The hope of none

The hope of none

In reading Austerlitz last night, I stumbled on the passage in which the relayed memories of Austerlitz tell of his ambling into the strangely desolate town in which lie the ruins from which he has averted his attention for four decades. Here he finds the reason for his long avoidance of his personal and national history. Here he recovers the fate from which he fled as a Jewish child on a train. Here he knows again the loss, the unbearable trauma, that none of his family survived.

There he sees the gate of Theresienstadt, with its slogan in wrought iron decorating its upper border.

Arbeit Mach Frei.

None who entered believed this slogan of the powerful, this siren song of productivity.

Only the eerie freedom of death, if it can be known, was delivered here.

But we have forgotten. Again, we are led to believe that work will set us free.

We need to remember, like Austerlitz, and to turn and face the great destructiveness at the heart of our modern society – this turning of the necessity of work first into a compulsion, and then into a vocation.

Creative destruction? Innovative disruption? None truly believe that surely?

It is not work, but simpler perceptions that can give us all hope, that may set us free.

So says Zbigniew Herbert in “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”:

Beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky 

they don’t need your warm breath 

they are there to say: none will console you


Image: The gate of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, former German concentration camp

Massacres in history

Massacres in history

As the violence and brewing disorder of our times disturbs us, we can readily fall into a comforting delusion: either our liberal minds have conquered the violent instincts of the human animal, or our modern ideologies (whether Nazism, Marxism, Imperialism, Neo-Conservatism or Islamism) or our powerful nation states have a peculiar talent for blood-curdling murder and total war.

Alas, neither is true. The pages of history are littered with massacres and community violence. Of course, the history reader need not give their attention to these stories. There are so many other threads to follow – the glories and diversity of culture, the grandeur of art, the suffering of ordinary people, the conflicts over resources, power, status, belief, or the blooming and fading of faiths. But all those threads are mixed with blood on the wattle.

It is difficult to face this squarely. The wound to human pride caused by the repeated violence of our kin is deep, and we naturally seek to numb the pain. Either we turn away to more pleasant thoughts, or we develop elaborate denials of the common humanity of the perpetrators of violence. They become dictators, monsters, barbarians. Or we pursue an absurd nobility in fighting for justice – bandits, thugs, and rebel yells so become freedom fighters, poetic champions of a noble cause wrapped in mystic illusions, like Byron going to fight for the Greeks.

The greatest affront is to our idea of progress, which accompanies our modern culture like an ever-vigilant chaperone. Darker thinkers know this. John Gray’s work has long taken apart the modern belief in human progress. In reviewing Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Gray zeroes in on this necessary illusion:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible. John Gray, The Guardian, 2015

Gray compares the elaborate theories of Pinker and similar liberal optimists, with their reliance on big data and google, to Tibetan prayer wheels, turned forever to produce an assurance of meaning in life, progress in history, and the goodness of humanity. With such a prayer wheel, the bloodied pages of history that tell of massacres and communal violence, the descent of civilised people into barbarism, can be carefully, mindfully willed away.

For whatever fortuitous reason, I came across one such bloodied page last night in reading Richard J. Evans, The pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914 (2016). The story concerned the struggle for Greek independence, or release from the “cruel yoke of Ottoman power” in the 1820s.

The Greeks held a national assembly at Epidauras in 1822 where they declared, despite the fractious rumblings within their own ranks, a “holy war” against the Muslim Ottoman overlords, who had ruled since 1453. Like many holy wars, the Greeks’ fight for a separate, Christian nation soon justified massacres. A British observor recoiled at the violence of the rebels when they killed the local Muslim population:

“Women and children were frequently tortured before they were murdered. After the Greeks had been in possession of the city for forty-eight hours, they deliberately collected together about two thousand persons of every age and sex, but principally women and children, and led them to a ravine in the nearest mountain where they murdered every soul.” (George Finlay, quoted in Evans, p 55)

