Familiarity Breeds Absence

Familiarity Breeds Absence

The Grand Canal, by J.M.W. Turner. 1835

For many of us, the foreign is enticing, exciting, a call to leave ourselves behind and find the new. To others, it’s something to fear, distort, and avoid. Thinking again about Woody Allen’s movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I wonder if familiarity breeds something less than contempt, and more like indifference and forgetfulness. Contrast truly is the key here. Contrast in the way we act socially, in love, at work, with friends. Contrast in the way we handle emotions, especially.

I was born into a society that is largely at odds with the things I value the most. This is not an uncommon experience, and I am far from the first person to feel that opposition. It has, in fact, been a common theme in the arts for thousands of years. The feeling of alienation is perhaps the single greatest driving force behind the arts, though I think great art comes from the struggle to understand and transcend that alienation, not the fact of alienation itself.

To me, it is interesting to contemplate the direction of the foreign. If someone comes from a land where emotions are high, quick, and flash at the drop of a hat, if they come from a world that believes in living passionately in the now, and they move to a much more sober, grayish land . . . what then? There are many stories in our culture in the other direction — of sober, serious, sun-deprived people moving to fiery climes and their evolution under the sun. Do all of us who desire change in some form, desire it because our climate bores us, or is there a logical, higher, better climate we seek in common?

By climate I mean everything. Beyond the weather, does the climate encourage free thought, sexual freedom, progressive politics? Does it promote the arts, an understanding and appreciation of the arts? Does it value education, knowledge, wisdom, earned sophistication? Is it cosmopolitan? Is it passionate about the now?

For those who are born in such an environment, the foreign to them would be something much closer to that gray world I mention. Some might willingly choose it and want to escape from their passionate place in the sun. They might long for sobriety and a diminution of the sensual.


Woody Allen could make a very interesting sequel. He could send Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz to some non-descript American suburb and watch their transformation into gray. It might even be what they truly want, at least for the summer.


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