Yehudi Menuhin: On Nationalism

By Anjum Altaf

I am reading Yehudi Menuhin’s autobiography (Unfinished Journey) and sharing with readers what appeals to me. These thoughts on nationalism I feel are particularly meaningful for South Asians.

As a musician, well aware that art must have local roots if it is to convey universal meaning, I view evidences of cultural difference, even the perhaps insignificant ones I have cited, with approval as well as interest. The yearning to preserve a distinctive culture which sets the Basque against Madrid, the Scot against Westminster, the American Indian against Washington (however vastly these examples differ in degree), wins my sympathy. Undeniably the aspiration is legitimate and worthy. But is it possible, given human nature, to separate good from bad, the wish for cultural autonomy from the wish to impose one’s way of life on one’s neighbours? For me – the product of an upbringing not exclusively Jewish, not exclusively American, nor exclusively any other thing; one who has lived in many parts of the world and established ties with Asians, Africans and Europeans, as well as his beloved Americans; one who has spent his life bridging gaps – exclusivity as expressed in nationalism is not enough. I find it stifling. I also find it dangerous, for it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The first premise of existence is interdependence – not at the level of human organization alone, but throughout the cycle of activity embracing man and microbe, the worm and the swallow, in a complex of interlocking functions, all moving to the complementary rhythms of life and death. My ideal world would express its interdependence in a burning desire for understanding, a true sympathy, a readiness to pardon, which would sacrifice no strength, spare neither itself nor its enemies, but through its even-handed honesty would win universal trust – like a good doctor who is rigorous with his patients while healing all alike, saint or sinner, enemy or friend.

I understand the appeal of exclusivity, even the need for it. But it is not my way.

 

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4 Responses to “Yehudi Menuhin: On Nationalism”

  1. Vinod Says:

    I find it stifling. I also find it dangerous, for it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

    I would have liked to hear his elaboration of this statement.

  2. Apita Chatterjee Says:

    I wonder whether you’ve read Tagore’s views on nationalism – I have a feeling it will interest the readers of this blog

    • SouthAsian Says:

      AC: I am sure this would be of great interest to readers. We need a volunteer to provide a summary. The debate between Tagore and Gandhi still remains relevant today and is summarized here.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    This interview with Adam Michnik (one of the leading organizers of the anti-communist democratic opposition in Poland from 1966 to 1989) contains a number of observations on nationalism (among other topics) that are worth discussion:

    http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-05-25-michnikplesu-en.html

    Excerpts:

    in Poland I have always been an enemy of nationalism and chauvinism. On the other hand, I am fully aware that we are fulfilled as individuals in the sphere of our national culture, in the sphere of language and historic tradition.

    identity can degenerate in two ways. In my life, the first degeneration was caused by Bolshevism. It was a brutal censorship of the Polish national tradition. The second one was caused by nationalism. I am told that I have to listen to any Polish leadership, even if it is stupid and reprobate, just because it is Polish.

    This is my Poland, it is this kind of Poland that I love. This does not mean that I do not look at it with a critical eye; Polish culture is very self-critical. I could never allow myself to think “I love Poland more than the truth”. But I do believe that the truth is never against Poland. It is lies which are against Poland.

    As a Pole I could never allow myself to mock the Lithuanians, because Lithuania is small and Poland is big. Likewise, I don’t like it when Germans or Russians look at Poland with irony.

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