Saturday, 21 April 2007

All Roads Lead to Brussels

Brussels is interesting because it's so mixed up. That is reflected in the people, who come from around the world and are entangled in ways their characters may never suggest. In their relationships, friendships, work environments they are surrounded by different languages and cultures. Or they themselves are the product of these influences - bilingual, binational, or simply strangers in a foreign land.
What you learn from these competing influences, I believe, is the capacity to reflect. It is not possible to be surrounded by difference without calling yourself into question, however hesitantly. You therefore learn to isolate and intrepret your 'normality', and see the influences which went into its construction. It also teaches you the partiality of individual knowledge and behaviour which are determined as much by our cultural environment as autonomous choice or inclination.
Once you accept that certain paths and identities occlude others and that we lack the capacity to reason from a metacultural standpoint it follows that no one person can have absolute knowledge which - if it exists in a form we are capable of interpreting - is dispersed, as were the citizens of Babel. To know one culture, region, village, or even one individual - let alone yourself - is a task we will never fully accomplish. The framework for reflection is only as big as that linguistically defined universe of experiences we have already had.
It is for this reason the collective experience of humanity is so important. Knowledge, in its manifold forms, from the scientific to the spiritual, cannot necessarily be synthesised, though each discipline may reflect the partial truths (but not the full potentiality) of one universal whole.

Rumi, the Mevlana, believed that all religions were dedicated to the same end via different paths - each revealing a different aspect of the deity. Jonathan Sacks, Britain's Chief Rabbi, said something very similar in his book 'The Dignity of Difference' which was intended as an antidote to the clash of civilisations thesis. Because it embodies these contradictions, I found the following passage by white, French, Muslim author Abdennour Bidar, rather poignant:

"Terrible impuisance de l’esprit occidental modern à franchir la Méditerranée ou le Bosphore! L’islam, la spiritualité, la sagesse? Dieu, l’unité de l’existence en une seule Vie universelle? Tout cela faisait sourire ces jeunes esprits élevés dans la conviction d’une supériorité de la science et de la philosophie athée sur la religion, et d’une surprématie de la rationalité occidentale sur la vision du monde “pré-logique” des cultures religieuses! Claude Lévi-Strauss écrit que “le barbare, c’est d’abord l’homme qui croit à la barbarie”. Comme l’Occident m’a semblé barbare, alors, lui qui croit tant être ‘la civilisation’ et rejette les autres dans cette fameuse barbarie imaginaire, née de l’ignorance, de l’incapacité à reconnaître l’intelligence et la culture sous les dehors de la difference".

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