Winter 2007 - Volume 10 Number 1
|Reviews||An Illustrated Short History of Progress
Toronto: Anansi, 2006
Initially, we may be properly sceptical of a book with a dust-jacket endorsement by the Globe and Mail’s Paul William Roberts declaring that people who “have never read any kind of book at all … must read this one.” Calling anything essential reading is a common but generally overstated way of saying that an author has something particularly useful to say about a topic. When, however, the author is presenting a sceptical assessment of our frequently hubristic and self-destructive achievements, we cannot fail to notice the irony of excessive praise. This is not Ronald Wright’s fault, but it does provide an entry into his argument.
Before discussing that argument, it is first important to address the second word in the title. A prize-winning author in three genres novels, history and essays Ronald Wright bridges the gap between fiction and non-fiction with the apparent ease that only arises from very hard work and very deep caring, compassion and concern. The narrative here appears for the third time. The first was in a series of radio broadcasts on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations magnificent series of programs, “The Massey Lectures.” The second was a book containing the lectures, unadorned. This book is illustrated, and admirably so. From colour photos of prehistoric cave paintings and Moorish olive groves in Spain to an 1829 slave auction bill and a picture of the newly constructed wall separating the United States and Mexico, the triumphs and follies of the human imagination are depicted in seventy-five drawings, paintings, sculptures, maps and photographs that describe humanity’s evolution from the apple-eating madness of Adam and Eve to a Landsat image of the Alberta-Montana border brilliantly showing the distinction between open range to the north and heavily irrigated wheat fields to the south of the putatively undefended border.
Wright begins with a representation of a large 1897 Gauguin painting (“more a mural than a canvass”) upon which the artist wrote out of grief at news of the death of his child these three questions: “D’Où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? His book addresses the third question: “Where are we going?”
The story he tells is ambivalent. It tends toward the idealistic and the moralistic. Conscious human purpose and conscious human choice are pivotal to his understanding of the way in which cultures have evolved. As a consequence, when addressing human errors, he tends to blame the symptoms not the disease. “Much of the worst environmental destruction … since 1945 was caused,” he says, “by the arms race of the Cold War. Without that,” he continues, “both [sides] might have been easier on their surroundings and kinder to the people under their control.” The arms race, however, was just as aspect of a larger issue. The question is begged: “What lay at the root of the Cold War?”
It is not that he does not try to see the bigger picture. “The reform that is needed,” he announces, “is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking.” Yet, what is more “long-term” (teleological, if not necessarily eschatological) than the dreams of progress whether capitalist, communist or, for that matter, apocalyptic?
I do not wish to be unfair. Ronald Wright acknowledges his limitations frankly. “I don’t want to be a prophet,” he says, “and I certainly don’t claim to be.” Yet, this is a book that trades in prophecy. It is not persistently pessimistic, but it spells out a warning. It is also not wholly dystopian, for it offers a diagnosis, a prognosis and a vague sort of therapeutic regime. If it does not provide much in the way of specific details, it does not shy from outlining a “worst case scenario.” The last five of its 195-page text contain only ten words: “Now is our last chance to get the future right.” The words are printed in gray, red and white letters, all on a black background: confusion, danger and the promise of salvation in that order.
In making this simple statement, Wright may capture the attention of his audience, who are probably not among those who “never read any kind of book at all.” His audience may also be enchanted by the signs of life and horrified by the intimations of death that make up the great preponderance of the illustrations. It is, after all, a small-sized coffee table or, better, an end table book with a message managed in an attractive medium. It provides no coherent resolution to the human dilemma, but it sets up the background scenery for other potential speakers. It flirts with a sort of postmodern Manicheism which does not (as Mani did not) simply posit a cosmic struggle between darkness and light, but rather invokes elements of Hindu, Buddhist and even Christian thought in the struggle for enlightenment. It is not much of a program for action, and if this does turn out to be the only book people read, it will not matter much; but, if it leads thoughtful citizens to deeper and more systematic reading, it will have done good work in the service of the human project assuming, of course, that the audience is large enough and that it is not too late.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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