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    PloughCast 15: On Rooted Cosmopolitanism

    Beyond Borders, Part 3

    By Tara Isabella Burton, Dhananjay Jagannathan, John Milbank, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 4, 2021
    • Bradley Bahler

      Somehow these podcasts remind me of the biblical statement about those who are ever learning (I.e. Mars Hill philosophey), but do not attain to the knowledge of the truth. It seems to be little more than intellectual fun, almost a disgrace. Just as God was found of those who sought him not, he has likewise hidden his truth from the wise and the prudent and revealed it to babes. Thank you Jesus!

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah welcome Tara Isabella Burton and Dhananjay Jagannathan to discuss the intersections of their recent pieces in Plough’s new issue “Beyond Borders”. Tara’s cosmopolitan upbringing led her to yearn for the connectedness of place, and yet she’s cautious about the potential dark side of that chthonic urge.

    Meanwhile, Dhananjay’s immigrant story and thoughtful loyalty to the America of the American idea will not let him dismiss patriotism.

    Then, John Milbank brings us to the deepest of deep roots, with a full-throated defense of a nation that is linked to a place, and which is not based on an idea. His piece is a hymn to the mythic geography of England.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    I: Tara Isabella Burton and Dhananjay Jagannathan: Third Culture Kids

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. This is episode three of the series covering the latest issue of the magazine, “Beyond Borders.”

    Susannah Black: Today’s pod is going to be less of a set of interviews than a conversation among friends. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough Quarterly.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor in chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black: This is the episode where we talk about place and cosmopolitanism and what it means to have roots. We’re seeing …

    Peter Mommsen: The cosmopolitan elite.

    Susannah Black: The cosmopolitan … Yeah, we are the rootless cosmopolitan elite discussing cosmopolitanism. And hopefully we will trigger everyone at the same time. We are speaking first with Tara Isabella Burton and Dhananjay Jagannathan. Tara is a journalist and novelist. Her debut novel Social Creature was named book of the year by the New York Times and the Guardian. Her second novel, The World Cannot Give, will be published by Simon & Schuster in March 2022.

    She’s the author of the much acclaimed and really fun Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, published 2020. And she’s working on a history of self-creation, Self-Made: Curating Our Image from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, to be published by Public Affairs in 2023.

    Peter Mommsen: That sounds really fun.

    Susannah Black: Yeah, I’m psyched for it. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared everywhere. She is a columnist at Religion News Service and a contributing editor at American Purpose, which I always misread as American Porpoise. She also co-writes the Substack newsletter Line of Beauty with her husband Dhananjay, who is on as well.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan is a teacher of philosophy, a scholar, and an essayist, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University who is currently working on a book on Aristotle, ethics, and political philosophy. His writing for a broader audience has appeared in Plough, Breaking Ground and Earth and Altar. They are also two of my best friends and have kept me sane through the pandemic with weekly residencies, open-house gatherings where we remind each other that we have faces and bodies and are not just Zoom-related entities.

    Anyway, so the two of you both have pieces in this current issue, which is our Beyond Borders issue, which just came in yesterday; and they’re complementary pieces, which is not surprising because you guys share a lot of things. And I was just hoping that we could all talk about the various themes that both of these pieces touched on, and maybe a way to start off on that would be this: you guys are both third-culture kids in a way. Tara, do you want to talk a little bit about what your piece was about and what your background is?

    Tara Isabella Burton: Sure. So, it’s funny to think I would say I’m American now. I’m not sure that I would’ve said that for a variety of reasons as a teenager. I’ve only ever had an American passport. My mother is American. My father, who was not in my life and was never in my life, is Italian. My mother was living in Rome when she was pregnant with me. I was born by mistake in New York City because she was visiting family while pregnant. And I was born very, very early. Sometimes my mom would say, “Hey, we’re moving to Paris next month,” and we would. And I lived in England for nine years, and now I’m in New York.

    But my piece was about a particular attitude that I grew up with largely as a result of moving around all the time and the very particular way in which moving was conceived in my family. I think we were always very much [aware?] we were rootless cosmopolitans and possibly, I would say, proud of it. I remember my mother after 9/11 saying, “Well, we’re not really Americans. We’re New Yorkers, and of course we can move all over.” We had certain kinds of privilege and certain kinds of freedom, I will say rather unexamined in many ways.

