Sunday 30 June 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

Rating: Excellent

About six months ago I had a friend over for dinner and he brought along a friend of his I'd never met before, who noticed my copy of Sapiens on one of my book piles and proceeded to enthuse about it; he also mentioned that reading it made him decide to become a vegetarian, which was something I found puzzling at the time. Now I've read Sapiens I can fully understand its power to create life changing decisions. Sapiens takes a cold hard look at humanity as a species, not just our origins but just how we've arrived at this point in our history. Sapiens is not a blow by blow historical account of humanity, rather Harari examines particular significant turning points in our history and the manner in which we have shaped our shared destinies for better or worse. Harari divides the book into four parts: 'The Cognitive Revolution', 'The Agricultural Revolution', 'The Unification of Humankind' and 'The Scientific Revolution', which gives you a very good idea of the main focus of his arguments. 

We are, in many ways, a remarkable species, however throughout Sapiens our flaws are repeatedly revealed, something that stands out the further you progress through the book and the reality is there's no escaping it. Just one of a long intersecting line of hominins descended from apes, Homo Sapiens embarked on a journey of adaptation that is characterized by repeated destruction of the natural world and of each other. The agricultural revolution, Harari argues, did much more harm than good and trapped humanity in a cycle of disease, deprivation and misery and led to untold suffering of all the animals we rely on for sustenance (the source of my new acquaintance's vegetarianism). This is just one example of the double edge sword of humanity's progress through history.

Early in the book Harari notes that the word Sapiens means 'wise' and Homo means 'man' - so we are men who are wise, something that my own world view (I've always been an atheist and now have embraced nihilism, which is very freeing to say the least) has a hard time reconciling. Perhaps the most compelling argument made by Harari is the way in which humanity has the ability to organise ourselves by using 'fictions' that create realities that are not rooted in the objective world around us, such as money, nationalism and religion. These fictions have united us as a species and have helped foster much of our evolutionary success, however they have also led to great suffering and decision-making that has led to calamities that have left us with a future that is cloudy at best. 

A fine example of the negative power of these fictions is the recent Australian election. Australia's Liberal party is one of the most morally reprehensible governments in modern history, yet they easily won the election and increased their parliamentary majority. In Scott Morrison we have a Pentecostal Christian (don't get me started) who a few years ago brandished a lump of coal in parliament to illustrate his belief that coal is nothing to be afraid of (yes, he is a climate change denier/criminal). The principal fictions at play here are capitalism, combined with an ideological belief that humanity's impact on the world is negligible and in any case absolutely necessary in order to maintain the status quo. The election was dubbed by many commentators as the climate election, yet despite having seen the leader of our country brandish a lump of coal in parliament Australians chose to ignore the most urgent problem of our times to vote for him anyway (I know it was more complex than that, however climate change is the main deal here). Clearly the fictional systems we are enmeshed in sway our thinking in such a way that we can happily choose to ignore the objective fact of climate change.

A certain Homo Sapien with some 'harmless' coal

Although Sapiens is not a flawless book; Harari often labours his points with lengthy extrapolations that sometimes cause the book to get bogged down, it is an important book. It is pleasing that Sapiens has remained a best seller for years and it is partly down to the fact that Harari has achieved the right balance between intelligent writing and producing a text that can be readily read by the general population. Sapiens should be part of the high school curriculum, although no doubt that would start a fresh bout of culture wars with the right arguing that Harari is too left wing and therefore dangerous to our treasured cultural fictions.

Monday 17 June 2019

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (2018)

Rating: Excellent

There's a scene right at the end of David Bowie's twenty minute video Jazzin' for Blue Jean (1984) where Bowie's rock star character, Screaming Lord Byron, leaves with Bowie's every-man character's female interest (Bowie plays both characters). Every-man Bowie engages in a tirade against the retreating rock star and then breaks character and talks to the director (Julian Temple) and production crew about how the scene should be re-shot. Bowie and Temple then argue about the merits of being 'clever clever'. Asymmetry is just like Bowie and Temple's postmodern take on the music video; it is 'clever clever' and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. It also uses most of the typical postmodern techniques that have become all too familiar and therefore a bit stale. The novel is arranged into three seemingly disparate sections - Folly, Madness and Desert Island Discs, yet they are connected by a series of clues. There are innumerable allusions to writers and novels and the female protagonist in Folly is called Alice and she does indeed descend down the rabbit hole into a relationship with a much older man, a writer called Blazer, whom is based on Philip Roth, whom Halliday had a relationship with when she was in her twenties. I could go on...(but I only write two paragraphs these days...)

I completed Asymmetry with feelings of ambivalence, cynicism even; however I had to admit to myself in the end that the novel was quite an achievement. The writing is tightly focused, littered with beautiful imagery and manages to be both playful and profound, in particular during the middle section written from the perspective of Amar, an Iraqi/American citizen held for questioning at Heathrow airport in the early 1990s. Amar's character is nicely rounded, but more significantly he becomes a mouth-piece that enables Halliday to talk about political issues whilst at the same time acknowledging how talking about political issues in literature is fraught with pointlessness and pomposity - now that's clever clever. Halliday manages to pack a lot of thematic juice into what is a refreshingly short novel. She covers relationships, aging, the anxiety of influence, the role of literature in culture and the existential difficulty of finding a meaningful path through life. Asymmetry may annoy you, frustrate you, but in the end it's worth the effort and indicates that just maybe there is life left in postmodernism after all.