“When I see Indians approaching, I hardly know whether it is for good or evil; and therefore, never feel entirely at ease in their society.” Amos Andrew Parker (1835)
Modern men naturally mangle the meaning of the Latin proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” to make it justify their addiction to novelty. A modern man grown weary of his wife might, for instance, mutter the line in the hope it will lend dignity to his ally-cat adulteries. But his solecism would make no sense to a Roman, for whom the full proverb was “too much familiarity breeds contempt,” and for whom the true meaning of the proverb was that it is always a mistake to treat inferiors as equals because they will lose respect and begin to hate you.
The Latin proverb was, in other words, a warning against egalitarian informality and the erasure of social boundaries, and this (along with their addiction to novelty) is why modern men mangle its meaning. They believe that the cleaning “lady” will be reconciled to her life of cleaning if the swells invite her to call them by their first names. They believe that her structural servility will be palliated by this affectation of equality. The Romans believed that such an affectation makes structural servility more galling, and that a pretense of familiarity only stokes the always-smoldering furnace of ressentiment.*
Like Amos Parker amidst the Indians, the Romans believed that no man can or should feel entirely at ease in the presence of men unlike himself. The child should not feel entirely at ease around his father. The student should not feel entirely at ease around his teacher. The servant should not feel entirely at ease around his master. And the wayfaring Yankee should certainly not feel entirely at ease around Indians!
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Amos Parker traveled to Texas to inspect land in the new Austin colony in 1834. Literate, observant, and impartial, his published account of the journey is a standout among travels in the Great West.† Parker steamed south from Illinois on a Mississippi paddleboat, and then rode west on horseback from the mouth of the Red River to the Mexican frontier outpost of Nacogdoches. From there he followed the old La Bahia Road southwest to the celebrated Washington Prairie, a calcareous upland that was even then noted for “beautiful scenery” and “the respectable appearance of the inhabitants.”
Parker’s encounter with the Indians occurred just before he crossed the Brazos River, in the vicinity of what is today Roans Prairie, about thirty miles from where I am sitting. This is how he described the encounter.
“As we passed along by the side of an extensive prairie, we saw two Indians on horseback, on an elevated spot, about half a mile distant, with guns in their hands, and looking at the country beyond them. On seeing us, they wheeled their horses and came at full speed down upon us. We were a little startled at first; but they halted within a few rods of us, stared a moment, and then civilly passed the time of day, and enquired in broken English, the distance to a house on the road we had come.”
This prompted the reflection,
“I never was an enthusiastic admirer of the Indian character. They may have done some noble deeds of daring, and performed some generous acts of disinterested friendship; but they possess and practice the art of deception so well, that no one can know, with any degree of certainty, when these acts may occur. When I see Indians approaching, I hardly know whether it is for good or evil; and therefore, never feel entirely at ease in their society.”
Armed Indians have never galloped towards me on Roans Prairie or anywhere else, but I well understand the uneasiness that Parker felt, and I am sure you do as well. It is the uneasiness we rightly feel in the presence of complete strangers, of men so radically unfamiliar that we cannot even guess their type. There must always be something enigmatic, mysterious, and therefore slightly sinister about complete strangers, and this is why it is right that we are uneasy in their presence.
In Kipling’s immortal words:
“The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk—
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.”
Now everyone is in some degree a stranger, and there is some amount of mystery about even our closest friends, but they do not seem sinister because they do not hide what we are accustomed to see. It is the deep and disquieting inscrutability of the complete stranger that produces this sense of sinister strangeness. We cannot, as Kipling says, feel his mind, or see his soul, or guess his type. And it is deprivation of this accustomed knowledge that makes us uneasy and eager to be on our way.
We do not fear the complete stranger because we presume he is a bad man. We fear him because we know he is, for us, an inscrutable man, and that we are therefore blind to any signs of badness he might bear.
