Darkest Europe

Today's heart of darkness lies at the far end of the Danube, and the savages have white skin.

Published April 5, 1999 8:55PM (EDT)

Air fares to Europe are inexpensive now. So why not? And what a lovely time, April, to see the Adriatic or sail the Danube! For many Americans, Europe is a happy tourist attraction -- old castles, gold churches -- despite the fact that most Americans don't speak the lingo and most Americans are the descendants of immigrants who fled one European calamity or another.

Immigrant Americans -- Ellis Island Americans -- spoke of Europe as "the old country," glad to be out of it. But it took only a generation for their sons and daughters to forget the reasons their parents left. By the 19th century, native-born Americans were feeling embarrassed by the rawness of this country. "All educated Americans, first or last, go to Europe," opined Ralph Waldo Emerson. And newly rich Americans went to Europe for the "grand tour" -- anxious for culture, to marry a title, learn how to read a French menu or, at least, to gaze upon something older than anything they might find in Pittsburgh.

This terrible, dark European century began, as it is ending, with bloodshed in the Balkans. Between then and now came the slaughter of a generation in the trenches of World War I, the Nazi ovens and Communist purges, to say nothing of English vs. Irish or Greeks against Turks or, today, skinheads in Bavaria prowling the streets for anyone who might not be Aryan.

Cary Grant was always amused by the deference of Americans to his working-class British accent. Only a few months ago, during the arguments over Bill and Monica, the haughty, liberal American opinion deferred to European sophistication. Europeans would never understand our Puritanism. Europeans are more experienced than we are.

Today, as they have been in almost every decade this century, Americans are back in Europe, trying to keep Europeans from murdering Europeans. In another century, Mark Twain wrote comically about Americans in Europe in "The Innocents Abroad" -- our innocence, their cunning. Henry James wrote darker novels about what happens when newly rich Americans enter the gilt drawing rooms of London and Rome, oblivious of ancient cynicism.

In fact, Americans are not the innocents we like to imagine ourselves -- not after black slavery or the murder of Native Americans. Human failure is, alas, universal. And despite the nightmare litany this century -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco -- Europeans, as a whole, are no more evil than people elsewhere in the world.

But, that is the point: Europeans are unworthy of our special admiration in the great world.

Maybe our current adventure in Yugoslavia will teach us, if nothing else, to regard Europe, once and for all, without embarrassment of ourselves or awe. Maybe, after our planes get shot down and our soldiers killed, we will come to judge the continent of Mozart and Shakespeare as no better or worse than Asia or Latin America or Africa.

Darkest Africa (Europe's myth). Exactly 100 years ago this spring, Joseph Conrad serialized his most famous novel, "Heart of Darkness." It is a novel about a European who takes a journey down the Congo, to encounter an unspeakable horror.

Today's heart of darkness lies at the far end of the Danube. And the savages have white skin. Today, the most interesting thing going on in Europe is not the EEC, but the new immigrants -- West Indians in London, Vietnamese in Berlin. And, while the churches of Europe may be drafty, dark tourist attractions (you must pay four pounds sterling to visit St. Paul's), the mosques of France are crowded and the most interesting writers in the British Isles speak Hindu cockney.

Europe, in other words, is shrinking. Slowly disappearing from the face of the earth. Spain, Italy, Germany -- all have negative birth rates, which means, in some future, they could disappear. That chic young couple in Madrid is more interested in taking a vacation this year than in having a child. And why not?

The continent that gave our American professors the sublime texts that we more innocently used to call "Western Civ," -- the continent that gave the world so much terror this century -- is not interested in having babies and wants a vacation in Florida instead.

The air fares to America, after all, are so cheap this spring.

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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