As Europe struggles with economic woes brought on by the combination of unrestricted government largess and corruption and avarice, it seems every thread of this current struggle emanates from the problem of European character and the concurrent angst surrounding it. A brief reflection on the problem of European character and an illustration of how centered it is at the causal crux of the European crisis may equip us to provide some solutions.
In brief, what I call the problem of European character and the concurrent angst surrounding it is the fact that the essence of the European Union, the modern European political project, is a negation of war between European nations. This means that the European character, if one can even speak of such a thing, is founded in the proposition that whatever happens, Europeans must remain united, for division inevitably leads to a war of all against all and the annihilation of European civilization. The founding event of this outlook was World War II. As such, there is no positive defining trait of European character, only a negation of war, which is to say that modern Europe is founded on the fear of being toward death. This special kind of glue holding the Union together is, to my mind, best defined using Heidegger’s concept of angst. Thus, when crisis strikes on account of numerous errors, a fear sets in against tampering with the ailing union as that may lead to its collapse and to war. Yet to do nothing, or as some quarters are urging, to strengthen the faulty bonds of union even further, will lead also to collapse and war because it will deepen the crisis and give rise to public aggravation and revolutionary fervor. The diagnosis is clear: the European Union, which arose from the common European character trait of angst, cannot sustain itself by angst. The European character must be enriched with positive traits or be undone.
Some “Euro-enthusiasts” may well now shake their heads and claim that this expanded, positive European character already exists, made visible in the thousands of pages of regulations instructing the citizenry on how to be tolerant, open-minded humanitarians who love mother Earth, their fellow man, and embrace science. The chief problem with this view, abstracting from the philosophical questions that arise regarding the desirability of this particular modern, ahistorical, and secular European character, is that it resides in regulations, not in the heart of the people. Regulation lacks the personal import even of law. The importance of this distinction is such that regulation dictates the minutiae of everyday life. It not only prescribes an ethos, as law does, it dictates the precise, quantified application of said ethos. Civilizations which are built on virtues, whether piety or tolerance, that are mandated, registered, stamped, and stipulated in paragraph 16, subsection 2 of the revised revision of the regulations revising previous revisions–such civilizations die.
Here, angst will worry: does it therefore follow that Europeans are destined to fall back on national and ethnic prejudices? Perhaps there are other alternatives available to them besides secular, liberal sophistication masking bureaucratic banality or some pompous nationalist stereotypes. Certainly the philosophers present us with numerous alternatives, though all of them might well be impractical for any landmass not populated by a majority of philosophers. We also cannot, it appears to me, reach far back into European history, for to expect of modern Europeans to adopt Roman virtue, Athenian wisdom, let alone Christian agape, may well be expecting too much. If we wish to look for something in modern European history grounded in a firmer basis than philosophical speculation then I suggest we look no further than Tintin.
Tintin, for those who do not know and love him, is the European par excellence, created by author Hergé. His authority is widely acknowledged by children throughout the world, regardless of their age. General DeGaulle apparently called Tintin his only international rival. Tintin, if one really thinks about it, is the perfect template for a European character rooted in positive traits rather than merely in angst. Rather menacingly, the present generation risks knowing Tintin not through his European manifestation, but through the rather poor interpretation of his adventures presented to the world by the American director Steven Spielberg. All the more reason why I shall now endeavor to make a composite defense of Tintin as being of paramount importance and relevance to the present crisis.
First, Tintin has proven himself a keen political realist. I begin with this because some may well now expect me to embark on platitudes regarding Boy Scout virtues as exemplified by Tintin, rather than say anything of hard-nosed relevance to the grave situation Europe faces. Quite the contrary! It was Tintin, who, back in 1929, exposed the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and the plight of its people at a time when the vast majority of Western opinion was either ignorant of or fascinated with the Soviet system. Tintin’s revelations were, for decades, characterized as childish caricatures until the publication of the Black Book of Communism made the broad public aware of what Tintin had reported as fact from the very outset. This, if nothing else, qualifies Tintin for serious consideration as a relevant voice in European affairs: where so many were wrong about the Soviet Union, he was right from the beginning.
