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How Out is Out?

Enda O’Doherty writes: The nature of the relationship – attached, semi-detached, or detached and rather hostile ‑ that the UK is likely to have with the rest of Europe in coming years and decades is certainly the question of the moment. It was of course the question in 2018 as well; and 2017; and 2016. And if it goes unresolved much further into 2019 there may be many of us who will echo Lady Macbeth in pleading with our British neighbours to “Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once.”

But of course, for all our frustrations, and those of other members of the EU27, the order, or rather the manner, of their going does matter quite a lot. One of our former ambassadors to Europe argued in a recent eloquent letter to The Irish Times, that a soft Brexit offers the best way out of the current impasse. And it looks as if there are significant cross-party feelers now going out across the House of Commons to achieve that aim in spite of the paralysis of the government and Mrs May’s apparent determination to keep flogging dead political horses.

How this will all turn out, only time – as the leader writers so wisely remind us – will tell. There is, however, another question. We can speculate on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, but what about Britons’ future relationship? Might that be a different thing? In the later sixteenth century, as Protestantism (seen by some as “the first Brexit”) bedded down in England, Queen Elizabeth amply demonstrated to her subjects that she would not tolerate subversion, but insisted that she had no desire to “open windows into men’s souls”, an apparent admission of a right of private conscience ‑ a right which was not always upheld in practice. So will the British in the coming years still be allowed to be European? And if so how many will want to? And in what ways could they express their Europeanness?

The embedding of English thought and culture in a common European matrix can be seen, using literature as just one example, from the Middle Ages onwards (earlier Old English poetry being derived from a subset, a Germanic, northern, originally oral, tradition). Chaucer drew on French romance, as in his translation of the Roman de la Rose, Greek legend and its various French medieval accretions for Troilus and Criseyde, vulgar French fabliaux for some of his more naughty Canterbury tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron for others. Shakespeare is of course the supreme exemplar of English literary genius and today a pillar of the tourism and English Heritage industries. Curiously, the history plays apart, very little of his work is set in England or derived from English sources, a favourite location for the comedies being Italy. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson set his great comedy Volpone (1605/06) in Venice. Though it's unlikely that Jonson ever went there, the play exhibits a far greater knowledge of and feel for that city than does Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Indeed, though Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina and As You Like It in eastern France it could just as easily be the other way around without very much having to be changed. Shakespeare was not hugely interested in place. It is of more cultural interest that he found no reason not to rifle European stories for his plots, and that his audience found nothing strange or “alienating” in following and enjoying the adventures of "foreigners".

For Shakespeare’s successor John Webster, Italy takes on a much more sinister aspect, especially in the violent, macabre dramatic works The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614). Were the English beginning to feel that this southern country which had been celebrated for more than a century for its art and architecture, learning and civility was now more remarkable as a seat of treason and corruption, in which the twin evils of political factionalism and ecclesiastical worldliness and cupidity had created a dystopia in which true religion was nowhere to be found and man was wolf to man?

Then there was the sex. The Elizabethan educationalist Roger Ascham, in The Scholemaster (1570), pleaded with young Englishmen not to travel to Italy, where a siren might “sing him a song, sweet in tone but sounding in the end to his utter destruction ... Some Circes shall make him, of a plain Englishman, a right Italian: and at length to hell, or to some hellish place, is he likely to go ...” Ben Jonson’s friend Thomas Coryat, who travelled through France to Venice in 1608, walking much of the way, warned tourists who might come after him of the nefarious practices of the gondoliers, who would ignore the instructions given to them and take the unwary male foreigner straight to a bawdy house. If Europe, and in particular Italy, figures largely in seventeenth century English literature and thought it must be said that after that period its presence seems to fade. After the 1660 restoration of the monarchy the fashion was for English dramas of upper class life, comedies of manners. For the two greatest English novelists of the nineteenth century, Austen and Dickens, Europe barely exists (A Tale of Two Cities apart). It is interesting to note that in the musical sphere the connections remained closer: George Frideric Handel and Johann Christian Bach made a living as musicians and composers in England; Mozart visited and Haydn made himself a small fortune on two very extended trips in the 1790s. Here the immigrants may have been supplying a want that could not otherwise be met: a hostile early twentieth century German critic referred to England as das Land ohne Musik, the country without music (of its own).

Certainly it was not just Englishmen who could smell a whiff of danger in Italy. Michel de Montaigne and his visiting party witnessed two public executions for murder in Rome within just a few days in January 1581. Two centuries later, in 1786, Goethe had this to say:

All I can say about the Italians is this: they are children of Nature, who, for all the pomp and circumstance of their religion and art, are not a whit different from what they would be if they were still living in forests and caves. What strikes any foreigner are the murders which happen every day. In our quarter alone there have been four in the last three weeks. Today again the whole city is talking of one, but it only talks. An honest artist called Schwendimann ... was assaulted exactly like Winckelmann [a celebrated art historian, murdered in his bed in Trieste in 1768 by his room companion]. His assailant, with whom he had got into a scuffle, stabbed him twenty times, and when the guards arrived, the villain stabbed himself. This is not the fashion here. Usually, the murderer takes sanctuary in a church, and that is the end of that.

