Beyond Nationalism: A ‘Union in Diversity’ of European National Identities in Twentieth Century Narratives of Travel

  • Abstract:

    “The more solitary you are, the more vulnerable you will be”(1)
    Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania

    In Europe: An Unfinished Adventure, Zygmunt Bauman demonstrates that “Europe is not something you discover; Europe is a mission – something to be made, created, built”. Spanning the twentieth century, the narratives of travel of Paul Morand, Stefan Zweig, Primo Levi and Paul Theroux play a key role in this process of European identity construction. These four authors promote a forward-thinking and inclusive conceptualization of Europe and the relationship between nation and identity, through largely autobiographical narratives that detail travel within Europe, enforced or otherwise (2). Drawing on the work of European thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Roberto Dainotto, Amin Maalouf and E.J. Hobsbawm, my paper will demonstrate to what extent all four authors show their readers that the importance given to national borders can be subverted through the motion of travel, in which these arbitrary lines on the map are crossed by the travelers in question. In accordance with the renowned pacifist Romain Rolland – who believed that national and European identity were not ‘mutually exclusive’ affinities (3) – these four authors use their narratives to promote a sense of European or supranational identity, by urging their readership to rethink their relationship with their nation as part of a collective European whole, and to perceive diversity as being not Europe’s weakness, but rather its greatest strength. I will demonstrate how it is through valuable cultural productions such as these narratives of travel that Europeans are exposed to an alternative and more inclusive mode for identity construction, which triumphantly forwards what Ulrich Beck describes as “a Europe that helps diversity to flourish”(4).

    (1) Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (Kindle Edition, 1992), 154.
    (2) It is key here to note the importance of the nuance between ‘narratives of travel’ and ‘travel narratives’. I have chosen to use the former for this paper since I am keen to underline that I do not believe that the narratives in question – with the obvious exception of Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules – form part of the ‘travel writing’ genre, but are instead narratives that are born from travel and use travel as a form of inquiry into the world.
    (3) For more information, see Romain Rolland, Au-dessus de la mêlée – Edition intégrale (Kindle, 2015).
    (4) Ulrich Beck, Understanding the Real Europe: A Cosmopolitan Vision (The SAGE Handbook of European Studies, 2009), 13.