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Jared Diamond: "I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, The World Until Yesterday, asks what we can learn from traditional societies. How do you define “traditional”?
Traditional societies are the small-scale societies of the past – sufficiently small, with relatively little social stratification and political centralisation. Today, the world is divided into states but embedded within our state societies are lots of traditional mechanisms.

So those traditional mechanisms don’t necessarily wither away as societies develop?
No. Take Japan. Japan went through a profound change in the second half of the 19th century. But the Japanese were explicit about the traditional things they were going to retain: they were going to retain the emperor, the Japanese language, the role of the military. And they were going to change other things: Japan was going to become industrial.

Would it be fair to say that in this book you’re drawing up a balance sheet, with the advantages of modernity on one side and the disadvantages on the other?
That would be accurate. And the reason one has to do it is that I had to avoid the trap of romanticising traditional societies. Yes, there were wonderful things that we can learn from them but also terrible things about them – their getting locked in cycles of war, parents getting used to the deaths of children, short lifespans. So we can’t romanticise.

On the other hand, there are things that we can learn from them. At the end of the book, when I summarise the things that we have learned, in order to deflect the accusation that I’m romanticising I remind readers of the advantages we’ve got.

I’ve got some New Guinean friends who were very clear to me about what they liked about living in the west. They liked the anonymity; they liked the way that they weren’t constantly surrounded by their clans. So there’s a freedom and a possibility to get ahead in the west that you don’t have in traditional societies.

Would you say, by contrast, that one of the advantages of traditional societies is the way they nurture connections?
Yes. A friend of mine spent a lot of time in Africa. I asked him: “How would you compare your time spent in Africa with all your time spent in the US? Have you ever considered moving to Africa?” His summary was that life in Africa is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.

The reality is that friendship and lifelong maintained friendships are much more scarce in western societies for obvious reasons. The average American moves every five years: you move away from your childhood friends, your parents and your siblings, whereas in traditional societies there is much less movement so you spend your life surrounded by your childhood friends and family.

How does this book relate to your previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which you tried to account for the emergence of European civilisation?
We in the European world behave differently from people in traditional societies not because we’re different people but because we inherited cows, sheep, goats, pig, horses. We combine all the stuff from the Fertile Crescent that has all these consequences.

But the fact that we inherited all this different stuff doesn’t mean we also inherited better ways of bringing up children, better ways of dealing with older people, better ways of dealing with disputes – we didn’t.

Do you enjoy writing for a non-academic audience?
Some academics find it difficult but I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things. I think it came, first of all, from my mother, who was a schoolteacher. She loved explaining things to me.

The other thing is that I have a younger sister, so growing up I was constantly in a position of explaining things to her. It’s in the course of explaining something that I come to understand it.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis