Thursday, February 11, 2010

East and West

It's interesting that the two dominant powers today, China and the U.S., both have wild Wests. They think about them very differently. For us the West has been a place of promise and escape, where rough virtues conquer nature. For China the West is a little more threatening. That's where Genghis Khan and Tamerlane came from, and where today they keep a lid on simmering Uighur and Tibetan tensions by banning journalists. The terrain is so forbidding it makes the Rockies look like goose bumps. In both countries the East is the region of sophistication, learning, and power.

In Russia--really Europe in general--it is the East that poses a disorderly threat. During World War I German soldiers were shocked at the chaos they found in Lithuania and Latvia. The dirt, disease, and nonsensical languages had to be scrubbed out. Russia replicates this thinking when it comes to Siberia. The orderliness of St. Petersburg clashes with the horrible wonders beyond the Urals. But the one notion we all share is that origins are located in the East. Maybe it's a function of the sun rising there. But for Europeans the East (which ultimately means Russia, and for Russia Siberia) is the primordial slime they emerged from. It's where their nightmares and fairy tales are located. It's where they go to be violent. For the Americans and Chinese the ancestral home is not so disturbing; it is the seat of civilization. Controlling ourselves as we move westward is more of a challenge. So there is a fundamental difference between Europe on the one hand, and America and China on the other.

All this makes central Asia, including former Soviet states like Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, the most interesting place in the world. There East and West face each other with total incomprehension. Our attempts to impose geographical symbolism onto the globe fall apart. Buddhist metaphysics, great art, nuclear arms, and terrorism thrive in places that can't be situated. Nothing originates and nothing develops there and yet, extracted from direction and time, those spots occupy a kind of no-place or utopian ideal.

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