Tuesday, May 12, 2009

To whom the entire world is as a foreign place

"It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practised mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person 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 place." - Victor St. Hugo, a 12th century monk from Saxony.

Andrew Sullivan quoted this passage on his blog yesterday. William Boelhower provided some background to this quote three years ago:

In the introduction to his new book, Postcolonial Melancholia, Paul Gilroy quotes the following words but without observing the usual practice of attributing them to their rightful author: "he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land" (2005: 24). The immediate source of this bit of wise urbanity may in fact be so well known to the community of postcolonial readers that the sentence no longer requires a tag. The full passage appeared earlier in Edward Said's book Culture and Imperialism of 1993, but it also was included in one of his most famous essays, "Reflections on Exile," which Granta published in the winter of 1984. In the 1993 volume, from which Gilroy apparently lifted the sentence - given the different translation of two key words - , Said introduces the passage as follows: "I find myself returning again and again to a hauntingly beautiful passage by Hugo of St. Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony" (406).

In truth, Said came across the passage much earlier, when as a student-teacher at Harvard he translated Auerbach's essay "Philologie der Weltliteratur." Save for a short final sentence, Auerbach ends his essay with these words of Hugo St. Victor:

   It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practised mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person 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 place. (1994: 406-7)

The passage in "Philologie der Weltliteratur" was quoted only in its original Latin; such were the expectations both of Auerbach and his rather small "world literature" audience in the mid-twentieth century. Some thirty years later, Said and Gilroy chose to quote it only in English, conscious of their essentially different audience and reflecting their own linguistic schooling. Apart from such decisions, the passage does make it clear that Auerbach was eager to encounter a cultural scenario that went well beyond the porous confines of Western civilization.