Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: So You Think You’re Human

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the Professor of Global Environmental History at the University of London. He’s a distinguished author on the largest scale: the titles of ‘Food: A History’, ‘Civilisations’, and ‘Millennium’ suggest their scope. Here is the thesis of his latest work: “I’m a monkey! Ooh! Ooh! Give me some bananas! See me masturbate in public! You’re a monkey too!”

So You Think You’re Human is an odd book. It shares its central question with the PG Tips adverts: if chimps can brew tea, move pianos, and enter the Tour de France, why do we as humans privilege ourselves so? What does it mean to be human, and can we put together a decent ethical framework for getting through life?

Put like that, it sounds a little heavy. However, the book has some serious pleasures. Fern·ndez-Armesto has the great virtue of knowing an awful lot: he knows a lot of interesting facts, and shows no fear in press-ganging them into an argument. So, we get to find out about the ‘Hottentot Venus’ of 1810, Saartje ‘do the’ Baartmann, and where we can see her pickled sexual organs. We’re told what happened when Darwin’s *Beagle* took up three Polynesians – called Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster – ‘civilised’ them, then dumped them back in Tierra Del Fuego. We also learn about St Guinefort, who was a dog, and Lord Monboddo’s belief that orang-utans can play the flute. Plus, he tells us about the philosophical thoughts of Wang Ch’ung. (This unfortunately, is the Chinese thinker of the first century A.D., rather than the 80s pop-rock outfit.)

It’s a slim book, so you want more on some of these subjects: you wish he’d hang around on totemism for longer, or dig a bit deeper into the origins of racism, and the pseudo-science which has always surrounded it. There are also some bigger problems. He’s at his worst when he’s putting forward an ethical argument. He gnaws away at the idea of humanity, and human specialness, barking down the claims that tools, or language, or culture separate us from the apes; at the same time he wants to believe in something unique to us, rejecting the potential for machine consciousness, and getting himself in tangles over the spiritual aspect of the mind. Felipe may be in trouble once Our Robot Masters enslave humanity.

He’s just a little too conservative to wrassle with the world of now. Genetic modification, or Turing Tests are subjects that make him look a little slow: there’s clearly a good reason he became a historian. The worst example is when he takes a hard-line anti-abortion position, albeit in a tangle of qualifications about the good intentions of those involved. It amounts to saying “No offence, mothers and doctors – don’t take it personal – but you’re murderers committing a second holocaust.” That’s a shame: there’s a sharp contrast in moving passages where Fern·ndez-Armesto describes Neanderthal burial rituals. You feel persuaded by his moral outrage at the academy’s refusal to accept the worth and meaning of that species’ life.

The cover has a quote from John Gray, who calls it “brilliant”, and it has a lot in common with his Straw Dogs from last year. In both cases, you get a sense of learned gentlemen who potter around their institutions, and spend their lives immersed in a dead world – they read through thousands upon thousands of pages of history, economics, and philosophy. One day, looking up from a volume of Voltaire, they notice that the world is a piece of shit riddled with suffering and injustice. They decide it’s time to act. This action takes the form of writing a slim book that compresses a lot of erudition and thought into a melancholic, aphoristic set of meditations on the nature of humanity.

Fern·ndez-Armesto can’t measure up to Gray here. Straw Dogs is a great, despairing book, a miserable vision of humanity which sees every attempt at making a better world as doomed. Gray argues for us being the most hideously evil creatures imaginable, or rather the only evil creatures possible: a jellyfish can’t betray another jellyfish, and most bison are incapable of creating a hell like Stalin’s Russia. It’s a cruel, right-wing argument, at heart: despairing of human nature, finding us rottenly corrupt, and choosing the company of animals over that of men. It gives up on the potential for change, and for hope. Revolution’s just bloodshed, and democracy is pointless. Pass the razor-blades.

