Posted by: cochinblogger | August 26, 2010

National Characteristics or National Stereotypes?

In an earlier post (see An Anecdote from Germany), I wondered about the existence of national characteristics. In C. G. Jung: Lord of the Underworld, Colin Wilson has some interesting things to say about national characteristics. Here is the setting: Jung has left his home in Geneva for a trip to Africa, more to escape his numerous female admirers than for anything else. It turned out to be a professionally fruitful trip, however; Jung found more evidence for the existence of a collective unconsciousness.

The key to the impact of North Africa lies in Jung’s comment: ‘While I was still caught up in this dream of a static, age-old existence, I suddenly thought of my pocket watch, the symbol of the European’s accelerated tempo.’ The timeless world of North Africa, where punctuality was no longer a virtue, brought him closer to that world of myth and the unconscious whose existence he had only sensed in Switzerland, the home of the cuckoo clock. One of the most interesting discoveries of split-brain physiology is that the right brain has no sense of time; it is the left brain that is obsessed by time. Westerners are natural ‘left-brainers’; Arabs seem to be natural ‘right-brainers’. In his book The Dance of Life, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall describes Western man’s time sense as ‘monochromatic’, meaning ‘in a straight line’; the Arabs, Turks, the Indian tribes of South America, have a ‘polychromatic’ time sense; for them, time is more like a web, stretching out in all directions. In fact, we can all experience time as a web when we relax deeply and forget all sense of urgency. But it is difficult for a Westerner to relax naturally; he lives in a permanent state of tension. Jung, with his Swiss sense of order and Germanic efficiency, was more of a left-brainer than most. So, for him, lengthy contact with a polychromatic race brought a deep sense of peace and harmony.

The problem, of course,is that right-brainers tend to be less efficient; T. E. Lawrence remarked of the Arabs: ‘Their less taut wills flagged before mine flagged.’

Swiss order? Germanic efficiency? There is a widespread belief that Indians are a spiritual people. Living among Indians as I do, I don’t think that we Indians are a spiritual people, but at the same time it’s hard to dismiss these notions as mere stereotypes.

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