The Benefits of Provincial Life
There’s a grand, subtle and beguiling myth that can work it’s way into the centre of our brains, lead us to judge our lives as calamitous failures and drive us into years of anxious and unrewarding effort and struggle. The myth is constructed around an innocent sounding – even exciting – idea: the notion that there is a ‘centre’: a special place on the planet – the right city, or district; and there, and only there, is a real and full life possible. By being exiled from the centre we are condemned to pinched, mediocre existences, we’re cut off from everything important and interesting. We are, we gloomily reflect, ‘mere provincials.’
It’s a very long standing – and strangely mobile – thought; a thousand years ago Japanese intellectuals regretted their distance from China; it was only there, they believed, that scholarship, art, poetry and refined manners could flourish; at home they could only ever be second rate. In the late 19th century, an American artist in Massachusetts or Mississippi would be tormented by the conviction that their creative life was stunted, because they weren’t at the centre of cultural life, in Paris. And then in the mid 20th century, the people who actually were in Paris felt that only in New York could they live a proper existence and fully participate in the excitements of the modern world. They lamented the tree lined boulevards and the stately Place des Vosges and dreamed of Central Park and skyscrapers. And, in turn, the residents of New York were soon starting to think that they should really move to California.
We’re not content – as we see it – to live anywhere; we gird ourselves to make a bid for life at the centre in one of the world’s current hot spots. As a result, we face intense competition and have to work incredibly hard just to survive. And soon we come to think that it’s not simply living in the right city that counts: we have to be in the right part; we have to be invited to certain parties (which we’re not); attend particular events (which we lack the time to do) and know certain key people (who, unfortunately, we never get to meet). We don’t lose faith in the ideal: we’re still sure the true centre is there, it’s just that, tragically, we can’t get access to it and our existence must therefore be judged, particularly by ourselves, as more or less worthless.
This harsh contrast between the dull provinces and the glorious centre isn’t merely an eccentric preoccupation of a few individuals. There’s a surprisingly objective measure of the precise degree to which any place is considered provincial: property prices.
Terrace Houses, South Kensington, London; the end house was recently on the market for nearly GBP 20 million.
Located in a highly fashionable metropolitan district, a lovely house commands a vast price, while a similarly charming mansion in a pleasant but deeply provincial place costs only a small fraction of that.
We sometimes tell ourselves that the difference is down to other economic factors: in the centre it’s possible to earn more, while in the provinces incomes are generally much lower. But the logic is flawed: practically the entire additional income of the high-earning centrist goes to covering the expenses of living where they do. Probably they would be better off, financially speaking, if they took a less well paid post elsewhere. There’s no brute material inducement to head to the metropolis; what draws us (and so many others) is a set of ‘spiritual’ convictions – that is, ideas about the meaning of life.
There are, at root, four beliefs that fuel centrism and drive us to flee the provinces. To state them buntly: at the centre
1. People are more interesting;
2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated
3. You will be stimulated and inspired
4. History is being made
But if we go through them one by one and examine them in detail these ideas turn out only to be fantasies.
1. People are more interesting
We imagine the metropolitans as liberated from trivial preoccupations; they don’t gossip about banalities; their minds are on higher things; they’re tolerant, intellectually curious and well-educated. We’ll at last meet wonderful people and have fascinating conversations.
In reality, whether we find someone interesting or not depends more on us than them. Every life, properly engaged with, is endlessly complex, remarkable and informative. For instance in the early 1600s, the Spanish painter Velasquez painted several portraits of one particular man who made a very modest living carrying around a large earthenware jug and selling glasses of water to passers by.
According to the theory of the centre, he is entirely lacking in interest. But Velasquez is entranced. He sees the look on the old man’s face as worthy of the same contemplation as the commanding gesture of a victorious general or the gracious curtsy of a lady of the court. In the picture, the man’s left hand, touching the water-jar, is tender: his right hand, clasping the base of the glass is deft and delicate; they once clutched his mother’s hand; they have brushed tears from his cheeks, been joined in prayer or shaken, they’ve been clenched and shaken in anger.
The painting is a great work of resistance against the centre-provincial divide. Obviously, there are interesting people at the centre, but that’s because there are interesting people everywhere. What makes the difference isn’t where we are but our mode of engagement.
2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated
In our fantasy, the metropolitans are more stylish and readier to be open-minded. When we get to the centre we’ll finally have the personal-life we long-for. It sounds reasonable: perhaps the people in the perfect bar are more outwardly good-looking, they might be dressed in more enticing ways. But these factors – sadly – have little to do with our own prospects of intimate happiness.
One reason is that what what makes someone properly enticing are in the end always their more low-key elusive qualities: their tone of voice, the way they move their wrist, how they smirk at an unexpected moment, their adventurousness, their warmth, when they blush, ther curiosity about us. There’s no special link between the outward display – at which centrists may excel – and the actual elements that can make us content.
Additionally, no move to the city can save us from the sorrows of intimate existence. Whomever we get together with will be (just as we are) extremely difficult to live with in some ways. They’ll want to talk when we want to be silent; they’ll be too clingy or too distant. This isn’t a problem of where we are; it’s a permanent and universal problem of human love that will follow us – if we make it – to the smartest after-parties on the planet and into the most exotic bedrooms.
3. You will be inspired, you will be stimulated
The belief is that those in the centre have bigger ambitions, they’re engaged in more exciting and important quests and we imagine that this will rub off on us. We’ll visit the same places, breathe the same air that inspired others and this will fire our own creative capacity.
But if we examine inspiration more closely, it actually works in the reverse way. For the whole of the second half of the 20th century the most famous cafe in the world was the Café de Flore in Paris, where in the 1940s and 50s the philosophers Satre and Simone de Beauvoir used to spend many afternoons chatting, writing and drinking coffee; they also loved the boiled egg salad. The temptation is to think that if we go there too, our minds will similarly be moved in profound and exciting directions. But if we were to ask Sartre why he went there the answer would be banal: there was nothing special about the place at all, it just happened to be near where they lived. They’d advise us to do the same, or just stick to our room and concentrate on thinking.
It’s not that it’s impossible to be stimulated in the great urban core – but only because it is possible to be inspired anywhere. At root, inspiration is the discovery of the greater meaning of something that seems, initially, unimpressive. One finds potential where others have failed to recognise it. Centrism gets it backwards: it fatally suggests that we should be looking precisely in the places everyone has already looked.
4. History is being made
The centre is supposedly where news comes from: this is where the important events take place and where the new ideas circulate first; the people there are in the know.
But the history that matters to us isn’t which minister is in favour or the trends in theatre production or the latest evolutions of the fashion industry: rather it’s the long-term, overarching and world-wide themes that define the age in which we live – the rise of individualism, the decline of religion; the advancement of capitalism, the retreat of centralised moral authority; and the rising prestige of childhood and the falling admiration for science. This kind of history is being made everywhere: the metropolis isn’t even the ideal point of observation.
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These arguments don’t lead to the conclusion that it’s impossible to flourish in the metropolis. What they are arguing is that the good things associated with the idea of centre can in fact be found pretty much anywhere. What matters isn’t so much where you happen to be located but how you engage with whatever, or whoever, happens to be around. These thoughts liberate us from the imaginary devotion to ‘centrism’, that does so much to complicate and undermine our brief but precious lives.