Monday, April 28, 2008


The tired mantra “History repeats itself” is of course absurd. History is not a cognizant being that can “repeat itself” or even possess an “itself.” What this hackneyed trope reflects however is a limited observation of what could arguably be called a fact. Historical events are invariably necessitated by an aggregation of factors culminating in an unavoidable outcome. Clouds form with a peculiar density of elements and the appropriate temperature and rain, or snow, falls. Minerals within the earth undergo a necessary pressure of stress and weight and angle, and they melt, cool, and form other distinct yet predictable elements. Herbivore animals, in the presence of drought and famine either die or begin to mutate into predators and omnivores.
The empirical observations of the world are remarkably sublime, elegant, and predictable where even mutations and discrete teratomas within a body, a larger system or an entire society may only develop and evolve from available local elements. What humankind, with the exception of a few schools of scientific philosophy refuse to consider, is that we too behave in exquisitely narrow ranges of possibility given the aggregation of conditions, ideation, resources, and biological determinants of our species. Of course until the European “Enlightenment” the role of history was aesthetic. Since then history has still been an art and not a science but the discipline has tried to cut and paste certain pieces of rhetoric onto it to give it a cheap veneer of an empiric science. But it is a useful tool, if approached from enough angles to get as clear a bead on the matter as possible. Just as the nefarious “Marco Polo” was completely discredited when he failed to appear in the Chinese Imperial court journals, journals known for meticulous recording of minutia, particularly as relating to foreign visitors. There are mention of various missionaries by full name and even the names of their servants. No mention of any “Marco.”
History is a funny thing. At the same time the Pope was issuing a description of Attila as having horns and a tail, Priscus, the Byzantine court “historian,” scribe, and the only person to write a description of the man based on first hand meetings within him, and whose accounts are still extant today, describes a passionate chess player of modest skills, awkwardly attempting to fit into a court ill-suited to his rustic and politically inexperienced ways, but who won everyone over with his voracious appetite to learn of anything new and different to his experience. Which account will the individual reader find compelling and convincing? Attila with horns or the “axis of Evil,” history is not repeating itself but social, economic impetus to growth; similar factors create similar results regardless of time and place. Progress is a myth, part of the sparkle and glow of the campfire of our ancestors that we tend against the encroaching darkness, but the darkness never left town. We build bigger and better tools, but we can still slide with just as much abandon and predictability back into the chaos of intellectual barbarism and fetishistic localization. The “angry villagers with torches” syndrome. Now the angry unlettered villagers with torches are inhabiting major US cities. Did Marcus Tullius Cicero penning reams of elegant sarcastic prose and social commentary on what Roman society matrons were wearing at parties that season from exile on his country estate suspect that in a few of hundred years the powerful social class he occupied would be all but wiped out and exiled en masse to a few raged estates while new and voracious classes of “outsiders” elbowed their way onto the stage and took their turn at the mike?
History does not repeat itself, but historians generally cite the demise of the Roman Empire as predicated upon these key factors, themselves all inevitable outcomes of their own trajectories of momentum.
1) Too large an expanse of geography to be controlled by too few who operated as autonomous overlords with no responsibility to the localities ruled and their people’s. Rape and pillage and send the fruits back home.
2) The Roman military, once an aristocratic class, needed to enlarge beyond that class and increasingly employed mercenaries loyal only to a single general and not the state who were motivated by personal gain only. Prior to this period returning veterans were given land to start new farms and families. This practice was abandoned and soldiers were increasingly consigned to perpetual military careers, thus investing nothing in the state.
3) Massive losses in war debt caused a collapse in the military’s ability to pay soldiers in the field and provide food and supplies creating a desperate scavenger mentality among an increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable army.
4) Open infighting and competition among Roman military factions and generals.
5) Undertaking of increasing campaigns of conquest without the manpower or resources to complete them and for reasons solely to bolster a dying economy on the Italian peninsula. Seasoned war-hardened men with no prospects come home to destabilize the peace of a civic society back home. Dead soldiers don’t come home to feed their families and tend their farms to create food and other goods and millions flood into the cities consigned to crime of all kinds. Millions of farms abandoned and turn to waste. Bread and Circuses. Rise of prostitution, increase in illegitimate poor. Collapse of economy. Rise of violent combative games and blood sport for diverting rising dissatisfaction among increasingly uncontrollable growing classes of destitute and illiterate.
6) Wealthy classes begin abandoning cities and isolating themselves in elite enclaves outside the cities.

