9780743202497 / 074320249X

Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature


Publisher:Free Press



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It is, perhaps, in the end, too long. When the discussion turns to the recent past and a speculative future, its course has been run. However, for the subject it is comparatively terse (Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History ran to 12 toe-stubbing volumes), and the preceding 500 pages have blown by with the heady gusto of a prevailing wind, leaving the dedicated reader short of breath. Felipe Fernīndez-Armesto is provocative, naughty, and deeply intelligent. He enjoys language in a way few modern novelists do, let alone historians, and his panoramic sweep of the world's civilizations is a proud and preening gesture, through which he rejects, as Norbert Elias did, civilization as a self-referential western concept, and embraces a multi-civilizational world, free of a linear interpretation of time. His aim is to return humankind to its "natural" context, from which for much of the previous few centuries he has, at least in western culture, expended considerable energy extricating itself. Civilizations, resolutely in the plural, are wrought, he contends, through a systematic refashioning of nature, with occasional conditional deferments. Whether through mutual contact or exclusivity, on the frozen tundra, desert sandscapes, highlands, lowlands, grasslands or fertile alluvial plains, and with timber, mud, stone or metal, human beings have consistently come together and shaped their communities accordingly, from the Phoenicians, Aztecs and Romans to the (now-extinct) bird-eating population of the Hebridean island of Hirta. It's all about food, of course, as the Greek empire's growth from the humble olive tree illustrates, but also wind and oceans, migration and colonialism, and while he speculates that the future might lie with a Pacific culture succeeding its Atlantic equivalent, both are still fledglings compared to the Indian Ocean's role in shaping history. The author of Millennium, Fernīndez-Armesto enlivens his voluble anthropology with empirical tales of, and from, countless travellers, while almost nonchalantly lacing his whirlwind polemic with exquisite literary reference as his appraising lens zooms in and out like a hovering hawk. He calls it an "experimental work", and "written in something like a frenzy". That may be, but it's also daring, richly allusive, and maddeningly thrilling. --David Vincent

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