“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.”
― Carlos Fuentes
A personal note about why, for Toronto Pursuits 2014, I chose to depart from our annual mashup of literature, art, music and film from around the world, but, to be honest, mostly from the West. Maybe, like me, you are most at home in what is commonly called the Western Canon. It was pretty much all I got in my long years at school. Growing up in the U.S., my reading was All-American until we were introduced to Shakespeare and Dickens. In university, I studied some of the French and Russian luminaries. Much later, through Classical Pursuits, I got around to Dante and Cervantes, Lorca and Gunter Grass, among others. Classical music from Europe and popular music from America. Apart from a rare British film, movies were made in Hollywood.
But when Classical Pursuits started travelling beyond the European/North American axis, to places like Egypt, Vietnam, Turkey, and India, I needed to do some homework and expose myself to great works of literature, art and music created within other traditions and contexts, which greatly enriched the travel experience by helping me to better understand the psyche and soul of a different place and its people.
Two specific experiences come to mind: discussing Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and Snow by Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, with our local guide taking part in the discussions. In both instances, I felt better able to penetrate the surface of what we were seeing in Egypt and Turkey. What was remarkable then, but what I now take for granted, is the recognition of universal questions and feelings that have bound humankind throughout history and across continents and the varied time, culture, and place-specific ways writers have wrestled with them.
I now cannot conceive of travelling anywhere without first reading what my destination’s greatest writers have had to say about it.
From the time I was a child, living in a homogeneous suburb of Philadelphia, I was always intrigued by “the other.” I wanted to know more about the working-class city dwellers, whose vibrant way of life I witnessed every week when we picked up my grandfather for Sunday dinner. Young and old would be out on the sidewalk, drinking beer, playing marbles, listening to transistor radios. I had vague notions that a war involving Korea had just ended, and I eagerly proposed to my parents that we adopt a Korean girl about my age, which of course did not happen. The other “other” group I wanted to know much more about were the Amish, who lived in nearby Lancaster County. The Amish, in many ways, the polar opposite of the urban kids I envied, lived what appeared to my young and romantic self a wholesome and satisfying existence in a pastoral farm setting.
I had no books to help me understand more, but my desire to know “the other” better and my hunch that they held special knowledge that I did not, has not diminished. It has only grown.
Living in Toronto for nearly 40 years means I live in proximity to people from all over the world. This is an amazingly pluralistic society that is not, for the most part, organized in tight geographic or social ghettos. By living and working here, one is bound to bump up against cultural, ethnic, and national diversity everywhere you go. Still, many of those encounters are apt to be brief and superficial. When a deeper encounter does occur, either by accident or design, I feel so enriched and enlarged.
I invite you to join the global party in Toronto this July, where we will discover many rich and wonderful surprises that lie just outside our sight. Classical Pursuits seminar options offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in a masterpiece from a place you may know little about. We have worked hard to increase the diversity of participants in the discussions, thereby enlarging the perspectives and possibilities. Our cuisine and our afternoon and evening activities, both on and off the campus, will take full advantage of Toronto’s diversity.
Not only is it richly rewarding to extend our reach beyond what is comfortable and customary, it is one of the most important things we can do if we are going to be able to coexist on this small blue marble.
“Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences.”