4 January 2008 |
Bonnie Menes Kahn, 1987
William Dalrymple on the cosmopolitan culture of India
Kahn’s book ought to be a classic of urban literature for it is so full of knowledge and wisdom. Yet it isn’t. I suspect this has something to do with the author’s own independent-mindedness; she has a fine imprint in Atheneum but no cover quotes and her bio says she’s left the academy to pursue writing, a certain casting into irrelevance, as I know from experience. There is no mention on the Internet of subsequent books. This is a shame, as she herself writes, “There is a name for people who believe that ideas have a public and that they have a duty to speak to that public: they are intellectuals. Intellectuals are created only where people feel a commitment to public life and a duty to speak to that public.” She has ideas, typology, argument, terrific examples, wonderful detail founded in thorough research and here in Cosmopolitan Culture she makes her statement, so why has she abandoned the field? Her voice, which is at once idiosyncratic and open-minded, is surely needed today.
But what of the subject? Kahn takes the reader through various historical cities: Babylon, Constantinople, Vienna, Paris, Tokyo, New York in order to understand how a cosmopolitan city—one open to strangers and as such the highest and most productive form of human ambition—is formed and how and why it fades away. We learn that economic opportunity is key, mere commerce is no such thing but a powerful magnet for human relations; that tolerance follows diversity and not the other way around and that it happens by necessity; that nationalism derived from enlightenment principals was actually the opposite instinct from cosmopolitanism, that the fruit of opportunity can be its undoing. Along the way she makes marvelous observations and distinctions among types or city life. The small chapter on Paris and Tokyo is case in point. She says these cities aren’t in their formative period cosmopolitan because they are products of rural nationalism, the garden their highest icon, their language singular. This is a difficult argument but one which she makes with care—and that is ultimately instructive to her larger typology.
The American experience is always present, either as background, as the story itself, or as comparison and in her conclusion, Kahn wonders if America could achieve the gilt-edged dream of cosmopolitanism. Her discussion of immigration is as relevant today—perhaps more so—than it was in 1987. Immigration of course has soared since this book came out. So it might be that the despite the ugly Nativism of the contemporary political discourse, America in these 20 years has become by Kahn’s definition, as cosmopolitan as ever. The current success of America’s old cities is as much about immigration as anything else.