So You think You’re Human? is healthier than Gray’s book, but less of a thrill. It hasn’t reached the hysterical level of despair that makes *Straw Dogs*, if you’re in the right mood, a terrifically funny read. It still wants to find something to believe in, and although it’s silly in places, and offensive in others, it’s a collection of incidents, examples and questions that stands a chance of stirring people to thought or action.

Francis Wheen: Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 26 March 2004

The audience is middle-aged. They have a solid understanding of fashion – grey goes with grey. They read broadsheets and only listen to Radio 4. We explained to a twin-set in the neighbouring seat that if you fiddle with wireless dial, music comes out. She was intrigued, but sceptical.

We were all here to listen to Francis Wheen, major contributor to Private Eye, Biographer of Karl Marx, and now author of How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World. It’s a likeable book, but a frustrating one. Wheen argues that over the last 25 years, there’s been a rise in irrationalism, from the crystal and candles of New Age dippies, to the obfuscating pontifications of Derrida, Lacan, and their ilk.

It’s an annoying thesis, nearly right but not quite. The fag-end of 60s is a likelier birth-date for modern bunkum – always blame the hippies – and Wheen simply isn’t so great at the Social Sciences. Just like our second favourite Romana-shagger, Richard Dawkins, he doesn’t get how complicated the models for understanding belief are, and doesn’t seem thorough in his sources. He’s a bit shallow when he’s playing with the big ideas, conflating ‘modernity’, ‘the Enlightenment and ‘niceness’ in a slack way. He mistakes anecdotes for evidence, and just doesn’t seem to get the interesting stuff.

You can get results by throwing common sense out the window. Once, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone to disprove Bishop Berkeley’s belief that all things were ideas sustained in the mind of God. Fat Sam couldn’t make the theory go away: it haunted the writing of Yeats, Borges and Beckett. Weird thoughts can have interesting children. However, this isn’t a crowd who go for strangeness and challenges. We’re here to have our beliefs confirmed by a nice, funny man, and that’s what we get: there’s witty outrage over Faith Schools and Creationism; mockery of Cherie’s gullibility; and some guffaws over the old statistic about 2m Americans believing that they’ve been abducted by Aliens.

There’s the rub. We’d guess he’s talking about the Roper Poll of 1992, in which case the figure it gives is actually 3.7m. It was a procedurally flawed study: big inferences were drawn from leading questions. It’s essentially invalid. The lesson: don’t claim to be standing for reason, science, and ‘enlightenment values’ when you’ve got a wonky way of sifting evidence.

But we all enjoyed a jolly critique of crazy pseudo-scientific systems that have plunged the world into miserable torment. The best joke of all? All this from a great admirer of Marx. That’s a beam in your eye, buddy!

The Lit Idol Final: March 15, 2004

Lit Idol. A battle to the death between six unpublished authors! A top agent to the winner! Oblivion for the vanquished! Watch controversy flare as publishing battles with showbiz!

Or that’s nearly how it was. Almost.

It was well-organised: A voting handset on each seat; dramatic lighting that shouted ‘MONEY!’ and ‘TV!’; and a huge video screen that looked ready to show which of our cities were about to be hit by Soviet missiles. Apart from the slight smell of onions in the area near the door, we were impressed.

We got the sense the flash, technology and spectacle was trying to goad the press into treating this as a event to spark debate: a reprise of that venerable, tired scrap where ‘popularising books’ goes three rounds with ‘vulgarising literature’. This time we ought to stop it in the first: there’s a rotten fix on. The public didn’t matter, since the web-based vote was irrelevant. The prize went to whomever we in the hall chose.

So, the revolutionary populism consisted of the following process: 1,500 entries were examined by a team of professional readers; a longlist of 31 was then passed to the judges, who were publishing professionals; they produced a shortlist of six, which was in turn judged by three hundred invited industry types.

In essence, it’s the slush-pile route to publication with a hall of tipsy agents, editors and journos standing in for a commissioning editor.

