Last weekend, my husband and I went on a hiking getaway to Khevsureti: a small, mountainous region in the north of the country of Georgia, a country in which I have lived, off and on, throughout the past decade. We stayed at a village guest-house I knew, run by an artist and historian of Khevsur culture, a guest-house that doubles in turn as the social hub of both the village of Korsha and the itinerant backpackers, artists, and hikers who often pass through. He remembered me; he remembered, too, a friend of mine who was accompanying us: an American artist, married to an Italian, living in France. Last time she’d visited with me she’d painted a watercolor for him; this time he showed it to her, still hanging on the living-room wall, alongside all the other paintings contributed by travelers (alongside, too, his collection of foreign liquor bottles, evidently left as offerings by those who passed through).
We were standing, the three of us, in the front garden, when an elderly man approached my husband.
“Indian!” It was a pronouncement. “Namaste!”
I began, in my desultory Georgian, to correct him: translating the now-familiar litany I’d grown accustomed to using with well-meaning White liberal New Yorkers, as they ask a variant of So where is your husband really from? Yes, his parents were Indian; yes, he’d been born there; but he’d moved as a child; he’d grown up all over; in terms of cultural identity, perhaps the most salient fact about him was that he was from Texas.
“Ah. Texas.” He considered, for a moment. “Good. I am Azeri.”
Not, he added, that he’d ever been to Azerbaijan. He was from Gardabani, a small town of 10,000 people about twenty minutes’ drive from the Azeri border, and an hour from the nearest crossing-post. He’d spent his life in Georgia; he worked, now, in the mountains, doing roadworks, building in concrete.
“Salaam aleikum” – he indicated himself; then, to my husband again, “Namaste!”
Our host, a Georgian Khevsur, gave the next toast: to friendship, he said (for we were all of us his friends). Gaumarjos megobrebi.
It was the kind of conversation – reductionist, perhaps, but wildly good-natured – that I commonly have in Georgia, and have only rarely in New York. It was a conversation, too, that I’d not often known how to enter into.
My mother is American, but has spent very little of her adult life in America. I was conceived in Rome; my father – who speaks almost no English, and whom I met for the first time when I was nineteen – lives in a small town in Umbria. I was born in New York by accident.
My first language was Italian; I do not remember this, but by the time I was a teenager I had been fluent in, and then forgotten, other languages, too. We spent a year in France, when I was five, and once I was hired and then subsequently fired from filming a commercial for milk. They’d thought they were getting an adorably “foreign” American child for the role, and instead they found I’d learned to speak French like a native. I no longer do.
I grew up with a kind of vaguely benevolent cosmopolitanism: the breezily acculturated comfort of a certain class of professional expat who lives between places, rather than in them. We returned, inevitably, to my mother’s native New York; I grew up absorbing the good-liberal dictum that New York isn’t really America. We left again after 9/11, partly in response (or so I intuited) to the national embarrassment that was “Freedom Fries”: heading first to Paris, then to Rome.
We were – I thought – not really American,
We were, I thought, comfortably nothing. Identities, to my childhood mind, were fungible things: they could be so easily discarded or assumed. I went by Tara in America; by Isabella in Italy; by Bella – briefly, disastrously – at university in England.
The blithe cosmopolitanism of my upbringing, which at the time had seemed like freedom, in my twenties came to feel like alienation.
(It goes without saying, of course, that our Whiteness, as a cultural and political category, was taken for granted; this too is complicated, and it is something that of course has, this past year, thrust itself with more insistence into my analysis of these things. I was born and raised with an Algerian last name, Sidhoum – that of my mother’s first husband, to whom she was married for a year two decades before she met my father. When, in the course of our time in Paris, we were occasionally faced with then-ubiquitous anti-Algerian sentiment, my mother and I promptly changed our names: adopting not my grandmother’s married name of Burman, but Burton, the consciously less Jewish stage name she had chosen after her divorce.)