The Ottoman rulers and the Muslim local population responded with massacres of their own. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul was hanged on his cathedral’s gate. At Salonica local crowds massacred the Christian population turning it into a “boundless slaughterhouse.” On the island of Chios, Greek rebels were besieging a Ottoman garrison, which itself held hostage many of the wealthy Greek Christian merchants of the island. When Ottoman troops and boats arrived  to reinforce the garrison, the balance of the siege turned. The Ottoman soldiers tortured their hostages to reveal the hidden locations of their treasures, and then massacred them. The island’s town streets were littered with corpses, and its buildings burned to the ground. Nearly 30 000 Christians were killed. Others were sold into slavery. The island’s population was quartered, falling from 120 000 to 30 000.

Yet this next link in the chain of communal violence inspired a humanitarian response to fight to defend the birthplace of Western civilisation. Eugene Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824) [the featured image of this post, with image credit to Le Louvre] rallied the educated classes of Europe, seeped in the love of classical cultures. Across Europe idealistic young men, full of civilised illusions, went to fight for the divided and compromised Greek rebels, if in their own mind they were in a struggle for justice for a civilised nation. One observor noted that “All came expecting to find the Peloponnesus filled with Plutarch’s men and all returned thinking the inhabitants of Newgate [London’s main prison] more moral.”

Of course one of the famous foreign fighters was the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. He left behind the ravages of his incestuous and treacherous relationships in England, and dedicated himself to his great Cause, a greater delusion. He told an aristocratic friend (Marguerite, Countess of Blessington) of his motives: “he who is only a poet has done little for mankind” so that he would therefore “endeavour to prove in his own person that a poet may be a soldier.”

He died there at Missolonghi in April 1824. And the Romantic martyr was born from his 36 year old corpse. Today he is considered a national hero in Greece. The phenomenon of young men and women fighting and dying uselessly in a civilisational struggle, drunk on dreams of justice and glory and romance and martyrdom, are older than the Islamic rebels of ISIS.


The unravelling of empires

US and western leaders have to find better ways to satisfy their people’s demands. It looks, however, as though the UK still lacks a clear idea of how it is going to function after Brexit, the eurozone remains fragile, and some of the people Mr Trump plans to appoint, as well as Republicans in Congress, seem determined to slash the frayed cords of the US social safety net.

A divided, inward-looking and mismanaged west is likely to become highly destabilising. China might then find greatness thrust upon it. Whether it will be able to rise to a new global role, given its huge domestic challenges, is an open question. It seems quite unlikely.

By succumbing to the lure of false solutions, born of disillusion and rage, the west might even destroy the intellectual and institutional pillars on which the postwar global economic and political order has rested. It is easy to understand those emotions, while rejecting such simplistic responses. The west will not heal itself by ignoring the lessons of its history. But it could well create havoc in the attempt.

Martin Wolf, Financial Times, 6 January 2017

A (southern) summer spent reading the magisterial histories of John Darwin – After Tamerlane and Unfinished Empire – has inoculated me against the false lessons of history pronounced by journalistic oracles, such as the distinguished Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, who I have quoted above. He is not alone in brooding on the dark omens that have filled our contemporary skies. Across the Atlantic, Robert Samuelson from the Washington Post, issues a similar warning. The question of the year, he states, is “whether we’re witnessing the gradual decay of the post-World War II international order, dominated by the economic and military power of the United States.” He in turn summons the old Svengali of American statecraft, Henry Kissinger, who warns that when the international order is moving from one system to another. “Restraints disappear, and the field is open to the most expansive claims and the most implacable actors… Chaos follows until a new system of order is established. (quoted from World Order)”

Are we entering the death of one order, and the chaos in which a new world order will be reborn? Here our prophetic pundits would do well to read Darwin’s work deeply rather than stay within the cocoon of their false assumptions about the “pillars” of the post-war international order.

Darwin’s world-weary, realistic, yet scholarly assumption is that after Tamerlane – who by the time of his death in 1405 had conquered most of the world island of Eurasia but still  had not imposed a single political order amid competing empires – there has been no single international order, no common vision or shared liberal intellectual assumptions between competing empires. Those empires have risen and fallen, waxed and waned, imploded and recovered in response to fickle, changeable circumstances, and in ways that only with the blindness of hindsight seem to be a story of progress or the rise of the West.

