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More than old crocodile brains: Brian Blessed on what makes us human

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is our liberation.

Dearest possession: we are kindred spirits to other animals roving the earth but intelligence gives us the edge over our fellow creatures. Image: Katerina Plotnikova.

What makes us human? It is a terribly difficult question and one I find almost impossible to answer. It would be easy to gloss over the subject and pontificate about love, compassion, self-sacrifice and all the staggering achievements of mankind, but I feel that would be “copping out”.

So, where to begin? Forgive me if I take you on a short history lesson. It is understood that the earth is four billion five hundred million years old. Six hundred million years after its birth, the vast oceans appeared. Six hundred million years ago the miraculous Cambrian explosion took place. Suddenly the oceans throbbed with many different life forms and the first vertebrates appeared. In that dramatic geological landscape there were winged insects, amphibians, reptiles and the first trees.

After the magnificent dinosaurs, the primates arose, our great ancestors. Less than ten million years ago, the first creatures that resemble human beings evolved, accompanied by a spectacular increase in brain size. It is the past that is the clue to the complex nature of man.

Man – an impressive being who made his entrance on to the world’s stage with formidable effect. It is this creature’s brain that intrigues me most. Deep inside is the brainstem; capping the brainstem is the R (reptilian) complex. This is the seat of aggression, ritual and territoriality, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago in our ancestors. Deep inside the skull of every one of us lies the brain of a crocodile! “Never make friends with a crocodile.”

Surrounding the R-complex is the lim­bic system, or “mammalian brain”. This is the part of the brain that is associated with moods and emotions. Living an uneasy truce with these primitive brains is the cerebral cortex – where matter is transformed into consciousness. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations. Here we read and write, compose music, learn from the sciences and meditate on all things sacred. This is the distinction of our species, the root of our humanity. It is what makes us human.

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is liberation. No longer are we at the mercy of our reptilian brain. I experienced the cortex in all its glory when I reached 28,400 feet on Mount Everest in 1993 without
oxygen. It was a stunning sensation, a spark­ling field of rhythmic flashing points. When I closed my eyes coming down the mountain, I could see the cortex and observed millions of flashing lights, dissolving and emerging in a sea of cosmic delight – I couldn’t stop laughing.

But you can see that the cortex has to deal with the ancient reptilian complex, the seat of aggression. It is here that anger, greed, war and strife are nurtured. This is our problem. An old dervish in Armenia informed me that the term hu-man means tiger-man. We need to quieten the tiger.

Will we succeed? I believe so. But we cannot afford to sit on our backsides. Our earth is taking a beating. She is being wounded from all sides. Yet I have to say that thousands of people are making a colossal effort to save Planet Earth. It is not yet clear whether we have the wisdom to avoid self-destruction but I am convinced they will win; our intelligence has provided us with awesome powers.

We have so much to be proud of. In our insatiable quest for knowledge we are revealed as fine, brave explorers who are heaven-bent on seeking limitless horizons. Science works, though it is not perfect and it can be misused; I find myself huffing and puffing trying to keep up with it all. Exploratory spacecraft have been launched to study 70 worlds. Twelve human beings have been to the moon. We are the children of stardust.

My biggest love in life is space and we are venturing further into it – it is our destiny. I long to journey to the planets and the distant stars; they feel almost like a memory. Just imagine climbing Olympus on Mars – three times higher than Mount Everest! Yet there are moments when I am chilled, when I think what some of us would do to these new worlds.

When Pandora opened the box, she let out all the dark furies. When she tried to close it a sweet small blue creature flew out saying, “I am hope! I am hope!” Ladies and gentlemen, we have Hope, which embraces the heart and is the essence of the soul. We have begun to seek our origins; we are stardust yearning for the stars. I speak for Planet Earth – as long as we love and protect it, we will survive and prosper.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era