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Vol. 8, No. 5, 2009
 
     
 
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MY GYPSY WIFE TONIGHT

by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

_____________________

They say that we are a threat
against the health in this country,
the unhealthy traveling people
but water that have turned black and the rancid air
is it ours or does it belong to Gadjo?
Ewan MacColl

 

Born in Eastern Europe, my mother never negatively predisposed her children towards gypsies. Neither positively, it must be said. And I suppose we supposed that, unlike my father and his gender, she wasn't well disposed towards Gypsy Rose Lee, a wanderer in her own right.

But unlike my mother, whose private thoughts about the world were mostly correct, most Europeans had long ago decided that gypsies were not their favourite people, who along with the Jews became the fodder of choice for the death camps in WWII to the tune of 600,000.

We are all familiar with the gypsy stereotypes, some of which are not entirely baseless: they are clannish, conniving, unclean, downright dishonest. Many good, downright self-righteous people insist the gypsy is proof that a gene for thievery exists. Here in America, (North, Middle, South and Offshore) we only have to look to our elected officials to mark that same gene. But stereotypes notwithstanding, we know as fact the gypsy has gone about the business of his life with a quiet defiance that belies the systematic exclusion and persecution that have dogged him since his arrival in Europe in the late Middle Ages, that despite best laid plans, the gypsy is still very much a wanderer in the European's midst, which makes him an enigma and subject of this inquiry. For if we are at all curious about the secret sources of his strength and survival, and the tenacity with which he guards his way of life, we will make the necessary effort to explode the categories that imprison him -- and us.

One of the first things we learn about gypsy culture is that it rejects what we most esteem in ours. We place extraordinary value in home, territory and rootedness; the gypsy is the last of the temperate zone's nomads. We are mostly products of the Protestant work ethic; the gypsy works with his wits. We stress individuality; the gypsy is inseparable from the communities he forms. We exist for future things, vacations, new technologies, retirement; the gypsy dwells in the present indicative. Inescapably, for the gypsy who chooses to be a gypsy rather than assimilate, his way of life is a critique of our own choices and values.

How the various gypsy populations came to embrace their way of life is inseparable from their history. Of the many theories of their origins and subsequent diaspora, most favour the one that finds them in Northern India, in what is now Pakistan, descended from the warrior and priestly castes. For centuries they defended their kings against waves of Muslim invasions, until beginning in the 13th century they were forced to flee, mostly to Europe, where they were at first received hospitably, as guests, in Bulgaria, Greece (Macedonia) and Serbia. It was when they decided to settle permanently, Europe showed its true (Caucasian) colours, and itself short on tolerance. Confronted for the first time in its history with a non-invading people of colour as well as a religion that was entirely foreign, Europe’s host countries reacted by issuing arbitrary decrees forbidding gypsies to buy land and practice their trades and professions, the spirit of which continues to inform the politics of today in many European countries. So contrary to popular belief, the gypsies are not born itinerant. It was first in Pakistan, and then as early as the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe, consequent to systemic exclusion, they were forced to take up a caravanesque existence, and, of necessity, had to learn to live (beg, borrow and steal) by their wits, handicrafts and music. DjangoWhat is at once remarkable and disconcerting is that despite innumerable advances in the standard of living over the centuries, very little has changed in the uneasy relationship that keeps the gypsy and European in a state of permanent opposition. The European, initially through his edicts and now his attitude, creates and sustains the very category of ‘otherness’ he scorns, and then blames the victim for being different. Sound familiar?

So if Europe’s (I.Q.) intolerance quotient first gained notice with the arrival of the gypsy, it later, in the 15th century, hit new highs at the expense of the Jews in Spain, then the Huguenots in France before going off the charts during WWII.

But despite half a millennium’s worth of persecution, the ever-resourceful gypsy would not disappear gently into the night. Rejection and persecution became part of his founding myth that made him stronger, more self-assured and more determined than ever in providing for his continuity from one generation to the next.

At some point in his tragic history, the gypsy chooses to be a gypsy, and not a European, a startling fact that begs the question: what is it that he is rejecting and why? I propose that with the introduction of the Protestant work ethic and the Industrial Revolution which transformed families and societies into units of production, the gypsy, in his cohesive, tightly-knit, psychiatrist-free communities, observing the psychological and philosophical (spiritual) damage done to materialism’s devotees, accidentally discovers the salutary basis of his own way of life and for the first time consciously chooses it (a nomadic, marginalized existence), and implicitly assumes responsibility for the numerous risks it entails. The Industrial Revolution -- its multiplying darknesses and growing obsession with profit -- makes the gypsy aware of an unsuspected range of safeguards and protections provided by his community, which sparks a significant appreciation of his culture and autonomy, the latter inoculating him against the Industrial Revolution’s worst effects: disease and poverty. That is why among Charles Dickens’s tatterdemalion crew of imps, urchins, orphans and dispossessed, there is no mention of gypsies.

There is much to learn from this, especially if we acknowledge that the spirit of the gypsy, however dormant, lives in us all. Which would mean hatred of the gypsy is in fact disguised self-hatred, or envy of a people who have had the courage and force of community to preserve those traditions to which we have given short shrift, all in the name of modernism that pretends to represent man (piously secular and free to conform) in his most evolved state. Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, reminds us that we suppress the ‘id’ (the idiom of our spontaneity) at our own peril.

And while it is true that the gypsy continues to forge those unlikely conditions that favour the survival of his spirit, unless the West begins to take a genuine interest in gypsy culture as an alternative value system, that indomitable spirit risks disappearing altogether.

Any culture, without a representative literature and art, or at a minimum, spokespersons capable of assuring the unity and cohesiveness upon which a group’s survival depends, is at great risk. From the first opportunity provided by the Industrial Revolution to the present, the gypsy has squandered numerous opportunities where he could have positively defined his natural opposition to the ways of modernity, and carved out a significant metaphysical space for his principles. But instead he has allowed himself to be defined by a mythology that reduces him to being either a social miscreant or an incurable romantic, while the reasons his destiny bears directly on the destiny of 21st century values have not yet been disclosed, formulated. This failing, still insufficiently acknowledged, leaves the gypsy at the crossroads.

Since we are all living in an increasingly homogenized, globalized world where unlike cultures and values are competing and colliding (and disappearing) as never before, the pressure to embrace the new has never been greater. Having endured, if not thrived on the worst of Europe’s exclusionary practices, there are significant points of departure in gypsy culture that represent a legitimate alternative to European values. But the European isn’t hearing the message because the gypsy hasn’t grasped the importance of articulating the organizing principles upon which his way of being is founded, of making explicit the meaning of his history that culminates in a philosophy or narrative whose relevance we are only beginning to suspect. Nietzsche would say the gypsy must come to the fore and transform his personal destiny into a world destiny. For if the gypsy fails the occasion of the richness and communitarian basis of his alternative culture, the modern world will lose a living example by which it can remake itself by resuscitating and prioritizing those community values that are the cornerstones of every humanity.

So while we admire the gypsy for refusing the alibi of victimhood, if in the end it is his fate to be crushed beneath the wheel of modernity, it won’t be consequent to exclusionary practices that persist, but because he, himself, has failed to effectively disclose and disseminate his values in a world withering thin in a crisis of values. As an unfinished character in search of an author, he will have written his last chapter.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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