Book Reviews

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Will human beings wipe themselves out or link up to form a global brain? This month's books include two attempts to change our perceptions about the planet to save it from destruction; plus a resource book for teachers of development issues.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

At the crossroads

At the crossroads The Fate of The Earth
by Jonathan Schell
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Picador(pbk) UK: £1.95
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The Awakening Earth
by Peter Russell
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Routledge & Kegan Paul (pbk) UK: £4.95
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‘More than any other time in history,’ wrote Woody Allen, ‘mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.’

Maybe Woody Allen is right to mock our current obsession with planetary doom. Facing the facts doesn’t have to mean facing them negatively. Two books that illustrate opposite approaches to safeguarding the future are Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth and Peter Russell’s The Awakening Earth. It’s obvious even from the titles which of the two is fearful and which hopefuL The cover designs confirm the suspicion: Russell’s book has a black background, like jeweller’s velvet, all the better to show off the glistening blue pearl that is the planet Earth; Schell’s cover is just plain black no planet, no nothing.

But which approach is the more useful as a campaigning tool, for persuading people to take the future of their planet seriously? My suggestion would be to offer the Schell book to readers given to dismissing world peace movements as youthful brouhaha. The book paints a horrified picture of a post-bomb world and has aroused unprecedented interest in more conservative circles. In contrast, a young CND supporter to whom I lent the book dismissed it with a yawn: ‘Not another” what if a bomb fell on New York/London/Tylers Green” scenario.’

Perhaps, I replied jokingly, Schell is pushing forty and getting worried in any case about time’s winged chariot... And flipping to the biographical box, I discovered to my surprise that Schell was, indeed, born in 1943. Perhaps if you are on the sunny side of 25, like the CND supporter. Schell’s book may seem irrelevant; but to someone already acutely conscious of his or her mortality, it may strike a memorable chord.

Russell’s book, on the other hand, is likely to be dismissed by many, both young and old, as Utopian fantasy. Russell is the first to admit to his idealism. But, as Buckminster Fuller said, the world is now too dangerous for anything less than Utopia I found it one of those rare books that send a tingle down the spine. It’s very much like Small is Beautiful; like Schumacher’s book it could become and I hope it does a sign of a crucial shift in perception as to what is valuable in human life and how it can be attained. An incidental plus: he writes extremely well much better than Schumacher.

Russell is a scientist a physicist who is fascinated not only by matter and energy in the material world but in their links with the human brain and consciousness. The first part of his book is a crash course in the evolution of human beings, starting at the very beginning with the Big Bang, the inception of the universe. He explains how at key stages energy transformed into matter, matter into life, life into self-conscious life. Now, he says, we are at yet another key stage in this evolutionary process. (It’s that crossroads’ again.) We can make another jump, this time into realising unii’ersallt’ the truth that scattered idealists have been pointing to as individuals: that the whole earth and all that exists on it is are parts of one complex, living system. To hurt one part is, therefore, literally to hurt the whole: like cutting off my thumb hurts me, not just my hand.

I fwe do make this jump in consciousness the human species could become a kind of ‘global brain’, a cortex that envelops and protects the living body of the earth: if we don’t, if we continue to behave in destructive opposition to the earth and to each other, we will be behaving like a cancerous growth, each cell undermining the body still further.

Since the crises of the world are caused by human selfishness, Russell argues, they can be unmade by humansbut not if living more cooper atively is seen as a deprivation. Self-discipline through guilt wears thin as anyone knows who has been on a diet. What is required is a satisfaction of a deeper kind; if the hunger for meaning which is never satisfied by material possessions is fed, then choosing to live more simply is no longer such a problem.

Russell’s book is a brave attempt to give the - one world’ vision a scientific edge. No doubt he will be attacked. I hope he won’t be ignored

Anuradha Vittachi

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Down to earth

People, Problems and Planet Earth
by F. Hutchinson and L. Waddell
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Aus: Macmillan (pbk) $9.95
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People, Problems and Planet Earth is a book of study units for senior secondary and junior college students. Written by two teachers in New South Wales, it is particularly useful as a resource book for General Studies, Social Science and History in Australian schools, but is relevant to any group interested in ‘one world’ issues. Topics include Knowledge and Human Enquiry, the Computer Revolution, the Nuclear Energy Debate, Human Rights. Mass Media, Religion and Society, Gaps Between Rich and Poor Countries and the Nature of Modern Warfare. The book contains a rich mix of resource material and is presented in a variety of readings, diagrams, cartoons and articles. Each unit includes activities and a Resource Guide. Because People, Problems and Planet Earth has been written by teachers out of their own teaching experience and using their own teaching materials, it is a real treasure of practicability that should be very popular with other teachers. The fact that agencies dealing with the issues presented are already receiving more enquiries from schools is an indication of the usefulness of the Resource Guide. The authors have been careful that what they suggest is readily available to schools and community groups.

