Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Indian Lesson

I am just about a third of the way through reading 'Tristes Tropiques', the point where Levi-Strauss leaves his 'magic carpet ride' of reflections on India behind and continues with his journey into the rainforests of Brazil. Before he leaves India, a place which has clearly left a deep and rather traumatic impression on him, he tries to synthesise his views.

His overwhelming impression of India is of a place that after 5000 years of civilisation has been worn out, completely depleted of its natural resources. He summarises thus:

"The vegtarian rule, like the caste system, was intended to prevent social groups and animal species from encroaching on each other, and to guarantee each group its own particular freedom by forcing the others to relinquish the enjoyment of some conflicting freedom. It is tragic for man that this great experiment failed; I mean that, in the course of history, the various castes did not succeed in reaching a state in which they could remain equal because they were different.. (rather than) by denying each other a comparable degree of humanity, and thus establishing a system of subordination."

It seems to be this system of subordination which is the feature of India that Levi-Strauss dislikes most. He goes on:

"India's great failure can teach us a lesson. When a community becomes too numerous, however great the genius of its thinkers, it can only endure by secreting enslavement. Once men begin to feel cramped in their geographical, social and mental habitat, they are in danger of being tempted by the simple solution of denying one section of the species the right to be considered as human. When looked at in this light, the events which have occurred in Europe during the last twenty years (he is speaking of the Second World War, Tristes Tropiques having been published in 1955), at the culmination of a century during which the population figures have doubled, can no longer appear as being simply the result of an aberration on the part of one nation, one doctrine, or one group of men. I see them rather as a premonitory sign of our moving into a finite world, such as southern Asia had to face a thousand or two thousand years ahead of us... What frightens me in Asia is the vision of our own future which it is already experiencing."

I think to describe the behaviour of the Germans during the Second World War as 'an aberration' is selling things a bit short, but nonetheless I think this is a thought-provoking summary. Perhaps Levi-Strauss worried about the prospects of further wars in 1955. Instead, there has been a relatively long period of peace, assisted by the presence of America as a world-dominating power.

However, Europe does continue to feel more and more overcrowded, particularly with the increasing level of urbanisation. I suspect relocation of Europeans is at a higher level now than it has ever been since the war, driven by the prospect of a better economic future or of escaping from the rat race to a better life. All of this is driven, at base, by questions of over-population, and ultimately I think it will result in an acceleration in the rate of degradation of our resources, the burning of fuel, the paving over of the countryside. As long as we speak only of sustaining growth, we will never preserve what is actually most important to us, which is our environment. And Levi-Strauss' lesson from India is telling, because he points out that it is not just the environment that suffers, but ultimately, that this will lead to human degradation as well.


Anonymous said...

Are there other forums/blogs that are more specific for this topic? I have not found one.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Tom

Sorry to be slow replying. My e-mail hasn't been working.

Which topic did you have in mind? Claude Levi-Strauss?