Zed £17.99 (326pp) £16.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
The End of Certainty, By Stephen Chan
Friday 19 June 2009
Stephen Chan, a professor of international relations, asks rather enticingly in the introduction to The End of Certainty, "What would a magical realist novel look like as an intellectual essay?" I suppose such a hybrid would simultaneously approach an argument from opposite directions, assume multiple perspectives (some human, some divine), make wonderful but implausible leaps of logic and head off on long, winding journeys of thought that never quite make it back to the main narrative.
There's a touch of all of this to Chan's book, but in the end it's not a novel, there is no story, and there are no characters but for the writer and the reader. Consequently, I found his book something closer to a long and rather splendid dinner with Stephen Chan: a ten-course tasting menu from a three-star Michelin restaurant specialising in global cultural history. My host was erudite, well-travelled and at his most charming when most personal, but there was barely time to dwell on his stories, as we raced through Michel Foucault's sex life, the peculiarities of Finnish nationalism and the modern Ghanaian novel.
One course consisted of a long discussion on the motives of Osama bin Laden. The account of Wahhabism that followed complemented it nicely and served by way of an excellent introduction to the austere Islam of the desert, but for me the argument was lost in the sauce heaped upon it: the drama of the Arthurian hero Gawain and the fight between Hector and Achilles in the Iliad. We moved onto the practice of mercy in international politics and the ethical dilemmas of aid agencies, intervention and non-interventions of all kinds, but ended up chewing over Hindu mythologies and the dangers of utopianism.
I was hoping for something a little less rich, but the Tao of international relations, proved just as demanding: Nietzsche on Buddhism, an introduction to Zoroastrianism, the multiculturalism of Alexander the Great, the place of cultural diversity in Iranian history. By now my head, or my stomach, was swimming and there was more to come. Had I had drunk too much? Was this kind of rich eclectic diet too much for my unseasoned stomach?
Perhaps, but I wanted to stop Stephen as he offered me another delicious and perfectly executed morsel of Jewish theology, and say, "Enough, already! You are a great cook, but the dishes are too complex and I'm still hungry. Give me some comfort food to work on."
Like the best-mannered hosts, Stephen did oblige his guest. There are a set of genuinely interesting, well-posed issues in this book, if you can get through the early part of the menu. Chan is arguing that the discipline of international relations, which is central to the way in which the West perceives the rest of the world and acts towards it, does not have much sense of the international. What other culture could take seriously Fukyama's End of History and Huntington's Clash of Civilisations, models of international relations that either write the rest of the world out of the story or permanently locate them on the dangerous peripheries? It is no surprise that we have, despite all the claims of universalism, failed to think and act universally.
The West is profoundly ignorant of the cultures of the rest of humanity, though they know us remarkably well. One of the many conditions for forging a genuinely international internationalism is for us to learn more, to try and understand the rest of the world on its own terms, and to engage with the people and the ideas of which we don't approve.
I left the restaurant with a sound appreciation of the limits of my own knowledge, and a sense of how superficial are my pretensions to cosmopolitanism. So I'll be coming back for more. I hope Stephen Chan keeps cooking, but I must confess I will be hoping for rather sparser fare next time.
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