Darwin assumes also that empires are the most common form of political order through all of human history. Empire is not a European original sin, as in nationalistic histories of colonial imperialists (something I observed commonly in the history museums of Vietnam). It is not only the ancien regime of Roman or European aristocrats imposing themselves on the third world. Rather, it is rooted in some fundamental human characteristics.

As Darwin explains, “the exchange of information, knowledge, beliefs and ideas – sometimes over enormous distances – has been just as typical of human societies as the eagerness to acquire, useful, prestigious or exotoc goods by trade or by barter.” (After Tamerlane , p. 22) As those goods and ideas – which have included goods and ideas both for making war and declaring faiths – have circulated between societies, they have:

“upset the cohesion of some societies much more than others, making them vulnerable to internal breakdown, and to takeover by others. So a second propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force) has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under the same ruler) has been the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road. (After Tamerlane, p. 23) [my emphasis]

These assumptions lead into a remarkable narrative of contending empires competing with different resources and visions of “modernity”. This story is very different from the accounts of the rise of the West that dominate the economics schools of the world, and seep into the accounts of the globalised world and post-war international order by journalists. Darwin’s story is remarkable for making clear how open the future was to these contending empires, and in a way how late the moment of European domination came. In contrast to complacent assumptions about the pillars of Western thought or the genius apps of Western civilisation (Niall Ferguson), Darwin tells how:

“In practice, and for reasons that we are far from understanding fully, for almost two centuries after 1750 it was North West European societies (and their transatlantic offspring) that mobilised [resources and people] fastest and also coped best with the social and political strains that being mobile imposed. Far-flung empires, and a global economy shaped to their interests, were to be their reward. (After Tamerlane, p. 27)

But that reward was not a permanent prize, not a pillared temple of Western vigour and superior intelligence. One of those far-flung empires – the British Empire whose empire was made of private enterprise, of commerce, Christianity and civilization and whose dominance in the nineteenth century was powered by cotton, coal and capital – would discover in the 1950s and 1960s that it was no longer a world power on a par with the USA and the USSR, and it had been eclipsed by its transatlantic offspring in the bipolar world of the post-war international order.

Another of the far-flung empires – the United States – would draw some stranger lessons from the history of empires. Like a millenarian visionary, it would believe that it had made a decisive break from this tainted history of imperial rule. Darwin is not fooled. Empires are still empires when they are not ruled as the Romans did, nor as the Europeans. Darwin relates the bare facts – the commercial presence, the cultural influence of global media, and more than 700 military bases in over 130 countries of the world. The post-1945 American system of international order was thus imperial in all but name. It was the empire that dared not speak its name, and yet believed itself to be the “indispensable nation.”

Like its imperial ancestors and rivals, the American order owed to chance and conflicts its decades of dominance. “It was the Second World War that made the United States not just the world’s largest economy, but also its strongest. It was the global cold war that made it the world’s greatest military power. These were the assets with which American entered the ‘globalized’ world at the end of the century. (p 504)”

Darwin concludes his great book with some very different reflections on our globalised world than the gospel-preachers of the international financial order. “The economic regime to which we have grown used in the last decade and a half represents an extraordinary moment in the turbulent history of the global economy,” Darwin writes. “It was produced by an earthquake as dramatic as anything in the world’s modern history.” (p 504) The geopolitical collapse of Soviet power and China’s embrace (after Deng Xiaoping) of a market economy created massive new markets. At the same time dramatic changes in transport (air travel and the container revolution) and communications (the Internet and digital communications) created conditions for remarkable growth and integration of economies worldwide.

