“These days, we do not lack information about other societies and countries” writes Eva Hoffman, in her introduction to this illuminating collection of essays. But why, we must ask, does this unprecedented level of knowledge not translate into greater understanding?
Spurning the sound byte, glossy guide or shallow schematic, an international group of thinkers and writers set out on a much more vital journey leading us through the Inner Lives of Cultures. In these 10 revealing essays about Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Romania, Russia and Uzbekistan, we enter, through empathy and imagination ‘into the subjective life of another culture – its symbolic codes, its overt beliefs and implicit assumptions.
Often, they suggest, it is the experience of emigration or displacement which is the key: it reveals most sharply to us not only how culture shapes our human environment but also the inner landscapes of the self which perceives it.
In an opening essay, ‘Barbarism, Civilisation, Cultures’, Tzvetan Todorov, argues forcefully that without this much-prized knowledge of what ‘culture’ is, we may increasingly fail to become what he calls “a civilised person: one who is able, at all times and in all places, to recognise the humanity of others fully”. This is an urgent and indispensable book for our world now.