Thursday, December 02, 2004

Atlantic permutations

As a teenager half a century ago I aspired to leave the crass commercialism of America forever. Fleeing our “air-conditioned nightmare,” I would reside in Europe's venerable arcadia, soaking myself in old-world culture. Three countries competed for my allegiance: Britain, France, and Italy. After sojourns in New York City (which for a while I regarded as a mere starting-off place), I did get to live in Italy for two years; and after an interval in London for four. Needless to say, these expat stays had a chastening effect.

So it was that in 1967 I decided to come back to the USA, as that was where the action was. The civil rights and antiwar movements were well under way; women's rights and gay rights were waiting in the wings. Still I kept going back across the pond on visits to Europe, where the most of the art works I taught were located. There was also a Europe of my mind, implanted by my superb teachers in graduate school, almost all of them products of Central Europe. This was the Transatlantic Migration. These scholars migrated in the reverse sense, and under much more pressing circumstances--the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the context of the world Depression. This migration has few parallels. Perhaps the best one is with the flight of Byzantine scholars to Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

However much these demigods set down roots here (and in England too), they could not get Europe out of their system. This meant proficiency in a number of modern languages, together with a formation in Greek and Latin. In addition there was an intangible essence, which cannot be duplicated. Later in these pages I will attempt reconsiderations of some of these figures, including Erich Auerbach, Gerhart Ladner, Karl Mannheim, Erwin Panofsky, and Leo Spitzer.

This historic development led to the emergence of an Atlantic community after World War II. It seemed to me that within the broader horizons there was a kind of hexagon: New York, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam. Daunting as it sounds, I held that one must keep up with all of them.

Some said, mockingly, that this idea of multipolar Atlanticism was a mere artifact of NATO. We were the children of NATO. There is something to this, as I was supported for two years by a Fulbright grant in England.

But first the Soviet Union disappeared; then the US sought to go it alone. We became alienated from “Old Europe.” How can this process of mutual alienation be reversed? This problem merits further thought.

POSTSCRIPT. The disdain felt by my youthful self for my native land may seem hopelessly callow and ungrateful. Yet listen to the litany of deficits Henry James noted as marking the United States in the middle of the 19th century: "No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic services, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches, no great Universities nor public schools--no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class--no Epsom, nor Ascot!"

Clearly a good deal has changed since HJ made up this bill of indictment, embroidering on a gentler complaint by Nathanael Hawthorne. The changes are not all for the better. "No State" sounds almost like paradise.