On and off the High Road

Tim Parks

  • Voltaire's Coconuts by Ian Buruma
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £18.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 297 64312 6

Italy has just come to the end of another referendum campaign. Two general elections ago a new system of voting was introduced. Instead of the extreme form of proportional representation in force since 1948, a first-past-the-post system was introduced for 75 per cent of the seats in the lower house, while 25 per cent would continue to be allotted on a proportional basis. The recent referendum proposed to eliminate that 25 per cent and base voting for the lower house entirely on the British system.

The idea behind these changes is one that was dear to Voltaire’s heart and inspires the title of Ian Buruma’s book: the notion that those institutions which have proved successful in one country, in this case Britain, might, like coconuts, be transplanted elsewhere with the same positive results. Dogged by a combination of chronically unstable governments and long-term political paralysis, the Italians hoped that by importing the British system they might also import the peculiarly British alternation of stable governments originating at different ends of the political spectrum.

As yet the scheme introduced two elections ago hasn’t worked. Rather than being reduced, the number of parties has considerably increased. The pattern of unstable and shifting alliances, of governments held to ransom by small minorities in hung parliaments, has remained much as it was. The pressure for this new referendum came from those who feel that the British system should have been introduced in its brutal extremity. The 25 per cent of seats still handed out on a proportional basis, they claim, has been used to keep tiny parties alive and unpresentable members of the old guard in parliament Its elimination, they believe, would finally produce British results.

Those who opposed the referendum and voted against its proposal (or who did not vote at all: in the absence of a 50 per cent turnout a referendum is declared void) maintain that British stability has little to do with the British electoral system and may rather be in spite of it. The first-past-the-post system, they insist, encourages a low turnout, because those who know their party can’t win in their constituency don’t participate, and this alienates them from the democratic process. A totally British system, they conclude, could lead to serious unrest in Italy.

The assumption, on both sides of the debate, that the results of such major changes would be apparent after just one or two elections is astonishingly naive. For if Voltaire chose the coconut to make the point that institutions, too, can be transplanted, it was precisely because it takes so very long to ripen. All the same, the lapse of time – how much time? – allows the debate to rage: can institutions be ‘universalised’, or are they intimately related to history, race or what is more vaguely referred to as ‘national character’?

In Voltaire’s Coconuts Buruma presents us with the visions of a number of European intellectuals who have come to Britain over the last three centuries and reflected on its traditions and institutions. In doing so he comes to think of them as either ‘universalists’, who believed in the possibility of exporting the best they found in Britain, or ‘nativists’, who didn’t believe in it or, perhaps more often, regarded it as undesirable. Pierre Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, saw no reason why the ethos of the Arnoldian public school could not be profitably transported all over the world. Certainly the Games were to be an expression of that ethos. His ideological and Anglophobe enemy, Charles Maurras, present at the first of Coubertin’s Olympics, in Athens in 1896, rather than acknowledging defeat, observed with some pleasure that ‘when different races are thrown together and made to interact, they repel one another, estranging themselves, even as they believe they are mixing.’

Dreaming of a future Jewish homeland, Theodor Herzl imagined it as having British institutions, an English-style upper class and even Jewish cricket on trim Palestinian, or indeed – did it matter? – Ugandan lawns. This was at a time when significant sections of continental Europe saw Jews as alien, hostile and incapable of being assimilated by German or French culture (logically, the extreme nativist no more believes in the possibility of others being assimilated by his culture than he does in transplanting its institutions elsewhere). The British were stigmatised for their perceived sympathy with Jews. ‘L’anglais est-il un Juif?’ Buruma quotes from a French tract of 1895. Clearly the danger of arguing against Voltaire and his optimistic universalism is that one may thus open the way to racism – which is why it is important for us to understand what we mean by national character.

