Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

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.




Alphabet need not have the last word (2)

There is a new approach to the evolution of written language, questioning the assumption that it depends on (spoken) language and that the alphabet is its inevitable culmination. Greater awareness of Chinese writing in the Western world has prompted this kind of thinking. The late French scholar Anne-Marie Christin has been an important source of ideas here.

It seemed necessary to Christin to work against the obvious assumption that written language is just a visual version of spoken language. In her view, written language, unlike spoken language, depends on visual experience – the whole world of patterns and pictures and representation – rather than the sound world of spoken language. It has to do as much with the coding of space (the space of the inscribed surface) as with the code of the characters or letters themselves. What makes pictures into writing is, she says, the use of space itself to mean something.

Spatial arrangement means ordering: depending on the convention adopted, the characters are to be read top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. This came to correspond to the earlier and later of time we sense in spoken language. Space corresponds to time. But we now know from the technology of sound recording and analysis that, in speech, features get bundled and overlap each other. Speech is not a neat regular output of separate “segments”. The letters each standing for a sound – even the adapted letters used for phonetic transcription – are an abstraction.

Christin has said that writing began with the interpretation of the starry sky at night. This vast display, which must have enthralled early mankind, does not stand still; it keeps changing with the time of night and the seasons, and the stars seem to rise and set at particular points on the landscape. So one could say that before early man learned to write, he learned to read. He learned to read patterns that were already there in nature. And he believed that those patterns were not due to chance, but were put there by the gods.

Writing as reading had to do with interpreting the will of the gods. When Chinese shamans took omens from animal bones or tortoise-shells held over a ritual fire till they cracked, the will of the gods could be read from the cracks. That gave them the idea that they could make their own meaningful signs. The shamans set down the interpretation in their own characters as a sort of marginal gloss on the meaningful patterns they were reading. The oracle bones and tortoise-shells with early written symbols scratched into the surface represented “value added” to the omen signs themselves.

So writing – or more precisely, reading – was divination. Writing belonged to the gods. For that reason, the early Chinese shaman could put his own writing, a message for the gods, at the bottom of a ritual vessel containing sacrificial offerings – only the gods would see it. In Christin’s view, spoken language was the world of man and a world of sound, whereas written language was the world of the gods and a world of the visual.  In order to appreciate this perspective, you have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a painter instead.

To this day, Chinese writing is associated with painting. Both are done with brush and ink. The written characters are always on the verge of crossing over into representation and the representation into writing. Such an art seems to say: never forget that these two things belong together.

Alphabet need not have the last word

It is interesting to follow the evolution of computer culture in the Sinocentric world, where folks remain attached to their traditional way of writing, surely one of the great cultural achievements of humanity. To be sure, this way of writing was developed by and for the Imperial élite, not for the masses, but it is clear that it can be and is being learned in the elementary classroom.

On the eve of the computer revolution, Walter Ong declared that Chinese writing would obviously have to go, because it couldn’t be fit on a typewriter keyboard. Well, in the meantime, it turns out that there are plenty of ways you can type Chinese on a computer keyboard, including input methods based on the shape of the character. They are even developing ways to write it “calligraphically” on a touch screen. (There is obviously more incentive to work on handwriting recognition applications in the East than in the West!) Anyway, it seems unfair to condemn a writing system because it does not immediately fit in with technologies developed for the Western alphabet.

The Asian developments in fact represent an opportunity to rethink our whole Western dependence on the alphabet, and our insistence on thinking of everything under the sun in terms of alphabetic metaphors. Scholars like the late Anne-Marie Christin have been questioning whether the alphabet is really the summit of human achievement as Western writers have invariably supposed. This is a line of thinking that started with Derrida and his criticism of the “logocentric” bias of the West.

These days, young Chinese are able to read popular fiction on their cell phones precisely because the Chinese text containing one character per word is more compact. This may sound trivial, but it is an example of Chinese characters being more suitable to a particular technology than the Western alphabet is.

As regards writing on a computer, using the modern input systems Chinese speakers are able to use more characters than they would otherwise remember, though this has a downside: it seems they need to make an effort to keep up their calligraphy skills – unlike Westerners who have cheerfully abandoned handwriting although this may not be good for their brains in the long run.

To sum up: the encounter between Western technology and Eastern writing culture, far from meaning the ultimate “triumph of the alphabet”, is an opportunity to rethink the issues involved and to develop new ways for the writer and the reader to handle written language.

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.

A role for aboriginal peoples?

Romeo Saganash is a Canadian parliamentarian and a James Bay Cree Indian whose ancestral lands are situated in what is now northern Quebec. A recent book by journalist  Emmanuelle Walter describes a road trip across this vast area of the Canadian north during which Saganash explained his lifelong political struggle.

Quebec is, of course, very much concerned with the issue of sovereignty, whether inside or outside the federation of Canada. When Quebec politicians talk about “being a nation”, they mean being a French-Canadian nation. Indeed, the Indians don’t seem to have a role in this narrative; although you would think that French-Canadian and Indian movements for self-determination, which started to catch fire around the same time, would somehow complement one another. In turn, the Indians have not been very sympathetic to Quebec sovereignty.

Saganash says: “I spent 20 years convincing the Cree that the Quebeckers too had the right to self-determination.” But he has an interesting take on the issue. “There has never been a country constituted with the participation of native people”, he reflects. “The sovereignty of Quebec could be such an opportunity.”

