Monday, July 4, 2016
Taking It All In
[Time to remind myself of my exceptional Americanness on American Independence Day.]
I spent my last three years in the Navy stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I had loved Japanese culture, its literature and especially its splendid films, since I was in my teens. Since my unit was the command of amphibious forces for the Seventh Fleet, and since the vast majority of the Fleet's marines were on the island of Okinawa, my unit's headquarters was situated on a remote promontory of the west coast of the island called White Beach, from which we embarked on ships or on aircraft to locations throughout east Asia. In three years I visited South Korea three times, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Guam twice, and the main islands of Japan.
It's no wonder, then, that I look back on it as the time of my life. I was so taken with the experience that, when my tour of duty was over and I was released to civilian life, I couldn't bring myself to go back to the States. Instead, I went directly to the Philippines on my first, albeit abortive, attempt to live there. But that, as they say, is another story.
The last supervisor, or LPO (Lead Petty Officer), with whom I worked in Okinawa was one of those characters I sometimes encountered in the military who was, both physically and intellectually, a genuinely self-made man. He had been stocky all his life, but he managed to transform himself from a tubby young man into a impressive, if somewhat muscle-bound physical specimen. He was fanatical about avoiding fatty foods, and introduced me to a sandwich made with nothing more than a flour tortilla, sliced turkey or ham, and a slice of cheese, rolled up and heated in a microwave oven. Cover it with salsa when it's done, and it's a cheap, neat alternative to a cold bread sandwich.
His ideas were just as lean. He had come to an understanding with the world, based on his ten-year exploration of it in the Navy, and whatever reading he could squeeze in between port calls. He had arrived at the conclusion that the United States was not only exceptional as a nation, but that its values were the best that could be found anywhere in the world, superior to all others. America was a standard against which he measured the whole world - and found it wanting. He was uncurious about Japanese culture, and of every other Eastern culture, and lived comfortably inside his certainties.
In Okinawa there was a fantastic English-language bookstore on the main thoroughfare outside Kadena Air Force Base where I found irreplaceable copies of books by my two favorite authors, Orwell and Camus. And I found a paperback copy of a book first published in 1926 by Aldous Huxley called Jesting Pilate. By then, Huxley had already become famous with the publication of the novels Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves. With his wife, he set out in 1925 on what was then called a World Tour, an around-the-world journey. Jesting Pilate is his account of that journey. At the end of the book, Huxley arrived at some tentative conclusions about travel.
So the journey is over and I am back again where - I started, richer by much experience and poorer by many exploded convictions, many perished certainties. For convictions and certainties are too often the concomitants of ignorance. Of knowledge and experience the fruit is generally doubt. It is a doubt that grows profounder as knowledge more deeply burrows into the underlying mystery, that spreads in exact proportion as experience is widened and the perceptions of the experiencing individual are refined. A fish's convictions, we may be sure, are unshakeable. A dog is as full of certainty as the Veteran Liberal who has held the same opinions for forty years. You might implore a cat, as Cromwell by the bowels of Christ once implored a parliament, to bethink it that it might be mistaken; the beast would never doubt but that it was right.
I set out on my travels knowing, or thinking that I knew, how men should live, how be governed, how educated, what they should believe. I knew which was the best form of social organisation and to what end societies had been created. I had my views on every activity of human life. Now, on my return, I find myself without any of these pleasing certainties. Before I started, you could have asked me almost any question about the human species and I should glibly have returned an answer. Ask a profoundly ignorant man how the electric light works; he finds the question absurdly simple. "You just press the button," he explains. The working electrician would give you a rather more technical account of the matter in terms of currents, resistances, conductivity. But the philosophical physicist would modestly confess his ignorance. Electrical phenomena, he would say, can be described and classified. But as for saying what electricity maybe ... And he would throw up his hands. The better you understand the significance of any question, the more difficult it becomes to answer it. Those who like to feel that they are always right and who attach a high importance to their own opinions should stay at home. When one is travelling, convictions are mislaid as easily as spectacles; but unlike spectacles, they are not easily replaced.
