A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A good writer is able to smoothly zoom in and zoom out of their subject matter. Zoom in, to give the reader evocative detail and compelling individual stories; zoom out, to give the reader a sense of the text’s big ideas, of its place in the canon. If done skillfully, this dance between detail and magnitude leaves the text resonating in the reader’s mind. If done poorly, the piece suffers, whether it be a novel or a magazine article: too little “zoom in” and the piece feels dry; too little “zoom out” and it feels inconsequential.

Few writers walk the tightrope between the grand and the minute as skillfully as Yuval Noah Harari. In Sapiens, he promises – and delivers – nothing short of a history of humankind. He begins with the most extreme wide-shot possible, deftly zooming in to the story of us, at this point “an animal of no significance”:

About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time, and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules, and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo Sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

– Sapiens, page 1

 

Harari’s conceptualisation of physics, chemistry, biology, and history as “stories” sets the tone for his work, which is just that – a riveting, breathtaking story, which hurtles through the annals of history at a cracking pace. He has an astonishing ability to elegantly encapsulate theories, movements, and events which elsewhere seem hopelessly complicated. Here is the reason why human beings came to dominate the globe, he gently explains. Here is the relationship between science, empire, and capitalism.

This approach is seductive. Human beings seem wired to accept narrative explanations, and it seems too good to be true that all of human history, nothing less, can be delivered in such an elegant narrative. It probably is, and Galen Strawson has pointed out Harari’s “sweeping judgments, his recklessness about causal connections, his hyper-Procrustean stretchings and loppings of the data.”

When reading parts of Sapiens that dealt with historical events I knew little about, I felt vulnerable: at the mercy of this “ruthless synthesiser”, unable to counter his streamlined narrative with my own complicating background knowledge. Nonetheless, it was difficult not to admire Harari’s sweeping approach, his seemingly effortless mastery of the interplay of forces throughout the whole of human history. He casts a brutal light on the arbitrariness of human affairs and values, nonchalantly pointing out that money, the equality of humankind, and our present-day Western emphasis on enriching experiences, are all imaginary (not fake, but constituting “inter-subjective phenomena”: existing only to the extent that a critical mass of others believe in them). Speaking of post-industrial-revolution society’s obsession with time, he observes that “nowadays, the first item of every news broadcast – more important even than the outbreak of war – is the time.” So it is! I wondered, having never given any thought to that ubiquitous beginning to the news, “It’s eight o’clock”, the Amen of our cult of time-worship.

Sapiens is enlightening, disarming, and very entertaining. It makes you think and question. That thinking and questioning should be equally applied to the book and its talented author.

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My Little Story

Here is my story that won the competition, accompanied by a beautiful illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg.

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NYC Midnight

This year I have started entering creative writing competitions. To my utter disbelief, I won the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.

It was a wonderful competition, and I’m not just saying that because I won! There are three rounds, and in each round you write a story incorporating a specified genre, character, and subject. In the first round, you have a week; in the second round, three days; and in the final round, twenty-four hours.

The tight deadlines were exactly what I needed. I have always loved writing, but as an adult I have just kept putting it off. This competition made me write regardless of how busy I was. Moreover, it forced me to stretch myself to write in genres I wouldn’t normally touch. These were my assignments:

Round 1

Genre: Political Satire

Subject: Guns

Character: A middleman

 

Round 2

Genre: Thriller

Subject: A water supply

Character: A park ranger

 

Round 3

Genre: Open

Subject: A sunrise

Character: An undertaker

 

During the first round, I became so immersed in my story that I wrote it whenever I had a moment: I remember balancing my laptop on my knees while I was on the train. I was thrilled simply to make it to the second round, let alone to place first overall. I will post a link to my final-round story when it goes up on the website.

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My new job

I have a new job, which goes some way to excusing my absence – right?

For the past couple of years I’ve been teaching English and Literature at a secondary school in regional Victoria. Although I loved my job, for several reasons I decided I wanted to move back to Melbourne, and this week I started at my new school! It’s an English Language School, which is designed specifically for students who have just arrived in Australia, and who need to build up their English skills before progressing to a mainstream school. It is so much fun! I am just so immersed in planning lessons and working with these wonderful, motivated young people.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to! I’ll definitely start posting some ideas for the ESL classroom if there are any teachers out there who read this!

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Algeria

Just above silence (Juste au-dessus du silence)

I talk low, just above silence
So that even my other ear can’t hear.
The earth sleeps in the open and lingers in my head
With the rigor of asphodels.
I’ve re-peopled a few deserts and walked a lot
And now I lie down in my fatigue and my joy— 
Those wracks thrown ashore by Summer waves.
In unknown countries, bits of me are seeding.
Boughs of my tenderness, they give
Oases where days are merry-making orchards,
Where man drinks amniotic vigor.
Happiness is falling in the public domain. 

by Anna Greki

Translated by Lynda Chouiten

Anna Greki was born in Batna in 1931 to a family of French origin. Jailed and tortured on account of her involvement in the struggle for Algerian independence, she eventually completed her studies and worked as a schoolteacher, before dying in childbirth at the age of 35.

