As anti-American sentiment rises across the Continent, Michael Gorra looks back on the history of our European travels and makes a case for keeping the love alive

Michael Gorra
May 08, 2009

One day in the summer of 2001 I found myself in the old ecclesiastical city of Würzburg, not far fromGermany's geographical center, walking up the great staircase of the Residenz, which was begun in 1720by Balthasar Neumann for the town's ruler, Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn. Built of warmgolden sandstone, with an interior of marble and gilt, it was an extravagant place even by thestandards of 18th-century absolutism. The philosopher David Hume, on a visit in 1748, described it as"more complete and finished" than Versailles—and that was before the paint job. In 1752, GianbattistaTiepolo was hired to work a fresco over the entirety of the ceiling toward which I was now climbing,and in the process transformed the already majestic flight of stairs into one of the grandest spaces inEurope: the Continent's largest fresco, all the guidebooks say, so large that it's impossible to seethe whole thing at once. There's always something behind you or hidden by the turn of the stairs, andeach step, each twist of the head, reveals something new, as though the picture were moving aroundyou.

Certainly the vault's subject enforces that sense of cinematic motion, for Tiepolo's project was topaint an allegory of the four continents. As I ascended the first steps, America began to rise beforeme, a vision dominated by an enormous alligator and a bare-breasted, feather-headdressed maiden. Therewere palm trees and bows and arrows, Indians and the banners of the conquistadores, high mountains anda cannibal feast, all of it on a dim north wall where the colors seemed misty and low. Then I reachedthe landing and turned, and on the opposite wall saw bright Europe. Far fewer people here were naked.Instead, there were musicians and painters, crosses and crosiers, Europa with her flower-horned bull, agreyhound, some fragments of architecture, and, away in the corner, Tiepolo himself, looking rathertired.

In making the turn toward Europe, in walking up those stairs, I began, in that summer that now seemsso distant, to spin a theory about the whole business of being an American. It was a theory forgedduring a time of peace and goodwill, when for a few brief moments we Americans seemed as welcome inEurope as at any time since World War II. And it comes back to me today when the newspapers andbroadcasts on both sides of the Atlantic are so full of mutual accusations and suspicion. Now thatmany of us are experiencing a new and alienating wave of European distrust, when we may fear beingreviled for our nationality on a continent whose culture we share, it seems necessary to think hardabout just what our relation to Europe has been. What has it meant, as a destination rather than aplace of origin?What has it said to us, as Americans?

In that June of brilliant, peaceful sunshine, surrounded by Tiepolo's splendid world, I could not helpbut see myself as having stepped for a moment into one of Henry James's stories about the Americanencounter with old Europe. "A Passionate Pilgrim," the title story of his first book, tells the tale ofan American who believes he has an ancestral claim to an English manor. The piece is sentimental andfar from James's best, but it does supply a necessary phrase, as does a letter he wrote not long afterto Charles Eliot Norton: "It's a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities itentails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe." In fact, the main character in "APassionate Pilgrim" dies of that superstition, broken by his discovery that England cannot provide ahome for him. I had some of that superstition, too, and like James I had a sense that as an American Iwas both a latecomer to and the inheritor of the world that lay painted on the wall above me. (Thoughfor me that world had been in no way fatal, and the passion part had taken the substantive form of myown marriage to a Swiss art historian.)

Americans used to go to Europe—"old Europe"—in search of a larger life. We went because living abroadexpanded our sense of what an American could be; offered, paradoxically, a different and richer andgrander way of being an American than we could find at home. In James's day we came to grasp at anantique culture, to talk with a history that stretched back beyond our grandparents; in the 1920's,Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald joined Gertrude Stein in Paris, escaping theinsular prohibitions of Main Street. Later, black writers and musicians (James Baldwin, LouisArmstrong, Miles Davis) traveled to Europe, because there they could be American in a way that theycouldn't in America itself. But in a sense this was true for all Americans, James included: Europeallowed us to see ourselves in purely national terms, to shuck the more local affiliations of race orregion or even family. And the fiction of expatriation, from Portrait of a Lady to the early work of Hemingway and on to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and even Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr. Ripley, has used Europe as a kind of litmus paper against which to test an abstract American identity.

