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.

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