Sunday, 17 January 2021

Oliver Sacks, Ali Smith and Yuval Noah Harari

I heard about this book on Radio 4's 'A Good Read' programme.  I remember one of the guests, when asked whether they enjoyed it, saying no, not really - *deep sigh* - 'all that stuff about elements...'  I'm not very good with science but I wanted to read this anyway because I'm interested in Oliver Sacks.  The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat has been on our bookshelf at home since I was a kid.  Also, on the radio programme, they talked about Sack's horrible experiences at boarding school, which is a subject which seems to come up repeatedly in my reading, for some reason.

They weren't exaggerating about the chemistry content.  The majority of the book covers Sack's interest in chemistry - both how he was introduced to it as a child, and its historical development as a field of study.  It wasn't exactly inaccessible, but I did find myself glazing over quite a lot.  About three quarters of the way through, I finally started taking a more selective approach.

Sacks has a fascinating family.  Like Edmund de Waal, his ancestry is Russian and Jewish.  There is an amazing photograph of his grandparents sitting on the lawn in the garden of their big house in Highbury New Park, looking very dignified and old-fashioned and surrounded by thirteen of their [eighteen] children.  Sacks's grandfather seems to have been an incredibly clever man, with a long list of proficiencies, patents, credits to his name, and all his children - sons and daughters - went on to work.  Sacks's mother became a surgeon - this must have been in the 1920s sometime - and of his aunts, two were teachers and two founded schools themselves.  It all seems incredibly high-achieving - although Sacks writes about it as though it were entirely normal.  It is interesting to reflect back on how British feminism, around the turn of the century, was affected by the influx of immigrant families who, for various reasons, may have taken a more generous approach to working women and the education of girls.

Unfortunately, the family content of the book is only tiny, and it seems partial and unfinished.  For example, Sacks talks about his brother Michael who, as child, became psychotic. (p.186-6)  The subject is not revisited, so we never find out what happened to him.  However, Sacks has written lots of other books, including at least one that was autobiographical, so I shall definitely go on to read more.

This is a book about a girl grieving for the death of her mother, and researching particular fifteenth century Italian paintings her mother liked and then, about a third of the way through, the narration is taken over by the Italian painter's... ghost? spirit?  It's quite a strange idea.

It also took me a little while to get used to Smith's writing style - the lack of speech marks and other punctuation; the way she stops sometimes in the middle of a word (I'm still trying to work that one out); the expressive, sometimes very lengthy, parentheses; the cutting back and forth between moments in time; the use of real artworks, pop stars, cultural references.  I think I came to like all this...?!  The girl, the protagonist, is rather sad but her mother, through her memories, comes across as quite a character.

I liked also the fluidity of gender and sexuality in the book - although I found it a little strange how universal it was.  It wasn't ascribed to just one person - it seemed to apply, in some form or another, to all of the female characters.  I suppose in some respects the book is quite radical - not so much in it's inclusion of androgyny and different sexualities - but in the way it normalises them.

It's a book which creates mysteries and declines to sort them out (paving the way for a sequel perhaps!?) - so we never find out what Lisa Goliard was up to - if anything.  So too, George's truancy (at the age of 16, when she must have been facing GCSEs), her secret use of her mother's bank card, her relentless campaign of surveillance, all seem to suggest a rather pessimistic denouement, somewhere beyond the end of the book (like in The God of Small Things, where things can only go downhill from the last page), which was sort of treated as beside the point, but which I found quite difficult to ignore.

This is a tremendously readable, fascinating book.  I really enjoyed it, whilst being - at the same time - slightly suspicious of its size, its polish, its recommendations by Bill Gates and Barack Obama on the cover.  The way he wrote reminded me a little of Steven Pinker and Matthew Sayed - not a scientist, but a modern academic who draws easily on science, and one with a theory to expound.  It is clever, cosmopolitan, all-encompassing, but in some ways reads like he's never been challenged on these ideas in a public forum.  He acknowledges debate and uncertainty, but it doesn't ruffle his narrative at all.

