I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:
“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”
This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.
But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost sight of this fact in our preoccupation with the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.
We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.
In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:
“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”