Europe :: November -- December, 1996

Subject: Vive la difference -- drivelathon part two
Date: Tue, 24 Dec 1996 18:23:41

08:03 Cambrai Hotel; Paris -- France :: 17 DEC 96

The variety of life modes constantly amazes me. Yet the differences between cultures can be found primarily in form rather than content. Essentially we are all the same; we share similar needs, partake in equivalent activities, seek comparable pleasures. The differences between us arise not in what we do, but how. And how we do results in remarkable variety.

I'm not sure how to characterise the contrast between London and Paris. Differences appear immediately but the strongest may be how the people congregate. After several weeks spent in the living room culture of England, where four cozy walls of brick welcome every pub or restaurant patron, it refreshes me to be back in a sidewalk culture. Here in Paris the restaurants and cafés bulge from the building fronts, each like a glass chrysalis. Even on drab, dreary days such as today one senses themselves in the outdoors when still inside, warm and dry.

Perhaps this difference reflects more the variety of why than how. Paris is a city for watching and being watched, for being a part of the bustle even while warmly protected from the elements inside your chrysalis. Londoners seem to prefer the more intimate space. The English pub, as I have so often heard, is an extension of the English living-room.

20:29 Chambre 36, Cambrai Hotel; Paris -- France :: 18 DEC 96

I am trying to decide whether it would be possible to recognise this room as Parisien were I transported into it from some distant location. It is a small, oddly shaped room with five wall planes and perhaps one square corner. Actually, the floor space would make it a generously sized single room were it not for the roof line slicing through perhaps a quarter of its potential volume. The forty-five degree angle of the ceiling might mean a wintry climate with plenty of snow were it not for the window square in the middle of it. Three light fixtures brazenly toss tungsten light into the room from the ceiling and above both basin at one end of the room and the bed at the other.

From the bed, few of the room's details give anything away either. A hot-water radiator places the plumbing probably early 20th century and the location likely outside the tropics. The bed is standard third-rate hotel issue, though the cylindrical pillow rolled into the bottom sheet at the top of the bed is unique in my experience--ruling out any of the countries where I've stayed in hotels, er, cheap hotels. That still leaves most of the planet. While there's no toilet, bath or shower the standard western basin with hot and cold taps says little, although the too-small guage drainage plumbing wouldn't pass inspection in North America. The creaky and worn wooden wardrobe beside the bed, with its multiple coatings of white paint, gives away no secrets either, nor the rickety table and chair I've placed beneath the window.

Imitation grass-cloth wall-paper--peach coloured--covers the angled roof, small bit of ceiling and the five walls except for a rectangle of tile behind the basin. At the head of the bed, and along the side, two sheets of darkly stained and lacquered plywood (1/2 inch thick) have been attached to the walls with phillips-head screws. Perhaps it's a stylistic choice, or is it to protect the wall from whatever's going on in the bed? Indoor/outdoor grey carpet covers the wooden floor except for the square of tile under the basin. On that square, a an unlined plastic garbage receptacle.

Inspecting the light-bulb in the fixture over the bed yields "Sylvania * 40 W * 220-230 V * Made in Belgium". Aha, Europe at least, if not Belgium. A siren blaring by outside corroborates this hypothesis, though the city traffic until now gave no clues, except to rule out SE Asia due to lack of constant honking of horns. On the table there's an ashtray with writing I can't make out before leaving the bed. It says, "EVA -- jus de fruits". Aha, Francais: Belgium perhaps or maybe France.

Standing at the window, looking at the building across the street, I count six stories down to the sidewalk but the roof angle cuts off any view of the street below. What can be sees seems to be 19th century architecture and, had I not been to Brussels just last month, I might've believed Belgians had built it. But, for reasons I cannot articulate, something about it seems French. Another survey of the room from the new perspective reveals no new details except the "Reglement de l'Hotel" which, of course, tells me I'm in Paris, France.

