Book Review: ‘Enlightenment Now’ and why the end is not nigh

Updated 27 June 2018

Book Review: ‘Enlightenment Now’ and why the end is not nigh

BEIRUT: Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has something to get off his chest and he does so on the very first page of his recently published book, “Enlightenment Now.” The author lashes out against anyone harboring a gloomy vision of the world today, writing: “In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong — wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more wrong.”

This book is an “attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment,” an epoch when the author claims that reason, science and humanism were revered.

Bill Gates called it his “new favorite book of all time” and described it in his blog as “a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better.”

In the book, Pinker urges readers to swipe left on the end-is-nigh headlines that flood our smartphones and instead follow the data. He manages to show that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise across the world and posits that reason and science are to be thanked for the positive progress.

However, the book is not without its critics.

Writing for Vox, Aaron R. Hanlon, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, says that the author bases his arguments on a misinterpretation of Enlightenment scholars.

“It turns out that Enlightenment thinkers themselves… had very different ideas from Pinker himself about progress. David A. Bell, a Princeton historian of Enlightenment France, has observed (in The Nation publication) that ‘since (Pinker) does not engage in any serious analysis of Enlightenment authors, he avoids having to contend seriously with the awkward fact that by far the most popular of them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a fierce critic of most forms of progress” if it was driven by reason, as Rousseau believed that the cost would be moral degradation. 

 Although the author does seem to rely on quantitative data to back some fantastical arguments — and it can be said that he brushes aside legitimate criticism--- — he is the first to admit that “we will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”


‘The Frightened Ones’: An emotionally shattering take on Syrian life

Updated 21 September 2020

‘The Frightened Ones’: An emotionally shattering take on Syrian life

CHICAGO: Author Dima Wannous’s “The Frightened Ones,” masterfully translated by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2020,  was a finalist for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic. The novel takes readers on a haunting journey through history, time and protagonist Suleima’s mind as she navigates war and trauma in Syria. From the waiting room of her psychiatrist’s office to the streets of Damascus, readers get a glimpse into the mind of a young woman who has trouble differentiating reality from fantasies as political turmoil and the collective suffering of a nation fills page after heartbreaking page.  

From the Ain Al-Kirish neighborhood, Suleima attempts to understand her life, the one where her father has passed away, her brother has disappeared and her mother has aged overnight. She regularly sees her psychiatrist, Kamil, and that is where she meets Naseem. After being together for years, he emigrates to Germany without her and hands her an unfinished manuscript. As Suleima reads the manuscript, she can no longer tell her life and the narrator’s apart. They seem to be on the same path and share an uncertain future.  

But Suleima isn’t the only one dealing with a traumatic past, so are those around her. The nation has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of militiamen, spying and informing on neighbors, and the military intelligence directorate, who have left parents childless and children parentless. The paranoia that infiltrates Suleima’s entire being is the same paranoia that seeps through the streets and into its residents. 

Wannous’s tale is emotionally shattering as she writes of her character, “my emotions were held hostage by events in Syria.” Within its borders, families and neighbors turn against one another. Memories upon memories, both good and bad, have begun to bleed into one another as those who have the means to flee do and those who cannot bring themselves to leave are drowning in sadness as “fear ruins the imagination.” It is a powerful novel of human relationships and inhumane politics. The tremors of past traumas never stop reverberating through the pages as people are forced to live life as the frightened ones.