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The split continent and the parable of the cloven viscount

The Cloven Viscount (Il Visconte Dimezzato; Turin, 1952) is a novella by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) about a man who goes to war in Central Europe and, as soon as he enters into his first battle, is split in half by a cannonball hitting him right in the chest. After the battle, one of his halves is picked up by Christian monks, another by Turkish enchanters, and both amazingly survive.

I’m starting off my participation in this blog with this story (which I’ve already dedicated a chapter to in my 2012 book on ’The Irony of the European Project’) because I think it happens to be one of the best descriptions of the problem that we are living in the European Union today. Follow me, and Calvino, along.

In Calvino’s book, the two halves of the protagonist — Medardo, Viscount of Terralba — return to their village in Italy, one at a time, and do not bring only half of the body each. They also bring half of their former common personality; the left half is virtuous, the right half is vicious. The vicious half lives in the castle and behaves viciously, the virtuous half lives in the woods and does good deeds. And very quickly the villagers realise that both halves are unbearable: that more than living with the goodness of one or the evilness of the other, what makes life miserable for everybody in the village is that each half is convinced to be the true Viscount and feels so self-evidently right in that conviction that the other half cannot but be, in consequence, so wrong that it must be annihilated.

Calvino wrote this story when Europe was being divided by the Iron Curtain, and it was surely not lost on him (then a communist who was gradually distancing himself from the Italian Communist Party, only to leave it after the invasion of Hungary by the Soviets in 1956) that both the Eastern and the Western half of Europe behaved as the halves of his novella’s protagonist: each attributing the other all the vices and claiming to have all the virtues. More than a cold-fact assessment of the mutual interest of the parties in conflict, the cause for the split in Europe lied then in a deep, psychological level, an assignment of reasons about who is to blame, who “started” the problem, who threatened whom and who should be punished by whom. So, the split continent of Europe was like the Cloven Viscount of Calvino’s novella.

Of course, Europe has a history with being split: between Romans and ‘barbarians’, by the religious schism between the Orthodox and the Roman church and then again between Catholics and Protestants, way before the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. Each time, but especially during the Religious Wars, there was no room for understanding the other half. Even trying was sinful: it meant one was succumbing to ‘toleration’, which had a negative connotation before it slowly changed into the positive sense it now has.

A version of this personality split is now appearing again in the division between surplus countries and deficit countries in the eurozone. The difference between these countries may well start with financial facts, but it does not end there. Actually, what makes the crisis so hard to overcome is that analysis of balance sheet numbers quickly morphs into a war of perceptions between lender and debtor that is, much more than an economic problem, a political and, hence, a cultural one. This metamorphosis occurred soon in the crisis. Already in 2010 all the rage was about who was lazy and who was selfish, who was irresponsible and who was cold-hearted. Little time went by before southern European countries were being called PIGS and northern Europeans were being caricatured as Nazis. We haven’t recovered since.

Most analysts will dismiss this cultural interpretation of the crisis as being shallow and soft, much removed from the hard facts of the economy. I will argue that this cognitive split in Europe is a major obstacle in the way of a solution to this crisis. If one half of the eurozone is convinced of possessing all the virtues and attributing all the vices to the other half, as Calvino’s two half-Viscounts did to one another, what common ground is there for a solution? I suspect that we have not seen the end of this kind of reasoning with the recent political events in Greece and even the pre-agreement between this country and the eurozone. One can only hope beyond hopelessness that politicians will have learned how to bridge this gap against their own selfish interests.

If the debate in the European Union were about how we should prepare for the future, we would have already left this long crisis behind, not only because we would have agreed on a plan that would be in the interest of all Europeans, but also because we would easily get the support of the rest of the world, which is yearning for a European recovery. And Europe has sufficient resources, human and material, to buttress a credible and attractive recovery plan.

But that is not what is preventing us out of the crisis. What is, instead, is the perception of who is “lazy” and who is “authoritarian”, who lived “beyond their means” and who lived “at the expense of the misery of others”, etc. Some years ago someone became famous in America for saying “it’s the economy, stupid”. That does not work around here. In Europe, it’s the culture, the perspective on the world and the clash of identities first, then the politics, and only after all has been tried and failed, do we come round to plain economic good (and common) sense.

Maybe now we will get there. At least, this long crisis forced Europeans to debate with one another across borders. Maybe in the midst of all caricature, misunderstanding and bad faith some information will actually come across the divide. I appreciated hearing the new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, say that he wished to strike a deal that is good not only for the common Greek, but also for the common German, the common Slovak, etc. I hope he will be listened to and that this kind of discourse may resonate. A common plan, aiming for increased economic, social and environmental welfare for all Europeans is not a distant dream; it must be the first step out of the crisis.

Split personalities are overcome by building a common identity around shared objects of desire. But I tell you no more: go read Calvino’s ‘The Cloven Viscount’ and you’ll find how it ends.

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