Charles Foster’s previous book, Being a Beast, is one of the oddest things I’ve read. In it, the author, a barrister, professor of law, part-time judge and former vet, attempts to live as a series of animals, often in the company of his charming and heavily dyslexic eight-year-old son, Tom. We see Foster eating worms and burrowing into the earth as a badger, swimming naked as an otter, foraging in bins as a fox. Now Foster is back with a follow-up, Being a Human, which acknowledges the charges of eccentricity and even insanity that were levelled at the last book.
Foster’s new work continues the project of its predecessor, although this time, rather than seeking to understand the brains and bodies of animals, his question is closer to home: what does it mean to be human? He begins with a contentious argument: far from being a story of progress, the history of humanity is one of disenchantment and loss, one where we have severed our links with other species and the natural world more broadly and in which we live meagre, circumscribed lives. “Few of us have any idea what sort of creatures we are,” he says and embarks on a quest to find out.
This dazzling and, 是的, eccentric book is structured as a tendentious march through time. The first section, by far the longest, is set in the Upper Palaeolithic era – between 50,000 和 12,000 几年前. 这, according to Foster, is when humans were at their most essential and authentic. The book begins in winter and finds Foster and the loyal Tom, 现在 13, and as smart and sensitive as ever, hunkering down to live as hunter-gatherers in a Derbyshire wood, feeding themselves on roadkill and carrion.
Or not feeding themselves at all. One of the themes running throughout the book is that perhaps the principal loss experienced by humans in their march to modernity is a connection to the otherworldly, the numinous, the mystical. “Shamanic experiences are central to any inquiry into human origins,” Foster says, while “regular meals are deadly… Like wolves, we were meant to glut and starve. Cells that go hungry live longer.” Foster begins to starve himself (Tom, luckily, is permitted to eat), seeing shimmering lights in the pangs of his fasting, believing that not eating helps him to see beneath the surface of things. “The last thing I ate was a hedgehog,“ 他说. “That was nine days ago now.” Foster encounters a man, whom he names X, and his child, visionary mirrors of Foster and Tom, ghostly visitors from the prehistorical past. He begins to hear a song – “La li-li-li, li-li” – that seems to be the voice of the Upper Palaeolithic.
The second section of the book is set in the Neolithic – about 12,000 years ago – when, according to Foster “we started to get boring and miserable”. It was at this time, when we moved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, from wandering nomads to settlers, that the “relationship with the natural world was changed from one of awe for, and dependence on, 一切, to control of a few square feet and a few species”. Tom is notably largely absent from these later sections – he’s a child of the Upper Palaeolithic and there’s no place for him in the dark places of the Neolithic: the abattoir where Foster meets a slaughterman named “Steve the Peedo”; the pesticide-soaked industrial farm; the fox hunt (all of which Foster views as the logical conclusions of processes begun in the Neolithic).
The final section of the book is the Enlightenment, where the pernicious methods of the Neolithic were entrenched and codified and where the last elements of mysticism were lost to the hyper-rationality of 18th-century scientists and philosophers. It was here that we finally condemned ourselves to “modern life behind bars”, to “the delusions of security: pension policies, cunning investments, a big house with an electrically operated garage door and the pick of the shopping malls”.
Foster is a beautiful writer and an engaging companion throughout this strange, occasionally maddening book. The argument – that we as a species have lost something in our move from wandering animism to settled civilisation – is a powerful one, amply supported by learned quotations and dense footnotes, although the reader also finds evidence in favour of the thesis in Foster’s own life. There’s a kind of shadow-book that reveals itself through the pages of Being a Human, one in which Foster is using the freedom of the hunter-gatherer tribesman as a way of fulminating against the limitations of his suburban existence in Oxford, father of six children and husband to a “prudent wife”.
Foster must be a nightmare to live with. “I tend to travel abroad alone,“ 他说, in order to avoid “vicariousness” of experience. “I play whistles, flutes and a little Celtic harp in folk sessions in pubs, and the trumpet in a college jazz band, and it keeps the black dog at bay… As playing my instruments at home does not.” He tells us he feels “guilty about being a dreadful father”, then takes himself out alone on to a moor, only calling on his family when “I need someone to search my back for ticks and feed me lasagne”. One day, he hops on a boat to Bilbao, wanting to sit in a bar between “stevedores and pimps speaking Basque”.
在 Being a Human, Foster has set out to establish “what I need in order to thrive” and it’s clear that this is partly a wish to be free not only of the trappings and conventions of modernity, but also of the encumbrances and obligations of adulthood. As a manifesto for life, I’m not sure it works – Foster certainly doesn’t seem like a happier man for all his gallivanting and shamanic experimentation. As a subject for a book, 尽管, it makes for a wonderfully fun if entirely bonkers read.