The Priority of Culture in Us and Them
When Pope John Paul II visited Malta in 1990 he was met at the airport by our Minister of Tourism, among others. The Pope told him: “No doubt you are grateful to St. Paul for having provided the occasion for the first advertisement of the hospitality of the Maltese in the Acts of the Apostles”. The Minister replied: “Of course, we are grateful, but the Acts of the Apostles are not the first to carry that advertisement. Before that Homer in the Odyssey describes the welcome given to Ulysses by Calypso when he was shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia which we believe to have been Gozo”.
The Pope did not make any comment. Probably many of you could easily formulate some retort or other that the Pope had refrained from making. There is however a connection between the two episodes with their two versions of hospitality to strangers that is worth bringing out. Indeed, it has often been by Maltese orators who love to refer to St. Paul and to “the wily” Ulysses as predecessors of the thousands of migrants that some call ‘clandestine’ and others ‘undocumented’ who have lately been reaching our shores in shapes as wretched as those of Ulysses and Paul.
Apart from indecisive geographic indications, there is one main reason for identifying Homer’s Ogygia with Malta, or more precisely Gozo (‘Ogygia’ implies ‘roundish’, which fits Gozo); it is that Calypso, the daughter of Atlas, is presented as an earth goddess, linked to the
prehistoric matriarchal fertility cult, that had prevailed almost throughout the Mediterranean, until it was displaced by the Greek pantheon, with the very masculine Zeus at its apex, thanks to his superior weaponry namely the lightning bolts that he hurled down from the skies, with a cunning that was well above that of the Earth Goddess.
In the case of St. Paul, the question asked is: Why, when it is made crystal clear that Providence wanted Paul to urgently confront Caesar, should a diversion caused by a heaven-sent storm make him delay his arrival in Rome by several months? The answer given is that Paul’s essential mission was to preach the Gospel outside the frontiers of Israel; He was now close to the end of his life and so far he had preached the Gospel extensively but almost exclusively within the Greco-Roman world, the spiritual domain of Zeus and his fellows. His detour to Malta demonstrated that the Good News was also to be taken beyond the Greco-Roman as well as the Hebrew world, even to such areas as the Maltese Islands where the ancient culture and religion of the Mother Goddess still flourished despite Roman conquest. The Maltese are in fact described in the Acts as ‘barbaroi’, meaning that they did not speak Greek or Latin. Their culture and religion was the same as that of Calypso.
Thus, the connection between Homer’s portrait of Calypso as Queen of Malta and Luke’s portrait of Paul as the Apostle of all Nations is the following: The welcome that both Ulysses and Paul received in Malta shows plainly the universality of the belief that hospitality to strangers was a most basic duty of all human beings to all other human beings. The Calypso story is perhaps the best foreshadowing in pagan literature of the recognition of the universal dignity of all human beings that Paul most explicitly proclaimed for the first time in human history (as the agnostic philosopher Alain Badiou has emphasised in a recent book).
A particularly striking point common to both the episode in the Odyssey and the episode in the Bible is that the frontiers crossed by the two protagonists are cultural and religious, not political or legal. Actually one theme which the present phenomenon that looms so large in the minds of many Maltese today is precisely the changing significance of frontiers. Instead of the Customs House as the typical building symbolising the “Frontier”, the detention camp now stands ambivalently in our people’s mind. These places make it clear that frontiers are not just invisible and abstract lines separating two worlds as though by a merely legal fiction. They are concrete definitions of space, tangible places enabling control to be exercised and compelling “aliens” to a phase in their lives of waiting in grievious uncertainty.
The ambivalence of the meaning of these zones is due to the two possible outcomes of the experience that the people confined within them undergo. These outcomes could be either frustration, amounting even to the exasperation of a Freudian death-wish; or the cradling of an intercultural exchange that could be taken as a harbinger of a positive turnabout in the ongoing process of globalization.
It is this paradoxical image of “the Frontier” that has emerged in the minds of the younger generations particularly in our part of the world, but also more generally throughout the world.
It is in sharp contrast with the “Frontier” image that took shape in the minds of the older generations among us. That image was fashioned mostly by the Western films that dominated our imaginations when the cinema was still unrivalled in its power to capture the imagination. The “frontier” was the imaginary line that the cowboys and pioneers in America were constantly pushing westwards at the expense of the Red Indians. The “others” beyond the frontier were by that very same fact branded as “baddies”.
