“The England that awaits the young Mundy is a rain-swept cemetery for the living dead powered by a forty-watt bulb.”
Many people my age feel a lack of a sense of place. Our identity is much more malleable than our predecessors. We don’t have to do what our father or mother did for a living. We can travel the world in speed while the internet has allowed us to access more information than the last generation could imagine. If we live in metropolitan areas, even smaller ones, we enjoy ethnic and cultural diversity. We are becoming global citizens because, as the cliché goes, the global is now local.
This experience is amplified for people who have spent significant amounts of time abroad, either as children or as adults, on business, in the military, as missionaries or diplomats. It is also amplified for migrants and asylum seekers. Though the experience is strongest in the cross cultural traveller, I still think many of us feel this need to belong, desire a place to call ours and want to firm up our identity. When things change around us, we often experience a tension that can be uncomfortable, it changes us and we learn to cope.
We do this in many ways, healthy and unhealthy. We have a view of reality, a creed or political allegiance, religion or new-atheism, a story that helps us explain our place in the universe and our role as humans. This is how we deal with the flux of late modernity. But it is also true that loyalty to these “stabilizers” change over time. External factors influence our view of the world and yet we stay the same. This tension interests me because I believe it is actually in this tension that a true part of our modern “self” is revealed. It will not be settled there, but it is revealed.
John le Carre, the acclaimed author of spy fiction is not necessarily know for his articulation of how our loyalties to the narratives that shape our identity effect how his characters relate to the story that he tells. He should be though. He has written some stunning prose on the subjects of loyalty, the state and the tension between freedom, capitalism and communism. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain he has had to look for story lines more appropriate to a world which broadly fits the thesis of Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Le Carre is an author of fiction based on experience. In his Absolute Friends he resolves that tension somewhat in friendship. Fukuyama dabbles in political science and economics. His is an academic rather than fictional description. Both authors are observers of the world, illustrating through their own discipline the human condition at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. Both look back at human history, and both look forward, not always hopefully, but less than cynically.
In 1992 Fukuyama would have liked to have been right when he argued:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
This is a contested thesis, not least among contemporary anthropologist academics ready to call his work popularist and simplistic. Yet much like le Carre, his work is such that it influences the way people think about reality. Fukuyama’s prose, like works of fiction is partially true. Of course, as the story of our history goes, some years later, things have changed and the crescent-theocrats reminded us that history has not yet ended. They end their existence and the existence of many others in the towers with usurped war planes.
So the tension arrives again. The confrontation of a disintegrating spy machine with the old craftsmen wondering what their work was about, suddenly takes on a new edge. In le Carres, Absolute Friends, we read the story of the life of a man born in Pakistan to a mother he does not know (though we find out later she is Irish) and a British military father, returning from life as a son of the Empire, weathered under the heat of the equatorial sun to a dreary and wet England.
After entering boarding school, where he encounters the usual terrors of a foreign-come-local, reentering his supposed home, he becomes friends with a teacher at the school from Germany. A fellow refugee. In a conversations touching on identity we hear Dr Mandelbaum say: “Today we are both refugees. For as long as mankind is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.”
Mandelbaum articulates the tension I described above by placing the sunny equator of belonging and yet not belonging in the identity of a persons moral character. “Maybe all good people in the world are refugees”… who do not belong to this world because mankind is in chains. And still the good Doctor says: “We cannot live in a bubble, Mr Mundy. Comfortable ignorance is not a solution. In Germany students societies that I was not permitted to join, they made a toast: ‘Better to be a salamander, and live in the fire.'”
Le Carre reminds us of Mundy in the boarding school: “Yet while the oppression Mundy suffers at the hands of his jailers entrenched his loathing of them, he cannot dodge the curse of their acceptance. His real enemy was his own good heartedness and his inextinguishable need to belong.”
Perhaps what was so shocking to those of us who had hoped Fukuyama was right in 1992, was the very fact that the people who committed murderous-suicide after that summer, in September at the turn of the millennium where no longer willing to be “salamanders living in the fire.”
As a Christian living in the world, the curse of the modern self, that tension of meaning and displacement from the constant meaning, means nothing less than trying to be a salamander and live in the fire. It is better to thrive as a salamander in the fire, than to loose the heat from the equatorial sun. Utopia is sometimes as gray as England. The last man must still come.