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We can still learn from history

Publication Date : 05-08-2014

 

 Covering politics and politicians isn’t good for the health. No one can live life as an endless series of nanosecond-like encounters.

Sometimes it seems as if my existence is coloured, even defined by blips of information from Iocal media outlets, images and sound bites.

Then there are the instant buzz issues, that change every few hours: What will be the impact of Prabowo Subianto’s petulant challenge to the Indonesian presidential election results?

How will President-elect Joko Widodo’s first cabinet look?

Closer to home, why is Pakatan Rakyat seemingly hell-bent on imploding itself via the fracas over the Selangor chief minister post?

Will PKR and DAP get rid of Khalid Ibrahim? What will PAS do?

There are mornings where I’ve woken up with terrible headaches, having dreamt of news portals, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat and Instagram.

Sometimes it feels as if someone’s tap-dancing all night long on my head.

The news cycle has shrunk and then, finally, disappeared.

Information wilts and then fades away within minutes of being scanned and digested.

Indeed, the immediacy becomes so exhausting there are moments when sleep is the only escape.

Nowadays, however, deep sleep can only be achieved if you switch off your wretched smartphone.

Given the circumstances, is it any wonder that we all feel totally discombobulated?

Still, I’ve found the perfect companion for too much politics.

It’s a 1,160-page history of the 19th century, entitled The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, by German academic Jurgen Oster­hammel.

After all, having been confronted by reams of staccato-like information, what could be better than a really solid and illuminating piece of scholarship?

Indeed, books are increasingly a refuge from both the real world and online version of the same.

Some years back, as my Blackberry threatened to turn me into a nervous wreck (yes, I checked it every 30 seconds), I discovered that Tolstoy’s War and Peace was the perfect antidote to the torrent of often useless information.

So what’s so special about Osterhammel’s magnum opus?

For a start, you could do considerable harm to a politician with it (if you dropped it from a sufficiently elevated position) and I can assure you there are times when the prospect of this extremely enticing.

But more seriously, Osterhammel rejects the straightforward narrative history of our schooldays.

Instead, he presents the grand sweep of history in terms of approaches, panoramas and themes, drawing parallels, analogies and connections where one would never have imagined.

In this way, he unites the storytelling and explains how the 19th century concept of time and space was altered so thoroughly by the discoveries of the era.

The standardisation of calendars, clocks and the Greenwich Mean Time injected a sense of order and concision in everyday life that was matched by improvements in cartography, census-taking and later even photography.

As a seasoned China expert, Osterhammel also brings an understanding of Asian culture and history that saves the work from being unduly Anglo-Saxon in its emphasis.

Indeed, the breadth of references is astonishing. Osterhammel leaps from Brazil’s sertao (or badlands) to the Ganges Plain and on to the eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia before dwelling for a while, at least, on a fascinating comparison of slavery in the former Portuguese colony, the southern United States and the Cape.

The catholicity of sources and density of research is reminiscent of Braudel’s ground-breaking history of the Mediterranean.

Whilst there is a great deal of densely philosophical neo-Teutonic double-speak, I have rarely come across such a powerful and profound work of the imagination because the leaps the writer makes between continents and themes are often so bold they defy expectation.

This is probably why I’ve found the book so satisfying to read amidst the day-in, day-out craziness of Southeast Asian politics.

Osterhammel’s broad and magnificent work has served to remind me that our lives and collective history is more meaningful than the petty ambitions and bickering of leaders.

Malaysian and Indonesian politicos should be asking themselves: how do they want to be remembered by history?

And with that, I’ll be returning to my weighty tome.

 

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