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Between Cultures

The remarkable individuals whose stories make up Jerrold Seigel's Between Cultures—Richard Burton, T. E. Lawrence, Louis Massignon, Chinua Achebe, and Orhan Pamuk—without ever seeking to exit from the ways of life into which they were born, all devoted themselves to exploring a second cultural identity as an intrinsic part of their first.

Between Cultures
Europe and Its Others in Five Exemplary Lives

Jerrold Seigel

2015 | 288 pages | Cloth $55.00
History / Biography
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Masquerade, Engagement, and Skepticism: Richard Burton
Chapter 2. Commitment and Loss: T. E. Lawrence
Chapter 3. The Islamic Catholicism of Louis Massignon
Chapter 4. Independence and Ambivalence: Chinua Achebe and Two African Contemporaries
Chapter 5. Reflection, Mystery, and Violence: Orhan Pamuk
Conclusion. Distance and Belonging


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Early in September 1853, Richard Burton arrived in Mecca. Part of a caravan of Muslim pilgrims, Burton was clothed much like his companions and, like them, recited the appropriate prayers, in good Arabic, as he approached each of the storied and sacred sites. But Burton was an Englishman in disguise, a captain in the British army who had begun his study of Arabic at Oxford and tried out his ability to present himself as an "Oriental" while serving in India during the 1840s; he would spend most of his career as a British civil servant and diplomat, while writing many books. In 1855 he told the world about his trip in a Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, the work that made his reputation as the colorful, adventurous, challenging, and to some people suspicious and problematic figure he would remain until his death in 1890. By then he would be known at once for his far-ranging travels, his deep involvement in Eastern culture, and for his assertive skepticism toward both religion and established morality.

Interest in Burton's life and writings has been inspired by many things: the rare mix of adventurousness and intellect that made him at once one of the preeminent explorers of his day and a writer of astounding range and erudition; his ability both to represent the Victorian age to which he belonged and to challenge its pieties; his mix of loyalty to the British Empire and the values it claimed to foster with a radicalism that undermined them. But what best joins these strands of his persona together is a thread his pilgrimage to Mecca strongly highlights, especially since, as we will see, he was moved by a genuine fascination and respect for Arab life and religion: he sometimes sought to inhabit more than one culture at the same time. In these moments he dedicated himself to opening up a real or imagined space between cultures, where he could infuse the persona formed in one with qualities and energies drawn from another.

Burton was far from alone in undertaking such a project. In some ways it has been shared by people of many times and places, and global migrations since the late twentieth century have made it ever more evident today. But there are manifold ways to cultivate such a way of being, and in this book we take Burton as the first among a group of people who pursued it along a special path, making themselves into vehicles for examining the nature and consequences of what I will call an intercultural identity. Such self-conscious experimentation sets these individuals apart from those with similar experiences, among them immigrants, many Jews throughout history, Islamicized Christians in medieval Spain, and various hyphenated peoples throughout the globe today.

Individuals in all these situations may feel a need to navigate between cultures, to cross cultural boundaries while somehow acknowledging or preserving them. But immigrants are principally engaged in passing from one cultural environment to another (although the transition may stretch out over generations), a situation to which certain advocates of "multiculturalism" today respond with defensive strategies for preserving group identities against forces that threaten to dilute them. Neither substituting one group identity for another nor circling the wagons around an identity considered to be endangered generates what the figures represented in this book attempted: to explore the lineaments and horizons of an intercultural space while residing within it. At times some sought to protect one way of life against another, but even in doing so they were preoccupied with the challenge of taking on a second cultural identity as part of their way of inhabiting their first. Each created a kind of dialogue between two personae within a single self.

Alongside Burton, the people whose lives and careers we take up below are T. E. Lawrence (celebrated as Lawrence of Arabia), Louis Massignon (a renowned, deeply introspective, and profoundly troubled French scholar of Islam), Chinua Achebe (a major pioneer in modern African literature), and Orhan Pamuk (the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist). A few others appear more briefly, in particular two African writers with ties to Achebe, Sheikh Hamidou Kane and Tayeb Salih. I will say more about why I have chosen them in a moment, but two things they all have in common need to be noted at the start. One is the high degree of self-awareness already mentioned: all of them gave special and sustained attention to assessing the benefits and dangers of intercultural existence. The second is that each sought to bridge some explicitly European identity with a persona rooted in another part of the world. This means that they straddled the boundary that has done the most to focus attention on cultural difference and its significance in modern history, the frontier between the originally European West and the other regions of the world it came to dominate. That some of our subjects did this from a European starting point and others from one rooted elsewhere created sharp contrasts between them, especially because all of them understood the deep harms visited on other peoples by European colonialism. Such differences are of great import, to be sure, but we will see that they did not blot out the common elements and issues all of them confronted in attempting to live between cultures.

