Mr. Besson, Europe, and Martin Heidegger – The Huffington Post, November 18, 2009

logo huffingtonThe paradox is phenomenal.
And seen from here in New York, in the couple of newspapers that still cover French debates, it borders on the grotesque.

On one hand, we hear of a French identity in peril.

We have a minister of national identity and immigration (ah — this « and »…no matter how much time passes, I still do not see in this « and, » in this « copula » between « identity » and « immigration, » anything other than villainy…) who, as if our homeland were in danger, as if there were a fire in the house of identity, charges the « prefectural corps » to organize this great debate, these Estates General, about the foundational values of dear « Sweet France, » as Charles Trenet calls it.

And here is a deputy who, intoxicated by the current climate, dives into the gap opened up by the minister, confusing, by the way, the Prix Goncourt and the Legion of Honor, dresses down a writer for an interview judged unfavorable to the « image of the country, » and exhorts her to assume her « duty of self-restraint » that should be, according to him, required of laureates of literary prizes. (There too, the more I get around the problem, the more I get it: not only is this deputy a fool, but I see no nobler function of a Grand Prize than to permit the recipient, precisely, to open her big mouth, to use this distinction as a supplementary megaphone, and, precisely, to break from all the duties of self-restraint of her former situation…).

At the same time, while this small world amuses the gallery with its lamentable debate, while, from the left to the right, everyone thought it would be a good idea to display one’s credentials and proclaim, as protocol demands, the firmness of one’s patriotism, all the while, from one end of the chessboard to the other, they are again pulling the old Tartuffe trick of the very-question-we-mustn’t-leave-to-the-Front-National, there is one — that of identity — that is in true peril and about which, according to the classic logic of the purloined letter (Poe) or of the scrapheap (Melville), according to the unusable principle that states that nothing works like a diversion, a well-articulated slip or, simply, a cloud of ink, to conceal an embarrassing question, no one seems to dare to ask — and this is the question of European identity.

I do not doubt the qualities of those who will present themselves for election this Thursday evening to the 27 government leaders in charge of electing their President.

But I have doubts about the mode of designation, a secret, opaque process, without examination of the candidates.

I have doubts about the powers that, bolstered by a poorly-tempered advance legitimacy, he or she will be able to claim when the time comes to counter Russian designs on Ukraine and Georgia, or to advance the climate issue.

And we have only seen too often, on the other hand, how the pitiful losing machine is put in place: that the best would be pushed aside; that the most mediocre, the dullest, those who would overshadow the least the leaders of government perched on their national hackles, would carry the day; it is with this mechanical effect that the European construction sees itself thus deprived, in this critical hour of its history, of its most charismatic and, sometimes, its most ardent advocates.

My generation lived in the illusion of an inevitable Europe that, because it was supposed to go in the « direction of History, » would come to pass, no matter what happened.

It lived by the idea — progressive, literally progressive, even it if was a liberal progressivism — that Europe would build itself alone, on the sly, behind our backs, without its subjects noticing or, even less, going to any trouble.

It is this illusion that is shattering.

It is this dream of an easy Europe that is dissipating.

And the current state of today is indeed, whether we want it or not, the crumbling, the exhaustion, and soon the dismantling of a project that had to its credit nothing short of a victory over fascism (Spain, Greece, Portugal), another over totalitarianism (the liberation of the constitutive nations from what Kundera called a long time ago « captive Europe »), without mentioning the prodigious capacity to foment peace between enemies long believed to be endemic (France and Germany).

So, starting from that point, we must choose.

Either we silence Mr. Besson, or we definitively bury Europe.

Or we consent to the nationalistic diversion, or we renounce the great project of this new kind of political object, of this institutional and ideological chimera that was the European construction.

We cannot, in any case, do both: launch, on one hand, the useless debate about identity that everyone knows is not going any better today than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago — and feed, relaunch, and advance the other debate that, on the other hand, is vital and which has to do with a Europe that knows less and less what it is, what it wants, and what it is allowed to hope.

There aren’t, today, in these matters, a million different ways to picture the future: there are only two mutually exclusive ways.

Get back in touch with the earth that does not lie, to again take root among the dead — or to undertake, like Kleist said in the famous page commented upon by Heidegger in On the Way to Language, to « erase itself » before the living who are not quite entirely there and « to bow, a thousand years in advance, before their wisdom. »

The nostalgia of a nationalism devoted again to the task of a populist and rancid rhetoric, or the audacity of a Europe to come, not in a thousand years, but tomorrow, for the time is pressing — this is the choice.

Bernard-Henri Lévy
Translated from French by Sara Phenix.

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