Food for thought in a glut of ideas

<i>Civilizations</i> by Felipe Fern&Atilde;&iexcl;ndez-Armesto (Macmillan, &pound;25, 636pp)
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The Independent Culture

Grand comparative histories of societies have become respectable again. Even while I was a schoolboy, Arnold Toynbee's multi-volume study was widely reviled by niche historians, as was Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. Later, great studies like Lewis Mumford's works on urban cultures, Braudel's studies of Civilisation and Capitalism, and Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, addressed more specific subjects in copious detail, illuminating the general with the particular. But in the last decade, unconventional but populist works like Theodore Zeldin's encyclopaedia of emotions down the ages, Samuel P Huntington's version of the clash of contemporary civilisations and Jared Diamond's half-scientific, half-historical works on human destiny, have resurrected the theme.

Grand comparative histories of societies have become respectable again. Even while I was a schoolboy, Arnold Toynbee's multi-volume study was widely reviled by niche historians, as was Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. Later, great studies like Lewis Mumford's works on urban cultures, Braudel's studies of Civilisation and Capitalism, and Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, addressed more specific subjects in copious detail, illuminating the general with the particular. But in the last decade, unconventional but populist works like Theodore Zeldin's encyclopaedia of emotions down the ages, Samuel P Huntington's version of the clash of contemporary civilisations and Jared Diamond's half-scientific, half-historical works on human destiny, have resurrected the theme.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Civilizations (carefully plural rather than singular, as in Kenneth Clark's work, and carefully non-Eurocentric, unlike Clark as well) is the latest bravura step in this rehabilitation. Do not expect a neutral account of the ascent of man from barbarism in the manner of J M Roberts's history of the world. This is a contentious, provocative work, full of utterly original and sometimes perverse perspectives, terse apothegms which taunt as they half-convince, and a truly recondite vocabulary (sesquipedal, scanted, lutz, pinguid, ensorcellement and steatopygous).

Like Jared Diamond, Fernández-Armesto is very much an environmentalist. The overt agenda of Diamond's work is a desire to destroy any notion that race or genes have played a part in the emergence of civilisations and, specifically, in the western dominance of the 200 years.

Diamond's theory was that civilisations appeared early in the Near East because of the great variety of seeds, grains, and domesticable livestock, and the ease of East-West communication across similar latitudes and climates (as opposed to North-South, across divergent climates, in the New World). This is close to Fernández-Armesto's belief that the food supply is the basic determinant of a culture. He cites interesting theories on the connection between maize and meso-American priestly tyrannies, and barley and the similar governance of Tibet.

Definitions are all-important in work of this nature and, without being able to do better, I find the author's definition of civilisation unsatisfactory. For him, it is the sum of mankind's designs upon the environment (not too far from Toynbee's theory of challenge and response). Thus he speaks of the "orderly grid of fields and canals that brands the earth wherever civilisation happens" and of "the civilising geometry of right angles and straight lines".

One of the many brilliant paradoxes in this wonderfully wide-ranging study is the assertion that "Writing is not essential to civilisation - but it helps", while "Civilisation can happen anywhere". While one accepts that primitive bureaucracies arise on the back of agricultural surpluses, and that such societies can cope with accumulating, distributing and recording food through tallying by sticks and knots, the theory hardly takes in the arts and graces which are surely not transient blooms but part of the kernel of civilisation itself.

It reminds me of the central thesis in Needham's Science and Civilisation in China - a huge multi-volume enterprise full of diagrams of obscure machines designed to show that invention had not withered in China after gunpowder, the compass and the wheelbarrow. This is one of the great books - featuring, like the Arab traveller, Ibn Battuta, extensively in Zeldin as well as in Fernández-Armesto - but the whole argument hinges upon definition. The Chinese have without doubt been technically ingenious; but they have, so far, not been scientifically creative.

Fernández-Armesto's second hallmark for civilisation - that it should have optimism in the future - is, like his first, a useful field-tool that may not endure full weight. Some civilisations, even as they were achieving, had no idea of progress so much as of a decline from a golden to a brazen age. This is particularly oriental.

