norman lewis and mankind’s war against humanity


Wherever Lewis went, the satirist in him part-relished the evils he witnessed. He was also a romantic who knew how to play the tunes of broken dreams and decay. Meanwhile, he was too intelligent and too much of a realist not to know that the victories of strong over weak are hard-wired into nature. These strands coalesce in his great essay, “Genocide”, the first of several published by the Sunday Times magazine in the 1970s and early 80s. In it, he describes the fate of Brazilian Indians at the hands not only of Portuguese colonists, American missionaries, landowners of every descent and grabbers in general of gold, diamonds and rubber, but of the government’s Indian Protection Service itself. “By the descriptions of all who had seen them”, Lewis wrote, “there were no more inoffensive and charming human beings on the planet” than the forest Indians. A population of about 4 million (Lewis excitably multiplied it to 80 million) had been reduced to what was in the 1960s calculated as 100,000 – Munducurus, Cintas Largas, the Bororos among whom Claude Lévi-Strauss lived in the 1930s – and “the imagination reels at the thought of what lies in store”. The imagination reels: this is the keynote. Lewis’s subject – his lifelong theme – is mankind’s war against humanity. As Wallace Stevens had written, “In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination”.

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