Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: May, 2016

Outward immigration

During the Nazi period in Germany, there were many writers who emigrated to get away from Hitler; but there were many who didn’t, and just withdrew into themselves. This is known in German literary history as innere Emigration, where “inner” means “in the mind”. The biographies of these writers show that, when one is physically present in a non-nurturing environment, it is possible to survive by being mentally somewhere else.

In a way, this is what the immigrant or refugee does, but in reverse. He comes to a new country, and is physically present and even active there, but his mind is still back in the old country. The circumstances of immigrant life encourage this. The new arrival may be confined to a ghetto on the margins, and have little access to what society in the new country offers in the way of opportunities for social and economic self-development. Today more than ever, the availability of cell phones, internet, satellite TV, and films on DVD, means that he can live in his former world to a great extent by staying in touch with it and getting his information and entertainment from there. You might say that his body has immigrated, but his mind has stayed at home. The emblem of this for me is the exotic-looking fellow walking down the street and talking loudly on a cell-phone to someone in some exotic language, oblivious of the passers-by.

With an allusion to the situation in Nazi Germany, I refer to this phenomenon as “outward immigration”. Those German writers stayed physically at home; mentally they were somewhere else. The new immigrant is physically somewhere else, but mentally he stays back home. Unless we realize this, I do not think we can understand the dynamics of immigration, which is so much a part of life in the Western world now. The only way to preserve your mental health as an immigrant and deal with all the stress of a novel and socially non-nurturing environment is “outward immigration”. I know, because I had to do it myself when, as young man, I left Europe to live in North America.

This is not, however, what people in the host countries want to hear. They want their immigrants, if not to assimilate, then to integrate, that is, to fit in with the local population and start functioning as they do. It is expecting the impossible.

Of course, time passes, for the immigrant too. You see your children grow up in the new environment, and you know you are losing them, because they will now live in that world where you are no more than a ghost or a shadow. At the same time, it is tough for them, because they will feel less and less involved with the world “back home” that is so real to you. They will feel torn between solidarity with you and a feeling of belonging to a world that may not accept them completely because something of the exotic still clings to them in spite of themselves.

Who ever said that immigration was easy – on anybody?



It’s a no-brainer – unfortunately

German neurobiologist Gerald Hüther, writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and in a recent book, has pointed out that we use our brains and bodies as efficiently as possible, with as little expenditure of energy as possible, so that we get into habits and routines.

From the beginning of the industrial age, machines have helped us save energy by freeing us from laborious tasks. We have, of course, got too comfortable with these labour-saving routines. We get out of physical shape. Then we have to do something like regular exercise, so that we get back in touch with our body and its needs.

The new electronic machines like computers and smartphones make things easy not just for our bodies but for our brains. They act as an artificial memory. And so we get mentally lazy, no longer needing to do sums or remember names or numbers or the like. We are overloaded with information, and our machines help us handle the overload. It’s a no-brainer. Our new machines even fulfil the function of “affect regulation”. That is to say, they help us control our moods by distracting and entertaining us at will.

Hüther warns that we need to get back in touch with our brains to maintain mental flexibility and the ability to innovate, just like we need exercise to put us back in touch with our bodies and keep our muscles in trim.

Years ago, Julian Jaynes pointed out how much of our so-called thinking and consciousness is in fact subconscious. We know a whole lot of things without being aware of them. We go through everyday life like sleepwalkers. Our brains depend on habits and routines for negotiating the familiar. This frees us from the burden of making conscious decisions about every little thing we do.

Jaynes quoted the well-known example of playing the piano. When a person plays, they engage in a complex interaction with that machine, using their two hands to play melody and harmony on the keyboard, depressing the pedals where required, at the same time reading the music from the stand, and being aware of their surroundings. If they became fully conscious of playing or of any component of the performance, they would falter and have to stop.

The transfer of the word “keyboard” to typewriters and later to computers was a hint that operating these machines is a similar activity – another kind of piano playing. We strike the keys to produce letters, not notes; we control our performance by keeping an eye on the screen in front of us, like open sheet music; and the mouse takes the place of the pedals (some people have even come up with mouse pedals).

In days gone by, when there were a lot of amateur piano players, they usually didn’t spend the whole day at the keyboard. The trouble is, we do. It occurs to me that we are playing our piano (the computer or similar device) too much and too long every day.

Now, of course, I am writing this piece on a computer, and you are reading it on a computer or smartphone. Try thinking about the matter when you are away from the screen. I will try too. Hopefully we can both remember what the point at issue was (without being prompted by a display) – and even manage to have some further ideas…


The I Ching of Everything

In Who wrote the book of life?, Lily Kay recounts that, after the description of the genetic code as sequences of letters that in each case spell out a biological message, some people had the idea that this code could be better accounted for by symbols of the I Ching. At first, it seemed to be a joke. But there was something to it.

There had always been suggestions that the genetic code pointed to something like a universal language at the basis of life; perhaps it might even be the stuff of the physical universe. Roman Jakobson, the chief figure in structural linguistics, was a believer in this theory; it had been enabled by the rise of Information Theory in the 1950s, which held out the possibility that all kinds of scientific laws, from social to physical, could be accounted for in terms of information.

Now, if this was so, surely something so universal, so more-than-human, as the genetic code could not, should not be accounted for using the terms of any particular culture. The trouble is that the letters of the alphabet are not universal, but are a Roman invention which has been generalised for use in Western European languages. It seemed presumptuous to say that DNA spells out a genetic code in terms of anything so culture-specific as that. The I Ching seemed to some a far more promising candidate. It was Chinese, to be sure, and also a product of a particular culture, but those who revere it claim universal validity for it, regarding it as a repository of the ancient wisdom of humanity.

Even before the discovery of the genetic code, another great linguist, Whorf, subscribed to what he called “the idea, entirely unfamiliar to the modern world, that nature and language are inwardly akin.” So he was well on the way to Jakobson’s position. On the other hand, Whorf was critical of the sheer unexamined Westernness of science: “The world-view of modern science arises by higher specialization of the grammar of the Western Indo-European languages.”

Indeed, Whorf is remembered as the chief relativist in linguistics. He thought languages were so different from one another that a universal level was implausible. He came to the conclusion that upstream from languages is not Language, but Patterning. “The different tongues are the real phenomena and may generalize not down to any such universal as ‘Language’, but to something better – called ‘sublinguistic’ or ‘superlinguistic’.”

Whorf’s musings are similar, in turn, to Hermann Hesse’s vision of the Glass Bead Game as a universal language that could enable the gamer to play with every pattern – from astronomers’ equations to sayings of Confucius. Hesse, of course, was an enthusiastic reader of the I Ching.

In the end, maybe there is something up there, out there, a superlinguistic level of patterning as applicable to life and nature as it is to language and thinking. If so, it would be “the I Ching of Everything”.