The altar of fire

In a world without faith or metaphysics, we need a grand illusion like the European Union. Even with

For January 2003, the city of Hamburg organised a week-long seminar on Europe, its shared cultural heritage and possible political future. The idea was to have one writer from every country in the Union present an essay on how he or she understood European values and how those values might be protected and promoted. These essays would then be debated throughout the long mornings and afternoons.

Fifteen English writers were invited, but none showed. Martin Amis didn't show. Ian McEwan didn't show. The magazine Der Spiegel seized on this. Those English! Their lack of interest, their lack of seriousness!

But nobody, as we know, is more excited than the person crying scandal. One senses the German journalist's horrified enthusiasm. Deep down, he, and the organisers too, are secretly glad that the English have not come. Not because we are not wanted in the Union. Quite the contrary. But by playing so hard to get, the English constitute a guarantee - one among many - that "the process of integration" will take an interminably long time. If not for ever! And this is the key to Europe's "success". Its construction is a task that will never let us down by reaching completion.

Let's be fanciful. In his wonderful book on Indian mythology, Ka, Roberto Calasso recounts how a second generation of gods, blessed with longevity but nevertheless mortal, sought out their progenitor, the first god, Prajapati, whose broken body was now dispersed throughout the world, to ask if there were any way they might be saved. They must reconstruct his lost wholeness, he told them. How? "Take three hundred and sixty boundary stones and ten thousand eight hundred bricks, the same number as there are hours [Vedic hours] in a year. Every brick has a name . . ."

Prajapati was explaining how you could build "the altar of fire", a construction in the shape of an eagle and built from the outside in. Each brick, or citi, was also cit, an "intense thinking". Rather than being dispersed in the normal turbulence of the mind, the thoughts were to be connected together, like bricks, so that when, if, the centre was reached and all parts and thoughts connected in wholeness, the fire of the mind would be kindled and the eagle take flight to the paradise of immortality.

That was the project. But with a boundary stone for every day and a brick for every hour of the year, the building inevitably took up all the time there was. "When the year was up, the work had to begin again." From scratch. So "in order to prepare life, one uses up every hour of life". But the gods didn't mind. They had no time to mind. Ever busy with their project, they died less troubled.

There are many versions of the altar of fire. The Tower of Babel was perhaps the most famous. But because the gods didn't like mere men trying to imitate their divine stratagems, all those carefully composed bricks and thoughts were dispersed into the confusion of a multiplicity of languages. You are always back to square one. Anybody who has attended a conference at the European parliaments in Strasburg and Brussels will have heard the hum of a notional unity being recovered from chaos as dozens of interpreters go back and forth in dozens of languages.

It is only in the 19th century, however, that we get a really new take on the altar-of-fire story, a new twist that helps us to appreciate the special nature of the European Union. In his Discourse on the Present State of Italian Customs, the poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi decided - this was 1826 - that far from being behind other countries, Italy was, at a spiritual level, way ahead, as in Italy no one really believed in anything, political, moral or metaphysical, any more. Italian Catholicism was the merest superstition. "Thus not only does life have no substance or truth at all in Italy, something which is actually the case everywhere, but it doesn't even have the appearance of substance or truth, with the result that it cannot be taken seriously."

Life could not be taken seriously. As Italy was the avant-garde of decadence, this would eventually be true all over Europe. Society was threatened with complete breakdown. If that was so, the only possibility for moral behaviour in society, as Leopardi saw it, lay in some kind of vast collective project, something that would give at least the appearance that life was important, that there was a goal, and that because it could be achieved only by working together, other people deserved your respect, you theirs.

Here is a new kind of altar of fire. Not only is there no question of getting to heaven, but certain wakeful members of society will actually be aware that the project itself is a charade. It is not necessary (surely nobody imagines that Europe would not be able to feed and clothe itself without the EU), but it is necessary for us to have grand projects that we imagine are necessary when they are not, because without such illusions, "the most reasonable attitude", says Leopardi, "is one of complete and continuous cynicism of thought, character, custom, opinion, word and action".