Buruma’s book is largely and unapologetically anecdotal. He introduces us to a cast of prominent Europeans from Voltaire and Goethe in the 18th century to Nikolaus Pevsner and Isaiah Berlin in the 20th, with the central (and best) chapters dedicated to the revolutionaries and dreamers of the mid-19th century, so many of whom were to find themselves obliged to flee to London’s safe, if perplexingly unrevolutionary climate. Each character’s association with Britain is briskly sketched in, Buruma astutely pointing out that their positive or negative visions of the country can be properly understood only in relation to their own circumstances. Often enough, it turns out that those who stay in Britain for any length of time find it hard to sustain a view initially formed by a personal agenda set elsewhere. Unable to publish an anti-clerical poem in France, Voltaire praised the English for their love of reason and liberty, their respect for the artist, but he was later forced to leave the country in a hurry after some ambiguous financial transactions. Inspired by Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Coubertin needed all his considerable reserves of enthusiasm to overlook the less attractive aspects of the British public schools he visited. The intellectual traveller, and even more so the refugee, lives in a constant tension between his desire to abstract what he finds abroad and use it in an argument with those back home, and the wish to engage in the society that surrounds him on its own terms. Accordingly, the long-term immigrant’s vision of his host country will very largely depend on whether he has chosen to stay there, or is just physically present while spiritually embattled elsewhere. One of the most touching pictures in Voltaire’s Coconuts is that of the ageing Russian revolutionary and idealist, Alexander Herzen, finding himself after all not so miserable in the mercantile and irretrievably bourgeois stability of Victorian London.

Buruma’s sketches, for the most part in chronological order, are interspersed with complementary anecdotes about his own family – an intriguing Anglo-German-Dutch-Jewish mix. It is an engaging approach which needn’t detract from serious consideration of the matter in hand. Yet something in the slant of the project seems to prevent Buruma from giving his book real weight, or even coherence. As if writing the script for some Channel Four documentary, he is clearly more interested in popping up in propria persona at Fingal’s Cave or Prince Ludwig’s Walhalla or Highgate Cemetery than in defining his terms, or pushing his argument on. Had he, for example, quoted a bit more generously from the fascinating characters he presents it would have been no bad thing.

Buruma’s sympathies are clearly with the universalists. He rightly criticises nativists for their tedious use of the ‘native soil’ analogy, the idea that institutions have grown naturally from the organic intertwining of race and place. It is a way of thinking that precludes argument and leads at best to immobility, at worst to racism. At the same time, he makes fun of the wilder universalist dreamers, those who would see Tom Brown in Paris, or the aristocracy of a Jewish state taking tea at four and being nice to the servants. But he suggests no middle ground, even when the authors he quotes, Tocqueville and Pevsner in particular, seem to be inviting him to do so. Less forgivably, he himself has a weakness for national stereotypes, saying of Hippolyte Taine, for example: ‘In his twenties, Taine was attracted to German Idealism ... He grew out of that, however, and turned to more practical English ideas instead.’ Whether ‘grew out of’ comes indirectly from Taine, or is how Buruma chooses to put it, is unclear – which it shouldn’t be.

A few pages later, remarking how Taine’s nativism – his refusal to believe that one country could be a model for another – allowed him to be more candid than other Anglophiles about England’s shortcomings, Buruma concludes: ‘He could observe the stability of the British Government and contrast it to the violent upheavals in France, but if national character was indeed the key, such observation could serve no political purpose: the world is what it is, because it grew that way, like a tree, and there is nothing much we can do to improve it.’

Here it seems that national character is being used almost as a synonym for race – or at least as something necessarily immobile – with the implication that the universalist cannot admit of the existence of national character at all. ‘The definition of national identity,’ Buruma announces elsewhere, ‘is largely the project of intellectuals and artists who wish to find a role for themselves.’ When these sweeping statements are taken together with the earlier comment on German ideas, a comment that accepts not only the stereotypes regarding British and German thinking but also the spin the British like to put on them, our author comes across as a confirmed, even dogmatic universalist who just occasionally happens to fall into nativist stereotypes, perhaps because in the end it is so attractive. Teutonic efficiency, Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, Gallic passion: they offer the various parties concerned a sense of immediate and mutually confirming identity, together with the security, which is also the comedy, of predictability – when the Brits do this the Germans will without doubt do that. Although this oscillation between universalism and nativism is understandable (in the way we understand perfectly when someone says, ‘it’s only caricature,’ while at the same time enjoying their complicity in its reductive panache), it is more muddling than anything else.

Why has the introduction into Italy of a British-inspired electoral system not given the desired results? It can’t be merely because of this or that trait in the ‘Italian character’, since, despite the popular image of the excitable, talented, unreliable Italian, the country clearly has as wide a range of personality types as any other. The expression ‘poles apart’ would seem entirely appropriate to describe such pairs as Cavour and Garibaldi, Mazzini and Victor Emmanuel II, or to bring things up to date, D’Alema and Berlusconi. One can no more be Italian (or English or French) on one’s own than one could be a son without a mother.

