In the 21st century, what is the appeal of the East to a Westerner? I was thinking about this the other day while walking around the sea town of Akko, Israel. Reagan and I had arrived to the Old City in the late afternoon and come face to face with beautiful stone walls built right into the Mediterranean; parapets and a promenade, a small harbor, brave boys jumping off of battlements into rolling waves, fishermen, boats, waterside restaurants.
In Hebrew the name Akko means “Up to here and no further.” Some take this as a reference to God giving boundaries to the waters in the Genesis creation poem. In French the name is Acre. The city’s founding dates back to 3000BC of the early Bronze Age, and it has had many encounters with the West in its long history: Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Crusaders, Napoleon’s armies, the British, and now tourists the world over.
But there were not as many tourists in Akko as I had expected. As far as Israel goes, it’s off the beaten path. Most visitors and pilgrims limit their short visits to Jerusalem and its holy sites; Galilee if they’re adventurous; the Dead Sea to get photos with the mud or reading a newspaper in the water; and then maybe Petra in Jordan.
Unless you have a special craving for modern art, third wave cafes, and white beaches, you will probably avoid Tel Aviv and Haifa as less holy parts of the Holy Land.
We are here for a while though, so we found ourselves in Akko and I just couldn’t shut up about the Old City. I think that one of the reasons I loved it so much was that it had few, if any, touches of foreign adulteration. The hotels—which really had to be bed and breakfasts—had only small signs announcing their presence to the streets. Each cafe along the main promenade facing West seemed as if it had been cobbled together to fit its space. No new architects had been involved here to custom build along the lines of the latest fashion. No, there was a shape to this little corner of the holy world and these people made themselves conform to what they had inherited, and not the other way around.
I write all of this from a point of view, the American point of view. Being an American, the same as anyone else from any other culture or place, I am incapable of ever holding another point of view as naturally as the one I was born into—though I may get close. Of course, while I can entertain other points of view in my mind as guests—and even broaden my understanding of the world and myself—my home and native perspective is always deeply and fundamentally the one I was raised with and surrounded by; the one that shaped the core program of my outlook on the world. This perspective I call A View From Somewhere.
So when we are Somewhere—in a place we call home—there are certain markings and identifiers that set the place we are in apart from other places. These identifiers are usually cultural: Architecture, language, religion, philosophy, art, governance, music, food and drink, division of time: festivals and holidays, rites of passage (birth, manhood/womanhood, marriage, death); manners, mores, customs, clothing. The list could continue. But, historically speaking, all of these things have played a role in letting people build and sort out the places that are theirs; the ways in which they turn an Anywhere into a Somewhere.
You could be wandering through a desert you didn’t know the dimensions of, and if during all your wandering nothing changed in the landscape, just endless waves of sand, you could always be Anywhere in that desert and not know the difference; floating around in an ocean of nothingness. But insert an oasis into that nothingness and all of a sudden there is a difference among the waves, something you can name, call it Somewhere.
In the West it seems that we have been doing everything in our power to sever ourselves from the cultural and historical identifiers that allow us to call our Somewhere home; shared cultural markers that allow us to call ourselves an us, or a pre-political “We” as Roger Scruton puts it.
Take Modern architecture, starting with the Bauhaus school, which decided to start “from zero” and erase all architectural connection to Western history such that when you see a building in the modern style you cannot tell where exactly that building is from—what country, what culture—because it is not meant to be from Somewhere, but rather Anywhere—which really means Nowhere.
We could debate the aesthetic merits of Modern architecture and its glass and steel boxes reflecting nothing but the sky, feigning non-existence, with no faces or decorations, exhibiting zero hierarchical order, even in the front and back orifices they call doors. But the cultural erosion that is enacted by these buildings is something that I don’t think can be denied.
Next to architecture we have been hard at work eroding our religious sentiments as well, doubting and seeing through everything until all that’s left is a view of nothing. The price of killing God being an unfillable void. With the erosion of religious beliefs comes the desacralization of man and his place in the world; and thus an abandonment of the things that set him apart on his passage through life. Birth is optional and parenthood denigrated, manhood and womanhood are put off indefinitely, marriage is looked on as archaic and backward, all religious and national holidays are seen as farces with questionable histories that offend our current popular sentiments. In their places we have filled our year with so many national days of X that now none are holy or set apart.
And clothing is an interesting one. In the East, how you dress says a lot about your religious affiliation, where in the West, how you dress says a lot about your philosophical outlook, and what you’ve sacrificed to attain your position in the social hierarchy—which could be construed as religious as well—Epicurean, Stoic, Cynic, or some mix of the three basic philosophical colors.
The treatments go on, but I don’t want to tire you, and I have a point to make. Once you see the pattern you can apply it to any cultural question.
So what is the Westerner to do when every centimeter of his home is contested space? He retreats to less contested space; this is why I think the East has its appeal.
While we in the West have been busy blowing up all the cultural markers of our home,—all the things that make it a Somewhere—thinking that somehow this vandalization will actualize each of us, only instead finding that we are quickly becoming, if not already, culturally homeless; People in the East still have most of their cultural markers intact. And this is not to somehow glorify them unreservedly. The West does not have a monopoly on human folly; the East has its problems too. But it seems that the group-actualization of the East acts as a cohesive element that helps them withstand the negative aspects of Western individualism, ideas, commerce, architecture, etc.
So I’m in Akko and I’m reflecting on the city and the ocean and its history and Napoleon. And I realize that the thing in my being that must appreciate this old city so much is that it is a place that is Somewhere. The people build with stone, their arches are part of a long tradition, they divide the year according to religions that they may not fully understand but that they nonetheless accept as valuable guides for life and flourishing. They are not at war with themselves, trying to erase their own existence or significance from the Earth. And all of this creates an atmosphere and feeling of immense peace and calm. Just like an oasis that tells the chaos of desert that it can come to its border and no further, Akko’s harbor tells the world: Here and no further. And I sense that because everything I’m surrounded by tells the same story, that I’m not in the Anywhere of the West but in the Somewhere of the East. And for the time being I relish the nourishment that these surroundings give to me. I stock up before I head West again like all explorers who wander and trade and seek their dreams. ☗
UPDATE: Since the writing of this essay I have come across a paragraph by Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and His Emissary, that, more or less, states the thesis of my reflections on Akko.
I have seen references to Kant and Thomas Nagel discussing the God’s eye “view from nowhere.” But alas, for my “view from somewhere,” there is nothing new under the sun. Though, I am happy and encouraged to be on the same track as a giant and learned man such as McGilchrist.