Updated: Aug 5, 2022
Over the past week, we’ve had several days of long-awaited rain. Stretches of steady drizzle building, ebbing, returning. Though not the downpour that’s really needed, our land seems happy to receive this halting sustenance: so says the part of me that spent the better part of March pruning Poggiosole’s inner grove of 71 olive trees.
Then there’s the part of me that reads the news. Back starting in 2012, I spent a few years working for a tech company with offices in Kharkiv, Ukraine. When I think about my ex-colleagues, most of whom have been separated from their families to defend their homeland against one of the largest armies in the world, I perceive the past week’s weather as a weeping lament. And that’s leaving aside the cluster munitions that rained down on the Kramatorsk rail station less than 24 hours after I wrote most of this post.
At what cost a Russkiy Mir? How many slaughtered sons and fathers, how many women raped, families broken, homes, universities and hospitals destroyed? Against every claim that tribalism is a force for unification, presumably for the solace and strength that might accompany a clearer sense of identity, there is the counterfactual of violence and hatred in abundance, through the ages.
Watching the rain or a sunset here, it’s easy to imagine the same water falling on a devastated town, the same golden light illuminating a grave dug far too early.
Years ago, in the context of the 52nd Venice Biennale, I happened upon a passage by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, no stranger to the strife that attends identity politics. I'll quote it here in full, it's a worthwhile 3-minute read for anyone grappling with notions of certitude and permanence that beguile us all. The quote is from Said's book Culture and Imperialism, published in 1993:
“I find myself returning again and again to a hauntingly beautiful passage by Hugo of St. Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony:
It is therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.
Erich Auerbach, the great German scholar who spent the years of World War Two as an exile in Turkey, cites this passage as a model for anyone – man or woman – wishing to transcend the restraints of imperial or national or provincial limits. Only through this attitude can a historian, for example, begin to grasp human experience and its written records in all their diversity and particularity; otherwise one would remain committed more to the exclusions and reactions of prejudice than to the negative freedom of real knowledge. But note that Hugo twice makes it clear that the 'strong' or 'perfect' person achieves independence and detachment by working through attachments, not by rejecting them. Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one's native place; the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss. Regard experiences then as if they were about to disappear: what is it about them that anchors or roots them in reality? What would you save of them, what would you give up, what would you recover? To answer such questions you must have the independence and detachment of someone whose homeland is 'sweet', but whose actual condition makes it impossible to recapture that sweetness, and even less possible to derive satisfaction from substitutes furnished by illusion or dogma, whether deriving from pride in one's heritage or from certainty about who 'we' are.”
Postscript, April 24: while any reasonable person will hope for a lull in the madness in Ukraine (warning: link contains distressing photographs and descriptions of atrocities in Bucha), few are equipped or even inclined to walk Hugo of St. Victor’s talk. There is the Sunday sermon, and then there is what most humans actually get up to the rest of the week. Both are worth noting. For an excellent counterpoint to the above recipe for transcendence, I found much to reflect on in Dominic Lieven‘s comment on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict published yesterday in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/04/23/dominic-lieven-says-empires-eventually-end-amid-blood-and-dishonour