We can’t whine too much about the industry’s deceitful attempts to conjure publicity from indifference, as there’s no complaint about the writing. The winner of the popular vote was *Jennifer’s Friend*, by Tom Easton. It seems like a fun read – it’ll be published, and enjoyed by many. The winner of the industry vote, *Northwest Passage*, by Paul Cavanagh, seems to be a fully-functioning literary novel. Our favourite was *Dirty Women* by Karen Barichievy: sharp, funny, and clever, with no verbiose thesaurising. It’s not just a kinky sex romp with SJP-friendly brand-dropping, though that’s how they’ll try to sell it. Ms. Barichievy wants to be the female Henry Miller – a noble aim, even if Anias Nin snagged the job a few years back.

Finally, two suggestions for the organisers. Next year, when you announce the winner, don’t play ‘Paperback Writer’. It’s a lazy choice of song, and its lyrics mock author and publisher alike. Also, try to collect the magic handsets from any empty seats, otherwise I will again use them to vote four times.

Next Week: Bananaman saves Aberfan

Imagine, if you will, that I’ve written, and you’ve just read, a lengthy essay on fanfic: we’ve discussed folk art, hagiographic traditions, and the IP implications of unauthorised creativity. O.K.? We’ve done enough to take it seriously, and we’re a bit bored.

Now let me introduce Goku:


He’s the hero of Dragonball Z: sent to earth by some evil people, now fights on side of good, bit of a dope, hard as nails. I think he may have schooled in Satan City.

This is Anne Frank:


She had a run of bad luck in the 40s.

What happens when they team up?

“Now come on.” Commanded Goku. “We’ve got some Nazi ass to kick.” Anne jumped on the mysterious Saiyan’s back, as he launched off into the sky.

If only…

Goku emerged from the tank’s hatch, smiling now that he had done his duty. When all of the dust cleared, there were only two people remaining on the parade ground: Goku, the Saiyan hero, and Adolf Hitler, the most evil man ever to walk the earth[…]Anne watched from nearby fearfully as she saw the two men stare at each other for what seemed like hours. Her one true love, and her ultimate oppressor. It had come down to this. “So,” Hitler said jovially “You took out all of my men. However, you aren’t going to defeat me.”

If you want to know what happens next (is there any way you couldn’t?), just visit fanfiction.net. They also have an extensive collection of marching band stories (SFW – it’s mostly innocent).

Field Report 1: John Gray at Borders

To the Charing Cross Borders for John Gray’s talk on his book about Al-Qaeda.

A laugh a minute, as you’d expect. Everyone looked terribly serious. They gave us vouchers to get 10% off philosophy books, but I still don’t trust them – spent the evening facing a large section sign which spelt ‘Archaeology’ wrongly. You’re in Britain now, Borders, and we use two ‘a’s.

Fewer men had glasses than one might expect. I wore an average amount of stubble for the crowd (apporx. 3-4 days), but I would have fitted in better had I worn my battered leather jacket. Unfortunately, it’s started to smell funny.

Most of the girls seemed to have D. Bowie Haircuts (Would Bowie like Gray, or Gray Bowie? The Diamond Dogs period could be an influence on Gray’s bleak vision of the future, but I did not have a chance to ask him.) I think the haircuts were unintentional – mostly Eton Crops that had drifted far from their birth in the salon. The Alien girl from Galaxy Quest was sitting behind me:

space chick

That was curious.

We were told, by a pink thin continental woman, that this event was being presented by ‘The Forum For European Philosophy’. Their aim is to make European Philosophy more popular (my advice – change the name, toots. Try ‘F1l0sotr0n’, or ‘The Holy Order of Truth Seekers’, or ‘The Last Cowboys’, or anything really. I’m just not getting excitement.)

Straw Dogs was an inspiring book, she told us wrongly, then Gray appeared. He wore a well-co-ordinated outfit – mustard jumper, caramel jacket, chocolate shirt – but it still looked a little shabby-donnish. I think academic journals are impregnated with some kind of skin-greying chemical. Stay away, kids.

He said roughly the following:

Al Qaeda are presented to us as an anti-modern mediaeval fascists. This is wrong. Al Qaeda are truly modern. Fascism is a distinctively modern ideology, and AQ have been made possible by the particular conditions of the last twenty years – technological advance and the collapse of states.

