Tuesday, 17 June 2014

It ain't necessarily so...





All stories have a beginning.  The story is not as old as time, for time is considerably older than any story.  It is, however, a story that begins before history began. It begins in a world far different from ours.  It begins with people living in that world and making sense of their lives.  They lived in a very different way to us now, here, in Europe.  For there were no cities, no roads and not even the smallest farm.  And it was in this world where human beings lived, loved and died for the most of the history of our species. Then something happened.
There is a lie at the root of our civilisation.  Or if not a lie then at least a grave misapprehension, albeit one promoted and enforced by rulers and armies.  It began in the past, not that long ago, and it has since spread its poison throughout the world.  Nobody is immune from its effects - from the loftiest dignitary in the West to the indigenous inhabitant in the rainforest.  All are affected if not infected by it.  It is hard to say when this lie first began to be believed, or who first told it, since it is clear that it was already present when the first words were written by scribes in Sumer and what we know as history began. All that went before was prehistoric.  And before was a very long time indeed.  Until recently, it was thought that modern humans emerged in Africa around 200,000 years ago but recent finds in Israel indicate that there were likely to have been modern humans there as long ago as 400,000 years.  It is highly possible that other findings may push the date even further back.

Whatever the exact figure, it is clear that the 6,000 or so years of recorded history represent a mere fraction of the human story.  A blip.  And yet it is presented to us as if it represents the whole.  From it have been derived many assumptions about what it is to be human.  Last night, I watched a television discussion programme and one of the speakers said that there always have been wars and there always would be.   To be sure, any reading of history will confirm his statement.  Always, however, is a long time.  It is certainly longer than 6,000 years.  In another debate, he might well claim that the desire to accumulate private wealth is a basic universal human drive, citing the failure of the communist experiments of the 20th Century.  I would not wish to argue with him that those experiments were anything other than disastrous failures.  This, however, does not take account of cultures in which the notion of sacrosanct private property appeared to be unknown until contact was established with other cultures, primarily European. 
 
In the mid 17th Century Archbishop Ussher calculated that the creation of the world was on the nightfall before 23 October 4004BCE.  Although much derided in later years, this represented a remarkable feat of scholarship at the time and one not out of step with the thinking current in his day.  No less a figure than Isaac Newton thought it to enough of a worthy endeavour to attempt such a calculation himself.  And in one sense, it is perhaps still remarkably accurate.  We now know the world was not created on that particular day but it is around that time that, in the words of the title of one of Samuel Noah Kramer’s works, “History Began at Sumer”.   And the history of what we now know as western civilisation is based on the stories collected in that bible that Ussher studied so assiduously.  

It is only in the last couple of centuries that scholarship has moved beyond that bible.  It started with the birth of the science of geology and swiftly moved from this into biology.  Alongside these came the development of archaeology and anthropology.  And the world became much older and much more diverse.   And, for me, far more wonderful and mysterious.  Every year, archaeologists unearth new finds and our picture of the past gets larger and larger.  No longer can the Garden of Eden story hold sway for any other than the wilfully blind.  As well as looking at the physical evidence around us, scholars began to cast a critical eye on the Bible itself.  They discovered it to be not the seamless, revealed, account of the covenants between a god and his people but a collection of writings from different sources, often heavily edited and re-edited, some of which were in direct conflict with others.  Science and Christianity found themselves often at odds and sometimes in direct conflict, with some on each side taking very extreme positions.

Then, in the latter half of the last century a new understanding began to emerge.  Spearheaded by such writers as Merlin Stone, Asphodel Long and others too numerous to mention here, it began to question the basic assumptions of the Abrahamic scriptures.  In doing so, they focussed on the gender of the creator.  And by so doing they uncovered the lie.  It is a profound one, based on an absurdity, maintaining as it does that all creation emerged from the unmediated action of a male god.  The absurdity of this is evident from the briefest of looks at biology.  Sexual differentiation is not universal in Nature.  The vast majority of life forms reproduce asexually and have done so from the beginning of time.  Mothers give birth to daughters and so on.  Even in human beings, all foetuses begin life as female, only differentiating later in gestation.  Some vestiges of femaleness remain, for all men have nipples.

