Continental Divide

By Silverberg, Robert | New Criterion, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Continental Divide


Silverberg, Robert, New Criterion


Increasingly, contemporary travel writing divides into the kind which provides information about sights and experiences observed along the way and the so-called "journey of self-discovery." The latter tends to comprise self-indulgent musings on the impact of travel on the psyche and emotional life of the traveler in search of transformative experiences. Travel writing, like so many other products of present-day cultural life, has come to reflect the prevailing preoccupation with the self. At the same time it is indisputable that being removed from one's habitual physical and social environment is conducive to reflections on a wide variety of subjects unrelated to the direct and specific experiences the trip yields.

My recent six-week trip to five European countries was neither a fact-finding mission nor a sentimental journey of self-discovery, and only in small part a vacation. I went to Portugal, Sweden, France, and Poland as a speaker sponsored by the State Department. In the fifth country, Italy, the lectures were initiated and organized by various Italian universities and an Italian Foundation. The topics I offered were anti-Americanism, "contemporary political violence," "Communism and intellectuals," and "the Western moral responses to Nazism and Communism." Anti-Americanism was the most popular topic followed by Communism and intellectuals (the latter especially in Italy). I gave twenty-four lectures mostly to student audiences at universities in Lisbon, Porto, Braga, Aviero (all in Portugal), Stockholm, Paris, Lyon, Warsaw, Milan, Pisa, Siena, and Perugia. I also spoke at research institutes, foundations, and associations. I had conversations with numerous academic and nonacademic intellectuals and journalists (who interviewed me) as well as American and native employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in each country, including two ambassadors, one deputy head of mission and several cultural attaches.

As on other visits to Europe, I was impressed by the fact that--notwithstanding the alleged imperatives of modernization, the shared impact of technology, and the homogenizing impact of popular culture (much of it of American origin)--Europe remains different. These differences show up most conspicuously in the survival of vestiges of traditional attitudes and ways of life and the aesthetic bounty they produced.

A European by birth, I left Hungary in 1956 at age twenty-four. The relationship between Europe and the United States has had both personal and professional relevance for me. Is European anti-Americanism deep seated and consequential or rather a minor blemish on American-European relations? My audiences, most of whom were students, displayed little anti-Americanism. This may have several explanations: they could have been polite and self-selected for their interest and friendly attitude; the limitations of their English might have restrained expressions of their feelings and opinions. It is also possible that I was not the appropriate person upon whom to vent negative feelings about the United States because I am not a "real" American (i.e. one born and bred here and speaking without a foreign accent) and because I made it clear that I had my own reservations about certain features of American society, U.S. foreign policy, and our current president. In each country I was amazed by the number of people I met who had personal contacts with Americans and visited the United States in various capacities.

Among the countries visited, France is supposed to be the most anti-American and Poland the least, but I had no personal experience to support either claim. At my talk on anti-Americanism at the Sorbonne, the large audience was responsive, friendly, and curious. In Poland, I learned, there are some anti-American sentiments because it is not easy for Poles to get a visa to the U.S. (while Americans don't need any to Poland) and, to a lesser extent, because of the contemplated missile shield that would require installations in Poland. …

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