“The England that awaits the young Mundy is a rain-swept cemetery for the living dead powered by a forty-watt bulb.”
Many people my age feel a lack of a sense of place. Our identity is much more malleable than our predecessors’. Sociologists remark that it is partially because our society offers so much choice. We google. We can travel the world in speed without having time to reflect on the rapid changes in culture and social mores around us. We are becoming global citizens because, as the cliché goes, the global is now local.
This experience is amplified for people who have spent significant amounts of time abroad. It is also amplified for migrants and asylum seekers. But others too feel this need. When things change around us, we often experience a tension that can be uncomfortable. We have a view of reality, a creed or political allegiance, religion, a story that helps us explain our place in the universe and our role as humans. This is how we deal with the flux of late modernity. But loyalty to these stabilizers change over time. External factors influence our view of the world and yet some things stay the same. It is in this tension that a true part of our modern self is revealed. It will not settle there, but it is revealed.
John le Carré, the acclaimed author of spy fiction, is not necessarily known for his articulation of how our loyalties to the narratives that shape our identity, affect how his characters relate to the story that he tells. But he has written some stunning prose on the subjects of loyalty, belonging and the humane within battles over ideology.
In his, Absolute Friends he tries to resolves the problem of the modern self though the motif of friendship. Loyalty to a person rather than an ideology. Here we read the story of the life of a man born in Pakistan, to a mother he does not know (though we find out later she is Irish) and a British military father, returning from life as a son of the Empire, weathered under the heat of the equatorial sun to a dreary and wet England.
After entering boarding school, where he encounters the usual terrors of cultural re-entry he becomes friends with a teacher and fellow refugee. In a conversation touching on identity, we hear Dr Mandelbaum say: “Today we are both refugees. For as long as mankind is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.”
Mandelbaum places the sunny equator of belonging in the identity of a person’s moral character: “Maybe all good people in the world are refugees”, who do not belong because mankind is in chains. And still the good Doctor says: “We cannot live in a bubble, Mr Mundy. Comfortable ignorance is not a solution. In Germany, students’ societies that I was not permitted to join, they made a toast: ‘Better to be a salamander, and live in the fire.”
Le Carré goes on: “Yet while the oppression Mundy suffers at the hands of his jailers entrenched his loathing of them, he cannot dodge the curse of their acceptance. His real enemy was his own good heartedness and his inextinguishable need to belong.”
As a Christian living in the world, the curse of the modern self, that tension of identity and displacement means nothing less than trying to be a salamander. It is better to thrive as a salamander in the fire, than to lose the heat from the equatorial sun. Utopia is sometimes as grey as England.
You can read a longer version of this piece on Lauri’s blog.