There’ll Always Be Something or Other



A European Love Affair.

By Ian Buruma.

304 pp. New York:

Random House. $25.95.

IN ”Anglomania” Ian Buruma presents the history of an idea — the idea of Britain — which has loomed so large and meant so many different things in the European imagination in recent centuries. To some, Britain is a land of freedom and tolerance, of Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy and refuge to political dissidents from Voltaire to Salman Rushdie; to others, it is a place of genteel tradition, stable institutions, aristocratic privilege, capitalism, industrial revolution and empire. There is the England of Karl Marx and the England of Queen Victoria, which, of course, overlapped. Buruma’s meditation is prompted by the process of European unification, which represents the extension of many British ideals — stable democratic institutions and free trade — and yet, also, potentially the end of British uniqueness.

The history of Anglomania is of more than academic interest for Buruma. His great-grandparents were Continental European Jews who left behind the closed, anti-Semitic world of Bismarck’s Germany and settled happily in England. Buruma himself grew up in the Netherlands, but has chosen to reside in England after many years living in and writing about Asia. Thus for Buruma, the question of England is also a question of personal identity. His own and his family’s story is artfully woven through the various tales of Anglomania, making this both a memoir and a work of intellectual history.

Buruma’s history begins with the 18th century and Voltaire, who left France for England after spending time in the Bastille for his anticlerical and freethinking views and went on to write his ”Letters Concerning the English Nation,” which Buruma calls a ”bible of Anglomania.” For Voltaire, England represented a model for the rest of Europe — combining freedom of speech, religious tolerance, the rational thinking of John Locke and Isaac Newton and political moderation. The essence of British freedom for Voltaire was the stock exchange: a ”place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together as tho’ they all profess’d the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts.” Yet while admiring British political institutions, Voltaire regarded British culture as crude and vulgar, preferring the formal elegance of Corneille to the raw power of Shakespeare.

Many of the very English qualities that Voltaire rejected were ones that Goethe and the German writers of the late 18th and early 19th century embraced. The world of Shakespeare’s plays was, in Goethe’s words, ”a huge, animated fair,” and Buruma describes how Germany adopted Shakespeare as virtually its national poet, the great Saxon bard unshackled by the Aristotelian rules of classical theater, writing with extraordinary power about the human condition. For the Germans, searching for national unity through language and culture, Shakespeare was, as Buruma puts it, ”the Nordic genius Germans had been waiting for.”

One of the larger themes that emerge in Buruma’s book is the tension between the Voltairean ”universalist” version of Anglomania and a ”nativist” form of Anglomania, which tended to see England as a kind of fortress island, set apart from the Continent, a holdout of Celtic and Saxon culture, a place where people drive on the ”wrong” side of the road, with customs and traditions that resist the rationalizing tendencies of Continental politics.

After the French Revolution, which offered a radical, egalitarian form of democracy, Britain’s appeal shifted. For many Europeans, England became both the land of liberty and the bastion of tradition, the one country whose ancien regime consistently survived the upheavals and revolutions that were rocking the monarchies of Europe. Perhaps the strongest single chapter of ”Anglomania” is ”Graveyard of the Revolution,” which describes the lives and attitudes of the many political exiles who settled in England during the 19th century: the Italians Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Germany’s Karl Marx, the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth and the Russian Aleksandr Herzen. Ironically, even as London crawled with communists, anarchists and utopian socialists, England remained impervious to revolution. Buruma writes: ”All radicals in exile wondered why this should be: how had Britain managed to achieve its peculiar equilibrium, based on a combination of social stability and inequality, of freedom and dull conformity, tolerance and provincial smugness, civility and greed? . . . In Britain, as Marx concluded, even the workers were bourgeois.”

Britain’s respect for tradition guaranteed liberty (for bomb-throwing anarchists as well as for ordinary citizens) but also blunted the force of revolutionary theories. The country’s voracious capitalism kept England open to new ideas but made it shy away from ones that would disrupt the economic order. Gradually, thinkers began to perceive a clear link, rather than a contradiction, between British freedom and stability. As Herzen, perhaps Buruma’s favorite exile, observed, ”The only countries in Europe that are tranquil are those in which personal liberty and freedom of speech are the least restricted.”

The book does not strive to be comprehensive. In a pleasantly unsystematic fashion, Buruma follows his own interests through various odd manifestations of Anglomania. There is a chapter on the German landscape designer Prince Hermann von Pckler-Muskau, who attempted to transplant the English garden to Germany; a chapter on Nikolaus Pevsner, the German Jewish art historian who composed the monumental 50-volume catalogue of English architecture, ”The Buildings of England,” and tried to define ”the Englishness of English Art.” There is a curious chapter about the Baron de Coubertin, a Frenchman who invented the modern Olympic games as a way of trying to universalize the muscular Christianity and gentlemanly spirit that he perceived in English public schools.

By contrast, in the chapter entitled ”The Anglomane Who Hated England,” Buruma discusses Kaiser Wilhelm’s love-hate relationship with Britain, which led him to want to emulate, surpass and eventually destroy it. After Germany’s defeat in World War I and the Kaiser’s abdication, England and ”the world Jewish conspiracy” became synonymous in the former monarch’s mind, anticipating and contributing to the culture of Hitler’s Germany.

Ultimately, all these reflections about Europe’s conflicting ideas of England have considerable personal meaning for Buruma. His own German Jewish ancestors loved Wagner and German culture but were fiercely patriotic British citizens who volunteered for every war. They played down but did not deny their Jewishness: in conversation, his grandparents preferred to use code words rather than pronounce the word ”Jewish,” but they took in and helped save a dozen German Jewish children during World War II. They endured Britain’s milder forms of snobbish anti-Semitism and were eternally grateful for the security their adopted country gave them and others from a far worse fate. They loved their country as only exiles can.

The preoccupation with Anglomania at a time in which the British Empire is a distant memory for most people in the world seems itself to be an anachronistic symptom of British provincialism — a contradiction Buruma is aware of. ”Anglomania” ends with a chapter on European union. More of a Voltairean universalist than a Germanic nativist, Buruma is highly critical of the jingoistic rhetoric in Britain’s resistance to integration into the European Union. He finds many of the calls to preserve British freedoms decidedly anti-libertarian. He seems to feel that England, in order to remain true to itself, must become somewhat less itself.

And yet I wonder if Buruma is being unfair about British fears of integration. He compares the British system of common law and the Continental system of code-based, written law to the differences between the English garden, with its wild thickets and brambles, and the clear, rational perspectives of the French formal garden. The Continental system lent itself to ambitious attempts to reorganize society but also left less resistant countries open to the totalitarian programs of ambitious dictators. No such program is likely to emanate from Brussels. But is nothing really lost if shopkeepers from Glasgow to Athens are required to keep the same hours and the British are forced to drive on the ”right” side of the road?

– May 2, 1999

As published in The New York Times


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