So we are primed by our cultural inheritance to see past collapses as apocalyptic events. As storytelling animals, tales of civilisational collapse are attractive – they have an internal consistency that gives them narrative logic. But there is also a psychological aspect to thinking about collapse past and present. Looking at past collapses, we can feel superior, technologically and morally, to earlier peoples and societies – we know why they failed and how we can succeed, our sense of progress is reinforced. There might be a tinge of schadenfreude even. Turning that to the possibility of near-future collapse, by imagining ourselves standing on the precipice of some epochal change, we make ourselves feel more important – we are living at a key time and we have the power to affect global civilisation, either positively or negatively.
The stories of the Maya and climate change, and the Easter Islanders’ ecocidal self-destruction, suit those who want to make a dramatic argument about our own mistreatment of the environment in modern times, and the possible fate of our own civilisation. They are dramatic, media-friendly, soundbite stories that convey moral and practical lessons, hence they are commonly found in environmental literature and the mass media. There has been a trend to explain other collapses in the same way. But such stories appropriate the histories of past and indigenous peoples, and construct them as modern Western-focused parables. They dwell on the supposed failures of pre-modern and non-Western societies rather than stressing their resilience in the face of difficulties or recalling the Western role in their eventual cultural destruction.
The twin challenges of too much quantity and too little quality are rooted in the finite neurological capacity of the human mind. Scientists are deriving hypotheses from a smaller and smaller fraction of our collective knowledge and consequently, more and more, asking the wrong questions, or asking ones that have already been answered. Also, human creativity seems to depend increasingly on the stochasticity of previous experiences–particular life events that allow a researcher to notice something others do not. Although chance has always been a factor in scientific discovery, it is currently playing a much larger role than it should.
In a 1972 letter, Hannah Arendt speculates that a thinker has only one real thought in her life, everything else being nothing but variations on this single theme. First published in French in 2014, A Long Saturday is a short book of conversations between George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The volume provides an overview of the main themes that have occupied Steiner’s mind throughout his life, but it also gives us reason to doubt Arendt’s conjecture. For while those of us familiar with Steiner’s oeuvre will hear in these conversations variations on familiar themes, we are left with no doubt as to the plurality of those themes. A Long Saturday shows Steiner to be a man of more than one book.
Observation is the action, when we position ourselves alongside these characters and recognize them in ourselves. It is easier to find ennobling traits than repulsive ones, but both can move us, as if by red-inked workshop comments, to develop greater awareness of our own character and our dynamism, freedom, and complex humanity.
The stories here are simple. Two people click at a baseball game in a city park. A cyclist stews about a lovers' quarrel. A couple try to recreate the conditions under which they first met. Maroh brings fervent lyricism to each situation, vaulting the characters into flights of eloquence. She writes like that intense, interestingly dressed girl from your high school who was always scribbling poetry in the back of her math notebook — only she's a lot nicer. When the brooding cyclist catches his front wheel in a hole and falls off his bike, he thinks not of his limbs but of his love. "It's physical — the terror of watching our relationship slip between our fingers like water, and we can't hold it back," he muses, lying on the ground. "Do we have to get this low to finally understand that the other person matters?"
Oliver’s new book, “Devotions”, is unlikely to change the minds of detractors. It’s essentially a greatest-hits compilation. But for her fans—among whom I, unashamedly, count myself—it offers a welcome opportunity to consider her body of work as a whole. Part of the key to Oliver’s appeal is her accessibility: she writes blank verse in a conversational style, with no typographical gimmicks. But an equal part is that she offers her readers a spiritual release that they might not have realized they were looking for. Oliver is an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. She tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work. Indeed, a number of the poems in this collection are explicitly formed as prayers, albeit unconventional ones.