What he says is true about the countries of the New World. Whether it was the American Revolution, or the Latin-American nations inspired by Bolivar to rebel against Spain, or the more peaceful self-determination of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – new countries were set up by the colonists sometimes with, sometimes without the blessing of the mother country, but either way the native peoples in those places never had any real say in the matter.

The native people could contribute to the constitution of a new Quebec, as Saganash says. But aboriginal peoples could contribute a lot more, wherever they live. This raises a general question: as they continue to arise from the ashes in numerous countries, do the native peoples of the world have a historic mission, and if so, what is it?

It seems to me that they could be the natural mediators in the sweeping changes that are coming to a world where the sun is setting in the West and rising in the East. They could contribute to the intercultural understanding that is needed to make a peaceful transition to the new hegemonies and population shifts that the future has in store.

Why? Because they are the Other within the Western world – those who do not fit into the monolithic structure that dominates them. Once, long ago, they ran their own affairs; then they had to make room for the expanding Western world. Now they can help the Western world learn how to make room for the East.

The native peoples are surely experts on this topic. Because they know what it feels like to wake up one day and find yourself a stranger in your own country.


The hazards of projection

There are several kinds of projection. A familiar kind is the projection of the earth’s surface onto maps, or of three-dimensional reality into the two dimensions of a picture. Projection is a psychological reality too. We see the depth in pictures by projecting it onto them; otherwise we could make no sense of either still or motion photography. Indeed, there is a sense in which we perceive all depth “out there” by projecting it out of our own three-dimensional bodies. Jean-François Billeter has described Chinese calligraphy in terms of creating an illusion of three-dimensionality on the two-dimensional surface that the viewers can project their own depth into.

Projection is also a metaphor used by psychologists since Freud: in this sense, the subject projects or transfers qualities or feelings of his own onto other people, especially those qualities or feelings he does not want to see in himself.

We are projecting all the time, in at least one of the above senses. What you are doing now – reading this text – involves projection. In order to interpret what you are reading, you need to project meaning into it, not just the word-for-word meaning, but the whole surrounding penumbra of context and connotation. You cannot see the writer – by the time you read this I will be off doing something else – so you have to guess what I am like, what sort of a mood I am in, whether I am joking or not, what my purpose is in writing, what I am really getting at.

The trouble with this kind of projection is that it is to a great extent a conjecture. We usually know from long experience of reading how to interpret what the writer means and intends; but we may get it wrong, projecting our own preoccupations onto what the other fellow is saying. There are traps for the unwary. The writer may belong to a different culture or sub-culture from us. Even without that, we may imagine he is lecturing us, or patronizing us, or insulting us; he may have intended nothing of the sort, but for some reason we were in a mood to be provoked.

This is a problem for the writer. In fact there is no bigger problem for the writer, because in writing you may have done your best to entertain and persuade and stimulate thought, and without realizing it you were waving a red rag at a bull. Now the bull is hopping mad, and it’s too late to correct the impression with soothing signals. In a moment he will charge and gore you, unless you take to your heels and jump over the barrier, hoping the maddened brute will not be able to follow you out of the arena into the stands. There – I’m gone.

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.

Book-changing lives

My thoughts turn to Davos, just a few miles up the road from where I live. Now what do you think about when you think of Davos? The WEF. Yes, it is just over. What was it about this year? Who cares? It is such a non-event that there is little to report, except that this time Mr Xi put in an appearance. It was the annual opportunity for the élites to shake their heads over a world out of control. They came. They talked. They left again. And nothing changed.

But that is not what I want to discuss. I want to talk about a book, a story that happened in Davos. And about the strange properties that book seems to have. The book in question is Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (or, The Magic Mountain). To know what it is about, you have to know about what made Davos famous long before WEF: the air. The pure, bracing Alpine air was supposed to be very good for tuberculosis patients, and so, in the Belle Époque, Davos was the European capital of sanatoria. The novel tells the story of a young German fellow who goes there on a three week visit and ends up staying for seven years, only leaving when the First World War breaks out.

This is a very long book, and you don’t start reading it lightly. I first read it as a teenager, and thought it was marvellous and profound. About ten years later I read it again, and found it marvellous again, but this time for different reasons. In fact, I read it every ten years or so, and every time it seems like a different book. I see things in it I didn’t see before. I see parts of the story I didn’t notice before. It amazes me that a book can keep changing like that. There it is, sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, seemingly inert, and yet when you pick it up ten years later, it has changed and become a different book. It is as if the author has been surreptitiously adding new chapters or putting them in place of old ones. Or as if the book itself was alive, somehow regenerating itself and growing, all that time on the shelf when no-one was reading it! You have to give it time, mind you. If you looked at it after a week, or a month, or a year, you would not detect any change. You have to leave the book for ten years. Then it has time to do all that magic stuff that printed books are not supposed to be able to do.

We talk about “life-changing books”. Indeed, the highest praise for a book is to say “it changed my life!” But I would want to talk about “book-changing lives”. Instead of saying “the book changed my life” I would have to say “my life changed the book”. Just imagine that: merely by the fact of ten years being added to your age, the book changes. I feel in the presence of a great mystery, one involving a strange, unsuspected alchemy of books and those who read them.

So there you are. A new buzz-phrase. I give it to you for what it is worth: “book-changing lives”.