    And I absorbed these ideas growing up and thought of myself not really American in a certain way, possessed of certain kinds of freedoms, thinking of these freedoms as desirable. The idea that I was a global citizen, that I could just pick up and move anywhere, anytime, start a new life, anywhere, anytime was really attractive to me. And as I got a little older, as I interrogated my own ideas and various ways, I reacted quite strongly against that and developed a fascination with certain kinds of rootedness and home.

    And what I’ve been grappling with and grapple with, particularly in a Christian context, is the way in which there’s something to the community that transcends certainly national borders, other kinds of borders, where the creation of a body, a polity would be transcendent, of a certain equality, particularly when we think about this as against the backdrop of the rise of certain kinds of nationalism – really right-wing nationalism.

    There’s something to the idea that we can create equality without rootedness or without bad rootedness. And yet there is also, I think, a need for good rootedness or a way of being together and living with one another where place isn’t just the background of our Instagram as it were, where it isn’t just a commodity that we can consume as we want according to our desires, because places or people are fungible in a certain way.

    Susannah Black: Obviously, the Bruderhof are themselves third-culture kids in a lot of ways, having gone from Germany to England to Paraguay to America and then all over. One of the things that we’ve been talking about is the way that, I don’t know, the way that the New Testament looks at this in particular where Pentecost as a story heals the story of the Tower of Babel, but doesn’t really reverse it. It creates this new … There is this new kind of polity, the kingdom of God; but it’s a multiethnic and multinational polity where people retain their complicated, different national identities.

    Dhananjay, that leads into your piece in an interesting way. Do you want to just talk about what that piece was about and about your background as well?

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: I was an immigrant twice-over as a child. We moved from India to Jamaica when I was three. And my earliest memories of my family in India are all from summer holidays back home visiting my grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins and so on. So, we were still rooted there. We went back regularly, but we lived in Jamaica for six years, then moved back to India, as I described in the piece, very briefly before ending up in the United States.

    And in some sense, those were chosen [moves, but] in some sense, they were unchosen or at least choices that my parents made under various kinds of pressures, including what we would now think of as issues about environmental damage and industrialization. We lived in New Delhi when I was born, and I spent a good part of my early life very sick because of the pollution there. My parents, although they were highly educated, as most of my family is, and economically comfortable – in India, everyone suffers alike when the electricity and the water go out; and that was a very common occurrence.

    New York skyline from New Jersey

    Photograph by Mike C. Valdivia

    So, that’s how we ended up in the US, but, of course, it was also a matter of choice. A lot of my father’s family was already here. I describe in the piece that I have this Midwestern family. Chicago was one of the first cities I saw growing up, and I ended up living there as an adult myself. I felt like that was a coming home for me. My sister went to college there. I have a lot of roots there, too, although they’re the roots, mostly roots of migration.

    And then as an adult, shortly after becoming an American citizen, I moved to the UK. I thought I would be there for a long time because I was choosing British academia in a way over American academia. And then I reversed that choice a few years into my time there and came back home. Again, that was mostly because I was excited about doing my PhD at the University of Chicago. But it was also in part because it was becoming a very unpleasant place to be an immigrant. These are the early years of the first Cameron government.

    When I was a graduate student at Cambridge, for instance, I was forced to sign a register to say that I hadn’t caused any trouble and that I was being a good immigrant. Once a month, I had to go in and sign this register, and I felt quite offended by that. I didn’t relish the possibility of having uncertain academic or employment status in a country that was being very unwelcome to migrants. And there were horror stories that I’d heard about people getting trapped in between visa categories.

    So, I came home to what was a country that I had barely lived in as a citizen but that was very much home. And it’s that alchemy that I talk about at the very end of the piece, in relation to Goethe’s elective affinities. We tend to think of our choices as something fully under our control; but, of course, you never choose the circumstances. I’m very conscious that the choices that I and my family have made about where to live have largely been voluntary, and that’s not the characteristic experience of migration. Most people migrate because they’re displaced, because they’re refugees or asylum seekers or what we might think of now as economic migrants, people who are really desperate in their home countries.

