Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Beyond Babel

You are someone, one person, tidily package in a body and a brain. I who am speaking to you am uniquely someone. Is that not obvious? you may say.

We like to believe that man is one. To  begin with, most importantly after all, there is… me! I am indisputably one and indivisible, not two or three or several people. Then there is the nation or society I belong to, which stands for something, and is united, and has a name: “Canada”, “China”, “Japan”, or whatever it may be. Then there is the species to which we belong, homo sapiens, and we’re all the same under the skin.

Yet a little examination will convince us that this is not so, at any level : personal, social, cultural. Or it is so much beside the point as to be almost meaningless.

Personally, I am a complex organism with a complex brain, made up of constantly competing elements – thoughts, habits, emotions, needs, stimuli, many of which I am unaware of more often than not.

Socially, we are a society or a nation, but very soon we discover that we are really on the shifting sands of heterogeneity. There are different social classes, different ethnic groups, different religious faiths, there may be different languages. We’re not just all in this together.

When it comes to homo sapiens, obviously we are one, but we are so fantastically differentiated, unlike any other species, that it hardly matters. We have no single way of looking at things. Just as there is no one language of humanity, there is also no one culture. And think of all that culture and language involve: perceptions of the world, norms and values, basic assumptions, ways of doing things. Now that at last we have begun to know the world and not just our own country, as in past ages, we know that the world is too complex and vast for anyone to be in charge, or to take charge.

We yearn for unity. Think of the myth of Babel. Faced with the bewildering multiplicity around us and within ourselves, we dream that once there was unity, everybody speaking the same language, building the same tower to heaven. But it was never so. As long as man has been on the earth, he has been many. There is no lost secret, no “original language” or “original culture” or untouched core of humanity.

At the root of our humanity is not an illusory homogeneity, but an irremediable multiplicity. It will go better for us all in the future if we accept this and make it the very core of our course of action, not an inconvenient problem on the periphery (“communication barriers”).

In the world – not unity, but untidy compromise. In society, in the workplace – not homogeneity, but endless negotiation. Within myself – a babble of voices – and which is mine?

The voyage of tomorrow is a voyage across these shifting sands.

Multiple solitudes

Many years ago, Hugh McLennan wrote a novel with the title “Two Solitudes”. It was about the English minority and the French majority in Montreal: they inhabited the same city, but lived in two different worlds. The phrase caught on, and it came to mean French and English Canada generally. It was a reality too. Indeed, the thing that amazed me as an immigrant in the 1970s was that the two language areas were still like two different countries, even though they had a federal political system in common. Read the newspaper or listen to radio or TV news in the two Canadas, and you seemed to be in two different countries. It is still the case, though there is now a more dutiful attempt by media on both sides of the language divide to report the major doings and preoccupations of the other.

In recent years it has become the fashion among the more progressive sections of English-Canadian society to deny the existence of English Canada at all, in the name of multiculturalism. The assumption here is that English Canada is no longer WASP but a cheerful mixture of the more familiar and the more exotic; the English language just happens to be the obligatory means of communication.

Yet this purported disappearance of English Canada does not solve the problem of the solitudes. What multiculturalism means is in fact “multiple solitudes”. Ethnic groups maintain their languages and cultures as best they can, though it gets very difficult after the first generation. The English-Canadian (or assimilated) majority remains largely unaware of the ethnic groups, and all communication is in English, and bilateral – that is, ethnic groups deal with the majority on the majority’s terms. There is really no encounter between ethnic cultures and languages and the majority, or even between ethnic cultures themselves.

Take a place like Vancouver, which is basically my home town in Canada. There are so many different ethnic groups, from every nation under heaven. But they live a shadowy existence. There are sure to be a few ethnic restaurants around, but the group does not have a tangible public profile, except in their ethnic press, which no-one else reads but them. As a new immigrant I often wondered why Vancouver, with such ethnic diversity, is not cosmopolitan in the European sense. That is because, despite the diversity of the people, the public space remains homogeneously English-Canadian.

Meanwhile Vancouver does not stand still. The successive waves of Chinese immigration, no longer just through Hong Kong, could tip the balance. The Chinese group, long established and ever new, could become such a leading culture that they would eclipse the English-Canadian majority culture. Then Vancouver would perhaps still not be cosmopolitan in the European sense, but a Chinese extra-territorial “concession”, like the European concessions in Imperial China.

Meanwhile, the Canadian solitudes continue. I am beginning to think that solitude is the country’s defining feature, and that “studiously ignoring the other fellow” is the prime Canadian virtue.

