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Which World Is Ending Now?
An alternative opening to At Work in the Ruins
I’m writing these words from the Eurostar train as it picks up speed, carrying me out of Brussels and towards London. It’s been four days since I left home and there are two days to go until publication day for At Work in the Ruins. To follow my tour diary and read about the encounters I’m having along the way, you can start a paid subscription to Writing Home – or, if you’re not in a position to set up a regular payment just now, drop me a note and I’ll gift you one.
Meanwhile, as a taste of the book itself, I wanted to share a piece of writing that almost ended up as its opening lines.
Worlds end, sooner or later; this has always been the deal.
For the Aztecs, theirs was the world of the Fifth Sun, and there had been four suns before this one. According to Hindu cosmology, we live in the Kali Yuga: the fourth and last age of this world cycle, part of a great cycle of cycles that stretches for thousands of millions of years.
The scientific revelations of deep time and the evolution of species landed in a European culture whose best minds had stripped the mythopoetic mystery from the Hebrew Bible and straightened it out into a timeline, according to which God created the world in 4004 BC on the evening of 22nd October. This kind of literal-mindedness laid the ground for the discoveries of natural science, yet it also left the culture in which those discoveries took place punishingly ill-equipped to handle their implications. Seven generations down the line, the philosopher Johan Redin suggests, the West is still in flight from the humbling message it found written in the stones: that we humans are only a small part of a vastly larger and older story.1
History is written by the victors, but their memories are short. ‘Preindustrial Europe had little that was in demand by the rest of the world,’ Sven Lindqvist points out. ‘Our most important export was violence. All over the rest of the world, we were seen as nomadic warriors in the manner of the Mongols or the Tartars. They ruled from the backs of horses, we from the decks of ships.’2 The story of the world built by those European empires is still told in TED talks as the inevitable culmination of a grand narrative of civilisation, the destination towards which all human history had been headed. But when our ship-borne warriors crossed the horizon into other people’s worlds, we were the barbarians.
Which world is ending now? Various answers are available, but the one that has made the deepest impression on me comes from the anthropologists Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena. In their book, A World of Many Worlds, they consider the discovery of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch which names the dawning recognition of our planetary situation – and how the buzz of books and conferences and exhibitions about this discovery looks from elsewhere:
The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion.3
We went around the world, ending other people’s worlds and calling it progress, and now it dawns on us that our world too could end. This realisation can take two forms: it can be a humbling moment, brought down to earth and able to hear at last what those on the receiving end of Western projects of colonisation, salvation, modernisation and development have been trying to tell us for generations. Or it can be the licence for the grandest version of that project yet: an attempt to turn our planetary home and all those we share it with, our human kin and our more-than-human kith, into an object of global management and control.
The opening pages of a book are often the last to be written. You have to get to the end in order to recognise where you were starting from. The passage above was written last summer, when I was working on the final draft of At Work in the Ruins, and for a while these were going to be the opening lines of the book. In the event, this passage was the one substantial cut that my editor proposed, and I think the book is better as a result. The grand sweep of that opening would have been out of place, because what follows is more intimate, a story told from a particular place and time, shaped by personal experiences. But those lines from Blaser and de la Cadena remain central to the book, along with the fork in the road that they bring into view.
And now, like a badly kept secret, the book is already slipping out into the world – I’m hearing from readers whose copies have landed. It feels like it’s about time to stop adding more words, to let the ones I already wrote do the speaking, and listen to what comes back.
On Thursday, to mark its official publication, I’ll share an extract from the book itself – and then I will head off the grid for a couple of days.is taking me to meet Iain McGilchrist, who just informed us that his home on the Isle of Skye is four miles from the nearest mobile phone signal. No doubt there will be tales to tell from that visit and the tour diary will be the place to tell them.
Meanwhile, there are still tickets available for some of the public conversations I’m doing in the UK, starting on Saturday night in Glasgow.
And here’s a conversation I had recently with my friend David Bent for his series, ‘These Powerful Times’, which starts with him asking what it is I’m doing just now, to which my answer is ‘using words, and sometimes silences, to shift the space of possibility’. We talk about the difference between using language to ‘word the world’ and using it to ‘world the world’, a distinction which comes from the Maori philosopher Carl Mika, by way of Vanessa Machado de Oliveira’s Hospicing Modernity. ‘Before I knew who I was or what was worth doing with my life, I had this series of initiations into very different ways of using language,’ I find myself telling him.
With each of the podcasts and interviews I’ve done around this book, the conversation has taken off in quite different directions. This is good, as I’d get bored saying the same things over and over! Instead, I hear myself saying things I hadn’t expected, arising out of the encounters with the people with whom I’m in conversation.
I look forward to more of these encounters on the road that lies ahead.
Sven Lindqvist, Utrota varenda jävel (1992). My translation.
Marisol de la Cadena & Mario Blaser, Eds., A World of Many Worlds (2018).