Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: Europe

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.

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?

 

 

The codes that spell out our lives

A Japanese professor remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”, meaning that it is a part of them they are unlikely ever to give up.

DNA makes a good metaphor. It’s even better than saying “we have it in our blood”. Because our blood is indisputably part of ourselves, it courses in our veins, whereas DNA is somewhat more remote and ancient. It’s not really “us”. It comes from somewhere else, a previous stage of the game of life before it got interpreted by RNA and turned into proteins and actual organisms, and before it came down to what we think of as “us”. Yet it forms us, shapes us, determines us, so that if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here – we wouldn’t be who and what we are.

So it is with China and Japan in our metaphor. The code of Japanese writing, indeed the code of Japanese culture, is largely determined by the code of Chinese culture. You can’t really understand the Japanese code unless you understand the previous code that stands behind it and determines it. Any Japanese with sense can acknowledge this, while quietly congratulating himself: “we got all this without a Chinese invasion.”

When you go to live in another country, you bring your background code along with you, and it gives you a different take on things. This is the case of a European going to live in the New World. He finds the old preoccupations and the old quarrels playing themselves out in different circumstances, like Hamlet being acted by a new troupe of actors. But this is not surprising. It is because the code of the New World culture is determined by the cultural codes of the Old World from which the discoverers and colonists set sail.

Now think of yourself as an individual. You may have figured out that there is a “code” to your life. There are certain things that are important and meaningful to you, recurring motifs, experiences that keep happening again and again. Yet you may find valuable hints about these private meanings in novels or poems you read, say. You may then realize that above and behind the code of your own life there is the code of your culture determining it. The things that happen to you, the things that you feel and value, happen to other people in your culture, and have done so from time immemorial. If you are in love, you may think “no-one has ever loved the way I do”. But of course they have. The Ancients were writing love poetry thousands of years ago, and what they felt goes to shape what you feel now – this experience that feels unique. It is unique – as you yourself are unique – but it is “spelled out” by cultural DNA.

 

 

 

First Nations of the Old World

The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has been carrying reports about a conference in Trondheim, Lapland in early February. As it happens, the topic was reindeer raising and the challenges currently faced by those who follow this traditional way of life. It seems the reindeer are affected by climate change and by energy mega-projects, even supposedly green ones like wind-farms. But there was another reason this conference was notable. It commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the original conference at which Lapps, or Sami, the ethnic group living in the far north of Scandinavia, got together to campaign for their rights, which had long been trampled underfoot by all the governments in the region.

The Lapps are an indigenous people who have been there for ten thousand years, well before the Germanic Scandinavians and even the Finns appeared on the scene. They have their own distinctive way of life based at first on hunting, then later herding reindeer. They have their own language, their own kind of clothing, and cultural peculiarities such as a kind of throat singing.

The history of the Lapps in modern times has not been a joyful one. They were repeatedly driven off their lands by government-sponsored settlers, they were the object of church missions, they had their children sent to residential schools where their language was forbidden, and now they have a problem with youth suicide. This should sound awfully familiar – to Canadians in particular.

When the white man went to the Americas and was thoroughly mean to the red man, he wasn’t just improvising. He was doing the same thing he had been doing, and was still doing, to quasi-tribal peoples in the Old World. Because there were, and there are such peoples. The Lapps would be one example. The Basques would be another. The Highland Scots would be there too – you might say all the Celtic peoples.

It may seem strange to talk about “first nations” of Europe. Yet Europeans have always had the idea that before their civilization, before the glory days of the Roman Empire bringing civilization to the barbarians, there were indigenous peoples of great antiquity in Europe; and even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of great national kingdoms, these indigenous peoples on their ancestral territories tended to be stubborn holdouts ignoring or opposing the monarch’s authority. The folklore of many European countries also contains the motif of the “wild man” hiding out in the woods, a menacing sort of giant armed with a huge club. In the New World, of course, Europeans found plenty of “wild men”, or “savages” whom they proceeded to drive away or exterminate, just as they cleared the forests for arable farmland.

Now if you are a Highland Scot, you might consider it presumptuous of someone to tell you you have common cause with the North American Indians. Yet if you read, for example, the book by historian Colin Calloway* it makes you think. Anyway, I think it is time to talk about “first nations” in Europe.

*Calloway, Colin G.: White people, Indians, and Highlanders: 
tribal peoples and colonial encounters in Scotland and America: 
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press: 2008.

The Tamils who came to stay

Recently the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found against Switzerland in a case involving one of two Tamils who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and promptly disappeared into prison.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is long over, and there are encouraging signs of a return to some kind of normality, but many Tamils still have to be careful when they go back to visit. On the other hand, in the refugee-receiving countries in Europe, like Switzerland, there is a problem with the credibility of refugees who can and do go back to their home country on holidays.

The Sri Lanka Tamils started arriving in the 1980s during the civil war. They came to Switzerland by accident rather than design: many were aiming to settle in Germany, but found that as refugees they couldn’t work there. So they moved on to Switzerland. Then the clan connections resulted in more and more people coming.

In 1986 the Swiss were getting ready to send people back to Sri Lanka if they were turned down for refugee status, but held off due to humanitarian protests. Swiss journalist Alfred A. Häsler, who had researched the Swiss policy towards refugees from Nazi rule in the Second World War, wrote an article at the time entitled “Tamils – today’s Jews?” and wrote: “Sri Lanka is not Auschwitz… But not everything that is not as bad as Auschwitz is all right.”

The Tamils have been here ever since, about a hundred thousand of them. They must have seemed so exotic at first, when Switzerland had no tradition of immigration from outside Europe. Now you would hardly notice them. They are the dark faces in every crowd in the towns and cities of German Switzerland. They may even become a part of your personal life, as they eventually did in mine.

Regarded with suspicion at first, they now have the reputation of being “well integrated”. However, as Tamil observers themselves will tell you, this is largely an illusion. A 2008 study of the group in Switzerland found that there was “selective integration”. They fit in by behaving well and not causing trouble, but they keep to themselves otherwise, the intact clan structure allowing them to do this.

In the meantime, alcoholism was becoming a major problem among the menfolk. There were many stresses on the Tamils. As a visible minority, they couldn’t just merge in. The gulf between their Asian and the European culture was just so great. They found it hard to learn German. And without a good knowledge of the language, they could only get unskilled jobs. At the same time there were pressures from the clans at home to demonstrate success in the new country, and of course to send remittances.

The Tamil refugees’ children or their grandchildren may have an easier time of it. A 2010 study in Zurich schools found that Tamils did considerably better than other immigrant groups. This also has a negative side, however: the parents may be putting pressure on the youngsters to work hard at school, because their school success reflects on the family prestige, and there may be unrealistic ideas about future career prospects.

In general, people who emigrate tend to stay abroad and not come back. They see new things, get new ideas, and the old way of life no longer seems so obvious. All those people who will stay abroad and make the best of it in places like Switzerland will be a tremendous loss to Sri Lanka. But it could also be that they can help to draw the country out of its long isolation.