As I grew into adulthood, I hungered, too vigorously, for belonging. The blithe cosmopolitanism of my upbringing, which at the time had seemed like freedom, in my twenties came to feel like alienation. I wanted to know who I really was: a chthonic and Romantic fantasy of blood and birth and myth.
I wanted to know family stories, family sayings – the lives of my Sicilian grandparents, of whom I still know little, or else the distinctly Jewish identity of my maternal grandparents, dissolved into assimilation. I wanted to know where home was. I looked for it, as you do in your twenties, in all the wrong places.
I tried on so many identities. I wanted to know where I was really from. I went to Sicily alone and found nothing of myself there.
My cosmopolitanism was – to use the old phrase – rootless.
The problem of cosmopolitanism, and its promise, are so often inextricable from one another. They are inextricable, too, from the Enlightenment vision of the autonomous self: a self whose fundamental haecceity, “this-ness,” owes little to the circumstances, the social and interpersonal particularities, of its place in the world.
Indeed, the very language of cosmopolitanism, though originally derived from a phrase of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, had its heyday in the eighteenth century. The statesman Antoine Houdar de la Motte declared that “we are the contemporaries of all mankind and citizens of all places.” Denis Diderot wrote admiringly to David Hume that the latter belonged “to all nations,” and would never dream to ask of any “unfortunate person his baptismal register,” before concluding, self-admiring, that he too was proud to be a “citizen of that great city: the world.” The Westphalian poet Georg Ludwig von Bar, writing in French rather than his native German, in his poem “To My Country,” declared one such vision of himself as untethered to place. “je vins, sans mon aveu, dans ce Monde pervers, / j’y suis, puisque j’y suis, Bourgeois de l’Universe: / je suis Cosmopolite, ainsi que Diogène, / j’embrasse en mon amour, toute la race humaine.” [I come, without my choice, into this perverse world/where I am, as long as I am, a citizen of the universe / I am a cosmopolitan, just like Diogenes / I embrace in my love all the human race.]
In many ways, this is a laudable vision: the political foundation of contemporary notions of human equality and human rights. But the precise tenor of (most) Enlightenment thought, the precise manner in which the philosophes of Paris and Edinburgh and Berlin alike sought to identify the qualities of capital-m Man in the generic, were inextricable from their wider suspicion of what they called prejudice, or custom: the ways that social institutions and communities act upon us and render us vulnerable to (in their minds) what is exterior to our authentic selves: an understanding of authenticity that would come to be more pronounced still in later Romantic thought.
My cosmopolitanism was – to use the old phrase – rootless.
Central to both the Enlightenment understanding of the capital-m Man and the more expressivist Romantic understanding of authenticity is the conviction that we can, and should, form ourselves, and that we should mistrust those external things that form us.
Religion, tradition, social custom, all these are the infantile “leading-strings” – to use Kant’s famous term – that we must cut in order to achieve our own flourishing.
Within such a paradigm, who we really are – our authentic selves – can only ever be understood without reference to those who have shaped us: our parents and grandparents, our godparents and uncles and aunties, our neighbors, our friends, anyone whose custom might get in the way of our own autonomous working-out of self. It is that vision of cosmopolitanism, which has a horror of any form of limitation, that forms the basis of so much of contemporary liberal thought. We are self-makers; we are self-choosers; we are not like those people, parochial, unoriginal, who do not ever transcend their origins.
It is that cosmopolitanism I absorbed, by osmosis, in New York City. It is the cosmopolitanism that says that places are just backdrops.
When I first came back to the church, I was filled – like any convert – with haphazard zealousness. It was the rootedness of the church that pulled me in, the sense that in succumbing to God’s laws I was challenging all the mad bad notions of the post-Enlightement liberal order. It was traditionalism-as-rebellion: the post-liberal equivalent of buying a motorcycle and getting a bunch of tattoos.
And yet. And yet.