It also drove a rebalancing of wealth across the world. “The great divergence in wealth and economic performance between the Euro-Atlantic West and most of the rest of Eurasia has given way instead to the ‘great convergence’, which should if it continues restore the balance to the rough equilibrium of half a millenium ago in the next fifty years.” (p 504)

But economic integration is not a bulwark against the building of empires, states and cultures with distinctive values, attitudes, institutions and ideologies. These long-standing human propensities may well surge back in response to the free movement of goods and the dominance of commercial elites. Since I take a long view of the moulding of human cultures and empires, my money is on these deeper drives making a comeback and remoulding our international order in ways that we cannot yet predict.

And is it not this resurgence of difference and diversity, this expression of divergence from the views of the Washington consensus, the Hollywood celebrities, the European technocrats, that we are seeing unfold in the unpredicted events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump, a more assertive China, a more assertive Russia, the dream of a resurgent caliphate that ISIS exploits? Contrary to Wolf then, a reading of After Tamerlane will open the future to good possibilities and bad, but certainly to no one international order, no one set of remedies to cure the ills of the “West.”

Darwin concludes his great book, finally making clear the precise meaning of After Tamerlane, in a final section entitled Tamerlane’s Shadow, with more sober, telling judgements on the constant breaking apart of dreams of a new world order.

“Perhaps this is the point. It might well be true that we are on the brink of a great transformation – in geopolitics, economics and culture – at least as far-reaching as the Eurasian Revolution of the late eighteenth century. If this is so, it can hardly be doubted that its impacts in different parts of the world will vary enormously.”

Rather than a fairytale story of ascendant beliefs in liberal democracy and globalisation, Darwin offers a deep historical understanding of how our world came to be as it is in its confusing disordered state. “The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex.” (p. 505)

And this requires some scepticism towards the apostles of the market and pop culture. “Their effect has been not to homogenise the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade [in the 19th, 20th and 21 st centuries, I might add] have often looked forward to.”

So Darwin sees some similar discontents in a broader and deeper perspective than the worries of the liberal press.

“What we call globalization today might be candidly seen as flowing from a set of recent agreements , some tacit, some formal, between the four great economic ’empires’ of the contemporary world: America, Europe, Japan and China. For them and for all other states and societies, the challenge will be to reconcile their internal cohesion with the disturbing effects of free competition. The strain will be great; the outcome uncertain. But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or perhaps more precisely – in the shadow of his failure. (pp 505-6)

The havoc that we see about us is not caused by “false solutions, born of disillusion and rage,” but the unravelling of empires adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence.

The Tiger’s Eye closes for the last time

The great Australian historian or writer, Inga Clendinnen has died.


Image Source:

There is a moving obituary by her publisher at Text, Michael Heyward, over at The Australian.

There Heyward quotes Clendinnen saying that her turn to writing in response to her life-threatening illness “liberated me from the routines which would have delivered me, unchallenged and unchanged, to discreet death.”

Her books are exemplars for me. Her writing is so lucid and so insightful about human psychology and culture. She respects formal genres, but writes beyond them, with a graceful grief for the loss of formal well-written academic scholarship. They take good parts of history, memoir, essay, anthropology, and serve the reader on a quest to imagine all the possibilities of being human.

As a tribute to this great thinker and writer, who I wish I could emulate, let me quote from her essay. “The History Question: who owns the past? (2006).

“The most assured historians reveal their moral vision in everything they do: through tone, the sequencing of topics, the interspersion of comment, the selection of particular moments for deeper inquiry. That is why my most engrossing aesthetic/intellectual pleasure from words on the page, excepting only poetry, comes from watching a master historian at work. It is a preposterously ambitious enterprise, trying to make whole people, whole situations, whole other ways of being out of the dusty fragments left after real lives end, but that is what the best historians set out to do.” (p 55-56)

I have written elsewhere about Clendinnen’s masterful account of the first encounters between the first Australians and the Europeans who arrived on one small part of their shore in 1788 – Dancing with Strangers. I have yet to read her great book on the Aztecs, which preceded her illness, but often think about the themes of Reading the Holocaust, which she wrote as a non-specialist after her illness. This work is especially important to my own reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Close to the end of that work she writes, in response to the conflicting emotions stirred by a photograph of an act of violence from the Holocaust:

