CARLOS Fuentes is an optimist. That much comes through in his vigorous tone of voice, in his animated gestures, in his love of humanity - and even in the relish with which he approaches an elegant English breakfast at a London hotel. But he is an optimist standing on a precipice. Ahead of him, stretching into the 21st century, lie two great fears with which, he says, humanity must come to terms. The first is fear of nuclear annihilation. The second is fear that the developing nations will either be crushed out or swallowed up by the developed world.Skip to next paragraph
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And behind him, where he turns for explanations of how the world came to its present state, lies the wreckage of what he calls ``the philosophies that have guided the Western world at least since the 18th century.''
What characterizes those philosophies is ``the basic belief in happiness - that happiness is attainable on earth, that humanity and its institutions are infinitely perfectible.''
``I think this is what has come crumbling down,'' Mr. Fuentes says. ``In the midst of the greatest material progress, of the greatest technical progress [ever] achieved, we have seen all its limitations.''
This particular view, he says with a ready smile, is ``the response of all those who see the big holes in the Gruy`ere cheese of progress.''
Fuentes notes that the past several centuries have seen ``a great addiction to materialism'' and an unthinking willingness to define progress in material terms. ``This is what has failed.''
``The material rewards of progress are as nothing compared to what are supposed to be the moral rewards of progress,'' he notes. ``I am not against material progress. I am against the consciousness that [material] progress will solve our problems.''
What are those problems? The foremost is the fear that a ``nuclear winter'' could engulf a planet ``devoured by catastrophe.'' Throughout history, he says, ``we've always known that man and woman can destroy themselves. But we have always known, throughout the ages, that nature would remain while we disappeared ... if only to bear witness to our folly and our pride.
``Today I think for the first time in history we have the consciousness that nature can disappear along with us,'' he says, and ``it really shakes your soul.'' The Greek playwright Sophocles, for all his tragic vision, ``could not imagine this,'' Fuentes says, adding that nowadays ``we can.''
``It unites us as human beings through fear as we have never been united before,'' he says. Unity of fear - or hope? THAT very unity, he feels, ``is one of the great strengths of the approaching century.''
``So many barriers that used to keep us apart now have disappeared,'' he adds, ``and we are more and more united.''
That unity, however, is ``a condition born of fear. I hope that in the 21st century it will be transformed into a condition made of hope.''
The second problem on Fuentes's agenda concerns what he describes as ``the enormous gap'' between the political, economic, social, and technological conditions of industrial nations and those of developing nations. As a result, he says, the latter will face in the 21st century a clash between what he calls ``the project of independence'' - their ongoing efforts to shed what was once a colonial status - and ``the project of interdependence'' that increasingly makes the world's nations reliant on one another.
``We have this socioeconomic or political fear that our national projects will be swallowed up by transnational companies,'' he explains, ``and that we will have little say in our own destiny.''
``No matter how far we have gone in certain cases,'' he observes, ``[the developing world] has been totally outstripped by the incredible development of modern technology and concentration of power on the international scene.''