The book currently keeping me awake past my bedtime and bringing bliss to lazy weekend mornings is Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. I have read other books of the same author before, but, for me, the writing in this one is astonishingly beautiful and clever, even by his standards. I continually find myself rereading sentences to appreciate them completely.
Two passages, in which the protagonist outlines the arguments presented in a podcast about the world as we know it right now, really stood out to me:
“…a bad dream in the guise of a formal lecture. The state of the world.
“An expert in international relations, a reasonable woman with a rich deep voice, advised me that the world was not well. She considered two common states of mind: self-pity and aggression. Each one a poor choice for individuals. In combination, for groups or nations, a noxious brew that lately intoxicated the Russians in Ukraine, as it once had their friends, the Serbs in their part of the world. We were belittled, now we will prove ourselves. Now that the Russian state was the political arm of organised crime, another war in Europe no longer inconceivable. Dust down the tank divisions for Lithuania’s southern border, for the north German plain. The same potion inflames the barbaric fringes of Islam. The cup is drained, the same cry goes up: we’ve been humiliated, we’ll be avenged.
“The lecturer took a dim view of our species, of which psychopaths are a constant fraction, a human constant. Armed struggle, just or not, attracts them. They help to tip local struggles into bigger conflicts. Europe, according to her, in existential crisis, fractious and weak as varieties of self-loving nationalism sip that same tasty brew. Confusion about values, the bacillus of Antisemitism incubating, immigration populations languishing, angry and bored. Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions.
“China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun. Africa yet to learn democracy’s party trick — the peaceful transfer of power. Its children dying, thousands by the week, for want of easy things — clean water, mosquito nets, cheap drugs. Uniting and levelling all humanity, the dull old facts of altered climate, vanishing forests, creatures and polar ice. Profitable and poisonous agriculture obliterating biological beauty.
“Oceans turning to weak acid. Well above the horizon, approaching fast, the urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented, demanding care. And soon, with demographic transition, the reverse, populations in catastrophic decline. Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight.
“In conclusion, she said, these disasters are the work of our twin natures. Clever and infantile. We’ve built a world too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage. In such hopelessness, the general vote will be for the supernatural. It’s dusk in the second Age of Reason. We were wonderful, but now we are doomed.”
And the counterargument:
“Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than every before — and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies — for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners — swell daily? When hundreds of millions have been raised from wretched subsistence? When, in the West, even the middling poor recline in armchairs, charmed by music as they steer themselves down smooth highways at four times the speed of a galloping horse? When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries?
“Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere. When solar panels and wind farms and nuclear energy and inventions not yet known will deliver us from the sewage of carbon dioxide, and GM crops will save us from the ravages of chemical farming and the poorest from starvation? When the worldwide migration to the cities will return vast tracts of land to wilderness, will lower birth rates, and rescue women from ignorant village patriarchs? What of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual labourer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures? We’re bloated with privileges and delights, as well as complaints, and the rest who are not will be soon.
“As for the Russians, the same was said of Catholic Spain. We expected their armies on our beaches. Like most things, it didn’t happen. The matter was settled by some fireships and a useful storm that drove their fleet round the top of Scotland.
“We’ll always be troubled by how things are — that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.”