Whenever we hear the word culture, we should reach for our scalpels. We will get nowhere if we fail to dissect, divide, discriminate: cultures, not culture. This is particularly true for Europeans. It may be plausible for Americans, inheritors of a continent and a culture which have remained united for two centuries, to think singular. But an inhabitant of any European nation is fooling himself if he talks about European culture as anything but irredeemably plural, an enormous pond muddied by closely related clumps of frogspawn. And if, in considering the condition of our culture, we sidle up to that related question, so alluring in its melancholy, of the death of the European past, then we must ask whose past, and which bits of it are dead or dying?

When people venture into these boggy regions, I think there are at least four distinct but overlapping kinds of loss or threatened loss that they would like to talk about. For convenience,...

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