To the extent, then, that we perceive different patterns of behaviour in different countries it has to do with the way people behave together. The former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is often referred to as quintessentially Italian for his mixture of piety and mystery, of astuteness and ambiguity. Yet he could function as he did, and become what he was, only within the environment of Italian politics, and particularly postwar politics. Had he been brought up in Lisbon, he would have developed very differently.

If we accept this premise, it isn’t difficult to see how we can have a ‘national character’ – or a series of behaviour patterns – without assuming that this is an inevitable product of the race or the soil and without imagining that it is necessarily impervious to outside influence. By the same token, it is clear that any institution exported to another country will necessarily be absorbed into the local dynamic, perhaps transformed by it. The results are not easy to predict.

When the Italians introduced something approaching the British electoral system they did so after the traumatic years of manipulite had led to the disintegration of the Christian Democratic Party that had dominated Italian politics since the war. The decision of the old Communist Party to distance itself from the past and become the Partito Democratico della Sinistra led to splits on the left. On the extreme right the Movimento Sociale Italiano likewise made a move towards the democratic fold, changing its name to Alleanza Nazionale. Again this led to splits. The new system was introduced at a time of maximum flux when the formation of two clearly dominant parties of the kind that might thrive in a first-past-the-post system was particularly difficult.

Elections are about far more than the machinery of the voting system. While in England it is unlikely that scores of parties would ally with all kinds of different partners in a complex mosaic designed to give each one more or less the proportion of representation it holds across the country, the Italian electorate, far from shunning such complications, is inured to them, indeed finds them congenial. Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno, the saying goes (‘no sooner is a law made than the way round it is discovered’). A history of despotic foreign rulers has led to the exaltation of the anarchic – pleasure is taken in demonstrating that a system doesn’t work. There is nothing genetic about this, and no reason why it shouldn’t change. But it takes time.

Buruma dismisses the possibility of a linguistic approach to national character. ‘The Geist of language,’ he tells us, ‘is one of those foggy concepts that swirl around like dry ice on Wagnerian stage sets.’ Later he takes Pevsner to task for suggesting that the difference between the English word ‘chop’ (as in pork chop) and the Italian word costoletta shows an English love of understatement and the Italian predilection for the florid. One could just nod and smile but Buruma writes: ‘The notion that some essence of Englishness, running from the Middle Ages to the present time, can be identified in the national language is to put it mildly dubious.’

If a group of people can be said to organise their behaviour around available role models and a hierarchy of values, then those values will be reflected in the language they speak and the way they speak it. The elaborate nature of Italian sentence structure is likely to reflect specific habits of thought. And clearly there are some words – Geist is one – that Buruma will not translate because he knows that they are the product of a pattern of thinking which would be lost in translation. For the same reason, Europeans do not translate such words as ‘gentleman’ and ‘hooligan’, and a word like omertà needs more than a little explanation in English. What have nonconformist writers always done, after all, if not sought to expose the pattern of thinking implicit in the language itself? When Lawrence wrote a sentence like ‘she was destroyed into perfect consciousness’ he was eager to subvert the normally positive loadings of perfection and consciousness. The translation of the sentence into Italian – ‘era dilianiata, perfettamente consapevole’ – rejecting as it does the odd, transformative ‘into’ of the English, suggests a resistance, in Italian, to provocative subversion of language within the field of belles lettres, something evident in Italian translations of British Modernists.

