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Monday, November 5, 2012

For all the gypsies of this world

I am rereading, bit by bit, The Natural History of Selborne by the reverend Gilbert White (as rumour has it, the fourth most published book in English after Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Oxford Dictionary). Published in 1789, it looks at nature with the eye of a curious nature lover who, with the knowledge of his time, tries to find out about plants, birds and the universe.

Letter XXIV to the honourable Daines Barrington is about the "wonderful spirit of sociality" as observed between animals such as birds, horses, and even as observed between a particular horse and a particular hen. Letter XXVI is about a "very simple piece of domestic economy": how to make torches of the rush plant, a cheap replacement of candles. The intermediate Letter XXV  is written on October 2, 1775, and is about gypsies. It starts thus: "Dear Sir, We have two gangs or hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England, and come round in their circuit two or three times a year".

A usual opening - Letter XVIII, for example starts: "Dear Sir, The house-swallow, or chimney-swallow, is undoubtedly the first comer of all the British hirundines; and appears in general on or about the thirteenth of April, as I have remarked from many years' observation." The gypsy as a regular returning animal, fit to take its place in a natural history. We know how it was. We know the descriptions of Africans by early colonists as animals rather than as human beings. I now read Malinowsky's "Argonauts of the Western Pacific", writing in the early 1930s about the "savages" from the Trobriand Isles; with love, and definitely seeing them as fellow-humans, but still.

Of course, we are much wiser now; or hope we are. But somewhere deep down it is still very hard to look at other people as if they were you. I was reminded of this when recently I saw on Facebook a message on a music night by local schlager singers - with the comment "Hahaha, look at those artists!".

Yes, look at those artists. And try to see ordinary people who love singing, who love to sing for other people, who have fun doing that, and who maybe even secretly hope for a bit of fame. Try to figure out why - try to get away from the all-too-easy early judgments, try to keep in mind the "what the hell is going on here"-question of Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist who also said that the main point of that question is to “enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way”.

I try to formulate as careful as I can here, and do not want to point fingers; I am no better than anyone, and must again and again remind myself about the "you-ness" of all those others around me - all those others, often close and often strange, often loved and often hated. All I try to say is that it might be worth a try to aim for not closing down prematurely the possibility of "intelligible discourse between people".

Even if you're not an anthropologist.

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