    That was, of course, not my family’s own situation; and that’s part of what I want to grapple with is, what does choice look like? To what extent did I choose America, and to what extent did America choose me? This goes back again to Tara’s point about earnestness. I’m very earnest in this piece, and I feel very earnestly about my love of country. I, too, want a patriotism that isn’t just ethnonationalism. That’s one of the things I also explore.

    II: Tara Isabella Burton and Dhananjay Jagannathan: Nation and Empire

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I really loved the little Goethe exploration in your piece there, Dhananjay, and bringing that into conversation with this. I think early on this conversation it would just be good just to mention the wider context in which your pieces appear, which is a rise in a nationalist impulse in our country, in the United States and around the world over the last few years, which comes for understandable reasons, a desire for that rootedness, which people have felt taken from them. It seems almost to be a sense of loss, that we used to have something that we don’t have anymore.

    Tara, at the beginning of your piece you describe, you start off in a little Georgian village, which in some ways can encapsulate what I think a lot of people think of when they think of place and patriotism and rootedness, of this little place where one’s ancestors have lived forever and where everyone knows each other and where one has real roots. Right? So, I’d be interested in hearing both your thoughts on, what does it mean? What does that good patriotism look like? What does the good rootedness look like? Can we get a little further into that?

    Tara Isabella Burton: I think for me, it’s about a community where we are known sufficiently that we’re not necessarily fully free to reinvent ourselves. I think that there’s a sort of … And I’m thinking as much of the Georgian village as I am about like the diner in New York where I’ve been going since I was a kid, where they remember how annoying I was as a child. I think that there’s some way which a community that sees you in all of your aspects, whether it’s because they’ve seen your family through generations or because you’re, let’s say, coming together as adults.

    And I’m thinking of community rather than a country here, but I think the model stands. Your friends who really know you and know your good qualities and know your flaws, and the people who you can’t fool, even when you’re running away from something or want to present yourself some way. I think the good of a rooted community is that it tethers us a little bit. It forces us to reckon with who we really are and the way in which that really is predicated on the whole web of social relations.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: What’s so striking about your example, Tara, in that essay is that little guest house in Khevsureti, the place where that narrative begins, is a place that’s cobbled together from people from all over. So, in that very remote place, there too you find the making of community that you’re describing in relation to New York. And I think that shows that those possibilities are there to be actualized wherever people are. It might be more salient possibility in places where there are many different sorts of people, because then we’re encouraged to think about what actually does draw us together instead of relying on other sources for that or assumptions about what we already share. But it was remarkable to me that you felt rooted in that little place.

    It strikes me that when we talk about this in relation to nations, that it’s just a truth that every nation is cobbled together. I mean, just from the very minimal fact of people live and experience a place in one place. Even in the age of long-distance travel, rapid long-distance travel, almost everyone lives somewhere and some particular place and has those kinds of – unless they’re fully alienated – immediate relations with people around them. So, this is what I talk about in my piece, as well, that aside from Monaco or Vatican City, in every country, you’re in it by being in some particular place. It’s a geographic, metaphysical point, I suppose.

    But I think it’s a phenomenological one, too. Georgia, too, is a cobbled-together nation. So, is the US; and so is, certainly, a place like Great Britain, which is formerly composed of multiple nations. But the cobbling works differently in different places, and I think this is important to understand the phenomenon of nationalism. It’s that it’s not one phenomenon. I think there’s something very puzzling about American nationalism. It’s very hard to come up with a very good narrative about how this country belongs to anyone.

    But I can see someone making that case for other places and the kind of 19th-century style “to every ethnos, to every tribe, a nation and just one.” And that’s also true of a lot of places that underwent decolonization. The striking thing about Great Britain and about England in particular is that so many of the people there are people who came there from former colonies, and the experience of empire turned out to be quite porous in both directions in many places. And that means that a new cobbling together has to happen.

    You can really think of the process of, say, 1945 to the present in the UK, as a process of nation-building in a really important sense. That seems curious, because most people will point to 1707 or 1215, but I actually think the breakdown of the empire is really when that process got going. I think that it’s going to look very different in different places, and that means that we can’t talk about nationalism as one phenomenon.

    Susannah Black: I think that one of the reasons that Tara and I, you both have this like Austro-Hungarian Empire jones, is that we like the weird, complicated stuff. We like there to be room for real selfhood and real culture but also complication and …

    Peter Mommsen: overlapping.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. Overlapping. Does that make sense to you guys?

