Pomian, Krzysztof: European identity, historical fact and political problem

Krzysztof Pomian, born in 1934, is a Polish philosopher, historian and essayist. He is a professor of history at the Uniwersytet Mikołaja Kopernika (Nicolaus Copernicus University) in Toruń and, since 2001, academic director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels. Pomian’s specialization lies in the socio-cultural history of France, Italy, and Poland. He teaches at the dean of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and is an editor of the magazine Le Débat. Since 1968, he has also been a visiting professor at the Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium), where he lectures on the history of European societies.

pomianImagine we are invited to answer two questions: Is it possible to speak of a Chinese identity, formed in history, which makes China different from the rest of the world? Can the Chinese find an inspiration in it for their future?

For an average Chinese person, an affirmative answer to both questions would be so self-evident as to obviate the need to ask them. For an average European looking at China from the outside, the answers would be no less obvious. But the same European would be much more hesitant if posed the questions with respect to Europe. Where does this difference between Chinese and European identity arise? The answer is easily given. A Chinese person is accustomed to thinking of China as a unified cultural and political entity; as an empire. Europeans, on the other hand, think in terms of plurality: a plurality of idioms, cultural regions, religions, and within religions, confessions. Not to mention, of course, the plurality of nations.

The latter has imposed itself so powerfully and for so long on the European imagination that for Europeans, Europe as a reality other than a sum of nations is problematic. It seems self evident that to be a Dutchman or a Pole is to have a common language, a particular education, traditions, prejudices, habits, customs and so on. But what it means to be a European is by no means obvious. That is why asking after “European identity” is futile without first showing that one can speak meaningfully of Europe not only as a continent, or as a Union, but also as a cultural and historical formation, which is complementary to and superimposed upon nations.

The easiest way to do that is to compare Europe with its neighbours. Such an operation, which is tantamount to looking at Europe from the outside, draws attention to features that distinguish it as an inhabited space from Muslim North Africa, the Middle East and China (assuming we agree, for the time being, to extend Europe to the eastern frontiers of Russia). Let us start with those features that can be perceived by the senses.

The most striking is probably the presence of crosses: on buildings, in cemeteries, sometimes also at crossroads and roadsides.
The second feature is the plans of cities and the architecture, particularly of public buildings; if we leave aside the international style fashionable since the 1930, the most widespread style is what we call “neoclassical”.
The third is the alphabet, which is different from Chinese ideography as well as from the Arabic and other alphabets; there are three major types of this writing, but it is manifest that they belong to the same family.
The fourth is the density of images in the public space and in dwelling places of ordinary persons.
The fifth is the great number of images that represent human figures, including naked male and female bodies. The sixth is the ringing of bells.
The seventh is the presence of Greek, Roman and mediaeval remains, either as buildings or as ruins or as objects preserved in museums. Some of these features are specific to Europe; some are present elsewhere too. But their coexistence creates a unique visual and aural landscape, which outside Europe can only be found in areas inhabited by Europeans.

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