Detractors will no doubt point out that Tintin may well have been stunningly right in his premiere journalism, but quickly followed up on that by being stunningly wrong in his treatment of European colonialism. From his wholesale slaughter of the helpless species populating the Congo, to his insensitive remarks to a room full of Congolese regarding their homeland “Belgium”, one quickly can see why these detractors may feel it quite a bad idea to hold Tintin up as a worthy ideal for European character. Why, at one point, Tintin even helped a Priest!
Yet the measure of ideals is not their perfection, but rather how they deal with their all too human imperfections. In the case of young Tintin in Congo, he did what he could to help the native populations, while everything we might be tempted to fault him for was, as author Hergé admitted, the result of not taking his work too seriously at the time and being unreflective about the prejudices of his age. Out of all of Tintin’s remarkable adventures, his sojourn through the Congo may be most fraught with vices, but we can take heart that Tintin learned from his mistakes, as we can see in his escapades in the Far East shortly after leaving the Congo. There, Tintin so exemplified courageous virtues in his gallant struggle to aid the Chinese in their time of desperation as to have earned the praise of Chiang Kai-Shek himself, not to mention endearing himself to the Dalai Lama, who to this day declares his love for the boy reporter.
This evolution from a rhino-hunting, crocodile-dynamiting, Al Capone-chasing adventurer into a serious young man of high moral principle and gallant instinct betrays a character trait sorely lacking in the modern European. The modern European is nihilistic in private, bureaucratic in public. Tintin, by contrast, demonstrated a a playful lightness and joi de vivre in his private life combined with moral conscience in public life. Tintin’s youth, his evolution, is not linear, but rather curvilinear. In the beginning, he fluctuates between noble deeds like helping the Indians by fighting exploitative Americans and lighthearted slap stick. Yet as Tintin’s experience of the world grows, his moral imagination is refined and his humor matures. The latter is actually tied intimately with the former, as moral reflection is quite impossible without humor. Only a character type like that of Tintin’s could permit such an evolution, and only a European of such character could hope to escape the trap of modern European Union: the prospect of despotic union or war, both laced with angst.
Tintin’s political teaching does not, however, stop there. He provides us with a wonderful illustration of the folly of radical factionalism and demonstrates how it is always the mother of despotism. How memorable his misadventures are in the banana republic of Generals Alcazar and Tapioca, where revolutions take place on a daily basis, where the people oscillate between wild revolutionary fervor and grinding tyranny, where no matter who wins, dictatorship and poverty remain constant. The illustration, although set in a South American context, certainly does tell us quite a bit about human nature and the folly of revolutions. Far from being a means towards salvation from tyranny, Tintin seems to teach us that strife, faction, and partisan division are a direct route to tyranny. Civilized people, in contrast to the banana republics, Tintin suggests, never engage in revolution but rather rely on other means. Revolutions appear an easy solution, but end up solving nothing while expending the accumulated public stock of disappointed hope.
This lesson is something sorely lacking in the European character, which has seemed to accept a robust administrative tyranny as reasonable, in fear that the alternative would be a disarray that could quickly degenerate into war. This robust administrative tyranny, in turn, is itself revolutionary in both theory and practice. It is revolutionary in theory because it presumes to override natural, local, and organic modes of gradual social change with an abstract vision of European social life. It is revolutionary in practice, for its preferred method for delivering this new system is compulsion, or voting over and over until the vote comes out “right”. This revolutionary theory and practical revolutionary tyranny which characterize the European Union in fact jeopardize European peace by plunging the continent into the economic ruin that necessarily follows central planning its universal results: waste and misallocation of resources. The present crisis has seen mass protests combined with a resort to effectively dictatorial tactics applied in Italy and Greece. In short, we are bearing witness to the transformation of European politics from calm self-government into the hectic, laughable, and impoverished world of General Alcazar and Tapioca’s banana republic.
