Ancient Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

I: “The” Ancient World

 

 

 

My wife and I have just made a visit to Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, a modest form of the Grand Tour. In times past I might have referred to those places collectively as “The Ancient World”. Now I see “the” as narrow and inadequate. Other worlds exist which are just as ancient, while yet others persist that are far more ancient. All those old worlds carry the authority of origins. They too precede, and give rise to stories and cultures that inform humans to this day. 

 

 

 

What I now see is how these particular places we’ve visited are sites of ancient event and story that locate me within a particular strand of the human story. That strand formed in the Near East, before fructifying and spreading widely; it informs what might be called the Western Mind. So this present visit helps me to locate my understanding of myself within its first sources.

 

 

 

 

What do I find within this section of Antiquity? I find  ruins, remains, fragments. I find beauty, elegance, imagination. I find creation and destruction. In short I find History, more of it than I can morally bear, more than I can contemplate with any comfort. To give but one example: just today, on the road from Messina to Taormina, I encountered a towering landscape rising high above the sea. On precarious hilltops perch picturesque villages, linked originally by ancient roads. Rome built those roads – Ancient Rome. In Taormina itself Annette and I labored up to a ridge to view a splendid Greco-Roman theatre, constructed in the three centuries that straddled the start of the Current Era. 

 

 

 

Even today the roads that trace that coast are a feat of engineering. Even a contemporary theatre built into those hills would amaze the eye. But these are ancient; they were built before machinery and mechanization. Those glories were built by slaves. The slaves were captured or they were bought. They worked until they could work no further. No Occupational Health and Safety regime protected them, no Worker’s Compensation recognised injury and loss. The slaves worked and they died. Those roads, that theatre, all are soaked in human blood.

 

 

 

 

Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, all, we might say, chockers with history, all truly splendid in their legacies to the western mind, are all actually weighted with their stories of suffering. It is hard for me to look upon the glories untroubled by tremors, echoes. Every petty Ozymandias came, saw, and built his self-memorial. All came, killing, killing. Here died the Canaanite and Amalek, there the Jebusite, here those slaughtered by Rome, those killed by Crusader, those by Goth, those others by the Inquisitor, those by pogrom, and those – my particular people –untermenschen, sacrificed to the glory of the Third Reich.   

 

 

 

History made me. I mean my mind was built on old stories. Travelling to historic sites, I find, can unmake me. My spirit cries out to History to stop. But History does not stop. In heavy boots it trudges on, trampling, trampling. I look about, seeking some relief.     

 

 

 

 

II: Country

 

 

 

 

I live in Australia. Australia made me. Here I grew in freedom and equality, here I absorbed those values as norms. Instinctively I assumed these to be universal entitlements of all humans. It was easy to love life and to love being Australian.

 

 

 

While my body and spirit grew here, my mind was drinking from exotic wells of thought and belief. Those were the ancient wells of Israel and of the broader Western World. I came to middle age believing myself to be Western. Over the last decades of my life in Australia I’ve come to know how radically incomplete is an Australian self that draws solely on those western influences, and on that chunk of antiquity. I was late to earn how life in Australia offers me older stories, stories of this land that formed me. These are stories of country. Does country not invite me to learn and to claim – where I can – some patrimony in this far more ancient Ancient World?

 

 

 

 

Only a freak of time and place combining could provide a life that would begin in this land at the hinge of the middle of the last century. That life has been a freak of privilege, a life untorn by war on our own shores, a life of secure food and shelter, of free education, of civic freedoms. (To be sure, such a life of privilege would be enjoyed only by the whitefeller child, the unstolen.)

 

 

 

 

Such a life might blind one to the reality of human experience elsewhere and in elsetime. I am a child of that generation, blinded by blessings.

 

 

 

III: A New World

 

 

 

In a companion essay I have described the Land of Israel as a locus of struggle, a place of vigorous, often violent religious contest, a strategic crossroads between continents, in many senses a land located in a valley of rift. Contest has visited the land since the earliest record. Contest persists to the present; and always the land exacts a toll of blood. Its children are heirs to story, to glory and to pain. In short one can hold that land, I might say, only by memory 

 

 

 

In Australia my generation is learning how we held our land by the extinction of memory. The old joke went, the problem with Europe is it has too much history; the problem with Australia is it has too little.

The point was we were too young, historically, to know ourselves. But “too little history” was both callous and a canard. Of course Australia had plenty of history, more in fact than Europe, too much to contemplate. So we refused to remember. Instead we created an Australian Genesis, dated 1788. We saw no story of prior order, we looked back only to that hinge in time when Governor Phillip raised a flag. We built an image of Oz, of God’s Own Country, colloquially, Godzone. But Godzone won’t work any more. God knows Oz is cracked in its foundation and needs a rebuild. The crack is there to see, it’s not subtle, it’s white and black.

