Years ago, Denis de Rougement published a study entitled Twenty-eight Centuries of Europe; here, readers will only find five of them, the most recent. The idea is that the sixteenth century acts as a double watershed—against the past, and against other continents—after which European literature develops that formal inventiveness that makes it truly unique. (Not everybody agrees on this point, however, and so we will begin by comparing opposite explanatory models.) As for examples, the limited space at my disposal has been a great help; I have felt free to focus on a few forms, and make definite choices. If the description will not be complete (but is that ever the case?), at least it will not lack clarity.

What you have just read are the first sentences of Christianity, or Europe, the celebrated essay written by Novalis in the very last months of the eighteenth century. As its underlying structure, a very simple, very effective equation: Europe is Christianity, and Christianity is unity. All threats to such unity—the Reformation, of course; but also the modern nation states, economic competition, or ‘untimely, hazardous discoveries in the realm of knowledge’—threaten Europe as well, and induce Novalis, who is all but a moderate thinker, to approve of Galilei’s humiliation, or to sing a hymn in praise of the Jesuits—‘with an admirable foresight and constance, with a wisdom such as the world had never seen before. . .a Society appeared, the equal of which had never been in universal history. . .’ Here, let me just point out how this intransigent conception of European unity—one Christianity, one design, one ruler—is also the backbone of the only scholarly masterpiece devoted to our subject: Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, published in 1948. ‘This work aims at grasping European literature as a unified whole, and to found such unity on the Latin tradition,’ reads Auerbach’s review.’footnote1 And thus Curtius himself:

Onto Novalis’s spatial order (Rome as the centre of Europe), Curtius superimposes the temporal sequence of Latin topoi, with its fulcrum in the Middle Ages, which again leads to Rome. Europe is unique because it is one, and it is one because it has a centre: ‘Being European means having become cives romani, Roman citizens.’footnote3 And here’s the rub, of course: because Curtius’s Europe is not really Europe, but rather—to use the term so dear to him—‘Romania’. It is a single space, unified by the Latin–Christian spirit that still pervades those universalistic works (The Divine Comedy, Faust) which seem to establish separate ‘national’ literatures, but in fact pre-empt them. In Europe, for Curtius, there is room for one literature only, and that is European literature.

If circumscribed to the Middle Ages—where most of the evidence comes from—this model may well be invulnerable. But Curtius has something else in mind: not the delimitation of the Middle Ages, but their permanence well into modernity. The line about European literature being ‘intelligible’ only because of medieval continuity leaves no doubts about it. And yet, ‘in today’s spiritual situation’, that very unity which has survived for twenty centuries is threatened as never before:

Chaos. Reviewing Ulysses in 1923, Eliot had evoked ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’;footnote5 while for Novalis, chaos was at work already in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And the reason for the crisis is at bottom always the same: the modern nation state, which from its very inception—‘irreligiously’, as Novalis puts it—has rejected a super-national spiritual centre.