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A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

I recently discovered Yuval Harari’s book, “Sapiens”, which was first published in 2014. It is an ambitious book, attempting as it does to summarise the whole history of the human race in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious in this kind of enterprise there are going to be some oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations, and that’s certainly what happens. I also thought, starting the book, that his aim was simply to describe the history of the human animal, but his ambitions are much larger than that. His book is also a history of human society and civilisation. Harari has stated that he is strongly inspired by Jared Diamond, and Diamond’s influence is visible at least to the extent that both authors agree that no question, no matter how large, is not amenable to rational enquiry.

Harari attempts to explain how Homo Sapiens has become so successful and now completely dominates planet Earth. He mentions the “Dunbar number” which is the number of people a person can know and trust: it is around a hundred. Beyond that, there has to be some other way in which people can bind together into groups. Trust is a fundamental part of our societies (a point also made in Bruce Schnieder’s books). For Harari, this trust comes from a series of shared beliefs. His point is that they are just that, beliefs, with for the most part no basis in reality. For him, almost all of the constructs at the foundations of our society are shared beliefs. For Harari, liberal humanism is just as much as a religion as, say Christianity. He goes further. What drives us as a species? One answer is that we are driven by the shared belief systems of our society or simply the pursuit of happiness. Our consensual illusion. He suggests that a future study of history should examine in detail how happy people were in past times, but at the same time reminds that this is of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective measurement. He leans heavily on Buddhist philosophy as way out of this dead-end, in particular the notion that, well, you must become aware of your feelings in order to surpass them. Well.

Rationally, it is hard to disagree with this. However, the discussion does show the hole you can dig yourself into if you decide that Humans are intrinsically not very different from other species on the planet (apart from a few important cognitive innovations which Hariri explains very well) or that the search for knowledge or belief in “progress” are also partially delusional. It seems to me that this line of thinking has led to one of the predominant problems of our time: a lack of belief in human agency and the idea that there is nothing much worth saving in our culture. Until we can change that, I don’t see how we can decide where we, as a species, want to go.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Imagine future scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of the human race based only on the works of American writer T. Pynchon. OK, so we can travel in time, but only if we have enough electricity. And there really is spooky action at a distance, and it really is spooky. There are countless conspiracies, of course, otherwise nothing would ever get done, right? Moreover, in case you are wondering, the Earth is hollow, and if you live near Durham, England, you had better watch out for that big worm recently spotted in the neighbourhood. So I was very interested to read what Pynchon would have to say about the 11th of September, 2001, which is one of the subjects of his new book, Bleeding Edge.

Thomas Pynchon and the Lambton Worm

To go back: when I was at University in Manchester there was a tiny second-hand bookshop that I liked to go to. The owner was a friendly fellow, and I am sure I discovered Pynchon’s work browsing his shelves. After a while I asked him to look out for a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s most famous book, and indeed it eventually showed up. I was lucky enough to get the big first-edition UK paperback, with nice paper and pages sewn together. In the inside back cover there were handwritten addresses of two people in Quebec with the words “good luck” written in big block letters at the bottom. I never did write to them, but I did finish the book, so maybe it helped. A decade or so later, while I was living in Durham, Mason and Dixon came out and my friend Stephen B. and I were very excited— not only was the reclusive Mr. Pynchon still writing, but he was writing books about places we lived in, because Jeremiah Dixon was actually from Bishop Auckland, only a short distance from Durham. Perhaps, Stephen wondered, Pynchon had actually been to Durham to research his book? Maybe we had walked next to him in Durham’s narrow streets, but not actually recognised him because, well, nobody actually knows what Pynchon looks like. Reading the book in my little room at Hallgarth street I was astonished by the hyper-realistic obscure details he included, and how much it felt to me like Durham and the north-east of England. That kind of weird foggy unreal feeling provoked by a combination of not enough light and the presence of very large and very old buildings extremely nearby.

When I first read Pynchon he was writing about things that I had no personal experience of, except indirectly (I have never seen the Lambton Worm but I knew where it lives). But Bleeding Edge concerns events which occurred in my lifetime: the days and weeks before and after the 11th of September 2001. Of course if you are expecting drama and catastrophe that is not what is in the book: Pynchon’s characters experience the day’s terrible events from a distance, they see it for the most part on TV like the rest of us, downtown and uptown are are not so close after all. No, the drama of the thing is not what interests Pynchon, what interests him is of course the hidden connections, the conspiracies.

