Western European Literature

It's a fool's task trying to boil all of Western European literature down to a single point or overriding trajectory. In so many ways the originators, or at least the purveyors, of what is commonly called "Western Civilization," the nations of Western Europe are far from unified or monolithic in their religion, philosophy, and art. In fact, the fractured face of Western Civilization is basically the reflection of the fractured political and demographic face of Western Europe.

Too often, and for too many people, ethnic groups are defined by their continent rather than their nation or region. For instance, in the United States of America people talk about "Asians", "Africans", and "South Americans", as if all South Americans are the same or everyone in Africa thinks and acts similarly. The reality is that even in the space of a few miles within a single country, cultures can change dramatically, affecting cuisine, religion, outlook, health, psychology, etc.

Western Europe is typically thought to be composed of those nations which speak Germanic or Latin-derived languages: Spain and Portugal, France, the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and all the tiny countries wedged in among the larger ones (Luxembourg, for example). Broadly, these were considered part of Christendom during the heyday of religious-political syncretism, during the Middle Ages and (to a lesser extent) the Protestant Reformation.

Without a doubt, the four most important movements in the history of thought grew out of Western Europe. The Renaissance, with its emphasis on humanism and learning; the Reformation, which transformed the relationship between church and state; the Enlightenment, whose proponents taught that man was the measure of all things, empiricism trumped supernaturalism, and that if God exists He's wholly unknowable; and Postmodernism, the heir to the Enlightenment and the dominant philosophy today which tells people all things are relative and nothing is universally true.

So if we're going to track the influence of this region, it will have to be as a philosophical trajectory rather than a unified worldview or history. This is fairly simple from a literary perspective as all writers are philosophers, and most of them reflect the major (and usually, popular and fashionable) ideas of their time.

To say all writers are philosophers isn't to suggest that all of them get paid to teach philosophical thought or that all of them write explicit philosophical texts the way Immanuel Kant and G. F. W. Hegel did. Rather, it's to illustrate the fact that all serious authors are writing in order to say something true or profound about the world and life in it. Many of the Western European writers of the 19th and 20th centuries were also professional philosophers in the technical sense, but that has never been a necessity for making philosophical statements and observations.

Medieval literature in Western Europe tended to reflect the growing dominance of the Church either directly or indirectly. Direct treatments were generally allegorical, such as Piers the Plowman and The Allegory of the Rose; indirectly, epics like Beowulf and the Viking sagas demonstrate an uncertain union of paganism and newly accepted Christianity. Literature was primarily used to convey meaning, and the popularity in the Middle Ages of allegory shows a preference for the concrete over the abstract.

In the Renaissance this preference was retained, but it took on a new form. Now, writers began (quite subtly at first) to emphasize man over God, and to question the true source of authority for religion, law, and life. The concreteness of Medieval writing was meant to illustrate deep spiritual truths in a way people could understand; the concreteness of Renaissance literature is a man-centered concreteness intended to deal "honestly" with empirical verities.

For the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox (all Western Europeans), the spiritual verities were no less valid and real than those of the physical world. Whereas the Medieval world had accepted without argument that the Roman Catholic Church was the final authority in all matters religious, the Reformers retorted that it was God's Word as found in the Bible that was the final authority, and that neither a monolithic Church nor secular governments could bind men's consciences in this matter.

The Enlightenment, direct successor to Renaissance humanism, went further than its parent. Not only was the empirical world more important than the spiritual world, it was likely or certain that the spiritual world didn't exist. It couldn't be proved through observation, science, or unaided human reason: how, then, could it be believed? Enlightenment philosophers also borrowed from the Reformation, but put their own twist on it—it wasn't that the Bible rather than the Church was the final authority, but that human reason was the final authority for all things, including faith.

And then Postmodernism, that weird half-breed that lies half in the desert of Enlightenment scientism and rationalism, and half in the swamp of relativism. Nothing can be known, language is meaningless, there are no universal truths....presuppositions which the most faithful (and honest) postmodernists will affirm, and thereby reject Modernism and science altogether. The less convicted affirm them, while clinging blindly to the "truth" of science and the academy.

As each of these thought systems unfolded in Western Europe, the literature of the region evolved with it. Some of the best literature the world has ever been blessed with came from the Renaissance, and much of it evidenced a tension between what was visible and what was spiritual: Dante's Divine Comedy comes immediately to mind.

Reformation literature is comprised almost exclusively of straight theology, though poetry also figures prominently. Luther, Calvin and Knox all wrote copious theological treatises, though only Calvin wrote what we would call systematic theology; John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and many others wrote brilliant poetry (both narrative and otherwise) that dealt directly with both secular and sacred themes; and Puritans like John Bunyan revived Medieval allegory for a Protestant context.

Up to the Enlightenment, literature appeared at a more or less manageable rate. After Modernism had conquered the intellectual landscape, literature appeared in a flood that has only continued to increase since then. Philosophy, theology (both orthodox and heterodox), novels, poetry, satire, newspapers proliferated. Since man was the measure of all things, and since the external world was all that could really be proved to exist, it was necessary to gain as much knowledge as possible, and writers set to the task of acquiring and spreading it with almost terrifying vigor.

Today, Postmodernism reigns in the world of literature, especially in Western Europe. Rather than writing novels about human existence as such, Existentialists and Postmodernists write merely about absurdity, randomness, and despair. Many of their books are quite entertaining and interesting, but a novel like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell can't deal with universals in any meaningful or straightforward sense because David Mitchell doesn't believe in universals.

Too often we equate a love of literature with a love of novels only. The history of Western European literature shows us otherwise, that literature encompasses the entire body of written work designed to be read by an audience. Perhaps it is this broad focus that has led postmodern writers to try to include absolutely everything in their books, as much as their commitment to novelty for its own sake has done so. Whatever the case, the literature of Western Europe is among the most rich of any in the world, and continues to influence writers across the globe to this day.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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