Murder too constitutes a striking episode in perhaps the best-known novel of that delicate explorer of the English gentleman’s encounter with what we now call “the other”, EM Forster. Robert Holland, in his elegant and erudite study of British engagement with the Mediterranean, The Warm South (2018), focuses on the incident in A Room with a View (1908) when the English middle class heroine Lucy Honeychurch, having slipped away from her overprotective chaperone, Miss Bartlett, sees, in a quiet Florentine piazza, “a man knifed to death in an air of trivial unreality”. Such, it would seem, is Italy; such are the Italians. But if the passion can be alarming, these people, it is suggested, may yet have something to teach us about life, and love. There are limits, Forster suggests, to the virtues of being straitlaced and buttoned-up. Lucy, as the clergyman Mr Beebe observes, may be well-brought-up and well-behaved but there is something smouldering beneath; indeed when she plays Beethoven on the piano she can be almost frightening. Does the English soul, do the English virtues, perhaps need to be complemented, to be completed, by something else?

Forster’s most direct confrontation of the English and the foreign (again it is Italy but it might just as well be Spain or Greece) is in a slightly earlier novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). The plot concerns the widow Lilia Herriton, who on a visit to Tuscany meets and falls in love with an Italian man much younger than herself. Her outraged in-laws try to prevent a marriage but are too late to do so. Later Lilia dies in childbirth and a further expedition is mounted to “save” the baby – from Italianness and Catholicism it would seem. This attempt ends in disaster. Forster anatomises English attitudes to “abroad” in two contrasting studies of the siblings Harriet and Philip Herriton. Harriet is a narrow-minded woman. At a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor (an Italian work based on a Scottish novel) at the local opera house attended by the English party she is disgusted by the Italian audience's loud enthusiasm for the diva, bursting out spitefully “Ridiculous babies!” and plonking herself down in her seat as all others stand to applaud. (The scene is beautifully played by Judy Davis in the 1991 film version directed by Charles Sturridge.) “She was curiously virulent about Italy,” Forster writes, “which she had never visited, her only experience of the Continent being an occasional six weeks in the Protestant parts of Switzerland.”

But as Forster knows, not all English people are like that. Some are open to experience and even a little ashamed of some of their compatriots. In A Room with a View the Italophile Miss Lavish sneers at a pair of passing tourists: “Look at their figures!” laughed Miss Lavish. “They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty of me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.”

Philip Herriton is similarly enthusiastic about the civilising effect of abroad. And yet ... and yet ... as Herriton looks across at his Italian brother-in-law, Forster muses: “For three years he had sung the praises of the Italians, but he had never contemplated having one as a relative ... Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred times – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.”

Could there be a possible future for Britain, or for some Britons, of loving Europe (if the spirit so moves them) while not being formally of it? Winston Churchill, Hugo Young argued, was “a European of highly romantic disposition. His idea of Europe was benign and passionate, informed by the prescience of the historian as well as of the public man. The flaw lay in his description of what Europe was, where its limits lay.” That is to say that when he talked of Europe, and sometimes moved his European audience to tears, he was not exactly being insincere: he just did not believe that Britain could really be a part of this wonderful thing, seeing its destiny as being far more intimately tied with those of “the English-speaking peoples”. A European might well be a splendid person, but perhaps one did not want to end up looking at him at dinner, at least not at home. Of course the Philip Herriton figure is just a literary creation. He is one version, conceived by a social satirist, of the semi-European Briton. And probably we should not shed any great tears over the departure from Europe of either the Philips (lukewarm aesthetes admiring from a distance) or the Harriets (insular bigots fuelled by a sentiment of superiority). But it is fairly certain that there are many other Britons, more thoroughly committed to Europe, who since 2016 have found themselves on the wrong side of their nation's mood and resurgent self-image.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, which collapsed in 1918, is sometimes held out as a model of concord between nations, an idealistic formation which prefigured the European Union. But the reality was not always so idyllic, with much straining and squabbling and the application of a formula, between 1867 and 1914, of what has been called permanent negotiation, first between Vienna and Budapest, and second, in the Austrian part, between all the various nationalities (Czechs, Italians, Poles etc) represented in parliament. (The Hungarians, who lorded it over the Croats, Slovaks and Romanians, were less interested in negotiation.) One solution suggested to defuse these tensions was federalism, which would however, have been difficult to implement given the often high degree of ethnic mixture in quite small areas. Another, more ingenious, was the principle of “personal autonomy”, whereby nationality could be left as a private matter, subject to individual choice. This stratagem, however, while it accords nationhood a certain importance, suggests that it is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of identity. Whatever its potential, in the early twentieth century such an arrangement did not, finally appeal: not to the Czechs or Italians or Poles or "Yugoslavs"; not either to the Irish of one hundred years ago, with their eyes firmly set on legislative independence.

And yet perhaps the principle of personal autonomy may still have a place, a little outside politics but within the realms of identity and culture. The EU is likely to develop over the next decade or so into an entity where we will again see some kind of “variable geometry” in operation, a growing closeness between those who want to advance in co-operation and a place somewhere towards the back of the stalls for others. And outside all of that there will be those Turks of European culture and vision, who will not be allowed to be a part; and Ukrainians; and Belarusians; and Albanians. And that minority of Britons who will leave with tears in their eyes. We are probably not moving into a phase when the Union will be interested in taking many risks. But perhaps there is life – indeed there must be life – on the outside too. The “European spirit” may be something we find hard to define, but we do know that it does not stop dead on the Sweden-Norway border or somewhere on the road from Vilnius to Minsk. The European Network of Cultural Journals (see eurozine.com), in which this journal participates, has even recently recruited some associate members from the United States. Who knows, at a time when certain British politicians dream of becoming something like the fifty-first state, perhaps it might – on the spiritual level at least – be open to some of the intellectually disaffected citizens of New York or Massachusetts to help make up the numbers over here.

23/1/2019