Radical Islam in general draws on nineteenth and twentieth century late Enlightenment thought – there are elements of Anarchism, Leninism, and Nietzschean philosophy. We can go back to Jacobinism, but the Positivists are the real root.

At this point, I took a dislike to the girl sitting next to me when I saw how sensible her shoes were. She got out a bottle of water, and drank from it. I bet it wasn’t even real bottled water. She looked like she’d top it up from a Brita Water Filter. I just can’t bring myself to trust people with fleeces.

Positivism rests on three principles: the reality of scientific progress; this progress enabling universal convergence towards a rational world view; and this scientific convergence abolishing scarcity.

This lies behind most ideologies of the last century: the first premise is true, the second two are fundamentally wrong. In fact, AQ provide an experimental falsification of this. No rational convergence towards liberalism or marxism. Wars over dwindling natural resources will take place more and more. True modernity, then, is simply the advance of technology, and the unpredictable consequences of this – e.g. AQ.

We are fucked.

Here it occured to me that Francis Wheen, who’d received a bad review from Gray, was speaking over the road at Foyles. Two points follow – 1)How could I arrange a fistfight? 2)Who would win? I think Gray. He’s a Geordie. It was a bit like the Big Brother announcer explaining that the chief legacy of Comte and Saint-Simon was the mass extermination of humanity in the twentieth century.

The Q and A was fun. Zingers all the way.

Marxist in a duffel coat :”Don’t you think fascism is the crisis of capitalism?”
JG: “I don’t engage with marxism, any more than creationism”.

Angry SWPer: “You’re very dismissive of the situationists…”
JG: “Cults like the situationists, who were fortunately very weak and trivial in Europe, or Baader-Meinhoff…”

At the end, a man with a balloon seemed to be going up to him. Does Gray like balloons?

A parting one-liner from Gray to cheer your walk home? “Madrid can happen here. In fact, it probably will.”

Give me an Aitch!

I had a master plan for this blog. Here it is:

  1. Talk about Hazlitt a lot

I decided to rely on the Guardian. They love Hazlitt, and run a story on him approx. once every two months. I could then use this an excuse to chatter at length about the great man.Hey Presto!

(Incidentally, running stories about him works better than their old plan: for a while, the Saturday edition featured an extract from his essays run under a columnist picture byline. I’d start reading it without checking the name or picture, and for a couple of sentences my head would vibrate rapidly with pleasure – I was simply stunned by the tough authority and intelligence of this writer. Then I’d notice it was a Hazlitt piece, and that explained that, leaving me to read the rest of the paper in a fury at the mangy inadequacy of every other columnist. Lesson: keep genius at a distance. It makes you look bad. Sadly, that’s how they treated him then.)

Today, to celebrate Michael Foot bequeathing his Hazlitt collection to the Wordsworth Trust, we’ll be showing you this picture of the man:


And linking to his essay on Gifford. I’ll disobey my own advice about not letting Genius get close. Here’s something from the link. It might as well be the Mail he’s talking about, or any Murdochite scribbler:

No statement in the Quarterly Review is to be trusted: there is no fact that is not misrepresented in it, no quotation that is not garbled, no character that is not slandered, if it can answer the purposes of a party to do so. The weight of power, of wealth, of rank is thrown into the scale, gives its impulse to the machine; and the whole is under the guidance of Mr. Gifford’s instinctive genius — of the inborn hatred of servility for independence, of dulness for talent, of cunning and impudence for truth and honesty. It costs him no effort to execute his disreputable task; in being the tool of a crooked policy, he but labours in his natural vocation. He patches up a rotten system, as he would supply the chasms in a worm-eaten manuscript, from a grovelling incapacity to do any thing better: thinks that if a single iota in the claims of prerogative and power were lost, the whole fabric of society would fall upon his head and crush him…

I decree him our literary patron saint. Guide the LNR, William, please!

