne described philosophy as “learning to die.” Much of the discourse surrounding the death of the humanities is repetitive and tiresome. But we should not forget that much of the value of the humanities derives from the ways these fields engage questions of limitation and finitude—questions of humanity. It is important for Brown’s Humanities Institute to make a prominent place for this engagement in an environment that tends understandably to favor and to celebrate the overcoming of limits. In our humanities seminar this semester we will be engaging in this questioning under the heading of “Europe.”

Kevin McLaughlin is Dean of the Faculty and George Hazard Crooker University Professor of English, Comparative Literature and German Studies at Brown University.

The seminar “What Was Europe?” is taught this Fall 2017 as part of the Collaborative Humanities initiative of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Team-taught by Kevin McLaughlin and Peter Szendy, the seminar features guest lectures by Étienne Balibar (October 6) and Rodolphe Gasché (Gasché) and the performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen (1966–1967) at the Granoff Center (October 30).