Too Many Sciapods: Europe, Migration and the Other

by Horatio Morpurgo

Peter Mason, The Ways of the World: European Representations of Other Cultures from Homer to Sade Sean Kingston Publishing 234pp £55.00 ISBN 9781907774362

I am buying tickets in the entrance hall to an Italian museum, when a stranger appears at my side, asking if I will buy him one, too. He looks North African but he has been here a while: his Italian is fluent. He has no money, he explains. He is 20 perhaps, in a baseball cap, shorts and flip-flops.

Stalling, I ask why. He looks puzzled. Why does he want to go in? I ask, conscious that I’m sounding more hostile than I feel. To go up the tower, he says. When I again hesitate, he appeals to the people behind me. They say nothing, so he turns back to me. Their silence has elected me spokesman for the queue. I repeat that I understand his question and repeat my own, stuck with it now though liking it no better than before: why does he want to go up the tower?

He gets it. He says nothing but puts his hand over his heart. I get it too, and buy him the ticket. Thanking me, he walks to the entrance.

Why, I am left wondering, did I hesitate? Because his approach felt like a routine, a little too well rehearsed? To demonstrate to the rest of the queue that I was nobody’s fool? To demonstrate that ‘we’ none of us were? Or because for a moment I saw myself as the next day’s newspapers might – as the dupe who let in the trickster, the thief, the terrorist?

And what was it overcame that initial impulse? Embarrassment that I had money and he did not? Yes. That, ambushed in this way, my instincts had proved less than 100% multi-culti? That, too. His appeal to the heart? Irritation at finding myself as much the plaything of media-stereotyping as anyone? Plenty went into my purchase of that ticket. There was his assurance, too, that he had as self-evident a right to this place as any sightseer. Might not that assurance, I later reflected, have been closer in spirit to the original purpose of that place than my own relation to it, patiently queuing, cash in hand?

Siena’s Palazzo Publicco, together with its Piazza del Campo, are admired by town planners and architects the world over as one of the great public spaces. Situated where the three hills which make up the city meet, its inclined and curving form is reminiscent of an amphitheatre. ‘The square is astonishing, like a shell,’ the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote of the place in his journal. Public meetings, preaching, festivities – and executions – all took place here.

Inside the palazzo is the Hall of Peace, home to a famous fresco in which good and bad government are allegorised. The figure of Ben Comun, or the Common Good, sits throned at the centre of the scene representing Good Government, flanked by six Virtues. This, also, is what visitors queue for in their hundreds of thousands every summer. The best-known fresco, ‘The Well Governed City,’ presents the life of a bustling city in which trades flourish, knowledge is prized and the surrounding countryside is well tended.

Trade between China and medieval Italy was at its height in the decades after the journeys of Marco Polo, when Siena’s Palazzo Publicco as we see it today was created. It has often been suggested that the landscape in its frescos shows signs of having been influenced by contact with Far Eastern art. Justice presides over this vision: ‘the Nine,’ who administered the Commune from this ‘Hall of Peace,’ consistently favoured policies which made citizens more equal and ‘shaved the over-mighty,’ through tax and other means. No private building, for example, was permitted to rise above the Torre del Mangia, the tower of the Palazzo Publicco, which my guest wanted to climb. In other words, this space was designed to embody the principle that the common good transcended any private interest.

Even as that fresco was being painted, in the 1340s, the future of this system of government was in grave danger. The landscape on the opposite wall, representing ‘The Ill-Governed City,’ shows a desolate war-torn scene to which, it has been said, the closest modern parallel is the scorched heathland and Paul Celan quotations of Anselm Kiefer. But whatever later befell this city, the imagery and architecture of an ideal would stand always before it. What was and is dramatised by that ensemble of paintings and buildings and open space was, and remains, the question of human community, of who ‘we’ are, and how we should regulate our shared life.

Yet how warily, how wearily our Europe and migration debates, so-called, step around such questions. Minds shall be made up in a ‘common sense’ response to ‘objective’ reporting. In practise, this means that the focus groups, with their factoids and freshly minted catch phrases, shall conduct the discussion for us. Every morning a new ‘acid test.’ Factoids, factoids, factoids. But above all, figures.