At the beginning of a chapter dedicated to Goethe and the German appropriation of Shakespeare, Buruma remarks of his own early bilingualism: ‘Such a background effectively cuts off all routes to linguistic nativism.’ A universalist, he believes in translatability. But a few pages later, discussing Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare, he offers the following typically nativist and entirely reasonable qualification: ‘His brilliant translation may have been the most accurate version of Shakespeare in German to date, but it also contained echoes of Goethe’s classicism and Herder’s poetry. It was, in short, a German text.’ It seemed that Buruma was about to celebrate the fact that cultures are accessible to each other, while transforming what they absorb according to their own dynamic: yes, this is Shakespeare, but Shakespeare in German. Instead his closing remark shows how little he has been enjoying his reading: ‘A famous German Shakespeare (and Goethe) scholar tried to explain this’ – Schlegel’s translation – ‘in the following rather tortured formulation: the universal genius of Shakespeare could be reborn in Germany only after the universal genius of Goethe had infused the German language with a German Geist equal to the English spirit of Shakespeare.’ Though the lofty diction may not be to everybody’s taste, it is hard to see what is ‘tortured’ about this. That the way in which certain writers have enriched their languages makes it possible for translators to find solutions to hitherto insoluble problems seems self-evident. How could translations into Italian of English novels be the same after Manzoni had written I promessi sposi? How could one not draw on Eliot for a translation of the French Symbolists?

Freshly arrived in England, Voltaire much enjoyed an afternoon by the Thames and at the races; but when he was introduced the same evening to court society his enthusiastic report was met with disdain: ‘the young women he had admired so foolishly were maidservants, and the jolly young men mere apprentices on hired horses.’ A century later, Tocqueville was bewildered to find that his English friends were ‘still convinced that extreme inequality of wealth is in the natural order of things’. When, he wondered, will these people have their revolution? Visiting the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin, Herzl was unimpressed by his grasp of international politics but terribly taken by his manners. Herzl always made a point, Buruma comments, ‘of mentioning that the Grand Duke of this or the Marquess of that had helped him into his coat or showed him to his coach’. How could he not love a country where a Jew had not only been made Prime Minister, but an earl too?

What is most exciting about Voltaire’s Coconuts is the extent to which, despite the diversity of Anglophiles and Anglophobes it presents, a clear European consensus emerges about the British conundrum. We are allowed, that is, an insight into how the dynamic of our own national character puzzles our neighbours.

The difficulty is not with any single element but with the way different elements stand in relation to each other. On the one hand, there is the high value put on reason and on political and religious freedom: the Britain of the last two centuries was indeed freer than its European counterparts. On the other hand, there is a class system that enshrines social and economic inequality and appears to know no decline. There is a great and progressive drive in the areas of trade and industry, coupled with ancient, ludicrous, even gothic traditions, usually in those areas where privilege is sacred. There is a notable lack of support for extremist ideological positions, together with the most tasteless gutter press that can be imagined. Above all, as Ledru-Rollin, Herzen Marx and Mazzini and all the other bickering revolutionaries agreed, England was dull and mediocre. Buruma never quotes Nietzsche but his denunciation of the ‘English-mechanistic stultification of the world’ never seems far from a visiting European’s lips. Naturally, the more astute thinkers were eager to know what kept these apparent opposites in equilibrium. Tocqueville noted that for all the starkness of class distinctions, there was more mobility in England than in France. ‘A man could become a gentleman,’ Buruma glosses, ‘but you had to be born a gentilhomme.’

There appears to be a miraculous process by which, in certain circumstances, the English mind turns the water of money into the wine of nobility. Buruma draws on his own experiences to remark that most Anglophiles are snobs. They see the English social world as offering a recognition which elsewhere neither money nor celebrity can buy. He points convincingly to the many foreigners who have become English lords and gentlemen. England offers this odd opportunity. After twenty years in Italy, I have yet to experience the phenomenon in reverse.

Herzen’s observations on English mediocrity may at first sight seem some distance from Tocqueville’s musings on the permeability of the British class system. Taken together, however, and with the help of Leopardi, who was neither Anglophile nor Anglophobe, we can hazard a guess at the nature of the quarrel, or love affair, between England and mainland Europe, both a century ago and now.

Herzen believed that the countries in Europe that are tranquil ‘are those in which personal liberty and freedom of speech are least restricted’. However, not being oppressed by their governments, the British and Swiss were not obliged to develop a spirit of private disobedience and thus tended to become duller. Freedom of speech opened the way to a different kind of tyranny: that of public opinion as expressed in a scandal-mongering press. ‘The freer a country is from government interference, the more fully recognised its right to speak, to independence of conscience, the more intolerant grows the mob,’ Herzen wrote: ‘public opinion becomes a torture chamber; your neighbour, your butcher, your tailor, family, club, parish, keep you under supervision and perform the duties of a policeman.’ In short, Tocqueville’s upwardly mobile industrialist, eager to buy into a world of British privilege, will not only have to accumulate a great deal of money: he will also have to avoid scandal so as to keep the respect of the public.

