The Borderland

This week I’ve had the first set of extra days off school since getting back to work for Espoo this autumn, so I treated myself to a bit of time in Estonia. I’m spending most of this time in the little university town of Tartu, which I can recommend to anyone as a fascinating cultural experience unto itself.  But on the recommendation of one of my new friends from Tartu I actually spent the day on Friday back up in the all too familiar city of Tallinn. It was the second day of an academic conference there, mostly run by Estonians, but including a fair number of international academics, on the subject of “borders”.  So being the habitual border crosser that I am, I had to dive in just for the fun of it.

Being me, of course I talked too much, but I don’t think I irritated too many people too badly in the process, and I had a wonderful time of it. I won’t try to summarize all of the fascinating discussions I listened to and took part in; I’ll just let some of my thoughts flow in relation to this event.

The borders to be discussed there were opened up as widely as possible thematically: from national borders to language barriers, to artistic framing processes, to borders created by religious difference, to the process of smuggling, to borders of good taste, to the cultural novices knowing their place in relation to experts. Some that I didn’t hear discussed were the thin border between genius and insanity, the difference we sense between what we are and what we feel we ideally should be, and the extent to which we have to keep others at an emotional distance at times to maintain our sanity. Perhaps there were talks on those aspects that I missed, but that’s beside the point.

In the past 20 years or so since I first crossed the border between Finland and Estonia on a number of levels this border has faded significantly. One of my more permanent memories was crossing over for a day trip just as Estonia was in the process of leaving the Soviet Union. They had already changed the official time zone to match Helsinki rather than Leningrad, but you still got a sense of the old joke, “Set your watch one hour forward and 30 years backward.” They still had the Soviet rubles as the currency, there were still signs of a Russian military presence around Tallinn, and even on a brilliant sunny day there seemed to be a dank grey cultural mist hanging over the decaying medieval and Stalinist monuments of the city. I got off the boat and was herded into a line where I had to leave my passport as assurance that I wasn’t going to run off on some spying mission around the country. I then proceeded to the currency exchange, where for a ten dollar bill I got a stack of rubles too thick to fold, that allowed me to walk around the town like I owned the place. It was also the first time when I went to a shop where they had an abacus instead of a cash register. Guess who ended up making an idiot out of himself there. It didn’t take too long after that for such trips to become something of a habit though. The next time I went they had their own currency already, and there were fewer and fewer remnants of Soviet life every time thereafter.

Since then Estonia’s own currency, the krooni, has come and gone, the shock of post-Soviet organized crime has given way to a spirit of respectable law and order, and it is no bigger deal to wander around Estonia than it would be to go from New Hampshire to Vermont. Things are still noticeably cheaper here than in Finland, but quality of goods and services suffers less and less by comparison. Gone are the flea markets with people selling for a pittance anything that could live without. In their places are standard western shopping malls. Stalinist monuments have been replaced by monuments to western consumerism. Medieval elements have been face-lifted and modernized to better attract wealthier sorts of visitors.

Tartu I visited for the first time in January of 1994, just after getting my permanent Finnish resident visa stamped into the second passport I ever owned. I was part of a mission to try to increase contacts between Finnish and Estonian theology students; the latter having just been legalized again following the end of the Soviet era. Not only that, but Tartu had only recently become accessible to foreigners again following the closing of a major Soviet air force base there in the late 80s. To say that it was a different world would be no exaggeration whatsoever.  But in spite of the major gaps and borders that still existed back then, the will to come together and the belief that we could overcome the remaining boundaries were infectious.

In some ways that experience reminded me of a quote from Mark C. Taylor that figured into my master’s thesis work around that time. I can’t find the exact reference on line so without running to the library I’ll just say that I think it was in “Erring” and it basically said that the things that make us alive are acts which violate the borders between what is inside of us and what is outside: “eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and fucking”, and it is no accident that most of those words are considered indecent.

But that brings me to the question of balance in these matters. While I’m not one to promote extensive fasting, constipation or celibacy, I do feel that there need to be limits on these processes. As I’ve said before, sexual abuse is one of the chief evils I see in the world. And even if you don’t religiously follow some code like veganism or a halal diet, there need to me some limits on what you allow yourself to eat if you wish to remain healthy. Likewise releasing bodily waste products needs to be done in a way that the smell and remains do not offend the aesthetic sensibilities of others or put their health at risk any more than necessary. And this is not even touching on some of the other means of violating the physical border between inside not mentioned in the Taylor quote: slashing, stabbing, injecting, shooting…

So while there is a certain thrill in overcoming certain kinds of borders, there is also a functional benefit in respecting and maintaining some sorts of borders relating to our personal integrity.  How do we decide where to draw that line?