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One can get to know a complete stranger, but one cannot get to know him very well. Because he was shaped in a strange country, there is too much he cannot tell you, too much that you could not understand. Consider this remark by Harry Hervey, a Texas-born playwright who traveled to East Asia in 1923, and was in Hong Kong befriended by a wealthy and cosmopolitan Chinaman named Chang Yuan. Of this Chang Yuan Hervey wrote:
“He was exceptionally friendly, and we discussed a diversity of subjects with freedom; yet always I felt he was withholding his actual thoughts, that he would never be wholly candid because of the ineffaceable fact that I was a white man.”
It may be that Mr. Yuan was “withholding his actual thoughts,” but if that was so, nature was his accomplice. Friends these two men may have been, but a stout and prickly hedge divided the man who grew up on the banks of the Neches from the man who grew up on the banks of the Zhujuang. Texas and China are different worlds, and men made by different worlds cannot expect to enjoy the perfect sympathy that Pope described as “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” Even those who are “exceptionally friendly” must be content with a simple picnic, passing apples and sandwiches through the hedge.
Something similar can be said about the Indians Amos Parker met on Roans Prairie. If Indians were wont to “practice the art of deception,” which I do not doubt, their deceit was abetted by the hedge that hid their world from a man like Amos Parker. Even if those Indians on Roans Prairie had felt a sudden impulse to open their hearts and undeceive the nervous New Englander, they would have found him squinting through the leaves with a look of perplexity, and perhaps recoiling from the pricks of the thorns with which that hedge was armed.
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Standing amidst the ruins of the great temple at Angor, Cambodia, in 1865, the French historian Louis de Carné felt the cold wind of a strange country blowing from the tumbled stones. He could admire the scale of the work, and even the craft of its construction, but between himself and the men who had raised those stones there could be no “flow of soul.” Like the reticent Mr. Yuan, those stones withheld something from de Carné because de Carné was a White man.
“In the presence of these grand wrecks of the past, one is struck with admiration; but there is little emotion, and the enjoyment is far from complete.”
The enjoyment was far from complete because there are things a European can never understand about the prang of a Hindu temple draped with creepers of a Mekong jungle. As Kipling would put it fifty years later,
“I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.”
How different this was from the ruins of the European monasteries and châteaux that had housed the ancestors of de Carné, and that therefore touched his European heart even as they tickled his European brain.
“The ruins of a monastery moldering in the bosom of an English woods; the cracked walls of a deserted château which sheltered the feudal baron, move us more deeply. Men of our own race have thought behind these walls, have fought behind these battlements; we can reconstruct their lives, can follow the traces of their footsteps.”
We can reconstruct their lives and follow the trace of their footsteps because we can, as Kipling said, “feel their mind.” They may be strangers, but they are not complete strangers
“The research of science, which leads us, little by little, towards our origin, and shows us our brothers in the first castes of India, interests the mind rather than touches the heart; the separation is too remote.”
And that is it. Our heart is still when “the separation is too remote,” and our heart is still because it is a cold wind that blows from a strange country.
*) At least since Nietzsche, the French word ressentiment has served to denote an emotion far more violent than the emotion denoted by the English word resentment. Ressentiment is the hatred of the weak for the strong, of the ugly for the beautiful, of the dull for the witty, of the poor for the rich. The furnace of ressentiment is stoked by anything that makes these inequalities appear arbitrary or artificial. Marxist and postmodern theories of social constructionism obviously stoke the furnace of ressentiment, and so does the pretense of familiarity. There is nothing so galling as to serve a man who acts as if he is no different from yourself.
†) In the nineteenth century, the Great West of the United States was everything that lay beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The Far (or Wild) West was everything beyond the edge of settlement. Many of the accounts of travel in this region were written by wits who had no eyes, many others were by pedants who had no wit. Neither sort is worthless, but in both cases the writing gets in the way of the thing written about. The first sort suffers from too much art, the second from too little. Parker maintains the balance with very satisfying results.
Louis de Carné, Travels in Indochina and the Chinese Empire (London: Chapman and Hall, 1872), p. 44
Henry Hervey, Where Strange Gods Call (New York: The Century Co., 1924), p. 189
Rudyard Kipling, “The Stranger” (1908)
Amos Andrew Parker, A Trip to the West and Texas (Concord, N.H.: White and Fisher, 1835), p. 129-134.