In Testaments Betrayed (Faber, 2004), Milan Kundera describes Man moving in a fog, always uncertain of where he is heading. Kundera was neither the first nor the last to observe this. What is interesting is what he said next. For despite Man's own stumbling, he noted, "when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path". We judge the past by a different standard, emboldened by our recognition of the way in which things turned out. The path always seems clear once it has been trodden.
I was thinking of Kundera the other day as I sat in the European Parliament in Brussels. I was there to speak on a panel organised by the British Council. Charming as the organisers were, it was the wrong thing to do.
Speaking in Brussels is probably always the wrong thing to do. For me, it is also like turning up at a dinner party where you have let it be known in advance that you loathe your hosts and think their marriage is on the rocks.
Several people with impossible titles explained what the ensuing session would show. A very important man talked of the very important article in a very important treaty that would ensure everything needed to be done could be done. He was the Vice-President of the Commission or the Vice-Commissioner of the President. In Brussels, people can be called whatever they like to be called. I am confident that nobody outside the building had ever heard of him.
The treaty he was discussing had a clause on which he was particularly keen. Everyone talked about it. Yet I couldn't name it, and no one outside the parliament will have heard of it.
The vast building, replete with such people, put me in mind of T. S. Eliot's description of those who spend their days "dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good". If enough laws and treaties are passed then everything will be OK. Everyone agreed with that and only the details remained to be sorted out. Here was the concoction of a society in which you won't have to waste your time "pursuing" happiness. Here you will simply have to demand it.