There is, too, as I have written already, a strain within modern Christianity, and particularly within the politically conscious post-liberal strain, that tends to confuse rootedness with its nineteenth-century nationalist manifestations: which is to say that it automatically conflates rootedness with ethnic origins: creating a nebulous fantasy of primal mythic origin stories out of the actual experience of real human beings.
It is a rootedness that privileges one narrative of where we are really from at the expense of the sheer diversity of what makes us. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” Simone Weil writes, but she reminds us too that “Every human being needs to have multiple roots.” It is a rootedness, too, that sees only certain forms of social interaction, of ways of being with one another, as reflecting God’s own laws and love: political hierarchy, say, or biological reproduction, or a two-parent family. It is a rootedness that treats the specter of the city – a place where different kinds of people bump up against each other and elbow each other on their way to the metro, where different kinds of people shape and change one another – as the site of infection: of tuberculosis, of sin.
In so doing, these reactionaries ironically reproduce many of the same intellectual mistakes as post-Enlightenment liberals. They treat the experience of the other, the stranger, the alien Christ in the body and the feature of people’s faces, as nothing but a threat, as if to encounter Christ were not to be broken open by the strange.
I can tell the story of rootless cosmopolitanism in my life, and of the elements of it I wish to reject. But I can tell, too, another story: a story of rooted cosmopolitanism, of the ways in which I learned that I was vulnerable to, and rooted in, so many different kinds of love. It is the story of developing roots, and belonging, not through either biology or affinity, conceived of as ideologies, but rather through the particularity of those we know, and love.
It is the story of a community that understands our nature as social creatures, and yet sees friendship – including friendship with those to whom we are related – as the paradigmatic building block of the social order: the relationship of love between people that Christ, and not custom, tells us we ought to love.
It is the story of a family that grows by both blood and adoption, that is both biological and chosen, of a family that consists of the people we see, and encounter, every day. It is, as the early church was, a church of the city – ideologically if not geographically – a church in which we learn to better understand the ways in which we are rooted and thus linked to one another, in which the particularities and differences of our existence train us, bit by bit, in the practical understanding of how to love our neighbor as ourselves. The telos of the body of the church is the family of all believers: a family with many, and wildly varied, branches, which share a single and deeply nourishing system of roots.
This is the cosmopolitanism of a village in rural Georgia, in which our birth identities are celebrated as an important part of who we are, but in which friendship creates from among us a new, joyful polity when we toast. It is the cosmopolitanism of the people I have known in New York – some Christian, many not – who in their strangeness, their particularity, have taught me how to see Christ better in them. I am not free, in this cosmopolitanism – rather, I am bound by my love for these communities, even as I ache at the impossibility of ever having everyone I love in a room at one time. (An odd side-effect of the pandemic: Zoom meetings where people I love, from so many cities and countries and parts of my life, can at last gather together). I do not live between places, any longer, but I hope that in the new Jerusalem, all places will be one.
It is not the Benedict Option but (if I may) the Florentine Option. It does not treat the city as the site of liberal discourse, in which different concepts might be weighed and measured out in the marketplace of ideas, but rather as the site of life-long training in both practical reason and both civic and theological virtue. It is a Christianity where alterity makes us stronger, because it teaches us to love better.
The German Enlightenment philosopher Christoph Martin Wieland writes of how “cosmopolitans bear their name … in the most genuine and significant sense. They regard all the nations of the earth as so many branches of a single family and the universe as a state in which they are citizens.” I propose that a rooted, Christian cosmopolitanism must accept the first regard and refuse the second. We are not citizens of a state – in the sense that our participation in political life functions as an agglomeration of individuals for the purpose of our respective flourishing – but rather members of a family of all believers. It is only when we recognize both our rootedness in other people, and the sheer variety that these roots can take, beyond easy and reductionist conceptual understandings, that we can learn to build a political life that reflects the telos of the human person. We cannot be citizens of the world without also being civic republicans: envisioning our life together not as an agglomeration of individual desires, but as one capable of transcending personal goals in the service of the collective ones that make us social animals.