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The Horizon of Mixed Influences

Darius Shayegan, an Iranian philosopher, wrote the following at the turn of the millenium (also posted at UNESCO’s site):

I do not know if my eventful and tormented experience of this dying century can serve as some kind of example to future generations yet I am a most complex product of it. Having lived on the margins of the great changes of this century, I have been subjected, often to the point of having to defend myself physically, to all its positive and negative consequences, without having had the opportunity to participate in its creative process.

Moving from the periphery to the centre, I had to learn an enormous number of things from scratch which, in the new world in which I was settling, were taken as self-evident. When I look back on the path I have taken, I am surprised and sometimes even frightened by these episodes fraught with obstacles, by my very naivety. For how can I put it? I lived in a world devoid of colour or form. The old civilization to which I had belonged had more or less thrown in the towel: modernity had won the day and everything that came from the West had the irresistible attraction of the siren’s song. I had to learn the languages and the cultures of the countries of which I was a passive admirer.

As far back as I can remember, I lived in disjointed worlds where nothing was in its place, where disparate and incoherent pieces of knowledge had been patched together, pieces which, juxtaposed in random mosaics, jarred with one another, with the result that I always had the impression of living in a no man’s land. By this I mean that my generation received the full brunt of the clash of cultures. And I assimilated this culture-clash very early on. All of this happened, it goes without saying, at an unconscious level. It was later on that I became aware of the fissures that had, in some way, fashioned my being.

Gradually, through the process of bringing to the surface the contradictions of my own being and the different milieux in which I lived, I succeeded, as best as I could, in recognizing the mechanisms at work both in terms of behaviour and knowledge. Taking an interest, first of all, in the great spirituality of India, then in the great moments of Western thought where anxiety is the main driving force, then in Iran and in Islam, I became a specialist in comparative religions, then a committed observer of the fractures which constantly oppose the traditions of the past with the great changes of modern times. Moreover, my works, written in the course of my peregrinations in the interstices between all these disjointed worlds, describe their salient points and the traces they have left. It is in this way that I found myself the bearer of multiple levels of consciousness, where all the sedimentations of the past – from the oldest to the most recent – exist side by side. I then tried, as far as it was possible, to untangle the inextricable web of this kaleidoscopic vision of things whose numerous facets I embodied, without my knowing it.

Now that I can take a bird’s-eye look at the world, I notice that the simultaneity of all the world’s cultures has replaced their successive appearance over time: all the changes of paradigm, all the layers of consciousness – from the Neolithic age to the computer age – now demand to have their say. The different levels of being are juxtaposed, follow on from one another, overlap and interconnect, without it being possible to reorder them in a linear structure. Thus we are struck by the confusion of genres, by the mixing of incompatible elements, by miscegenation of all kinds. When we consider the history of ideas, we realize that, at every threshold, we are faced with two concomitant phenomena: the emergence of a new idea followed by the suppression of the preceding one. If we look at them in terms of long stretches of time, we notice that nothing has actually disappeared. All the discourses have been displaced, they have been piled up in areas of shadow, buried there awaiting their hour of glory. With perhaps the exception of the universal discourse of modernity, whose tenets deriving from the Enlightenment have become, for better or for worse, the heritage of all humanity, no claim prevails exclusively, no ideology becomes so dominant that it overshadows all the others. While there are quite a number of exceptions, this current of thought remains, none the less, an unprecedented example in the history of humanity. But what does the analysis of this new state of affairs reveal? First of all, that rigid identities, nation-states and ideological hegemonies are progressively disappearing in a world where ‘relational thought’ is replacing truths set in stone. All great changes happen in this manner: the rejection of the monolithic blocks of belief, the fundamental bricks of matter, tree-like systems of thought. Instead, they place value on nomadic thought, relational modes of developing empathy, hybridism and the cross-fertilization of cultures. From this spring three inevitable consequences which, in my opinion, are going to determine our future in the next millennium. The interconnectedness which characterizes our mode of being in the world expresses itself at all levels of reality.

