The Other, By Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

A philosophical journey teaches humility in the face of the unknown

Joy Lo Dico
Thursday 15 January 2009 01:00

Shortly after his death in 2007, the final book by Ryszard Kapuscinski was published in English. Travels with Herodotus was the reflection of the revered Polish foreign correspondent on a lifetime of travelling and reporting. Told not from perspective of the dominant powers but from the "other" lands, Congo, India, China, Senegal, it was an experiental history of the 20th century, laid side by side with Herodotus's Histories from two millennia previously. This was the last of many books in which Kapuscinski proved his gift for story-telling; his earlier portraits of the revolutions in Iran, Ethiopia or Angola were enriched with voices from all levels of society.

The Other is a different animal: a collection of four lectures he delivered, one from 1990 and the rest in his last years, which go some way to explaining why Kapuscinski's writing rises above mere foreign correspondence. In the lectures, he considers the encounter with the "other" at the cusp of the late 20th century Historically, it was the European who first went out to explore the world, establishing him as the "self" by contrast to the naked, savage "other". Now, with colonial empires and the Cold War axis dissolved, advancing communications, mass migration and rise of nationalism compel the European to look again at his engagement with the other.

Kapuscinki's lectures unfold into an alternative journey through philosophy, history and anthropology. His three main guides emerge: Herodotus, Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologist who broke the tradition of "from the verandah" fieldwork by living among the tribes he studied, and the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote of the meeting with the other as not just one's equal, but as a superior. For Levinas, stopping to meet the other was an ethical duty which would bring us closer to God.

This takes us back to Herodotus, who noted that Greeks would greet a stranger with reverence, for maybe he was a god in human disguise. Kapuscinski's book is about how the modern European, by liberating both himself and the "other" from these old paradigms, may find means for a more positive dialogue. This volume is deceptively slight. But behind these casual summations of a stream of 20th-century thought, there is a powerful, quasi-religious, meditation on the power of humbling oneself in the face of the unknown.

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