At the Stroke of the Midnight Hour
Posted on 1-January-2010
Virunga National Park, in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo, stretching from Lake Kivu to the foot of Mount Ruwenzori, was said to have a population of 30,000 hippopotami. The wife of an ambassador in Kinshasa had told us that when she visited the Park, she must have seen 29,999 of the animals and did not wish to set her eyes on another. When we visited the Park in a month of December many years ago, we might have seen only a small fraction of that population. We were told tales of how they could turn violent. As we sat in a shack on the shores of what used to be called Lake Albert (a Belgian in Goma had insisted on calling it Lake ex-Idi Amin Dada) and ate tasty, freshly charcoal-grilled tilapia from the lake our guide told us that the tilapia from that lake was particularly tasty because it fed on hippopotamus droppings. None of these hippopotamus tales could take away from the enduring image in my mind of scores of hippopotami, lying in the stream that flowed northward through the Park to eventually empty into the White Nile , absolutely tranquil with barely their nostrils and minuscule eyes above water, almost as if they were a group of monks immersed in deep meditation. They were the very image of contentment. Back in Kinshasa, an ambassador asked me of my impressions of the Park. He was utterly shocked when I told him of my wish to be a hippopotamus in another life. He thought me disrespectful of human intelligence and human dignity.
It is difficult for me to hear or think of human intelligence without being reminded of a question raised by Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin's contemporary and co-author with him of a paper presented in 1858, the first to formally set out their theory of natural selection. Wallace had asked how, if evolution was true, the savage whose lifestyle was so much simpler than that of modern civilised man, had ended up with as capable a brain as civilised man. His search for an answer to this question led him into religious mysticism and out of science. Other evolutionary biologists answer this question, almost certainly more accurately, saying that the human brain evolved in an environment where ancestral hominids, physically not the most generously endowed, had to use their wits to deal with daily problems of survival--the more intelligent had a better chance of survival. The process continued till the advent of homo sapiens who could invent ever more sophisticated tools and technologies to help him deal with the problems of living. Already by the time agriculture and settled communities started, some people had enough surplus brain power to get into philosophical and metaphysical speculations. Wallace's question could be reframed to ask why modern man who does not face the same problems of survival as his hominid ancestors and whose daily life has become so much easier than that of his hunter ancestors needs such a powerful brain. The accompanying question could be what most people do with their brains.
The old adage about an empty mind being the devil's workshop seems to be true not only of evil geniuses who devise torture, repression, cruelty, mass murder and exploitation of their fellow humans but also of common villains of common life such as thieves, pickpockets, con men, misappropriators of other people's money, corrupt public officials, small and big intriguers, planners of perfect murders and so on. Others engage in public welfare, philanthropy, charity or concern themselves with the promotion of public morality in different spheres. Then there are those who devote their lives to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around us. But the villains, the virtuous and the disinterested seekers of knowledge together constitute no more than a small proportion of all humanity. Most of other people do not seem to have great use for much of their oversized brains.
There are the wretched of the earth too ground down by poverty and disease to think of much more than their next meal or of relieving physical pain. Above this stratum there are millions everywhere who go through their entire lives without asking questions, smug in their beliefs, not doubting, consumers of dreams sold by others, vulnerable to manipulations by engineers of opinion and wielders of power and authority, the demos who like to think they are repositories of political power in a democracy. Such people with their small joys and small discontents are those whose backing politicians seek. They are almost like the hippopotami with which this essay opened. In contrast with this group, there are others, in smaller numbers, ordinary educated people engaged in ordinary occupations and not in academic or scientific research who ask questions, who are sensitive to both good and evil around them, some important part of whose lives are lived in their minds--people who take pleasure in new ideas, in poetry, literature and music but also people who because of their intellectual curiosity are restless and not easily satisfied, a group which for want of a better word can be called the intelligentsia. Most of the time the demos and the intelligentsia hold each other in contempt. Likewise, as a rule there is distrust between the politician and the intelligentsia in practically all societies.
For all the spare brain capacity that mankind possesses it has shown itself singularly inept in dealing with large problems of life whenever it is required to take collective action. It has not only failed to devise stable political or economic systems so far but made only limited progress towards reducing mass poverty and little towards controlling war and mass violence and is at the point of demonstrating its inability to take urgent, meaningful and concerted action to stop the planet's downward slide towards uninhabitability. On past form it seems certain that mass poverty, war and mass violence are going to be with us for a long time to come and it will take nothing short of a series of catastrophes to awaken people to the need for urgently stopping the degradation of the environment. But in spite of it all, the world is getting ready to welcome the start of a new year in the Christian era as a dawn of new hope.
In the middle of this night hundreds of thousands of people, the demos, will be awake. They will feast and carouse and dance and with music loud and blaring and in great merriment herald a new year in. At that moment, when the world will be awake, I, who like to think that a part of my life is lived in my mind, after indulging to the full my taste for melancholic reflections, shall be getting ready to sleep.