Rootlessness and cultural dispossession are luxury goods. We embrace the hollowing out of those values and identities that structured the life of our forebearers because doing so is high-status and trendy.
Imagine a well-to-do member of the bourgeoisie at tea with his peers, expounding on the benefits of lax sexual norms, back when doing so was still remotely provocative. As his plates are cleared away, the waitress, on whom he has been keeping an eye, and to whom he now lauds the end of stifling moralistic strictures, might consider just how devastating this cavalier attitude would be to her. “We cannot all live like the rich,” she considers, “and, perhaps, none of us should.” Soon clumsy attempts at flirtation give way to more general expressions of distaste for past mores, old dress, country accents, and the like, which he contrasts to the latest fashion trends under whose aegis all the major cities of the world live.
This disdain for locality, this cosmopolitanism is a kind of soft, decadent version of a relatively widespread phenomenon observed by anthropologists according to which, in order to gain prestige and distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi, elites tend to identify with foreigners, claiming to descend from conquerors or wealthy merchants.
Writes Mary W. Helms of the Mesoamerican context in Access to Origins: Affinities, Ancestors, and Aristocrats, that “elite claims of foreign affiliation and identification” served “to ‘disconnect’ or distance Maya lords from their subjects.” In “Disconnection, Foreign Insignia, and Political Expansion,” Andrea Stone argues this phenomenon allows elites “implementation of an exclusive dynastic line which defines itself in terms of palpably different qualities not seen in the general population.”
We find something of this in Francois Guizot’s description of his country when he writes that France is composed of “a conquering race and a conquered race, vanquishers and vanquished,” or in Hippolyte Taine’s contention that “despite the French Revolution there have always been two peoples in France, the Gauls on one side and the body of Latin fonctionnaires mixed with the debris of the German aristocracy on the other.”
The appeal of the conqueror and its twin, the more benign-seeming appeal of the cosmopolitan, are today perhaps incomprehensible without the millenarian impact on Europe of discovering the Atlantic’s western shores. It allowed us to draw on the experience of history as it was unfolding before us, and to conceive of it in terms of arrivals. “Conquest” was not always an unproblematic term, and so, the language of “discovery” was sometimes preferred, such that American authors preferred talk of “settling” the American continent. It was further pointed out that no people hold unilateral protagonism in the history of discovery. In The Alchemy of Conquest: Science, Religion, and the Secrets of the New World, Ralph Bauer quotes the Hungarian-Canadian Hans Selye as follows:
Was America discovered by the Indians who were here from time immemorial, by the Norsemen … by Christopher Colombus … It is still being discovered now, every day, by anyone who drills a new well …
Bauer goes on to critique Selye:
Selye’s understanding of discovery as a ‘matter of viewpoint’ is fundamentally flawed … for it presupposes not only that the various accounts of discovery … constitute a single tradition but also that all these groups conceived of their presence in the Americas as a consequence of a ‘discovery.’
Following on from this, we might imagine that it is as a result of imbibing the American ethos (or some mutation thereof), that European and, indeed, global, educated classes have come to prefer discourses of flux over fixity. At least this is a possible genealogy of the ideas that now prevail in the west and elsewhere, a plausible just-so story.
“The landing of Vikings on America” from The Story of the United States by H. E. Marshall, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919.
An imperial British anthropologist could suggest that, as Indo-Europeans originating in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, or somewhere near it, his people were as “Aryan” as the ancient inaugurators of the Indian caste system, justifying their presence in the subcontinent. Today, a similar, (though, again, more benign-seeming) version of this functions to justify waves of mass migration by appealing to the fuzzy idea that peoples move, and always have, not conquering, but discovering and settling, never definitively, but always continuously (first a Siberian, then a Viking, then a Columbus, then an Englishman, etc.). The mainstream Left has even ceased critiquing the global structures of economic exploitation and military adventurism that provoke these waves. Instead, the purpose of leftist discourse is simply to distinguish those claiming cosmopolitan identity (“global citizenship”) from the reactionary impulses of the lower classes, again, mimicking how the supposed descendant of foreign conquerors could look down upon a subjugated population. (See my essay “Escaping the Triangle.”)
Nothing is to be defined in terms of its unitary cohesion, only in terms of its plural composition, with the excuse of hospitality, of inclusion, forgetting that, to be “naturalized” into a community, it must have some prior “nature;” if my branch is to survive being grafted into a tree, that tree had better have roots deep enough to feed me and keep strong winds from knocking it over.
What we might describe as the “democratization” of an elite-discourse of foreign affiliation has not rid it of its class dimension. It hurts those who rely on place and family the most, those whose financial means and affective attachments (money and memory) do not allow them to simply eject their rootedness, while it convinces a portion of them to participate actively in the hollowing out of those institutions that serve them the most. (I develop this more in “Double Meanings.”)
One cannot be a citizen of the world, because there is no such thing as world-citizenship, and, if there were, it would likely constitute a severely coercive structure. More importantly, the sense in which “world citizenship” is invoked—for example by the imagined fellow with whom we began this discussion—tends to accompany a vexed gesture meant to cast off the weight of provincialism, thick accents and attachments, petty, all too local things, and to invite instead the fresh air like a plenitude of enjoyment only available to one who breathes in the whole, universal horizon at once. But this aspiration is really only a feeling, not an actualizable program: we cannot merge with that ever-rolling horizon, just as we cannot speak “Language,” only specific languages, with their irreducible particulars, with their own specific music and “mood.”
Returning to Ralph Bauer’s critique of conceiving of history as nothing but waves of discovery and settlement:
if surviving oral and textual traditions are an indication, most (if not all) Native American cultures conceived of their presence in the Americas as a result not of a ‘discovery’ but, similar to Old World peoples, of various acts of genesis after which they have always been there.
Further, looking back on our tradition, it is worth remembering that the elite claim to foreign origins, even where it does occur, is not always what it seems. We may consider Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts the tradition according to which Romans (and especially such distinguished families as the gens Julia) descend from foreign Trojans who, rather than prestigious conquerors, are initially a people brought low (having lost their late Bronze Age war with the Mycenean Greeks) and who embrace local Latin culture, fusing with it completely, by the will of goddess Juno, rather than remaining distinct from the general populace. Furthermore, and most crucially of all, these foreign conquerors actually originate from Italic soil, being the descendants of the Italian Dardanus, and so are really only returning home. From Aeneid, III:167-170 (trans. John Dryden):
Italia, from the leader’s name.
Iasius there and Dardanus were born;
From thence we came, and thither must return.
Rise, and thy sire with these glad tidings greet.
When Ronald Knox wrote his Spiritual Aeneid, an autobiographical account of his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, he chose this title over the more conventional sounding “Spiritual Odyssey” because Odysseus was returning to his own home, whereas Knox was discovering a new one. For our part, we may disagree with this opposition, and point out that both these foundational Western texts, the Homeric and Virgilian, are, in fact, homecomings.
It may be worth finishing with the following portion of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, capturing, as it does, the gist of the above:
“I think God has given us the love of special places, of a hearth and of a native land, for a good reason.”
“I dare say,” I said, “what reason!”
“Because otherwise,” he said, pointing his pole out at the sky and the abyss, “we might worship that.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“Eternity,” he said in his harsh voice, “the largest of the idols—the mightiest of the rivals of God.”
“You mean pantheism and infinity and all that,” I suggested.
“I mean,” he said with increasing vehemence, “that if there be a house for me in heaven it will either have a green lamp-post and a hedge, or something quite as positive and personal as a green lamp-post and a hedge. I mean that God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything. And I would not be so very much surprised if the house in heaven had a real green lamp-post after all.”