Europe can be experienced in countless ways. Anyone who travels through it goes into the depths of history as well as into the breadths of modern times. Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016), political scientist and MEP, knew the many facets of Europe like no other. As a thinker he traveled through history, as a politician he defended modern liberties. With one of his last books, The Little Europe, he added a nostalgic and comprehensive declaration of love to his extensive oeuvre. A rich and sympathetic book for lovers of cityscapes and age-old streets.
Map of an esthetician
The subtitle of The Little Europereads `Map of an esthetician`. These two descriptions summarize the book nicely: Donskis travels through Europe with the gaze of someone looking for beauty. That means an emphasis on two less mundane elements: Donskis describes cities that we call small today, but which were flourishing centers in their heyday, and he approaches those places of significance from the beautiful things they have produced. In the part about Spain, for example, he does not describe Madrid or Barcelona, but Cordoba and Toledo. Córdoba was `in the 10th-11th centuries the city with the largest number of inhabitants in the world and also the intellectual center of Europe`. Still "the white city of tolerance reminds our troubled age, which has lost its mark, that a truly exalted tradition never invokes brute force and violence." Donskis perseveres throughout the book to get through historical elaborations with trips to our era. Córdoba shows, just like the other cities that Donskis describes, what Europe could be, if only because it has been that way.
Donskis dedicates most of The Little Europeto two busy countries in the northwest: Belgium and the Netherlands. The fact that Belgium, given its multilingualism and original political organization, is the `experimental field`, the `future scenario` and `a miniscule copy of the EU and also the embodiment of it` of Europe, is interesting and also deepened by other political thinkers, such as Tony Judt . However, this is not a book in which Donskis pays a lot of attention to the ins and outs of the modern EU: he first of all wants to describe the authentic historical experience evoked by great painters. In this way he takes the reader to the Bruges of Hans Memling, the Ghent of Jan van Eyck and the Antwerp of Peter Paul Rubens. They are short sketches of heyday, framed with many paintings of the main characters. I hadn`t said it yet: This is not a book in which Donskis dwells for a long time on the ins and outs of the modern EU: he wants to describe the authentic historical experience evoked by great painters.
In the Netherlands, small Europe is taking shape in the cities of Leiden, Haarlem and Delft. Donskis mainly uses Leiden to elaborate on Rembrandt, whom he honors like no other. `A lot can be said about contemporary art, which is generally impossible without it. But Rembrandt breathes air and silence. His artistic expression needs no additional comment from us or loud looks of appreciation and a laurel wreath. It is an illuminated silence. " Donskis describes Rembrandt as a philosopher who thought in images and colors: he shows the whole person, in all our glory and fragility. In the continuation of his Dutch travels, Donskis describes Haarlem and Delft on the basis of Judith Leyster, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer, among others. He has something to say about each of them that places them fully in their time and in eternity.
The bigger, the smaller
When Donskis writes about Italy, he sticks to a small town: Forlì. The city of Mussolini - its architecture is still everywhere - but also of Stendhal: it shows its Italian chronicles . Donskis sees modernity reflected in a fabulously competent waiter who, although he knows no fewer than five languages and has the entire restaurant with a smile on her face, will have to leave Italy in two weeks because his contract is due to expire. Dreamlike cities and the harsh reality: they continue to flare each other.
Spain is limited to the aforementioned two cities. Donskis likes short, essay-like exercises with respect, for the great Arab philosophers who made Córdoba the intellectual capital of the world, and for the unconventional, multicultural El Greco who perpetuated Toledo.
At home on the Baltic Sea
At the end of his book, Donskis almost returns to his native country, Lithuania, when he discusses the island of Gotland, which, just like Lithuania, borders the Baltic Sea. Gotland knows `permeated by a silent, non-screaming and nostalgic beauty` and has thereby escaped the `cruel interventions of modernity`. Here Donskis finds a place where the historical experience and the contemporary reality do not fight each other, a timeless place that is also immortalized in the films of Bergman and Tarkovsky.
Skagen gets the final say, on the north coast of Denmark. Where the North Sea and the Gulf Stream, `seas with different colors`, meet, Donskis says goodbye to his reader. Perhaps we can see a final analogy with Europe in this last place, in which the multitude is constantly waving for a moment, as a unity. For example, Donskis concludes a beautiful book that is not only a travel guide for the aesthetician, but also convinces the reader that, in order to paraphrase a great writer, anyone who evaluates a city should not judge that city for one failed period, one trivial shopping mall or poor urban development, but to its high points: because it has proved itself capable of doing so.