A History of the World In 10 ½ Chapters
If heaven is perfect, won't it be perfectly boring? The novel, A History of the World In 10 ½ Chapters, by Julian Barnes, explores the human condition and its lack of instinctual and behavioural growth. Within society, the environments in which human beings reside in are constantly changing. Time itself is an entity in which man has created to be able to grasp the change around their surroundings. A History of the World In 10 ½ Chapters, acts as a vocal catalyst for the divine-like entity that is time, sharing its accounts of the lack of growth in human beings it has witnessed throughout history. The novel is a collection of stories all different in time but similar in nature in regards to human behaviour. The novel's text is written in juxtapositions to subjugate the human psyche, to force out a revelation of human arrogance, where the novel as a whole propagates the notion of past actions having dire consequences in the future. The novel's final chapter portrays the epitome of human egotism by deeming heaven to be imperfect for it is too perfect. Time pushes the world forward, and the environments in which humans live, change, but human beings themselves are reluctant to grow and are unaffected by the pressure exerted by time. The environment where man lives might change, but man himself does not.
“Noah - or Noah's God had decreed that there were two classes of beast: the clean and unclean.” (Barnes, 10) The two words “clean” and “unclean” is mentioned numerous times in the novel, and it signifies the act of demoralization. When a group of people are segregated from their peers, out of a social distinction, a sense of both resentment and superiority comes to existence. “There was, as you can imagine, deep resentment at the divisiveness of God's animal policy.”(10) In the second chapter, titled, The Visitor a cruise ship is hijacked by Arabs, and the passengers are held hostages. The Arabs systematically group the passengers by nationality, and starts killing those who they deemed were of an unclean nationality. In chapter five, titled, Shipwreck, a group of people are stranded in a raft after a shipwreck, and are slowly dying from malnutrition and revolts upon the raft. On the seventh day of the drifting, fifteen persons decided to kill the twelve unhealthy to give themselves a fighting chance, and systematically deemed the dying to be unclean and that they must sacrifice themselves to save those who are clean. “Three sailors and a soldier, their hearts now hardened by the constant sight of death, performed the repugnant but necessary executions. The healthy were separated from the unhealthy like the clean form the unclean.” (121) The three stories mentioned are written in juxtaposition to outline human arrogance that have plagued throughout history. These stories are all from different times and places, yet the human behaviour and thoughts portrayed in the stories are similar in nature. To establish a social distinction between people is to create different levels of worth in a life. In regards to the three chapters, groups lost their lives, for they were deemed unclean. It is an innate instinctual desire to compare oneself to another, and find self-redeeming qualities the other person lacks. The chapters are not criticizing the arrogance people have but the extent of cruelty it can project, where the chapters themselves are a written approximation of that extent. The novel begins with Noah's ark, to firmly create a reference point of comparison for the readers, showing the initial nature humans have had since the beginning of time, and through the continuous reading of the novel, the reader will discover a lack of progress within the human mind, to separate worth in self-gratifying classifications.
Everything in the world is connected, even the past. Human beings are the product of their own history. The novel conveys these thoughts by intertwining certain themes within the numerous pages, making references to previous chapters, producing ironic reoccurrences of past events. The first chapter, tells an account of Noah's ark through the perspective of a stowaway, who was rejected by Noah for its undesirable traits. The stowaway is later revealed to a woodworm. The woodworm makes reappearance in the third chapter, as the descendants of the original stowaway. The woodworms are facing a trial, where they have been accused of eating away at the leg of the Bishop of Besancon's throne, causing him to be hurled “into the darkness of imbecility.”(65) The woodworms are again mentioned many numerous times throughout the novel, signifying the possible consequences of past actions. How decisions and actions in the past can influence current events. Human behaviour has not changed, for it is the continuation of consequences caused by our ancestors' actions. Which ever sins or atrocities our ancestors committed has already determined our actions and behaviours. In the novel, animals are used as a medium to portray the connection of human arrogance, and the most referred to animal, is the reindeer. In Noah's ark, the reindeers seem to have grasped the powers of foresight, and shutter in fear as they see into the future. Later in chapter four, it is revealed that there has been a nuclear disaster, and the reindeers which populated Norway have been contaminated with high doses of radiation. The reindeers are then quickly slaughtered and their corpses are fed to the local minks. The unnamed protagonist of the chapter makes a remark towards the treatment of the reindeers saying, “We've been punishing animals from the beginning, haven't we?”(87) It is ironic, for the protagonist in previous pages said, “Everything is connected, even the parts we don't like, especially the part we don't like.”(84) One cannot escape the grasp the past has in their lives. Noah's family has mistreated the animals, and consumed the flesh of those who they deemed were unfit, or unclean. “Put it in another way: what the hell do you think Noah and his family ate in the Ark? They ate us of course…Of course it didn't stop there. As far as Noah and his family were concerned, we were just a floating cafeteria.” (13) The novel, hints that the world people live in today is no different then the world from long ago. Technology and society has vastly improved, but people themselves have not. The behaviour of humans is the product of the past, and the human mind has yet to evolve to a point where the past can hold no relevance. As long as humans can justify atrocious behaviour, there is no hope for an evolution within the human mind, where the need for violence becomes an obsolete process of thinking.
Heaven, the final resting ground believed my many, where one's soul finds tranquility and eternal happiness. Surely, such a place that is deemed to be perfect in nature, can find a person peace. However, if heaven is perfect, can it be also perfectly boring, or is that just due to human arrogance? Surely human arrogance cannot transcend death? The last chapter in the novel, takes place in new heaven, where whatever a person desires comes true. “We don't impose heaven on people any more,” she said. ‘We listen to their needs. If they want it, they can have it; if not, not.” (300) The main protagonist indulges himself in sex, food, and everything else he desires, but feels as if perfection in itself is a flawed concept. Heaven is the final frontier, where nothing comes after. The novel uses heaven as the setting for its final chapter to show the tenacity of human arrogance. Nothing will ever completely satisfy a person. When people do not find happiness in their current environment, they move on to a new one. This characteristic separates us from any other mammals. Other mammals in the planet are able to adapt to their surroundings, co-existing with their habitat, but humans are the only ones who destroy their environment, and move on. Humans exhaust all the resources from the current environment, and complain, demanding a change. This was the fate of Old Heaven. “What, Old Heaven? Yes, we know about Old Heaven. It's in the records. What happened to it? Oh, it sort of closed down. People didn't want it any more. People didn't need it any more.” (300) Even in the end where everything was perfect, there was arrogance to criticize a perfect world, for it was too perfect. Heaven is the final stage, where nothing else can succeed it; there is nothing more existence can offer. It is the final environment, humans can live in. The novel ends with a chapter based on heaven, to show the severity of arrogance that human beings are capable of, in a new environment, and how even in the sight of perfectness, old habits are hard to break.
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