 

République oblige

Last week in Le Monde, philosopher Étienne Balibar was interviewed about his recent book Des Universels, in which he writes about universal values. He sees the universalist attitude as inevitable, but notes that there are competing universalisms in the world.

The claim of universality has been key to the self-understanding of the West in its historic period of expansion. It first came from the possession of the true religion. Then the true philosophy. In all cases, there were missionaries eager to carry the universal message to the world.

The claim of France to be in possession of universal values like “reason” or “the rights of man” has been explicit since the 18th century when the country got its chance in to dominate Europe culturally with its soft power, and sometimes militarily with its hard power. Then it flourished beyond Europe in the colonial era.

Balibar says France does not have to give that claim up. Instead of “noblesse oblige”, he comments, the French should tell themselves “République oblige”.  In other words, if you claim to have an enlightened republic, you have to assume the obligation of spreading your ideas and values. Balibar is quoted as saying: “It obliges us to a kind of universalism, which can no longer be based on the identification of the Republic with the nation. To remain truly republican, France would have to get outside itself, and formulate the idea of an extension of citizenship beyond its frontiers. So, then: Français, encore un effort…

He is echoing the words of the Marquis de Sade at the time of the French Revolution. Sade mockingly  urged the people to “try harder” if they really wanted to be a republic. What Sade actually meant was that they should question their underlying values and assumptions, not just overthrow the monarchy.

It is actually a wonderful idea to reach out as a nation to the rest of the world. Whether a nation like France would really be prepared to do this is doubtful. The French are focused on their own local and national concerns. There is another, more general reason too: the Republic is a product of the nation, in other words, culture. And once you go beyond your own frontiers, you have to realize that your values and assumptions are culturally determined. Competing universalisms would need to acknowledge their limits. The missionaries would have to be cultural relativists – ready to learn as well as to preach.

A difficult project, to be be sure. But it would be a fine project to make up for the imperialism of days gone by.

 

 

 

Movement in stillness

I was at Lassalle House, the conference and training centre of the Swiss Jesuits last Sunday for the vernissage of Sanae Sakamoto’s latest exhibition. Now in her mid-seventies, the Japanese calligrapher and ink-brush painter is still going strong. Indeed, she is experimenting and branching out with new work. One finds traditional calligraphy among the items on show, to be sure, but she often goes beyond the traditional conception of the single surface with writing on it. In these works, the two-dimensionality of writing seems about to break into the three-dimensionality of space itself.

The motto of the Lassalle House is Stille bewegt, meaning “silence moves” or “stillness moves”. This refers to the stillness of their Zen meditation plus the movement of their yoga and other such disciplines. It also means that willed stillness can bring about movement in the world, can get things moving, can move people to do things. And there can be movement in and out of stillness, as we saw when Sanae Sakamoto performed calligraphic compositions spontaneously as part of the vernissage.

The most important thing one gets from such a performance is that it comes out of stillness. Without that stillness, no movement can happen, no movement of any value anyway.

The stillness or emptiness so often spoken of in the Tao and Zen philosophies is in fact not just “nothing”, but something like “empty space”. Or perhaps we might call it “room” – room for something to come into being, room for something to happen. It might be compared to the empty, darkened stage in a theatre which the audience are looking at expectantly before the play begins. Western philosophies do not name this reality, except perhaps the mysterious Platonic chora, the mother of all things, the undifferentiated matrix for generation of all sorts.

Sanae Sakamoto emphasizes that the black of the calligrapher’s ink is symbolic of the undifferentiated darkness of the nothingness whence being came. Life, form, differentiates itself out of that night of black ink.

Those of us who think of ourselves as writers have largely forgotten about the literal or physical “writing” part of the job. Instead, we think of writing as composing text, now mainly on the virtual surface of the computer. The physical action of writing or typing is merely a means to an end and receives no attention. Our writing emerges out of a swirl of ideas and arguments. But writing qua calligraphy can only come out of stillness. It is the focusing of attention on the movement that is happening in the moment. In that stillness, you get the feeling of the characters emerging and differentiating themselves in the empty space provided for them.

That stillness is absolutely essential for writing as the Chinese or Japanese calligrapher does it. Perhaps as any calligrapher or writer should do it. And that’s the insight I came away with from an afternoon in the company of Sanae Sakamoto.

