Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: February, 2015

The triumph of mediocrity

Ayn Rand’s novels are unique and wonderful, even if one considers that the philosophy or political programme she developed out of them was, to say the least, overdone. To me, the novels are essentially about the triumph of mediocrity: the mediocre run the world, and whenever creativity or innovation appears, they do their best to squash it. It is Ayn Rand’s achievement to have shown how this happens with merciless clarity.

Thus the brilliant architect Roark can’t get a look in, while the untalented and unscrupulous Keating thrives. The superbly capable businesswoman Dagny is frustrated at every turn by her feckless brother Jim, who is president of the company and takes all the credit. The novels are also larded with withering quotes about boards and committees being “a great big nothing”, the lowest common denominator of incompetence.

Now, if you like, you can call this a political problem. Ayn Rand seems to have regarded it as such. In Russia, her native country, under Stalin, the person of ability didn’t stand a chance because everything was collectivized; in America, her adopted country, the person of ability did have a chance, even though he was likely to be stymied by committees and the like.

But there may be no real political solution to what I will call Ayn Rand’s problem. As likely as not, mediocrity will always rule, at every level, and it doesn’t matter what kind of state you have. Whether in a bourgeois democracy of political parties, or a country ruled by a Communist Party like China, the committee men are going to wield most of the power.

In England, C.P. Snow was quite aware of this, but seemed not to be unduly bothered by it. In his novels he often wrote about brilliant people who couldn’t get a hearing from committees, because to do so one needs to be “not too different from one’s fellow-men”, in other words: at least pretend to be mediocre.

There is a general problem here, I think: with discourse becoming more and more homogeneous, how is the thinker with a startlingly discordant message going to get a hearing? He has to become a kind of trickster, standing on his head in an effort to get the committee men’s attention. It may or may not work.



Spring festivals

In much of Europe, it is Carnival. Here in Switzerland, the whole thing is in full swing, with noisy carnival bands playing, masked figures dancing through the streets, consuming a great deal of alcohol, braving the late-winter temperatures. I was just out for a walk before dusk, and the streets were covered in confetti like snow. But the sun shone. On the way home, I heard the first blackbird of the year trying to sing.

Tonight is Mardi Gras, the culmination of it all, and then tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, when Carnival is over and Lent begins. To be sure, the celebration of excess happens just before the traditional Lenten fast, but the bizarre masks and monstrous figures and the noise-making can be seen as of much more primitive origin – as a ritual to scare away the spirits of winter and make way for the spirit of spring.

Half a world away, it’s getting up to the Chinese New Year. On Wednesday, it is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Chinese people will be getting together for family reunion dinners to mark the beginning of the holiday season, as will people in other countries who observe the lunar new year celebration.

These two festival times seem to have nothing in common. In fact, just as the Chinese are sitting down to a good dinner, the Christian world will be beginning its Lenten fast in preparation for Easter. But the word Lent really just means Spring. Whether in the East or the West, whether with feasting or fasting, people in the northern part of the globe at least are celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year, the cycle of growing.

Festivals are peculiar to cultures or civilisations, and they have so much evocative power for people who belong to them, but we see that there is something universal about them. Today we are more aware of them than ever. In a way, this worldwide awareness of different festivals relativizes their importance. On the other hand, it reminds us of our common humanity.



Long march ahead

In a recent article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Swiss-based Chinese journalist Wei Zhang discusses what she calls “the long march westwards”, meaning the recent Chinese discovery of Europe. To be sure, we are getting used to seeing more and more Chinese tourists in Switzerland.

Wei Zhang relates that, decades ago, young Chinese students were very interested in Europe, but they had no chance to go there, and so found it hard to situate what they read about the history of European art or European literatures in a real geographical and historical context. The Cultural Revolution made things even more difficult.

“That is now history”, she says, “for Europe, which the Chinese knew for so long only from reading, is today their major travel destination. From the Eiffel Tower through the Alps and on to Venice, they experience in two weeks what the older generation took years to learn out of books. Of course a question still arises: whether that is the real Europe.”

It is a valid question. Europe is so open to tourism that it gives an uneasy feeling even to me as a European when I travel around other European countries: have these beautiful sites and places anything to do with the lives of the people who live there, or is Europe on its way to becoming a giant theme park or Disneyland? Indeed, American tourists seem to regard it as such; so why not the Chinese? Americans come to Europe to find what they are missing at home: history. The Chinese come to Europe, not because they are missing history – they have plenty of it themselves – but just like Americans, they must find it hard to get a real sense of Europe as a place where large numbers of people actually live and work.

I don’t know how the Chinese feel if they go to North America (many of them do), but they must notice that Europe is more like China. It has been long inhabited, and densely, too. The history of Europe is China without the Emperor: a collection of “warring states” that somehow managed to have cultural exchanges too over the centuries – literature, art, philosophy, science, and so on.

When the Chinese come to Europe, they can know little about it except what is in the guide-book. But Europeans going to China – as they have started to do in recent years – know no more than that either. It’s hard to sort out all those dynasties; and what’s the use of knowing the names of authors and artists, when you can’t remember how to pronounce their names (in Pinyin), let alone when they lived? And what does that have to do with the lives of the Chinese passing by in the street?

How both sides must long for someone with great patience to take them by the hand and explain everything to them in a way that they can understand, and at an educated level. Europeans who speak Chinese (at least Mandarin) and know China, and can explain Europe to the Chinese? Chinese who have been to Europe and know a European language (at least English), and can explain China to Europeans? What a gap to fill! But so needed!

Spirituality and the universal

Religion comes out of culture, but it stands above culture. It radiates from a particular time and place, but it soon emancipates itself from its origins, formulates a universal message, and imposes itself on other cultures, often changing them in the process. The great religions of the world have founded civilisations that bridged heterogeneous cultures – such civilisations as Christian Europe, or the Islamic world, or the Buddhist world.

Long ago, we in the West fondly assumed that our Christian religion was of universal validity and that eventually it would replace all the others. But the encounter with the others showed us that our religion, too, was a product of culture. If other men had other cultures and civilisations, they could have other religions too.

Spirituality is what turns out to be universal. The spiritual discourses of the different religions seem to complement each other and find common ground. In all cultures men go off into the desert and seek a deeper relationship with the Divine. They report much the same experiences and the same insights. That is because spirituality deals with the ineffable – what is profoundly human but also sacred.

Religion regards culture as something to live with, but also to reform, if need be, and refashion in its own image. Spirituality regards culture as an illusion. Our culture is deeply a part of us, but it does not need to be. If the circumstances of our birth and upbringing were different, we could have been shaped by another culture instead.

The spiritual man seeks to divest himself of culture, even if his culture (or part of it, namely his religion) has lifted him to spirituality, to the edge of the sacred. He throws away the ladder he used to climb to the top of the wall, in Wittgenstein’s image. He goes on alone. He does so without language. He does so without culture.

In the end, it may be that spirituality is the only universal thing we have. Because when man approaches the ultimate ground of the sacred, he does so naked and shorn of every cultural identity with which he once clothed himself. He feels himself to be as nothing before that which is Everything. Only at that stage does he know that he has reached his goal.