It is a Cold Wind that Blows from a Strange Country

“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!

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

Works Cited
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.

19 thoughts on “It is a Cold Wind that Blows from a Strange Country

  1. Pingback: It is a Cold Wind that Blows from a Strange Country | Reaction Times

  2. Gotta say you are the weirdest bunch of Christians I ever did see. The injunction to treat strangers as you would treat kin is quite clearly stated in both the old and new testaments:

    But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

    — Leviticus 19

    So, apparently several thousand years ago it was clear that righteousness demands that strangers are to be treated as equals, whether or not you find them scary or disturbing, or whether or not the soul is flowing.

    • A Christian could describe lust without endorsing rape. A Christian could describe avarice while doing his best to avoid it. It is not unChristian to recognize the facts of human nature, even when they are facts the law was meant to correct.

      I know this levitical law is popular among liberals nowadays, unlike some other levitical laws. What they overlook is that the “strangers” of ancient Israel were the remnants of conquered peoples, not immigrants.

      • Christians describing lust usually also indicate that they try to avoid it; I didn’t get the impression from your essay you were encouraging people to treat strangers with more fellow-feeling.

        Yes it is true that I as a liberal am not on board with large chunks of levitical law. We live in a different world, after all. Mixing linen and wool doesn’t seem so bad, neither does men sleeping with men. But certain injunctions seem to hold their relevance, including the one I cited. The fact that it is nearly impossible to implement makes it radical and perpetually relevant.

        The passage explicitly states that it is based on the Israelites’ own experience as immigrants.

      • The three men I quote obviously wanted to think better of the stranger. By my reading they were more frustrated than pleased when they came up against the cultural barrier. I think this feeling is natural, and therefore (like lust) one we should discuss frankly. Multiculturalists will tell you that living with difference is as much fun as a day at the circus, which seems to me a set-up for crashing disappointment. If a person is going to deal with foreigners, I think it will go best if they begin with the knowledge that relating to foreigners is hard work.

        I think the levitical law you cite does have relevance to the treatment of resident minorities, and in the American case most especially to the treatment of native Americans (after they had laid down their tomahawks). But in the Biblical case it assumed that the subjugated Canaanites remained subjugated, accepted Israelite dominance, and were not recruiting more Canaanites from over the border. So, in 1890 this levitical law would have been a relevant argument against exterminating the American Indian. But now, as you say, we live in a different world.

        I would say that the reference to Egypt served to remind the Israelites what it was like to be a minority, and that the means by which they became a minority is secondary.

      • a.morphous:

        “Mixing linen and wool doesn’t seem so bad, neither does men sleeping with men.”

        Men sleeping with men is unnatural and unhealthy in a variety of ways, but I’m sure you already know that. It is among the worst and most self-destructive human impulses imaginable, and any society that encourages the behavior is sick to the core and on the ‘fast track’ to annihilation. It ‘doesn’t seem so bad’ *to you and lots of other people* because of your reprobate mind(s). But continue to rage and imagine vain things; continue in your quest to break asunder the bands the hold societies together. The Lord laughs; He will have you in derision. That is all.

    • It is always at least slightly amusing when non-Christians presume to “school” Christians on what it *really means* to be the latter. Meanwhile, and as you have alluded to, Prof. Smith, the former tend to be of the habit of either taking a (Biblical) text out of context, thus forming a pretext, and/or of “proof texting” to the same end.

      Anyway, great essay! Enjoyed reading it very much.

      • Thanks, Terry. The hack is always the same. They isolate the commandment to love from all the others and, voila, Christianity is leftism.

    • Dear A. morphous,

      Remember what Apostle John said (John was Jesus’ best friend): “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn. 4).

      I would say that familiarity comes after trust, and trust requires time to be developed. Familiarity also respects hierarchy and authority. If you go to visit the Pope you will probably not approach him and say: ” ‘sup Frankie?” while patting him in the back. The reason for that is that out of charity and to avoid undermining his authority you are to treat him with respect; this does not impede you (or him) from giving a hug as a sign of affection.

      Before Vatican II only the Church hierarchy could treat the eucharist with familiarity, for they were the only ones who had permission and authority to touch a consecrated host with the hand.

  3. The 19C Europeans were suffused with a strong sense of national identity which led them to feel the neighbor-stranger distinction with a great force. But we 21C cosmopolitans are unlikely to respond to the strangers with their intensity.
    Those of roaming professions, post-docs and like, have sojourned as strangers –say Chinese or Hindus in Europe or even Brazil but I doubt if many locals found them sinister. The particularity which is an essential ingredient in the political is getting weaker, We tend towards the world of “Imagine”.

