24 August 2009

The Church of Latter-Day Switzerland

Switzerland is special. Just ask the Swiss.

In graduate school I took a seminar that focused on the Western novelists Wallace Stegner (yea!) and Mary Hallock Foote (ugh!). As a transition between the two writers, we took a day off and looked at other forms of Western art from around the turn of the 19th century to the present. We started with some early paintings by the likes of Thomas Moran and Albert Beirstadt of the Hudson River School. I can't remember the specific prints but they were all fairly similar to this one, titled In the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt (1867).

These paintings drive me nuts. I made the comment that as realistic as the paintings are, to me they come across as flat, too perfect. To me they don't capture the wildness that is and was the Yosemite Valley, especially in 1867. I said something like I thought it was too clean, too safe, more like a park, more like Switzerland than the American West. From there, everything fell apart.

A woman in my class asked how I could say that about Switzerland? They have mountains in Switzerland. Had I been there? Her husband is from Switzerland. I don't know anything about Switzerland. It's not a park, it's very wild and dangerous, just like the Rocky Mountains.

I pushed my point a bit farther. I answered some of her questions. It was no use. Her husband was Swiss and so she had been to Switzerland and so I had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently.

At that point, 1998, I had, in fact, been through Switzerland, albeit quickly as that is all the time a hitchhiker's budget would allow. I just finished the winter working as a ski-lift operator in Bavaria and it was springtime and Wendy and I were on our second leg of our hitchhiking odyssey. It occurred to me then, as we were looping back through Austria and Germany that, yes, after living and working in the Rocky Mountains and just returning from the forests of Poland and the Czech Republic, Switzerland's cleanliness and orderliness looked and felt like a very pleasant park.

And now that we've lived here for six months I can say with conviction that, yes, Switzerland is owned, operated, and maintained as if it was a National(ized) Park. But don't be so defensive Woman-From-My-Graduate-Class-Ten-Years-Ago. That just might be a compliment.

In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, Elliott Oring outlines the concept of world view:

Folklorists are not only interested in traditional behaviors but in the patterns of thought that underlie and inform those behaviors. The comprehensive set of assumptions, premises, or postulates that groups hold about themselves, their environment, space, time, and the world and the way it is ordered is called “world view”. How a people perceive and understand the world will in large measure determine their behavior in it (Kearney 1984). A world view, however, is only partly based in formal, explicit systems of philosophical reflection. It mostly consists of implicit concepts, concepts that group members are not aware that they hold and which they could not explicitly articulate were they asked to do so. While formal systems of mythology, religion, and philosophy are important for the delineation of a people’s outlook toward the world, it is the unarticulated, abstract ideas underlying such systems that are at the core of world view.

From The Dynamics of Folklore Barre Toelken offers a more portable version of world view:

"Worldview" refers to the manner in which a culture sees and expresses its relation to the world around it.

No matter how you spell it, worldview is the all-encompassing idea that a culture or society both projects a version of itself onto the world as well as absorbs a version of its outside world. Worldview assumes a dual role in the life of a culture. A society both perceives and experiences its world through culturally provided sets of ideas and activities that originate from within and without its own culture. Thus, "reality" is not a universal conceit but, processed differently from culture to culture, is culturally conceived. Which brings us back to Switzerland.

The Swiss are special because they see themselves as special. Historically, they project an ordered, clean, and rule-based society because, in part, they interpret the world around them as chaotic, polluted, and lawless. They share part of a border with Italy, for god's sake! They've been completely surrounded by World Wars, Cold Wars, Thirty Years' Wars, plagues, political and economic crises, and massive waves of migration. It's a scary place on the other side of the Alps. It's seems almost constitutional that a small, centrally located country would want to retreat to its safety zone, sweep its streets, straighten its crooked pictures, and build for itself a worldview based on its reaction and relationship to the outside world. These are part of the implicit concepts of worldview,
"concepts that group members are not aware that they hold and which they could not explicitly articulate were they asked to do so".

In the 1949 film The Third Man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) famously sums up an outsiders view of Switzerland:

"You know what the fellow said: in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—-and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Sadly, Switzerland can't even take the lowly credit attributed to it: Germany invented the cuckoo clock. The image of Switzerland persists, though, and the image of Switzerland is perpetuated by the Swiss. Worldview.

Within three months of moving into our new neighborhood, we amassed a healthy criminal rap sheet:

--We were lectured twice by our neighbor about our dogs wandering off our property. ( "We don't have anything against your dogs, we like nature, but if your dogs cause an accident on the road you will be held responsible for any deaths.")

--The same neighbor yelled at Wendy for walking on his lawn. (Just prior to this event, we caught this neighbor spying on us from his upstairs window.)

--We were told twice by another neighbor that our music was too loud on both Saturday and Sunday. (Our quarterly community newsletter reminds all its residents that "quiet time" is Saturday from 12:00 to 1:30 and all day Sunday. This means no lawn mowers, vacuums, stereos, or any other potentially offensive noises.)

--Henry's preschool teacher wanted him kicked out of class and claimed that he was too young and too disruptive for the benefit of the whole group.

Glass recycling prohibited on Sunday!

Probably there are real laws that are followed by real fines for infractions like these as well as a whole host of others. But in Switzerland shame is the real law of the land and no commissioned officer can match the influence shame imposes on Swiss society. In the United States a noisy neighbor might see a visit from a local police officer. The first visit would be a warning. The second visit maybe a $100-200 fine.

In Switzerland the police might be involved. More likely, though, neighbors will speak in silent circles about the offender. Heads will shake, more complaints will arise, and a legacy will be born, a legacy that will carryover into generations. Forever and ever the offender and their family will be known as the loud ones that break rules on Saturday and Sunday. Which consequence will ensure that someone considers their actions before they are performed and encourages those to stand straight and tall in a narrow line: the ability to pay a minimal fine (maybe even online!) or the knowledge that a broken rule will inflict a lifetime of communal shame on the perpetrator?

It has been said, though I can't take credit, that in Switzerland everything is forbidden and anything that is not forbidden is mandatory. And somewhere there is probably a Swiss Law book that states succinctly that which is forbidden and which is mandatory. More importantly, there are volumes of unspoken, unwritten social laws in Switzerland that are imposed by its citizens daily.

Yes, in Switzerland, we are all Park Rangers charged with the duty to uphold its clean, orderly, and rule-based worldview, or "the comprehensive set of assumptions, premises, or postulates that groups hold about themselves, their environment, space, time, and the world and the way it is ordered" (Oring). So if the law books don't set you straight, community pressure and shame most certainly will.

In Switzerland, there is no greater influence on your life than your immediate surroundings. This implicit obligation to the worldview of the community is even mirrored more explicitly in formal systems like the Swiss Militia and direct democracy voting rights.

Secret circles of communication, communal shame, and militias. There is only one place this line of thought can lead. Back to our starting point: Utah!

(Continued in Part 2.)

Photo credits:
Albert Bierstadt
Salt Lake City Temple


Jeff said...

Just think of the furor if you had said, "They remind me of French mountains."

BTW, just for comparison, I'm going to send you a photot of a typical intersection in Houston. Worldview is part perspective, true, but part reality, I think.

Lea said...

My husband is from Yosemite Valley in 1867, how dare you comment? hitchhiking through on your way back from a ski lift in tahoe is no qualification.

recycling glass on sundays is also prohibited in germany and austria, by the way. i see your point but is it fair to judge swiss rules and closed mindedness against the wilderness off yosemite valley a hundered years ago? actually, i bet the wildlife there would be pissed if you woke them up on sunday morning, they're just not so good at making signs threatening the displeasure of the neighbourhood..