I found a little disappointing the section on Religion and Society which provides an introduction to the great world religions. I would have expected to find more on the response of these great world religions to the pressing social justice issues of our day. Perhaps some comparison of responses to issues on peace and development might be included in a later edition.

Therese Woolfe
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Therese Woolfe is Narional Co-ordinator for the Mission and Justice Education
Programme ofthe National Catholic Missionary’ Council
in Australia.


Heart of Darkness
...being the book that pierced
the crust of modern civilisation

O THINK OF Conrad as a spinner of sea adventures surprisingly well told for a sailor is like thinking of Beethoven as a good tunesmith. True, but so far from an adequate truth that the estimate is nearer a lie.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad demonstrates that he is a philosopher, political commentator, psychologist and poet in one. The novella is a mysterious allegory, a hundred pages of shifting impressions. There is no plot, only ajourney, both literal and spiritual; all the characters, bar narrator and hero, are unnamed strangers.

On one level, the book is an account of Conrad’s own journey in 1889 down the Congo River. The Congo Free State had been a political entity for only four years by then but had already become notorious as a hunting-ground for white ivory traders.

For four months Conrad witnessed atrocities committed against enslaved Africans. Black men of ‘wild vitality, intense energy’ were reduced to mere ‘bundles of acute angles’, heads propped on emaciated limbs, eyes staring appallingly as they waited silently for death. Conrad was horrified. On his return to Europe, he spent months in acute depression; the painful memory of his journey stayed with him in the form of a recurrent fever for the rest of his life.

But it wasn’t only the sight of suffering that disturbed him so deeply. That he was used to. As a boy he had nearly died and had watched his parents die, when his family had been exiled to the murderous cold of Vologda, northern Russia, for his father’s part in stirring up a Polish insurrection. Rather, it was the nonchalance with which the violence was inflicted, which confirmed his fears about modern society: that the West was impressive in the range and power of its technological achievements but driven by a soulless cruelty, oblivious to human pain.

Unlike Africans, who are portrayed as technologically primitive but ‘as natural and true as the surf that pounds their coast’, Conrad’s Europeans are a pale and corrupted lot. A thin crust of’ civilisation’ covers Europe; its inhabitants scurry about busily on this fragile crust, pretending that the primal forces beneath don’t exist. They spend their days ‘hurrying through the lism. streets to filch a little money from each other’. The best they rise to is ‘to dream their silly and insignificant dreams.’

When such people sail to Africa they bring their narrow materialism with them. So the colonisers, to Conrad, were not a glamorous band of swashbucklers; they were as dull and cruel as muggers.

And since their strength lies in filching e]ficienhiv’, their mugging takes on a chilling new power. It’s no longer simple grab-and-run robbery with violence but systematic, institutionalised robbery with violence. The dehumanisation leaves no room for pity or remorse.

In one scathing cameo, Conrad sketches a company accountant who has been working deep in the jungle for three years but still preserves his ‘vast cuffs’ and high collar perfectly starched, his every hair oiled neatly into place. He keeps his ledgers immaculate as his wounded African colleague expires in slow agony beside him, stopping briefly to complain that: ‘The groans of this sick person distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.’

‘The merry dance of death and trade’ Conrad called colonialism, bitterly. And the missionaries’ justification he dismisses as ‘philanthropic pretence’, a sanctimonious cover- up for more exploitation.

That Conrad should have seen through colonial myths so piercingly is astonishing, writing as he was at the turn of the century, the time of the Boer War. What is more astonishing is that the book begins with this level of insight By the end, Conrad has led the reader deep into far more mysterious realms of understanding.

For Conrad is not writing a simple paean to the Noble Savage exploited by greedy white That Conrad should have seen through colonial myths so piercingly is astonishing, writing as he was at the turn of the century, the time of the Boer War. What is more astonishing is that the book begins with this level of insight By the end, Conrad has led the reader deep into far more mysterious realms of understanding.

For Conrad is not writing a simple paean to the Noble Savage exploited by greedy white men. Conrad’s hero is not an African it’s Kurtz, a European. And what makes Kurtz so special is that he has broken through this thin crust of phoney civilisation and allowed himself to experience the primal passions that lurk beneath the tidy surface. He is an intellectual sophisticate who has tasted the extremes each culture has to offer: more articulate and aesthetic than anyone else in the book, he has also gratified nameless appetites. The suggestion is that Kurtz alone has travelled into the very heart of darkness: has faced the darkness in his own being. He dies recoiling from its horror in a spiritual agony. But at least he has faced his evil, unlike the rest of the European community who continue their lives anaesthetised by their material.

Anuradha Vittachi

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad (1902)
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Penguin (pbk) UK: 75 p/Aus: $2.50/Can: $1.95/US: $1.75
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