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.
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.