I have spoken before about the relation of the real and the imaginary, suggesting that the opposition we commonly make between them does not bear examination; now, prompted by current events – chiefly the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence – I would like to consider the matter again, first in relation to our world, next in relation to ourselves.
Let’s start with some maps. Consider this one (click to enlarge):
It shows what would have been Kurdistan had the Treaty of Sèvres been ratified in 1920, a country comprising territory drawn from present day Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. But the treaty was overtaken by events and never implemented; as a consequence, the Kurds, a numerous people with their own distinct culture, have no country that can be found on the map below (click to enlarge):
That is a reasonably current political map of the world, though if you look closely, it does not show South Sudan as a separate country; and quarter of a century ago it would have looked very different, as countries such as the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan would all have been shown as part of the Soviet Union, while all the Balkan states – Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia – would have been shown as Yugoslavia, while Czechoslovakia would have been a single country. Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, it may need to be changed again, in a couple of years, to show Scotland as a separate country.
Now, many of the countries in that list did not reappear on the map without considerable bloodshed, loss of life and material destruction, so there is no doubt that those lines and colours represent something that has real effects; yet only because we allow it to be so – the great majority of the earth’s population (by which I mean the non-human part) pay them no heed at all – to the birds and bees and beasts and fishes the world is like this, a number of undifferentiated unnamed landmasses of varying terrain surrounded by a great deal of water and capped above and below with ice (click to enlarge):
The political map of the world is, in effect, the picture of an extraordinary work of the imagination: nothing that it shows is actually there. It represents an imaginary consensus that we have (more or less) agreed to abide by.
You will rightly protest, ‘when did we agree to it? when did we give our consent?’ and in one sense that is fair enough: it may be, as Burns avers, that ‘Freedom an Whisky gang thegither’ but borders and consent seldom do. Take that line shown on the first map, dividing the French Mandate of Syria from the British mandate of Iraq – that is the (in)famous Sykes-Picot line, drawn in 1916 by Mr Sykes, an Englishman, and M. Picot, a Frenchman, without reference to the people living in either territory (the same line is currently straddled by the bloodthirsty and barbarous forces of IS, seeking to establish a territory carved from present day Iraq and Syria).
The Sykes-Picot line is by no means exceptional: the bounds of most of the countries in Africa were similarly created, to suit their own ends, by European Imperial powers in the nineteenth century – a fact which I am sure contributes to the mindset of many of those currently camped in Calais, desperately seeking any means to cross the channel; they have only got there by flagrant disregard of borders and the conventions that maintain them, generally at great personal risk and hardship. (Many do not make it so far – 2.500 migrants are reckoned to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone; and it is shameful that it took diligent searching to find this account of the latest horror – 500 believed drowned last week, after their traffickers rammed their boat – perhaps if we were less preoccupied with our internal boundaries it might have had more prominence) Are the ones who have reached Calais unreasonable in thinking they should not be bound by imaginary lines they had no part in drawing?
But such defiance of convention makes us and our governments nervous: we feel it as a threat to ‘all we stand for’ – that being what the political map shows. It represents the triumph of one set of ideas – the notion of ‘civilisation’ – dwelling in settled communities – over a much older idea that now survives only in pockets, and in the face of much hostility, namely that people are free to wander over the face of the earth, much as its non-human population does.
It is interesting to consider the political world map alongside the question of religious belief. We acknowledge that (in the West, at least) there is a crisis of religious faith: institutions and sets of ideas that long exerted a powerful sway over people’s lives, and in which there was a widespread belief (I mean ‘belief’ in the sense of ‘confidence’ or ‘trust’) have now fallen into decay – a consensus that formerly existed has begun to break up, for good or ill. Yet the imaginary world portrayed by the political map, with its countries, borders, laws, is just as much a matter of faith: it exists only because we assent to it; it has the shape and form it has because we have given it that shape and form, not from any external cause. Whether it keeps that shape or form or changes it for another is a matter of will.
But do not fall into the trap of supposing that imaginary things are easy to alter: you can destroy a city more easily than you can destroy an idea. Our beliefs, of all things, are perhaps least easily changed. But the realisation that they are beliefs, not pre-ordained facts, and that we alone are responsible for them, is an important shift of perspective: once we have made it, we can no longer say ‘that is just the way things are’ nor protest ‘we can’t do anything about it.’
We must see that this is the way we have made things for ourselves, and we are the only ones who can do anything about it (and truth to tell, the only ones to whom it matters a jot: the birds and beasts and fishes don’t mind).
[There is a further stage that I want to consider, and that is whether our beliefs concerning ourselves and our relation to one another and the world are not equally conventional and capable of being reimagined in some better way, but for now, enough]