 

 

 

Our visits to the ancient lands of Israel, Greece and Italy have helped me to see Australia’s true history as normal. This turning of my mind might be termed eucalyptic. Everywhere I went I was struck by the sight of gumtrees, heartwarming, domestic, defiantly assymmetric. Not for the first time these trees brought me comfort. Time and again they deepened thought. These far-away lands grew normal trees! My musing mind leaped sideways: perhaps Australia too might be a ‘normal’ country, a country like others, a place of painfully complicated stories, of glory and gore admixed. 

 

 

 

Normal histories tell of struggle, of contest conducted in blood and pain, of possession and dispossession, of enslavement, of massacre, and not rarely, of genocide. Normal history is made of microbes and their epidemics, of good intentions, of moral blindness, of women stolen and raped, of stolen children, of slavery and its commercial manifestation in human trafficking. Normal history, too, tells a story (often hidden) of the planet striking back at its occupants. Where now is Herculaneum, where Pompei, where indeed, is Gondawanaland?

 

 

 

 

Travel, they say, broadens one. Sometimes, I’ve found, it deepens one uncomfortably. So tempting, to recoil, to contemplate the darkness with historic fatalism: history is just like nature, bloody in tooth and claw. What can we do? It’s always been like that, it won’t change. Sorry, but it’s normal. Scorpion talk.

 

 

 

Against the clamour of expediency it’s hard to hear the call of honour, decency, morality. In Australia even the cry of the climate, which grows ever more desperate, and which appeals to self-interest, is ignored. You have to really listen to catch a still, soft voice.

 

 

 

 

Forgive and Forget?


Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”

“OK.”

“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”

“And?”

“And I’m ashamed.”

I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.  

“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”

“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”

“What started? What never stopped?” 

“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”

Ahhh. 

I had no words.

 

At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”

“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”

 

 

In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.

My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing. 

Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence.  Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?

 

 

My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.

 

 

Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him. 

 

 

The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?   

 

 

The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.

 

 

 Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.”  How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?  

Peak White

These observations might anger the reader, or alarm her. Possibly they’ll gratify someone. I’ll be sorry if I upset you.

At some quiet moment recently Australia reached peak white, reached it and left it behind. That’s the observation that I make. The notion dawned on me late. I might have been asleep.

The Australia I was born to was pretty uniformly white. Although I grew up in the country of the Wiradjuri people, I saw few black faces. In my home town in the Riverina, two black boys turned up at my school a couple of times. They owned no shoes. After two days they crept away and I never saw them again. By contrast, when my ancestors arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, white and black populations were more evenly balanced. Over the following one hundred years, by means more or less shameful, white largely erased black.

Around 1970 I started working in a green village of white people on Melbourne’s edge. Here I became the family doctor of a small girl with caramel skin. She grew up to be a beauty. I had known her for nearly twenty years before she spoke to me of her lineage. The child was Australian royalty incognita, descended from one of the first great indigenous footballers. But I was not to tell anyone. During that same decade, in the United States, Black was becoming Beautiful. And after a while Australia’s indigenous people too began to declare their origins. From the start of the sixties we’d been going to school and university with students from Asia. Successive governments relaxed the White Australia Policy and finally dismantled it. Government and Opposition agreed to agree: Australia would open up. And the world entered, first Asia, later Africa. Australia entered the world and the world entered Australia. So Australia, a black country that became a white settler country, developed into a variegated society.

Over that wider world white has always been a minority. Anomalous then for white to exercise hegemony in so many places and for so long. It’s over now and white should have no complaint. Of course white will fight to protect its advantages. History tells us that struggle will be rough and rude.

What will follow – now the wide world is past peak white? It would be naïve to expect power to practise charity. And why expect peoples, long oppressed by white, to respect the rights of their oppressors? We’ve seen the experiment of democracy take root – sometimes deep, often shallow – in many countries. Few of those non-white countries enshrine human rights after the recent Western example. India comes nearest perhaps. Why expect a dominant China or some ascendant Asian Tiger to be more merciful to us once they overtake and possibly colonise us, than the white West was in the times of its dominance – before the peak? (Of course, here in Australia, we’ve been an economic colony ever since Kellogg made our breakfast, Kraft made our foods, Nestle fed our infants, Xerox made or photocopies, Kodak took our photos.

