Monday, June 2, 2008

A Cosmopolite In A Cafe by O Henry

Welcome to this month’s selection of Brooklyn Book Talk. We will discuss some of the short stories of O Henry, most of which are also available online.

Let’s begin with A Cosmopolite in a CafĂ©. It can be accessed at:

Here is an excerpt:

“…for I held a theory that since Adam no true citizen of the world has existed. We hear of them, and we see foreign labels on much luggage, but we find travellers instead of cosmopolites.”

A Cosmopolite can be defined as someone who is at home in every place; a citizen of the world; a cosmopolitan person.

On first consideration, the concepts of “home” and “belonging” are insipid and innocent. Our home is where we belong, where our community is, where our family and loved ones reside, where we can identify our roots, and where we long to return when we are elsewhere in the world. In this sense, belonging is a notion invested with imaginative, romantic and nostalgic ideas. Although it circumscribes feelings of “being at home,” it is also a significant determinant of identity, that real and ubiquitous psychological state of being which is strongly “attached” to a meaning system, from where originate and derive our most significant political, cultural, romantic and aesthetic perceptions, interpretations, assumptions and “choices.”

The notions of home and belonging therefore can be emotionally and normatively significant forces rather than territorially or culturally defined concepts only. The seemingly innocent statement “home is where we belong” really means “home is where we feel we belong.” This is where considerations of belonging can get really complicated for they may lead to all sorts of divisions and boundaries—self and other, social and political, conscious and unconscious.

O Henry’s fascinating Cosmopolite lends itself to several insightful meanings and interpretations especially in times like ours when the world is being aggressively shaped by conflicting trends of globalization and identity. There is a widespread surge of powerful expressions of ethnic, regional and cultural identity that challenge globalization, peace and cosmopolitanism.

By what processes and conditions are human children given specific identities which may become their lifelong pressing concerns? Is identity destiny? Does identity inadvertently lead to pride and prejudice, inclusion and exclusion? Is it possible to subscribe to several identities without causing conflict, within or without? Are there such norms and values which can integrate all humanity regardless of their differential identities? Are you a Cosmopolite? What kind of an education will a Cosmopolite make?

Please join us here to explore issues of identity and belonging which are inextricably intertwined with the historical considerations of truth, goodness and beauty.

Maya Angelou is saying something similar in the following excerpt from her immortal “On the Pulse of Morning.”

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today.
Come to me,
Here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed-
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers -- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,
The German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
The Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree
I am yours -- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes
Upon this day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space
To place new steps of change
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me,
The Rock, the River, the Tree, you country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply
With hope --
Good morning.