The inquiring Pharaoh

Recently a large statue of a Pharaoh was unearthed in Egypt. The find caused great excitement. After some study the idea gained ground that it was not one of the more famous pyramid-building Pharaohs, but Psammetichus I.

This Pharaoh is himself far from forgotten or anonymous. We know about him from Herodotus, who reports several stories about him. Psammetichus lived in a troubled period of the late history of the Egyptian kingdom, but he managed to establish himself as ruler of the whole country with the help of Greek mercenaries. After this, he rewarded the mercenaries with grants of land. But he was concerned that the Greeks would not integrate properly with the Egyptians. So he commanded Egyptian children to be recruited and fostered out to the Greek residents. They would become a caste of bilinguals who could mediate between the peoples in future.

Another story is told of him. He wanted to know what was the most ancient language, the first language spoken by humanity. He commanded two babies to be fostered out to an isolated shepherd and his wife, who were to raise them but were not to speak a word to them in any language. After two years, the couple reported that when they arrived, the children would greet them with cries of “bekos!” The Pharaoh inquired of his learned men what this meant. After some consultation they told him this was the Phrygian word for “bread”. So he acknowledged the Phrygians as being the oldest nation – not the Egyptians as he had of course hoped.

These stories speak of a keen inquiring mind at work. Of course, being Pharaoh he could commandeer youngsters at will for his linguistic experiments. He realizes the importance of bilinguals for intercultural communication, as we would call it today. He realizes, too, that this is a biological matter: you need to start them young if they are to have a chance of being truly bilingual. He also wonders about the roots of the speech faculty in man. He clearly thinks it is innate, because he thinks he only has to wait before the children come out with language themselves. And when they do, whatever they produce will be the oldest language. Man, he reasoned, would still speak this language if he was left to his own devices. To put it in modern terms, ontogeny repeats phylogeny.

The story of Psammetichus reminds us that language, although the glue of social life, is something biological; and culture, like language, also has its roots in the biological. His idea about there being an original language buried in the unconscious was fanciful, of course; but on the whole, he wasn’t doing too badly for an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.

Writing per se

From the 1920s on, the Surrealists in Paris cultivated écriture automatique, automatic writing. This meant that, as a poet, you just wrote whatever came into your head. You tried not to think any thoughts, much less of anything in particular to say. The idea was that thoughts can arise from the depths of your unconscious when your conscious brain is occupied at some task that still does not require your full attention. The action of writing itself, rhythmic and automatized as it is, functions as a distractor, like tapping your fingers while you speak or repeating a mantra while you perform some other action.

André Breton and the Surrealists got the idea of automatic writing from spiritualist mediums, who wrote supposedly under dictation from the Other World. But these poets thought automatic writing would tap the resources of the unconscious for poetry. They never thought that the handwriting itself could amount to Surrealistic art; that it could become not just the means of writing, but the end.

Yet just about any behaviour that can be automatic can be made voluntary, and just about anything that can be voluntary can be automatized. Writing is a case in point. Usually, when you write, you don’t think of forming the letters or words one by one – even less so when you type on a keyboard. You are just thinking of the message you want to communicate.

Is there any time we think of the physical act of writing and how it looks on the page? There is: calligraphy. It strikes me that calligraphy is écriture volontaire, voluntary writing, the polar opposite of automatic writing. This means that you forget about the meaning of what you are writing, the message you are trying to communicate, and instead focus on the action of writing itself. You express all that the handwriting can express – yourself, your mood, your energy. The means (handwriting) becomes the end, and the end (communication of content) becomes merely the means. Chinese and Japanese calligraphers have long had an exquisite awareness of these possibilities.

Christian Dotremont, who started out as a Surrealist and became interested not only in art but in Asian calligraphy, used handwriting in this way. In fact, in his later logogrammes he was standing the Surrealist programme on its head. He wrote something spontaneously, but with a brush, exaggerating the mannerisms of the handwriting so that it became illegible; but it still expressed something. It was not just the content of the writing that came from Somewhere Else, but the physical action of the writing. As a kind of footnote, he rewrote his text in tiny legible handwriting at the bottom of the page.

Dotremont was a writer who took the vocation of writing literally. Few Europeans have done this.

