DISCONTENT AND ITS CIVILIZATIONS. Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London. Mohsin Hamid, Penguin, 2015.
Discontent and Its Civilization, the title of this collection of essays by Mohsin Hamid, is a take-off on Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, published in Vienna in 1930 as Das Unberhangen in der Kultur. Whereas Freud analyzes the influence of our inner on our outer world, Hamid dissects “dystopian social engineering” to see how it affects our inner perceptions. By looking at generally accepted views on life, art and politics with a critical eye, Hamid is merely doing what visual artists are taught to do in school: turn a picture upside down to see its flaws. The same holds true for paradigms. Thus Hamid is able to sketch a very clear portrait of current world affairs, with all its flaws and serpentine curves.
Mohsin Hamid was born in Pakistan but received most of his education in elite universities in the United States. He then moved to London where he became a husband, a father and a UK citizen. After the birth of his daughter he moved his family to Lahore, close to his extended family, where the writer now spends most of his time when not travelling extensively. This peripatetic lifestyle allows him to look at his country with a dispassionate eye.
The essays in this book chronicle the author’s maturing style over the years. As Hamid himself explains, no attempts were made to alter the text to better reflect the writer’s current views, thus allowing readers a glimpse into the development of his thoughts and skills. The strongest parts of the book are the introduction and the third section on politics. The sections on life and art, while providing an insight into the author’s personal and professional life, are less pertinent to the main focus of this MS issue on Fear and Loathing.
The following incisive statement in the introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book:
Globalization is a brutal phenomenon. It brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism, unchecked financial capitalism, inequality, xenophobia, climate change. But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.
Pakistan’s relations with the rest of the world, particularly with the United States, occupy most of the writer’s concerns. In Hamid’s opinion, both the Pakistani military and the United States government are to be blamed for the rising level of violence in the region. He is quick to point out that US intervention into the affairs of his country is not only illegitimate but totally useless, if not counterproductive. He believes that the so-called “war on terror” is a war against a concept, not a nation. The enemy under attack is pluralism. Definitions of civilizations are constructs, mere illusions, but pervasive, dangerous and powerful. He also makes a plea for India and Pakistan to normalize their relations “to help starve Pakistani militancy of oxygen.” Normalizing their relations, of course, means addressing the future of Kashmir.
Mohsin Hamid also debunks concepts such as race. Islam, he reminds readers, is not a race, yet there is racism implicit in the attacks levelled against it. He firmly believes that Islam, like Pakistan itself, is not a monolithic block, but contains within it a rich pluralism. This subject is treated at great length in this second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where the author sets out “to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader — fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty — can actually color a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is the one who decides what is really going on.” (See Julian Samuel’s review of Mira Nair’s cinematic version of the novel, MS 02-06-13.)
Hamid also delves into minority relations in his country and shows how they are a microcosm of society. He points out that the “ill treatment of religious minorities mirrors the ill treatment of impoverished majorities.” He also decries the doublethink that permeates Pakistani society, whereby 1) America is considered an enemy but more aid is demanded of it; 2) the privileged liberal position clamours for equality but does not want to share its wealth with the poor; and 3) religion makes all equal provided that only the powerful have the right to interpret it.
Mohsin Hamid reserves a special chapter for drones, which in his view don’t help and end up killing more civilians than militants.
Discontent and Its Civilizations is one of the easiest reads on a very complex subject that this reviewer has encountered. That is a testament to Mohsin Hamid’s craft as a writer, to his depth as a thinker and his honesty as a human being.
The Geopolitics of Emotion. How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World. Dominique Moisi, Doubleday, New York, 2009.
Dominique Moisi, a senior international affairs advisor based in Paris and at the time of writing Geopolitics, a visiting professor on transatlantic relations at Harvard, firmly believes in the value of multiculturalism, which “must be practiced with self confidence.” Quoting an unnamed French minister, he deplores that “globalization has become an occasion for fear.” He goes on to explain that “the fear of the Other grows out of demography and geography.” This take is not much different from Hamid’s opinion on the brutality of the phenomenon of globalization. However, Moisi’s analysis is more nuanced: “the Asian world today is characterized especially by hope, the Arab-Islamic world by humiliation and the Western world by fear.” To complete this scenario, Moisi concludes that “the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, blending ignorance, disdain and brutality, may be linked to the scars the Israelis carry from the recent Jewish past.”
Moisi dedicates his book to his father: “Jules Moisi, Number 159721 in Auschwitz, who survived extreme fear and humiliation to teach me hope.”