    Tara Isabella Burton: I wondered about the particular kinds of nostalgia that you find in these novels or in the Austro-Hungarian Empire mood more broadly. And I think that perhaps the pull there, the best of the pull there, is a recognition that power, cultural narratives are based on myths, on fantasies, on poems, on fragmented ideas as they are – I won’t say as opposed to real things. But ways in which the stories we tell one another, and whether they have purportedly factual stories, whether they be novels, whether they be national poems or epic poems or art, ways in which the vast verticality, as it were, of the artistic corpus handed down is something that often we’re able to connect to, that creates the imagined but also, an imagined narrative and history insofar as it’s always ideological and is a part of always a creative narrative.

    friends sitting and leaning on a wall looking at the view of an Italian city

    Photograph by Gabriella Clare Marino

    And yet insofar as it’s the product of books and stories and images written down by real people who lived in real places, who were themselves interpreting their little corner of what they saw, I think that awareness that when we think of our story, we are thinking of so many stories overlapping on top of one another, and we’re thinking of a kind of … I just have this image of like a beautifully cacophonous orchestra where everyone’s clanging something slightly different, but somehow it all works together as one.

    And I think that for me, a lot of my love of Trieste as opposed to Vienna is not just loving a particular period of history or being drawn aesthetically to certain kinds of architecture, but loving the way in which the story of what a poetic narrative is, is lampshaded and brought to the forefront.

    Dhananjay Jagannathan: Yeah. I want to pick up on the point about nostalgia, if I may. There’s an interesting problem there about historical memory and our self-understandings. One of the difficulties for Hindu nationalism in India these days is that there’s not an appropriate period that’s not mythic to draw on, because the country was self-evidently created by empire; first the Mughal Empire, and then the British Empire. So, if you’re going to get the territorial integrity right, you’re going to have to tell a story that goes back to some prehistoric or at least archaic period. And that’s not going to work in other places.

    Maybe the closest analogue to this is Greece. Right? There’s an awareness of a historical memory of classical Greek culture. And you can tell the story of the in-between period involving Byzantines and Turks and so on. In order to get back to the pure Hellenic ideal, you have to do a lot of violence to the experiences of actual people. And I think these kinds of cases of plausible and implausible and nostalgia are really interesting to me.

    Then there’s a question about what’s driving American nationalism these days, and again, I think it’s difficult for people to fasten on to just one period because the actual history is so complicated. But I’m instinctively anti-nationalist; and so I guess, again, I want to make the best argument on the other side. And the best I can come up with is that people do need shared stories and shared understandings, but I think they need them instrumentally in order to access shared values. And it’s actually the values that are primary.

    In this, I’m inspired in part by Frederick Douglass’s writings and his political philosophy, something that Tara has also been writing and thinking about, in the 19th century. And Douglass is faced with this enormously painful fact of American slavery, which is this horrifying, violent institution. And yet he still is thinking like the founders of a nation that could include former slavemasters and former slaves and all the other people who were in this country. There were far more Native Americans as well in that time.

    How can you bring all these people together? Well, the actual historical narratives aren’t going to be very much comfort. But I think there is a sense of shared values, and he locates it in the value of resisting tyranny. And he analogizes the slave’s resistance to the slavemaster, not just analogizes, but equates it to the Founding Fathers’ desire for freedom from tyranny. And that’s a masterful idea and ideal and construction of an ideal, and that project of accessing and understanding our shared values is going to be ongoing.

    This is, I think, where the kinds of nationalism that I’m less interested in separate themselves. They’re interested in something fossilized. So then nostalgia is about accessing some fixed past relative to which we can make sense of ourselves. And that’s always going to be shifting around, including as the people in a nation shift around, but also just over time, those things are going to lose their force. I think there’s far fewer people for whom invocations of Dunkirk, for instance, are going to activate anything like a shared national identity.

    But there are more recent events that that might, and I think that’s interesting. Maybe for some people it would be 9/11 in America. For other people, it would be the election of Barack Obama. I talk about both of those events in my piece, and I think it’s interesting thinking about these things as sort of ongoing processes of national formation.

    III: John Milbank: A Hymn to the English Countryside

    Peter Mommsen: We’re now going to be speaking with acclaimed theologian John Milbank, who will be joining us actually for the launch for this issue in the United Kingdom on October 14th in London. Susannah, what’s the name of the venue?

