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This article is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

A Few Thoughts about Europe and its Legacy Marina Warner


IN A WORLD WHERE violent nationalisms threaten, where refugees from despotism, famine and other ills grow in numbers daily, and America's solitary superpower status looms over all, the idea of Europe presents a safe house. But Europe is like the king in the story who leaves his daughter three caskets - the folktale Shakespeare uses in The Merchant of Venice: we are not the beneficiaries of a single bequest. We have to choose between many legacies - many more than the gold, silver and lead of the story.

To arrive at my idea of the European legacy I borrowed a tool used by historians of thought to trace shifting attitudes to male and female differences: discrimination by polarity. Man is the opposite of woman; perhaps, but both men and women are the opposites of - say - crocodiles, or teapots. Europe is the opposite of … America? Yes. And no. There are writers born in the United States here at this conference, like Edmund White, and ll1any others who live there, like Joseph Brodsky, who dissolve any stand-off between the continents: we only have to think - to throw out a few names - of Cotton Mather's puritanism, Jefferson and Franklin's radical ideas of citizenship, or of Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and John Ashbery, to see that the legacy of Europe can't be disentangled from US culture and history, can't be defined in opposition to America.

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