My own losses, as I have said, were numerous. But in compensation for what I lost, I acquired two important new convictions: that it takes all sorts to make a world and that the established spiritual values are fundamentally correct and should be maintained. I call these opinions "new," though both are at least as old as civilisation and though I was fully convinced of their truth before I started. But truths the most ancient, the most habitually believed, maybe endowed for us as the result of new experience with an appearance of apocalyptic novelty. There is all the difference in the world between believing academically, with the intellect, and believing personally, intimately, with the whole living self. A deaf man who had read a book about music might be convinced, theoretically, that Mozart was a good composer. But cure his deafness, take him to listen to the G minor Symphony; his conviction of Mozart's greatness would become something altogether new.
Of the fact that it takes all sorts to make a world I have been aware ever since I could read. But proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them. The newly arrested thief knows that honesty is the best policy with an intensity of conviction which the rest of us can never experience. And to realise that it takes all sorts to make a world one must have seen a certain number of the sorts with one's own eyes. Having seen them and having in this way acquired an intimate realisation of the truth of the proverb, one finds it hard to go on complacently believing that one's own opinions, one's own way of life are alone rational and right. This conviction of man's diversity must find its moral expression in the practice of the completest possible tolerance.
But if travel brings a conviction of human diversity, it brings an equally strong conviction of human unity. It inculcates tolerance, but it also shows what are the limits of possible toleration. Religions and moral codes, forms of government and of society are almost endlessly varied, and each has a right to its separate existence. But a oneness underlies this diversity. All men, whatever their beliefs, their habits, their way of life, have a sense of values. And the values are everywhere and in all kinds of society broadly the same. Goodness, beauty, wisdom and knowledge, with the human possessors of these qualities, the human creators of things and thoughts endowed with them, have always and everywhere been honoured.
Our sense of values is intuitive. There is no proving the real existence of values in any way that will satisfy the logical intellect. Our standards can be demolished by argumentation; but we are nonetheless right to cling to them. Not blindly, of course, not uncritically. Convinced by practical experience of man's diversity, the traveller will not be tempted to cling to his own inherited national standard, as though it were necessarily the only true and unperverted one. He will compare standards; he will search for what is common to all; he will observe the ways in which each standard is perverted, he will try to create a standard of his own that shall be as far as possible free from distortion. In one country, he will perceive the true, fundamental standard is distorted by an excessive emphasising of hierarchic and aristocratic principles; in another by an excess of democracy. Here, too much is made of work and energy for their own sakes; there, too much of mere being. In certain parts of the world he will find spirituality run wild; in others a stupid materialism that would deny the very existence of values. The traveller will observe these various distortions and will create for himself a standard that shall be, as far as possible, free from them — a standard of values that shall be as timeless, as uncontingent on circumstances, as nearly absolute as he can make them. Understanding diversity and allowing for it, he will tolerate, but not without limit. He will distinguish between harmless perversions and those which tend actually to deny or stultify the fundamental values. Towards the first he will be tolerant. There can be no compromise with the second.
In Okinawa, I respectfully presented Huxley's conclusions to my supervisor. I hoped, perhaps a little naively, that it might change his mind about the world, and that he might perhaps exploit it in order to gain something from the irreplaceable experience that the Navy was granting him. In his own defense, he denied that he was closed-minded about other cultures, but that everything he had learned from his experience, which he knew was impossible to refute, had confirmed what he suspected from the beginning - that he was supremely lucky to have been born an American, and that it was cause for celebration, not skepticism.
I had to agree with him that being born in America was an extreme stroke of luck, given the alternative of being born in so many of the places in which we disembarked. But such luck has not prevented me from becoming an expatriate, a transplanted American. My Americanness is something that I cherish, and that is impossible for me to hide, even if I could be mistaken for an Aussie, a German, a Swede, or any of the other expats who call the Philippines their home away from home. When we encounter one another in the street, all that is necessary for us to acknowledge our shared enthusiasms is a nod or a smile, in which volumes of astonishment are encapsulated.