It is of course ‘figures’, in the evening news sense of the term, that ground us in the real, not ‘figures’ in the sense of those paintings. Migration figures, especially. Sums paid in as contributions to Brussels, or paid out as in-work benefits, also. But our insistence on these ‘figures,’ rather than those, also means, implicitly, that Europe’s many and various experiments with community, shall play no part in this. Architecture, say, no matter how suggestive in this regard, is ruled inadmissible from the outset. Ben Commun enthroned?! No, what Siena and its Palazzo Publicco means is having enough money to fly there, buy an entrance ticket, go up the tower or look at the pictures then have a coffee afterwards. Some migrant kid might know better than that, but never mind what he knows.

And then you stumble upon a book like Peter Mason’s Ways of the World. It is only the most recent of several books by him on a related theme. Yet nothing could be more timely than this exploration of Europe’s relationship with the non-European, from Homer to Sade. Mason traces the origins of our deep-seated ambivalence about the non-European, as others have, to the way the Greeks defined themselves over against whoever it might be – the Persians or Scythians, the Ethiopians or Indians. But in his book we are plunged into visual representations of the stranger, into a world of monster humans. The Cyclops is perhaps the archetypal stranger-barbarian, living isolated, in caves, without law. But the Cyclopses were only one monster race among many.

The ‘peripheries’ of the ancient world teemed with dog-headed men and cannibals. When Othello claims to have encountered, on his travels, ‘men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,’ he is repeating a claim first made by Herodotus. One tropical race of humans, the ‘sciapods,’ shuffled around on their backs, being possessed of only one foot, massively over-developed, which they deployed as a kind of parasol.

After the Greeks it was of course the turn of the Romans to ‘see’ all of these on their travels. So the men with tails which Columbus ‘saw’ in what we now call the Caribbean confirmed that he had reached Asia. Pliny had told him Asia was home to such people. QED. Much of the ‘communication’ during ‘first contact,’ Mason argues, was ‘in effect a European monologue,’ with the visitors seldom noticing anything which did not confirm the ideas they had arrived with.

On Mason’s reading, first contact was so heavily conditioned by the assumptions Europeans brought with them that its true nature becomes deeply mysterious. Granted, it is not by Herodotus or Pliny that our own world is haunted, but we might usefully ask what it is haunted by. Its representation of strangers is certainly as far from rational as it ever was. Mason’s case is that Europeans, in their haste to be blaming, or praising, or civilising, hardly saw or heard non-European peoples at all. How clearly do we see them now? The folklore we have, each of us, internalised, locates the migrant somewhere on a spectrum from exotic treat to compassion-object, from financial burden to con-artist, and thence to cultural threat and / or terror suspect.

16th-century Europeans also struggled to see beyond the ‘common sense’ of their own day. We can see they were struggling with an unprecedented situation for which they had no language, hence their ‘re-discovery’ of that hallucinogenic menagerie their forefathers had imagined. And this is the struggle which interests Mason. It might surely interest us, too, in the midst of our own ‘unprecedented situation.’

Mason’s purpose is ‘to achieve more precision in looking at alterity.’ This monstering of strangers never was the only response. Alexander the Great took intellectuals with him, to study the civilisations they encountered. One of these, Pyrrho, reacted to the un-familiar cultures around him by calling into question the ‘ego-centric’ perceptions of his own. He is considered by some to have been the only ancient writer directly influenced by contact with Indian thinkers. Stoics and Cynics also cultivated forms of identification with the stranger.

Pyrrho’s writings were taken up five centuries later by one Sextus Empiricus, from whose name our word ‘empirical’ is derived. Empiricus observed, in the 2nd century AD, how attitudes to homosexuality, say, were obviously culturally determined. In his discussion of such matters, he aimed to induce ‘suspension of judgement’ in his reader. To engage with an unfamiliar culture, he suggests, involves a moral commitment. His philosophy, named Pyrrhonism after its founder, was taken up again during the Renaissance, most famously by Michel de Montaigne. What Montaigne admired in the Pyrrhonians was their ataraxia, the ‘calm, stable rule of life’ by which they ‘free themselves from passionate sectarianism . . . their disputes are mild affairs and they are never afraid of the other side having its say.’