    Susannah Black : It is the Sekforde Pub in Clerkenwell, and if you’re interested, watch the Plough Twitter feed, because we will definitely be tweeting it out. So, John is going to be speaking and Adrian Pabst and Mary Harrington and Stephen Backhouse.

    Peter Mommsen: So, join John Milbank and Susannah and those others there if you’re in the London area. John Milbank is emeritus professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he is president of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. So, welcome, John, and thank you for contributing this piece to the issue, “In the Land of Logres,” which is this rhapsodic hymn of praise to the English countryside, which I really loved. I’m just wondering, John, what part of England were you thinking of when you wrote [the] piece, and could you summarize it?

    John Milbank: Well, I was really thinking of the whole of England, but I wrote it after we’d just been on holiday in Devon. So, it focuses down towards Devon to a degree. And I suppose I saw Devon as something like an epitome of the English countryside, because it has very gentle pastoral bits, but it also has a very wild area in the middle. It has a lot of coastline, and contrasting coastline that again is either sometimes very gentle or very wild.

    It’s a very difficult piece to summarize because it’s rather allusive, and I suppose the core of the piece is about the relationship between the English poetic sensibility on the one hand and the character of the English countryside on the other. And it’s basically a reflection on the notion of [the] pastoral, and it’s suggesting in some ways that English country studies is peculiarly pastoral in character. It’s quite gentle. It’s quite garden-like, even if it has these wild fringes to east and west and north that are being constantly invoked.

    You can see the pastoral as illusory, as a kind of retreat from reality. But I suppose the central argument of the piece is that it’s not really like that because the pastoral is a search for simplification. It’s a search for a return to roots, if you like, however complicated human society and culture becomes. And that might be quite important for the extension of human communications, development of human talents, and all sorts of other progress unless it connects back in the end to our rootedness within nature and to the simple things that are consistent about our physical needs and the things that we love most basically, if you like, the things that are nearest to the animal level, even if we’ve always gone beyond the animal level.

    So, it seems to me that the pastoral is something about reminding us of the basic. So, the fact that the pastoral can be, of course, quite artificial and is idealizing these rural conditions is nonetheless part of its truth, because it’s trying to combine the complex with the simple. If you like, it’s simplifying complexity without completely losing hold of complexity.

    Susannah Black: But as you say, it’s a very difficult piece to summarize. It’s essentially a poem, and it’s funny in a sort of allusive way. The more you know of English literature, the more echoes you’ll find in it. At least, I found it completely delightful because of that. It was like running into friends, kind of.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, absolutely. And as an outsider to the topic matter, American and German, and Susannah, you’re American and a New Yorker, as we were just talking about it, it made even an outsider fall in love with the idea of England in a way that I wasn’t expecting at all.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. One of the reasons that I’m really happy to have you on is that we’ve gone a couple of rounds this batch of podcasts about this particular issue of the magazine, about slightly both loving the idea of nation and rootedness and then being agonized about it and then thinking that maybe empire is a better model and then thinking that maybe all of these are just invented. But this piece and other parts of your work are very attuned to the reality of nation and that being a good thing that we don’t need to be scared of as long as it is not … Essentialized is the wrong word, as long as it’s not made an idol of.

    Peter Mommsen: The piece made me think, too, does a nation, does a country … You wrote both about the English countryside and about the English psyche and how the two are intertwined and the uniqueness of them, and you could say from the outside the gift of that to the world. So, there’s a sense in which, does a nation have a soul? Does a nation have a calling in the world looked at from Christian terms?

    John Milbank: I think that one of the issues there, which one of your contributors has already been talking about, is the question of values. And obviously, if a nation or any human community isn’t committed to positive values, then it’s hopeless. But I think that values aren’t necessarily entirely abstract, and I think it’s possible to value in different countries different traits of character without thinking that we should all behave like that or something like that, that if you like, human values are necessarily incarnated in different ways, which bring out different concrete facets.