I came across this poem in French and was thinking of translating it myself, but then I found this translation by Lynda Chouiten. I like how she has rendered the poem into plainly-spoken English, lending the poem’s voice a touching simplicity and authenticity. I wouldn’t have done that to the same extent: I probably would have translated the first line as “I speak softly, just above the silence” in order to capture the whispering quality of the original’s alliterative title. But the more I considered Chouiten’s translation, the more I liked the simplicity of the monosyllabic opening clause “I talk low”. I also loved the line:

In unknown countries, bits of me are seeding.

I would have automatically translated the word “morceaux” as “pieces”, but I loved the ever-so-slightly bitter and even pathetic overtones of “bits”: a bit is worth less than a piece, emphasizing the violence of the process of fragmentation.

Below is the original. How do you think Chouiten’s translation fares?

Juste au-dessus du silence

Je parle bas tout juste au-dessus du silence
Pour que même l’autre oreille n’entende pas

La terre dort à ciel ouvert et dans ma tête
se prolonge avec des rigueurs d’asphodèles

J’ai repeuplé quelques déserts beaucoup marché
Alors je gis dans ma fatigue et dans ma joie
Ces varechs jetés par les lames des étés

Dans des pays des morceaux de moi font semence
et donnent-surgeons de ma tendresse-de tels
Oasis que les jours sont des vergers en fête
Ou l’homme boit une vigueur amniotique

Le bonheur tombe dans le domaine public

 

In ‘Around the World in 230 poems’, I will share a poem from every country in the world.

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Poetry for Performance

Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Gawain Poet, translated by Simon Armitage

This week I spent a couple of days in Lorne, a lovely town on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. My parents go there every year, and whenever possible I try to join them.

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When in Lorne I never miss the chance to visit the wonderful Lorne Beach Books.  I was trying to find some other books by Kate Milford  because I’m currently reading and enjoying Greenglass House, but they didn’t have any in stock. Instead, I bought Brand New Ancients, by performance poet Kate Tempest.

Tempest has been a huge name in Australia since her appearance on Q&A last year. She is a rapper, poet, musician, and novelist who won the Ted Hughes Poetry Prize in 2013 for Brand New Ancients, a narrative poem set to music which follows the fates of two families in London. The title page proclaims that “this poem was written to be read aloud”, but to be honest I read it from cover to cover silently and found it compelling and devastating – so much so that sometimes I needed to put it down.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. I was having a discussion with my friend recently about rap music (about which I know nada), and he was arguing that rappers need to be more skilled than poets, because they have to weave magic with words and set it all to a beat. Sure, I thought, but the songs you’re making me listen to would hardly stand up as poems alone. Poems on the page have nowhere to hide: an awkward rhyme or or tired image can’t be glossed over through a nice musical phrase. I thought that Tempest’s poetry might be similar – average on paper, electrifying in performance – but I found the words themselves pretty electrifying, to the point that when I did listen to excerpts of the performance, I didn’t feel that it added much. I didn’t need, for instance, swelling strings and Tempest’s rising voice to conjure up a sense of menace in the scene where Gloria is attacked, because that menace is already conveyed by the words. Perhaps it would have been different if I’d listened to the performance first, before reading the transcript.

I didn’t love every moment of Brand New Ancients. At times I found it a bit preachy – songs that repeatedly instruct the listener “You gotta…” or “We need to…” have always rubbed me up the wrong way, and this poem was no different. And all that preaching about our need to reconnect with our mythical roots is unnecessary, because the story speaks for itself. In the often-tragic tale of Brian, Clive, Tommy and the other men and women who drift in and out of their lives, we feel keenly the disconnect between contemporary society and the beings who populate it – beings with ancient needs, drives, and desires. This is brilliantly captured in the cover artwork by Christina Hardinge, which depicts ancient-looking figures sporting the traps of modernity and zombie-like gaits to match:

tempest

Tempest’s brand of poetry is often touted as new and unique (and it is unique), but of course performance poetry is as old as poetry itself (critics of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize might disagree). While in Lorne I also visited the little second-hand bookshop below, and picked up a copy of a very different performance poem: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in a modern English translation by Simon Armitage.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a brilliant narrative poem from the 14th century, written by an anonymous author in a Northern dialect of Middle English. The poem begins during a Christmas feast in Camelot, which is interrupted when an enormous knight, completely green in both attire and skin, walks into the hall. The stranger challenges the knights to a bizarre game, and Gawain – nephew of King Arthur – accepts the challenge. A fantastic adventure ensues, and the plot is riveting in its own right: masterfully shaped and containing a fantastic twist at the end. But Gawain is also a deeply complex poem which invites a multitude of interpretations: it has been read as a Christian allegory, a romance, a treatise on the nature of value, a battle of the sexes, and an exploration of man’s relationship with nature.

