Saturday, November 12, 2016

All this time and still hearts of darkness

Around 1991 Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) wrote a song, "All This Time," about the impermanence of the things of men in relation to nature. Talking about an old town in Britain, Sumner sings:

The teachers told us, the Romans built this place:
They built a wall and a temple, an edge of the empire garrison town,
They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods, but the stone gods did not make a sound...
And their empire crumbled, 'til all that was left were the stones the workmen found
...And all this time [centuries] the river flowed in the falling light of a northern sun

The dual message of the song was that there is no meaning to life and no eternal being(s) or metaphysical basis for existence. Sumner claims that he was actually writing about the death of his own father, but he has said elsewhere that he is agnostic and believes that religious faith is dangerous. In the song he quotes from the New Testament (adding a sarcastic but amusing paraphrase) then sees "the old man [God] laughing," earlier he mocks the appearance of Christian priests then asserts that he would like to "bury the old man [God and belief in God] at sea," and asks "Father [God], if Jesus exists, how come he never lived [or lives] here?" Roman historian Tacitus writing c. 117 AD in book XV chapter 44 of his Annals recorded that during the reign of Tiberius 14 – 37 AD, the Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus, had executed "Christus." Jesus, the Latinized Greek version of the common Hebrew name, Yeshua or Joshua, was declared by his followers to be the expected messiah, the Greek translation for which is khristos, i.e., Latin Christus. So whatever else you may believe, you may be certain Jesus did live there at any rate. 

It should be noted that Tacitus was no supporter of Christianity and only mentioned this incidentally to reporting that the emperor Nero was widely suspected of having ordered the burning of Rome July 18, 64 AD and therefore found it necessary to fix the blame for the fire on someone else, so chose the Christians. Tacitus added that the Christians were already hated for their "abominations" and "hatred against mankind" and that though Pontius Pilatus had temporarily checked "a most mischievous superstition" (by executing Christus) it had "again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular."

Civilizations are indeed transitory though, as is human existence in this world. Rome had existed as a republic, with elected officials for about 500 years before internal conflicts and civil strife resulted in Julius Caesar being appointed perpetual dictator in 44 BC. He was followed by a succession of mostly evil absolute rulers (emperors) until the fall of the empire in 476 AD.

The Roman empire crumbled from within, the expense of constant war and general profligate spending having broken the financial health of the country and created a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The government had become completely corrupt, the Roman Senate incompetent and powerless and the   thousands of soldiers comprising the personal body guard of the emperor (the Praetorian Guard; before the end of the Roman Republic it had been illegal for military units to operate within the city) began to instead select the emperor themselves, often auctioning off the post to the highest bidder and hastening the replacement process by murdering the emperor.

The Roman people naturally lost trust in their government. The once invincible Roman military forces that had expanded the boundaries of the empire, projecting power into every area of the ancient world and making possible profitable commerce while keeping the barbarian armies at bay began to be made up of foreign troops without any real loyalty to Rome. Large foreign migrations overwhelmed the empire. By 476 AD Rome abdicated to the Germanic warlord Odoacer and that was the end (the fact that every citizen presumably had the right to bear arms did not seem to protect them from invasion by a large professional army).

I happened to read Julius Caesar's commentary on The Gallic Wars recently. Caesar was a brilliant military commander (who, as we mentioned earlier, eventually became dictator of Rome, promoted by a grateful and hopeful people) who brought most of Gaul, present day Europe south of the Rhine, under control 58 – 50 BC.

After Caesar's commentaries I finally got around to reading Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness (I had been intending to read this since I saw Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the story in his 1979 film, Apocalypse Now). With synchronicity, Conrad's narrator in the story, Marlow, began talking of when the Romans had first arrived in Britain some nineteen hundred years earlier. In his commentaries Julius Caesar had written an engaging account of his invasion of Britain 55 and 54 BC. Marlow imagines the experience of the Roman legionaries at "the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke...going up this river [the Thames]...sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,---precious little to eat for a civilized man...Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness...death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush...They were men to face the darkness...They were no colonists...they were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force...your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness."

Caesar had decided to proceed into Britain because he discovered that in most of the wars of Rome with Gaul the peoples of Britain had helped the Gauls with supplies and other support. In his commentaries Caesar described the Britains: "Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britains, indeed, dye themselves with wood, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip." He goes on to describe the difficulty in fording the river Thames and the Brits defense of the banks by "sharp stakes fixed in front, and stakes of the same kind fixed under the water covered by the river." Caesar pursues the local forces, who are concealed "in intricate and woody places." He remarks that "the Britons, when they have fortified the intricate woods, in which they are wont to assemble for the purpose of avoiding the incursion of an enemy, with an entrenchment and a rampart, call them a town." 

Returning to Heart of Darkness, Marlow, talking to his shipmates aboard a vessel anchored on the Thames, begins to tell them about a trip he made up the Congo River into the "heart of Africa." 

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side... There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect...

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. ...

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grassroofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories....

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time.

Marlow continues up the Congo and eventually finds Kurtz, the legendary ivory trade agent the company had tasked him with locating. Kurtz turns out to be somewhat of a sociopath, having apparently taken on a god-like role with the local natives, decapitating and mounting heads on poles among other behavior impressive to the jungle folk, for the primary purpose of extorting all of the ivory from them that could be collected and sent back up the river (it was and still is a very valuable commodity). But he was nevertheless revered by Marlow and others:

That was not the point. The point was in his [Kurtz] being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

Later, Marlow watches Kurtz die:

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror —of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!

Marlow returns to civilization [sic] and delivers some of the dead man's personal letters to Kurtz' fiancee. In an emotional scene, the grieving woman tells Marlow, "What a loss to me—to us! To the world."  She begs him to tell her the last eloquent words of Kurtz as he died. Marlow replied, deciding he had better create a better last memory for her, "The last word he pronounced was---your name." I couldn't help but laugh as I read this, recalling Peter Eckermann's words on the death of Goethe (Johann Wolfgang Goethe, d. 1832; he is revered by the Germans, in large degree because of his noble appearance---I attempted to read Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and found it so insipid as to be impossible to continue; I grant his Faust had a potent theme, i.e., selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world): 

The morning after Goethe’s death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.

Well, I am not sure I do feel the remote kinship Conrad spoke of, but I am increasingly aware of the silent jeer of the river (Sumner's wrote “all this time the river flowed, a silent tear,” but it seems to me more a jeer to humanity in 2016).