The ancient secret of the altar of fire is now revealed. It is not a way of reaching paradise, nor even just a long-term plan for keeping busy. No, it is a complicated and noble piece of self- deceit that allows us to get through life without being always at each other's throats, something both gods and men were all too prone to be.

Arguably the nation state, as it was built in Germany and Italy in the 19th century - dreaming up single identities across deeply divided territories - was a form of collective illusion, as Leopardi had advocated it. Fascism, national socialism and communism were far more evidently so. But they had the drawback - the poet would have been horrified - that their grandiose projects depended on fantasising a shared enemy, whether of class or race. In order not to tear each other apart, we do it to someone else.

Following as it does the carnage of 19th-century nationalism and the near-extinction of the Second World War, the European Union is altogether more judicious than the many grand collective ideas that came before it. We have come a long way. Rather than postulating an identity against the rest of the world, the community invites the surrounding world, country by country, to surrender identity and collapse into its amorphous embrace. Its very ethos is to have no enemies (hence the difficulties with Iraq). And as each new country throws in the towel, surrenders the old delirium of national identity and signs up to such conundrums as "pooled sovereignty", so the process of assimilation can begin anew, the interminable laws, rules, regulations, the liturgical bricks and boundary stones of the altar of fire. Every time the original idea of the organisation seems to be complete, it is promptly extended, complicated. This is a project that will take forever and a day.

But the English? Leopardi had met very few Englishmen when he wrote his Discourse, but the few he had met made a big impression. They had an inexplicably high opinion of themselves, something at once quite unjustifiable but wonderfully healthy, as respect for others, and with it the very possibility of moral society, begins with respect for oneself. The English, it seemed, were not urgently in need of some manufactured illusion, living as they did in a more natural and positive ignorance.

When I met Michael Portillo to make a short television documentary about Europe, he fielded a dozen arguments to suggest the political and economic impracticability of the single currency, the Common Agricultural Policy, and so on. I agreed with all of them. He was pleasantly surprised. But he found it difficult to accept the notion that unless one has an even more enchanting idea of the future to offer, all his spoilsport arguments were worth nothing at all. In a world which has no faith or metaphysics upon which to base moral behaviour, the grand illusory project is obligatory.

Recently there has been a lot of debate about whether a new constitution for Europe should contain some reference to Christianity as its shared religion. Valery Giscard d'Estaing rightly resisted this. A religion associated to a territory suggests other religions associated with other territories, and hence the possibility of conflict, a reality alien to the ant-like inspiration of the Union.

All the same, there does seem to be a certain embarrassment about the Union's difficulty with expressing positive, as opposed to negative, spiritual values. Those who have visited the "Meditation Room" at the heart of the European Parliament in Strasburg will have sensed this. With no cross, no symbols and just a strange block of white laminate and polished Perspex to focus the room, really the only thing you can meditate on here is the absence (the sensible absence) of faith, the emptiness on which the EU is built.

Let me suggest a little change, a suitable mystification. We substitute the apologetic Meditation Room with a much grander space, in the middle of which we lay 360 boundary stones and 10,799 bricks - the altar of fire, no less, complete all but for the last brick.

"Every brick has a name," said Prajapati. Set carefully to one side, beyond a little stream of water perhaps, will be the fatal last brick, the one that would complete the construction, ignite the fire, launch the eagle, oblige us to start all over again. It has a Union Jack on it.

Visitors - those who come to contemplate the deep mysteries of the Union (perhaps during a brief adjournment of some interminable 20-language debate on the proper sanctions to apply to farmers unwilling to put suitable toys in pigsties) - will be allowed to try to lift the brick (I can even imagine some sort of ceremony being instituted) and put it in its place at the centre of the altar. But that brick is quite immovable. Like the sword in the stone, only some mythical future leader could lift it. Thus at last everybody could celebrate, if not quite understand, England's special contribution, our splendid destiny, within/without the Union.

Over the decades, the centuries to come, there will be many more seminars of the Hamburg variety, on European culture and the Union. One can only trust that the English will go on supporting them by not turning up.

Tim Parks's most recent novel is Judge Savage, published by Secker & Warburg. He teaches literature and linguistics at the Universita IULM in Milan

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The banality of the good