Or at least that's what such fiction used to do. A decade after "A Passionate Pilgrim," and back in Boston for the first time since he had made his own choice of London, James observed that the Americanwriter "must deal, more or less, even if only by implication, with Europe; whereas no European is obliged to deal in the least with America." Not true, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked up at the camel caravans of Tiepolo's rather Arab-dominated Africa, not now, not anymore. We Americans were still nearly all of us superstitious about Europe, we bought its food and cars and cosmetics, its furniture and clothing; it still set the fashions, or some of them. But often it no longer seemed necessary, no longer something with which we were "obliged to deal," and our own country stood in its place, as even James had suspected it someday might. The complexities of our fate might still be worked out in relation to Europe but not to it alone.

Standing beneath Tiepolo's Asia, with its ruins and elephants and cavalry, it struck me that the booksthat today use a foreign land to probe our peculiar fate tend to choose a different setting and tobelong to a different genre. When he'd settled in Europe, James wrote home: "I take possession of theold world—I inhale it—I appropriate it." Even then, such words no longer seemed a figure of speech. NotAmerica's aspirations but its power, not its innocence but its culpability: those are the terms thattoday would shape James's "international theme." And now that theme belongs not to the novel ofmanners but to the thriller, to fiction that in chronicling the American imperium finds its mostcongenial settings in such places as the Southeast Asia or Central America of Robert Stone's DogSoldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, or in the unnamed Middle Eastern kingdom of Henry Bromell's recent Little America.

Perhaps Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books marked the moment of change. For Highsmith's Tom Ripley theNew World is not fresh and promising; instead he finds in France and Italy a chance for theself-invention denied him at home—an ironic inversion of what America itself had offered to so many ofthe Continent's tired and hungry and poor. Yet Europe is also for him a place free of consequences, aplayground where he can literally get away with murder, and in the post-Highsmith novel ofexpatriation Europe becomes an entirely conventional setting. The Americans in Paris whom one finds insuch expertly made novels as Diane Johnson's Le Divorce and Le Mariage are awkward and ingenuous and perhaps even criminally naïve. The Europeans aren't and lean toward duplicity instead. The terms areall known and settled in advance, the rules firmly and predictably established. In a way, they're thefictional equivalent of the act my wife and I have developed over the years, a practiced routine inwhich la différence can be endlessly discussed and each other's cultural limitations deplored. But neither those books nor that routine itself offers much in the way of surprise. Europe might stillprovide a sense of individual liberation, I thought, but the cultural stakes in such an awakening werelow, a matter of lifestyle.

Yet I felt uneasy with the thrust of that argument even as I carried it down the stairs and across thesquare in front of the Residenz. It seemed odd to think of Europe as irrelevant in Germany of allplaces, especially while walking across a square on which the brownshirts had mustered and books hadbeen burned. Here, more than anywhere, was where our hunchbacked era had been determined and deformed.Europe wasn't irrelevant. But it was no longer the inescapable term of comparison.

Or was it?The months since I stood beneath Tiepolo's ceiling seemed at first to confirm Europe'sdiminished role in shaping our condition, and yet later to give it a renewed importance, the sensethat it remains our necessary cultural counterweight. It hasn't always been comfortable to see thedebate I had with myself in Würzburg become the material of op-eds and headlines, to find the terms ofwhat had seemed a long-settled relation tossed and turned and argued over. The familiar faults thatDiane Johnson describes no longer seem just a question of manners, are no longer the stuff of comedy.They have consequences once more, and have left each side with grave doubts about the other, with thefear that our interests—or maybe just our governments' interests—now diverge, in a way that theyhaven't for a half-century and more. Yet those debates—those doubts—have also revealed the degree towhich we remain each other's interlocutors, and in the end our disagreements recall nothing so much asthe doubts of marriage itself; a bad patch in something that will nevertheless be patched up. My ownmarriage has made Europe into a place with which I am indeed obliged to deal and from which I continueto learn, even as our alliance ensures that my wife, too, will have to keep on coming to terms withAmerica. And so it is for our two continents: linked as in any marriage by time, by what's been sharedand squabbled over, by what amounts in the end to history. However disagreeably America and Europe maynow strike each other, a divorce remains unthinkable.

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