As in human beings, so in creation.  The earliest myths have a female deity giving birth to the universe in some way or other.  This makes sense, for all human beings knew that they emerged from a womb and that this womb belonged to a woman. It is not a huge step to imagine that world similarly had a mother. The Babylonians called her Tiamat, and the universe was created from her dismembered after  she is defeated in battle by Marduk, one of her sons,  A remnant of this myth is found in Genesis, where Tiamat is called “the deep” and the universe is created by a process of division of that deep; earth from sky, land from sea, day from night and so on.  Genesis, however, was written very late in human history and reflects a world view vastly different from that which was held by our ancestors for a far, far longer time.
It is a trait of human beings to create representations of those things that are held sacred by them.  For some, these take iconic form and for others they are in forms of words.  Thus some bow down before a statue while others venerate a book.  Christianity, particularly in its Catholic and Orthodox varieties, has a mixture of the two and there has, throughout the history of the church been a tension between them.  The urge to venerate, however, is constant.  It is seen in every society on the planet today.  It takes many forms.  Some are decidedly secular, such as the devotion shown to pop stars or football clubs, and others more subtle, such as the high towers of the financial industry that now dwarf the cathedrals of western cities. To a large extent, we can gauge the values and beliefs of a culture by its artefacts.  It is to these we must look in order to gain some understanding of the cultures of pre-history. When we do the results are fascinating, giving a picture completely contrary to conventional wisdom.  We see a world with a radically different mindset in which normal human beings interacted with other each other and with the world about them.  We see a different way of being a human being and this has profound consequences for the world today.  Human nature is not as fixed as we have believed. We do not have to continue in the way we have – we can choose another way. 

It is not a way that can be initiated by governments, for they are part of the problem.  All current forms of government are based on the same core set of beliefs.  In her book, Sacred Pleasure, Riane Eisler speaks about two forms of human organisation, the dominator model and the partnership model.  Starhawk, in her works, refers to power/over and power/with when describing these two.  Such a recognition is not new; William Blake, in a different context, speaks of “the prolific and the devouring”.  The Lollard, John Ball, preaching to the people assembled at Blackheath during the Peasants Revolt of 1381CE asked a very profound question:
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.
Although he would perhaps not have framed it in such words, Ball was here contrasting what he believed was the original condition of human beings, partnership, with the way in which his society, and all mainstream historical societies before and since, was structured, domination.  What is really interesting about this is not the reference to the mythological situation in Eden but that despite the rigidly hierarchical dominator society in which he lived Ball could imagine something different as a very real thing.  He had a vision of some other way of being human. 

Ball was not alone in his vision.  It has been constant throughout history, manifesting in the many versions of the Golden Age myth. Radical thinkers and dreamers, poets and artists, preachers and mystics have all spoken of it. All attempts to recreate it, however, have ended in failure, if not total and bloody disaster.  The history of the 20th Century is to a large degree a history of utopian visions becoming state policy and then foundering in genocidal ruin.  Their flaw was that they tried to enact one model within another without allowing for the fact that the enactors were all infected by the fundamental lie which was exemplified in the idea of ex nihilo creation by a male.  Nevertheless the vision of some other way of looking at the world has persisted and has tried to make itself manifest.  Its growth in the real world, however, has been twisted and distorted by the structures, both in the material and the mental worlds, of the ideology of domination, of power/over.  It is somewhat like the distortion of growth that exists in a topiary bush sculpted to form the image of a tank – or a boot on human faces.
Whence, however comes the vision?  Why does it, despite overwhelming evidence of its “impossibility”, keep its hold on human hearts?  How has it survived up until today?  Louis MacNeice, in the dark and ominous winter of 1938 with war appearing inevitable, evoked the dream thus:
... dream of a possible land, not of sleepwalkers, not of angry puppets
But where both heart and brain can understand the movements of our fellows
Where life is a choice of instruments and none is debarred his natural music...

I first read these words when I was around 16.  They spoke to me then and they continue to do so today.   My life has been varied and I have gone through many different stages but certain things have been constant.   Where did this constant conviction come from?  It appeared, and still appears, to me as a dimly remembered memory.  It has been with me for as long as I can recall.  Perhaps it is simply as Wordsworth put it, a memory of childhood innocence:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;

It may be.  But I think not.  There is more to it than that.  Wordsworth was here writing from a platonic perspective and speaking of the soul being imprisoned within the body with the awareness of a previous immaterial existence slowly being erased as one grows.  I can see where he is coming from, but do not think I agree.  Blake, I think, used the image of a prison better when he wrote:
Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.
Both law and religion are human constructs and are not, therefore, part of the natural order of things.  It is not, as Wordsworth put it our birth that is a forgetting but the process of socialisation. We are all, as Bob Dylan put it, “bent out of shape by society’s pliers”.
 
