In the painting above, what strikes one the most is the shadows. The imposing white building punctuated by the arches begs a thousand questions. Its stretch follows the street to its end. Terminating in what appears to be a seafront, a flag flutters as the sun either rises or descends. A young girl with her stick and hoop paces down the street and towards the light, in an opposing direction to that of the flag. Indistinguishable from the girl’s own form, a shadow emerges from a block in the shade. It is either the shadow of a person rearing his head, or a statue. A wooden cart is arbitrarily placed in the foreground, and we don’t know what is to enter – or exit – it from the shady arcade.
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street was painted by surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in 1914. Thirty years later in 1944, his brother, Andrea, would pen a series of columns on the future of Europe collected in the volume The Fate of Europe. Andrea, at this point going by the pseudonym Alberto Savinio, was convinced that the only way Europe could survive beyond the Second World War was to unify. Slamming war, nationalism and illiberalism, Savinio penned his acute analyses of the post-war human condition on the continent.
In his painting, de Chirico seemed to anticipate the rigidity of the Fascist regime that would march on Rome eight years later, with its negative glorification (we are great only because others are weak) and stupefying propaganda. The current British press is no different. All of the piazzas and streets in his paintings are empty, save for a statue; a refined marble hunk, but no longer worshipped or admired. Fascism had rid Europe of ‘thought and judgement’, Savinio remarked. There was little alternative the status quo, and the first job of a post-war Europe would be to return thought and judgement to ordinary people. Rather unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in a similar situation today, where twenty years of illiberal liberalism has stupefied us, too. We are taught to judge success based on circumstance, rather than moral or ethical integrity, hypernormalised to the extent that we refuse to see beyond what is imposed. We ourselves are judged and forced to aspire to bygone eras: for the left it’s Attlee and Bevan, for the centre it’s New Labour, for the right it’s Thatcher.
Interestingly, all of these players in political legend sought a united Europe, too. Attlee’s was a protectionist Europe led by Britain with delusions of grandeur; for Blair it was a Europe of his ideas; for Thatcher, Europe was just a market. The political class is now in the position where it can either imitate the past (Savinio retorts that Charlemagne, Napoleon and even Hitler dreamt of ‘Europe’), which would be a great mistake; or forge its own Europe. Savinio concludes by saying that ‘No Man, no great Power, no great Force can unite Europeans and make Europe. Only an idea can unite them: the most human of ideas’. For Savinio, this idea is a Partisan Europe, that is, a Europe which ‘functions upon its own impulse, and not upon the orders or examples of others.’ As much as a ‘historically-minded Europe’ (as DiEM25 co-founder Yanis Varoufakis reminds us) is necessary, searching the past for a ready-made Europe shall fail. other unification attempts have been on the impulse of the individual: Charlemagne, Napoleon, Hitler. The Europe of today has Jean-Claude Juncker.
We cannot unify Europe, and the world, through war. It is not men that make war, but war that makes men. Brexiteers opposed a common EU army (the delights of the Mail and the Express “wrote” extensive propaganda pieces on this), still revelling in their Empire, reluctant to re-emerge from their rabbit hole. War is child-like, infantile. War destroys Liberalism: it turns men, women and children into means, rather than ends in themselves. The irony is that war, too, is a means to an end. Europe has evaded its own problems by imposing them militarily on other countries. Writer Akala put this best: ‘we loved the Libyans so much we decided to bomb democracy into them’.
Pertinent to our age, Savinio writes that Liberalism is a stage in every ideology, a ‘nirvana’ of all thought. Communists, you shall have your liberalism, too! Liberalism should give the people the scope to think and to judge. Liberalism is ‘Pericles, hidden, who frees Anaxagoras, condemned to death for contradicting the state’, and Savinio calls on us to defend it. The ‘Enemies of the People’ beckon. Yet liberalism has become stale and rusty. The Europe of today is a system of classifications. The forces of change – the cultural institutions – have been homogenised, and we are all within these categories. The socialist poet, the Catholic actor, the fascist painter. The ruling class, whose charge is led by UKIP lapdog Brexiteers has professionalised thought and politics. Thought and Judgement have been replaced with a plastic label.
Savinio declared that the Fate of Europe was to unify under one human idea. Brexit has thrown this into jeopardy. Today, the Fate of Europe is one of self-implosion, stagnation and desertion. Europe has become empty like de Chirico’s streets. This generation must grab the stick and hoop, pace it towards the light, and never look back upon its shadow.