The Other – Ryszard Kapuściński

Rating: ★★★

People thus had three choices when they encountered the Other: They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.

3670257There are many cases in which someone – taking advantage of a renowned name – just grabs a couple of unrelated essays and makes a book. However, the idea of the Other is perfectly developed by some conferences given by Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) between 1990 and 2005 that were reunited in this book, where a lack of cohesion is not something I would use to describe it. Nevertheless, one may put the focus on the repetition of few notions, but giving their significance and our own difficulty to comprehend them, I can’t find any fault in it…

This work starts from the premise that throughout history, humans have had a tendency to mistrust and/or conquer the Other. In relation to the writing, Kapuściński’s words are a pleasure to read. With great eloquence, he discusses the relationship between us and the Other (quoting philosophers and at times, self-referentially) and how it is affected by the concepts of race, nationality and religion, thus providing much insight into the complexities of human nature. These conferences also speak volumes about the writer, whose warmth and consideration made me feel rather small, especially when he mentioned how humans resort to isolation to avoid the Other. (Note: after I finished this review, I found an article on some biography of his. Naturally, not every word correlates with every action.) I have to admit that I loved that feeling prompted by his cogent arguments, since it brought me back to a stage of introspection, ready to re-evaluate behaviors and life choices and start to think that, perhaps, there is a way to fulfill a desire for self-improvement in order to connect with others.

descriptionKapuściński, Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author.

As for the quote that starts this digression, war would never be a real option. But the wall has always been a problem. It secures distance, a ridiculous sense of safety. Simultaneously, it isolates one from society; an attitude tinged with egoism, tedium and probably narcissism – yes, we’re a treat. Truth be told, I tend to disbelieve when I see some sort of pride in someone’s isolation, as if they actually enjoy being unable to let people approach them and get to know them and then they announce it as a cool quirk (are we still saying “cool” nowadays?), because of course, they let everybody know all about it. I don’t find much joy in such impediment, and since supposedly (sorry, that word always reminds me of the deep soliloquy by the end) we’re not beasts and we’re definitely not gods, I see it as pretended nonchalance, a juvenile pose that needs to be broadcast for some reason (the irony is that one of those reasons relates to the yearning for sharing a moment with another person). In other words, if you’re not a hermit writing poetry on some mountain…
A myriad of ambivalent feelings elicits different responses. Sometimes the wall is necessary. A quick and daily example. A couple of weeks ago, in class, I was pushed to talk to someone who happened to be a sociologist. The long-winded speech I was subjected to… I felt my soul was about to die of exhaustion. Pompous verbosity is another challenge for my attention span. An insufferable, arrogant academic? A vicious liar? You’re getting a wall astronauts will truly see from the moon. It’s no longer a matter of fear for the unknown or selfishness, but the basic instinct of self-preservation. (I’m fully aware that that statement could have probably appalled the author and is at odds with the book’s ideals. We’re working on it but no promises will be made.)

Odd and uncalled anecdote aside, the conflict between the silence of solitude and the sound of the Other (which often involves an entirely different set of experiences and values that we unjustly regard as noise) is timeless, as Kapuściński lucidly explains, in addition to the difficulty in internalizing tolerance when in reality, that sort of acceptance is a previous step, as empathy is the final destination. Nevertheless, I wonder whether we really want to live in an airport. The airport is a recurring metaphor for the magic of reunions, when family and friends gather after a period of separation. The author draws an analogy from a different perspective, offering the other side of our perennial duality, as he depicts society as an
anonymous crowd at a major airport, a crowd of people rushing along in haste, mutually indifferent and ignorant.
I can’t stop thinking about it now while walking through the streets of this city, which brim over with people in such a hurry that don’t even have time to respect a traffic light. By means of a brisk walk – try a stroll at your own peril – we might conclude that we’re beyond the acknowledgement of nationality and religion as the only factors to keep our distance. Oblivious to the existence of other human beings but ourselves, we keep walking with phones in our pupils.

We will constantly be encountering the new Other, who will slowly emerge from the chaos and tumult of the present. It is possible that this new Other will arise from the meeting of two contradictory currents that shape the culture of the contemporary world — the current of the globalization of our reality and the current of the conservation of our diversity, our differences, our uniqueness. The Other may be the offspring and the heir of these two currents.
We should seek dialogue and understanding with the new Other. The experience of spending years among remote Others has taught me that kindness toward another being is the only attitude that can strike a chord of humanity in the Other.

* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.
Kapuściński via


2 thoughts on “The Other – Ryszard Kapuściński

  1. This is a splendid review, which lucidly evoked the conflicting feelings such dialogue and understanding evoke. I personally set dialogue and understanding very high on my list of priorities for the smoother running of our society and planet but I find myself also constructing walls after understanding ‘the other’ out of the necessity for self-protection.

    To resume, I feel that dialogue is essential for understanding, however, when one has understood, one has the right to say ‘no’ to further dialogue.

    Excuse my rambling and thank you for introducing me to this fascinating author in such a reflective way; your reflections are always a pleasure to read and give much food for thought: how much can one individual comprehend? take in? open up to? appreciate? nurture or love in the airport of life?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really glad that this modest piece of writing inspired such a thoughtful comment. Also, that you agree with some of the notions included in this book and that you eloquently expanded on. How difficult, isn’t it? To find the balance between communication and self-protection without inhabiting an apathetic airport. Something I think about every day.

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read and leave your edifying words. 🙂 I hope you also enjoy K’s work when you get to it. Rather busy now, but I’ll return to him as soon as I can!

      Liked by 1 person

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