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As so often when I'm gearing up for a somewhat lengthy trip abroad, the mundane practical preparations (yikes, where IS my passport?) are interspersed with thoughts of what I'm looking forward to and what I'll miss, those more philosophical musings on the meanings of "home," "place" and "belonging." Back in the mid 1990s, when I was spending as much time if not more traveling and working outside of the U.S. than at one of the various locations I then called "home," I recall sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight and reading a recent publication by one of my favorite authors in which he had excerpted a portion of a quotation that not only provided a "Eureka!" moment but also has proven to be an enduring touchstone in my life. The quotation in full:

All the world is a foreign soil to those who philosophize. However, as a certain poet says:

I know not by what sweetness native soil attracts a man,
and suffers not that he should ever forget.
(Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 1.3.35-6)

It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be possible to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant's hut, and I know too how frankly it afterwards disdains marble firesides and panelled halls.

(Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon 3.19)

Some thoughts, then, after the fold...

I'll admit to some surprise, perhaps chagrin, that this comment from a twelfth-century monk whose views on religion are so distant from mine continues to resonate as strongly as it does. Yet to the extent that the later Chapters in Book 3 of the Didascalicon enumerate (quite eloquently, in my opinion) the attributes Hugh views as essential for a student, we can in some sense separate the object of study from the method and replace Hugh's "Divine Wisdom" with the more generic, secular object of knowledge of the world and our place—as individuals, as communities and as a global collective—within it.

Most of Hugh's list of attributes is straightforward (Ch. 11-18): an aptitude for reading and contemplation, a good memory, discipline, humility, eagerness to inquire, quietude, scrutiny and parsimony. The ultimate entry on the list, that which is quoted above, is headed "On a Foreign Soil" and it is clearly more than a proposition that one should study at a school distant from home. It is, in the end, a profound statement of the necessity of exile, dislocation, loss and longing as a means to shrug off the prejudices of provincialism and thereby work toward knowledge of the broader human condition.

Allow me, if you will, to parse Hugh's comment and attempt to articulate some thoughts on the admittedly paradoxical desirabilty of dislocation.

It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be possible to leave them behind altogether.
Travel—perhaps especially now with the burdensome fees and nuisances of additional baggage—is always an opportunity to evaluate what is essential and what is important. On a purely practical level, I've become a stark minimalist over the years and somewhat jokingly describe to friends my “golden rule” for packing as follows: never pack more than you can run with. Yet Hugh is obviously speaking to a more fundamental assessment of “visible and transitory things.” As we survey our lives and possessions, what are those things that we can manage without, can ultimately “leave behind altogether”? Is it necessary to take the thing itself, or will the memory of the thing suffice? Might the easy comfort afforded by the thing actually hinder experiencing something revelatory? Might one learn from having to find novel means to acquire such comfort, and might one even arrive at a reevaluation of its necessity? One need not be a Luddite, nor should one likely travel with but one pair of skivvies, but I've personally found that my list of “essentials” has winnowed over the years and that I have come to value not only the experience of replacing comforts locally but also, and more significantly, the experience of being less and less troubled if no replacement can be found.
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.
For Hugh, and this is the deep lesson I take from his comments, a true commitment to experience “the new” is part of a process through which one can ultimately stand apart and cast a critical eye over “the old.” The tender beginner holds a naïve attachment to the place called home and likely a deeply-held correspondent belief in its exceptionalism. With experience, one may bit-by-bit transcend those visible and transitory attachments, slowly shed provincial prejudices and work toward an appreciation for the  global human experience. Hugh's construct of the perfect man (we'll forgive him, I think, the gendered language) is one whose experiences of other places, people, cultures and lifeways have culminated in a radical personal dislocation and the realization that much of the sweetness of home—certainly the sweet attachments to material things, but also the naïve embrace of the dogmatic statements wielded to distinguish “us” from “them”—is illusory.

The goal, I think, is the ability to comprehend the global picture, prioritize the struggles and assess what you would both save and surrender. Me? I'm still learning, still struggling with Blake's “mind-forg'd manacles,” still attempting to answer for myself the immensely difficult questions of what to keep and what to lose. What's abundantly clear, however, is that true progress will necessitate loss.

Originally posted to angry marmot on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 08:46 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I've been wanting for a while (12+ / 0-)

    to write something about the phenomenon of "place-love" -- which is distinct from (a) enjoying the experiences one has in a particular place, (b) being fond of the people who live in that place, and (c) feeling a nationalistic or tribal loyalty to that place, although it can both affect and be affected by any of those.  Not everybody has it, and it's incredibly difficult for someone who has it to explain it to someone who doesn't.

    I don't agree at all that the superior person should love nothing material -- but neither do I believe that place-love is strictly material in nature.

  •  I have feelings more along the lines of Batya (8+ / 0-)

    and the second instance in your quote. And I'd hope never to feel no connection to all places.

