Monday, October 19, 2009

José Ortega y Gasset: "Europa es el único continente que tiene un contenido."

José Ortega y Gasset
(Image from Wikipedia)

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.

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At 6:19 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"What is a Korean?" is a question I've tossed around with some of my advanced students before. Increasingly fascinating-- not to mention topical, especially as more people who don't "look Korean" become owners of Korean passports.


At 6:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, and the 'multicultural' families -- as 'Koreans' like to call them -- are contributing to this issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:18 AM, Blogger El fuego de Will said...

As an American with life experience in Europe and a broad understanding of Asian cultural identity issues, I would observe that Europeans present a passionate regionalism. As such it is as likely to hear a Frenchman, refer to himself as Parisian, of the 6th district, French and equally a Euro. Contrast this with a young female from Bombay , I observed on train comment to another American woman " meh , you wouldn't understand, you're not asian."
So while I comprehend a cultural unity among French,Dutch, and Italians I am certain that there does exist a domain of cultural regionalism in this so called "European Identity. Equally, salient, and justified then is the assertion of a cultural harmony,solidarity, and unity among Japanese,Malay, Indian and Thai groups, connoted in the term "Asian". Historians, and cultural theorist would ask you to view both the European and Asian identity as informed by differences of two district large cultural spheres. That despite Jose Ortega y Gasset continental conviction,both Europe and Asia are" containers" cultural richness spread across nations,regions.tied together via commercial, political, religious and linguistic traditions.
And that imaginary line separating a geography once known as Eurasia, is imagined with equal regard whether you travel- West,East.

Will DeGlobo

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Will DeGlobo, for your perspective, which I'll have to consider carefully.

I wonder, however, what various Asians would mean by referring to themselves as "Asian." I can understand a geographical meaning, but I can't really see a pan-Asian identity with much substantive content.

My wife, for instance, acknowledges the label "Asian," but she doesn't see much cultural identity to the term.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:01 AM, Blogger Jay Kactuz said...

Probably best translated as "Europe is the only continent with substance". This could have come right out of the late 19th century.

I see this as 2 things: Europe finally rejecting multiculturalism (a good thing) and 2. racism, or in other words, other people are not important (a bad thing).

While there is certainly a shared cultural identity among European nations that goes back 2500 years, I don't see the same among African and Asian countries. India and China have very little in common (except Mongols!) and even neighboring cultures are quite unique (Vietnam and China, Korea and Japan, Burma and India, Persia and Pakistan, etc....). I don't see the unity that Will does for Asia. It is much more diverse than Europe and lacks any common heritage.

Korea is an interesting case. It has come so far in my lifetime. It is stuck in a rather inconvinient place between China, Russia and Japan. It is divided with part of it ruled by an evil madman. I would think that a very fascinating question would be "What is to become of Korea?"


At 5:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jay, good to see you hear again.

I don't know what Ortega meant by his remark, but Brague offers a fascinating gloss -- about which I've previously posted if you want to look for it among my Brague entries.

Korea is an interesting case for a discussion of identity, and I will be posting more on that soon.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't exactly call the Ural Mountains an imaginary dividing line, but in terms of physical geography, there really is only one continent of Eurasia.

I question whether Europe, extending from Iceland to Spain to Albania to Russia is really more culturally unified than Africa or the Americas prior to European colonization. Albania and Bosnis are predominantly Muslim, and the languages are incredibly diverse. I don't know much about Slavic or Balkan cultures, but I perceive those countries to be quite different from Western and Northern Europe in values and traditions. With a land mass so much larger, more diversity Asia is expected. I think only members of the EU really identify themselves as European. Russians tend to identify themselves as Russian, not European, in the same way that Catholics tend to call themselves Catholics, not Christians.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, thanks for the comment.

One correction: Bosnia has a majority Christian population, albeit divided between Catholics and Orthodox (who don't get along). At least, that was the case with the last statistics that I saw the numbers (and I've not checked recently).

As for Albania, I recall seeing statistics that it was over 30 percent Catholic . . . but I don't dispute that it's 'predominantly' Muslim (though I do wonder how truly Muslim it is, for I've read that Albanians are turning back to Catholicism).

The cultural unity of Europe depends upon its Greek and Christian heritage, so there was certainly no cultural unity prior to Europe's Christianization (which carried a Graeco-Roman aspect).

As for the line between Europe and Asia being imaginary . . . well, it's been drawn at various places, not just along the Urals. The Urals are perhaps the least imaginary of the lines, but as you note, Russians don't seem to consider themselves European.

