Land, Ownership, Property, and Nationalism

A few days ago, a dinner-time conversation with some friends turned to the matter of property disputes within families. Both my wife and I spoke with some feeling about the fierce passions they evoked, their seeming intractability, and of course, in the context of modern real estate pressures, their ever-increasing ferocity. It reminded me, yet again, of the fascination that ownership, especially that of land, seemingly exerts on the human imagination.

In Thirst for Love (Berkley Publishing, New York, 1969), Yukio Mishima, in introducing Etsuko’s father-in-law Yakichi Sugimoto, writes:

It was as if Yakichi were owning land for the first time. Before this he had been able to own building sites. This farm, in fact, had seemed to him only another such piece of property. But now it had come to be land. The instinct which held that the concept of ownership has no meaning unless the object owned is land came to live again in him. It seemed as if for the first time the achievements of this life were firm and palpable to hand and heart. It now seemed that the disdain in which he as a rising young man held his father and his grandfather was entirely attributable to their failure to possess so much as one acre of land.

What is the ‘instinct’ that Mishima speaks of above? It is a heightening of the sense that ownership and property are best understood in terms of relationships to tangible and concrete objects, that the concreteness of the objects owned makes the tenuous nature of the property relationship–an intangible one created and propped up by law and convention–more substantial, and thus, that among those things that might be considered viable objects of ownership the most concrete of them all, the ground beneath our feet, terra firma itself, is the bedrock, the ideal, the paradigm of the owned object. Other objects come to be and pass away; only the land endures, only it can serve as adequate underwriter for systems of property. All other property relations find themselves assessed in comparison to the ur-land-owning relationship.The ideologue of the property relationship reassures himself with the solidity of land. To really own something you must own land.

The ‘instinct’ that Mishima speaks of might find modern expression in the incredulity that some direct at the notion of ideas, creative and artistic techniques, stories, and the like being ‘owned’ by anyone. Far more problematically, It might have found expression in the historical anti-Semitic distrust directed at the roving Jewish diaspora; those that did not own land lacked the appropriate allegiance and grounding in concrete affiliations to the nations they made their homes in (and thus lacked loyalty towards). This suggests too, that nationalisms that stress permanent, written-in-blood relationships to the soil as the basis for their viability share a great deal with the discourse of property: they both seek to render their own ideological roots, their tendency to vanish into the thin air, invisible by pointing to the substantiality of the thing related to.

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