ALISON SPRITZLER-ROSE sits at the feet of the world's most penetrating thinkers
At Century's End: Great Minds Reflect on Our Times, Ed, Nathan Gardels, Wolfhound Press £18.99
CONFRONTING THE VERY deepest issues of human society at the end of the 20th century, At Century's End creates a dynamic dialogue of the world's most penetrating minds as they explore the dramatic shifts in our political, philosophical and religious consciousness as the millennium approaches. The interviews, selected from New Perspectives Quarterly, move cohesively from the spiritual aspects of humanity's collective soul to our more immediate global circumstances. This collection can never be more than an attempted overview of the world. But at a time when the press is caught between entertainment imperatives and providing hard news, a book of this sort, however fragmentary, is sorely needed. At Century's End provides a forum for positive inquiry and debate a function which the press has perhaps abandoned.
The reader must keep his wits about him. There is such diversity of opinion by so many articulate thinkers that one has to stop oneself from blindly agreeing with hypothesis presented. In a collection of nearly 30 intellectuals one is bound to run across disagreements between them. Some, such as Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, even propose paradoxes within themselves. Manley, a unlikely convert to Thatcherite economics, manages to hold the nobility of Castro in the highest esteem. His is a mature stance on idealism and necessity. Other thinkers, such as the Americans Alvin and Heidi Toffler, present arguments with which I can only disagree. They have written bestsellers with the striking titles Pawershift and Future Shock. The audacity of their blanket opinions reveals an enticingly logical world view; somehow I remain unconvinced and feel the book would be stronger without the Toilers and their Revolt of the Rich.
When Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, describes the stereotypes of Islam in Western media he reminds us to think beyond CNN onslaught before we pass facile judgment. By putting the facts in their necessary context he effectively transcends the media's superficial approach and encour ages responsible contemplation on the emerg ing issue of Muslim nationalism. Zbigniew Brzezinski follows with the flip-side to the state of affairs that created the Islamic fundamentalism in the first place something he describes as the weak ramparts of the permissive West. What emerges is a cultural schism between liberalism and Islam, whose belief system inherently challenges the materialist underpinnings of secular orthodoxy.
It is Isaiah Berlin's piece on nationalism that perhaps presents the most expansive dialogue in its world view. His few pages alone are required reading. "If glass was made unbreakable there would be no business for the glazier," he says; one grasps once and for all the contradictions inherent in capitalism. An insight as succinctly put as this arms the reader in this age of relative unreason. Whether we wish to build or destroy it, we must know what makes capitalism tick. Berlin then discusses cultural self-determination and how it can turn to nationalist aggression. While pointing out the danger signs he more importantly analyses the alltoo-human logic that precipitates rampant nationalism. Cultural self-determination without a political framework can become sectarianism. This is an issue being dealt with all over the planet, not least of all in our own kingdom with Northern Ireland and the issues of European union. By discussing federalism he transcends the particulars which so often ensnare us and smother reasoned debate. His words are inspired because of his tremendous insight coupled with compassion.
If Berlin's thoughts appear to be too philosophical they are immediately followed by an interview with Canada's former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, who says much the same as Berlin, but in the language of a policy maker. The novelist Carlos Fuentes and Spain's Prime Minister, Gonzalez, fill in any gaps the reader may find in Berlin's discussion. Information is inherently fragmented but knowledge is structured. By reading these interviews together the reader is provided with a barrage of wisdom rather than its media equivalent. In short, we are presented with vital themes which endure and become increasingly relevant, rather than finding ourselves in the frustrating position of knowing we are not apathetic while simultaneously not knowing what to do.
By spanning the soul of the world order, diversity and nationalism after the Cold War, cultural currents and political facts, this book reads like a think-tank. Syberberg, a German cultural critic, unwittingly sums up: "Culture is built from... the way the heavens look at night from a particular plot of land." In short, perspective. At Century's End may discuss everything from the Japanese psyche to Israel's historical view to V.S. Naipaul's thoughts on the Hindu awakening but in the end all cultural perspectives must culminate in the one vanishing point that is humanness. We may be infinite in our diversity but we are equal under God. The question is how do we deal with this selfevident truth? Reading At Century's End is a good start.