Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, March 05, 2018

R.K. Dentan :Overwhelming Terror

Human beings have rarely demonstrated much consistency in non-violent conflict resolution. Even a peaceful dude like myself, who has not attempted to hit anyone since high school, may occasionally fantasize strangling people who frustrate him.

That's why a small population of hunter/gatherers in the hills of peninsular Malaysia, the Semai,  have attracted the attention of anthropologists for over fifty years. 

 They don't hit their kids, they don't attack non-Semai people, they don't shoot, knife, or stomp each other.  They also try to avoid disrespect, abandonment, and betrayal.

One question is:  how do they do it ? .. and I'm afraid that after reading this book, I still have no idea. There are detailed depictions of a group-trance, a village town-hall meeting, and the case of one man who was imprisoned for murdering a Chinese --- but none of the stories give me any idea of what was happening.

The other question is: will they be able to keep on doing it? ...  and regretfully the answer appears to be no.  They cannot defend themselves against the encroachments of modern Malaysia: intellectually, spiritually, economically, legally, politically, or physically.

But the real subject of this book is the author himself - an American intellectual who identifies with people who are well meaning but helpless.  The book gives us some idea of his unhappy childhood, the love he feels for his wife and children, and his dismay over politics in the university where he spent his career.  The book also serves as an anthology of quotations from his favorite writers - especially Herman Melville -- and Ursula LaGuin whose quote from Lao Tzu appears below:

Once upon a time
people who knew the way
were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating

Since they're inexplicable
I can only say what they seemed like
Cautious, oh yes, as if wading through a winter river
Alert, as if afraid of the neighbors
Polite and quiet like houseguests
Elusive like melting ice


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