A quiet place to go mad

Geneva is definitely not Paris. There is a quiet about the place, dare one say a provinciality, which remains untouched by the élites and oligarchs of many nations passing up and down the fashionable streets. Geneva was always quiet and sober, like its most famous citizen, Calvin, wanted it to be. Before the two world wars, which brought the League of Nations and later the United Nations and its various organizations, Geneva was really a backwater. It was a place to be alone and to do your own thing – perhaps brilliantly, perhaps eccentrically – or to go mad. Or both. As the poet said,

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Rousseau was definitely mad. He spent more time in Paris than in his native Geneva, but as the years went by he became convinced that he was the victim of a gigantic plot that included almost all his contemporaries. This, however, led to some of his finest writing.

Another among the great Genevans was Ferdinand de Saussure, who belonged to an old patrician family there. His great-grandfather Horace had been a scientist involved in the conquest of Mont Blanc, which he measured to be the highest mountain in Europe.

Ferdinand was a brilliant student of Indo-European philology and achieved fame with his Master’s thesis, in which he discovered an intricate pattern in the vowels of the language family with implications that were only grasped later. However, he did not fit in either in Paris or in the German universities, and he eventually got a job as professor in Geneva. Thereafter little was heard of him in the learned world; yet, all alone, he was devising a completely new science of linguistics and the movement that later became known as structuralism.

Saussure was also working on an eccentric project of his own. He became convinced that the Latin poets had been using a system containing secret messages – the coded names of gods. He was very excited by the discovery of this pattern. Trouble was, he also found it in an English late-Latin poet. Could the tradition have been secretly passed on down the centuries? Then he found it in a contemporary Italian professor who wrote Latin verse. He wrote to him and asked if he was using the code. The other professor, it seems, never wrote back.

At this stage Saussure must have been confronted with the illusory nature of the grand pattern he had detected. He lay low and didn’t try to publish his findings. This was not hard, because he never liked writing or publishing anyway. He didn’t even publish his masterwork, the Cours de linguistique générale. His students put the book together from their lecture notes and published it in 1916, after his death. The rest, as they, say, is history.

Behold, an egg

As we all know, the major Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas replaced pagan festivals for Midwinter and Spring respectively. Such festivals were ingrained the folk memory before the Christian era. They provided a substratum of folklore which could, with a bit of ingenuity, be incorporated into Christian observance. Today, oddly enough, with the waning of Christianity in the West, the folkloric elements, which are the pre-Christian elements, take centre stage again whereas before they were belonged to the periphery. Many people today will tell you that Easter has something to do with eggs. Well, it has.

The symbolism of eggs is obvious: it means new life. This symbol is universal, but it fits in with the Christian meaning of Easter straightforwardly enough. Yet growing up in the English-speaking world, I had little encounter with eggs at Easter. I mean real eggs. We were quite familiar with the chocolate variety, which, it seems, is entirely a modern invention.

All over Europe, however, the custom of enjoying real eggs, with decorated shells, is still strong. Here in Switzerland, for example. At the end of the Easter vigil in Chur cathedral, baskets of coloured eggs will be brought to the altar and the bishop will bless them. Afterwards, they will be handed out to the faithful as they leave. People will engage in Eiertütschen, which means that you knock them together to see whose egg will crack first. They all get cracked in the end, of course, whereupon you peel them and eat them. After the Holy Saturday fast, they taste particularly good.

Children have great fun in Holy Week painting and decorating the hard-boiled eggs. At Easter itself, or just after, these kinds of eggs, and especially the chocolate variety, are hidden in the garden, supposedly left in nests there by a creature called the Osterhase or Easter Hare, and the children have to find them.

As a child you “believe in” the Osterhase like you do in Santa Claus. Eventually comes the age of disenchantment when you no longer believe in it, but the new-found scepticism is often suppressed in the interest of finding these eggs, whoever is really hiding them.

This year Easter falls on the same date for the Greek Orthodox Church. A Greek friend was telling me that their eggs have to be dyed bright red, and that they bring them to church – each person has an egg and a candle – to be blessed, and the egg does not last long after the end of the fast.

There is a lot to be said for real eggs, apart from chocolate ones. Their symbolism is apparent. They mean new life. But the shells are fragile. In France they say proverbially
pour faire une omelette, il faut casser des oeufs. At Easter, to make the most of the egg, you have to crack the painted shell. New life has to burst upon the world, and our existing arrangements, however decorative they may be, have to make way for it.

Journey to the edge

As I wrote last week, the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel in the 1950s called La Pierre et l’Oreiller, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and a sanatorium in the Danish countryside.

He talks about the “catastrophe” of his tuberculosis at the age of 30. But he wonders about what the illness means. He finds that the Catholic faith of his childhood, then Communism, then tuberculosis, were all stratagems to cover up life itself, and its ultimate emptiness.