    So, I think, one can go beyond the idea that we should only be attached to abstract values. I think it’s okay that we’re also attached to certain customs and traditions and patterns of doing things. After all, that’s partly why we go on holiday to foreign countries, that we enjoy their habits of life. Sometimes we even think they’re better than our own, but we don’t entirely follow them simply because they’re not our own. They’re not the most familiar things.

    old stone wall in the Lake District in the UK

    Photograph by Ryan Hughes

    But I think there’s also an area where the abstract meets the concrete, if you like. And I suppose one of the things that I was trying to indicate in that piece was the way the English perhaps value both privacy and community, that they’re not complete individualists, maybe less individualists than Americans are. But they certainly value privacy and a space to be eccentric and to do your own thing; but at the same time, there’s quite a strong sense of community and neighborliness and everybody getting together, especially, in a crisis, collaborating.

    And I think to some degree, you can sometimes see that in the English countryside, that it seems as if, in a sense, everything is private; and yet, everything is knitted together. You can pass from one bit to another because, again, unlike in America, there are footpaths going everywhere. I mean, not enough, and I believe in a wider right to access and a wider right to roam. But nonetheless, this sense that it’s all kind of knitted together either by hedges or stone walls and there is often no sense of gap. Yet, it’s not completely privatized either. There’s some kind of expressed synthesis of this private isolation with a coming together at the same time.

    Susannah Black: I’m in the middle of reading Peter Ackroyd’s history of England. He talks about the enclosure movements, the post-Norman enclosure movements, which are just incredible to think about. You know that this happened. But when you imagine what it would’ve been like to have for generations known that, worst case scenario, you can go into the forest and hunt a deer or gather wood. That’s a basic economic safety net. And suddenly that gets taken away. That’s pretty shocking. There’s an element to … I don’t know. I was finding myself getting extremely anti-Norman as I was reading this.

    John Milbank: Yes, and obviously there are arguments about that, but I think there’s little doubt that the Normans did … There were vast areas that were simply royal hunting areas, and the penalties were really extreme. And I think that did set a precedent for much later enclosures, which were carried out much more by aristocrats or by the gentry, the more that they got linked to commercial activity.

    In the case of Charles the First and Laud, for example, the monarchy was relatively opposing enclosures; and the parliament was supporting them. They doubt that that’s a big factor in English history, the disappearance of the peasantry in contrast to France and everybody becoming an agricultural laborer.

    Peter Mommsen: The idea of belonging to any people means belonging to a history that’s not only glorious, that includes … So, much of this moment of enclosure shaped what England is today, shaped that knitted-together countryside that you spoke of. Could you help us think a little bit about what it means to be patriotic, to be proud of belonging to a people whose story includes both the good and the bad?

    John Milbank: I think that today we’re very much in danger of completely demonizing the past, to be shocked at the fact that the past contains some horrific things. Maybe some of those have been amended today. And that can cause us to become very, very uncritical about our own present, to not realize the things that we’ve lost, for example, all the patterns of ritual that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people, something that I always also talk about in the piece.

    We imagine that their lives were rather humdrum, poor, and dull; but because they marked the seasons, they were aware of nature, and there was a pattern to time, as well as to space, there was a kind of automatic meaningfulness that people could dwell in those moments in a way that we can’t any longer. And I think, the other thing that’s wrong in our current way of looking at things is forgetting how the good is always intermingled with the bad. Increasingly we seem to talk as if something is either totally good or totally dreadful, whereas anybody knows that the two things are simply mixed up with each other.

    My piece talks quite a bit about hunting and talks about how I think that part of that English return to the basic, which I see as a bit like the Roman return to the basic. And I think it’s not an accident we’re talking about empires in either case. The love for the return to the hunt is, if you like, a return to the basic, almost the pre-agricultural. And one can be shocked by the cruelty of the hunt or its elitism and so on, but then the other aspect of that is the way so many people joined in and the way in which somehow most animals, their whole life is a search for food and the warding off of predators.

    In a way, that hunt joins us with that, and it gets on the sense that, what is the whole of life? The whole of life is not just the purpose but also a kind of a kind of play. And the piece is often about how the utilitarian is linked to more than utilitarian, to the decorative. And, again, I’m suggesting that may be a peculiarity of the English, that they tend to be less interested in art as such; but in a way they’re very interested in landscape as art, in gardening as art, and in a way, in the whole of life as art.

    And perhaps the reason why the English landscape has a peculiar prettiness about it is the way in which somehow ordinary processes become aesthetic, I think. I mean, all that today, of course, is very, very threatened, but I think it’s still visible.