So far so good. But what was this dullness that Europeans, particularly the revolutionaries and above all Marx, discerned? Did Mazzini, for example, honestly imagine that in the Utopia he proposed – ultimately, a free, democratic, one-world state – people would be more interesting? Surely when no longer obliged to disobey in private, they, too, would become dull.

Herzen’s reaction to the Battle of Waterloo is telling here. Wellington and Blücher, he complains, ‘had turned history off the high road’ and dumped it ‘up to the hubs in mud’. For these European revolutionaries, excitement and romance had to do with a largely Hegelian vision of history in which they saw themselves as highroad prophets of a future transformation, inevitable and sublime. It is a curiosity of the British frame of mind that it has remained, on the whole, indifferent to this delirium: an indifference which irritated 19th-century revolutionaries, just as today British indifference irritates those who are eager to construct the single European community. Rather than appreciating, with Tocqueville, that the British, and so many of those who have been attracted to Britain, were locked into a different project (the acquisition of prestige through style and money – what we often refer to in the pejorative as snobbery), they chose to dismiss them as mediocre.

Leopardi was among the first to suggest that in the great wreck of noble illusions brought about by rationalism and the retreat of religion, national mores would play an important part in helping the individual to recover a sense of purpose. Written in 1824, his Discourse on the Present State of Italian Customs presents ‘Italianness’ as a special condition of the spirit. In other countries public morality had survived the collapse of metaphysics thanks to a more highly developed sense of society. In England or France a gentleman ‘would be ashamed of doing wrong in the same way as he would be ashamed of appearing ... with a stain on his suit’. Just as in Schopenhauer’s aphorisms on honour, the search for the respect of one’s peers, coupled crucially with the knowledge of how that respect is to be obtained, is what holds society together. Leopardi envies the British the ridiculously high opinion they have of each other, seeing in it a guarantee of moral probity.

In Italy, he claims, no such society had replaced the illusions of the Middle Ages; Italians conceded no respect to each other, indeed took pleasure in exchanging insults, with the result that ‘there was no reason for not behaving exactly as one wished.’ He concludes by affirming the need for collective illusions to combat a sense of meaninglessness and cynicism. He speaks of the idea of nationhood, and prophesies, long before Coubertin, that sport and pageantry will become important spiritual resources. He can hardly be blamed if Italy’s great collective illusion, when it finally came, took such an unfortunate turn.

Since the Enlightenment, continental Europe has been busy with grander projects to compensate for the collapse of feudal authority and shared religion. Infinitely preferable to Communism or Fascism, the European Community is the most recent of these. Unlike empires seized, or rigid systems merely imposed, it has one novel and decisive asset: scope for endless complication, endless accommodation of minorities, interminable negotiation with new members (the national languages of all member-states have been preserved; Byzantine tiers of membership are envisaged). This project, which is easily conceived as inherently good and historically inevitable, will, quite simply, take up all the time there is. Not a moment will be left for feelings of futility, as one and all in continental Europe work tirelessly to keep this ideal on the high road of history, out of the mud.

Meanwhile the British are not so much opposed as uninterested. They have other ways of rescuing meaning. Wasn’t the fate of Diana Princess of Wales a much more interesting story than anything the bureaucrats of Brussels have dreamed up? The agony of the British is that while they would be content to stay out, this might lead to a loss of wealth and prestige. The greater anxiety is that the surrender of sovereignty could equally well lead to a loss of wealth: the hellish complications of the EU are not conducive to capital accumulation. Yet Britain is part of the European ‘character’. It’s the place people can go when they feel let down by the Continent’s grand ideas.

How did the Italian referendum end? At midnight of election day, exit polls suggested that 52 per cent of the population had voted, 91 per cent of whom supported the British system. Little over an hour later, the official result came. Only 49.6 per cent had voted. The referendum was void. The following morning the Government announced that it would persist with a project to introduce the French system of two ballots. At once, across the political spectrum, smaller groupings declared their opposition, preferring the German proportional system with a 5 per cent threshold. The Northern League announced who they would ally themselves with, to be sure of overcoming the threshold. Even when bombarded with promising foreign coconuts, a national way of thinking, it seems, dies hard.