It's certainly a vexed issue, this question of European identity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:11 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

I don't know where Europe ends right now any better than any other man, but from having talked to so many young people ten to twenty years ago (who would now be in their 30s to 40s), I'll make some wildly accurate guesses where it will be in about ten to twenty years from now:

- Europe's emotional hubs will be, in order: Barcelona, Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Florence, Dublin and Talinn because these are the places where these then-young and now somewhat elite people really and exclusively met en masse as Europeans in Europe, not as countrymen abroad.
- France and Britain will be odd enclaves, shunned by the others and shunnig them in turn.
- Finland will certainly hang on, but Scandinavia proper will no more and not yet agian be Europe. Footnote: But Iceland will become very hip.
- Serbia and Ukraine will have part in that new Europe, Bosnia will be on its way
- Russia will still not have decided, but will throw St. Petersburg into the mix, as an experiment and a gesture.
- Some exceptional places like Armenia an Kazakhstan will jockey for connection.
- Greece will try to hang on, fail, but rebound.

The whole thing will feel somewhat like if Spain was populated by Austrians. The EU will have little role in all of this happening. Bruxelles will be a slum. And Europe's outward focus will be east Asia.

At 5:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting futurology, Erdal. I suppose that we'll live long enough to see your predictions through.

Want to place bets on any of the specific ones?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:04 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Since I have time on my hands, I'll elaborate a little: Something very decisive has just happened in Germany, something that has apparently yet to filter through into the Anglosphere press, where it will be -- at least initially -- totally misunderstood, I guess: This country's patience with multiculturalism, and very specifically and outspokenly only as far as Turks and Arabs are concerned, has snapped. Loudly and clearly. I haven't heard such a bang since 1989. And again, it may turn out to have happend as it did in the GDR, in maybe the most constructive way possible, given the circumstances.

It all started with a longish essay by Berlin's Secretrary of Finance (a Social Democrat of the bourgeois, elitist type, Thilo Sarrazin) reviewing his Berlin years at length in a high-brow cultural magazine before transfering to a Bundesbank top job.

What he said, how it was initially met with the usual howls of the muslim immigrant lobbies, all the print and tv media, and large parts of the political and cultural establishment was remarkable enough; but a groundswell of public support, three quarters of the population according to polls, then forced the media left, right and centre to backpaddle, then to even to predominantly openly support him "on substance, but not in form". Eventually, those who initially called for Sarrazin to resign ("racist, fascist, just like Hitler"), even to be imprisoned for hate-crimes and to be thrown out of his party were themselves faced with open derision, ridicule and opposition from within their own ranks. This is totally unprecedented and has dominated headlines and TV in Germany now for five weeks solid, with little tendency to die down.

All this came from within the established system and is by no means comparable to what happened in other European countries, where it is usually rightwing outsiders who try in vain, and against the media and the establishment, to finally get the topic into the open.


At 6:04 AM, Anonymous erd said...

Now then, what did Sarrazin say? That the usual p.c. talk about "mirgants" as such was useless. That the East Europeans and the Asians (specifically the Vietnamese, the largest group) are doing just fine, thank you. That, on the other hand, Turkish and Arab immigration has been an utter failure by every measure. That he felt no respect toward those who live off the state, loathe the state and contribute nothing to society but more and more little girls with headscarves. That 70% of the Turks and 90% of the Arabs contribute nothing economically, are a drain on the public coffers, and have little hope of ever escaping that situation because they are failing in schools in ever increasing numbers with every subsequent generation due to self-chosen ghettoization. For good measure he also commentend on archaic culture and their lower IQ, and that they may as well do nothing elsewhere, while those who leave their ghettoes to learn german, go to school, study and work would of course be welcome. And, oh, we may cease to allow you to import illiterate brides and stop giving you money quite soon, because hanging around in tea houses all day is of no use to anybody.

He also at lenghth slammed lazy students, bad architecture, Berlin's self-pitying german underclass, public servants, big industry, subsidies and many other things.

The German government, freshly elected and still in coalition talks, kept mum, for the time being.

This may have been a spontaneous, even accidental development, but it certainly invites conspiracy theories: there is muffled talk in the stands that Sarrazin may have been advanced to shout "cake" because Angela Merkel would rather not play Marie Antoinette, and prefers to be seen as obeying public opinion rather than shaping it.

One way or another: The Turkish community got the message alright, even though they won't admit it publicly, and still consider themselves the perpetual victims of German ungratefulness; but I've heard that there is serious thought about returning to Turkey in many families. This would be such a happy solution for everybody, because even though Turkish lobbyists never got tired of claiming for rhetorical effect that they were being treated "just like the Jews", they of course secretly feared that they actually could be. This is all so bizarre...

At 7:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I had read some news report or other of Sarrazin's remarks, but I hadn't seen them summarized so succinctly as you've put them.

Perhaps I should read the interview, for this is big news. You wouldn't have a link, would you?

This is clearly significant, as you emphasize, and things could get rapidly unpleasant. I'll stay alert on this now that you've drawn my attention to it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:08 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

At 3:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal.

Jeffery Hodges

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