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.

 

 

 

 

I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.