The global situation has radically changed. There are now no more lands to conquer. It might seem to some that situations like Iraq or Georgia are counter-examples. But, in fact, they are in part generally perceived as anachronistic and in part as exhibiting the cultural or civilisational form that the libido dominandi, to use Augustine’s idiom, has taken as its post modern dress. It does not seem that the creation of any mythical art-form comparable to the Western has yet been provided by any mass medium. Nevertheless, the sheer coming into existence of global networks such as Internet are fostering the idea that frontiers are made to be traversed with ever greater ease, and perhaps to be suppressed completely in the not too distant future.
So, at present the topic of frontiers seems to be haunted by a double danger. On the one hand, there is the illusion that the trend towards globalization, even in its lopsided current form, has already made frontiers unimportant, even if there is still no keeping in step between world-wide commerce and world-wide governance. On the other hand, there are situations in the world where the strengthening of frontiers appears to be highly desirable. Tibet is a case in point. The non-existence of legal frontiers in such cases constitutes a threat to the survival of valuable cultural identities. Another case where again the juridical establishment of frontiers would be a positive occurrence at least for the time being is that between Israel and Palestine. The multivalence of the possible meanings of frontiers is a function of the different figures that the outsider can take.
There are of course many other cases throughout the world where frontiers are the cause of international as well as intra-national conflict such as Ireland or Kashmir and many areas in Africa, and these questions are among the major cause of the massive refugee movements occurring at present. The frontier disputes can also be illuminatingly seen as related to the concept of what constitutes a “stranger”, a “foreigner”, a “xenos”. Most of the millions of refugees are being constrained to become outsiders in some part of the world or other because their right to preserve a cultural identity, often significantly marked by a religion, is not being respected or even recognised. It is therefore necessary for us to acknowledge that legal frontiers may be a positive necessity at the stage of development that the sense of our identity as human beings has reached.
Its full development would mean that on the one hand there was between us all the solidarity that would flow from consciousness of belonging to one species and on the other hand full recognition of every group’s right to enjoy its chosen cultural identity in a pluralist world. Thus the issue on which we are trying to focus our attention – Xenophobia, Philoxenia – is not so much a matter of physical changes of frontiers as of conceptual and functional changes. A proper conception of what constitutes human identity should lead us to change our concept of the function of a frontier from that of a divisive barrier to that of a heritage-marker, preserver of an original cultural identity.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that since September 11th our general frontier behaviour has taken a regressive turn. Previously an evolutionary change had been taking place in the direction that certainly Christians are committed to but also all those who subscribe to believe in universal human dignity. The increasing technologisation of frontier- crossing-control has led the more fearful among us to see in it a foretaste of the realization of Michel Foucault’s nightmare of a universal onslaught of plague. Biometric identity cards and total body radiological examining devices at the frontiers are indicating that security worries are becoming much more intense than respect for human dignity. Experience has amply proved that it is impossible to prevent the criminal occurrences that the sort of big brother surveillance of everybody are meant to guard against by such means. Anything like a return to the elementary traditions of hospitality can only be secured by eradicating the extreme conditions that strain the resources of human beings and drive them to violent reactions.
On the other hand, there are several developments occurring which are enabling frontiers to change from being only devices of enclosure or waiting places into becoming meeting places for cross-cultural as well as interpersonal communication and exchanges. There is however pressing need for more general support of all initiatives that promote the use of frontiers that goes with a balanced concept of human identity. For instance, it is clear that the steps that have been taken to reduce the divisiveness of frontiers in Europe need to be complemented by the strengthening of media communication across the Continent in order to strengthen dialogue and understanding.
Perhaps even more important would be efforts to establish effective networks of communication across the Mediterranean. Europeans should remember that at least one of the great founders of the European Union, De Gasperi, emphasized that the frontiers of Europe were not geographical, but cultural. He defined as European anyone who embraced the humanistic heritage that came out of the conjunction of Greco-Roman civilization with the traditions coming from Abraham and shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims in common. Each of the cultural groups inhabiting this area has its own culture and in a very relative sense members of one group have become relatively strangers to each other; this only means that they need to recognise and respect the differences between them, while ever intensifying their awareness of what they share. When they have fully mastered the art of this creative co-existence through reciprocal hospitality, they will be ready to extrapolate the experience that they will have accomplished on a continental and transcontinental scale, to the planetary.
Perhaps Malta’s greatest contribution to world affairs was the proposal to preserve ocean space from the need of frontiers by establishing for it in international law the status of common heritage of mankind and therefore enabling it to continue to be a place where no-one is a stranger, but everybody is at home. The idea has been applied by the United Nations to the moon and to outer space, which are not yet quite habitable by human beings of any culture. Our idea from the start had been that the oceans could be a laboratory in which one could experiment with systems of governance that it might then be successively possible to implement also on land. After all, that is the way that life went. It is the course that already Ulysses partly envisaged and that after him St. Paul fully conceived and proclaimed.