Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Thank you very much for contributing to our June Membership Drive! If you didn't have a chance to donate, please do so at any time. We look forward to your support!

A Writer Expresses His 'Discontent' With Civilization

"The first requisite of civilization ... is that of justice," wrote Sigmund Freud in his 1930 book Civilization and Its Discontents. Ideally, this is true, but it often seems like some civilizations never got the message. Though maybe it depends on what you mean by justice, and how you define "civilization" — if you can at all. In his new book, novelist and essayist Mohsin Hamid expresses some doubts: "Civilizations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous, and powerful. They contribute to globalization's brutality. ... Civilizations encourage our hypocrisies to flourish."

The title of Hamid's new essay collection, Discontent and Its Civilizations, is obviously a play on Freud's controversial, classic work, but that's where the similarities end. While both books tackle the role of the individual in society, Hamid's book is more personal and much more wide-ranging, concerned with the ways in which human beings invent themselves in a global society that's become both closer and more divided than ever before. "The self we create is a fiction," Hamid writes, and it's one that's getting harder and harder to write.

The essays in Discontent and Its Civilizations form something like a memoir, although indirectly. The book is divided into three sections, "Life," "Art" and "Politics," and it's clear that for Hamid, the three are closely intertwined. The personal essays in "Life" describe Hamid's somewhat nomadic childhood and adulthood — he was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where he now lives, but he spent many years in New York and London.

As a result, he's always been conflicted about where he belongs, particularly after the September 11 attacks, which took place after he moved to the United Kingdom: "The 9/11 attacks placed great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American. As a man not known for frequenting mosques, and not possessing a U.S. passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war."

The second section contains several of Hamid's essays about art, chiefly literature. Best known for his novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid studied under Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton, and sees self-invention as a positive force: "I believe that that the hope of invention animates the arts," he writes. "And I feel the same hope as I think of people coming together to invent a world that is post-civilization, and hence infinitely more civilized."

The collection of political essays in the book's final section is perhaps the most forceful and interesting of the three. Hamid is a harsh critic of globalization, which he calls a "brutal phenomenon" that "brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism" and a host of other social ills. His life as a global wanderer lends him a unique perspective on international politics, particularly as it concerns his home country.

"Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror subindustry within the news business," he writes, noting that the relationship between that country and the United States deteriorated dramatically after the killing of Osama bin Laden and several American drone strikes that killed Pakistani civilians. The situation, Hamid says, is even more complex than citizens of either country tend to imagine: "The alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military remains, therefore, a relationship between parties viewing one another through gunsights. Each side blames the other for putting its citizens in grave danger, and each is correct to do so."

In other words, the relationship between the two countries is, like pretty much everything that relates to international politics, much more complex than we realize. That's what's so refreshing about Hamid's book — he avoids platitudes and easy answers, recognizing that the self, like art and politics, is full of contradictions. Hamid is an amazingly gifted writer, and Discontent and Its Civilizations is a near-perfect essay collection, filled with insight, compassion, and intellect. It's a powerful look at the way people juggle their individuality with the tensions that inevitably result from being part of a community. The personal, Hamid argues, will always be the political, and it's pointless to try to disentangle the two. "Minority relations are a microcosm of society," he writes. "Each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.