“An awakened, outraged sensibility demands systematic inquiry… it is not enough to loathe the perpetrator and to pity the victim, because in that scene they are bound together. We must try to understand them both.” (p 206)

So she goes on to say “only disciplined, critical remembering will resist the erasure of fact and circumstance effected by time, by ideology, and by the natural human impulse to forget.” And then with a graceful turn, so characteristic of Clendinnen, she turns to the words of Wislawa Symborska, frankly admitting she had only recently discovered her with her Nobel Prize award, and with her poem “Could have” ends her great essay on the holocaust, with the observation that Symborska “says much of what I have been trying to say over these many pages in as many words.” (p. 207)

So, let me end this elegy of sorts with the same poem, whose kindred spirit has guided me and perhaps also this great tiger of the mind whose eye has finally closed against the world.

Could Have (Wislawa Symborska)

It could have happened

It had to happen

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Farther off.

It happened, but not to you.


You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

Alone. With others.

On the right. The left.

Because it was raining. Because of the shade.

Because the day was sunny.


You were in luck – there was a forest.

You were in luck – there were no trees.

You were in luck – a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake

A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant….


So you’re here? Still dizzy from

another dodge, close shave, reprieve?

One hole in the net and you slipped through?

I couldn’t be more shocked or


Listen, how your heart pounds inside me.

Ivan’s Singer


Image Source: Franz Riss Skomorokh in a village, wikipedia

Noone knows for sure how Ivan the Terrible died. The Tsar of all Russia, Grand Prince of Vladimir and Moscow and all the rest, died in 1584, but how we do not really know. The uncertainty, together with the availability of scientific methods, led to the exhumation of his bones from his grave within the Cathedral of the Kremlin that houses all the bones of the fallen Tsars, except, of course, the last Romanov.

There is an account of his death from the unreliable commercial adventurer, Jerome Horsey, but it is an eyewitness account, which is an uncommon thing in the history of the death of kings. According to Horsey, Ivan the Terrible who suffered from multiple ailments and was a believer in all kinds of magic and religion, called for precious stones to be brought to his private chamber. He placed coral and turquoise stones on his body and declared to his private court: “I am poisoned with disease; you see they show their virtue by the change of their pure colour into pall; declares my death.”

Ivan then spent the last hours of his final day with the comforts of his doctor and his alchemist, which were comforts he had denied thousands upon thousands who he listed in his sinodiki (prayers for the dead, listing the many names of his victims, which Ivan sent to monasteries in the deranged grief that followed his murder of his son and heir). He took a bath and there “made merry with pleasant songs as he useth to do.”  Ivan had always loved the singers of his court, the skomorokhi, who sang ballads and ribaldry and performed clowns. They had roots in peasant and even pagan culture, and were suspected of fomenting heresy and disrespect by the Russian church.

Indeed such was Ivan’s love for the skomorokhi that as part of perhaps his most infamous act – the sack of Novorod and the massacre of its citizens – he captured all the loved and artful skomorokhi of Novgorod, and after using them to shame the insubordinate Archbishop of this city, still too proud of its religious and republican traditions, carted them off to Moscow. Russell Zguta’s Russian Minstrels: a history of the skomorokhi (public library) identifies at least one of these skomorokhi who would later serve Ivan for over 20 years, indeed most likely till the day of his death.

Was it one of these captive artists of this perfect monster of power who helped Ivan approach his death, stained with sin, but merry with song? I like to imagine that one of these skomorokhi became the cruel man’s most loyal singer, and so found in captivity, like much art does, a comfortable life. But such a lowly singer does not appear in the next scene of Jerome Horsey’s account of the Tsar’s final moments.

Returning to his bedchamber fresh from his bath and in new linen, the Tsar called for a chess board. Beside the bed stood the two rivals for the Tsar’s favour – Boris Godunov, who would uniquely later become Tsar, despite not being a part of any dynastic family, and the sly and surly drinking partner of the Tsar, Bogdan Belsky. Would they have been the Tsar’s chess opponent – it seems odd indeed. But perhaps it was the singer, who like Roy in Bladerunner, used a game of chess to confront his maker?

