Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Western culture"

One really should read something new, something different every day. And my book shelves offer plenty of choice, often of books that I will never read again or have not ever read. Thus, they are ripe for de-accessioning, my unending task. A small pile grows that will go to the Salvation Army, but when I pull one off for the pile I first read a bit to see if there is anything that might inspire me. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore quickly went into the pile.

I will probably not keep Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, but one of the essays inspires this morning's post, which indirectly concerns the subject of world literature, especially the way in which modern cultural and material exchanges have created a kind of "one-world thinking" or a "traversal space" in the words of Aamir Mufti. (See previous post.)

Written in 1937, Camus's essay is entitled "The New Mediterranean Culture" and represents a talk he gave at the opening of La Maison de Culture in that year. Because of the subject of the essay, I am assuming that the house of culture is in Marseilles. I also assume it is partly in response to the rise of National Socialism.

Camus begins by wondering if the establishment of this cultural center is a gesture toward restoring an empty traditionalism and celebrating cultural superiority. To do that, however, would be a nationalistic gesture, and the Mediterranean is not a nation. It is a civilization that is not to be identified with a nation, but with the land itself, a sea basin linking about ten countries. What characterizes this "land" is the fact of the sun. Thus, according to Camus, "the men whose voices boom in the singing cafes of Spain, who wander in the port of Genoa, along the docks in Marseilles, the strange, strong race that lives along our coasts, all belong to the same family."

He mentions the feeling he has when traveling in Germany and Austria, of encountering people "who are always buttoned right up to the neck" and who, in his opinion, do not know how to relax. What a sigh of relief one breathes when one travels down to Provence, where you discover "casually dressed men," not weighed down by muffled anxiety. And here, in the south, one feel closer to citizens of Genoa than to those of Normandy. Something of the sun, of this "Mediterranean culture," probably drove Goethe to Italy, where, so it was imagined, life that could be lived more lightly than in the northern reaches of Europe.

Contemporary lodgings for tourists in the Gobi Desert
It strikes me that nowadays we all live, so to speak, in the sun, even if our home is in the northern latitudes. Our homes are built with central heating; if we venture outdoors in winter, our lightweight clothes keep us warm and, nowadays, are wonderfully lightweight. The tastes and smells of Mediterranean cuisine are available in New York, even perhaps in Calgary. Is this the goal of the West? To inhabit a Mediterranean-type culture?

Tourist travel since the 18th century has been toward the South. Explorers and adventurers may have gone to hard lands -- across the Gobi Desert, to the Arctic -- but these were generally people from lands that were also hard. How many Italians or Algerians have been to Antarctica? Of course, the modern history of exploration was initiated by the Portuguese, but their caravels also traveled south, and the lands they encountered offered riches that were easy picking.

Of course, today you can experience the Gobi Desert without becoming cold. Such is progress.

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