POSTSCRIPT: CITIZENS OF THE COSMOS

THE DOOR TO LIZY’S ROOM IN THE VALLEY

THE DOOR TO LIZY’S ROOM IN THE VALLEY

While writing the essay “Urban Terroir” (see Common Place No. 2) I started reading David Cacey’s interviews with Ivan Illich, a Croatian who grew up in the “fat tail” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A J.M. Coetzee review of the work of Italo Svevo (in Coetzee’s Inner Workings (1)) describes how Svevo, a native of Trieste, benefited from the cosmopolitan nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That rich culture of difference fell apart after World War I, but Illich absorbed it nonetheless, becoming in effect a citizen of the cosmos. Reading Coetzee on Svevo gave me a new appreciation for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is usually dismissed as impotent in the face of everything that confronted it. Yes, probably so, but then that “everything” has proven diabolic. Life was manifestly better for citizens of the cosmos. It being dead, we’ll have to reinvent it—not as an Empire so much as a state of mind.

The valley where Lizy lived is in the orbit of the market and tourist towns that surround it, and connected to the wider world by wireless as well as by mail (delivered to Órgiva). A naturalist like Julio Donat is able to write and publish his book on the medicinal plants of the region locally, and to lead tours that draw people from England and elsewhere. He subsists on the infusions he sells in local markets, and on the income he derives from the spare room attached to his small house. Everyone in the valley who doesn’t have an outside income raises their own vegetables. It’s a way of life that was lived by Lizy’s grandfather on the outskirts of Miami in the 1930s, when he and his brothers made what cash the family had delivering newspapers, everything else being raised, hunted, or fished.

At a conference on future metropolitan regions held at U.C. Berkeley in 2005, the landscape architect Randy Hester said in passing that “government “should limit itself to regions and neighborhoods—focus on them, and everything else will take care of itself.” While recognizing the utopian and also flippant nature of the comment, I think it’s true. Regions are typically defined by their ecosystems, while neighborhoods are defined by clusters of people who identity with them and with each other. A city is more arbitrarily defined, and its interests are often at odds with the region and with its neighborhoods. Cities will deliberately harm the ecosystem in the name of short-term interests. Regions, especially if environmental stewardship is their main responsibility, have a harder time doing so. Neighborhoods, like families, are conservative when it comes to disregarding their own traditions. And yet, like families, they can be remarkably, contradictorily cosmopolitan when they see an evolutionary reason to do so.

Just as, in a marriage that breaks with racial or cultural taboos, the appearance of children mends the generational rift, regionally-beneficent changes to the fabric of a neighborhood that the neighbors themselves interpret as a favorable evolution will do much more to transform it in the long run than an intervention that bypasses the steps that make this possible. These changes attract favor, not exactly by fitting in, although that’s part of it, but by opening a door to the future that invites people in. Much of what is presented to us as the putative future has an “eat your spinach” quality. Cities nag and scold. Meanwhile, their own hypocrisies are too much in evidence for them to hold much moral authority.

Despite its primitive character, Alpujarra is a product of successive civilizations—the generations of people that terraced the land and then built the elaborate system of channels that brings fresh water to every valley from the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Civilizations come and go, but what is valued regionally is preserved, maintained, and extended locally. Cities once had the knack. The church near where we stayed in Granada, a former mosque adapted to the new order, is an example.

When Lizy was in Berkeley last summer, we talked about the relative “simplicity” of life here. I put the word in quotes because it’s a byproduct of affluence, reflecting how the urban affluent organize their days. In the valley, much more time is spent “subsisting,” but there is still time for reflection. It is possible for a naturalist like Julio Donat to pursue the kind of program of local knowledge that Thoreau pursued in Concord, cataloguing what it in front of him and understanding and documenting its value. This happens here, too, of course, but the connection between nature and naturalist is more tenuous. To put it another way, we don’t think of someone consciously coming to a place in order to master its secrets and then put them to work in a pragmatic manner. There are people who do this, but how often do we encounter them? Thoreau is the great American example, steadily setting his sights on Concord, but without provincialism, the world being alive in Concord, and Concord in turn being alive to the world—at the epicenter, actually, of our nascent, transatlantic culture, its tendrils reaching out to Asia.

A while ago, I started reading Reflexions, a memoir by Richard Olney(2), a chef and writer on food and wine who ended his days living on a hillside in the French countryside, “letting the world come to him.” In his case, the tendrils extended across the Atlantic, an admiring network of friends, colleagues, and readers. Planted in the country, Olney remains cosmopolitan. This is also true of Julio Donat, I believe. Born and educated in Madrid, he’s comfortable enough in both settings to move between them easily although he chooses to live in one place, not the other. Being a citizen of the cosmos demands this. —John Parman

Notes:

1. J.M. Coetzee: “Italo Svevo,” in Inner Workings, Literary Essays 2000-2005, Penguin, 2007, pages 1–14
2. Richard Olney: Reflexions, Brick Tower Press, 2005

THE VALLEY FROM LIZY'S FRONT PORCH

THE VALLEY FROM LIZY’S FRONT PORCH

Photos of Alpujarra and Granada by John Parman.

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)
Website: http://complace.j2parman.com
Contact: j2parman@yahoo.com

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