Reading "Kim" in Echternach

I spent most of last week on holiday in Echternach, a small town in the far east of Luxemburg. It’s a place that probably most British people have never heard of, even though it owes its existence to an Englishman: the monastery round which the town grew up was founded in 698 by St Willibrord, an Anglo-Saxon missionary.

If Willibrord hasn’t already been made official saint of the EU, he probably should be. He was born somewhere near Ripon, and came to the Continent after time spent in a monastery in Ireland. He was apostle to the Frisians, the Frankish mayor of the palace Pippin II was one of his patrons, and he made several trips to Rome and into Germany, as well as establishing a base in modern-day Luxemburg. Echternach has always had a “European” aspect to it. There’s a huge Roman villa a few miles from the spot where the monastery was built. The medieval manuscripts from the monastery’s important scriptorium are now scattered from Madrid to Uppsala. There are three official languages of Luxemburg (Luxembourgish, French and German) and people and texts in Echternach switch between even more: we grew used to trying to work out what to eat from menus with dishes with Italian names and German descriptions. We’d speak to people in French and they’d presume we were German (or occasionally Dutch, which was really confusing). Echternach is right on the German border: over the Sauer river is Echternacherbrück (“Echternach Bridge”), a little German town. Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, we wandered over one of the bridges in Echternach and into Germany several times in a day with no officialdom involved; it’s only the sudden lack of French signs and a notice about different speed limits that marks that you’re in a different country.

The “European” nature of Echternach, and Luxemburg more generally, hasn’t all been sweetness and light, of course. The Grand-Duchy was ruled by outside powers for more than 500 years; there are signs up in Echternach remembering people executed for anti-Nazi resistance, and the town was badly damaged during the Battle of the Bulge. But it does speak of a world where the co-existence of multiple cultures and languages and influences is normal, not exceptional.

It may be possible to say that they do things differently on the Continent, that this is not the British (English) way. But that was rather contradicted by one of the books I was reading on holiday: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Kim is a white boy (not English, but Irish) in India, who has “gone native” after being orphaned. The book is an unexpected celebration of the diversity of the Indian empire and the East more generally. (Kim’s closest companion is a Tibetan lama). Kim is recognised and educated as a Sahib, but he does not simply remain one. Instead he becomes a spy, moving between cultures to gain information useful for the British rulers of India. Here, there is a pragmatic reason for a fascination with other races and religions: it is necessary to maintain order. But Kim is not simply a spy; he is also the lama’s chela, disciple/servant, genuinely seeking for spiritual understanding and open to learn from others. The book isn’t a simple glorification of white superiority (let alone white Christian superiority), but something far more complex.

Put Echternach together with “Kim” and you see a whole world in which multiple cultures exist, rubbing alongside one another. It’s historically unusual to have a state or country with only one language and religion and ethnic background. People who decry “multiculturalism” need to answer the question: what is the alternative way to deal with the fact of people from multiple cultures in the same place?

It’s revealing to look at some of the most successful empires – Roman, Carolingian, British – which have had to deal with this problem in a particular acute form. You don’t, generally, see an attempt to insist that there can only be one religion, one language, one way of doing things. That doesn’t mean that all traditions get equal weighting or encouragement, but it does mean that some diversity is tolerated, that “non-conformity” isn’t automatically a threat, that cultures are assumed to be strong enough to learn from others and adapt, rather than be “swamped”. To suggest otherwise, to see “Indian dance” as the wrong sort of thing for British children to do, strikes me as ignoring the lessons of both European and British history.

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4 thoughts on “Reading "Kim" in Echternach

  1. Bravo – great post. I suspect ‘Kim’ was way ahead of its time with its tolerant and open attitude.

    The refusal to accept other cultures ignores the fact that most of us came from ‘other’ cultures to begin with.

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    • Kipling’s work is very interesting precisely because of its contradictory attitudes to other cultures and races. On the one hand, he’s an imperialist and sincerely believes in the superiority of the white race to others. On the other, he keeps on writing about white heroes who are most at home among Indians and admire some of them much more than they do some whites. Kim is the most extreme example of this: there is still lots of prejudice shown by many of the characters (white and non-white) to other ethnic groups, but there’s also an impression that some of the barriers (particularly religious ones) don’t make sense, that no-one has the whole answer.

      I suspect it’s the inevitable contradiction of any observant racist (or any observant follower of religion): the reality of individuals doesn’t match the binary categories of superior/inferior race or saved/unsaved.

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  2. I like your point that it is unusual (unprecedented?) for any state historically to have had a single language. Part of my current research lies in unpicking the too-easy assumption (and, on the darker side, insistence) that being English means speaking English, a claim that is based on a deeply flawed historical argument. Oh, and those multilingual menus can throw up some interesting culinary surprises. My favourite was the Frenglish number in a small village in the French Alps, which had helpfully translated ‘profiteroles’ as ‘chocolate cabbages’. (I kind of get where they were coming from, but I don’t imagine they sold too many!)

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    • I associate monoglot countries with nineteenth and twentieth century nationalism. A very widespread traditional pattern has been that there is an elite form of language spoken/written by the court/bureaucrats/intellectual elite (often based on the dialect around the capital) and then everyone else learns to understand that a little, but also carries on speaking their own language/dialect. It’s exemplified by “Mandarin” in China, but the same is true for the Roman empire, and Britain (with Celtic languages). Meanwhile, Wikipedia quotes Eric Hobsbawm as saying that in 1789, 50% of French people didn’t speak French. Some countries still have this national/local language split, such as in Italy. In any system like that, minority languages tend to decline slowly (the ambitious abandon them to get ahead), but they still persist. It tends to be only under strong pressure to have a single unified nation of all ranks that regional ways of speaking are seen as threatening (e.g. as associated with separatists).

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