Debris scattered around the sixth reactor building of the Fukushima power plant, whose reactors were built by General Electric. Image: Getty
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Snake Dance by Patrick Marnham: The self that is known

Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released.

Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky
Patrick Marnham
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £18.99

At the dead centre of this book’s snaking path down the friable face of human history stands Aby Warburg, a scion of the well-known banking family and a dilettante scholar at a time – and in a place – when to be so was still intellectually respectable. When Patrick Marnham writes that Warburg “mocked the keepers of academic purity as ‘border police’”, I suspect a strong sense of identification is at work. Michael P Steinberg, the translator of Warburg’s discipline-transgressing monographs on the snake dances of the Hopi, characterised his voice as one of “spiralling and endless mediation, between peoples, between pasts and presents, between the self that is known and the self that is secret”. I suspect that this, too, could be a description of Marnham’s own efforts in this book to which he would assent.

In the 1890s, Warburg travelled from his home in Florence to the American southwest with a view to substantiating theories he had about the endurance of pagan thinking in the Renaissance iconography. While there, he witnessed the snake dance of Marnham’s title, a ceremony in which the Hopi wrestle with live rattlesnakes and then expel them into the desert.

Many years later, in 1921, having sustained a terrible breakdown that Marnham hypothesises was a sort of collateral shell shock, Warburg was confined to an asylum in Kreuzlingen on the shores of Lake Constance. Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released. The subject Warburg chose to lecture on was the Hopi snake dance but the interpretation he placed on it – at least by Marnham’s account – was precursive of the theories of structural anthropology put forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss decades later.

For Warburg, the snake dance was an attempt by the Hopi to master the lightning that struck down from the heavens into their desert lands, the curves of the rattlesnake being an animate symbol of lightning – its flickering tongue the fork; mutatis mutandis, in contemporary culture Warburg identified the same electrical threat but this time from the technology of electrical simultaneity that collapsed the linear chains of causality on which the western Weltanschauung had been founded. But in keeping with Marnham’s desire to link places and peoples spirally, it isn’t simply the gravamen of Warburg’s argument that interests him: it’s the provenance of his research material, for the Hopi reservation where the sensitive scholar witnessed the primal ritual was only a few score miles away from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project scientists, under the direction of J Robert Oppenheimer, designed and built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Snake Dance is short on “the self that is secret” as against “the self that is known” but its readers will learn at least this much about its author: initially interested in writing a biography of Oppenheimer, Marnham tells us that early on in his research he began to find himself quite viscerally repelled by what he was learning of his subject’s character, with its curious mixture of intellectual arrogance and braggadocio. He decided to pursue a different course – to investigate the genesis and meaning of Oppenheimer’s mind-children through a series of nuclear landscapes; New Mexico, but also the Belgian Congo, where the uranium that made the fissioning heart of Little Boy was mined; and also the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan, following the meltdown after the tsunami of 2011.

Marnham, a veteran foreign correspondent with a distinguished record as both a journalist and a wide-ranging author of books about such diverse subjects as Georges Simenon, Jean Moulin and Mary Wesley, is in many ways the perfect guide for this centripetal odyssey in which all paths loop back towards a grim conclusion about the 20th century’s militarisation of technological advance. His prose is calm and unshowy, maintaining the same steady character whether recounting the terrifying course of an internal air flight in Congo or the toxic long tail that waggled out from Fukushima’s stricken reactor. He took a decade over Snake Dance, a book that is also, in part, a prose libretto for the moody and elegiac film of the same name made in tandem with the Belgian director Manu Riche. The book gives Marnham the opportunity to develop his thesis more thoroughly and less elliptically than the film, but even so it suffers from a form of post hoc reasoning that at times borders on tendentiousness.

The third person around whom Marnham triangulates his argument is Joseph Conrad and lengthy passages are devoted to retelling the story of the novelist’s short-lived career as a Congo River steamer captain and his exposure to the genocidal fiefdom established in Central Africa by King Leopold of Belgium. Marnham’s account, in situating the Belgian Congo as the foundational hecatomb of the 20th century, can’t help but bear comparison with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, which also makes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a choric link between natural devastation and techno-death.

Unfortunately – and somewhat inevitably – Marnham comes out the worse. Not only is Sebald’s lapidary prose, his masterful interfusing of the real and the fictive, superior in tone and feel to Marnham’s writing but his form of documentary fiction is better suited to putting forward a thesis that depends less on logical deduction than a willingness to let drop one’s disbelief in the chains of causality that Aby Warburg saw as crucial to maintaining good mental health in the electrical age. In his collection of lectures On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald also lucidly expounded the thesis that lurks behind Marnham’s text; and this is, put bluntly, that military technology has an ineluctable productive inertia. The Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War –which many, despite the inauguration last year of a pig-ugly memorial at Hyde Park Corner, still view as a prima facie war crime –was, according to Sebald, undertaken not for strategic reasons, nor simply as a punishment meted out to civilians for their collective culpability in Hitler’s wars and deranging atrocities, but because the bombers had been built, the crews trained and the ordinance manufactured. To justify the expense of all this, something had to be done with it.

Snake Dance applies this argument to the Manhattan Project, which, Marnham demonstrates, was initiated in advance of Pearl Harbor, when the US was still at peace, and further was prosecuted by a secret directorate, answerable to no democratic mandate. Even those who might wish to defend the Hiroshima bombing as essential to end the war (and this is by no means a defensible position: the Japanese were already suing for peace) can hardly claim that it was also necessary to incinerate tens of thousands of people at Nagasaki three days later, before the Japanese government had absorbed the impact of the first use of the atomic bomb.

Although these are urgent and important matters – all the more so because the global gaze, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has turned aside from the ever-present atrocity-in-waiting of nuclear war to concentrate its attention on the convenient and largely chimerical spectre of international terrorism – I’m afraid Marnham’s account, leaning heavily as it does on Richard Rhodes’s monumental The Making of the Atomic Bomb, adds little of substance.

Still, Marnham does have the solid virtue of boots on the ground. He writes penetratingly about the activities of the Belgian mining corporation at Shinkolobwe, speaks to the poor souls who now risk their lives to wrest a livelihood from the uranium workings deep in the jungle; and he is almost lyrical when he turns his attention to the beauty of the “America deserta” surrounding Los Alamos.

Where I found it harder to follow him was in his connection of the civil nuclear energy programme in Japan to the fomenting of the US military-industrial complex. He points out that the US government was the most persistent proponent of Japan’s programme and that the reactors – including those at Fukushima – were built by General Electric, often on woefully unsuitable sites, with the consequences that we have now seen.

In a way Marnham is simply a victim of his own clarity and lucidity: the Sebaldian contention depends for its terpsichorean effects on the numinous quality of the poetic truth that humanity has, for over a century now, been engaged in the mechanical annihilation of the thing that it loves. Put down starkly on the page as an accumulation of facts, this thesis risks being judged with the same kind of bean-counting mentality that enters unthinkingly into modern warfare as the extension of economic growth by other means.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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