I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
Feeling like I just coursed through the primordial caves of caveman fame, ascending all the way to the rarefied air of creator gods, I triumphantly lay down my conquered copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind to seek yet another spiritual vista. Well, figuratively laid down; I listened mostly on audiobook, but “I emphatically tapped the pause button for the last time on my certified WhisperSync™ Audible Android app” just doesn’t have the same gravitas. Seriously, this book was such a trip, a journey, a trek through some of the most quintessentially human subjects and experiences that I now feel a totally new kinship with our species. It’s a wonderful review and synthesis of some of the most interesting and promising theories found within the anthropological canon, founding nonstop interdisciplinary forays into the realms of biology, psychology, political science, and pretty much any other realm you can imagine.
While integrating the etymological and genealogical trajectories of currency, I had some some second thoughts about the books quality as a whole, but boy did my doubts turned out to be unfounded. This book takes us all the way from the prehistorical tussle n’ bustle era of homo sapiens as it was duking it out Steven Seagal style with our mastodon and neanderthal cousins for the title of “Big Honcho in Little Mesopotamia.” I know it’s absurd to feel anything approaching nostalgia for this time in our biological development, but there’s just something joyous about holding hands with our earlier, hairier human predecessors and seeing how they paved the way to our concrete jungles. In my head, I experienced this whole intellectual smorgasbord as a freshly bipedal, brazenly tool-wielding, myth-proliferating Mafiosic coming-to-age / rise-to-power story for all humans everywhere, an imagined cinematic experience worthy of pre-parody De Niro and a swath of Oscar hardware to boot.
If I started trying to summarize individual tenets and points from the book, I would get lost in a neurotic writing vortex, so you’re going to just have to trust me on the mechanical part and let me paint some broad impressionistic strokes here. This book has, or at least aims for, a scope that is simply tremendous: the entirety of the human race. We start off learning more about ourselves through learning more about the original tribal OG’s and MO’s, and then we end up cruising through modern times all the way to “the end of homo sapiens.” If that sounds ominous, well, your reading ear is functioning correctly. It doesn’t turn out to be presented or received ominously, however. The “end” of homo sapiens is actually just another way of presenting the beginning of something much bigger; our entry and fixture in the cosmos as nothing short of gods, capable of manipulating matter and generating brilliant new life-forms as if we were arranging Legos and Lincoln Logs, respectively. The book’s conclusion posits that human beings, as we know them, won’t stick around for long because we will “create ourselves out of existence” through the marvels of genetic modification, data transmission, amortality, and many other sci-fi terms that are so thought-provoking that you’ll demand a whole new genre of futuristic exploration cinema to permanently replace our current superhero fluff-pieces. I walked away from this experience with so many impressions and notions that I almost ambushed / talked my roommate to death for two hours as she was just trying to responsibly nourish herself with a quaint home-cooked meal. Such is life in liberal America.
Around this time, I just so happened to be delving deeper into my 2015-2016 hip-hop instrumental odyssey, and 9th Wonder’s Tutankhamen album is on repeat. Looking into Tut’s eyes, I have this Ozymandias-like sentiment wash over me like a millennia-spanning camaraderie and… love… seems to creep in. I don’t know why, and maybe you’d feel the same way if you integrated the book in its entirety, but I look into those adorned Egyptian eyes and understand, that nothing has changed. Our mode-of-being in the world is so fundamentally the same as what ancient Egyptian people entertained, on a biochemical and psychological level, that we might as well be mixing beat-tapes in the same multi-generational Pyramid beat lab as we speak. As the book explains, our biochemistry has not evolved since the days of the pyramids or the days of the joint mastodon hunt, and that is one of the most important influences on my interpretations of this book. Something about this massive human narrative has been shared, and something about Tut, staring out at me over a new vast empire, a street-swept valley of kings, yet one equally desolate and forsaken as the one described in “Ozymandias,” hits me. Yet, if the conclusions of this book are true, then this desolation is about to get left behind in a big way. A fresh new titanic chapter in the human picture book, opening up our hearts and minds like the discovery that the world was round, or that there was a little island blocking our way to India.
Until then, I guess we can read our books, expand our own feeble, individually-isolated understandings of our world, and jam out to beat-tapes. Seriously though, the steady, mesmerizing beat here, the quivering 50’s style cinematic string score, the chorus fading in and out like Jesus and his back-up choir of angels came to jam out. I feel like I’m strolling through the valley of kings with Lawrence of Arabia, 9th Wonder, Yuval Noah Harari, David Mitchell*, and pretty much every other human being who’s ever taken a walk. Is knowledge of our anthropological circumstances and contexts a pathway to metta? Because I feel more capable now of loving universally than ever before, and it has a spiritual quality that I haven’t felt since kneeling on the uncomfortable teal cushions of St. Bernadette’s and trying to get into Jesus’s head the moment before he died.
*Cloud Atlas and its experimental six-part narrative made me feel the same way about the camaraderie of human experiences spanning multiple eras and generations. That same kinship and spiritual intrigue is here again in force. “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”