    I've lived many many places and I've always wanted to go back to live in those places again, but I know I'm well past the halfway point and there isn't enough time and I have commitments.

    I've also changed my outlook on travel due to the carbon footprint. A flight halfway around the globe is now something I don't take lightly.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 12:57:45 PM PST

  •  Some ruminations worth chewing on, angry marmot (7+ / 0-)

    Thanks for a fine diary.

    For Hugh, and this is the deep lesson I take from his comments, a true commitment to experience “the new” is part of a process through which one can ultimately stand apart and cast a critical eye over “the old.”
    Is it possible to stand apart and transcend these emotional ties without discarding them, and the meaning they add to our world?

    I've been ruminating a lot on literary and music criticism and appreciation. I buy Jung's scheme, in which Thinking and Feeling are our two primary, and often conflicting, ways to evaluate our world. The richest and clearest way I'm finding to develop my opinions on books or albums is by looking at both axes at the same time.

    Everyone conflates these two axes. But if you can say: Well these are the greatest books; and this overlapping pile are my favorite books - then you can both think and feel more clearly.

    I agree with the gist of Hugh's argument. But I wonder about this bit:

    but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land....the perfect man has extinguished his [love].
    Isn't it possible to transcend that love, so it doesn't bind you blindly, without ending up exiled like Dante from the fountains that feed your heart? Well, okay, the fountains still fed his heart. He just wasn't in Florence anymore.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 01:46:14 PM PST

    •  Thinking | Feeling, yes. (6+ / 0-)
      Everyone conflates these two axes. But if you can say: Well these are the greatest books; and this overlapping pile are my favorite books - then you can both think and feel more clearly.
      I always draw a distinction between "the greatest" and "my favorite" when it comes to things like books and movies.  Especially because I am fully aware that there are some of each that I love far, far beyond what they deserve in terms of quality.
      •  Kudos for that awareness - it's exceedingly rare (6+ / 0-)

        and much to be wished for.

        Walk into any flamewar on Daily Kos, and you'll see people mocking comments from enemies, which they'd be defending if their friends made them.

        To keep the distinction clear takes more than mental clarity: awareness both of your reasons and of your own biases. It also requires emotional confidence. We all want to feel we're mature, have good taste, and are basically right. We want the things we like to be objectively better - and, since there's nowhere to measure that, it would be nice if everyone agreed with us.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:06:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yes. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, Dave in Northridge, hazey
      Is it possible to stand apart and transcend these emotional ties without discarding them, and the meaning they add to our world?
      For me, as I interpret Hugh here (and noting that he doesn't add much more to this notion of "On Foreign Soil" anywhere else in his writings), the process is one of working through those attachments, ties and loyalties to a home and homeland, through the course of which some of those ties may ultimately be reckoned naive and/or prejudiced. I have in mind ties like rah-rah American exceptionalism, nationalism, empire and perhaps even capitalism, the critiques of which are honed by experiences outside of them or at least on their sketchy margins. Thus, and again my interpretation, it's not that one severs all bonds to a place ("exile" requires a substantive bond to a place, else it wouldn't really be a burden) but rather than one returns with a more refined and critical appreciation of place, perhaps more in-line with Batya's interesting notion of "place-love" above.

      Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

      by angry marmot on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:22:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes indeed. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        angry marmot, Deward Hastings, hazey

        "the process..of working through those attachments" begins with being willing to think again. Every one of us has "thoughts" which, when we dig to their roots, turn out to be feelings that we made up reasons for afterwards. And the great danger of making things sacred, of being fanatical, is that it's such an effective way to say "even asking that question is heretical".

        As for critiques being honed be experience outside our country, or on the borderlands, Said made a point in an essay about Joyce. Joyce made much of his exile from Ireland, and thrived on that opposition. As his reputation grew, Ireland kept offering him greater praise and prizes - it would have been easy for him to return as hero. But Joyce contrived crises and resentments each time, and maintained his artistic distance from the land he loved and reviled.

        As Said also shows, the borderlands can be a healthy place for a questioner to live.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:51:26 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting thoughts... (5+ / 0-)

    I have lived in a lot of different places in the U. S.  It took a while, but I got over my overwhelming love of home.  Some of the places I've landed, I've very much enjoyed and would not mind returning to live there long term.  Others, not so much.  I can't say I love all places equally, and I certainly can't say that I have lost all attachment to all places.  Each place is unique, and it's hard not to develop an opinion about each of them.  As such, I suspect I would sorely disappoint Hugh.  I am far from "perfect."

    -5.13,-5.64; If you gave [Jerry Falwell] an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox. -- Christopher Hitchens

    by gizmo59 on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 01:56:39 PM PST

  •  Excellent diary... (8+ / 0-)

    ...the kind for which I come here to find.

