ESSAYS: Europe Re-Visioned

Broken mirrors
Tristan hughes_photo_20
Tristan Hughes. Photo: Jo Mazelis
by Tristan Hughes
Is there a European cultural identity?

This is really a great Leviathan of a question so perhaps it's best that I establish right from the start that I'd prefer to approach it from a small - though not necessarily limited, I hope - point of view. I'm used to small views. I come from an island called Ynys Môn, which lies off the coast of a small country, which is itself part of an island nation. And so, not unsurprisingly, I've developed something of an islander's mentality: a proud consciousness of detachment; a strong - if somewhat vague and indefinable - sense of distinctiveness; an instinctive suspicion of mainlands. But, since islands are famously contrary places, that mentality also includes an entirely obverse set of attributes: the fear of isolation; the need to feel part of a wider whole; the desire to seek connections and search for affinities in the lands across the water. It's a mentality - or perhaps split personality is a better term - that many of my fellow islanders might recognise. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we could use it as a paradigm for thinking about cultures, unions and identities, and of some of the apparently contradictory hopes and anxieties that they invoke.

Taking off my islander's hat for the moment, and putting on my Welsh one, I'd say that historically we've had plenty of experience of the issue of culture and union and identity, and up to now our thinking on the subject has been fairly clear: having the one means you risk losing the others. Union for us has traditionally meant something in the nature of a shotgun wedding, an enforced alliance with a vastly more powerful spouse who, like a black widow spider, will attempt to eat you directly after your relationship has been consummated. And so it's worth keeping in mind that from the vantage point of small countries, the question of common cultural identities is not only a leviathan of a question but, as often as not, it does indeed conjure up monsters - huge, ravening ones that are trying to devour you.

This being the case, it's hardly any wonder that occasionally us Welsh have tried to make ourselves appear even smaller than we are, have quietly and inconspicuously gone about our business in the hope of not being seen, of not drawing the attention of dangerous and hungry neighbours. It's a survival tactic. And the fundamental thread running through our history over the last 800 years or so - in particular our cultural history - has been that of an unlikely survival. Unfortunately, it's a tactic with one major drawback. Minority cultures, when embattled and threatened, have often adopted a defensive stance, curling up like hedgehogs, and in doing so have risked becoming inward-looking and static, of petrifying into little more than museum exhibits. Because, like any other living thing, they need nourishment from without to flourish. Which brings me, at last, to Europe.

This may be a hard claim to believe - and is perhaps coloured slightly by an islander's pride and a Celtic propensity for exaggeration - but briefly, once upon a time, my island of Môn was the cultural capital of Europe; or, to be more specific, of Celtic Europe. As the Romans gradually occupied and subdued the rest of the continent the final remnants of a Celtic identity and civilisation were pushed into the far west, into Wales, and more particularly into Môn, in whose sacred oak groves those custodians of Celtic culture - the Druids - made their last stand. For a fleeting moment we were at the heart of a great, if fading, cosmopolitan civilisation, and it's something I don't think we've ever forgotten. You can perceive it in almost every manifestation of Welsh culture - as a sense of a lost wholeness; as an inextinguishable yearning for some missing, phantom, part of ourselves; as an ingrained intimation of an elsewhere, or elsewheres, that are just beyond our grasp. It might be the only explanation for the orphan or exile quality that pervades one of the oldest living cultures in the world. We are still foundlings in search of a lost family.

And I'll make the tentative suggestion here that our latest union - or let's call it a re-union - with Europe, offers us, at the very least, a new place to continue looking. For too long in Wales we've been, necessarily I admit, overly pre-occupied with the dominating bulk of England, and at last we've got the chance to lift up our eyes and glimpse beyond it, to reach out for nourishment across new borders. For small countries like Wales the European Union might well represent one of the few opportunities in our histories for forging cultural relationships without the attendant spectre of asymmetrical power relations, without the fear of absorption, assimilation and extinction. Europe could become for us a rare arena of exchange and reciprocity - a place to find and meet long lost relatives who have become strangers. Mind you, and this is doubtless my islander's suspiciousness cropping up again, I'd prefer it if we continued to conceive of it as just that - a meeting place - and not some more permanent and domesticated residence. Let us relish how different and strange those relatives have become and approach Europe, culturally at any rate, not as something homogenous and whole but multiple and fractured - so that hopefully, like looking into a shattered mirror, it will complicate and multiply how we see ourselves rather than reflecting back an all too familiar image. For me, at least, the ideal European cultural identity would be a constellation, an aggregate, an archipelago of small views, not one single vista.

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