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august 2007

On commonalities


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Despite the — sometimes seemingly profound — differences between cultures and values, there is no such thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche, as much as there is no European society, no American mind, no Western psyche. The same opinions, the same love for certain books or for certain music, can be found all over the world. Moreover, there appears to be a common consciousness existing alongside, or underneath, the cultural values, as Sri Ramakrishna taught,

  "which is our own ground and so in consciousness we are one; insofar as you identify yourself with the consciousness that moves and lives in your body, you've identified with what you share with me. And on the other hand, if you fix on yourself, and your tradition, and believe you've got it, then you're removed yourself from the rest of mankind (Campbell, 1990: 64)."
  Moreover, the author Arthur Koestler, in the words of Holbrook (1981: 92), observed that,
  "our religious and scientific modes of knowing are often indistinguishable, and support each other. To put it more strongly, objectively viewed these two traditions [Greek versus Chinese] pretend to respectively specialize in spirituality-mysticism and rationality-science but, actually, neither does either well enough, and, as indicated above, the two are basically identical. They differ chiefly in their practical relations to the human society over which they divide their influences and which they divide."
Next Joseph Campbell, who researched mythology in various cultures, "deems the meaning of all hero myths not just similar but identical: 'As we are told in the Vedas: 'Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names'.'" (Segal, 1990: 33).
  Could it then be that there exists a deep layer of the unconscious that Jung called the collective unconscious, a term that is used "in recognition of the fact that there is a common humanity built into our nervous system out of which our imagination works" (Campbell, 1990: 122)? Very likely for how would one otherwise explain that the same mythological motifs seem to appear everywhere?
  This "common humanity built into our nervous system" can be experienced, it can be felt, wherever individuals from different cultures meet on a personal level, whenever there's a chance to identify with another person. In addition, the experiences of, for example, Zen Buddhist monks and of Christian mystics do not appear to differ. Conversely, one could argue that most people also seem to share the ability to rather arbitrarily interpret, for example, their religion. As Mulder (1992: 10) states (referring to Southeast Asia):
  "According to serious Moslems, Islam is about the submission of man to God, and his obligation to worship along the prescribed lines. For a long time, they have been irritated by Javanese ritual practices, the neglect of religious rules, the heresy of mysticism, and so forth, of their fellow countrymen, who sometimes even drink beer and eat pork. According to Buddhadasa Bhikku, the ways in which the Thais make religious merit is about as useless as 'raising chickens in order to feed the eggs to the dogs.' According to Filippino priests, the Philippines is still missionary territory, where superstitions flourish and sin thrives, and where the message of the Mother Church is far from being understood."
Next While our differences do matter, our common humanity matters more. This is something that we intuitively know, that we feel for we all share "the suffering, mortal, needy, desiring body which links us fundamentally with our historical ancestors, as well as with our fellow beings from other cultures" (Eagleton, 2000: 111). It is on the body, and not so much on the mind — we can do anything with our minds (convince us of whatever, that is) yet we can't do the same with our body — that we need to base our actions in order to avoid a clash of cultures. As Eagleton (2000: 111) states:
  "The body has a curiously dual status, as at once universal and individual. Indeed the word 'body' itself can denote either the singular or the collective. It is the inherited, sheerly given stuff which links us to our species, as implacably impersonal as the unconscious, a destiny which we were never allowed to choose. To this extent, it is the symbol of our solidarity. But the body is also individual — indeed it is arguably the very principle of individuation ... A common culture can be fashioned only because our bodies are of broadly the same kind, so that the one universal rests upon the other."
Next One needs to keep in mind, however, "that man as such does not grow better" and that "he progresses only by recognizing his nature, his misery together with his sublime possibility. A politics has to be built on that" (Pfaff, 1994: 238). Which also means that the dominance that the idea(s) of culture play in public discourse, and that the emphasis that is put on values, needs to give way to some sober facts, namely, in the words of Eagleton (2000: 130-131):
  "The primary problems which we confront in the new millennium — war, famine, poverty, disease, debt, drugs, environmental pollution, the displacement of peoples — are not especially 'cultural' at all. They are not primarily questions of values, symbolism, language, tradition, belonging or identity, least of all arts ... Culture is not only what we live by, it is also, in great measure, what we live for. Affection, relationship, memory, kinship, place, community, emotional fulfilment, intellectual enjoyment, a sense of ultimate meaning: these are closer to most of us than charters of human rights or trade treaties."

  • Campbell, Joseph (1990) An open life. Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms. New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row.
  • Eagleton, Terry (2000), The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Holbrook, Bruce (1981), The stone monkey. An alternative, Chinese-scientific, reality. New York: William Morrow.
  • Mulder, Niels (1992), Inside Southeast Asia. Thai, Javanese and Filippino interpretations of everyday life. Bangkok: Editions Duang Kamol.
  • Pfaff, William (1994), The wrath of nations. New York: Touchstone.
  • Segal, Robert A. (1990), Joseph Campbell. An introduction. New York: Mentor, Penguin.
  2007 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes