Appreciate the commonplace

In the summer of 2013, my brother and I traveled to Europe; he went to Italy, I went to Spain. The view in Madrid, Spain was either that the Catalans were not serious in their push for independence or that they were only interested in economic and political gain. While I’m sure Catalonia too has politicians who simply blow with the prevailing wind, politics and economics are not the end-all and be-all of human interactions. The commonplace always seems to be taken for granted.

Politics and economics are like buoys floating atop an ocean of human interaction. My months in Spain left me with the impression that Spaniards gave too little credence to their separatist movements while Americans gave too much credence to theirs. Both were so fixated on the buoys that they forgot about the ocean.

From Madrid I had only a second-hand view of Catalonia, but on his way home my brother had made it to Barcelona -- the Catalan capital. Upon his return I asked him what colors the flags were in Barcelona. On government buildings, he said, they were red and yellow - the traditional Catalan flag. On people’s homes, however, they were red, yellow and blue with a red star - the pro-independence flag.

If Catalan separatism was just a ruse invented by opportunist politician, I would have expected the opposite.

From the Catalans to the people of Galicia -- my bus route into Santiago, Galicia would take might right past the Galician Nationalist Bloc headquarters -- what distinguished the unionist from the separatist was not whether they were socialists or conservatives or monarchists or republicans but whether they spoke Spanish as a first language.

Hearing Americans talk about their country echoes how I heard many Spaniards talk about Spanish separatists; they’re just playing politics. It’s a game of economics king-of-the-hill. Here too, focus seems to be on the buoy and not on the ocean.

A Spaniard proclaiming, “España no tiene cultura,” which translates to “Spain doesn't have culture,” would be, I hope, immediately rebuked as obviously, painfully and demonstrably ridiculous. The very language refutes his statement. Could it not also be just as ridiculous for anyone else, as I have heard from Americans many times, to deem their country bereft of culture?

Think of that word for a moment: bereft. It is the archaic past tense of bereave, from the Middle English “bereven,” from the Old English “berēafian” meaning “to deprive.” The very words with which one proclaims culture-less burst with culture.

There are, as I see it, two explanations for such declarations of culture-less-ness, one rather depressing, and the other innocent and easily remedied.

Just as years of drinking hard liquor can eventually deaden one’s palate to everything else, so can dismissing religion as superstitious, culture as superficial and nations as invented render human community devoid of meaning -- all communities except the political and the economic. This, if it wasn't obvious, is the depressing expansion. This second explanation, thankfully, is both benign and beautiful.

“The style of your own time is always invisible,” said critic Hugh Kenner. If, as Confucius said, the common man marvels at the extraordinary but the wise man marvel at the ordinary, Kenner has provided the key. Culture is everything you take for granted.

Being taken for granted it is rarely noticed, but instead taken as commonplace. Spain taught me how to look beneath the political, beneath the economic and how to see the commonplace. We as a nation need to learn to appreciate the commonplace.


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