I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).
Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.
One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.
One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.
It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.
Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.
A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).
It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.