PoW: On toes, feet, pilgrimages, Europe, and xenophilia

I feel like a polar bear who wakes up to discover the piece of ice they went to sleep on has broken free of the mainland and floated far out into the sea. Or is that disappearing iceberg the EU, and we’re the ones on solid ground? The Economist put it well: “We journalists are probably too bleary-eyed after a sleepless night to understand the full significance of what has just happened in Brussels. What is clear is that after a long, hard and rancorous negotiation, at about 5am this morning the European Union split in a fundamental way.”

Has the UK just left the EU? Has the UK put national interests willfully and foolishly before the wider collective good? As far as I can tell, this is what happened: David Cameron went to the summit with the intention of supporting it. He made clear that he couldn’t sign up to a Tobin tax, and that he thought a Tobin tax was beside the point to the immediate challenge of saving the eurozone from collapse - something he very much wants to do. I think he fully expected to be able keep the UK out of a Tobin tax while signing up to this treaty, and was prepared to stand up to those in his party who wanted a referendum on the new treaty.

However, it seems France and Germany are sick of the UK’s exceptionalism. They felt that they could go ahead without the UK, or perhaps they expected the UK to fold at this point and sign up to the Tobin tax. But Cameron didn’t fold. Neither side would budge - all on this frankly irrelevant matter of the Tobin tax. It’s irrelevant to the immediate project of saving the eurozone from a crisis of investor confidence. And so Cameron walked away, Europe went ahead, and the treaty already looks weaker to the markets. That’s a disastrous outcome - it makes the treaty less likely to save the eurozone, which is in everyone’s interest.

How did the diplomacy fail so terribly? Why couldn’t a simple opt-out of the Tobin tax clause be built into the treaty? It seems ridiculous bloody-mindedness on Sarkozy and Merkel’s part - unless Sarkozy is betting that a smaller eurozone will survive the collapse of the euro, and Paris will be its financial capital. Bagehot of the Economist quotes two French politicians, who tell him that "France wants to use the euro crisis to deepen integration around a core of countries that use the euro, under the political control of a handful of big national leaders."

That doesn't sound a great project: anti-democratic, anti-smaller countries, pro-French banks, pro-Serkozy's ego. But who knows? Right now, the future is so murky (or should I say Merkozy) it’s anyone’s guess how this will resolve itself.


Last night, the London Philosophy Club turned its attention to humbler matters: the big toe. Matthew Beaumont, a talented lecturer in the English department of University College London gave a witty talk on the dignity of the big toe, that most reviled and ridiculed part of the anatomy, which Matthew saw as a metaphor for the lumpenproletariat. And yet doesn’t the big toe, ugly and misshapen as it is, support the whole human enterprise? Doesn’t it allow us to spring forward? It was an impassioned ‘manifest-toe’, as he put it.

Matthew reminded me of the Marxist novelist China Mieville - they’re both crew-cut Leninists, both fascinated by the city, its domination by capitalism, and the possibilities for rebellion and resistance within the city. Matthew runs the ‘city project’ at UCL, while China Mieville wrote the excellent The City and the City about, well, the city. It turns out China is one of his good friends - they’re in the Socialist Worker’s Party together, and Matthew was even China’s treasurer when he ran for MP. Here's a pic of him at last night's event.


Listening to Matthew’s encomium of the big toe as an exaltation of the humble, the base, the material versus the exalted and idealistic, I was reminded of Christianity, that prototype of Marxism. Didn’t Christ also radically reverse power categories: a reversal symbolised in the act of washing his disciples feet?

I was also reminded of the pilgrimage, that act of devotion where a person puts their feet through all kinds of hardship, in order to get closer to the ground, closer to reality, closer to God. I walked the Camino de Santiago last year, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not a Christian, but I loved the pilgrimage’s combination of walking, contemplation and fraternity. I wrote about the experience in the last chapter of my book, in the chapter about Aristotle (a philosopher known as the ‘peripatetic’, because he wandered around a lot). I wrote: ‘To go on a pilgrimage is to make yourself vulnerable, to put yourself at the mercy of others. You learn to accept the gift of others’ help, and to accept your own dependency.” [Below is a pic of one pilgrim getting a foot tended to by a fellow pilgrim!]

