My Corner of the Ethnosphere

Wade Davis from the National Geographic is an inspiration.  He says that humanity’s greatest legacy is the “ethnosphere,” the cultural counterpart to the biosphere and “the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, myths, ideas, inspiration, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.”

An indicator that this richness of culture is dying out is the demise of languages, for “every language is an old-growth of the mind.” (see TED profile) This is very similar to what Goethe said about languages,

“Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” – Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen; II.; Nr. 23, 91

“If you know no foreign language, you do not know your own,” (my translation)

This can be applied as readily to culture.  A person who only knows his or her own culture, has nothing to compare it with.  I must point out, however, that Goethe’s quote does go beyond Davis’ by encouraging the individual to explore a world that will challenge his or her unquestioned beliefs.

Of course, the pictures that Davis presents along with his explanations are from all corners of the globe, from the Tibetans high in the Himalayas, to the Indian tribes of the Sierra Nevadas, to the Zombies of Haiti, but cultural gems may be lost in even our own, native cultures.  For, to put it simply, as soon as one idea is trumpeted as the one and only answer, all other questions are dismissed.  In our internationally commercialized, post-industrial culture one such answer is empiricism.  It is the belief that our senses provide us with all the information necessary to understand the world.  Another such answer is logic, be it inductive or deductive reasoning.  Don’t these answers dismiss too many questions?  What about our dreams, the far reaches of our minds and spirits, or the beauty of an awesome landscape?  These things have been dismissed as flights of imagination or entertainment, while science continues to give us the fruits of progress, but even in the most scientific and progressive of nations, has not another, spiritual heart been forgotten or at least hidden deep in the past like a skeleton in the closet?

Here in Japan, I see exactly that phenomenon in the people’s ignorance about their country’s legends and myths.  The gods are confined to their shrines, where they can be approached when convention necessitates it at births, weddings, and the New Year.  The gods strength to connect the people with their landscape is forgotten as the landscape is molded to conform with logical and scientific progress.  Alex Kerr speaks plenty on the subject of concrete riverbeds and mountainsides.  But what is lost is more than a rich biosphere, but a rich state of spiritual being.

You may say, “Myths can’t be true!  They are fabricated stories from a distant, uneducated past.” You must admit, however, that in many cases a logical explanation falls short of a metaphorical story. Think only of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and you may see my point.  Myths are stories containing the most valuable kernels of human insight that have been passed down through generations over the centuries.  Admittedly, stories need the context of their culture.  They need a listener who can translate their kernel of insight into a tool that helps decipher what it means to be human.

In Japan, the culture that created Noh has disappeared, and the people who understand the insight of its stories are few.  A Noh performance has become the most luxurious opportunity for a nap, and some say even the performers simply act their part without knowing its meaning.  What will it take for listeners to be able to understand the cultural code of Noh?  To anyone who reads this post, I would like to hear from you.  How can you make one culture intelligible to another?  Is it even possible, or will the other culture be interpreted in terms of the primary culture?  If it is possible to understand another culture on its own terms, how long does it take?  Is there any way to compress the time needed so that the culture’s pearls of wisdom can be communicated more widely?  Please tell me what you think.