It is always wrong to scorn new ideas because they startle; the apparently absurd proposition is a useful instrument. But you have to be very flexible to take on comments such as that, from the point of view of survival, "civilization is an irrational and even a risky strategy"; or that simply because it happened late in history, civilisation cannot be assumed to be a superior system. The author's adamant but conventional disclaimer of finding patterns or development in history can be seen as a professional defensive reflex. If there wasn't meaning he wouldn't be writing this book, I wouldn't be reading it - and his is the most beautiful and ingenious pattern.

Some distortion stems from Fernández-Armesto's laudable desire not to be bound by his own perspective, either personally as a European or professionally as a specialist in the maritime Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries. Thus, living up to his own thesis that civilisation can happen anywhere, he deliberately begins his saga in the least propitious and obscure territories. Conventionally, civilisation is thought of as beginning in the Fertile Crescent with the hydraulic civilisations that led to the first (so far) recorded writing, in Sumer. But Fernández-Armesto starts in deserts, swamps, mountain hinterlands, infertile grass lands.

Among these environments, his arguments for the Eurasian steppe and (to a lesser extent) the African grasslands as rapid-transit corridors for cultural transmissions are the most convincing. His ability to free himself from the bounds of convention can pay dividends, as with his point that the modern revulsion from slavery is unusual, historically, as it has until recently been regarded as economically rational and ethically acceptable.

In the end, however, despite his invocation of an objective "Galactic Observer", he is forced by the weight of what happened to assign deserved importance to Mesopotamia and then the West. Ending with the Discoveries probably gives them more significance than beginning with them - including the expert but typically practical point that Columbus's second voyage (which cracked the code of the Atlantic winds) was more significant than the first landfall in the Antilles. His non-expert speculation that the Arctic Ocean may supplant the Pacific Rim as the cradle of the future (as once were the Mediterranean and the Atlantic) is best cogitated in polite silence.

I have a hunch that the most fruitful line of research in the future will be the cusp period between hunter-gathering and settled agrarianism, especially the "cognitive archaeology" associated with Colin Renfrew: the attempt to reconstruct the prehistoric mind and the proto-languages. One of the most vexed questions here is the geographical origins of the Proto Indo-Europeans and the spread of their ancestral language, probably soluble in the end through scientific and technical developments we cannot imagine.

In one of the robust common-sense remarks that mesh easily with the complex abstractions of the book, Fernández-Armesto remarks that speakers of Indo-European descent languages need not have a common genetic ancestor. Not all modern speakers of English came from England, after all.

Throughout, the author is aware that "the battle of the books is often fought on a field where the evidence cannot reach" and that "there is too much hot air and not enough wind". One cannot say this is a flaw; it is implicit in such a vast enterprise, but the text has to balance narrative and ideas in a way that is like squaring the circle. To say the author cannot handle complex ideas with grace and exemplary clarity would be a falsehood, but I find his narrative the more compelling. He could have done with more assistance in shaping, including repetitious remarks on the "landlubberly" Ottoman empire taking succesfully to the sea against Venice, as Rome did against Carthage. The photographs are banal - my own fixed-lens snapshots of Angkor Wat, Gozo, Borobodur and Yucatan do not look much worse, and the caption writer has an uphill task.

If I can be allowed a personal note, the author of this prodigious tome was my exact Oxford contemporary. In fact, he was the last person I spoke to in the charmed condition of undergraduate - on the train to London in 1972, with my suitcase in the rack above and Mrs Fernández-Armesto opposite, burning with pride in the brilliant son who had just got his First. That was the first and last time I met him. In retrospect, his college, Magdalen, was a nursery of talents. The scholar in the year above Felipe was the rather dour John Redwood and, in the year above that, the polymathic Jonathan Sumption. It would be difficult to find a pattern there.

Timothy Mo's novel 'Renegade or Halo 2' is now published in paperback by Paddleless Press

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