I came of age in the 1960s.  I am of the boomer generation - a child of the immediate post-war - born in the twin shadows of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.   We came into a world, particularly in Europe, that had been militarised to a degree never known before.  We played in old bomb shelters and the dereliction caused by aerial bombing was still evident.  Rationing persisted our parents, still dazed and with their youth stolen, tried to create a new order of plenty – to salvage something good from the carnage.  In this they succeeded to a very large degree.  In the midst of austerity and with the country nearly bankrupt a National Health Service was born and the Welfare State created.  No more, was the dream, would poverty condemn millions to a life of disease and misery.  This our parents achieved.  And we threw it back in their faces as we embraced lives of hedonism and self-indulgence.  We knew and cared nothing for the sacrifices they had made.  We drank the welfare orange and free school milk and were cared for with the latest medicines.  Childhood diseases which previously killed were to a large extent brought under control.   Yet we rebelled and made a virtue of ingratitude.  

That is one way of looking at it.  It is not, however, the only way.  There is also the very real fact that the years preceding our birth had revealed that there was something deeply wrong within the fabric of our civilisation.  Auschwitz and Hiroshima had happened and yet the world continued to perpetuate the horror.  Nothing seemed to have been learned.  Bigger and bigger bombs were created and the combined arsenals became large enough to destroy human life many times over.  And they still persist and proliferate. As I came of age, the richest and most powerful nation on the planet was engaged in a war in a small south-east Asian country.  In the course of this they dropped more high explosives on that country than had been dropped by the Allies in the entire course of World War II.  By the time the US forces left in 1975, 59, 000 mainly young Americans had died and by the time the North Vietnamese took Saigon between 4-6million Vietnamese on both sides had died.  

Since then we have seen the atrocities of Pol Pot, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and others.  Now, Iraq and Syria are being ripped apart by sectarian and ethnic conflict.  It would be tedious to extend the list and, in any case, it will no doubt be added to before what I write is read by anyone else.  The point is that the ideology which enabled Auschwitz is still operative.  This was not the Cold War divide or the endless squabbling in the legislatures of the democracies.  It was far deeper and older than the nineteenth century constructs of capitalism and socialism.  It is, purely and simply, patriarchy and it has been around for a long time.  
But, as explained above, it has not been around forever.  There was a time before it was dominant.  Around 5,000 – 7,000 years ago something shifted and human consciousness underwent a massive change.  After many millennia of our development as a species, human beings decided that one sex was divinely ordained to dominate the other and built power structures to entrench and extend that power.  A dominator society was born and still prevails today, with all the manifest evil that it entails.  We are currently seeing its latest manifestation in Syria and Iraq. How and why this happened cannot be definitively determined but this is not the really important issue.  What is important is that this is not the only way to be.  Nothing I have seen yet has convinced me that we cannot choose for the better.  I amy be a fool, but frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.




Sunday, 8 June 2014

To begin at the beginning...



... is impossible.  The choice is arbitrary.  A couple of months or so ago there was a news report of close to a million- year-old human footprints uncovered by the tide in Norfolk.  Footprints, no more.  Some of them children.  A family group?  A band?  Hard to say.  How they lived and thought, their social system, their beliefs?  Impossible to determine with such evidence.  All we can say with certainty is that they existed and that they were a species of human, probably Homo Heidelbergiensis.  Flint tools and some fragmentary human fossils have also been uncovered nearby and elsewhere in Britain dating back to around 700-800,000 years ago. 
We, or animals very much like us, have been around a while.  A long while in human terms but, speaking geologically, a mere blink.  Recorded history, however, is an even shorter blink- around 6-7000 years.  So the Word, which we are told in John to have been there at the beginning is in fact a very late arrival.  And yet this word, this written word, has come to dominate and define us.  It has colonised our thoughts and limited them to a small range of narratives.  We cannot know what those early natives of Norfolk thought or the stories they told each other around the fire, assuming that they had speech.  What gods and demons populated their dreams and nightmares we can only guess.  We cannot know how they loved and arranged their sex lives nor whether they had kings.  We can only look at them with minds conditioned by the ideas and mores of our own time and place.
It is only 400 years since Galileo was censured and censored  by the Vatican for claiming that the earth moved around the sun and even today a poll in the US reveals that over a quarter of the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth still believe in a geocentric universe.  Such ideas are not confined to the US, however.  A while back, I was walking among the stones in Avebury and overheard a woman tell her children that they marked where dinosaurs lie buried.  It was as if The Flintstones or the hide-bikini-clad  Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC were true accounts of history.  Another image, far from but allied to, the stereotypical blue-collar American families of the Flintstones and Rubbles  or Raquel’s sexy huntress, however, has an even greater hold on our collective imagination,  It is that of Ug and his wife – the former holding a club and dragging his woman by the hair.  Long a staple of cartoonists, it imagines a world in which human life is “nasty, brutish and short” and male dominance is the order of the day.  Nuclear families or rapists’ paradise – you pays your money..... 
The other, older story that we are told is that of a god and a garden, a talking serpent, forbidden fruit and exile from paradise.  Even for unbelievers it is powerful.  It speaks to a sense of loss – a deep nostalgia in the human psyche.  It is a story of alienation from, if not a god, nature and our place within it.  It is a story of the awareness of mortality and the burden that brings.  It is also, however, a story of aspiration, growth and the search for knowledge and meaning.  This was the aspect seized on by Milton in Paradise Lost which closes with these lines:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,

Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Hand in hand they walk, like the ending of a Hollywood movie, man and woman together.  It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see them moving away from the viewer towards the setting sun.   There is a note of hope here- the way is hard but they are moving forward.  Into history.
For Milton, history was providential.  There was the Fall but there was also salvation.  Paradise would be regained.  Alpha would become Omega. The story was written and the ending was known.  The drama would take its course. 
Contemporaneous with Milton’s writing was the formation of The Royal Society and the beginnings of modern science.   Less than twenty years after Paradise Lost, Newton published Principia Mathematica.  Slowly, the story shifted emphasis from Providence to Progress.  In both narratives, however, the direction was the same –onward and upward.  There was a movement from lesser to greater.  There has been much academic thought recently about the myth of Progress but it is safe to say that in the popular imagination it is dominant.  We have gone to the moon.  We have mapped the human genome and dream of beating cancers.    Dire as the AIDS epidemic was and is, it was not anything like the Black Death.  In the West, at least.  Huge, hitherto unimaginable, machines have revealed secrets of atomic particles and powerful space-mounted telescopes map ever-more- distant galaxies.  The human ape aspires ever more to become as omniscient as gods.  In my pocket I can carry a huge library of recorded music and listen to it as I move through the world and communicate readily through the same machine with people in New York, Tokyo or Antarctica.  I sit in my room and have easy access to vast knowledge - and pornography to suit every taste.  I remember the first television we had – a huge machine dominating the living room but with only a 9” screen.  Now I can watch on my telephone when I am not listening to music or talking to friends on it
The Myth of Progress is certainly a persuasive one.  From brute ape to demi-god is its narrative and the evidence is all around.  In describing my ideal home to a friend the other day I stipulated a small place in a forest with an open fire and spring water.  And this is true.  I would love it. I do not want anything grand or particularly luxurious.   However, I then added, “... good broadband connection”.  This new phenomenon has now become a vital part of my life.  

Looking back from this pinnacle, the past seems to be diminution, regress.  From modern I go back to primitive.  I am enlightened – they were benighted.  This is, however, a very new phenomenon.  Traditionally our culture looked back to a Golden Age in the dim and distant past.  It was a time when human beings were in harmony with themselves, the gods and their environment.  For them, progress was not gain but loss.  For the pagan Greeks as much as for Augustine and Milton, Paradise was lost.  For the Christian, however, providential history meant that at some time in the future the Golden Age would be, through the sacrifice of Jesus, regained.  The Fall can be reversed.  But not in this world.
Central to all these myths is the notion that human beings are somehow not of nature.  We are above it.  Whether by eating the forbidden fruit or by discovering how to use fire we are above or beyond the natural world.  We speak of ourselves as not of the animal kingdom and aspire to remove ourselves ever further from it.  This is our fundamental error.  This is the Fall.  There may never have been a Golden Age of harmony with the Universe but our current hubristic belief that we are above nature contain the seeds of an inevitable downfall.  A rude awakening is in store and climate change is but one aspect of it.
It is vital, I think, to remember that we are, first and foremost, apes.  If we forget that, we are doomed.

Friday, 21 March 2014