The Myth of Europe

[30 January 2002]

By Stefán Snaevarr

Many Americans tend to regard “Europe” as an entity of the same kind as the U.S. Indeed, this kind of discourse permeates much of American writings on popular culture. The trouble is that there is no such thing as this “Europe” — it is only an American invention. Thinking that Europe is a country, not a continent, is committing what I will call “the American fallacy”. Such fallacy was committed by, among others, part Beat, part Hippie-era author Ken Kesey, in an interview given shortly before he died (published in the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet, 26th of January, 2001). Kesey said that he was afraid that Americans would start to fight amongst themselves just as the Europeans had done for centuries. What he did not understand is that one cannot compare a possible civil war in the U.S. with wars between independent states in Europe.

The inhabitants of the U.S., by and large, share a common national identity. They also tend to be very patriotic. Not so in the many countries that comprise Europe. On this side of the Atlantic there is absolutely nothing resembling European patriotism. There is no real European identity. There are only different national identities, just like there are different national identities in the Western Hemisphere. When it comes to national identities, a Frenchman stands to a Portuguese like an American to a Mexican. Actually, some of the European nations are pretty much wrapped up in themselves and care little for their neighbors. The French are a good example of such a nation. For the bulk of the French population, they hardly travel outside of their own realm and, it seems, are not interested in other European cultures.

Further, while a common language unites Americans, there is no common language in Europe. Languages form an important aspect of cultural identity, so the fact that the Hungarians and the Czechs speak languages that are not even remotely related to each other further increases their sense of separation from one another and the rest of Europe. Interestingly enough, the Spanish tend to identify more with other Spanish-speaking peoples than with their fellow Europeans. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for the Portuguese and the British.

There is hardly any common “thing” which applies to all and only European countries or cultures; no common political tradition, to say the least. Britain has an old tradition for respecting the rights of the individual, which it exported to other English-speaking countries. Russia has always had despotic ways and France a tradition for bureaucratic centralisation. Albanians have a history of collectivistic tribalism, the Icelanders have been staunch individualists since the Viking age.

An example of generalising about Europe in the typical American fashion can be found in a recent interview with Susan Sontag (Morgenbladet, 18th of May, 2001). She said that while Americans believed there were no limits to what can be done, Europeans tend to emphasize limitations. There is a grain of truth in Sontag’s contention, but nevertheless it is misleading. This tendency to stress limitations can be found in most countries outside of the U.S., including Canada and Japan. American optimism is one of the unique features of American culture.

Some Americans believe that popular culture is a unique American phenomenon. This brings us to our main topic: American theorists about popular culture and their picture of Europe. In his highly interesting book, High brow/Low brow, Lawrence Levine describes how Shakespeare’s plays were performed in an entertaining, popular fashion in American music halls in the nineteenth century. According to Levine, it seems to have been a matter of pride for ordinary folks in the U.S. to see Shakespeare performed in this “democratic” way — so accessible to the masses. In their minds this contrasted with Europe, where they thought the “high culture” of Shakespeare was reserved for only the lords and the ladies.

But of course, what they did not know was that Shakespeare had been a part of popular entertainment in Great Britain ever since his own times. Indeed, in modern comparison, Shakespeare was a commercial writer. Further, operas were entertainment for paupers and rich alike in countries like Italy. Indeed, a poor peasant with a golden voice could make a fortune on the Italian opera stages.

Alas, Levine shows no sign of understanding that the Americans of the nineteenth century deluded themselves into believing that “European” culture was solely a culture of the rich and the powerful. Richard Shusterman makes a similar mistake in his otherwise excellent book Pragmatist Aesthetics. He says that it is not by chance that the U.S. has been a stronghold of popular culture. Its democratic and egalitarian traditions have provided a fertile soil for popular culture, in contrast to the more elitist Europe with its feudal tradition. But it is simply not true that all European countries have feudal traditions. Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and probably the Netherlands are cases in point. And if feudal traditions and sharp class distinctions are the enemies of popular culture, how is it, then, that the British have such a strong position in pop music?

