New centre of attention

May 26, 1995

We drove home late at night. Fortunately the taxi started at once. No light came from the streetlamps and not much from the few buildings along the road, making driving rather difficult. The driver did not mind. Suddenly, however, he brought the car to a violent stop. After we had recovered from the shock, we saw the man in the middle of the road.

He was on crutches and stood, almost motionless, while cars hooted frantically and drivers, gesticulating wildly, sped by. Before we could try and get out of the car the cab driver had restarted the engine and left the man behind. Looking back we could still see his silhouette, for a second or two, on crutches, motionless.

We had returned to Bucharest for a board meeting of the New Europe College. On my first visit there, some years ago, Bucharest had been a rather pleasant surprise. I had expected nothing but misery and the remnants of a dreadful dictatorship but I met marvellous people and courageous intellectuals, and realised, not believing my eyes, that large parts of the city, after proper repair, would look as Nouilly-sur-Seine must have looked at the turn of the century. To found the New Europe College in Bucharest seemed to be a marvellous idea.

Andrei Plesu has been one of the first two recipients of the New Europe Prize. The prize is awarded by six American and European Institutes for Advanced Study (Princeton, Stanford, National Humanities Center, Uppsala, Wassenaar, Berlin) and must be used to strengthen an existing, or to build up a new, institution that will offer excellent working conditions for local scholars while, at the same time, attract first-rate scholars from abroad. It was yet another attempt to fight the brain drain.

The New Europe College is now entering its third year. Its home is a small, but decently and tastefully refurbished apartment in the middle of Bucharest where the fellows of the college meet for their weekly seminar and other scholarly activities. They receive a small monthly stipend for which no professor from the West would even give the introduction to a talk. An additional allowance enables them to buy books and for a month of their fellowship they go abroad, welcomed and taken care of by a host institution. So far, the London School of Economics, the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris and the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin have been among the host institutions. Our colleagues from Bucharest have made an excellent impression everywhere - the great success story being Professor Patapieviet's discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript by Pierre Duhem in the Bibliotheque Nationale that will now be published under his auspices.

The greatest asset of the New Europe College is its director, Andrei Plesu. A cheerful Falstaff-like man, a specialist on the subject of angels whose discipline is properly called angelology, he is doing miracles. Having been the minister of culture after the overthrow of Nicolas Ceausescu and having resigned after realising that, once again, a revolution resembled a restoration in disguise, he is highly respected for his political wisdom and his personal courage. It is a sheer pleasure to work with him and his dedicated staff. Choosing the fellows is a pleasure, too. As anywhere, many applications are just below standard, but quite a lot are interesting and promising, blending a serious knowledge of the latest intellectual developments "in the West" with new and surprising perspectives of research that have been generated in a local, yet not parochial, context.

It would be wrong in the extreme to assume that all is well in the Balkans. First, we made our own mistakes and must now correct them. We see, once more, that what we lack most is adequate local knowledge. For a long time, to give but one example, we behaved as if there were no differences in "the East" and as if Bucharest was just like, say, Budapest. Therefore, we have spent a lot of time and energy trying to find a building for the New Europe College that would be as spectacularly attractive as the former city hall of Buda has become for the Collegium Budapest. By erecting a palace for scholars in a city full of misery, however, one would almost be imitating the example of Ceaucescu who built a house for himself and called it the House of the People.

We have understood by now that we should perhaps try instead to add one modest apartment to another, thereby spreading the New Europe College through the city. Instead of acting like noveaux riches we must behave like old moles. When I am speaking of "us" I refer to those who support the New Europe College. It gives great satisfaction to see that a big institution like the Volkswagen Foundation does not just act generously but is able to act with much flexibility and sensitivity. The Swiss, once more, turn out to be model Europeans by demonstrating, in the smooth interplay between their government and the foundation Landis and Gyr that the public-private mix the co-operation between the state and institutions of civil society, constitutes the essence of a living and lively democracy.

At the same time, politics brings many disappointments. Of course, we are no longer astonished to realise how little the nomenklatura has changed in a country like Romania. The term post-Communism is utterly misleading. But why must a German diplomat tell Andrei Plesu who is fighting in his courageous journal Dilema, for a true democracy, that he should better adapt to the new (ie the old) political context if he wants to achieve something? Why is no member of the German embassy attending the reception the Swiss ambassador is giving in honour of the New Europe College, and at which the French ambassador, for example, is also to be present? I realise once more, as if to repeat our experience in Budapest, that cultural and scholarly initiatives that are bound to have a political impact, must sometimes be realised without much help from the responsible political personnel, who may even be against it.

Coming home from Bucharest our feelings are mixed. On the one hand, working for the New Europe College is a rewarding experience indeed. On the other hand, we return even more depressed from a country that is simply left behind the new iron curtain now being erected in Europe. Most Romanians seem to have given up. Our cab driver told us why the man on crutches, a beggar, was standing in the middle of the road: it was his only chance to win some attention and perhaps be given some lei to survive another day. He did not mind the risk of being fatally injured by a car.

In the West we continue to drive as if we were safely on our way to a common and better future for our continent. The Serbs and Croats and Bosnian Muslims are just crazy. Theirs is a private war and we should not have got in there in the first place. We forgot about all the other places however, where new, ie old conflicts loom. Out of continued misery mass migrations and wars will result and if we do not help, we will, in the end, become miserable like the man on crutches whom we left behind us, motionless and helpless, in the road. I should like to express my great wish to hear from individuals or institutions in Great Britain willing to join us in our attempt to secure the existence of the New Europe College.

Wolf Lepenies is rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Germany.

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