Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met for the first time in the summer of 1930 near Berlin. Both Novel Laureates, one in physics and the other in literature, they were almost the opposite of each other. Tagore was described as “a poet with the head of scientist” and Einstein as “a scientist with the head of a poet.” However they shared a love for beauty, truth, eternity, and universality. These differences and similarities came to the fore in their conversations during four face-to-face meetings. They discussed various issues ranging from truth and nature of reality; causality, chance and predetermination, to music and the differences between Western and Indian cultures.
However, surely these two great minds must have had many such conversations in their minds (with each other); imagine those conversations that were probably never documented by an external observer. And for the first time (in this column) we get an imaginary glimpse of what might have happened in those imagined conversations. Imagine… as two of the most imaginative minds of the 20th century get together for a conversation.
(E = Albert Einstein and T = Rabindranath Tagore; Dated: Between the years 1922 and 2013)
Stew Cultures and Pie Cultures: Underneath our differences we are confused all the same
E: You have said in one of your essays that the truth of our life depends upon our attitude of mind towards life.
T: And that attitude that we have towards life and the world is formed by our habit of dealing with life according to the special circumstance of our surroundings.
E: So, what you are saying is that our surroundings influence our way of looking at reality and truth. Could you explain that further?
T: You mention the essay I wrote titled: “The Religion of the Forest.” In that essay I argued that there was a difference between people whose culture grew around the “forest” such as those in Asia and Africa versus those cultures that arose from the sea such as in Europe.
E: So the sea presented itself as a danger, a barrier, something that had to be overcome and so the people grew to look at nature as inhospitable and something that had to be dominated.
T: This led to a dualism of good things versus evil things and good and evil were constantly fighting for the “sea” people; one had to dominate the other. This led to their thinking of reality as a perpetual fight. Someone had to win and someone had to lose. The nature of life an existence was woven around the notion of perpetual conflict…
E: By comparison, the groups of people who thrived in and around forests found no barriers. The forest provided and also took something from them. But it only took enough; it did not try to subjugate them like the sea. In contrast to the “sea” peoples view of nature as hostile and dangerous; the “forest” people found nurturance and this led to their view of life and truth of existence as a unity between people and nature.
T: Yes, the “sea” people developed a view of life as a constant fight – a battle. The “forest” people saw life in a more friendly light – they lived alongside nature and the forest and so they decided that this was the best way to deal with all of life’s problems. The forest people accommodated and adjusted with others just like the forest did with its inhabitants.
E: So did this aggressive versus accommodative attitude lead to the ways in which these peoples or societies turn out.
T: The “sea” people and the “forest” people took their view of life and reality one step further. From the way they viewed life and the world emerged the ways in which each sought nurturance to grow.
E: You mean to say that their social views influenced their biological needs.
T: Yes, through the act of cooking. As well as through the kind off food that is given a position of privilege in a culture.
E: The food we eat is the link between our culture and our biology.
T: And I have thought about my earlier classification of people and groups into “sea” people versus “forest” people; but I may want to take that further.
E: By examining the food that people or social groups eat.
T: Yes, just like in the essay, we can classify the peoples of the world into “pie” cultures and “stew” cultures.
E: That’s an interesting classification. A pie is a baked dish of vegetables, meat or fruits typically enclosed with a base and top of pastry or crust of pastry.
T: A stew is almost the same – it is also a dish of vegetables, meat or beans but it is cooked slowly in a liquid – mostly water. And it is cooked in a container with a lid.
E: Both require fire. However, the pie is usually baked in some sort of an oven; while the stew is cooked by placing the stew-pot on top of any open fire. The differences lie in the way they are cooked.
T: The differences between the stew and the pie go beyond that. See the stew is cooked in a pot with a lid; and the meat, vegetables and beans simmer in water or some other liquid. What happens when it is 8 pm, the family is home, tired after a long day’s work and unexpected guests knock on the door. You want to feed them something. So what does the host family do?
E: They simply add more water to the stew.
T: Yes, they do not blink or think. They just add water. That way everyone gets a bowl of stew and no one complains of not getting less.
E: So the people who live the “stew” culture lifestyle erase inequality.
T: They evade the issue of inequality.
E: Simply add more water.
E: On the other hand, imagine a similar family in a “pie” culture. They are tied after a long day’s work; they have put a pie in the oven. Unexpected guests knock on the door. The host family wants to feed the guests. What can they do?
T: They cannot add water.
E: So, they simply cut the pie into smaller or thinner pieces. And everyone gets a thinner or smaller piece of the pie.
T: The scarcity of the food resource becomes more apparent. Pie cultures cannot mask scarcity.
E: Like stew cultures often do…
T: Yes, the pie cultures often struggle with this – how to cut the pie in such a way that everyone feels they have go the share they deserve? “Pie” cultures have long struggled with the size and distribution of the slices of the pie – the zero-sum game.
E: If I win – that is get a larger share of the pie, then you lose – that is, you get a smaller or thinner slice.
T: This leads to constant struggles between individuals and groups – each one wants the bigger share or larger slice of the pie. The one who ends up with the largest slice is considered the winner.
E: Doesn’t this struggle affect “stew” cultures too?
T: Stew cultures tend to dilute things when demand goes up. Without overt self-realization, “stew” cultures have a tendency towards equitable distribution of resources. But that can be a problem when it comes to food?
E: You are right. Perhaps “stew” cultures do not realize the effect of adding water to food and what they are doing until it is too late. So for some time, adding water helps to create the illusion of “satisfying” wants and needs. But simply adding water does not compensate for the deficiency of adequate nutrition. Therefore, most stew cultures suffer from malnutrition.
T: Moreover “stew” cultures also cook on open fires, they keep adding cold water to an already heated pot of stew in order to expand the portions. This may erase inequity but is very inefficient use of the important resource of fire or energy used to cook our food.
E: On the other hand the use of ovens to bake pies seems to be a more efficient way to cook – the use of enclosed spaces may help in more efficient use of resources of fire or cooking energy. This may be due to the environment in which these cultures grew. Pie cultures may have flourished in cold climates compared to stew cultures where people could sit in the warmer, open spaces.
T: Yes, but this very efficiency of the use of energy when applied to human situations such as a hungry guest or starving neighbour can make the culture appear very cruel because the person with the pie may easily say: “This is my pie and I will not share my slice with you…”
E: Both cultures – the “stew” and the “pie” cultures have tried to deal with the problems that face every society – the question of efficient use of energy and resources and the question of equitable distribution of food.
T: Yes, and both types of cultures have failed the fundamental question of effectiveness. They have not been able to effectively address the very “human” problem of feeding everyone in a human society.
E: The “pie” culture simply pushes poor people into a corner and the “stew” culture masks scarcity and creates malnutrition. So what is the answer?
T: What this distinction shows that whichever direction our culture takes us – it does not matter. Our cultures do not have the capacity to answer and address fundamental human questions and needs. The cultures were born out of the need to answer these fundamental human questions; but somewhere along the journey of the human societies, that culture that was born years ago lost its ability to answer those questions.
E: That means the quest for answers is a continuous one – as long as humans live they have to be on the quest to find answers and keep re-making and re-fashioning culture to answer the difficult human questions
T: Isn’t the word “quest” an integral part of the word “question”?
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