Then Ivan suddenly fainted and fell back, and now the confusion and omissions of details in Horsey accounts demand the imagination. The apothecary was sent for some usual rememdies, and the doctor, and the confessor. A strange scene of rivals in power standing alone with a minstrel clown before their suddenly vulnerable terror. And in these moments, Horesy writes most enigmatically of all “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.”

So the great biographer of Ivan the Terrible Isabel de Madariaga wonders: “Was Ivan murdered?” (p 353) Not poison. But there were motives: with Tsar in disarray with grief and madness and sorcery; his war plans ruined; his own dynasty brought to the edge of extinction by his rage-filled impulse to kill his own son.

Madariaga forms the cautious view the Horsey’s strangling was a spasm or suffocation of a heart attack. But I see another possibility. There in that room, the captive artist finally struck out at the domination of power and terror. Too late of course; far too late for all the dead souls whose fate the singer did not celebrate; too convenient, but is that not the way of all patronage art, which imagines it seduces power, when power controls its every step? So I imagine, in the black spots of history’s recall, that the moment the tsar fell back, and panic filled the room, his late chess opponent, his loyal skomorokhi, seeing his power wane, reached across the board and strangled the Tsar to death, while Belsky and Godunov looked on and did not intervene. Moments the two rivals conspired together to take the sad and broken life of Ivan’s Singer, and we can only begin to know of this drama because the clumsy Horsey let slip one stray word – strangled.

The many cradles of civilizations (list)

Civilizations and natures

From time to time, I am tempted to be a prophet of a doom, and like Cassandra abandon myself to “the awful pains of prophecy… maddening as they fall” (Agamemnon); but something in my temperament, holds me back to a more tempered and sane view. History is neither progress nor complete decay. In some times, the archives do burn; but manuscripts are saved from the fire, and cultural life finds a way to go on. There are always losses, which I mourn, and there are so many splendours to celebrate and gardens to cultivate.

My favourite wise companion in maintaining a sane and generous view of our global history is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In people and in civilizations, he writes:

“vices and virtues mingle, in the greatest saints, and in the most politically-correct common rooms. For every good intention, there is a frail deed: each provides the standard by which the other is measured. Civilizations, compared with other types of society, certainly have no monopoly of virtue. But a true pluralist has to relish the diversity they add to life.” (Civilizations (2000), p 30)

His experiment in a new way of writing a universal history of civilizations is remarkable for its wit, the range of its allusiveness, and its compelling experiment: to write all history as historical ecology. Civilizations have no common characteristics, but share a process: the effort to transform the natural environment. Humans, unusually, if not uniquely, among animals, have populated all parts of the earth, all types of environment and climates. Our history is inseparable from these many natures – and here too Felipe Fernandez-Armesto insists food is central to the human story, as our most daily and intimate encounter with nature. And, “wherever humans can survive, civilization can happen.” (p 27)

The list: 17 cradles of civilizations

So, in CivilizationsFernandez-Armesto tells the story of how civilizations have adapted, transformed, and remade 17 natural environments. Only a few of these belong to the classic story of the cradles of civilization, and in many of these environments, he celebrates many little-known treasures worth preserving from destructive fire. Here they are complete with his evocative chapter titles, and some brief illustrations of how the world can be explored with this enigmatic balloonist.

The Waste Land (Desert, Tundra, Ice)

1. Ice Worlds and Tundra (The Helm of Ice). The Sami of Arctic Scandinavia created a civilization from the great herds of reindeer. The reindeer supplied most of the needs of life, and indeed their name, jil’ep, in the Nenet language means life. These ways of life were recorded in Olaus Magnus’ Description of the Northern People (1555), the “unacknowledged work of genius” of a Christian bishop who, in voluntary exile from protestant Sweden, travelled to the North to convert pagan souls but still stooped to understand the twenty forms of snow described by the sami.

