Joep Leerssen

Hall of Mirrors

European culture as myth and image

In Hall of Mirrors, historian of literature and culture Joep Leerssen presents a cultural-historical profile of Europe that avoids both the platitudes of Eurocen­trism and hand-wringing over past wrongs. Rejecting the current tendency to limit the idea of ‘Europe’ to the debates around economic or political projects, Leerssen traces the cultural impact of a European sense of identity which, he argues, offers an excellent antidote to national chauvinism.

The tangled strands of Europe’s history, which Hall of Mirrors playfully explores, invite self-reflection and self-questioning and challenge the cultural stereotypes that have such a firm hold on today’s world. Leerssen takes the reader on a tour of the continent’s labyrinthine heritage, ‘wandering with a candle through a dimly-lit hall of mirrors. It’s often unclear which flame we are holding and which is being reflected back at us, and many corners remain poorly lit.’ He does not claim to have all the answers, but his erudition and command of the material enable him to provide a wealth of insight into every aspect of the European mentality.

The cradle of Europe can be found in Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca, which encapsulates the entire history of the continent: sailing out, sailing back, from one coast to the other, between battlefield and home port, destruction and reunion. Countless more recent archetypes have lodged themselves in the collective consciousness of Europe, from Lord Byron to the Count of Monte Christo and Dracula. The trials and tribulations of the Transylvanian count, in which an innocent victim becomes the accomplice of evil, teach that the world is more complicated than in the average Western, where heroes wear white hats and villains black.

Leerssen has no easy solutions to offer in these difficult eurocrisis times, but those who wish to look beyond a one-dimensional reality can sharpen their mind and senses on this journey, and discover an ambivalence that returns time and again in the image and self-image of Europe. Compared to Africa and Asia, this part of the world presents itself as the continent of progress; compared to the New World it is the continent of history. Europe’s breast harbours more than one soul.

  • Investigates the stereotypes that make up our self-image.
  • An erudite and entertaining journey through European literature, art and film.
  • Aims to inspire and to offer points of reflection rather than confronting the reader with any ponderous analysis.

Wearing his learning lightly, in this elegantly informal essay Joep Leerssen guides readers through a gallery of images of Europe, ranging from Odysseus to Dracula and making many perceptive comments on the way.

Peter Burke, professor emeritus of cultural history and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Hall of Mirrors is both an interesting meditation and an antidote, challenging narrow nationalistic illusions.

De Volkskrant

Joep Leerssen

Joep Leerssen is Royal Netherlands Academy Professor of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His studies on the connection between literature, historical awareness and nationalism have won him an international reputation. He was awarded the 2008 Spinoza Prize (Holland’s premier…

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Spiegelpaleis Europa. Europese cultuur als mythe en beeldvorming (2011). Non-fiction, 204 pages.
Words: 50,000
Copies sold: 3,000

With illustrations in black-and-white and references

Themes: Europe



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