Bleeding edges and shaggy dog stories

The principal character in his book is a semi-retired fraud investigator who gets called in to investigate the accounts of a Silicon Alley start-up which are showing more than one or two in logical inconsistencies. The trail of numbers leads to … what exactly? It’s never completely clear. Perhaps that money is being directed into financing some flying lessons for budding middle-eastern pilots who only want to take off and fly but never to land? Or buy some surface-to-air missiles? The most fascinating aspect of the book is Pynchon’s depiction of turn-of-the-last-century computer culture. Mostly in New York, so yes, big switch for Pynchon who has set most of his previous books in California. Here, he is fascinated by the “deep web”, that layer of the internet which is invisible either to search engines or to anyone with a “normal” web browser. This “deep web” functions as a kind of quantum-mechanical set of hidden variables which explain how everything links up with everything else, long-standing Pynchonian concerns. What’s also kind of weird and fascinating about it is how he makes the past sound like the future, because after all a decade-and-a-half is a very long time in information technology. In the meantime there have been quite a few exponential doublings in transistor densities.

Like his previous book Inherent Vice it is all a bit of a shaggy dog story, and, even better this time there is a real shaggy and dog story — a story about Shaggy and Scooby Doo, which ends in a terrible pun. The book is full of gags and songs, a lot of them demanding a quite profound knowledge of the subculture he’s parodying, and at the same time there is a non-negligible undercurrent of paranoia and fear. Period artefacts (computers and programming culture) are rendered accurately and in detail.

What’s new?

So, long-time Pynchon fans might ask, what’s new here? Well, not fundamentally a whole lot. What is wonderful about the book is its crazy picture of America at the start of the 21st century. Pynchon leans lightly on his subject material but there no doubt how serious the undercurrents are. Small invisible perturbations provoke world-changing events, and, what’s worse, often without any causal relationship. Subcultures hiding from the mainstream world will be suppressed by “state actors”, unless they can completely vanish. And a lot of takeaway food will be consumed.

At the end of the book, there is no resolution of all matters brought up in the previous pages, because, hey, this the real world, right?


Reading Victor Hugo’s "L’homme qui rit"

Reading Victor Hugo’s "L’homme qui rit"

Last night after almost three months I finally managed to finish Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit (The man who laughs) which I started during my holiday in Greece after I crashed out of Montaigne’s Essais. Montaigne, as ML warned me, is not ideal material for a sunny beach on Antipaxos, and it turned out she was right.

L’homme qui rit is the story of a boy, Gwynplaine, whose face is disfigured in childhood into a permanent rictus and who is abandoned to die on England’s inhospitable coastline in the depths of winter. The boat that leaves him there subsequently is shipwrecked, and all aboard her perish, but not before one of the passengers, taken by a turn of conscience, casts a message into the ocean concerning the true nature of the disfigured boy.

Miraculously, the child survives. He crosses miles of darkened coastline and even when at last he arrives in a town no-one will open the door to him: these are plague years. Finally, he and is taken in by a vagabond (Ursus) who is accompanied by a wolf (Homo), finding along the way a blind child (Dea). In the years to come, Gwynplaine falls in love with her, as she is the only person who can see his soul. Later on, just as they are starting to make a nice living from a traveling show (spoiler alert! as the Americans say) we discover that Gwynplaine is in fact of aristocratic stock (the message is found) and by rights he stands to inherit vast tracts of land and countless stately homes.

This being Hugo, of course, Gwynplaine learns the “good news” after forced under the threat of death to leave Ursus and Dea after which he is brought to subterranean prison where he witnesses the death of a man under torture, a man who confirms his true identity just before he dies. Ursus, Homo and Dea are forced to leave London on the next available boat (certain in the mistaken belief that Gwynplaine has been executed). Their traveling circus is disbanded and the innkeeper who put them up sent to prison. Meanwhile, Gwynplaine finds himself in the House of Lords where he makes a passionate speech in defence of the common man and against the aristocracy. However, no-one takes him seriously on account of his disfiguration. Slipping through the mobs of shocked Lords, Gwynplaine, against even more fantastic odds, manages to find the boat where Dea and Ursus are sheltering with the aid of Homo, who finds him, handily just before Gwynplaine is about to commit suicide, having lost everything that is important to him.