2. Deserts of Sand (The death of Earth). There is the tantalising mystery of the Garamantes in ancient times in the Fezzan in the Libyan interior, and speculation that the modern day nomads of the Sahara, the Tuareg are their successors. The Tuareg use an alphabet which is very similar to an ancient Libyan writing system, and is used magically, transmitted by women, and to cast spells on household objects, but not to record the ballads and stories of war spoken by the men. Tuareg is an Arabic term meaning abandoned by God; they call themselves Imohag or free men. They continue to practise their martial code,  fighting for Qadaffi and in Mali.

Leaves of Grass (Grasslands)

3. Prairie and Savannah (The sweeping of the wind). Where we learn of old Mali, near the upper reaches of the Niger, and headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, a great trading state controlling the passage of gold, and access to the great market and scholarly city of Timbuktu. Here Ibn Battuta described the majesty of Mansa Musa’s court.

atlas catalan image with mansa musa

Image from The Catlan Atlas (1375) showing Mansa Musa holding a globe made of gold. Biblioteque National, Paris

4. Eurasian Steppe (The highway of civilizations). In 1034 the scholar-administrator and poet, Ou-Yang Hsiu, advocated standards of merit, and, in response received the reward that was at hand for the powerful who ran patronage networks in the bureaucracy. He was exiled to Yi-Ling at the mouth of the Yangtze gorges, where he observed the remoulding of Szechwan. He sought a conservative revolution by instilling the “perfection of ancient times” through reforms to the examination system, and he and his like advocated the true, humane diplomat’s policy – “If indeed Heaven… causes the rogues to accept our humaneness and they … extinguish the beacons on the frontiers, that will be a great fortune to our ancestral altars.” (p. 120)

Under the Rain (Tropical Lowlands and Post-Glacial Forests)

5. Post-Glacial and Temperate Woodlands (The Wild Woods). On the Northern shores of the Great Lakes, the Iroquois built distinctive social spaces, the longhouse. The Iroquois built these longhouses, Fernandez-Armesto notes in a small piece of efflorescence of the cultural drive, out of elm, not for practical but aesthetic reasons.


6. Tropical Lowlands (Hearts of Darkness). In the jungle or rainforest of the Peten region of Guatemala was the great Mayan city of Tikal, in which despite the profuse growth there was monumental building from about 400 BC, and inscribed names and memorials of kings from AD 292.

Image source: UNESCO

The Shining Fields of Mud (alluvial soils in drying climates)

7. The Near East [if you live in Europe] (the lone and level sands) Where Fernandez-Armesto takes us to the “the garden of the Lord” that used to exist at the ancient city of Jericho, back eleven millennia ago when it looked over an alluvial plain and not a salted sulphured desert.

8. China and India (Of Shoes and Rice) Where we meet the gentleman archaeologist, Charles Masson, stumbling on the ruins of the Harrapan civilization in 1826, and fooling himself he had rediscovered one of the lost cities of Alexander the Greek.

The Mirrors of Sky (Highlands)

9. Highlands of the New World (The Gardens of the Clouds). Before the Incas, at a vast height, fed by maize and potatoes, lay Tiahuanaco and Chavin de Huantar, a place of pilgrimage thousands of years old.

10. Highlands of the Old World (The Climb to Paradise). We encounter the isolation and the martial culture of the New Guinea Highlands, itself an independently evolved place of agriculture. Here in the 1980s a Kerowagi elder tells an anthropologist interviewer: “We thought no one existed apart from ourselves and our enemies.”

The Water Margins (Seas)

11. Small Islands (The allotments of the Gods) The wonder of Polynesian navigation is told, including the remarkable map produced by the navigator and holy man, Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook.

12. Seaboards (The View from the Shore) Here we learn of the mystery of the sea peoples who raided Ancient Egypt, the Vikings and Phoenicians, and navigators of the Atlantic Rim, including the old Celts who edged out to the outer British Isles.

