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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier

This novel was suggested for the Older Women in fiction series by a reader of this blog. It is narrated by an old woman who is trying to make sense of the life she has lived and the changes she has seen. On the cover it is described as ‘a beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War’. So, is it a war novel or an account of ageing?

These descriptions are not incompatible, and the novel is broad in its themes, allowing for both perspectives: war novel and older woman in fiction. It is a weighty work, but full of humanity, and written with a prose that is at times sumptuous and at others unflinching. This novel, originally written in Dutch, is focused on one small corner of northern France on the border with Belgian in the early years of the 20th century. 

This is the 60th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

While the Gods were Sleeping

Helena is in her nineties and sees herself as a lonely survivor from her generation. She requires 24-hour care from Rachida (a young Moroccan woman) and her less sympathetic stand-in. She is reviewing her life, not just to give an account of it but rather to interrogate the influences and experiences. 

Helena was born into a bourgeoise family in pre-WW1 Belgium. The first 70 pages describe her upbringing in a bourgeois household in a Belgian town where her father owns the hardware store. He mother upholds the conventions of the class, expressed in particular through the sewing circle of local women that meet in her home and by her very close supervision of her daughter. Her mother is very happy with her life and believes that all is good in the world. Her view will be violently shattered by the war.

The next section is concerned with Helena’s brother, Edgard, and reveals the double standard in their upbringing. Edgard is gay and enjoys considerable freedom. He is called up eventually and is wounded in the latter part of the war. To Helena as they sit on a terrace overlooking the sea in his convalescence, he reports on his dreams. This is among some of the most powerful writing in this book. And perhaps this example will go some way to explain why this is a war novel.

A languor hangs over the terrace, a blanket of lethargy. At the same time I feel the jealousy of my men behind me and rage wells up in me. Who is drinking our blood? Who is eating our flesh? And then there is the sadness again, that gnawing, amber-coloured regret – why do the years bring so much regret, my little gazelle? What loans must we repay, what losses must we redeem? Who has lived above his station and mortgaged our existence? Usually I wake up in tears. (281-2)

Helena retells how she went with her French mother to France in the summer of 1914, for their annual visit with that side of her family. War is declared while they are there and the border closed, and they must stay for the next few years in France. Her father remains in Belgium. She experiences the war at first hand, seeing the first impact on the community as the men are called up, the injuries and mutilations, the deaths, the death of a child, the front and finally her brother and lover who are both injured and in a hospital. 

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The damage to human life, the damage to the landscape, the damage to communities are each explored in turn as Helena is taken up by an English officer and they visit the area near the front line. He will become her husband. What it means to be in the army, what it means to be afraid or to be wounded, these aspects of war are also revealed. She visits the area behind the lines with her lover;

The plain that I no longer recognized, or only half, because it was no longer, or not completely, the plain where we used to come on excursions by coach with my uncle and the aunts, under the parasol of August, to the villages where we drank the idleness of summer from earthenware jugs, the bitter beer.
The villages with their towers, their sun-scorched squares, their ochre spires which now seemed different villages, different towers, toy villages which had fallen out of the overfull box of a giant child while it had been lugging it across fields in boredom where old corn lay snapped over the earth, overgrown with grass tussocks and thistles. Roofs showed their skeletons, seemed to have rejected their tiles. Windows, shutters, hung loose from the window frames in walls riddled with bullet holes. … (208-9)

The prose is very pregnant, lush even, baroque. We see her childhood dominated by her mother’s stiff understanding of what girls should do. She falls out with her mother who discovers that she has spent unsupervised time with her lover. And alongside the bystanders and participants we experience the horrors of war, the damage – not just on the Front, but over the years, and to families and communities. The novel is about ageing, but ageing in times that are tragic, not ageing that is simply looking back over the past.

The narrative is deliberately disrupted and disruptive. Helena’s marriage to her British photographer husband is prefigured for she refers to him as ‘my husband’ from the outset. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of hostilities and this news broke while they were on the train to France. We find this out much later, after we have met Helena and her mother at her uncle’s farm where they will live for the next four years. This is Helena’s account, after all, and we do not remember things in chronological order, but as they are connected to other memories. In addition, Mortier makes much use of lists as the examples above demonstrate. The prose and the disjointed chronology reflect the turbulence of the events of the times they describe. 

Erwin Mortier

Born in 1965, Mortier was brought up in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, before moving to Ghent. While the Gods were Sleeping is his fourth novel, all have been translated. He is much admired in Europe for his fiction, his poetry and his translations into Dutch.

While the Gods were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, first published in 2008, and then in the English translation in 2014 by Pushkin Press. 364pp Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent 

Related posts

On her blog The Book Binder’s Daughter refers to the confusing and disruptive structure of the novel and to its language and prose as ‘disintegrated’. But she found it a memorable novel about WW1. (February 2015)

The Bookword page about the series Older Women in Fiction can be found here.

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