Columbus, in other words, might see himself as an instrument of divine providence, or, as Mason puts it, ‘direct observation seems to have been one of the last of his priorities.’ But his ‘civilising offensive’ was never the only approach. Just as Pyrrho and Empiricus had sought to do justice to culture shock in the ancient world, so Montaigne and others attempted the same as our own age dawned. Bartolomé de Las Casas and Ginés de Sepulveda famously clashed in Valladoid, New Spain, in 1551, in a debate over whether native Americans were fully human. But some such debate is already implied by the earliest accounts of ‘first contact’: they have no kings, they have no clothes, they have no God, they have no laws. Unsaid: that lack is what they are.

They have no respect for our way of life. They don’t know the language. They have no money. No manners. Nowhere to stay. No job. No paperwork. That is what they are. ‘What I liked in anthropology was . . . its relentless definition of man . . . in terms of what he is not.’ It is with these words from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy that Mason opens his book, starting a hare which darts in and out of his argument.

The more ‘ego-centric’ your perception of the stranger, the more you define him or her in terms of what he is not or does not have. But this approach, too, we find, was contested from the start. In Valladoid, Bartolomé de Las Casas proved a bitter critic of Spain’s policies in the New World. And his more generous account of its native peoples persuaded many, from Montaigne to The Tempest’s Gonzalo, to Levi-Strauss and Le Corbusier.

Columbus’s attempts to engage in ‘direct observation’ may not have amounted to much. But as we’ll see, others tried harder. Some still do. Aid workers observe that it takes about six months for a migrant or refugee camp to begin taking on the appearance of a town. That ‘we’ choose to call the camp in Calais a ‘Jungle’ says much more about ‘us’ than it.

The visitor there will be surprised by many things. What surprised this one above all was a discussion I kept getting into. Reaching England, for example, barely figured as a topic of conversation. Minds were focussed, rather (this was February) on how the ‘residents’ might respond to the imminent demolition of a large part of the camp.

The council of community leaders, set up several months earlier, was a success of which many were proud. One Afghan I spoke to, who had also set up a library in the camp, saw this ‘civility’ between the different peoples there as the camp’s real achievement, as a working example, even, of how Europe itself might be responding. An English member of that council, Tom Radcliffe, told me about it in the (since demolished) Kabul Cafe. He had been living in the camp for six months and was then organising the legal challenge to further demolitions.

But for Radcliffe, the migrant camps at Calais and elsewhere are centrally a test of who Europeans are:

The reasons these people are here are not going away. Wars, poverty, oppressive regimes. Of course they will bulldoze this camp. They’ve been bulldozing ‘Jungles’ for 20 years. But what we really need to do is think deeply about an alternative to European governance as it presently works.

For the moment we have, on the one hand, the official solution to this: container camps. In effect, prisons. But these people are not criminals. On the other hand, we have this – a shanty town – beginning to function, because human beings naturally form communities . . . Why can’t we combine the security, the solidity of the container camps, with the creativity of the shanty town? Why, in six months, has not one single official from the French government come to ask these people why they are here?

Might Europe not respond, in other words, in ways that are based on direct observation of who the migrants actually are? ‘This place has changed people,’ he went on, speaking of the many Europeans who, like him, came to hand out sleeping bags and stayed. ‘What this place gives you is the refugee’s eye view. We can see Europe’s wealth, its vanity. We can hear its words about liberty and democracy. Right back to the Greeks we have said these things... ’

To hear this from an organiser in the camp, whilst reading Mason’s book, was to be startled by this point of reference shared by the scholar and the indignant activist. ‘The Greeks,’ in fact, as we’ve seen, disagreed about what to infer from the foreigner. Might it not be as much in our arguing, as in our monstering, that we are closest to them? Mason’s most intriguing case-study for this conflict is his account of Adriaen Coenen, ‘the humble Dutch beachcomber.’ A fisherman, auctioneer and tireless autodidact, Coenen never left Europe, but observed sympathetically and questioned as far as he was able the Eskimos brought back to the Hague, just as others were brought back to Bristol.

