On Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’

Check out my review on Age of Anger!

Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present is a dense collection of global attitudes and ideology over the past few centuries. Mishra takes a microscope to the ideas that began in the late seventeenth century, examining connections between the ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau and historical and modern attitudes.

Age of Anger doesn’t limit itself to chronological order; it jumps around a global timeline more frequently than Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five. Mishra weaves in and out through nearly half a millennium, pointing out that the ideas of the eras’ key thinkers and notorious figures are often intertwined. The language is very functional and intelligent, but at times is a bit too dry to engage the reader fully, even though the premise is intriguing: Mishra presents the idea that events today are still being influenced by the type of thinking present in the eighteenth century. Regarding the present in the book, he says:

Indeed, we live today in a vast, homogeneous world market, in which human beings are programmed to maximize their self-interest and aspire to the same things, regardless of their difference of cultural background and individual temperament. The world seems more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.

It’s these self-interests and aspirations that form the backbone of Mishra’s argument. No matter how modern the world may seem nor how different we may seem, we are connected by basic human behavior that hasn’t evolved much in the last five centuries. It’s the global interconnectivity so readily available, though, that helps to bring consistency, smoothing out many cultural differences and purifying the parallels. It might seem that — because of these non-evolving factors — humanity has been set on the same looping track, but Mishra goes on to warn:

History, however, is far from being repeated, despite many continuities with the past. Our predicament, in the global age of frantic individualism, is unique and deeper, its dangers more diffuse and less predictable.

Throughout the book, though the U.S. isn’t the focus of it, he discusses the “availability of assault weapons” in the U.S. and Donald Trump’s rise to power as a political figure. The emergence of ISIS is there, too, and the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East. When contained in the same book, these matters seem to differ in levels of intensity from the French Revolution, rise of Hitler, and the events leading up to the First World War, but perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that I am American, liberal, young, and terrified of the idea of another war.

All of this aside, Mishra expects and writes to an audience familiar with global events over the past few centuries. Seldom does he provide background information or definitions, so come to this book with a foundation in philosophy and history that can be obtained from plenty of other books on the topics, and be prepared to explore a winding path.

In the end, it’s a book with a great premise but not something light and breezy that one would pick up on a rainy day or for a sunny beach read. It’s heavy and intense and is the kind of book one might come upon while researching for a paper (or for scholarly fun) to make the exact connections needed.


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