Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Harari takes the reader on a thrilling ride through 70,000 years of our species, the Homo Sapiens (wise men).

Starting with the cognitive revolution that kick started the human spirit, through the agricultural revolution that gave us surplus food and spare time for creative pursuits, the unification of mankind through myths and finally the scientific and industrial revolution that gave us the modern facilities and lifestyle.

In the chapters on cognitive revolution, Harari explains what differentiates homo sapiens from other species and how our capacity for social cooperation has made us the rulers of Earth. He argues that with the advent of cognitive revolution , historical narratives should replace biological theories as the primary explanation in what drives human history. We cannot understand why french revolution happened by studying the biology of humans.

In the subsequent chapters, Harari claims that agricultural revolution has made lives of modern humans worse than the life of foragers. He argues that foragers had more free time than a modern person and they valued social interactions and friendships more than us. Also their diet was more nutritional because of non-dependence on a single food like wheat or rice which agricultural revolution produced. I think this argument may not be completely correct as hunting animals for food is not easy and couple it with the long distance travel that foragers undertook frequently in search of food. The constant threat of wild animals forcing them to stay vigilant even during their supposed free time.

The book is a decent read except for some chapters where the author seems to have injected his personal views. Two examples, first is the chapter on ‘There is no justice in history’ where he talks about the dichotomy of sex and gender and gender being a imagined hierarchy rather than a biological reality. There are not enough arguments given to how these conclusions were reached.
His views on religions seems to be quite superficial though he agrees to their unifying power he could not think of them more than imagined myths and labels it as ‘fiction’ throughout the book. He couples ideologies like communism, capitalism,  liberalism etc in the category of religions which I think is quite silly for a serious scholar. In the same chapter Christianity ‘s view on Satan is also misunderstood by the author. Incidentally, this chapter on religion is among the ones with the least references.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it would be ‘The scent of money’. In this chapter, Harari shows how money is the only universal system of mutual trust between humans ever devised that breaks all barriers of caste, religion, race and ideology. With money as the medium of exchange, any two strangers can cooperate on any project. This is now evident in the large multi-national corporations spread across the world.

Moving further the book talks about progress and constant change that came about by the scientific revolution and accompanying capitalism. Here, Harari argues that all the modern advancement came about because humans finally accepted their ignorance and realized that they do not know everything. This is also quite a preposterous claim. Humans have known even before the modern scientific revolution that they did not understand everything. The history of modern scientific revolution is better explored in other books and how it is deeply rooted in western philosophy and Christian theology.

The book ends with a chapter exploring the potential changes that our species will undergo in the future, from genetic engineered humans to cyborgs to inorganic life. These will lead to significant ethical questions in coming years and our answers to them will tell whether we have really created a Frankenstein monster in technology, that will destroy our species, or something that will make us even more God-like.

Poem: A message to my future self

This is a small poem that I wrote for a poetry writing competition in my diocese last year. Wish I could pay heed to my own message.

Hey future self, it’s me, though sick,
Writing to you amidst the 2020 pandemic.
Leaving a message from my mere experience of 26 years;
Hope you take it as one from your closest peers.
If life has become blue again,
And you want to call it quits;
Remember it is never blue enough
To make your soul go blue.
If life is still getting rough,
The ever-increasing tonnage of responsibilities,
Buckle up, ask for help and raise the sails,
There’s no adventure sitting alone at the shoreline.
If life is still trapped in the pits of lust,
Cry out for grace, O my numbed soul.
It’s never too late
To seek the Beauty of all things beautiful.
If life still seems too comfortable
Surrounded by luxuries and ease,
Skyrocketing pride and arrogance;
Beware, you are on the highway to hell!
If no matter what, remember still
The hands that delicately crafted every atom of your soul,
In the flaming fires of the stars,
Continues to embrace you with His unconditional love.

Poem: On the way to the Himalayas

In a sedan, on the way to the Himalayas.
Curvy twisty roads through mountains black, barren and mighty
Through Himalayan cedar and pine draped valley,
we drifted like ants over a giant canvas.

Calm and strong, the turquoise colored Bhagirathi,
carving out its own space beside us.
Hallowed, yet caged by us.
Though tight-lipped today, waiting to break free.




Terraces sculpted with sweat, flourishing villages
We fled past a barefoot gharwal boy, looking bolder,
by the homemade cricket bat on his shoulder,
walking like the king of the Himalayan ranges.




On the way to snow-clad Dayara bugyal, stops our sedan
Greetings!, says a smiling man, 
and leads us on an arduous trek uphill.
To a small mud hut wishing all goodwill.




While we were resting, night dawns, and behold the sight
White mountain peaks shining in the glory of the moonlight.
Hearts shivering, in himalayan breeze shooting spikes of ice,
we step out to the dark woods, enticed by the celestial beauty of the skies.