    Susannah Black: That makes sense of, at least, my sense of Ruskin and Morris as more quintessentially English than Gainsborough in a way, although that might be an overstatement.

    John Milbank: Gainsborough very much stands at the origins of English landscape painting, along with actually the Welshman Richard Wilson, who was the real anticipator of Turner. Well, I suppose Ruskin and Morris are far more rebellious than Gainsborough. And that’s because, by that time, there’s a sense of the total ruination or the threatened ruination of the countryside by industrialization and commercial processes, whereas somebody like Gainsborough is more complacent.

    IV: John Milbank: Principalities and Powers

    Susannah Black: Everything seems to be going fairly well, to Gainsborough.

    I have a question. I would like your professional opinion as a theologian. One of the many strange things about reading the Old Testament, one runs into the idea of there being distinct nations. I can remember the extreme weirdness of realizing that God, actually, according to the way that the Bible describes it, sees nations. He notices nations as opposed to just individuals or even as opposed to just families.

    And there’s this sense of, obviously, in the book of Daniel [there’s] the most striking example of this, there’s a sense of, or at least an implication that each nation has an angel, in a very fairly literal way, assigned to it, and that a lot of political history has to do with these angels duking it out. I’m wondering, is there an angel of England? Is there an angel of the UK? How do you tell which body has the angel?

    John Milbank: A really great question. I mean, in the piece there’s a sort of, is it a monstrous giant or an angel that’s the spirit guarding England? And I think that’s quite biblical. It’s quite Pauline, if you like, because the New Testament, especially with Paul, is starting to worry about who it might be that’s governing nations. Are they good angels, or are they fallen angels, or semi-fallen angels? Are they principalities and powers? And yet in the New Testament and even with Paul, there’s a sense that Rome is [Inaudible]. He’s not simply rejecting Israel.

    So, I mean, it’s very, very mysterious, isn’t it, how peoples do come together, how they forgather and distinguish themselves? The sense that they are led by or expressing invisible spiritual powers makes quite a lot of sense to me. And the idea that these powers, as Paul sees it, are very ambivalent, that makes sense as well. They’re not absolute goods. Maybe we can’t totally avoid polytheism, but we have to remember that monotheism transcends that.

    So, I suppose then we get the idea that gods transmute into saints who are guardians of these countries, or indeed that every country has a really good guardian angel who’s really serving a God who is the ruler of everything and wishes for peace, that all the notions should collaborate and so forth.

    But I think we’re doing a violation to our nature if we just say that all kinds of regional and national identities are bad. I mean, I’m very critical of the idea that a nation necessarily needs to be aligned with a political unit, never mind an absolutely sovereign political unit. And this is an incredibly live debate today in Britain where we’ve broken with Europe, and on the other hand, we’re not a single nation. We’re less a single nation than the USA is.

    We’re four nations, and I think there’s a lot of good in the idea that we’re a multinational unit. That more allows us to be an imperium in the good sense or a commonwealth, in which we’re synthesizing different cultures. And my piece was often about how the English sensibilities connected with the awareness of a more mysterious Celtic margin and with a sometimes rather dark Germanic-Scandinavian margin, this kind of East-West tension that’s forming a sensibility and a strong sense of the preternatural that can be attractive or can be sinister.

    And what country in the world has so many hauntings and such an obsession with murder? That’s the dark side and I think related partly to a memory of the pagan. But then we’re only ever half redeemed. But I think the piece wants positively to celebrate this idea that you live in the moment, because happiness is always of the moment. And that this apparently is saying, well, seize the moment. Sounds non-eschatological, but it’s highly eschatological because happiness doesn’t increase or decrease. It’s there or not. So, it’s that anticipatory happiness.

    So, there’s an advocacy of a good synthesis of the Christian and the pagan. It’s sometimes in Anglican sensibility at its best, that is, assuming in a good way this hint of a Celtic enchantment is a kind of salve against the threat of a dark that requires some kind of sacrificial [?] to assuage it. And the poem, if you follow my links, I deliberately quote the Saxon dialogue of Solomon with Saturn, because this is showing how very powerful Irish influence is. And I’m very resistant to the idea that Ireland and Britain are completely different cultures.