History does not repeat itself, but the same chemicals mixed in the same precise quantities, temperature, and order of mixing, will invariably create the same result. History does not repeat itself, but the Six Points listed above without exception describe the conditions of the US military today. Can Man or the individual man or woman consciously “write history” or create it? With rare exceptions, no. The British seem perhaps to have diverted the Socialist revolution that Marx predicted for England by ushering in modest reforms in its, by our standards, monstrous labor practices. Five year olds were no longer allowed to work sixteen hours a day in the mines to the point where their bodies were warped in strange configurations that shortened their lives and limited their work capacity. But in many among the extreme poor, this loss of a working member of the family created worse financial hardships, often driving women, vast numbers of women, into prostitution, thus increasing the proliferation of disease, and the unemployable sick.
Women were allowed to bring infants to work. But they were not allowed to cry and scream, so they were placed in baskets beneath the sewing machines, perhaps a hundred in a room, their small faces wrapped in rags soaked in laudanum to silence their cries. Who did these children grow up to be and what was their impact upon British society? In the US child labor laws are extensive. Yet many Americans grow and remain perpetual children all their lives, never learning how to create a means of sustenance for themselves beyond the subsistence.
Where is all of this rant and screed going? Simply this, in CORPSE: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint the Time of Death, Jessica, Snyder Sachs describes the vastly elegant and complex multilayered society found within the folds and gases of the rotting human corpse. This society is wholly interdependent, its strata and their functions are empirically observable, and minutely discernable along a trajectory of time into past, to the moment of death, and the point of ultimate decay. This whole process hinges upon one of several species of blowflies and the larvae it produces. There are many other occupants and citizens necessary to this banquet. They all show up at a very specific and necessary time within the process, their arrival is necessitated by other necessary events immediately preceding their arrival, and their presence and function makes possible and necessitates other arrivals and other successive events in this process. All of these conditions lead to predictable and observable, quantifiable conclusions in the decay process. No variations, no discrete artistic mutations, no anomalies occurring outside the aggregation of components and their interactions.
All of this is a sublimely functional mechanism of the world processing itself and all the elements within itself. It’s also really quite beautiful once you get past the initial conditioned response to such things. But what Sachs and other researchers have discovered that is perhaps most interesting in all of this, is that the components and elements of initial decay and the breakdown of healthy organisms are already always present within life. If a person is shot and killed, the gases and chemicals of decay and dissolution are already at work before he hits the ground, while they had not yet begun the moment before. There is much, much for us to learn from this. Not to change, but to be the witnesses of it. All things in the observable universe, including the individual human being, the race, the culture, the species, the old stars in the heavens that explode on camera to delight the eyes of scientists, all things manifest a cycle of coming into existence, maturation, period of progeneration, of sterility, of decadence and decay, (the real definition of the word decadence) and the white hot last flush of existence, and extinguishment. It’s remarkably simple.
Why does the old Sufi not come down off his mountain and pick up a shovel and a pack of seeds, or a Kalashnikov, or a stack of handbills and a bullhorn? Is it because he has grown too tired, or jaded? Is it because he feels powerless to effect the grim realities of a beleaguered world? Is it because he has run out of ideas? Is it because he IS old and the exciting new undreamed of world is even now gathering its forces on the horizon and it’s beyond his capacity to even “get it”? No. It is because the darkness of his Solitude has shown him Its Truth. That maybe God, whatever He really is, created all of this just to explore His own unlimited possibilities, and He is, as they say, just playing with Himself. Those that know this, seem always to find a very great and exquisite joy in this. Once they get over the sadness.


Julio Rivas said...

Hi, Zanuyay!

You remind me of Doris Lessing, and of ''Shikasta''...
Couldn't agree more with you in the analogy Roman Empire - U.S. empire, and remember how shocked an American cousin of mine was back in 1977 when I told him that the U.S. was already running downhill.
If a miracle does not avoid it, I'm afraid we'll be seeing a rather nasty war (or wars) very very soon (pessimistic me!)
Re your last paragraph: it sounds to me too pessimistic (even for my standards).
And, in any case, the ''solution'' to this Space/Time riddle of ours lies beyond Time and Space --it was never meant to be otherwise.
In spite of all appearances, Zanuyay, we are all in Good Hands :)
All best wishes,

Julio Rivas said...

Hi again, Zanuyay!

And again on that last paragraph, you may find a different view in Buber's retelling of the Hasidic story ''The fiftieth gate'':

Once Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev met a man hurrying along the street, looking neither to the left nor to the right. When he asked the man why he was rushing so, the man replied: "I am after my livelihood." "And how do you know," continued the rabbi, "that your livelihood is running on before you, so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind you and all you need to do to encounter it is to stand still - but you are running away from it."12

"You have passed through the fifty gates of reason. You begin with a question and think and think up and answer - and the first gate opens, and to a new question! And again you plumb it, find the solution, fling open the second gate - and look into a new question. On and on like this, deeper and deeper, until you have forced open the fiftieth gate. There you stare at a question whose answer no man has ever found, for if there were one who knew it, there would no longer be freedom of choice. But if you dare to probe still further, you plunge into the abyss. "So I should go back all the way, to the very beginning?" cried the disciple. "If you turn, you will not be going back," said Rabbi Barukh. You will be standing beyond the last gate: you will stand in faith."13

Zanuyay said...

Julio ...

I just saw these posts. Very interesting indeed. But of course, I believe we are in very good and capable hands, despite how some may view it. I just like to prod people. ;)

Julio Rivas said...

''A Lantern of Imaginings
And inside a Lamp...''

Zanuyay said...