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Book Review : Puzzling Out the Character of Europe

May 29, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Painted in Blood by Stuart Miller (Atheneum: $17.95. 232 pp.)

"We are after the incorporeal European soul," Stuart Miller writes in the preface to "Painted in Blood." "We are ambitiously after the human essence of the whole place."

To understand everything is to understand nothing. What do you say to someone who comes up at a party, stares into your eyes and tells you that he is going to explain your totality? You step on his closest toe and look around for your host.

Miller's holistic approach to puzzling out the character of Europeans can be maddeningly rhapsodic and blurry. He is mentally grandiloquent: for example, in the use of we to voice a personal account of his own pleasures, pains, illuminations and confusions while living in Europe for seven years.

Miller is a former director of the Esalen Institute, which may account for some of his interest in talking about essences, and for his exclamatory style of understanding. Essences are best sneaked up on; they have an inveterate bashfulness that turns them tongue-tied in the face of any large approach. Understanding is a virtue that wilts when it is celebrated.

Yet it is a virtue, and "Painted in Blood" has quite a lot to say. It's been a while since an American writer went out in unabashed pursuit of the national character of a civilization that we have come to take for granted--thanks to 30 years of prosperity, tranquility and tourism--as a sort of giant cultural theme park.

Miller married a European, and some of his best perceptions come through the stresses as well as rewards of dealing with his independent-minded wife and his Belgian in-laws.

Stress and Rudeness

Stress is one of his basic themes, in fact; the sense of combat that he finds, never far from the surface, in the Europeans he has encountered. Tourists, particularly in France, are quick to label it rudeness. Miller has experienced it that way, too. It has hurt him; it has often made him allergic to the monuments and palaces and vistas.

He starts off with driving 85 m.p.h. on a German Autobahn, and being blasted out of his lane by a Porsche hurtling up behind him.

"You feel the quick flame of his wrath, you see in your mirror the eyes beginning to bulge, you hear the hand now banging on the horn. He would toss you off the road if he had a gadget that could do it: not a mine sweeper, a car sweeper is what he yearns for."

It is a violence without consequences, Miller realizes. In the United States, a driver brought to such a pitch of fury might well climb out with a baseball bat; in France or Germany or Italy, anger is violence frozen in history. But it colors life, nevertheless. Where does it come from?

Miller unfreezes history as he goes, and he finds it everywhere. The pleasing forms of ancient castles and walls suggest fairy tales to the modern tourist. But tourism is simply the future tense of bloodshed. The fairy tales were full of monsters; the castles and parapets were formidable machines of war. Hence the title "Painted in Blood."

Taking European history as a whole, and averaging it all out, a European's life has consisted of one year of war to every four years of non-war. If the last 40 years have been peaceful, this only means that the preceding centuries were that much more bloody.

And war in Europe was war at home. Miller's gift of understanding justifies its flamboyance as he writes:

"Most Americans are afraid of war because we know abstractly that it means potential death. The European is afraid in a more intimate and concrete way. Europeans know that war hurts. You go cold and hungry. You are wounded. They can peel the skin off you. You are impressed and tortured and ordered over the top in a gas attack. War is not a story, not a simple end to living. War is not death but torture."

War, civil war, the combat among classes, regions, economic sectors, sects; all these things, Miller tells us, mean that differences come armed, at least traditionally. The thought is not new, but the author makes an engaging link between this armed intellectual tradition and the quality of the European mind.

"The European advances ideas like battalions of tanks, holds the ground he wins, blasts you as you come toward him, brings in other battalions to reenforce a position," he writes.

Miller's long aim works well when he is elaborating upon historical violence and the edgy temperament. Elsewhere, loftiness breeds stuffiness.

There is a brilliant essay in "Painted in Blood." As a full-length book, it is drawn out and repetitive; a series of short flights, sometimes breathtaking, that keep taking off and landing in much the same place.

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