At this point, some detractors may yet again grumble that Tintin, painted here as a model of self-reflection and a sage of political wisdom, was actually a coward and a fascist stooge when Hitler reigned in Europe. They may even procure the documents to prove it. But such tactics are akin to claiming that the Jews of Europe, who predominantly did nothing to combat fascism, were therefore its silent adherents. This charge is laughable. If anything, Tintin’s valiant efforts during the Anchluss to rescue a small Eastern European country from the aggression of its neighbor, governed by the curvy-mustached General Curvitache and his Tachist regime, should put to rest any speculation as to Tintin being a Nazi collaborator. If anything, Tintin’s behavior during the war was, like his king’s, patriotic and melancholic. He stayed in his occupied homeland, doing what he could to maintain a sane life in an insane world. That he focused his attention on exploring exotic places on Earth not only kept him safe, it also prevented any lapse into ideological insanity. Reading Tintin’s wartime adventures, one gets the sense that there was no war, and any intimation of war is always considered by Tintin as being an exercise in meaningless insanity.
Herge did likewise, having at first taken a very small part in the futile defense of his fatherland. Can we blame them, either Tintin, Herge, or their king for following through on their nations’ stated policy of neutrality? Those who might blame men for remaining neutral during the Second World War are blinded by the fanciful claim that the Allies were fighting for democracy, when in fact all sides were consumed by the wave of collectivism and totalitarianism drowning Europe in blood at the time. Following the war, faux patriots (the ones who thump their chests loudest after the fighting is done) banned Tintin, under the pretext that Hergé published in the Gestapo-controlled Le Soir. Thankfully, the true patriots, who had fought in the underground resistance, managed to get the ban lifted and our hero was able to continue his noble adventures. As C.S. Lewis noted in his Screwtape Letters, if death from the war was to come, he hoped it would come not when people were full of hate and frenzy, but dining with families or otherwise enjoying life. For the great scourge of world war was not just death, but the transformation of human life from humane into inhumane, from civil society into a collective mass eternally geared towards conflict.
This entire little episode illustrates that Tintin, by remaining so true to his principles as to refuse to become a propaganda tube for either side during the war, managed to become the template for the modern European after the war. This template ought to animate the modern European character, for Tintin never surrendered to aggression and insane ideology. Above all, his comportment was not motivated by angst, but by the civilized and high-minded ideals of his Boy Scout upbringing and subsequent adventures in the world of the 1930s. To survey his adventures during the war years is to find an image of a Europe untwisted by ideology. In point of fact, Tintin continued this political comportment well into the Cold War, during which time he would battle both Eastern and Western superpower antagonists Borduria and Syldavia as they attempted to compel Tintin’s friend, a brilliant scientist, to construct sonic weapons of mass destruction for them. Detractors may say that the normalcy of Tintin’s world is anything but heroic, but in the face of ideology and total war, remaining normal is the height of heroism.
It was during this incident, dubbed by Hergé as the ‘Calculus affair’, that perhaps the most memorable commentary upon the modern ideological regimes was ventured. As a cadre of Bordurian officers marveled over the sonic weapons’ capacity to crush cities as if buildings were made of mere glass, it becomes frightfully apparent that below the surface ideological and financial motives of the super powers was a primal, barbaric fascination with mass killing and mass power. This composure, reminiscent of Thrasymachus from Plato’s Republic, albeit hyper-modern and armed with the power of science, was the psychopathic opposite to Tintin’s human decency. This war-loving composure is also most likely the looming threat that animated post-war European angst and thrust the continent into its present woes.