Let it be clearly noted at the start that such a way of being is by no means always a happy one. There can be something disorienting, even threatening, about inhabiting two different and sometimes hostile worlds at the same time, and it may well be impossible to carry out in a satisfying way; to some degree all the figures we consider failed in the attempt or chronicled the failures of others. But even when the failure brought pain and regret, and perhaps especially then (most deeply in the case of Lawrence), there was and remains something exemplary about the lives and histories they fashioned as a result. I hope the chapters that follow will show that this project of simultaneously cultivating identities rooted in different cultures, notably in "Western" and "Eastern" (or at least "non-Western") cultures, raises large and important questions, involving not just the specific relations between Europe and other regions of the world, but also what it means for human beings to be cultural beings, both creatures and creators of cultures.


I think it will be helpful to give some sense of what these questions involve at the start, by thinking for a moment about the capacities human beings must possess in order to live as cultural beings. For this there can be no better point of entry than language, probably the greatest gift human cultures bestow on their members. The benefits of language are legion: other creatures communicate in various ways, but human speech and writing provide vehicles for exchanging information that are at once far more stable and precise, and more general and flexible, than what other living beings possess. Language is, in Steven Pinker's phrase, "the stuff of thought," but it is also a tool for conveying and refining feelings, allowing people to exercise and cultivate both intellectual and affective capacities that would remain undeveloped without it. It also provides human groups with a chief medium of collective memory, making real or fictional accounts of past experience available to successive generations and offering rich resources for individual and communal nurture, albeit ones that are not always employed in beneficial ways.

Because humans begin to acquire language at a very early stage of life, when much of the capacity for analytical thinking they will exhibit later has not yet emerged, we may be tempted to conclude that language learning is a chiefly passive process, in which infants merely imitate the gestures and actions of adults. But recent studies suggest that such a conclusion misses much of what takes place when children acquire languages. Humans are born with linguistically relevant capacities that distinguish them from other animals. One of these is an ability to recognize the difference between random sounds and sonic elements that are susceptible to being organized into systems of meaning; a second is the power to reason about such signs in ways that can resolve inevitable linguistic ambiguities. Infants display the first of these aptitudes within a few months of birth, before they begin to imitate the sounds made by people around them, by responding with heightened attention to the language or languages regularly spoken in their hearing, while remaining relatively indifferent to sounds introduced casually or haphazardly: "Infants are sensitive to the difference between relative pitch, which is linguistically relevant, and absolute pitch (e.g., male versus female voices), which is socially relevant; to rhythmic aspects of linguistic input; to vowel duration; to linguistic stress; to the contour of rising and falling intonation; and to subtle phonemic distinctions." The preference infants exhibit for the way a particular language organizes these elements even before it is "theirs" constitutes the first stage in the process by which they select and begin to develop "particular pathways for representing and processing language."

Since infants respond in this way in whatever cultural situation they inhabit, they have the potential to attach themselves to an indefinite number of such pathways: in principle all human infants have the ability to learn any human language (and to acquire more than one if their situation encourages it). By puberty this possibility is lost (or at least much diminished), but in the meantime children have exhibited other innate capacities essential to becoming language users. Around age two children give evidence of being able to view verbal signs through logical categories, grasping, for instance, that words must apply to objects at some particular level of generality. They recognize that "cat" refers neither to the paw nor fur of the creature designated, nor to the more abstract idea of "animal" of which it is only one exemplar; adults who help them to distinguish these separate modes of reference must rely on some potential that is already present in their pupils. More significant still, sometime between the ages of four and six children begin to act as "little grammarians," focusing on linguistic anomalies in an attempt to make usage more predictable and regular than they find it to be. A young American girl, told that an object her mother was using was a typewriter, replied, "No, you're the typewriter. That's a typewrite"—rejecting the application of the active term "writer" to a passive object. Certain French children, confronted with the uncertainty created by using "une voiture" to mean both "a car" and "one car," have invented the construction "une de voiture" for the latter, thereby signaling their desire for a separate formula to refer to a singular member of a class of things. Later, recognizing that people around them are able to distinguish the two meanings without having distinct signs for each, they go over (or back) to the standard usage; but their path to this point makes clear, as Annette Karmiloff-Smith concludes, that "infants and young children are active constructors of their own cognition." Sometimes this activity goes as far as bringing forth a new language; in one recently documented case, children in a remote Australian village evolved a spoken idiom of their own, taking over words from both English and tongues native to their area, but inventing grammatical forms (such as verb tenses) distinct from those employed in the languages spoken around them, requiring those who want to employ the new idiom to learn new rules.

