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Hospitality and the city   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Hospitality and the city
poverty, cities, art, creativity, charity, welfare
Monday, October 30, 2006 19:44 GMT

The beginning of a folktale, which all of us know:

A weary traveller arrives in a town at night. He is a stranger from afar, and he is alone. He knocks at doors, asking where he can stay, until he finds someone who has room to house him for the night. He is given food and lodging, and stories are exchanged: stories of here, and stories of there. The traveller leaves again in the morning to resume his journey.

Perhaps the traveller reveals himself to be a king, or a magician, and the host family receives an astonishing reward. Perhaps he is a figure of darkness, a disturbing new presence in the town's otherwise humdrum life. Either way, a tale can begin from there.

Contemporary, capitalist, society is conspicuous in its indifference to the virtue of hospitality, which has lain at the centre of most other cultures. Across history, and in many different places, the idea of providing food, shelter and cash to strangers in need has played an obvious and important economic role. More than this, it has brought together strangers in intimate settings, and provided a vital channel for news, culture and ideas to be exchanged.

The magnificence of many of the caravanserais built across the medieval Muslim empires lay not in the private quarters provided to travellers, but in the prominence of the poets, musicians and philosophers who congregated in the courtyards to talk to guests and provide entertainment. Through the sarais, musical styles travelled across enormous geographical zones, politics and new technology were transmitted and discussed, poems and stories were spread, and philosophical ideas were communicated.

The ethos of hospitality was considered to be central to those earlier forms of globalisation, not just because it made journeys economically viable for those who could not afford to pay for weeks or months of accommodation, but also because it demanded a certain openness of spirit, both in those who provided hospitality and in those who received it. It demanded that both parties expose themselves to the foreign and walk away, possibly, changed.

In the production of modern European societies, a great value was placed on distance. The modern European "man" needed space around him to think and achieve his greatness, and to be able to enjoy distance, therefore, from society. The welfare society was imagined according to the principle that individuals would subcontract their responsibilities to each other to the state, and that they would therefore not be entangled as they had been before. Modern European culture respects all the forms of politeness that maintain distance between citizens, and treats as shameful all lifestyles that require an individual to "impose" on others: begging, accepting charity, squatting abandoned land, etc.

Ironically, this same culture also worships the extraordinary creativity that sometimes arose from an earlier ethos of hospitality. Many of the great modern European thinkers and artists, if they were not independently wealthy, were only capable of their achievements because other people took care of their material requirements. Marx was supported throughout much of his life by his friend Engels. The Wikipedia entry on James Joyce says

"His expert borrowing skills kept him from ever becoming completely destitute ... In Paris, Maria and Eugene Jolas nursed Joyce during his long years of writing Finnegans Wake. Were it not for their unwavering support (along with Harriet Shaw Weaver's constant financial support), there is a good possibility that his books might never have been finished or published."

while the entry on Van Gogh says

"The central figure in Vincent van Gogh's life was his brother Theo, an art dealer with the firm of Goupil & Cie, who continually and selflessly provided financial support."

That the much-maligned "freeloader" actually lies at the centre of European culture, and has been responsible for some of its most profound ideas and works of art, reminds us of a number of things.

Firstly, that any idea of freedom must include the freedom to be poor - that a free society cannot call itself such if it removes every possibility for people without money to create an existence for themselves. Secondly, that in seeking to do away with the need for such dependencies as those enjoyed by Marx, Joyce and Van Gogh, European societies also struck at the heart of their own creativity. And thirdly, that contemporary societies might have much to learn from all those other cultures in which willful poverty - as chosen by hermits, ascetics, monks etc - and the hospitality that sustained it were prominent social forms.

To this I add just a few notes:

-- Jains in India are among the most wealthy and successful businesspeople. They control the majority of the diamond trade, and are prominent in most industries, and have a culture of money and display. In line with the ascetic, non-violent strain that is also crucial to their culture, however, it is not uncommon for Jains to give away their entire fortune and to wander for the rest of their lives as ascetic monks, sometimes electing, as an ultimate form of non-violence against the world, to end their lives through starvation. Suketu Mehta's recent book, Maximum City, contains an amazing account of a billionaire diamond merchant from Bombay who, with his entire family, has renounced life, given away their money and become travelling Jain monks who walk barefoot across India. Quite obviously, this ascetic way of life has its own culture and lifestyle, and a large body of people inside and outside it who create it, help it, and allow it to exist.

-- When I was in Turkey I discovered that most of the academics I met in Istanbul were sponsored by other people: friends, ex-lovers, patrons. The $400-a-month wages at the state universities are inadequate for a city whose prices are not much lower than Barcelona, and yet corporate wages may be very high. A number of people doing corporate jobs supplement the wages of friends doing academic jobs so that they may devote themselves to this work.

-- Squatting has been in the news a lot recently (Paris and London). This is not the place to give a history of squatting in the west - the Wikipedia entry is a start - but it is clear that squatting is a deeply interesting counter-culture in the current context. Like the culture of free software, which is closely associated with it, squatting calls into question the nature of the property-society, the accepted goals of people in such societies (e.g. to own property), and the idea of scarcity that underpins much of the rhetoric of such a society. Like free software again, squatters have tried to resurrect ideas of sharing and hospitality in societies where those ideas have been significantly marginalised.