    If you look, the Irish and British scholars are educated on the continent side-by-side at Aachen. Or look at the Book of Kells where both Celtic and Saxon influence is going on, all kind of interwoven. I think I find in the case of my own country, I find Irish nationalism ugly, I find Scottish nationalism ugly, and I find English nationalism even uglier. It’s probably controversial to say all those things, but I do think that British-Irish, literary, political, artistic culture at its best represents something more noble than that.

    There are differences, but there are also certain convergences and unities. And just for the same reason, I don’t think it’s a good idea that we’ve cut ourselves out from the EU, however disastrous and neoliberal it may be. You can’t really separate the political from the cultural, and already it’s having an insularizing effect on us. So, I suppose I’m celebrating particularity and passionate local identities, but I’m insisting that they’re complex and overlapping.

    So, I’m resisting either a purely abstract idea of the international, if you like, or a kind of fetishistic, atavistic concrete, where your culture is over-politicized and that attachment overrides everything else.

    Susannah Black: Yeah.

    John Milbank: I think we need neither of those things. I think Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, is linked to this idea that we’ve got, that it can be incarnated in very different ways in different places. Polish Christianity looks very different to Mexican Christianity, but they’re recognizably Catholic in either case.

    Susannah Black: We were talking with Tara and Dhananjay earlier about the kind of violence and simplification that happens when you try to make the political boundaries and the national boundaries, cultural boundaries, identical, and when you try to harden that up too much.

    John Milbank: I think that if you look at the case of Wales, it’s very interesting because it’s arguable that … I was on holiday in Ceredigion recently. It was about 60 percent Welsh-speaking. You can argue that Wales really has the most distinctively different culture, in the Welsh-speaking parts, of anywhere in either Britain or Ireland. And yet at least until recently that hasn’t taken a directly political form, perhaps because the identity is so fully expressed in the culture.

    And although I do sympathize with Welsh people – they are absolutely fed up with London – I think the risk is that … And you could see this has happened with Ireland, that it’s wanted its independence and in the end kind lost its soul. It’s rejected its own Catholic identity as if this was also something alien, but the result is you end up having the same values as everywhere else. You can see with the Scottish nationalists as well, that you have the blandest kind of international standard liberal values. You just put a national stamp on that or something like that.

    Peter Mommsen: So, the irony is that political sovereignty and independence could actually undermine real nationhood.

    John Milbank: Completely. Completely, and I’m half Scottish. In fact, I did a recent DNA test; and I’m about 60 percent Celtic and 40 percent English. So, there you go, according to my DNA. But I think that’s completely right. Because the absolute modern sovereign nation-state is a very, very modern idea, and it can be very antithetical to the preservation of real traditions.

    Susannah Black: I would just urge our listeners to once again read the piece, and then let the piece push you back toward all of the references that you’re going to hear in it. And then, I don’t know, also read Susanna Clarke, because every time you were downplaying Northernness, I kept thinking about the Raven King and the claims of the Raven King on us.

    John Milbank: Well, I wasn’t meaning to downplay it at all, but that’s part of what’s going on. And there are a lots of unresolved tensions in the piece. But I’m a huge Susanna Clarke fan.

    Susannah Black: I know you are.

    John Milbank: It’s nothing sort of astonishing that her second novel Piranesi, which is absolute genius, is so different from the first one.

    Susannah Black: It was at dinner at your place that Alison mentioned that Piranesi existed. I loved the first of the novels, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And I had not known about Piranesi, and she mentioned it. I think I bought it the next day, and then this has led to this massive obsession with Piranesi among the broader Plough community. Well, I think that’d wrap us up. John, thank you so much for coming on. This has been completely delightful.

    Peter Mommsen: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or your app of choice and rate us as well. We’ll be back next week to talk with Ashley Lucas about her in-depth reported piece on Russell Maroon Shoatz, who’s been in prison since 1972 for the politically motivated murder of a policeman; and 29 of those years he spent in solitary confinement in the state of Pennsylvania. Whatever your preconceptions are about what such a piece will be, you’ll be surprised. See you next week.

    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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    Contributed By DhananjayJagannathan Dhananjay Jagannathan

    Dhananjay Jagannathan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University, where he works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics.

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    Contributed By JohnMilbank John Milbank

    John Milbank is an Anglican Theologian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham where he works as President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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