José Ortega y Gasset: "Europa es el único continente que tiene un contenido."
In his book Eccentric Culture, a fascinating analysis of European cultural identity, the French philosopher Rémi Brague relates an anecdote about Ortega y Gasset. The latter had recently returned from America and was asked the reason for his return. He answered with a pun of ambiguity:
"Europa es el único continente que tiene un contenido."The Spanish word "continente" means both "continent" and "container," permitting either of two translations for Ortega's reply: "Europe is the only continent that has a content" and "Europe is the only container that has a content." He meant both, and one sees what he meant. Europe has a cultural unity that other continents lack.
Perhaps Europe's cultural unity is less impressive as a unique fact when one reflects that this continent is the artifact of an arbitrary line drawn to separate what is considered 'Europe' from what is considered 'Asia.' Looked down upon from above, Europe seems merely an Asian peninsula.
But the imaginary line exists in everyone's mind. To its west, Europe. To its east, Asia. West of the line, we find a civilization that integrated Athens and Jerusalem. East of the line, however, we find many civilizations. To be identified as "Asian" is therefore only a geographical distinction and implies nothing about one's cultural identity. Whereas a German might casually remark, "I am a European," and thereby make a recognizable statement of cultural identity, a Korean would not formulate a corresponding remark in stating, "I am an Asian."
For a Korean to offer a parallel statement of cultural identity, the formulation would have to be, "I am a Korean."
But what does that mean -- what is a Korean?
I've been 'officially' asked this question concerning Korean identity and now have to reflect upon it. Perhaps my recent encounter with Hwang Sok-yong's novel The Guest will provide some grist for this cultural mill, and I'll certainly be grinding away, but others with more knowledge than I are invited to comment here.