He sneaks onto the boat and finds Ursus comforting Dea, who is on the point of death. After listening to them for a few minutes, he slips from his hiding place and reveals himself to Dea and Ursus. They are together at last! But, alas, Dea is not a robust girl, and dies anyway, asking Gwynplaine in her final moments not to leave her waiting for him too long up there in the afterlife. Gwynplaine takes her advice to his heart and, a few minutes later, jumps from the side of the boat into the icy waters of the Thames.

Told like this the story actually sounds exciting! And parts of it are. However, there are the digressions. And digressions. The ones which I found the most difficult to wade through where the long disquisitions on the English aristocracy. All too often, the action is punctuated by such passages which stretch for dozens and dozens of pages, often just at a key moment in the plot. I don’t know, but in Les Miserables I found such digressions much more interesting than in L’homme qui rit. Or maybe it is just because I don’t have a great interest in this particular period in history.

Finally, like many of the books I have read from this period, the ending is tragic. At first this surprised me a lot, especially after reading stories that we already think we half-know from popular culture, like Notre Dame de Paris. The real ending is nothing like in the movies. It almost always finishes badly.

Hail and Farewell, Mr. Heaney

Hail and Farewell, Mr. Heaney

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, died a few weeks ago. Obituaries have been published, and Mr. Heaney has been laid to rest in his native  County Derry. Heaney was probably our greatest poet and scholar of the last fifty years. Like everyone in Ireland of my generation or later, we encountered Heaney’s poems in school — in particular Heaney’s manifesto for the life of the writer, his famous poem “Digging” where he states “between my finger and thumb / the squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it”. But at the time, I was unmoved. I was still too close to Ireland, too close to land I was brought up in. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen. I was reading poems at this time, but it was Byron and Shelley and this kind of stuff, distant lands and strange places. Ozymandias. Who would want to read poems about Ireland?

Time passed, and I started my own travels, leaving Ireland when I was 18 to cross the sea to England, which was already seemed exotic enough, then further afield, America (where I discovered Milosz’s poems on top of that mountain in New Mexico — not on a stone, but written in a copy of the “New Yorker” I had taken with me, but that is a story for another day) and then Canada, England again, Marseille and Bologna. The dense ancient streets of Bologna. One day I was wandering around the University and saw a small poster proclaiming that there would be a reading from SEAMUS HEANEY. I was surprised. I noted the date.

Ireland is small country, and the north of Ireland even smaller. It’s a truism to say that everyone knows everyone. Heaney and his wife had in fact gone on holidays with my favourite aunt and her husband in the 1960s. I wonder what that holiday was like … My aunt and Heaney’s wife were splashing in the frosty waters of Ireland’s west cost, came running up the strand. “Write us a poem Seamus!”, at least that’s what my aunt said they exclaimed. This was the result, Girls bathing, Galway 1965. Yes, one of those girls is my aunt, frozen forever.

All this I knew on that evening in Bologna. The reading was in a small upstairs room in Bologna University, ancient beams crossing the ceiling. A good few centuries old, as befits the town with the world’s oldest University. Heaney of course was very famous by this time, not like that distant summer of 1965. He read his poems in his soft northern Irish accent, but after every poem he paused, and said graciously “well I would like to hear that in Italian”; and a translation followed. It was strange and beautiful to hear his poems in Italian, which is certainly one of the more beautiful languages there is. By the end of the evening, I was quite moved — I had already read some of these poems before, but now it was 12 years since I had left Ireland behind. Distance had intervened. Time and space. What a wonderful thing it was, I realised, to find a great poet who had written about your country, and where you came from and where you were brought up. I could see how true his poems were for the first time, once I had subtracted myself from environment I had grown up in. A revelation.

After the reading there was a gaggle of Italian girls pressing forward to have their books signed by the great Irish writer. I decided nevertheless to wait patiently to speak to the man — “Greetings from Tyrone Mr. Heaney”, I said. I spoke to him for a few minutes, mentioned “Girls bathing, Galway”. I didn’t want to take too much of his time, although I probably should have. I just said that I saw my own country for what it was, maybe for the first time, and thanked him for that. “Sure you are a good man yourself”, was his open-hearted response.

So, Mr. Heaney, thank you once again.