Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Countryside and Self

"Only the modern city offers the mind a field in which it can become aware of itself."
-Mr. Hegel

Ran across this quotation (in the Myth of Sisyphus) while I was in the complete opposite of the modern city: the Mongolian countryside. A number of other quotations and ideas sprang to mind which seemed to justify Hegel's position:

1) Heidegger's idea of Dasein. A large part of our existence, (indeed most of it) is spent doing "tasks": laundry, dishes, paperwork, etc. When doing these "tasks" we usually aren't reflecting on the task, rather we are "in" the "task". For example, if we are mopping, we are considering things like the length of the mop, size of the floor, condition of the mop water, etc. We see the mop as a tool used to complete the task and don't ask ourselves metaphysical questions about the mop like: what is the essence of a mop? In the countryside I observed plenty of this form of Dasein. People milking goats, boiling milk, chopping wood, gathering dung, etc. Completely absorbed in their tasks, unaware of their "selves". In the city, nearly every task that I observed in the countryside is done by someone else, somewhere else, allowing more time for contemplation/reflection. [Unrelated note: potential definition of tourism: "observing Dasein"?]

2) Going to combine similar ideas from Goedel, Escher, Bach and Sartre here: other people are essential in creating the "self". Our identity is created (mostly or completely) via our interactions with others: someone tells us that we have x quality, y talent, or z characteristic. Through these interactions we observe others and our own reactions and come to see patterns of behavior. The number of varied encounters, experiences, and opinions that one can gather are limited in the countryside where you will likely see the same 10 (or fewer) people for months at a time. An obvious contrast with city life where, if only for work and the acquisition of daily needs one interacts with a large number of people and is constantly meeting new people.

3) On a similar theme, a Wilde quotation will suffice:

"My dear boy," said Lord Henry, smiling "anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate."

While perhaps a bit harsh and obviously exaggerated, the point is that, from the limited number of people with whom one can interact arises a limited number of experiences and thus decision making both of which help create the "self".

4) One can't leave out Ferdinand Toennies in a discussion like this. The Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction allows for the individuation of the self which arises from awareness of the self in the first place.

The distinction between the city and country is quickly blurring even here. A perfect example is the ger-dwelling family in my yard. In order to be with their children during the school year they move their ger to Bayankhongor. As soon as school is over it's back to the countryside, allowing them time in both spheres. This distinction is also relativistic. Take for example the UB-dweller I met recently who considers Bayankhongor to be "countryside". Or, from the countryside dweller's perspective: usually three or four families live relatively close to each other. This group of usually three or four gers is called: a city.

1 comment:

Triple said...


good writing. I like it.