Travel in Another Country Has Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

In describing a photograph of musicians dressed in borrowed formal wear he is presenting a "reading" that is not unintelligent, but is hardly "native." (And hardly compassionate.) He writes:

Their suits deform them. Wearing them, they look as though they were physically misshapen. A past style in clothes often looks absurd until it is re-incorporated into fashion. Indeed the economic logic of fashion depends on making the old-fashioned look absurd. But here we are not faced primarily with that kind of absurdity; here the clothes look less absurd, less "abnormal" than the men's bodies which are in them.

The musicians give the impression of being uncoordinated, bandy-legged, barrel-chested, low-hipped, twisted or scalene. The violinist on the right is made to look almost like a dwarf. None of the abnormalities is extreme. They do not provoke pity. They are just sufficient to undermine physical dignity. We look at bodies which appear coarse, clumsy, brute-like. And incorrigibly so (Berger,

It is, in fact, hard to understand what perspective Berger is intending to convey other than that of his own.

We can see him holding up this photo, tilting it this way and that in the light, and musing to himself about how he sees it. There is nothing, of course, wrong with this. It is a perfectly valid assessment. But it tells us nothing at all about what the men who are depicted are thinking about. He falls far short of giving us any insight into the natives' world, and he does not in fact even seem to be interested in doing so. Geertz wants to know what the natives think. Berger -- for all that I appreciate the intelligence of his observations -- seems to think that he knows better than the natives themselves what they think. But in neither case -- with a semi-theatrical performance or with a visual text -- are we given insight as to what the natives understand about their world.

...What the Natives Are Thinking?

A few years ago I went to a Dutch beach on the North Sea called Scheveningen. This is an interesting beach because the pronunciation in Dutch is difficult for Germans and so during World War II the town's name become a shibboleth. Pronounce the name of the town correctly and you passed as Dutch. Mangle that initial complex consonant cluster and get hauled off as a German spy. It's a fascinating story, and so I wanted to go see the town. And so off I went one day in December.

It was about 28 degrees that day, with something between rain and sleet falling. Nevertheless I decided to walk down the beach for a few minutes to enjoy the sights. I was wearing long pants, long underwear, socks, boots, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a hat, gloves, and a scarf. After about ten minutes I was so cold that I decided to turn back. But just before I did so I met two Dutch women coming toward me. They were both naked. They stopped to talk to me and explained very politely that it was a nude beach. I explained (I hope just as politely) that it was, literally, freezing. There ensued what was to me an entirely surreal conversation in which the two women tried and tried to convince me not to be prudish and ashamed about my body and I kept pointing out that it was sleeting.

Finally we parted. I believe that all three of us were sane. And yet we clearly were not experiencing the same reality. We all thought that we were right, that our interpretations were the true and valid ones. And yet they shared almost nothing in common. And the greatest irony of this encounter is that I had gone to the beach because I thought I understood it from the Dutch perspective. I just knew that when I went there the Dutch natives and I would be on the same page. We would walk its streets and its sands with a full appreciation of the small but intriguing and important role it had played during World War II. I would get it. I would be a native.

But I wasn't.

Or rather I was. A native of my own culture, visiting another as a stranger.

Works Cited

Berger, John. "The Suit and the Photograph: On August Sander."

2 December 2009.

Geertz, Clifford. "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." 4 December 2009. .

Cite This Essay:

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