First, on the level of cultures and identities, it emphasizes rhizomatous relations through a sort of a mosaic pattern where all identities fit into one another. Hence the phenomenon of multiculturalism and the emergence of plural identities. Essentially, in the time we live in, no one has a single identity, we are all composite beings, we all have more or less a ‘hybrid consciousness’, hence the idea of ‘frontier identities’, go-betweens who traverse the historical faults of consciousness. In this criss-crossing chaos of identities, one thing is certain: modernity is not a superfluous phenomenon that we can do without. We are all ‘Western’, whatever our ethnic background may be, to the extent that we embody certain inescapable aspects of the Enlightenment. Whatever identity we have – and God knows we have a multitude – we have to add on this last one which connects us to all other human beings on the planet, independently of our race, religion and cultural origins. In other words, it is our modern identity alone that is endowed with a critical faculty, it is this identity alone which, paradoxically, can strip away the most archaic strata of our consciousness and facilitate their multiple articulations, linking worlds living in different ages. If we withdraw from the constantly changing world, preferring to live in a bell jar, looking for fictitous genealogies and founding myths, we are jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, going from immobility to obscurantism. Is it possible today for dialogue to take place? The answer is probably ‘yes’ if we take the necessary precautions. First of all, by putting the rhetoric of resentment aside, the discourse of anti-this, anti-that, which, for lack of convincing arguments, resort to anathema, while all the time accepting that we are no longer dealing with autonomous cultures in the literal sense, but with modes of being which can only flourish within the prevailing modernity; that the articulations of these dislocated modes of beings represent the dialogue of man with himself; that the problem is above all epistemological, even if there are inevitably social and political consequences. The fact that this dialogue is possible on a horizontal plane, since the zone of hybridization from which it draws it arguments – and by that I mean frontier identities, the cross-fertilization of consciousness, nomadic thinking – reveals another phenomenon: patchwork, and the fact that this patchwork brings the combinatory art of multiple relationships into play. That is why man today, unless he is wearing tight blinkers, has no option but to resort to different kinds of patching-up in which he restructures his being, resculpts the existential landscape of his life, giving himself a certain coherence in a chaotic world – finding, in other words, a way out leading to other realms of existence.

Do these spiritual dimensions exist? By referring to other realms of existence, we are probably speaking about traditional cultures which, even if they do not exist as articulated wholes which are sufficient unto themselves, none the less invite us to other universes of meaning. These are situated beyond modernity, beyond the epistemological ruptures of modern times. In other words, they draw on the collective unconscious of humanity. If we can be in tune with the contemporary world solely by virtue of the critical faculty which procures us our modern identity, on the other hand, to enter these higher realms of being, we need other keys to knowledge. Because in this space of transmutations, situated through the looking-glass, modernity slips away, becomes ineffective, incapable of guiding us. In this sense, we are dealing with a disorienting experience, another system of organization. Here we must cut ourselves adrift. Here there is dialogue; not the playful dialogue of cultures, but that of meta-history.

Second, these relational links which govern our modern world also manifest themselves in terms of knowledge through the array of possible interpretations that exist. To the extent that the great metaphysical truths which founded the ancient ontologies have collapsed and lost their value, the fragmented self becomes itself an infinite process of diverse interpretations, with every person being able to interpret each aspect of existence according to his or her subjective values. The ancient structures of our intelligibility have been shattered. People speak of the return of the sacred. This ‘divinity’, which is so longed for by some, will never again be able to don the masks of the ancient gods who used to reveal themselves, as René Girard put it, through violence. Rather, it makes itself felt in the weakening of tribal ties, in the infinite opening out of our choices. We are no longer confronted with a Kierkegaardian alternative ‘either . . . or’; neither are we caught in insurmountable dilemmas. Our choice is opening out like a fan. It is iridescent with the colours of a rainbow. The kaleidoscope of varied spiritual landscapes makes a homo viator of all of us, but of a very particular type. We are all pilgrims, but our pilgrimage is not restricted to a preordained route. We have retained a sense of quest, without it being necessarily that for the Grail. It changes according to the playful patchworking of mankind. It sometimes takes the form of samsara, sometimes that of maya, and sometimes that of shamanic initiation rites. In this way, the gamut of choices, expanded by cultural cross-fertilization, breaks the restricted circle of hermeneutics to venture into territories beyond space and time. As if, by rewinding time, we were going backwards through history; as if, leaf by leaf, we were unfolding the layers of palimpsest that had accumulated in the memory of humanity.

Curiously, as a result of the retreat of the gods, our world has become more magical and more irrational than before. Not only has our unconscious, which is saturated with suppressed images, become active like an awakening volcano, but the images that it projects reveal the greatest confusion of figures: half-divine, half-demonic. Just as we are witnessing the myriad mixing of concepts on the level of culture, in our projections we are also manufacturing amalgams of symbols where mandalas, icons, the yin and the yang intermingle, creating a thick forest of allied signs where all combinations become possible. Yet, paradoxically, this re-enchantment is related to secularization. Without secularization, we would never have seen the birth of this new pantheon of hybrid images.