    • I’d say we are trying to live as if “Imagine” were true and are finding that it is not. The locals in China, India and Brazil would find you sinister until they could establish your “type.” Once they pigeon-hole you as a tourist or a graduate student, they can settle down. They might even enjoy a little chat. But those little chats tend to run out of gas after just a few miles.

      • Ha! My family would be quick to tell you that “Imagine” is one of my favorite Beatles songs to make fun of. When the world shall at last ‘live as one,’ we will all live in a yellow submarine as well.

        “Great! Reality!” Ha, ha.

      • I first heard Imagine at morning chapel in a very cold and grim boys school in England. Nothing posh, I assure you. Chapel was mandatory by law, but it had been handed over to the students so it was kind of a freak show. English schools were in those days naturally cold, and were that winter especially cold because of the Arab oil embargo. I was sixteen and my faith was of a very nebulous sort (as it in some respects remains), but even I was offended by that song being played in chapel. I knew it had no business in chapel, and I could even then “imagine” the savagery that would result from living life in the way Lennon proposed.

  4. “Because he was shaped in a strange country, there is too much he cannot tell you, too much that you could not understand.”
    Well, my Japanese wife of thirty-five years was shaped in a strange country, but she makes more sense to me than the majority of my own compatriots. My entire career has been dedicated to delving into and deepening an understanding of a very foreign culture, but your essay seems to suggest that I have been on a fool’s errand all this time. Your essays have always been among my favorite reading, so I’m rather surprised at this one.

    • I’m also married to a foreigner, although from a culture not so different as that of Japan. I don’t mean to say that cultural chasms are impossible to bridge, only that it is much harder than multi-cultural enthusiasts would have you believe. You and I have succeeded in our international marriages, so it obviously can be done, but you and I (and of course our wives) had to climb some extra hills to get where we are. I’d be the first to say that those extra hills made us stronger in the end, but when we climbed they they were extra hills.

      Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed my essays.

    • Dear Roger: Please forgive my interjection, but I would say that what Prof. Smith is getting about in the essay may be well summed up in the old (tried and true) phrase “the exception merely proves the rule.” In other words, the rule is that marrying outside of one’s race/culture/nationality is a ‘fool’s errand’ to borrow your term, but there are always exceptions to every rule and Prof. Smith certainly understands that, as do I and everyone else at the Orthosphere.

      I can speak to the problem with at least some authority since I have witnessed the very thing play out many times. I instruct my own children beginning early on when they first begin to develop an interest in the opposite sex and begin to talk of (one day) marrying and having their own families. One of the things I stress with them is that every marriage has its inherent difficulties, especially early on (first 7-10 years), and that being the case ‘adding fuel to the fire’ so to speak is something like ‘glutting for punishment.’

      One of my sons (the eldest) developed an interest in a girl who is half black about 15 years ago when he was still a teenager. Now, he was always the type of kid who sought my advice on such things, and that particular case was no exception. My advice to him was as practical as I could possibly make it at the time – more or less, ‘I understand your interest in her; she is cute, smart, does not show any real signs of identifying with her black identity in preference to her white identity, etc., etc. On the other hand, she *does have* a black family, and were you to get serious with this girl at some point, always bear that in mind because somewhere down the line you will be forced to deal with that family and all of their cultural/ethnic nuances that you, by simple virtue of your raising, are not equipped nor qualified to deal with. Not only that but your mom & I, your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins etc. will be faced with the same challenges likewise, albeit to a lesser and more indirect extent.’ And so on.

      I would even take it further, and did with my son way back then: I have, for a long long time, understood that, aside from racial differences, persons from various regions of the US are, in many important ways, *very different* than persons from differing regions of the same. I am from Oklahoma. Had I sought out a wife from, say, one of the New England states 35 years ago when I was still in the market, I believe, having witnessed what I have witnessed and learned about that sort of thing in the interim, that I would have created all sorts of unnecessary difficulties for myself and my marriage.

      As I said above, marriage is hard enough as it is in its initial stages without unnecessarily adding dozens of additional problems (or potential problems) to go along with it all. And I haven’t even broached the subject of religious differences/variations.

      All of the above of course applies in the case of a state or nation adopting a multi-cultural attitude; it is, very simply stated and as a general rule, a perfect recipe for chaos, and therefore generally inadvisable.

    • That is what Kipling says in his poem. It is the inscrutability of the foreign mind. Not that domestic minds are transparent. Just not quite so inscrutable.

      • I was thinking specifically of the mentally ill, psychopaths, autistics, aspergians, artistic ‘geniuses’…
        I think that these too can often have a comparable amount of inscrutability even to their family members. Though they are a rarer case compared to the numbers of foreigners. The inscrutability of the foreign mind may be similar while being of a different type. There might be similar difficulties and pressures in accommodating them.


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