After years of travel, I'm beginning to realize that in addition to discovering the apparent variety of how different cultures do things it's also fasinating to uncover the underlying congruences of what cultures do. We talk of the great cultural divides that separate our nations and their peoples. But if you can wake up in a room and not immediately recognize where you are, how different can we be? Unlabelled sections of street plans for Brussels, London and Paris probably show few if any discernable differences. This hotel room could be in alot of places, most of them outside Europe. Observing the radiator knocks more places off the potentials list than any other feature in the room but it expresses climatic necessity rather than cultural proclivity.

20:59 Chambre 36, Cambrai Hotel; Paris -- France :: 19 DEC 97

So how different can two cultures with so many commanalities be? Alot. But we'll get to that later...maybe. First I want to talk about a book I've been reading lately.

I commented in a previous journal entry <!> about the manner in which pertinent books find their way into my possesion at appropriate moments. For example, some topic in the back of my mind, not even conscioius, while browsing a bookstore causes a title will jump off the shelf, grab that topic and wave it before my eyes shouting, READ ME! That's how I found Michel Foucault, simply because three words in the title, A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power, and the Subject, happened to click with some things I'd been working on...three words principally related to my thoughts on the popular feminist theory of Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi and the not-so-populist thinking of bell hooks.

On the other hand, I sought out my current selection, Man and his Symbols. Or rather, I sought out a representative work of the author, Carl Jung....

12:34 Eurostar 9027; Paris-->London :: 22 DEC 96

For the last couple years, events, experiences and my responses to them seem to beckon toward non-rational ways of understanding. (Non-rational should not be confused here with irrational, the pejorative counterpart of rational.)

For example, earlier this fall I got into a long debate concerning the relative effectiveness of metaphorical language vs rational exposition within political activism. The debate began when one member of the forum forwarded the idea of a "double V" campaign, which would have us all drawing vampire's fangs on political leaders. The campaign arose in response to a report on Aboriginal Australian health showing that while a non-Aboriginal Australian male could expect to live 72 years his Aboriginal counterpart would not make it to his 53rd birthday. Because Australian governmnet policy appears to be dismantling what few health resources exist for Aboriginal Australians, it's not difficult to imagine why the image of 'blood-sucking politicians' might appeal to many. Certainly, such demonisations are often called upon in emotive calls to arms and are plainly used to bolster support. Remember George Bush's characterisations of Saddam Hussein?

On the other hand, quite a few members of the forum took exception to what seemed an implicit note of sarcasm. The debate began over whether the merits of sarcasm but evolved to a camparison of metaphor vs. reason. What is the best way to combat ignorance, with facts and reason such as were made available in a lengthy and scholarly report or with emotively meaningful metaphors captured in an image or two? Some argued that reason had a long history of failure for brokering significant change, that one more academic study followed by another government commission would simply result in more ineffective--even counterproductive--government policy. I and others argued that our opponents would argue our positions were so devoid of substance that we'd resorted to nothing more than name-calling--demonising an opponent preaches to the converted, bolsters the opponent and confuses the undecided; we argued also if fact and good were indeed on our side and evil ignorance characteristic of theirs, which is the implicit claim of demonisation, then fact and reason should win the argument, and if the opposition's positions contained some reasonable arguments then our side might have something to gain through reasonable discussion. In any case, slinging mud at one another only served to deepen the divide and discourage thoughtful discussion. By choosing to attack on moralistic grounds, we were resolving ourselves to altercation rather than reconciliation.

It took a while to resolve the debate. In the end we agreed, of course, to apply reason and metaphor together. Not all facts make sense within the context of all other facts and so it is important to keep our minds open to the potential value in opponent's understanding. Though not strictly speaking rational, not all metaphor is characteristically irrational. Sometimes the most reasonable arguments are most powerfully rendered through metaphor. Rather than fangs on the smiling faces of politicians I suggested superimposing a graph from the report depicting the disparity in life expectancy onto the same smiling visage. In that way, the inescapable rational fact of Aboriginal suffering is visually merged in the mind of the viewer with the policies of an elected government representative policies that continue to ignore disparity. There can be no charge of sarcasm because moralistic judgement is not overtly represented in the content--the viewer is left to their own conclusions.