    This resonates with me. I love where I live: Alaska. But I don't want to retire here. I have an abiding love affair with Central and South America. I have been there many times, but I have never traveled to Europe. Who knows? There may be place there for me, but the years are not exactly strecthing out for me....

    So Latin America it is. I want to be someplace warm. I will fly back and forth -snowbird- from Bogota to Anchorage.

    So what does it mean that I should love two such disparate  places? I would like to extend my bona fides to "Citizen of the World." But I'm aging and while I gave up fear a long time ago, I also sacrificed much of myself for my family and have no wherewithal with which to accomplish this.

    So I am an "imperfect man." I cannot help my love of the Latin people and the culture. I love the challenge of living in Alaska. But I'm going to die someplace warm.

    "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

    by CanisMaximus on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:17:42 PM PST

    •  I like this question: (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, barbwires, hazey, slksfca
      So what does it mean that I should love two such disparate places?
      I'd say you're a student of the world, and I think that's part of the process Hugh is getting at.

      Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

      by angry marmot on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:46:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Being a wage-slave... (5+ / 0-)

        ...and sacrificing boyhood dreams because.. family happens,  I don't have the opportunities to travel as I might.

        My brother has been to every continent except Antartica, and most countries in the rest.  His work in telecommunications took him to Russia for 10 years.  That is where his heart is. We are descended from the russian Boyar-class, so it may just feel natural to him.

        I had never been to Latin America, but I was fascinated with Costa Rica. When I finally went in the late 80's it was all over. Pura Vida, baby! Pull up the stakes and lets go!

        Reality sets in.  After my initail ardor, I decided to try the rest of the region, so followed; Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua(!), Panama... Then I went to Colombia.

        Anything you ever heard about Colombia is false... AND true. You have to go there and stay a while to know.

        So, it's Medellin, Bogota, Santa Marta(!!!!!) for me.  I was born in Seattle. I've lived in many States, but Alaska has been home for more than half my life. My genetic legacy is here. So I cannot forsake Alaska...

        Student of the world? I do my best. I'm always wanting to learn new things. Instead of learning the world first-hand, I've learned it vicariously. I consider myself  student of human nature rather than the "world." What I've learned is that, no matter where I travel, people are EXACTLY the same.  They are valiant and cowardly; industrious and lazy; brilliant and stupid; there is no such thing as race.

        And is there even a "world" without people?  So what is it I should study? Culture is what keeps us together and keeps us apart. Culture is the only thing there is.

        May the wind be at your back. Safe travels, friend.

        "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

        by CanisMaximus on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 03:20:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Very well written, am, and provocative (9+ / 0-)

    I was going to make this about truth and whether it's relative, but I think that you need one tiny tweak in this, in your last sentence. I've moved around a lot, and I've been widowed, so I know "loss" very well, but I don't think that when you said "loss"  in this sentence

    What's abundantly clear, however, is that true progress will necessitate loss.
    you meant "loss." I think you meant "letting go." There's a difference. I think it has to do with when something stops being substantial and becomes a memory.  True progress means letting go and making do with what you have, which is the trial I'm undergoing every day now.

    -7.75, -8.10; . . . Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall (h/t cooper888)

    by Dave in Northridge on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 02:30:08 PM PST

  •  Gotta' run for the evening... (5+ / 0-)

    as I wasn't entirely facetious when I posed the question "yikes, where IS my passport?" I'll see ya' (and reply) in the morning.

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 03:43:57 PM PST

  •  thank you. my first two thoughts: (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gizmo59, angry marmot, hazey, slksfca, Brecht

    1) maybe my perpetual feeling of being an outsider is not such a bad thing;

    2) this is such a timely contemplation for me, as my daughter and I set off on our journey to build a mobile Tiny Home. We're talking a lot about divesting our life of the clutter of things. (The accumulation of things is perhaps the biggest reason I don't live having the space of a house and living in one location for too long.)

    Nice to "see you", by the way.

    •  Hi, Una... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hazey, Brecht

      Nice to see you too. You're right, I think, that being an "outsider" or at least being dislocated in such a way that one exists on the margins or between places can be productive. We all get there in different ways, whether actual travel or reading or just life-experiences. Good luck with the Tiny Home. I love the idea, though my sin of accumulating books would necessitate some sort of Tiny Annex :~)

      Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

      by angry marmot on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 05:04:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  There's an O'Henry (I think O'Henry) (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, angry marmot, hazey, slksfca

    ...story on this theme, that of being no longer attached to the one perfect home, unburdened by sentiment of place.  His protagonist's hero, as I recall, disappoints him in the end.   On reflection it seems possible that he read Hugh of St Victor, or it is a place many come to, a complaint of the well traveled and self reliant soul.  