Harari writes about the imaginative capabilities of people and how our ability to imagine communities or social structures - things which, essentially, don't exist outside our imagination - was a significant part of what allowed us to start acting collectively, and therefore to excel as a species.  I found him a little contradictory.  He argues that imagined orders depend on myth and will collapse if significant numbers of people stop believing in the myth..  'How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism?  First, you never admit that the order is imagined.  You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.' (p.126) On the other hand, he acknowledges that we do discuss democracy as an ideal, rather than as an objective reality.  'We know that people are not equal biologically,' he imagines human rights advocates as saying. 'But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.' (p.123-4)  Well?  Is democracy an imagined order which we insist is an objective reality, or is it 'just' an idea that we hope will deliver us a better society?  It can't be both, surely.

He goes on to add that Hammurabi, ruler of the Babylonian empire around 1776 BC, 'might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: "I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people.  But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society."' (p.124) It seems a bit far-fetched to me to suggest that an ancient king would have conceded an inherent equality between 'slaves' and 'superiors'.

I was a little surprised to read an historian making such a clear division between subjective and objective realities.  When I was at college, people were reluctant to concede that anybody, or any body of knowledge, could be completely objective.  Harari seems to use science as his lynchpin of objectivity, without expressly acknowledging that science itself could be termed an imagined order - or a number of different imagined orders.  For example, later on in the book (p.164-5), he dismisses ideas about natural and unnatural sexual behaviour as remnants of Christian theology.  Surely, in doing so though, he is pushing up against one of the myths underpinning a particular imagined scientific order - just not the one that he subscribes to.

I liked his analysis of the Agricultural Revolution - 'history's biggest fraud' - wherein people moved from itinerant hunter/gatherer bands to settled, farming societies, and thereby tied themselves into a spiralling regime of ever longer hours and lower pay, and which they were unable to reverse once the population had exploded.  There were just too many mouths to feed to go back to hunter/gathering.  And the same thing happens today, he says.  'How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five?  But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad.' (p.98)

He has a good argument too about polytheistic religions, and how much more tolerant they were than the monotheistic variety.  The Romans were polytheistic and happily tolerated the different gods of their subject peoples, so long as those people were prepared to include key Roman gods in their pantheon.  The only god the Romans disliked was that of the Christians, who refused to accept the existence of any other.  This led to the persecution and killing of 'a few thousand Christians' over the course of three centuries.  This number is tiny in comparison to the number of Christians killed by other Christians 'to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.' (p.240)

Also very interesting (and maybe... post-revisionist?) is his stance on empire.  I don't think I've heard anyone, in recent years, talking about the positives of imperialism.  But this is what Harari does: he somehow manages, plausibly and without under-playing the violence or it's terrible legacy, to separate imperialism and racism and appraise them individually.  

For example, all the imperial activity during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - people (Europeans) sailing forth and seeking new lands to claim for themselves - required a major change in thinking from what had come before.  It required an acknowledgment of the gaps on the map, and in one's own system of knowledge and belief; an admission of ignorance.  Part of the reason that some countries - like China - did not participate in the 'conquering' of overseas territories, was because they made no such admission. (p.322-25)  Similarly, when the Europeans landed in various parts of South America, the local people were unduly unalarmed.  'Had the Aztecs and Incas shown a bit more interest in the world surrounding them - and had they known what the Spaniards had done to their neighbours - they might have resisted the Spanish conquest more keenly and successfully.' (p.326)

Despite this, the catastrophic effects of colonial rule on local populations do not go undescribed.  His account of what happens to native Tasmanians after the arrival of James Cook in the eighteenth century is awful. (p.310-12)  Harari also points out that the battlefront has shifted today: 'assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races.' (p.338)  As with racism though, such differences are nonetheless used to argue against according people equal treatment or fundamental rights.

One more thing I should mention about this book, which I thought was rather strange - it seems to have turned me vegan.  Somewhere in the middle, there are three pages on what happens to female cows, and to calves.  I've definitely read all this stuff before, so I'm not quite sure why it's had such an effect on me this time.  I'm wondering whether it's the lockdown.  Veganism always seems so complicated - like, well what the hell do you eat, apart from beans and vegetables?  Usually, I don't feel like I have the time or the energy for the kind of meal-planning required.  After weeks sitting on the sofa, staring at a book or computer screen, I finally seem to have some enthusiasm for the task.

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