As so often when I'm gearing up for a somewhat lengthy trip abroad, the mundane practical preparations (yikes, where IS my passport?) are interspersed with thoughts of what I'm looking forward to and what I'll miss, those more philosophical musings on the meanings of "home," "place" and "belonging." Back in the mid 1990s, when I was spending as much time if not more traveling and working outside of the U.S. than at one of the various locations I then called "home," I recall sitting on a trans-Atlantic flight and reading a recent publication by one of my favorite authors in which he had excerpted a portion of a quotation that not only provided a "Eureka!" moment but also has proven to be an enduring touchstone in my life. The quotation in full:
All the world is a foreign soil to those who philosophize. However, as a certain poet says:Some thoughts, then, after the fold...
I know not by what sweetness native soil attracts a man,
and suffers not that he should ever forget. (Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 1.3.35-6)
It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be possible to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant's hut, and I know too how frankly it afterwards disdains marble firesides and panelled halls.
(Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon 3.19)
I'll admit to some surprise, perhaps chagrin, that this comment from a twelfth-century monk whose views on religion are so distant from mine continues to resonate as strongly as it does. Yet to the extent that the later Chapters in Book 3 of the Didascalicon enumerate (quite eloquently, in my opinion) the attributes Hugh views as essential for a student, we can in some sense separate the object of study from the method and replace Hugh's "Divine Wisdom" with the more generic, secular object of knowledge of the world and our place—as individuals, as communities and as a global collective—within it.
Most of Hugh's list of attributes is straightforward (Ch. 11-18): an aptitude for reading and contemplation, a good memory, discipline, humility, eagerness to inquire, quietude, scrutiny and parsimony. The ultimate entry on the list, that which is quoted above, is headed "On a Foreign Soil" and it is clearly more than a proposition that one should study at a school distant from home. It is, in the end, a profound statement of the necessity of exile, dislocation, loss and longing as a means to shrug off the prejudices of provincialism and thereby work toward knowledge of the broader human condition.
Allow me, if you will, to parse Hugh's comment and attempt to articulate some thoughts on the admittedly paradoxical desirabilty of dislocation.
It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be possible to leave them behind altogether.Travel—perhaps especially now with the burdensome fees and nuisances of additional baggage—is always an opportunity to evaluate what is essential and what is important. On a purely practical level, I've become a stark minimalist over the years and somewhat jokingly describe to friends my “golden rule” for packing as follows: never pack more than you can run with. Yet Hugh is obviously speaking to a more fundamental assessment of “visible and transitory things.” As we survey our lives and possessions, what are those things that we can manage without, can ultimately “leave behind altogether”? Is it necessary to take the thing itself, or will the memory of the thing suffice? Might the easy comfort afforded by the thing actually hinder experiencing something revelatory? Might one learn from having to find novel means to acquire such comfort, and might one even arrive at a reevaluation of its necessity? One need not be a Luddite, nor should one likely travel with but one pair of skivvies, but I've personally found that my list of “essentials” has winnowed over the years and that I have come to value not only the experience of replacing comforts locally but also, and more significantly, the experience of being less and less troubled if no replacement can be found.
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.For Hugh, and this is the deep lesson I take from his comments, a true commitment to experience “the new” is part of a process through which one can ultimately stand apart and cast a critical eye over “the old.” The tender beginner holds a naïve attachment to the place called home and likely a deeply-held correspondent belief in its exceptionalism. With experience, one may bit-by-bit transcend those visible and transitory attachments, slowly shed provincial prejudices and work toward an appreciation for the global human experience. Hugh's construct of the perfect man (we'll forgive him, I think, the gendered language) is one whose experiences of other places, people, cultures and lifeways have culminated in a radical personal dislocation and the realization that much of the sweetness of home—certainly the sweet attachments to material things, but also the naïve embrace of the dogmatic statements wielded to distinguish “us” from “them”—is illusory.
The goal, I think, is the ability to comprehend the global picture, prioritize the struggles and assess what you would both save and surrender. Me? I'm still learning, still struggling with Blake's “mind-forg'd manacles,” still attempting to answer for myself the immensely difficult questions of what to keep and what to lose. What's abundantly clear, however, is that true progress will necessitate loss.