Tintin does not offer us any ready solution for these woes, though he does appear to take them in stride. His political idealism is always colored with a prudence that is not so much the result of calculation as of the fact that whatever happens, Tintin has a home and friends to return to. Marlinspike, Captain Haddock, Nestor, even the over-enthusiastic insurance salesman, the incompetent carpenter and the poor lady who keeps calling Tintin’s residence by accident, mistaking the number for the local butcher shop–all of this is Tintin’s true solution to the political tumults that occupy his world. To find comfort in all of this, one must have the kind of character that loves domestic life with a passion equal to or greater than his idealism. Idealism divorced from the passionate love of domestic order risks transforming into a hatred for life, the world and our fellow man. This is because when we discover that the political ideal we love, whatever it might be, is unattainable in real life, then for all our love of ideal man, we come to hate real man, the real world and all that refuses our ideal. In the end, such hatred of the here and now overwhelms us because it is easier to lock our emotions on what is in front of us, harder on what is a distant abstraction.
For this reason, Tintin demonstrated such pathos of distance to political affairs in his mature years. Confronted with concrete moral challenges in time, he acted rightly. However, his enthusiasm was always tempered. His activity in his mature years served not so much to propagandize on behalf of causes,but rather to awaken us to the moral imagination. Evils like slavery, war and tyranny existed, but the remedy against them was no longer as clearly visible as in Tintin’s youth. Political factions, even political friends, were not idealized and we were shown a world where moral judgement, for good or ill, was exercised by individual men–and herein was born the challenge of the “daily” aspect illustrated in the Lord’s Prayer. The good life was not the adoption of a system, but the tending to one’s daily duties. Tintin showed us how to cope with daily life in a universe of moral choices. Towards the end of his life, Tintin focused more and more on the truly amazing nature of domestic life and the specific adventure of human interaction, with all its nuance and humor. Just before his parting from this Earth, Tintin’s attention seemed to be turning towards modern art and a certain pretty young girl; not the worst way to end an exemplary life.
It remains to be seen whether Europeans can learn from Tintin’s example, or whether modern deconstructionism will kill the cultural significance of this first truly European hero. Tintin seems to have the cards stacked against him, as was the case during many of his adventures. We can only hope he defies death yet again. His biography reads like a snapshot of everything a man ought not be in the view of contemporary liberalism: he was the product of the Catholic Church and the manly ideals of the Belgian Boy Scouts. He was an anti-Communist and a defender of Catholic missions in tribal Africa. He was never seen to include a woman in his capers, he insisted on traveling unaccompanied by women out of gallantry–it just didn’t do to involve ladies in jungle adventures, space journeys, car chases and fist fights. He at times managed to render an image of a Jew, a Japanese, an African or an American in a negative light. He also worked for a German newspaper during the second world war. He is for these and a host of other obscene reasons, considered by some to be a fascist, anti-semite, racist, closet homosexual chauvinist (ignore for a moment the contradictory nature of the last two).
An attempt to modernize Tintin (something that never worked well in the past) was recently made by Steven Spielberg, who attempted to present the boy reporter as above all a great action hero. Yet one example suffices to distinguish the true essence of Tintin from Spielberg’s shadow: where Spielberg shows us Tintin crashing his airplane in the desert and the ensuing slapstick and comedy that follows, the original report as chronicled by Hergé has Tintin being flown as a prisoner in that airplane, which goes down in a storm. After being thrown from the plane and saved, Tintin comes to and realizes that the men who imprisoned him and may well have intended on murdering him were now trapped in the burning wreckage of the plane. Without hesitation, our Catholic Boy Scout runs into the flaming wreckage to rescue his captors from certain death. This is the basic character of Tintin’s moral compass which is not at all visible in Spielberg’s poor film. Yet anyone who reads the original adventures of Tintin with an open mind and a child’s heart will find in them an amazing fellow: a loyal friend, a man of moral reflection, a gentleman–a European. The sooner Europeans today adopt the ethos of Tintin, the sooner the European crisis will pass and this old continent will once again revel in culture and freedom.
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