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 Café. 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.


Nomi said...

The attachment to identity, and rarity of Cosmopolites in any culture can be understood better with a bit of Foucault, who persuasively demonstrated that in every society the production of political and cultural discourse is controlled, selected, and organized according to certain systematic power-based procedures such as:

There are different types of prohibitions e.g. exclusive right to speak on a given topic.
It relies on institutional support, on sets of practices such as pedagogy, publishing, libraries, learned societies, universities etc. When an idea appears before us repeatedly through different modalities, we are unaware of the prodigious machinery and criteria behind which is doing discourse selection, evaluation and dissemination.

There is barely a society without its major narratives, texts, documents which are told, retold and are well-represented in the information environments of home, school, media and the marketplace. Derivatives of those texts are to be spoken in well-defined circumstances e.g. religious texts, judicial texts, literary texts. Cultural identity becomes a product of repetition, sameness and self-congratulatory narcissism. Over a course of time, not all areas of discourse are equally open. A proposition or a person must fulfill certain "similarity-familiarity-utilitarian" conditions before it can be admitted in the inner discourse circle.

Rituals define the qualifications and gestures and behaviors of admissibility.

Fellowship of Discourse:
Its function is to preserve or reproduce discourse, and allow it to circulate within a "closed" community and society. It functions through various schemas of exclusivity (e.g. identity of TV analysts and the air-time granted).

Anonymous said...

Maya Angelou poem is very touching. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Education of a cosmopolite certainly should include history.

Anonymous said...

There is a great Cosmopolitan initiative with a mission statement:
[Humanity has] the capacity to turn toward a truly planetary civilization, one that reflects universal social and ecological values while respecting differences. Today, our collective wealth and technological prowess could defeat the scourges of destitution, war, and environmental
destruction.… The choices we make now and in the critical decades ahead will [set the trajectory of
global development for generations to come].

Nomi said...

William Douglas once noted, “when ideas compete in the market for acceptance, full and free discussion even of ideas we hate encourages the testing of our own prejudices and preconception.” The notion of cosmopolitanism is one of those ideas which needs to be fully explored from inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives. Humans throughout out history have engaged in violent politics of identity, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly. Before we blame the undesirable effects, it is essential to look at pervasive causes at work in all domains—from family to school to clan to culture to nation. The diverse sources of identity-- color, creed, culture or conditioning--become an inherent part of cognition and affect through systematic institutional values, structures and processes, no matter what the culture. World wars do not happen in a vacuum. By looking at the micro elements one can discern the macro and meta level forces at work. The education of a cosmopolitan could therefore include objective self-awareness as well as critical cultural analysis. Interdisciplinary approach is paramount in achieving these worthy goals.

Anonymous said...

Education of a cosmopolitan will certainly be helped by thinking about thinking, and tracing back its roots, sources and its almost invisible 'maintainance systems'--biological, political, cultural and personal. This is a good resource for understanding identity and thinking.

Anonymous said...

I say Amen to all that but will anyone listen. Self-interest is biologically rooted in mammals. History reminds us that most epocs have been characterised by inequality and power struggles. Before we become conditioned into any system of identity, we have to negotiate nature which is mostly "red in tooth and claw." Adherence to identity is a survival strategy. Richard Dawkin's Selfish Gene and Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan should be part of any interdisciplinary study. Utopia will need a new dna.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree. Biological inequality and resource scarcity are twins which generate history and modernity. Competition and conflcit lead to hierarchy. Hierarchy is sustained by exploitation. The survival of the fittest is encoded in the unwritten laws of life.

Nomi said...

These are valid considerations. However, the worldview offered by Selfish Gene, and Leviathan is partial. Electron can be a wave or a particle depending upon how we observe it. In a world of polarities, dualities and perhaps paradoxes, one perspective (survival of the fittest) will not fully disclose the whole meaning and mystery. There is more to the world and more within human consciousness than described by Dawkins and Hobbes. Books like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self, Abraham Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness, Roger Walsh’s Paths Beyond Ego, Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, also make a persuasive case for inherent potentials in human consciousness which help us transcend fear and self-interest and allow us to develop our potentials for love, reason and creativity. As Abraham Maslow said: “If I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was a thousand miles away, I'd still swim. And I'd disregard the one who gave up.”