I am taking liberties a little by describing Gawain as a performance poem. The gorgeously-decorated manuscript in which Gawain was found along with three other poems suggests that it was also intended to be enjoyed on the page. However, during that time it was common for poems and stories to be read aloud for entertainment, and there is certainly much to be gained from reciting Gawain aloud. Simon Armitage has prioritized the poem’s alliteration in his translation, and argues that this technique is most powerful when read aloud:

On the subject of alliteration, it should be mentioned that within each line it is the stressed syllables which count. A line like ‘and retrieves the intestines in time-honoured style’ might appear not to alliterate at first glance. But read it out loud, and the repetition of that ‘t’ sound – the tut-tutting, the spit of revulsion, the squirming of the warm, wet tongue as it makes contact with the roof of the mouth – seems to suggest a physical relationship with the action being described… This is a translation not only for the eye, but for the ear and the voice as well (from the introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).

I already owned a copy of Armitage’s translation, but what I stumbled upon in the bookstore was not just any old copy, but a stunningly illustrated Folio Society edition, in perfect condition! A poem for the eye indeed!

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The Art of iPhone Games

Monument Valley by ustwo

The Room 3 by Fireproof Games

Believe it or not, but novels once enjoyed about the same cultural status as iPhone apps do today. Nowadays, novels are considered a form of high art – worthy of study at school and even university. So what will be studied in the universities of the 22nd century? And what art are we missing out on due to our prejudices, our insistence that it is not proper art?

I recently played a game on my iPhone which completely exploded my preconception that an app could not constitute art. It’s called Monument Valley by ustwo, and it’s the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.

The game is simple, gentle, and non-competitive. Your task is to guide Princess Ida through a dream-like landscape of impossible architecture, inspired by the optical illusions of M.C.Escher.

monument-valley

The gameplay is so seamless, and the soundscapes so soothing, that after finishing the whole game I replayed the individual levels over and over. Ida is aided in her “quest for forgiveness” by Totem, a small tower consisting of four yellow bricks. Yet their relationship is oddly touching, as Totem silently helps his small friend navigate the mesmerising landscape.

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There are games you play when you want to switch your brain off, but what I noticed about Monument Valley was that playing it made me feel inspired. Surely, that is a mark of good art, when it makes you want to create your own.

I scoured lists of “If you enjoyed Monument Valley, you’ll love…” and after a little trial and error came across The Room. The Room is a much more challenging game, where you have to unlock a series of complicated puzzle boxes sitting on ornate tables.  I wasn’t hugely taken with it at first: it felt like a never-ending succession of finding keys and opening secret compartments which revealed other keys to yet more secret compartments. There was a storyline, loosely played out via mysterious letters and notes, but these had no bearing on the gameplay. I found The Room 2 much more engaging, as each level allowed you to explore a whole (wonderfully creepy) room, rather than just a table. And then I played The Room 3.

The Room 3 creates a world far richer and more engrossing than The Room and The Room 2.  The game begins as you are sitting in the carriage of an old-fashioned train, a picturesque landscape rolling by outside the window. As the train rushes howling into a dark tunnel, you are suddenly transported to the basement of Grey Holm – the old mansion which forms the hub-world of The Room 3. No longer are you confined to a single room: here, you must explore every nook and cranny of the library, greenhouse, clock tower, forge, and observatory in order to solve the puzzles. The storyline, while still not totally clear, is more coherent than in the earlier games, and the puzzles are more intricate and engrossing. But my favourite thing about the game is the creepy, immersive setting, brought to life by the flawless graphics and realistic soundscapes.

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The mansion feels incredibly old, seemingly abandoned since the Victorian Era, and yet the various puzzles and contraptions have been painstakingly prepared – as though they were set up over a century ago, just for you. This contributes to the creepiness, although we never find out exactly who the mysterious “Craftsman” is.

The ending is jaw-dropping, but you have the option to change your fate, and if you so choose you are whisked back to Grey Holm. And then – surprise! You discover that hidden throughout the rooms are many secrets which you missed the first time, or noticed in passing but promptly forgot. The horrifying first ending seems to be a punishment for failing to observe your surroundings critically, instead blindly allowing the game to lead you.

I am glad that I put aside my preconceptions about iPhone games, and took the time to enjoy these two beautifully crafted pieces of art. I am now on the lookout for a new favourite: any suggestions?

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