When change comes people feel threatened. Anxiety begets aggression, aggression begets retaliation. At the level of local communities, neighbours begin to distrust each other. Community suffers. And we can feel confident that the hatemongers in public life, refreshed and encouraged, will monger away at their rodent work. Meanwhile we’ve developed the sweet tooth of America; eating the whirlwind, we achieve American obesity and diabetes, which we treat with medications from Big Pharma. Now the Pentagon directs our defences, while Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the whole gang exercise hegemony in the tax haven they create in Australia. Who can suggest we are not colonized already? With their mass and their electronic power and expertise, who would be surprised when we become a colony of Asia?

If this makes you feel gloomy I can offer one striking example of hope trumping fear. That example occurred in the Republic of South Africa where, under Mandela, the black majority gained power. White had long resisted black rights; there’d be chaos, a bloodbath was inevitable. Black assumed power through the ballot, not by bullets. Although plenty of disorder followed, the feared bloodbath never took place. The explanation? I think Nelson Mandela was the explanation.

Humanity will need more Mandelas.

Done Because We Are Too Menny

I think maybe we are done; humans I mean.

I am a baby boomer. My generation is used to the success of antibiotics. We contracted tonsillitis, we saw the doctor and he – it was almost always a he – prescribed penicillin and we recovered quickly. We didn’t develop a strep pneumonia, we seldom developed a post-strep kidney disease or heart disease.

Same story with ear infections: penicillin cured them.

We had an ear abscess, we had antibiotics and we won.

That might have been our first mistake.

We used them so often and so promiscuously they stopped working. How long is it since penicillin – plain, old fashioned, shot-in-the-bum , narrow spectrum penicillin – worked for an ear infection?

Yonx.

Because we killed off the susceptible ear infecting germs and bred resistant ones.

Those days of successful antibiosis are going. In fact they have probably gone.

My generation never saw siblings dying from whooping cough or double pneumonia. Parents gave birth to a litter and raised the full complement to adulthood.

That might have been a second mistake: we enjoyed the survival of the second-fittest.

My grandparents’ generation – growing up in the nineteenth century – lost numerous siblings to infections. It was natural. It was not unexpected.

That was the way in the battle between germs and humans through all history. All too often, the germs won. It must have been unbearably sad.

In the ‘seventies we were visited by herpes. For a while herpes won: we said herpes is forever . Then came acyclovir, also known as Zovirax. Herpes skulked off with its tail between its legs – our legs, actually.

In the ‘eighties we were visited by AIDS: incurable by definition. But bugger me (and that might have been how some of us contracted it), anti-retrovirals slowed the virus, survival lengthened and now the disease is a disease, but not universally a death sentence.

Horrible horrible hep-C is in retreat too.

So much (and so little) for the immortal killer viruses.

Meanwhile bacteria are doing better. Go to hospital nowadays for surgery and there is a good chance you’ll emerge with a multi-resistant resistant staph. All the perfumes of Arabia, all the antibiotics of Big Pharma won’t touch those staph.

Go to Asia for traditional sex tourism and there’s a good chance the gonorrhoea you bring back will resist all my antibiotics.

We have had our successes. We have seen off smallpox. The only copies of this germ live in research and germ warfare labs. Humans have it in our power to extinguish the smallpox germ utterly. The germ that killed many many more Australian Aborigines than shooting and starving blackfellas is abolishable. And replaceable. Whenever we change one population we affect another. Take antibiotics for your sore sinuses today and your vagina catches fire with thrush tomorrow.

I happen to be a human. I am on the side of humans in this epochal struggle. But nature does not seem to take sides: she seems to love the earthworm, the spider and the king brown snake precisely as much as she loves the species that gave rise to Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King and the Beatles.

Nature, unlike the writer, is not sentimental. She wishes species to survive. She loves us all equally. So fondly does nature love the plasmodium (I refer to the parasite responsible for malaria, still the greatest killer of humans), that she raises the temperature of the infected human to a maximum in the evening, at just the time that mosquitoes take their evening meal. The anopheles aegyptii drink the infected blood that superheats the human skin.  Frequently the infected person expires, but such is the grace of nature, the plasmodium species survives such deaths and is transmitted by the mozzie into the next human it stings.

(If you read any of the works of plasmodial theology, you will understand that their god created humans and mosquitos alike as expendable vectors for the plasmodium, which was created in the image of that god.)

It is possible that nature – implacably fair, resolutely unsentimental, big picture regarding nature – having observed the humans that have bred so successfully that we overrun the earth, has decided that she must reduce our numbers.

Perhaps we humans, like the boy in Jude the Obscure, are done because we are too menny.

Sorry.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 30 January, 2013.

(Of course, if I truly anticipated the imminent eclipse of my species, would I claim copyright?)

The title is a quote from Jude the Obscure, a deeply depressing book by Thomas Hardy. Only go to Hardy if my little article has failed to spoil your life or your day. My piece is cheerful in comparison.