I don't usually require so much convincing to recognize the faults of reason, but in this instance I was being an idiot about the one-sided significance of it. I'm more accustomed to arguing the potential of more intuitive forms of knowledge and representation. Potential is an important distinction. I've got a whole lot to learn about practice.

More recently than the previous example, the figure of Carl Jung keeps popping into my life. Respondents to my website talk of parallels between some of its pages and Jungian thought. I am visiting a friend in London who studies drama therapy which is significantly influenced by Jung's psychology. Jung is a familiar figure to me and I know of his work, but not much about it. Man and his Symbols represents the sole volume among his voluminous writings conceived for the non-specialist. That is, it's an easy read.

It was something of a surprise to discover thinking so similar to mine in the works of Foucault, more of a surprise than discovering in my reading of Man and his Symbols that I'm also a Jungian. Foucault's primary theses concerning how power operates within individuals, discourse and society still cuts against the grain of popular thought. While Foucault's process continues to defamiliarize us with our accepted understandings, much of Jung's terminology, meaning and thought have merged with our collective conscious.

Most of us in the West are familiar and comfortable with the idea that the characteristic symbols of our dreams, or at least some of them, represent a communication from our unconscious to our conscious even if, and this is the kicker, even if we don't actually use this communication to our advantage. We have heard the terms collective unconscious and archetype and have probably used them in cocktail conversation, though not entirely correctly and without attempting over-much to reconsider our self-conception based on them. But perhaps Man and his Symbols is such an easy read because Jung has managed to capture some elemental aspect of human nature, something implicit in the structure and process of all cultures and individuals and successfully describe it within the context of Western discourse. That is, he successfully describes the image we can all see for ourselves in the mirror, if we care to take a look.

Reading the likes of Foucault or Jung is kind of like mounting a new filter on a lens, or more appropriately, like removing one. For a little while at least, we consciously seek and manipulate information with half an eye to this other way of thought. So, when the guide says, on a tour of Notre Dame in Paris, "The facade of the cathedral can be read like a book but it is written not in the language of words but in symbols," your ears prick up.

Before Gutenberg's press, books and, therefore, literacy were available only to a small membership of elite classes. Now Western countries often boast literacy rates of 90% or more (usually a well-padde figure). But since Gutenberg's press illiteracy of another form has been on a tear so much so that now the facade of Notre Dame bears conveys little meaning to me or anyone else without an interpreter. Yet the facade was 'written' in language clear and simple enough that perhaps any 10-year old of the middle-ages could grasp the meanings and apply them to the context of the period.

23:34 Milton Keynes -- England :: 24 DEC 96

Meanings which escape me entirely until a knowledgeable guide explains some of them to me. Or rather a few paragraphs of a very long book. There are statues, and reliefs, and significance in the smallest detail of them but there is also the form of the facade itself, the squareness of it referring to the four corners of the earth, and the circular stained glass window, a rose window, centred in the square and representing the perfection and wholeness of God.

We don't speak in those terms any longer. Form follows function, not meaning.

Before I was born, Jung was saying this is the very language we need most to come to terms with. This is the language that wells up from deep inside us, this symbolic language in which we are now so illiterate. I'm inclined to agree.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~

Jung's thinking has colored the world of modern psychology more than many of those with casual knowledge realize. Such familiar terms, for instance, as "extravert," "introvert," and "archetype" are all Jungian concepts--borrowed and sometimes misused by others. But his overwhelming contributions to psychological understanding in his concept of the unconscious--not (like the unconscious of Freud) merely a sort of glory-hole of repressed desires, but a world that is just as much a vital and real part of the life of an individual as the conscious, "cogitating" world of the ego, and infinitely wider and richer. The language and the "people" of the unconscious are symbols, and the means of communications dreams.
  graphical element John Freeman
From the introduction to,
Carl Jung's Man and his Symbols

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