One significant area of border crossing that needs to be considered is that of language. The Bible presents the Tower of Babel and the resulting difference in languages as a curse, intended to limit mankind’s ability to “reach to the heavens”.  If we take that at face value, how far do we want to go in overcoming that boundary in the interest of searching for universal theological truths that God was seemingly trying to prevent us from finding? Should we just accept language barriers as literally God-given limitations and just be content not to understand each other? I’m not enough of a Fundamentalist to believe that.

There are other complicated questions there though. Language is a blessing as well as a curse, even in the differences it creates. I had a very difficult time communicating with the building supervisor of the dormitory I’ve spent the weekend at, as she only speaks Russian and a little Estonian, and I only speak English and Finnish, but neither of us would want to wish any of those four languages out of existence. And to the extent that I am able to express the same thing in different languages, and express things in some languages that can’t be properly expressed in others, my life is richer for it. For all their problems and limitations, languages are important manifestations of the people who speak them, and worth maintaining on that basis. But at the same time the limitations of one’s language should not be accepted as the proper limitations of what one is able to or allowed to think about. Allowing the freedom to think beyond the current limits of one’s language while still using that language as a vehicle for one’s thoughts will inevitably corrupt the purity of that language. How big a threat is that really? For that matter how far do we need to go in the process of trying to artificially resuscitate dying languages, such as that of the Votian people living in a few scattered villages southwest of St. Petersburg? I don’t have an answer for that, but I plan to continue enjoying and corrupting the languages at my disposal regardless.

In some regards the same applies to religion. We have many different systems of faith that we use in our attempts to interact with the transcendental and with each other. Sometimes those help us understand each other better; other times they put us at each other’s throats. Sometimes maintaining doctrinal purity is more important to people than reaching any greater understanding of what is “out there”. For this reason my light hearted jest in the last sentence of the last paragraph could be much more dangerous to apply to religions. There is a word for those who corrupt them on purpose: heretics. And while heretics haven’t been burned at the stake in western society for many years, death for threatening doctrinal purity is still almost commonplace in the Muslim world.

Regardless of these risks though, there is much to be said for dialog between those of different religious traditions; for learning to communicate with each other regarding “spiritual matters” even when our traditional formulations of how such things are supposed to work come under threat in the process.  Yet this needs to be done in a way that respects religions’ individual integrity and means of expressing things. Just as I don’t want to try to stomp out the use of Russian because “English can say things so much better”, I don’t want to stomp out Islam or Hinduism on the presumption that Christianity’s world view makes them redundant. I know that many Christians don’t share my views on that one, and that relatively few Muslims would be ready to reciprocate the mutual respect in this regard, but such is life. I’ll pursue these ideals regardless.

However one of the most interesting papers I heard at the conference Friday was on the question of “merchandizing” ethnicity. It is clear that, in the process of seeking out the thrill of crossing various sorts of borders, there are many of us who search for the exotic, and who are drawn in by the lure of interacting with those who are in some ways radically different than we are. Estonia has recently been beefing up is PR campaigns specifically to attract habitual border crossers like me. But researcher Elo-Hanna Seljamma has come across people whose ethnicity is being merchandized in this sort of way who are actually sort of resenting it. Even if this is not done in a sanitized Disney style production, is there something “indecent” about taking the most intimate aspects of a person’s life and a culture’s self-identification processes –– its religious convictions and rituals, its language and folk art –– and displaying them as part of a broader national promotion package? Is this somehow akin to pornography and sacrilege? There’s a very legitimate question to be pondered there.

That being said, not to cross such borders or boundaries at all, from my perspective, would be to surrender the most important aspects of what really make us alive. In that regard I believe that Mark C. Taylor’s point still holds. I don’t believe in a literalist, Fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis 11, either as a historical record of how the world’s languages began or as the basis for an ethical norm of avoiding interpretation and attempts at mutual understanding. I want to be careful and sensitive about forcing others to culturally interact with me against their will, but I make no apologies for wanting to understand them better as a means of attempting to (selfishly) enrich my own life. I only hope that in going forward from here I will able to find the right balance in these regards.

And on that note I’d like to say thank you to all of the fascinating people I’ve had a chance to interact with over the past week and I hope that we will continue to enrich each other’s lives as time goes on.



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Filed under Education, Linguistics, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel

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