Third, where the media are concerned, this new state of affairs is giving rise to a ‘virtualization’ which is weaving a network of interconnectedness on a global scale. The instantaneity, the immediacy and the ubiquity which characterize it, result in the fact that, besides the contraction of time and space, we are witnessing the synthesis of all the senses, thus giving us multisensorial perceptions. At this point, we are seeing the appearance of a curious symmetry. On the one hand, all the floating ideas that are coming to us from the incredible blending of traditional ideas are creating a kind of meta-reality which hangs over our world. On the other hand, the revolution in communications is bringing real time into play through new technologies and is creating a virtual world parallel to the tangible world around us. If we choose to compare these two modes of ‘virtualization’ – by which I mean the world of visions, myths and angels and the feats of the computer age as manifested in cyberspace through digitalization and the Internet etc. – we realize that we are confronted with two parallel worlds which can never coincide on the same level of reality.

If virtualization is situated in an ‘outside-of-here’ which cannot be located, but which actualizes itself by virtue of digital technology, the archetypal world of images has its only epiphany in the realm of the creative imagination. Therefore, they are not on the same level of perception. Virtualization, as Baudrillard puts it, eliminates illusion by making reality a hyper-reality, even a simulation, whereas the other transforms the illusion into active imagination, which is consistent with the idea of angels. But in spite of this, it remains the case that their modes of virtualization offer surprising similarities. In both cases, we are dealing with different registers, in both cases the Moebius effect is in full operation, since each is equally a mode of transformation from one state to another. Both are ‘deterritorialized’. In both cases, we are confronted with nomads or migrants, one of which navigates on the network of all networks according to his whim or needs, while the other, a pilgrim-migrant, pursues the upward path of his spiritual quest. These apparent similarities point to the fact that modern man is strongly inclined to the intangible, to the magic of the instantaneous, to the metamorphosis of forms. In a certain sense, the world is rediscovering enchantment in the transmission of information which passes through the stratosphere at the speed of light. The ubiquity that mankind dreamed of in days gone by is being achieved through the fax machine, e-mail and teleconferences – all things that, just a few years ago, would have appeared impossible and the products of the most fanciful imagination.

What is there to conclude from all this? This interconnectedness which embraces the media, human beings, culture and plural identities, this patchwork which is becoming the lot of everyone, is projecting a many-hued world of mixtures that could not be more colourful. I have called this world the zone of hybridization, that is to say the in-between zone, the peripheries, where all levels of conscience concertina down and slot into one another. Because here, the fractured historical perspectives overlap to create a universe whose coherence owes as much to the structuring power of the imagination as to the disconcerting divides of reality. If the literature of the in-between zone limited itself in the past to a certain form of literary experiment, with globalization and the many forms of cross-fertilization which are resulting from it, this state of affairs is becoming a universal phenomenon and hence the destiny of contemporary man. Moreover, the monumental creations of peripheral literature bear witness to this fact – by this I mean Anglo-Indian, Latin-American, Afro-American literature, etc. It seems to me that the coming decades will see the successful exploitation of this in-between zone, where all levels of significance meet, from the oldest to the newest. This will require the ability to extrapolate them, to keep one’s distance in relation to them, to wittingly give oneself over to the game of reflecting mirrors, to construct bridges over their crevasses, to somehow negotiate their coexistence by putting their enormous potential to good use. In the future this will perhaps allow us to reintegrate all of the sedimentations of the past which, because of the accelerated fracturing of knowledge, are no longer able to communicate with one another and confine themselves to the stifling limits of a particular discipline. This will also allow us to discover the relationship of dialogue that connects them, to emphasize the value of the ‘horizon of mixed influences’. This, in a few words, is the colossal task that falls to future generations, who are condemned to live in a multicultural world where fusion and cross-fertilization have almost become the natural mode of existence. I notice with pleasure, moreover, that the new ‘peripheral’ novel is, with rare daring, exploiting the imaginary landscape of this very same cross-fertilization.

The interest in hybrids in the domain of fiction arises from the fact that, here, the in-between zone and the mutant forms that derive from it have become a universe unto themselves, a realm of new creation, where cross-fertilization is the product of an unprecedented exploration of the world of the imagination. Incidentally, the people that experience this and write these novels are themselves hybrid creatures: they have one foot in the prehistory of their own cultures and the other in the metamorphosis of the future. To conclude, I would like to cite what the great German critic Robert Curtius said about the universal genius of Goethe. In the poet’s vision, we find

Ionic hylozoism, Plato’s world soul, Aristotle’s entelechy, Spinoza’s natura naturans and natura naturata, the Liebnizian doctrine of monads and the philosophy of Schelling. But all of these very disparate elements are linked together by the idea of metamorphosis. This is Goethe’s central idea and it is this which makes him part of the continuity of the philosophia perennis, as well as, moreover, part of the ancient mysteries of Christian revelation.

The double metamorphosis that Faust undergoes – by this I mean his rejuvenation and transfiguration – is perhaps also the fate of the generations to come.

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