The full moon makes a royal appearance, gradually rising
from behind the mountains. While my heart is basking,
in the cosmic silence of a Himalayan night,
far from this vexing urban blight.

The Kite runner by Khaled Hosseini

For you a thousand times over!

My first book by Khaled Hosseini and it was a wonderful reading experience. The story touches upon all emotions possible in a human heart.

It is a story of courage and redemption set in the backdrop of Afghanistan’s power struggles and the ensuing human tragedy.

The story revolves around Amir (narrator) and Hassan’s friendship that got estranged due to one cowardly act by Amir. Amir’s guilt known only to him causes him to hate himself and Hassan, who is the epitome of loyalty.

Throughout the novel we are reminded of the social division that exists between a Hazara and Sunni Muslim in Afghanistan. And the narrator’s house is also immersed in this division, since Amir is a Sunni and Hassan, a Hazara.

As Afghanistan gets caught up in successive wars, Amir moves to America with his father where he marries and settles down as a writer Amir is leading a comfortable life till he gets a phone call from Rahim khan, his father’s best friend.

Rahim Khan’s call makes him leave everything and go out into the citadels of Taliban controlled Afghanistan searching for a boy named Sohrab, Hassan’s only son.

This sojourn requires of him great acts of courage through which he is finally redeemed of his guilt.

On reflecting a little more on this novel, I think it reveals how the weakness of humans is used by God to propel us to do greater good. And no good has ever been done without courage in the face of adversity. We are all engaged in a moral drama on earth, a drama where the war between good and evil visible in the world is being fought most fiercely in the battlefield of each individual’s heart.

“I believe this is what true redemption is Amir jan, when guilt leads to good” ~Rahim Khan

Life is beautiful Review: 1997 film by Roberto Benigini

If there is one quote that could define this movie, it is G.K Chesterton’s quote:-
Of a sane man, there is only one safe definition. He is the man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.” Guido, the Jewish bookstore owner, portrayed by Roberto Benigni in this movie, is the personification of this sane man.

This movie is able to place comedy where you least expect a comedy to be set, in a concentration camp. It is a testament to how we humans are capable of meaninglessly killing each other and how we humans are also capable of finding meaning in this abyss of insanity. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that could mix humor with tragedy so well that laughter and tears of grief/sympathy accompany each other. As the narrator says in at the beginning of the movie:-

This is a simple story but not an easy one to tell. Like a fable, there is sorrow and like a fable it, is full of wonder and happiness”.

I realized after the movie that I couldn’t understand the language that they were speaking, Italian. It never occurred to me that I was solely understanding the movie based on the subtitles, profoundly engaging.

Guido looks like an insane man when he is blabbering all the time but he never does anything without purpose. The acting by Roberto Benigini is outstanding and it is no surprise that he won the Best actor Oscar for his role.

This movie is a classic and the character of Guido will be etched in my memory for a long time. More people need to watch this.

 

Les Miserables : Magnum Opus of Victor Hugo

Finally completed, the almost two years long arduous journey of reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I used a penguin classics version translated to English by Norman Denny. It was quite a difficult read for a non-native english speaker but I was able to appreciate the words painstakingly selected so as to make the translated version maybe as rich as the original. I haven’t read the original french version (would love to if I could master french one day)  but each sentence in this translation was rich with vivid imagery.

I had started reading this novel back in the August of 2017 when I had just arrived in Bangalore for my internship. I had planned to finish this within 3-4 months. But external circumstances coupled with the frequent digressions by Hugo to War scenes, French history, discourses on monastery life, parisian sewers etc. made this into a long journey of two years. Many times, I felt like just leaving this book and starting with something else which would be an easier and more interesting read. I did read some smaller books in between. But somehow managed to find the strength to go back to this giant after every small reading detour. One thing is sure, this novel rewards every patient reader with profound experiences as I realized quite a few times along the journey and particularly after I read the Part five.

Hugo is a blessed writer for sure as the aphorisms, analogies and metaphors that his pen churns out have the power to penetrate to the depths of your being. The entire novel is speckled with aphorisms that testify to the fact that above all things and at all times, Hugo is a romantic poet.

Coming to the story, the scene where Bishop Myriel hands over the silver candlesticks to Jean Valjean and says “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good” is the most touching scene of the novel for me. The transformation that happens in Jean Valjean as he finally realizes his wretchedness and the greatness of the kindness shown by Bishop drives the story thereafter. The central message that Hugo seems to have wanted to convey from this episode can be captured by this beautiful thought posed as a question : “Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine, indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and flame into glorious flame, and which evil can quite extinguish?“.  The transformation of Valjean is a testament to Hugo’s belief that every act of kindness has a transformative potential in it and that the progress of humanity rests on acknowledging the power of kindness and mercy. Throughout, the novel we can see Hugo ridiculing the guillotine, that oppressive and barbaric device devised by mankind to eliminate those it considered going against the law. Hugo takes no sides while speaking of the guillotine, he condemns all those who used it cutting across the political spectrum.