A kindred perspective on language, applied to adults as well as infants, was offered by a much earlier writer, Michel Bréal, the late nineteenth-century French professor of linguistics who was responsible for inviting his Swiss contemporary Ferdinand de Saussure to teach in Paris. Bréal pointed out that certain features of language make it serviceable only to beings who can bring intelligence and reflection to bear on it; one feature was that words often carry a variety of possible meanings and uses, so that people must be able to assign some particular one depending on context and the perceived intention of speakers. Bréal illustrated the point by observing that a common French dictionary devoted no fewer than twelve columns to illustrating the diverse and potentially confusing uses of the little word à, in its various guises as complement, conjunction, or preposition, and "yet the people find its way with no difficulty in this seeming chaos." This situation illustrated what it is that makes language deserve its appellation "the educator of the human race"—not because its vocabulary and syntax provide ready-made frames for thought and expression, but just the opposite: because of the incomplete guidance it gives to users, the gaps and inconsistencies speakers must fill in and resolve for themselves, and which stimulate the mind to develop its powers. To quote Annette Karmiloff-Smith again: "What is special about humans is the fact that they spontaneously go beyond successful behavior."

The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty drew the implications of such an understanding at greater length:

The human dialectic ... manifests itself first of all by the social and cultural structures that it brings into existence and within which it confines itself. But the objects it employs for practical purposes and as bearers of cultural meaning [ses objets d'usage et ses objects culturels] would not be what they are if the activity that brings them forth did not also point in the direction of being able to negate or go beyond them.
Every generation of human beings comes into a material and cultural world partly shaped by the imagination and inventiveness of those who preceded it, finding in this inheritance both resources and restrictions for their activities. But the same powers of reflection that allow any group to make use of this heritage impel its members to transcend it, to seek new tools and new uses for old ones, new forms of speech and thought, new painting styles or new ways to interpret the past.

That humans possess this creative impetus is often celebrated, but it is sometimes overlooked or forgotten that the reflective capacities that can put us at a distance from shared values and practices play a role in the process whereby we first become cultural beings. These same abilities are surely at work when we take on other, related forms of culturally patterned expressive action: bodily movement, facial display, and setting the acceptable boundaries and gestures that define personal space. I know of no studies that tell whether these modes of behavior and action present a similar pattern of early openness to learning multiple forms that is lost as children grow up, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the process through which individuals adopt and absorb them has much in common with that of language. Here, too, reflection and objectification need to be brought to bear on the task of navigating the anomalies and potential confusions that such signals, like linguistic ones, present. As the social theorist Martin Hollis has emphasized, social and cultural experience has a character much like the one Kant observed in regard to nature: cultures do not make sense of themselves, but only come to have sense in the minds that engage with them. To gain social knowledge a person must act—to use Kant's language—not just as a pupil but also as a judge, applying forms of conceptual understanding that make sense out of what must sometimes appear as a fluid and unstable ground of interaction and experience. The difficulty of understanding just what objects and practices signify, the need to determine just how and to whom certain prescriptions or prohibitions apply (gender roles, age and class distinctions), require that individuals be able to employ "intelligent agency," acting in ways that presume and develop the capacity to clarify the often murky meanings of their social surroundings, in order to make their way within them.