    And of course, broadening out into sunset (ours, the world's), Bishop's One Art comes to mind.  We love and lose place as a condition of living., "two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster/some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent" -- or Hobbes -- "the parts which in sense were moved; so that distance of time, and of place, hath one and the same effect in us. For as at a great distance of place that which we look at appears dim and without distinction of the smaller parts, and as voices grow weak and inarticulate, so also after great distance of time our imagination of the past is weak; and we lose, for example, of cities we have seen many particular streets, and of actions many particular circumstances".   We walk the earth, and so every part of our imagination and language is flavored and defined by place, its presence or loss.  

    The sentimentality of the American discourse about home, and homeland, and all that, is purely vile, and I suppose a gloss on exceptionalism is fair antidote.  

    Sometimes I travel to make a new home and sometimes as flight and adventure, escape.  But you are so very right, everything should fit in one backpack.  

    Anyway, nice essay and really lovely choice of topic.  Sorry to riff.  I should be in bed.

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 06:30:01 PM PST

    •  Riffing is good... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hazey, jessical

      and thanks so much for introducing me to Bishop's "One Art." New to me, and a keeper.

      Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

      by angry marmot on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 05:10:21 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I originally found it... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        angry marmot

        ...after hearing  Solnit doing the tour for her book on loss.  I was stuck in traffic listening to KQED, that long run down 19th from the Presidio, where my uncle was a bird colonel, long ago -- a drive that brings to mind for me my mother's stories of growing up in his home, and everything that entailed.  "You can be rich in loss" Solnit said.  I sat there like someone had hit me with a bat.  I'd just finished Joanna Russ' "Souls", which has as a takeway quote the abbess refusing forgiveness to a man with the phrase (which I'm mangling here)  "you want a god that gives and gives and gives...but god isn't like that...god takes and takes and takes, until there is nothing left but god".  And it started to seem to me, that moment in the car, that loss is the integral of experience, the breadth of spirit that we trade for time.  And I do think we measure and mark that most concretely as place, and memory of place.

        No excuse for this riff.  Hope you got off and away OK!

        ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

        by jessical on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 01:24:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Tipped and rec'd (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    angry marmot, hazey, slksfca, Brecht

    “Love of Home” versus “Hatred of Others”

    I once had a conversation with a friend who asked “Why are people racist? It doesn’t make sense to hate people with a different skin color.” I said “It does make sense, sort of. I think it’s built into us and we have to fight against that urge.” We grow up in one neighborhood. Those people in the other neighborhood (or other city or other state or other country) go to a different school and have different beliefs and eat other kinds of food. Maybe they’re Italian and you’re Norwegian. Maybe they’re Catholic and you’re Lutheran. Maybe they have a different accent (or a different language). They’re rich and you’re poor. Whatever.

    You’ve got your friends and family, but those other people over there are different. So you cheer for North High School to beat South High School. Or you cheer for the Seattle Seahawks to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl (ten-plus years ago). Or you write on a blog that wants to elect Democrats (because you belong to that party) and you dislike Republicans. We divide ourselves into tribes or political parties or geographic categories. We are us and they are them.

    I love my home town. I love my family and friends. But I also love to travel, knowing that when I go somewhere else I’m an outsider. I’m a tourist.

    I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to justify racism or xenophobia. I like going to other places and seeing what people there are like. And I’m pretty tolerant. I met a guy from Cincinnati and we had a good discussion about Cincinnati restaurants that serve five-way spaghetti/chili. And at work I had a good discussion with a guy who is a Kurd (I asked about Saddam Hussein – Kurds are Sunnis, Hussein was an Arab Sunni, so together they outnumbered Shias). But Arab Shias and Arab Sunnis outnumbered the Kurds. And the people out of power (Kurds and Shias) outnumbered the Arab Sunnis. So what were the politics like during Hussein’s reign? Each group is a minority and each group has a reason to link up with one of the other groups. I was curious about the politics.

    I’ve rambled on too long. Sorry. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Anyone who cheers for a football team or baseball team is dividing the world into our guys and their guys.

    “If you misspell some words, it’s not plagiarism.” – Some Writer

    by Dbug on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 11:08:27 PM PST

  •  KUDOS! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht

    A lovely post!  It gives me hope for some future for the meditative essay. Long live Montaigne. Thanks especially for Hugh of St. Victor.  I'll try and locate him.  
           I found an essay from -of all people Norman Podhoretz - making a good case for a kind of American exceptional ism.    He asserted that we are unique in being a nation that coalesced around a set of ideals and explicit values, instead of a shared culture and ethnicity. This was only possible in a very brief window in history: the late Enlightenment.  Had Columbus sailed in 1392 instead of a century later we would have been a monarchy.  
           On love of place, Marquez once said that a man without nostalgia is a monster. This holds for place as well as time. Thus I am convinced that Killingworth is hands down the best town in Connecticut; Connecticut the best state in New England; while beyond New England there is little but savagery. I hold these beliefs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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