What Do You Mean ‘Needs More Dogs’?

Ah! The Telegraph: ever-enchanted by the pure-breed charms of Elizabeth Hurley; the finest source of obituaries for eccentric Wing Commanders in Britain; and a cryptic crossword so simple that Jordan’s left tit can solve it (to get you going – today, 1ac. ‘watercress’, 1d. ‘wane’, 6ac. ‘cole’ – but I’m sure you won’t need my help).

They’re not reviewing Cloud Atlas. Does anyone in the audience know why this might be?

That’s right. It’s because they are stupid.

Even their explanation is wrong and stupid:

“The historical bits are awash with ludicrous olden-days dialogue: ‘O, diresome bad things was gettin’, yay.’

I might be wrong here, but that looks to me like it’s from the middle narrative, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin”, which is post-apocalyptic language-wrench Science Fiction (resembling nothing so much as John Crowley’s mighty Engine Summer), not a ‘historical bit’.

The simplest thing to say about Cloud Atlas is that it is tremendously enjoyable: Mitchell loves stories, and it’s an exciting book to read: there’s nothing more intoxicating in literature than wanting to know what happens next, and this is the kick of the book: it’s not an indulgent post-modern meditation, it’s ripping fun with real depth.

It upsets me to see the public insulted by this sort of thing – patronising discussion of literature from addled tards who struggle to reach the end of anything that isn’t a delicately constructed tale of a spinster’s late-blooming love. But I guess Telegraph readers have already debased themselves by taking it as their paper, and so deserve this treatment.

And another thing, Orwell

The type of people who are all like Orwell this and Orwell that also big up noted rapist Arthur Koestler. If they weren’t so damn keen on using Darkness at Noon as a totem of honesty and decency, or the place where the virtues of humanity resist totalitarians of all stripes, then it wouldn’t keep bothering me so much. It’s not a point I’m comfortable making, really: as a fan of Waugh, Larkin and Céline, I’m well aware that pointing fingers is identical to sitting around in my big glass house and heaving breezeblocks.

Just Ignore The Hitler-Liking Period

Penguin are publishing two Wyndham Lewis titles this month: The Revenge For Love, and The Wild Body.

The Wild Body is a collection of short stories – I don’t know this stuff at all, but I can’t see how they could be bad. The Revenge for Love is from 1936, and rated as one of his best novels. There’s also an edition over at the Gingko Press, if you’d like something a little plusher than a PMC. They have a good collection of titles by Lewis, and John Calder has a couple of good things, though I think they’ve let Blasting and Bombardiering, his autobiography, slip out of print.

It’s nice to see him coming out in Penguin again. It means he’ll be in a few more bookshops than Black Sparrow could manage, or Gingko can.

If you don’t know Lewis, he’s an artist and author from back in the Twentieth. A Vorticist in visuals, and a deep satirist in print, he’s worshipped by some, but has never quite jumped into the canon with Eliot, Joyce, and the rest of his contemporaries.

He can be a struggle sometimes – the novels’ prose gets nearly too dense and knotty – but it’s worth following the compressions and ellipses to get the kind of chinese brain burn that wakes you up special triple quick like.

He’s also a journalist and polemicist of genius – the cloggier bits of the novels becomes clear and forceful when he decides it time to persuade you of something. If I haven’t made it clear, we at the LNR are publishing a newspaper on the 19th. So far, my desire to have it resemble Lewis’s Blast :


Has gone unheeded. However, if I have my way (and it might mean killing an editor and the printer. But surely the world will forgive me if I do it in the name of ART?) here’s the template for page three:

blast it!

I know, I know, positivity. That’s why this is page four:


You can pick up Blast at the Gingko link above.

If you’d like to see the art of Lewis and his cohorts, and you’re in London, you can visit the Estorick Collection and see their exhibition on Vorticism in Britain. As well as Lewis’s fellow travellers, the exhibition also features work by C.R.W. Nevinson, ‘England’s only Futurist’:


Must have been lonely for him.