A pilgrim is at the mercy of strangers’ friendship and hospitality (a word that comes from the ‘hospitallers’ who helped the pilgrims along the route). The pilgrimage asserts a shared humanity with people from other cultures and countries: going on pilgrimage across Europe used to be an assertion of Christians’ common, supranational identity. It’s an assertion of the opposite of xenophobia: xenophilia, or love for the stranger, which comes from the ancient Greek cult of Zeus Xenos, or Zeus the Stranger. Zeus was thought to appear sometimes as an itinerant, so Greeks thought it always wise to offer hospitality to itinerants, just in case they were a god in disguise.


I’ve had the pilgrimage in mind the last few days, as I’ve been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts. He set off when he was 18, with just a back-pack and a copy of Horace, to walk across Europe in 1933. Despite encountering the occasional Nazi brownshirt, his overwhelming impression was of Europeans’ hospitality and generosity, taking the young English stranger into their homes, feeding him, giving him a lot of wine and schnapps, and showering him with gifts (his backpack was stolen at one point, and a Bavarian count made up for his loss of Horace with the gift of a priceless 17th century edition).

Fermor seems to be, unconsciously perhaps, recreating the pilgrimage for secular times, and searching for a common European identity beyond tribal differences. He tells the story of when he was involved in the kidnapping of a German general during the War. They took him on escape trek across the Alps. One dawn, the captured general looked out on the mountains, and quietly quoted Horace to himself, in Latin (I’ve used Dryden’s translation):

Behold yon Mountains hoary height,
Made higher with new Mounts of snow:

Fermor, who seemed to know a huge amount of poetry off by heart, hears him, and quotes the rest. The General looks at him and nods sadly, and a bond is formed between them, amid all that wintery war and disunity:

Behold yon Mountains hoary height,
Made higher with new Mounts of snow:
Again behold the Winter's weight
Oppress the lab'ring Woods below;
And Streams, with Icy fetters bound,
Benum'd and crampt to solid Ground.

With well-heap'd logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the Wine, that makes us bold,
And sprightly Wit and Love inspires:
For what hereafter shall betide,
God, if 'tis worth his care, provide.

Let him alone, with what he made,
To toss and turn the World below;
At his command the storms invade,
The winds by his Commission blow,
Till with a nod he bids 'em cease,
And then the Calm returns, and all is peace.

To morrow and her works defie,
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by,
To put them out of Fortune's pow'r;
Nor love nor love's delights disdain;
Whate're thou get'st today is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That Youth unsowr'd with sorrow bears,
E're with'ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years!
For active sports, for pleasing rest,
This is the time to be possessed;
The best is but in season best.

The pointed hour of promis'd Bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind Nymph wou'd coyness feign,
And hides but to be found again;
These, these are the joys the Gods for Youth ordain.


Talking of the gift economy, here is behavioural economist Dan Ariely talking at this year’s Burning Man festival, dressed in a natty cape.

And here is a new article by Stanford University’s psychophysiology of emotion centre, also on the emotional effects of the Burning Man festival.

Here is something I wrote recently on the idea of ‘dancing mania’, its history, and how it survives in the arts.

Here is proof that walking beats flying: a terrifying account of the Air France crash, why it happened, and the mixture of technical fault and simple human error that caused it. Edge of your seat reading.

Here is a study of why cheerfulness is negatively correlated to academic achievement, by Ed Diener and others.

Finally, one of the interesting things I discovered in Fermor’s book was that Alan Watts, the great western authority on Zen, wrote his first book on Zen while still a teenager at Kings College Canterbury (he was a schoolmate of Fermor’s). Here is a funny animation of some of his Zen talks, done by the creators of South Park.

See you next week.