Anonymous said...

We are not in a position in which we have nothing to work with. We already have capacities, talents, direction, missions, callings.
We fear to know the fearsome and unsavory aspects of ourselves, but we fear even more to know the godlike in ourselves.

Abraham Maslow

Nomi said...

The discussions about identity and its realtionship to the way we live and think in the information age will be incomplete if they do not include mention of Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Appiah's thought provoking book The Ethics of Identity has been reviwed here:

Anonymous said...

Thank God I am living in New York City where chances of becoming a cosmopolitan are far greater than would have been possible in the middle east or the midwest. In that sense geography is destiny.

Nomi said...

In another important sense, what we read is destiny. But if geographical boundaries determine the limits of what one can read as in some countries under authoritarian rule, with ideologically determined censorship policies, then geography surely is "destiny." Another factor which determines our core reading experiences is our adherence to a certain "identity." In theory, a thorough cosmopolitan will read across genres, disciplines, cultures, epochs, traditions and boundaries to fully experience that unity in diversity which is the hallmark of humanity.

Nomi said...

The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident. Any human being might have been born in any nation or group. We should not allow differences of nationality or class or gender or ethnic membership erect barriers between us and fellow human beings. We should recognize humanity wherever it occurs and give its basic ingredients--reason and moral and spiritual capacities--our first attention, allegiance and respect. Commitment to fundamental human rights should be part of any national education system or parenting principles. Through a cosmopolitan education we learn the universal aspects of our nature and consciousness, and discover a deeper self beyond narcissism and propaganda. Equipped with such an education, we can then make more effective progress in solving problems which face the whole planet and all of humanity, such as disease, ignorance, war, poverty, pollution, hunger, injustice, underdevelopment and unhappiness. However, if we remain within the cognitive, emotional, aesthetic and moral concerns and confines of our tribe only, the problems facing the planet and humanity remain unrecognized for the most part.

Alexander Pope in his "An Essay on Man":

God loves from Whole to Parts: but human soul
Must rise from Individual to the Whole.
Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
The centre mov'd, a circle strait succeeds,
Another still, and still another spreads,
Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace,
His country next, and next all human race...

Anonymous said...

Cosmopolitanism is against the very grain of primal instincts and natural unconscious propensities. Rousseau speaks of imagination's and even reason's tendency to engage itself sympathetically only with those who resemble us, whose possibilities we see as real possibilities for ourselves.

Nomi said...

Rousseau's claim is one sided only and limited by his historical circumstance. What we now know of human potentials, possibilities and opportunities, that understanding was simply not available to Rousseau.

Harvard's Jerome Kagan proposes this mental exercise to make a simple point about human nature: the sum total of goodness vastly outweighs that of meanness.

He suggests this thought experiment: Imagine the number of opportunities people around the world today might have to commit an antisocial act, from rape or murder to simple rudeness and dishonesty. Make that number the bottom of a fraction. Now for the top value, you put the number of such antisocial acts that will actually occur today.

That ratio of potential to enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year. And if for the top value you put the number of benevolent acts performed in a given day, the ratio of kindness to cruelty will always be positive.

“Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy, and to be rude, aggressive or violent,” Kagan notes, “they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially toward those in need.” This inbuilt ethical sense, he adds, “is a biological feature of our species.”

Proper and timely education, promoted by social, legal and institutional arrangements, can cultivate this biological predisposition to recognize humanity in the "other" as well, regardless of "resemblances" or parochial considerations of their race, class, language, nationality, creed, color, ethnicity, age or gender.

We can recognize that each human being is human first and foremost, and possesses an inviolability founded on universal moral justice. To quote John Rawls, "Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from that point of view."