Catholicism was a given in Belgium, where it was much stronger than in France. Dotremont  went to a Jesuit school and had the usual religious education. But he grew into a teenage rebel and got expelled for punching a Jesuit. During the chaos of the German Occupation, he abandoned his faith altogether.

Then at the end of the war, with Stalin occupying the whole of Eastern Europe, it looked like Communism was a winning formula, and so young intellectuals like himself got with the program and joined the Party. Dotremont quickly became disillusioned, however, and quit. Now that he had given up God, and given up Stalin, what was next, or what was left?

Dotremont had the bizarre creative insight that the new thing to occupy his life was tuberculosis. The illness was nothing but a hole in life, admittedly, but it was there to cover the bigger hole of emptiness. It really was taking the place of God and Stalin. Everybody, he reflected, is looking for something to hide that gaping hole. Even Ulla, his Danish girlfriend, was filling up her emptiness – with him. We are all looking for a life project to keep us busy.

Dotremont never really recovered from tuberculosis, and eventually died of the complications over twenty years later. But in the meantime he became an inveterate traveller. Turning his back on Paris, the intellectual and artistic centre, he travelled constantly, through Amsterdam up to Denmark, across to Sweden and Finland, and up to his ultimate goal where he found what he needed: Lapland, the Great Frozen North of Europe. As one writer says of him, he became “the black traveller in white spaces”. In Lapland he could sharpen his sense of three-dimensionality, grasped through the two-dimensionality of abstract brush calligraphy in his logogrammes. Was this really abstract, or was it his vision of the landscape of Lapland? The small black figures of men and animals in the vastness of the snow, the black ink shapes against the white of the paper – it was all one. Lapland was the ultimate emptiness. Out in the snowy wastes, there was no “chalice to hide the emptiness”, as he had written earlier.

So often we think, like Dotremont, that we have reached the limit, the end, nothingness, when in fact it is just a borderland, and there is something else on the other side. Although his strange artwork consciously recalls Chinese calligraphy, he did not realize Lapland could be for him a borderland – the borderland not just to Russia but to Asia, to a new departure for human culture. But he had travelled far enough for one short life.

 

The work of travel

The Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel, La Pierre et l’Oreiller, in the early 1950s, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and places in the Danish countryside, including a sanatorium where he was treated for tuberculosis and had as his room-mate the artist Asger Jorn.

The travels he describes are usually by train. In those days they had a thing called the “Nord-Express” that plied between Paris and Copenhagen. When Camus went to Stockholm to get the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, he took this train to Copenhagen and then went on by ship to Sweden. By that time there was a flight available, but his doctors advised him against it as he was tubercular too and in poor health.

At the climax of Dotremont’s novel, the narrator, instead of boarding the “Nord-Express”, takes the plane from Paris Le Bourget to Copenhagen.  It is an innovation. There are Danish journalists covering the flight, and he gets interviewed and photographed in his seat – smoking. This may have been the first time he had ever been on a plane, but he doesn’t let on.

In connection with this episode, Dotremont talks about the difference between air and land travel.  He gives an example of African porters accompanying a white missionary in a hurry, who complained after a while that they wanted to take a break because “they had left their souls behind” and the souls needed to catch up. Dotremont says that when you travel by plane instead of train you leave your soul behind in the same way. This is very true. I think also of the Australian aborigines travelling by car with Bruce Chatwin along the Songlines in the book of that name, and hurrying through the verses of the song to keep up with the unaccustomed speed of travel.

When you fly somewhere, even in Europe, it is all over so quickly that you do not feel you have arrived. We talk about “jet lag” in connection with transcontinental flights. This of course refers to the physical discomfort of being caught between time zones. You are still in the old time zone that you left, and you have not had a chance to adjust to the new rhythm of light and darkness at your destination. But there is a psychological aspect too. When you travel by commercial airliner, the whole experience is very artificial. You go up in the air, see nothing but clouds or sky for several hours, and then you land at your destination. You do not “cover ground”. You have not done what I would like to call the work of travelling. Note that the word travel is the same as “travail” which originally means work. Travel is supposed to be work, which takes time.

The best way to travel would be to imitate the nomads. Taking their inspiration from migrating animals and birds, they travel over land on a route they know, and take their time at it. They look forward to getting to their winter quarters or summer quarters, but they take the time to enjoy the journey as well. We do not do that. We do not take the time to travel. We leave our souls behind. Do they ever catch up?