Hugo believed strongly in the power of knowledge or education to positively transform an individual and thus become a contributor in human progress. He says, “If there is anything more poignant than a body dying for lack of food, it is a mind dying for lack of light“. Hugo seems to have believed that a utopian world is just in the horizon where everyone would be educated, poverty will be eradicated and everyone would be rich. Sadly, such a state of world has not arrived even after 150 years of the novel. But yes we should continue to strive for it even though knowing that such a world may never be realized on earth because of human weakness. We should continue to do whatever we can to make it possible.

This novel will always remember a classic for it tries to lay bare the truth that human progress cannot be achieved without mercy and kindness because ultimately our God is merciful and kind. Justice without mercy may lead nowhere, for justice is fulfilled in rightful mercy. Both have to be balanced properly. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “Mercy is what moves us toward God, while justice makes us tremble in his sight“.

As long as ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.

 

Albert Camus: Some thoughts on the Myth of Sisyphus

sisyphus

I had been planning to read this book for the past one month.I had earlier read one of Camus best works,’The Stranger’. ‘The Stranger’ was about the meaninglessness of life.

Similarly, Myth of Sisyphus is about the absurdity we encounter daily in our lives. According to Albert Camus,  the absurdity is created by the rift between what we expect from life and what it offers. The essay on Absurd reasoning starts by formulating the importance of the book- “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. Yes, having experienced suicidal thoughts myself, I can relate to this problem. It is one of the quintessential problems of life. A day comes in every man’s life when he will ask himself “Why should I live?”. He will look at the pointless drama unfolding in front of him and see all the sufferings, the inevitability of death. As Camus says there is nostalgia in every human, i think what he meant by this nostalgia is a craving for meaning, a craving for coherence and order, a craving for something that will make everything lucid.Even though Camus does not like to be labelled as an existentialist, the problem he is pondering is fundamentally an existential problem.

There are two main points that Camus was trying to express through these collection of essays :-

  • Life is meaningless and there is no point in trying to escape it by taking refuge under the mask of religion or absolute reason.
  • Even though life is meaningless ,it does not imply that you should quit your life. There is a middle way .

Camus illustrates the middle way through the Greek legend of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by the Gods to push a large rock up a mountain, only to see it roll downwards from the peak. Sisyphus has to repeat this process of pushing the rock up, eternally. Somehow, the Gods considered hopeless and futile labor as the harshest punishment possible. Camus argues that our life is similar to this punishment. Despite this unceasing ordeal, Sisyphus concludes that “All is Well”.

But how does Sisyphus conclude that “All is Well”? Well, Camus says that “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged”. Camus further adds that, Sisyphus silent joy is in knowing that, even though he has an inevitable and despicable future, he is the master of his fate. In other words saying that, he can make himself happy and conclude that all is well.

Camus ends his essay with the same lyrical eloquence that he maintained throughout , “Each atom of that stone,each mineral flake of that night filled mountain,in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So Can we really imagine Sisyphus happy?

I can’t. And, I don’t think anyone can, without taking a leap that Camus objected to from the beginning. By suggesting that our hearts can be filled without meaning, Camus seems to be undermining the nostalgia that he himself found overflowing in his heart. I think it is not wise to let our hearts settle for just the passions of the earth, I think we should go further and take the leap of faith. After all, the nostalgia won’t exist if the passions of the earth were enough to satisfy our desires. As I have experienced in my own life, the leap of faith becomes more rational only after the leap. I think God has placed in every human heart a yearning for him,a yearning for perfect love,truth and beauty and, this is what Camus identifies as the nostalgia. As C.S.Lewis says “Only God can satisfy us completely,there is no happiness outside of him”.

One thing is clear from reading Albert Camus Novels, every man has a desire for meaning and without a leap of faith, life appears absurd, hopeless and meaningless. Camus thinks that hope is a refuge of the coward who wants to run away from the tragedy. I consider hope us an anti-absurd-ant, hope does not ease the sufferings of life, it only provides the illumination of meaning.The leap, similarly provides the holistic meaning ,the leap of truth is not for the faint-hearted, for its a call to greatness, a call to let go of all ego and embrace divine humility. What Camus settles for is the romanticized version of the absurd, he somehow feels that acknowledging the anguish and romanticizing it, will help every man leave happily. I find no merit in it.