13. Maritime Asia (Chasing the Monsoon) We rediscover Palembang on Srivijaya, which prospered on Chinese trade for sandalwood and frankincense. Surely proof that wealth has always been built on “experiences”, and the material economy has always been saturated with symbolic significance.

14. Greek and Roman Seaboards (The Tradition of Ulysses) “In spite of the unique contribution made by the ancient Greeks to the rest of the world, we should beware of idealizing them, as so many historians have done in the past. What was most enduring in their heritage was, in its day, the most eccentric: Socrates was condemned to suicide; Aristotle was driven from Athens and died in exile.” (p 425) So true; we create legends from shadows.

Breaking the Waves (Oceans)

15. Oceanic Civilizations (Almost the Last Environment). Fernandez-Armesto retells Ibn Battuta’s travels across the Muslim Lake of the Indian Ocean, and points to the regularity of the monsoonal wind-system as the basis, if such a metaphor is possible for a wind system, of the seafaring traditions of the Indian Ocean. His awareness of the direct effects of varied wind systems on the history of exploration and global exchange is also the basis of one of his many aphorisms: that in the history of the world there should be less hot air, and more wind.

16. Making of Atlantic Civilizations (Refloating Atlantis). Where with deep scholarship of exploration and navigation, he points to the many attempts to launch sea-borne empires in the fifteenth century. What distinguished the Western European seaboard’s creation of the Atlantic civilization was, despite all the founding myths of Western civilization, the accident of being in the right place, so having access to favourable winds and currents.

17. Atlantic Supremacy and Global Outlook (Atlantic and After) In this last chapter, he contemplates the limits and limitations of the Western Civilization floated on this Atlantic environment. So, he zeroes in on the “bewilderingly paradoxical” twentieth century, with superb flowering of culture, creativity and freedom, matched by the most terrifying destructiveness. “It promised so much and betrayed so many. The big mystery of the twentieth century is: why did civilization yield? Why, in other words, did progress fail?” (p 543)

It is an awkward question to end on, and the basis for what may be a true conservative argument, that our values can never be firmly based in progressive beliefs, since progress is an illusion. They all misrepresent a more chaotic experience of change, full of loss and gain. And this means that faced with the many difficulties that our societies and cultures encounter we need to avoid the willing delusion that we are moving with the spirit of the times, and turn to our homes and gardens, and flawed traditions and treasured archives, and take care of them.

So Fernandez-Armesto concludes Civilizations, in a paragraph that resonates with the themes of this blog:

“After all the disillusionments with which the history of civilizations is studded – the triumphs of savagery, the bloodlettings of barbarism, the reversals of progress, the reconquests by nature, our failure to improve – there is no remedy except to go on trying, and keeping civilized traditions alive. Even on the beach and in the shingle, il faut cultiver notre jardin.” ( p. 566)



Coming back late from the Hyacinth garden

Böcklin_In_der_Gartenlaube_1891.jpg Image source: Böcklin: In der Gartenlaube, ~1891, By Arnold Böcklin – “Von Anker bis Zünd, Die Kunst im jungen Bundesstaat 1848 – 1900”, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1998, Public Domain,

Is there a muse more poorly treated in modern culture than Clio?

We forget. We lose the art of telling the stories of history in all their intricacy. We seek to judge and condemn, identify and parade, rather than understand and look at the ruins with curiosity. We raid the same old valley of stories – “Western civilization” or George RR Martin and the War of the Roses? – over and over, and neglect the greener fields on the other side of the valley. And Clio’s name – I guess like so many other muses – has become a brand for yet more commerce, even advertising awards.

Sure there are exceptions – Inga Clendinnen and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto are just two historians who write in a way that does celebrate Clio. But perhaps we should not be surprised.

Life, even in the mythos, did not turn out so well for Clio. After offending the goddess of love, she was passed off in some loveless marriage to some mortal king. Her only son wounded and died, and from his blood sprang perhaps this muse’s greatest gift to the world.

So whose spirit are the old couple grieving for in garden pavilion?