the observer Sat 26 September 2009
The late Polish journalist, poet and photographer Ryszard Kapuscinski spent much of his highly lauded career travelling through the developing world, particularly Africa. With unimpeachable dedication to his work, he survived 27 coups, four death sentences and dozens of spells in jail. These experiences have already been documented, but in The Others Kapuscinski considers the urge behind his travels, noting that "deep curiosity about the world is not a common phenomenon". This slim collection of four of Kapuscinski's lectures is intelligently written, but he tends to repeat his thesis and devotees will already be familiar with much of his philosophical contemplation.
the guardian Sat 06 December 2008
Here the celebrated Polish foreign correspondent invokes the writer's duty to exile himself, at least temporarily, by going out into the world and meeting "the Other" face-to-face. He begins with a definition of "the Other" as "non-Europeans, or non-whites, while fully aware that, for the latter, the former are just as much 'Others'". From the wars described by Herodotus to the European Renaissance, Kapuscinski argues, contact with the "Other" was defined by violence and colonisation; it was literature (Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Goethe, the French encyclopédistes) that first drew the Other on his own terms, with "clarity and humanity"; further progress was made by the anthropology of Malinowski, who pitched his tent among the Trobriand islanders and discovered that "the white man in the tropics is the worst, least reliable source of information about local peoples and cultures". Is the modern world now a "global village"? Hardly - "more like the anonymous crowd at a major airport, a crowd of people rushing along in haste, mutually indifferent and ignorant". The only glimmer of hope in the author's eyes is in the generalisation of the Other, after Emmanuel Levinas, to any other person, and the recognition that you are an Other, too. The last words are in Joseph Conrad's hard-won English: "the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts".
the observer Sun 16 November 2008
Towards the end of his life, Ryszard Kapuscinski, who always combined a journalist's curiosity with a novelist's ability to pick out the broad trends of his era, tried to answer some of the questions his life of voyages had posed. His greatest interest was in identity, specifically in the definition of the 'Other'. In 2003-04 he gave a series of lectures exploring this theme and it is appropriate that they took place in Krakow, in his native Poland, and Vienna, cities in the heart of Mitteleuropa, central locations in the great drama of hatred, creation and destruction that was European history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In this short, simple, extraordinarily intelligent book, Kapuscinksi explores what it is to be European, to be non-European, to be colonised, to be the coloniser, to have or to impose an identity.
It is tempting to say these issues have never been so important. That would be wrong. Identity was as crucial during the Thirty Years War as it was in the 20th century and as essential to the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa 1,000 years ago as it is in 21st-century America. After sustenance and reproduction, society is the most basic of human needs. And with a group comes a definition of who is in and who is out.
Kapuscinski recognises this. Every person we 'meet along the road and across the world' is 'in a way twofold', he says. First, there is 'a person like the rest of us', who has 'his joys and sorrows, does not like to be hungry or ... cold, feels pain as suffering and good fortune as satisfying and fulfilling'. But there is the second person, 'who overlaps with the first'. He is 'a bearer of racial features and ... a culture, beliefs and conviction'. These two entities co-exist and incessantly interact. Anyone who has travelled through our supposedly 'flattened' world in recent years can confirm this. Few can deny the emotional pull of the tribe, the nation, the linguistic community, or the difference of peoples, races, languages, cuisines, traditions and histories. This has proved the great flaw in the doctrines of liberal interventionism and neoconservatism. Much of development theory clings to an economic vision of growth, underplaying the emotional. But the two beings outlined here are frequently in conflict and the second often wins.
The lectures are as erudite as they are profound. Kapuscinski relies heavily on Emmanuel Lévinas, the Jewish-French philosopher who insisted that we are defined as individuals by our attitude to the Other. But he also cites the Swiss traveller, thinker and scientist Albrecht von Haller, Goethe, the Upanishads, Montesquieu, Conrad and scores of others. He delves deeply into Polish religious and secular philosophical and literary traditions too, reminding us of his origins. Critical of Eurocentrism, Kapuscinski comments drily that 'all civilisations have a tendency towards narcissism and the stronger the civilisation the more clearly this tendency will appear'. The point is a good one - as is the sideswipe at journalists (particularly TV reporters) who have never read a book on the countries they are talking about.
The final lecture is 'On Multiculturalism'. Kapusinscki delivered it less than three years before he died in 2007. It is an astonishingly fresh and perceptive discussion of what identity means today. Sketching a rapid history of European visions of the rest of the world, Kapuscinski points out that 'the idea of equality with the Other only occurs to the human mind very late on, many thousands of years after man first left traces of his presence on Earth.' In the networked 21st century, he says, we will encounter the Other in ways and with a frequency that could never have previously been imagined. Will this result in a coming together in mutual respect or an unleashing of base prejudice? Kapuscinski, an optimist and a humanist, does not know.
Early on, he cites an adage of the Polish-born social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowksi: 'To judge something, you have to be there.' This is a quote that should hang above the doors of every newsroom and faculty. Kapuscinski was there. As a judge he is fair, humane and sensible - and as important now as ever.