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Books Column: Big History is in the bin, brace yourself for Big Charisma


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

The books that we relied on to tell us about our world have proven something of a sham, writes Ben Williams. But what will take their place?

This is one of those columns where I stick my neck out and make a sweeping generalisation or three which may prove so laughably wrong that I dare not, in future, show my face in public.

On the other hand, my musings may hit the mark, or near to it, in which case I’ll receive – well, not accolades, certainly, but at least not any open bad-mouthing, either.

Said musings may not appear at first to relate to books, but never fear, I get around to them eventually. We write these columns for sport, in the main, so let’s not stall the starter gun.

The first sweeping generalisation is one others have observed: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year marked the fall of globalisation. The world is shrinking back into national redoubts; the posture many countries have adopted is that of a crouch. Everywhere one turns, one hears a snarl.

The second is that the moment globalisation’s death sentence was pronounced – remember that surreal, choreographed display of loyalty Putin had his lackeys endure in February? – was preceded for years by the appearance of new flavours of authoritarianism around the world. 

Those of us observing this appalling trend have been forced into a kind of perpetual suspension of disbelief in order to accept the reality of the situation. 

We have been poised, for half a decade or more, on the event horizon of extremely dark times. 

The writer Aleksandar Hemon captured this feeling brilliantly in a 2017 essay in which he introduced the idea of the “war mind”:

“On the one hand,” Hemon wrote, “the pre-war mind refuses the possibility of catastrophe; on the other, the war mind perceives everything as the signal that the end of the world is nigh. I trust my fears while struggling to ignore them. We become of two minds, which cannot agree on what is real. The world looks strange and unreliable, fragile and dangerous. It is itself and not itself. I am myself and someone else.”

(Incidentally, the limbic uproar produced by this division of sense and sensibility is one reason we’re all collectively at our wits’ end.)

My third sweeping generalisation relates to Hemon’s “war mind”. 

Essentially, I propose that the world looking “strange and unreliable” over an extended period of time has been bad for a particular genre of book. Namely, the genre of Big History.

Big History purports to explain the present by offering a sketch of the past that makes unlooked-for connections, packaging events leading up to modern times expressly for our wise and rational appreciation. Think Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, or Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. 

These bestsellers map eras for our decadent pleasure, enjoining us into a conspiracy of transcendence, in which history becomes a static object, like a paperweight, which we can pick up and examine from any angle. 

When viewed from the present moment, however – when viewed from the perspective of the “war mind” – Big History appears as nothing more than the dead artifact of the risibly short and shallow Neoliberal Enlightenment. 

The genre reinforced the period’s biggest blind spot, which was that it had forgotten that history could happen to it, too. From this vantage, Big History was just explainer infotainment produced industrially to imbue us, its readers, with a perpetual sense of ahistorical grace.

O, how we have fallen since the heady days of Harari’s Homo Deus, published the same year as Hemon’s essay. Styled as a sequel to Sapiens that looks forward into humanity’s future, the book opens as follows:

“At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind. ‘There was something with barbed wire, and huge mushroom clouds. Oh well, it was just a bad dream’. Going to the bathroom, humanity washes its face, examines its wrinkles in the mirror, makes a cup of coffee and opens the diary. ‘Let’s see what’s on the agenda today’.”

Can you credit that someone once wrote this guff, much less published it, with a straight face? 

The Big Historians like Harari failed entirely to anticipate our present straits; to warn that past disasters may predict present ones. Their grand project, in the end, amounted to little more than repeated unctuous flattery of their readership.

That said, this flattery in book form counted as a dominant force shaping society’s understanding of the world for several decades. But the air has whooshed out of the genre like a tyre that’s hit a pothole at speed: explainer infotainment no longer bestrides the bestseller lists as it used to. 

In place of Big History, enter a cross-genre phenomenon that I’ll call books of Big Charisma. 

Memoirs by people with outsized personalities, novels by writers who transmit telegenically on social media – books that offer truths on a personal scale, rather than facts on a historical one, are rising to the top. (See: Colleen Hoover, Matthew Perry, and so on.) 

While there’s an escapist element to the Big Charisma trend, there’s also a return to everyday reality that provides a sense of groundedness, in contrast to the vertigo of Big History’s indulgent wide-angle zoom out.

The bottom line is that our trust has seeped from Big History’s mutton-facts dressed up as lamb-wisdom. In these queasy times we simply cannot stomach it. 

Big Charisma, meanwhile, is just getting started: and the uncertainties ahead point to a long run. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Strydom says:

    And I’ve been wondering why I’m feeling so weird. Now I know: it’s “limbic uproar.” Your – and Hemon’s – analyses seem spot-on.

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