Because the flexibility exhibited by infants, their ability to imbibe and absorb cultural elements and patterns, recedes along this whole front as they grow up, we may be tempted to regard any attempt by adults to insert themselves into a second culture as somehow artificial and unnatural. Tongues learned later on are seldom mastered at the level of those we acquire as children, and the same seems largely true of the other forms of expressive behavior just noted. Taking on features from a second culture requires a self-conscious and purposeful form of imitation that contrasts with the more spontaneous and seemingly "natural" entry into a primary one. These are some of the reasons why attempts to establish an intercultural existence may never fully succeed. But the presuppositions of cultural membership just considered suggest that these two ways of entry into culture are not wholly distinct, but exist on a spectrum or continuum where boundaries are permeable. However much attempts to blend or fuse cultures may seem foreign to our ordinary manner of belonging to a single one, they also constitute a further development of abilities that are essential in order for us to live as cultural beings in the first place; thus they put certain essential prerequisites of cultural membership into higher relief. The cases below all exemplify these general features, illustrating how our individual ways of belonging to our cultures draw on the capacity to set ourselves at a distance from them.

Another way to say this is that cultures are always particular and concrete, but that making our way within them requires that we call on abstract capacities of reflection and interpretation. Each culture, like each language, is what it is through the characteristic forms and elements that distinguish it from others; but in order to become part of any culture or acquire any language, we need to draw on intellectual powers that are independent of any specific cultural situation. We live at once within culture and outside it.

And yet this conclusion, although apt and enlightening on one level, may mislead us on another, because we can only exist as concrete beings, as individuals bearing the impress of the conditions where our lives take shape. The promises and tensions that arise from this two-sidedness have been examined in a somewhat different connection by a notable philosopher of our time, Thomas Nagel. Human beings, he argues, have the potential to develop a "view from nowhere," a perspective that would arise by virtue of looking on every concrete determinant of our being from some external point, and subjecting it to an appropriate mode of analysis. Taking each such condition in turn—among them age, sexuality or gender, class, ethnicity, and historical situation—we can contemplate it from outside, focusing on the physical, social, or temporal conditions to which it is subject and the limitations it and the others impose. To do this in regard to each and every situation that imprints itself on our being would be to achieve a generalized perspective independent of every feature of our concrete life, a "view from nowhere." But while we may learn a great deal about ourselves in this way, and even achieve some degree of autonomy from certain of the forces that impinge on us, we can never cease to be the concrete individuals we are, and whose existence is largely shaped by all these conditions. The promise that seems to reside in such reflective independence is therefore never fulfilled; what such a condition brings instead is a split, sometimes perplexing and painful, between our actual being, with its persisting limitations, and our expanded consciousness. Such a conclusion helps to understand both the already-mentioned difficulties often entailed by attempts to pursue an intercultural existence, and why such projects can be significant and exemplary all the same.

In the course of illustrating these general issues in particular cases, the personal histories recounted below will make evident that the faculty of reflection is not the only component of human nature that can move people to put themselves at a distance from what cultures would have them be. A different kind of gap, but one that has more in common with the first than we may immediately suppose, is opened up by sexuality. Few prohibitions are harder to enforce than sexual ones; wherever cultures impose them, people find myriad ways to escape. This widespread evasion should remind us that cultures are not wholly contained in or represented by the standards and expectations explicitly announced within them; if large numbers of people in any given situation ignore or transgress certain prohibitions, should we not regard their doing so as part of the pattern of behavior that these ways of life comprise? What we encounter here may reasonably be seen less as breaking out of cultural limits than as evidence that many cultures contain deep divisions between conflicting attempts to decide where limits should be set, conflicts that pit formal, often religiously colored constraints against some alternative set of norms (in European history one example would be the contrast between Christian self-denial and aristocratic libertinism). But even if it is not always possible to say just what boundaries a given culture imposes on sexuality, tensions often arise between such limits and the desires they seek to contain. Whether given individuals or groups transgress sexual rules or not, the tensions they feel in regard to them can generate a sense of distance from the values and attitudes that impose them. As tandem generators of distance between people and the cultures they inhabit, reflection and sexuality can reinforce or even become intertwined with each other.

