Japanese woman in kimono, as imagined by the Meissen Porcelain factory, 18th century
From the collection in the Prinzresidenz, Munich, Germany
From the collection in the Prinzresidenz, Munich, Germany
I was sitting in the breakfast room of the medium-sized, pension-type hotel last week, at the end of a brief trip. I sat facing the wall, taking in the pink tablecloth, the cream jug, the glass and silverware and the array of traditional fare—poppy seed dusted rolls, prosciutto, wurst, big clots of butter, a welter of cheeses, a slice of watermelon—on the plain white plates before me. A hubbub of voices bubbled up from tables nearby – German, of course, but also French, Italian, Russian, English...
I closed my eyes for a while and focused on just the sounds, smells, flavors and textures, listening to the various streams of words swirling around me (the room was small and the tables close together). "If I had come here a century ago," I thought, "and checked into a hotel, this pretty much how it would have been. Some things would be different, of course, details--the cutlery would have been silver plate rather than stainless steel; there would be no kiwi fruit on the top level of the fruit display--but most of the experience would have been just the same. What is going on around me now would be much the same as what a person staying in a Munich hotel a century ago would have been experiencing."
Writ in miniature, this is the European elite's project: a quick skip from the 19th century to the 21st, a collective wishing-away of the 20th Century, a game of "Let's pretend we're civilized...and always have been."
Who would want to remember the Continent's having been swept up and mowed down by two World Wars, then sliced in two by an ideological Cold War? Oh a few persons, like those working for the company that advertises a "Third Reich Tour" featuring visits to Dachau and other major landmarks of Nazi rule in the greater Munich area (on the positive side, the company gives out free maps of the Munich city center which are really very useful). Most of the rest of humanity would probably prefer to collaborate in a restart from almost exactly a century ago, before Gavrilo Princip turned the Balkan Wars into Europe's self-immolation. Why not pretend a smooth transition from one globalizing world to the current one, where sturdy burghers from Bremen and contessas from St. Petersburg breakfast alongside school teachers from England and medical students from Denmark and the Far East? A little world of small freedoms and tiny revolutions, where learning and trade are married with civility, ordinary justice and a decent respect for the profit motive. Who would not want to be in Europe, then and now?
The European elite project is in crisis, of course, struggling against the accusation of being little more than a mirage. The reverie experienced inside the bustling breakfast room of my hotel becomes more complex and uncertain out in the gritty streets around the Hopbahnhof, where European imperialism's retreat and a peculiar conception of a "guest worker" have resulted in visibly Muslim immigrants establishing themselves in the heart of Europe's cities, confronting governments trying to make good on the promise of the Enlightenment with some of the most uncompromising, obscurantist and misogynist branches of the Abrahamic tree.
[Mark me down as a pessimist: I cannot see how the project of professed tolerance for all forms of thought can live alongside the medieval certitude and self-isolation of many lineages of The Faithful. Each seemingly insults the other with its mere existence. ]
Which set me to thinking about Japan being an outlier in terms of nostalgia. Unlike the Europeans, who would prefer to elide away the 20th Century, or the Chinese, who seem determined to make the world forget their country's weakness in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the residents of This Blessed Land (at least those in a particular set of age cohorts) get all misty-eyed when they think about the 20th Century. It was during the 20th Century that Japan made its two great ascents to the top ranks of world powers: the first time as a military-imperial force, the second time as manufacturing-trading behemoth. Rather than being a blot of shame or source of some perspective, the 20th Century is a period of history in which Japanese can glory -- a small, fantabulist minority for the militarist pre-war state, a far greater number for the determined, non-threatening economic power that yanked the populace up out of the penury and thrust Japan back into relevance.
[Yes, that the Americans also take pride in what their nation achieved in the 20th century, and that this is a point of commonality between the Japanese and the Americans, is not lost upon me.]
Hence the dissonance and miscommunication when Europeans and Japanese try to talk to one another about the past -- and by extension, their futures -- despite all their ostensible points in common. All other things being equal, the Europeans would rather want to forget about the 20th Century and the many divisions of Europe that occurred within it. The Japanese (again, of a certain age) want to do nothing else but maunder on and on about how great things were in the 20th Century -- the unscrupulous and vile minority arguing how fascism and imperialism were really not all that bad, and a much larger, dewy-eyed group sighing at how conflict-free, clear, simple and unified everything was during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Hearing either of these interpretations of the events of the 20th Century, and lamentations over that century's greatness as compared to the current, decadent age, Europeans elites could hardly be blamed for thinking they are talking to beings from another planet.
Photo credit: MTC