What is special about being a human?
I've been doing an uncharacteristic amount of non-work-related reading lately. A memoir/biography about two people who find their lives entwining together in the thirties; a hair-raising travelogue written by a non-conformist in Communist China in the eighties; a debut novel recreating the Afghanistan of the last forty years; a personal integrative overview of a life's work in geographic genetics; a description and comparative analysis of failed civilizations over the last two thousand years or more. And about a couple of hundred innocent people pulped during their daily commute. And a couple of hundred more excused from their mortal coils as reparatory consequence and counter-consequence of a kidnapping.
Turns out there's a common thread through these seemingly disparate pieces. I may call it worrying. More prosaically, I will call it upsetting -- in the more immediate present. Here's a selective review that is not for weak hearts or stomachs. (Or, I can't help adding, livers. Read on.)
The first book listed above is Two Lives
, by Vikram Seth. It starts with the time he, as a young man of seventeen, went to live with his Indian-origin uncle and German-Jewish-origin aunt, in London. It wends its way from personal memoir to being a biography of these two interesting people who had met in Germany in the early 1930s and who fled to England before the war. It follows the trace of their lives, and reconnects eventually with his own, merging into a lived-and-experienced journal of his attempts to write this book - in the 1990s after one of them had died. These latter stages are particularly interesting since we get to discover what the author discovers, and react to them for ourselves.
The emotional core of this journey is, naturally, the Holocaust. Seth's aunt escaped, but she lost her closest relatives. His attempt to recreate the events of the past took him all the way from the micro level of the letters written by those so condemned to the macro level information stored at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The events at Birkenau take on a very different nature when personalized. (Six million is a statistic; Sophie's choice is something we still feel.) Here's one thing that Seth says:
One of the casualties of the process of exploring the material for this book was my pleasure in the German language. ... [about his favorite poet] ... Even Heine I could no longer read. It did not help, strangely enough, that Heine was, partly in his own eyes and certainly by the Nazi definition of things, as much a Jew as Christ was, and would, like Christ, have been exterminated as vermin. The stench of the language in which I had read the phrases from the Gestapo letter clung to his words as well.
But it's hardly that simple, is it? A hundred pages on, he examines the other side of it.
Partly as a result of writing this book, so much of which deals with the question of Jewishness, I have tried to work out my own views on that most salient manifestation of postwar history, the Jewish state. ... Various justifications for the foundation and maintenance of Israel as a specifically Jewish state have been adduced; none of them takes into account the concomitant injustice to the Palestinians. ... After Hitler came to power in Germany, it could [also] be maintained that there was a humanitarian imperative for the Palestinian Arabs - as for other people all over the world - to share space with the cruelly oppressed Jews. But that the Jews could then carve out their own state in Palestine does not follow. ... In the fearful calculus of terror, where impulse and response are difficult to distinguish, many more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis.
The coda to this section:
The litany at the end of the German prayer-book of 1893 reads:
Judaism teaches: 1. the unity of mankind.
It commands us therefore 2. to love our neighbour, 3. to protect our neighbour and his rights, 4. to be aware of his honour, 5. to honour his beliefs, 6. and to assuage his sorrows.
Thus ends this little digression in this wonderful book. Hope? Or delusion? To answer this, I leave the Middle-East for now, and take you to China. Red Dust
is another incredible book - a travelogue written by a non-conformist painter named Ma Jian, at a time in China when non-conformism meant death. Ma Jian is upbraided by his bosses for some minor indiscretions, and rather than submit to authority and write a 'self-criticism' in the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution, something snaps inside him and he makes his way to interior China. He spends three years wandering around the cities, villages, and deserts as a vagabond, all the while observing and recording and dead-pan commenting on the strange goings-on in a closed and macabre world.
Nazi atrocities, however horrible, have an explanation of sorts. I found no way in my mind to account for passages such as this:
The peasant I stayed with lent me a musty blanket he brought back from the Korean War. Thirty years of body odours clung to me like a wet skin, it was impossible to sleep. I thought of the students in the neighbouring village who butchered their teacher in the Cultural Revolution. To prove their devotion to the Party, they cooked his chopped corpse in a washbowl and ate him for dinner. They developed a lust for fresh offal, so before they killed their next victim, they cut a hole in his chest, kicked him in the back, and the live liver flopped into their hands. Local villages were able to consume an average of three hundred class enemies during those years.
Words failed me.
Then I started thinking -- one very common way to react to such things is by distancing oneself. "It's them, it's not me." They
do things like this. I
never would. It's them
-- the Communists, the crazy Chinese, the Nazis, the Taleban, the terrorists, the Israelis, the "other community". But never me
Then I read The Kite Runner
by Khaled Husseini. This is a work of fiction - unusual for me - but one that cuts very close to the bone. Again, not recommended reading for the weak of heart. But over and above the intensity of the story and the quality of the writing, what struck me was the passing mention of the massacre of Mazar-e-Sherif. This is something that happened within the bounds of my own living, awake, sentient, alert, news-consuming existence. Thousands of people being wiped out at one go. But I had not even a memory of it.
What was I, if not inured?
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is one of the world's leading experts on genes and human migration. His terse yet fascinating book "Genes, Peoples and Languages
" deserves and will get more detailed attention on this blog in the future. But here's a passage that summarizes where I'm leading today:
Nature controls an excess of human births in three ways: epidemics, famines, and war. All of these brakes seem to be at work today: AIDS, an epidemic we still cannot control, is raging; extreme malnutrition affects more than a billion people; and an unprecedented number of civil and religious wars is shaking the world. So far, atomic bombs have not been used in these conflicts, but nothing should prevent us from worrying that a Russian scientist or engineer, reduced to unemployment and hunger, or a group of religious extremists working for a fundamentalist government, could place the human species at the risk of a global Hiroshima.
(... Or anyone else with the opportunity, of course. It's a little harsh to single the Russian scientist out on that one.)
Jared Diamond starts out making a very similar case in Collapse
, but then the latter part of the book veers off into purely environment-related issues. But the point remains. Stripped of the "human" element, the Third Chimpanzee is just an animal. And today, across the world, across contexts (Germany, Israel, China, you want to say 9/11? You want to say Guantanamo? Bombay? Kashmir? Rwanda? Darfur?) we are either busy spinning our beastly ways to mutual oblivion, or busy being inured by it all.If they say why, why?Tell 'em that it's human natureWhy, why?
------------I just had to get this off my chest before I leave for India tonight. India. The land of the blocked ISP.