Among the great books I have read in the last five years is the two volume work by E. B. Tylor entitled Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor, an Oxford anthropologist and one of the founders of the discipline, is so little read today that I found he was merely a name to my son, a recent Ph.D. in anthropology. Of course any pioneer anthropologist imprudent enough to use the word “primitive” in a title will have long ago suffered the Oedipal fate of so many other politically incorrect patriarchs.
What I found particularly striking in Tylor had little to do with the “primitive”. What challenged me is his explanation of the principle of cultural conservatism. “When a custom, an art, or an opinion is fairly started in the world,” he writes, “disturbing influences may long affect it so slightly that it may keep its course from generation to generation, as a stream once settled in its bed will flow on for ages.” If you substitute the word rut for stream bed, you’ll see where culture is stuck. He goes so far as to say that most things that exist in the world exist for the reason that they once existed. That is an idea deserving pause for thought.
Living the expatriate life even briefly offers that pause, for one is constantly importuned to pass judgment on the ways the small experiences of daily life seem “different”, and different from what. Some years ago when I was making a study of the life and times of Christopher Columbus I was struck by what I took to be a risible feature of his log-books. Here was the first European observer known to record his impressions of a literally New World with all its fascinating alterities. Yet all his experiences seemed to fit succinctly into one of two categories. Things were either “like what we have in Castile,” or “not like what we have in Castile.”
Of course when you stop to think about it, all experience in all times and places, anywhere and forever, will fit into one of those two categories. The question is: how good are the categories? My natural instinct in encountering the thousand particularities of a day in Paris is not unlike Columbus’s. Try as I might, I cannot escape the default paradigm: is this or is is this not what it’s like “in America”.
Parts of Tylor’s book now seem ironic. His vast researches so convinced him of the ineluctably conservative nature of culture that he could not for a moment anticipate the vastness of the changes about to break in upon the world in the twentieth century.
Many aspects of the old life once regarded as unalterable have surrendered to the demands of efficiency. We no longer have twenty systems of linear measurement. We are basically down to two, with the metric system slowly but surely winning. Mostly the big things here and in other parts of Europe really are pretty much like they are in America. That is one of the reasons, I suppose, that small things claim such prominence. Why should you have to deposit a coin in a slot in its pushbar in order to get a shopping cart in a supermarket? Then, again, why not? You do get the coin back when you return the cart to home base, and I have yet to see a stray cart around the town.
The biggest thing that’s not like what we have in Castile is language—metaphorically true even if you should happen to be in Castile. If there’s an argument for reducing the number of measuring systems, surely there’s an argument for reducing the number of writing systems. But I don’t see any volunteers for linguistic self-immolation in Beijing, Moscow, Rome, or London. Living in France for even fifteen minutes will teach you the overwhelming difficulty of learning the French language, especially if you were operating under the delusion that you already sort of knew it. You grasp immediately the huge chasm between basic functional literacy and actual cultural participation. This week the sad evidence was to be found in incatenated ducks and the Tea Party.
There is a venerable weekly satirical magazine here called Le Canard Enchaîné. That “means” The Chained Duck. One of my French professors in college told me how great this thing was. Hence, I have been trying to read it, totally without success, since I first visited this country in the 1950s.
Simply to understand how a magazine can be called The Chained Duck requires a boring course in an obscure period of French political history. Then your troubles really begin. Usually I don’t get the cartoons. I cannot decipher the jokes. Frequently I am unable to identify even the political figures being satirized, or the events alluded to. The trouble is, I don’t really get the language. Though the Canard is definitely not like what we have in Castile, you might try to imagine The Onion written in, say, rapper patter.
Cultural incomprehension is a two-way street. I would point to the total mystification of the “quality” French press in trying to give an intelligible account of the role of the Tea Party in the current moment of American politics. Yes, I realize that the New York Times has no idea what the Tea Party is all about either, and I may not myself; but the French press is operating at an altogether different level of confusion and incomprehension.
Confusion begins with the fact that while the French word parti does denote a political organization, it does not denote a pleasurable social event. Even in Anglophone countries a tea party is hardly what it was in the first sentence of A Portrait of a Lady: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” But even if you can work your way through that, the whole deal about the Tea Party (get it?, get it?) is that it is supposed to connect thematically with some shenanigans in Boston harbor on December 16, 1773. Try explaining that to some Frenchman at a party—er, soirée. I tried on Saturday night, and it’s not easy.
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