One day I'm sitting in a rented SUV in a traffic jam, near yet far from LaGuardia, listening to NPR. Some harmless duffer, probably wearing a bowtie and a Yankees cap, is waxing sentimental about the great baseball stadiums of yore. I get in a plane and the next day I'm back in France and the taxi driver is listening to France Culture. Some professor is on, talking about Maurice Blanchot, who suspects that what we all really want, deep down, is to get spanked.
So I'm back in France. I came out of the airplane into a gauntlet of ads from HSBC, the ones asking you to imagine what banking is going to be like in the future. Whenever I see them I imagine how they will look --sorry, how they would look-- sticking out of post-apocalyptic rubble.
Really, I'm sorry. Elif Batuman has announced that we've exited the age of irony and have entered the age of awkwardness. Oy, Elif, I just can't keep up with all the ages, and I suppose that in itself is a prescription for countless awkward encounters. Anyhow I'm still dwelling on how ironic, not awkward, all the feverish proclamations of capitalism triumphant are going to look someday.
Now I'm back home, back in Europe. Where? When I got my French cellphone contract they told me I would have to call for a special forfait prior to any trips to North America, but they assured me I could use it anywhere in 'Europe'. This sounded strange, and ill-defined. I asked if I could use it in Romania. Yes, of course, the agent replied. Bulgaria? Yes. Croatia? I think so. Montenegro? Um. Moldova? Uh. Chechnya? No, definitely not. The poor young man was laughing, and a bit annoyed, but he got my point. Europe's vagueness is intrinsic to its constitution. This is what makes the E.U. so hard to transform into a political reality. It is not that it is 'porous', or that its boundaries are not secure, but rather that there is a vast region that is itself a great, planar boundary zone. It is, perhaps, that part of Europe that puts carpets on its walls, or the part that has a historical memory of Mongol or Turkic reigns. Except that for any attempt to define it, one can always come forth with a compelling reason to move 'it' a bit further west.
It is significant, more significant than anyone has appreciated since the Pax Americana settled over Western Europe in 1945, that during the war 'Hun' had served as a catch-all insult for Germans and Japanese alike (and implicitly, though this created a bit of a problem in accounting for the allied Russians, for everyone in between). A 'Hun' is a Eurasian, which up until the end of World War II included everyone from the Pacific coast all the way to Mitteleuropa. After the war, Germany was split, and the DDR fell into the sphere of influence of the Soviets. Tales are numerous of babies with demi-Mongolian features cropping up all over Berlin around, let's see, midwinter, 1946. I recall many people, among them my father, crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the mid-1980s and reporting back that the soldiers patrolling the streets of East Berlin were 'Central Asian' or 'Mongolian' (read 'Hunnic') in appearance. This commonplace endures. Thus Tim Judah, filing for the New York Review of Books from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, writes: "The tanks looked relatively modern. As they pulled away, a man whose head was sticking out of the hatch at the top of a tank waved at us. His features were central Asian." Judah is telling the truth, of course, but he is also playing on an ancient fear about the identity of Europe, one that seems little changed since Batu Khan's hordes faced Yuri II of Vladimir in 1237.
The Russians, many recently realigned Eastern Europeans now think, are the true descendants of the Mongol Horde. They bring the soldiers with the Asiatic physiognomies. This is what determines where the absolute boundaries must be drawn. This is what motivates Obama's speechwriters to write that "the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London." This is what brings NATO forward with its righteous Hollywood teleology, and this is what makes Putin puff out his chest and insist upon his terrible counter-history, his hordic revenge.
When I was studying in Leningrad a quarter-century ago, there was much hand-wringing about the identity of Russia, and its place in a changing world. "Are we European, or are we Asian?" This struck me as a childish, pointless question. Now I see it is a gravely important one, so important that the very future of the world may hang on its satisfactory resolution. That there is no real answer, that no amount of scrutiny of maps or of soil, or measurement of lines of latitude or of magnetic variation, could possibly resolve the question, can only make it all the more disconcerting that ICBMs are involved.
But I love Europe: I need to be in the place that is being fought over. That was always the attraction of Berlin, whatever the idiot youngsters are saying about that city today, about its 'urban spaces' and 'creative redesigns'.
When I was growing up on a defunct chicken farm in the central valley of California, there was a great barn out back in which someone had dumped thousands of books. They were covered in chicken shit, and they were the first books that truly provoked my imagination, made me a bibliophile... a coprobibliophile. Most of them would have been shit even without the shit: large-print Reader's Digest versions of the classics, wit and wisdom from Lady Bird Johnson, the 1971 AAA guide to the motor inns of Utah, etc. But there was one book that stuck out, that demanded to be cleaned off and studied: it was, I think, a 1975 statistical report of the Bundesministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Forsten concerning the number of hectares of uncultivated forest in the Federal Republic of Germany. The key thing is that it was in German, and for me to find it there was a highly improbably sort of magic. I took it inside and treated it like a holy text, and opened it up and marveled at its impossibly long words, and at the thought that these words could actually have a meaning. Everything I've ever done since has been an attempt to unravel that meaning, and others like it.
But still, there is America, and what I love most about living in Europe, perhaps, is that I can now experience the continent of my birth with a similar sense of marvel and strangeness to the one with which I had so long experienced the continent of my ancestry. I can go there, to New Jersey, say, and I can feel the autumn beginning to set in, and I can feel, sharply, the great violence that made New Jersey possible, and the millennia that preceded it too. Or at least I think I can. Anyhow I feel estranged, in the proper sense: made into an étranger.
It is significant that one of the founding myths of the continent on which I currently find myself has to do with the rape of a Phoenician woman. Alternative translations will tell you that we should understand this 'rape' rather as a ravishment, or, seemingly much more innocuously, as an abduction. Yet we mustn't exaggerate the difference of connotation. One of the core features of Eurasian folk culture, spreading from the Adriatic Sea to Eastern Turkestan, is the idea that marriage is itself a rape or ravishment or taking-away for the purpose of non-consensual sex. This transgression must be enacted, if only ritualistically, in the wedding celebration. The family, with its recently discovered 'values', is a product of unspeakable violence. This is the anthropology of kinship, in Europe as in Asia. This is the story that gives Europe its name.