In actual fact, most European countries had their own film industry, which basically produced light entertainment (these film industries differed considerably from one another, reflecting each country’s cultural tradition). The fact that even countries with strong feudal traditions had such an industry further weakens Shusterman’s thesis: consider the popularity of European “low brow” cultural phenomena like the bouzouki music of Greece, which has become a part of Greek cultural identity.

In contrast to what Shusterman seems to think, there are large areas of Europe where there is greater cultural equality than in the U.S. In the Nordic and Eastern European countries, for example, the general level of education is quite high and it is not unusual that ordinary people are thoroughly well read and highly cultivated. In Russia, Europe’s most populous country, there are scores of poor old babushkas that know Pushkin’s poems by heart (contrast this to the U.S., where there is a gulf between the academics and ordinary people, who often do not even know the name of their own president). Further, quite a number of the leading writers of the Nordic countries started out as ordinary workingmen, such as Noble prize-winners Knut Hamsun and Eivind Johnson.

Shusterman seems to believe that American “low brow” culture is popular because of it being egalitarian, but I don’t think that we have any reason for believing that this is the case. Of course egalitarianism may comprise part of an explanation of the success of American entertainment, but that is hardly the whole story.

For the film directors Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini, growing up in fascist Italy, American movies were a liberating experience. Actually, I do not doubt that making acquaintance with the American popular culture after the war did the Italians, the Japanese, and the Germans a world of good. They got to know a new kind of hero, the free spirited individual of, say, the Westerns, who stood up against authority. This might have made them more receptive to the idea of democracy and individual freedom. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the culture of the rich and powerful is always popular — everybody imitated French fashion and culture when the very unegalitarian France was on the top of the cultural food chain as the U.S. is now.

In the third world and ex-communist countries, American consumer goods are symbols of affluence, not egalitarianism. In these countries, eating at McDonald’s is ostensive consumption, just as buying French clothes was in earlier times. So in these countries you create economic distinctions with the aid of the supposedly egalitarian American culture. This was very much the case in my country, Iceland; the kids, who had the money to by American consumer goods were the envy of others.

As for the victory of the American entertainment industry over that of other countries, the basic explanation can be that the latter really was only a cottage industry. The Americans introduced taylorism into the world of entertainment, such as assembly line dime novels — where one person invented the plot, another person wrote the love scenes, and so on. The result was that the products of the American entertainment industry were cheaper than those of other countries. Perhaps other countries simply out-priced themselves.

Here is where the non-existence of Europe comes into the picture. Romantic Swedish movies about the count that marries an ordinary girl did not make it outside of Scandinavia because nobody understood Swedish. And the German forefathers of The Sound of Music the yodelling-and-Lederhosen movies of the fifties, were not necessarily box office hits in Germanophic France (besides, Yodel ‘n’ ‘Hosen simply could not compete with rock ‘n’ roll).

True, there have been periods when “European” movies have drawn bigger crowds internationally than the American-made movies. This was the case between 1953 and 1967, when Hollywood was in dire straits and the “Europeans” made such blockbusters as the James Bond movies and the Spaghetti westerns. This happened largely because television made a much greater impact on American life than it did in most other countries and Hollywood did not know how to counter the onslaught of the new medium. Television caused a dwindling attendance to theatres in the U.S., while the movie theatres in many European countries still drew big crowds.

Nevertheless, European films’ brief dominance in the international movie market could not last. The lack of cultural and linguistic unity of Europe gave the U.S. a competitive edge. The vastness of the American market has played an important role in giving the U.S. its present dominant position in the movie business. It is said that six out of 10 Hollywood films fail but that the film industry nevertheless makes a handsome profit from the 40% which do succeed, simply because the is so big.

I have tried to show that the American perception of “Europe” is mythical. Further, I have criticised some American scholars for letting the myth of Europe blur their visions of popular culture. I leave to the reader to decide whether or not this myth is a major problem or not for American perspective. After all, myth is the mother of truth.

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