All of our figures recognized this connection implicitly or explicitly, beginning with Burton, whose reflection on cultural difference was partly set in motion by the contrast he felt between English puritanism and the freer atmosphere of the continental Western European countries he came to know as a boy, an experience that contributed to the sense of not wholly belonging anywhere he felt from an early age. That sense may have been fed by the fascination he sometimes exhibited for homosexual experience, but on which he may never have acted (it seems impossible to know for sure). The pull of homoerotic desire operated more strongly on both Lawrence and Massignon, even at moments when each—in their thoroughly distinct fashions—kept at a distance from it. The understanding all three had for the highly different ways nonstandard sexuality is treated in different cultures was one element in the complex relationship each felt toward particular ones. In neither Achebe nor Pamuk do we find a similar concern about homosexual desire or practice, but both understood the meanings attached to masculinity and femininity in particular ways of life as a prime marker of the differences between them, with important consequences for their own relations to the cultural mix each sought to navigate. This means that for all five not just sexuality in the immediate sense but gender identity, the specific manner in which given forms of life conceive, signify, and regulate sexual difference, constituted a major thread in the intercultural identities each sought to knit together. The possibility of refashioning the gender identities prescribed in one milieu by weaving in attitudes and understandings drawn from somewhere else provided one spur for their attempts to inhabit a space between cultures.


Before turning to our subjects, I need to say a word about why they have been chosen. It would be easy to criticize the selection as incomplete or even arbitrary, as in some ways it is, but three things speak in its favor. The first is the intrinsic interest of the people chosen, a valuation that readers may have to take on faith at this point, but which I hope most who follow the accounts below will share. The second is that the group as a whole provides a sufficient variety of examples to reveal at least something of the range of possible attractions and difficulties that the attempt to live between cultures involves. That they come from diverse times and places highlights the broad range of contexts and environments in which attempts to live simultaneously in more than one culture have been undertaken. The third, and not the least important, is the ample body of material each provides for examining these lures and risks. The range of documentation in every case includes personal material, biographical or autobiographical (memoirs, letters, interviews), together with writings of a more general cast: literary, philosophical, historical, and anthropological. This seems to me a critically important reason for choosing to include them rather than others, since being able to draw on such a rich archive makes it possible to examine their careers and experiences in terms they developed themselves, native to them as individuals, rather than imposing some vocabulary or conceptual idiom from outside. For this reason I am tempted to say that they offered themselves as subjects for this book even as I went in search of them. It is the absence of this range of writing and reflection, with its specific attention to what the experience of simultaneously inhabiting more than one culture entails and how it might be understood, that has led me to exclude some figures who might well have been candidates had they had approached their experience differently and provided a more extensive account of it. Among these are (I list them for those who will recognize the names) Lafcadio Hearn, Trebitsch Lincoln, Ernest Fenollosa, Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss), and, alas, all of the women whom I hoped at one point I might be able to include: Lady Stanhope, Mary Wortley Montagu, Isabelle Eberhardt, Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Sister Nivedita, Pearl Buck, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It would create too bulky a digression to try to justify all these exclusions here, but none seems to me to offer the rich texture of materials provided by the figures included. (The differing nature and quantity of the material each of them provides is reflected in some chapters being longer than others.)

One unintended and in some degree regrettable result of not taking on some among the people just listed is that one particular alternative to Europe generates most of the intercultural spaces at issue here: Arab and Muslim life and belief. Such a configuration has genuine advantages at a juncture—our present—when the relations between Islam and the West are of great moment for a wide range of reasons, and it might be justified historically as well, on the grounds that the geographical proximity of European and Islamic societies, and the conflicts and interchanges that resulted from it, have given a special weight to their relations over a large sweep of history. But I did not intend it at the start, and the absence of any figures who stand between European and South or East Asian forms of life may threaten to make the general questions I have tried to raise in this introduction recede behind more particular ones involving relations between Christian and Muslim lifeways. This danger may be lessened in some degree by the relatively small place that strictly religious concerns occupied for either Lawrence or Pamuk (in contrast to both Burton and Massignon, for whom Islamic belief and practice were cardinal points of focus), by Burton's (albeit less intense) involvement with Hindu and pre-Muslim Persian as well as Islamic culture, and by the circumstance that the alternative to European Christianity in Achebe's world was African village life and the polytheism that reigned within it. If the range of "others" to Europe in the lives and careers examined below still remains narrower than one might wish, I hope this limit may be at least partly overcome by what we are able to learn from the group as a whole, based on the mix of personal and general insights each of them drew from exploring the particular intercultural space he inhabited.

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