Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: intercultural communication

Beyond illusions

When countries look back on their history, not even their remote history if they have one, but on their fairly recent history, they may feel that everything was terrible and the views of previous generations have to be denied and censored. And there is more to this than just political correctness. It does leave us in a quandary when we realize that our “founding fathers” or “glorious heroes” were in many ways such a woeful bunch. We can no longer honour them without a guilty conscience. And hardly any of them is immune to having feet of clay. Are we going to be left with anything to be patriotic about at all?

But really, it is like when individuals look back on their past, especially from the vantage-point of age. When I look back on my earlier life, even my midlife, I can only think what an ass I was. But I have to be able to let go my illusions, one by one, even though it’s painful. Time and time again I got it all wrong, or at least partly wrong. And guess what? I’m probably still getting it partly wrong. A lifetime is not sufficient to get it right. So why even try? But I know no other path to wisdom.

Is this a universal experience? I doubt it. My guess is that many, even most people are preserved from it. Their attitudes just harden, and they look back on what great guys they were. I have little doubt that holding on to illusions makes older people happier, at least more contented with themselves.

Countries don’t want to give up their illusions about themselves either, because if the examination of conscience becomes too searching, they fear throwing the baby out with the bath-water, that is, losing their identity altogether along with their illusions. But if individuals can do it and somehow survive and move on to a new stage of life, countries can too. If they can even let go things like their presumed historic mission, their raison d’être as a nation, it might even free them up to find and fulfil a new historic mission, a new raison d’être.

What you are left with in the end is not “my country right or wrong”, but “my country without illusions”.




Listening as work

The young Rimbaud said in a famous letter: “Je est un autre”, that is, “I am (or is) somebody else”. He was referring to the realms of the unconscious which are still part of the self, even though we may not be aware of them.  In the same letter, he went on to say: “J’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée : je la regarde, je l’écoute…” that is, “I watch the opening up of my thought – I look at it, I listen to it.”

Rimbaud thus affirms the plurality of the self and consciousness, but this opens up the possibility of “s’écouter” – a reflexive verb, here meaning to listen to that Other which is oneself. It sounds like work. And it is. In Rimbaud’s case, it is the work of the visonary poet.

Listening to the Other is a term that can also be used for listening to other cultures. This too means “work”. Especially if the culture in question is profoundly different from your own, you will have to listen very hard in order to understand what is being said. Now, you will only do this if you think that the speaker from the other culture is an individual identity like yourself who is worth listening to, worth taking trouble over. You have to recognize this Other as an “I”.

So whereas Rimbaud broke new ground by saying “Je est un Autre”, we need to break further new ground by affirming that “l’Autre est un Je”.




Insiders and outsiders (2)

I come back to what I was saying last week about insiders and outsiders and what they contribute to the interpretation of a national tradition, Spanish guitar music. These considerations might be generalized to other fields, such as writing.

Among writers, Camus is a good example of an insider addressing an audience of outsiders. He was a colonial, a French Algerian at a time when Algeria belonged to France. He felt his group were misunderstood and ignored by French society and he was saying, essentially, “look, we’re here too.” He could do this because he was writing in French and his audience was the same as the audience for mainstream French literature.

Recently in English Canada there has been a focus of attention on what is called “Indigenous CanLit”, literature written by Native people about themselves in the English language and in the form of fiction. This is essentially a matter of insiders addressing an audience of outsiders. They address that audience in its own terms: in English (not in their own native languages) and in the form of the novel or short story or play (not in traditional forms of their own oral literature).

There is a controversy about the Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, who has become very well known for his novels about Native life. As a result, many Native writers have been complaining that he is not a real Indian but a white guy, and is hogging the limelight. They are saying essentially that he is an outsider, not an insider, despite his vague claims to Native ancestry. They are saying furthermore that outsiders have no right to address the audience of outsiders on behalf of the insiders. These Native writers have also invoked traditional Native ideas about ownership of cultural material being vested in particular tribal lineages.

The trouble is, CanLit (Canadian literature in English) is a majority-culture game. It’s in English, it uses the literary forms of English literature, and it is mainly addressed to a mainstream audience of white guys in the big cities, they being the ones who buy books. If “Indigenous CanLit” meets a market need and becomes fashionable, then it can only be expected that outsiders, or insiders with dubious credentials, will want to get in on the act. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

What I said about outsiders in Spanish music could apply to these outsiders hovering around on the edges of “Indigenous CanLit”. The sympathetic outsider, explicitly “spelling out” what he consciously knows or has learned, may be able to contribute something to the understanding of the culture by the mass of outsiders – or even the insiders themselves. Apart from this, the outsider may have an important role to play in making the culture known to a wider audience of outsiders and thus creating a bigger market for the insiders in the long run.

Insiders and outsiders

An anonymous commentator online, writing about the late English guitarist Julian Bream’s recording of “Granada” by Albeniz, said something very perceptive:

‘Other commenters have compared this version of Granada with versions by Segovia. I think Segovia plays like an “insider” in Spanish culture and as a result, his version seems more perfunctory to me, as if he feels he need not state what is already known and understood and needs not to be stated to a Spaniard. On the other hand, Bream plays like an enraptured “outsider”, who feels the need to unfold and expose every detail of the piece’s expressive beauty, to outsiders… There are exquisite things in both recordings… To my ear Segovia plays it with more familiarity. It is the music of his culture. To someone like myself, Segovia’s familiarity with the piece and perhaps with the place, shuts me, the outsider, out a little. Bream on the other hand plays the piece like an outsider discovering something wonderful and taking the pains to show how wonderful each phrase is, how evocative and suggestive of observed life… I prefer the Bream because he really initiates me into the wonder of this piece. In future I may understand Segovia better and Albeniz and Spain too.”

Well said, and there is much more at stake than guitar-playing here. It has to do with the difference between ellipsis and full expression, or the explicit and the implicit. Cultures may be more implicit or more explicit, in the sense that they leave a great deal unsaid, or else spell it out. This is what Edward Hall was getting at with his famous distinction between “high context” and “low context” cultures. As has since been pointed out, “high context” or explicit cultures are historically heterogeneous, so when meeting a stranger from your own culture you can’t assume too much; and “low context” or implicit cultures are historically close-knit and centralized. But again, within a culture, sub-groups are likely to be quite elliptical and implicit in their internal communication: think of families and the elliptical verbal shorthand they use with each other, which is usually baffling to strangers.

Both insiders and outsiders (in the sense used in the quoted comment) may be interested in particular cultures. And if they are describing or performing some aspect of the particular culture, they may be doing it for an audience of insiders, or else an audience of outsiders. In fact there are four possibilities:

  1. Insider addressing an audience of insiders (the usual case)
  2. Insider addressing an audience of outsiders (where the insider wants some outsiders to understand his culture)
  3. Outsider addressing an audience of outsiders (where the outsider has learned about the culture, and wants to share what he has learned with other outsiders, probably people from his own culture.)
  4. Outsider addressing an audience of insiders (where the outsider thinks he has some insight to impart to them about their own culture; rare, but it happens).

The point is that the outsider, explicitly “spelling out” what he consciously knows, may be able to contribute something to the insiders’ understanding of their culture that they didn’t have before.

Apart from this, the outsider may have an important role to play in making the culture known to a wider audience of outsiders and thus creating a bigger market for the insiders. He may even help the insiders rediscover a forgotten or neglected part of their culture – if that is the case with them.

So the outsider always has plenty to contribute. It is a fortunate thing that Julian Bream, at the outset of his career, did not say to himself: “Why am I doing this? I’ll never be able to pass for a Spaniard!”

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.