Coenen’s astonishing Fish Book (1580) is not, Mason shows, only about fish, and neither is it the exuberant jumble of folklore and doubtful reportage it might at first seem. Certainly Coenen’s monster humans are derived from ancient prototypes and he would probably not have been aware of that. But Coenen’s very lack of a formal education, Mason argues, may offer us a window on how 16th-century Europe’s ‘unprecedented situation’ was negotiated by the general public. Coenen clearly assumed the real existence of sciapods and cyclopses. Yet his observations of actual Eskimos suggest that he attributed to them an understanding of God. A capacity for reverence was, in the 16th century, humanity’s distinguishing feature. In fact Coenen implicitly (and favourably) compares their understanding to the violent religious temper of Europeans at this time.

Then as now, the choice about how any given stranger or group of strangers will be viewed is a choice we have active responsibility for. If Adriaen Coenen could see far enough past his own folklore to attempt direct observation, what prevents us?

In one chapter Mason seems to consciously echo the loose structure of Montaigne’s essays. The essay form itself, in its attentiveness to detail, in its shyness of grand narrative, suggests a form of questioning still available to any European willing to remember and able to concentrate. ‘In our standardised and uniform world,’ Daniel Halévy once wrote, ‘it is right here, deep below the surface, that we must go. Estrangement and surprise, the most thrilling exoticism, are all close by.’ This passage was, for Walter Benjamin, a reminder that ‘it is familiarity and non-familiarity, not distance and proximity, that condition our gaze. This gaze depends in turn upon conscious choice.’

Not at all distant from Calais, the port of Dieppe has been welcoming more English tourists since the ‘Jungle’ became news. ‘Below the surface’ of what does and does not become news, however, this stretch of coastline has long experience of Europe’s double-dealings with the stranger. Dieppe was home, in the 16th century, to one of Europe’s great schools of map-making. What is probably the earliest surviving representation of Australia’s east coast dates from a map made here, in 1546, by the priest and mathematician Pierre Desceliers. The same man wrote of the pygmies allegedly encountered by French explorers in Canada, that they were ‘animals, not humans . . . without any sense of shame, justice, or honesty.’

A group of 50 Brazilians, brought back to France in 1550, was ordered to construct a ‘native village’ in Rouen, as part of the celebrations to welcome Henri II to the city. A mock-battle was fought between the natives and French soldiers, in the course of which the village was destroyed by the victorious French. The king is said to have enjoyed it so much he asked for a repeat performance the following day. ‘Of course they will demolish this camp. They have been demolishing “Jungles” for twenty years.’ More like 500, actually. And kings of the remote control that we all are, we continue to enjoy the show then look out for the repeats.

One volunteer in the Jungle told me ‘Europe is racist. It couldn’t care less.’ Yet ‘Europe’ is Le Corbusier, too, exploring with an architect’s eye the favelas of Brazil in the 1960s, inspired by the ingenuity of their design. Radcliffe characterised Europe’s indecision over the migrants as follows: ‘Instead of processing asylum claims and having a real debate about how our economic system is driving this, we avoid this question about who we really are. That we are deeply selfish, aggressive, too. We don’t care that our riches come from the suffering of others. If that’s what we are, then let’s be honest about that.’

But by ignoring the more chequered truth about Europe’s relations with elsewhere, he deprives himself and others of a thoughtful tradition that we could still use. Mason’s approach is not to offer a master thesis. Edward Said’s Orientalism, he argues, mainly reflected power relations between Europe and elsewhere as they obtained during the 19th century. Perhaps the 16th century is a better guide to our own ‘unprecedented situation.’ Said himself, Mason shows, became wary of the poorly substantiated generalisations made in the name of his book.

The 16th century hardly offers reassurance. Is it reassuring to learn that this is not the first time Europe has engaged in a ‘debate’ about strangers that was much more like a monologue, and a largely delusional one at that? Is it reassuring that Europe has long defined strangers by what they were not? And then formulated policies toward them accordingly?

But Mason’s Europeans have for centuries been onto this problem in more constructive ways, too, at the same time, even in the same mind. The contradiction here was, and is, genuine. ‘I really think this is the birthplace of a new idea about how Europe deals with other places,’ Tom Radcliffe put it to me in Calais. But the Pyrrhonists were, in their day, every bit as critical of European ego-centricity as he is now. Ways of the World contends that Europe has been cross-examining itself on this question for a very long time. It’s surely worth listening to some of the answers it has given. You might be surprised, Tom.