This passage from the beginning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness struck me. This passage happens on the Thames river - and at the height of the British Empire. Keep that in mind for context, the swamp rivered to as the very end of the world is the Thames -
His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow--"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day . . . . Light came out of this river since--you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker--may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine--what d'ye call 'em?--trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries--a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too--used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here--the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina--and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,--precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay--cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death--death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes--he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga--perhaps too much dice, you know--coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." He paused. "Mind," he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower--"Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."
Amazing how things change, eh? You read about the Roman legions and various officials in Britannia, and it's very possible to wonder what the heck they felt like when they were there. You could interpret it all sorts of ways, but it's fascinating to think that the "end of the world" - Britannia - eventually became the British Empire, with its "The sun never sets on the British Empire."
The Kindle version is currently free at Amazon.
We have a few sayings in common use where I live, which says it all really:
- There is nothing new under the sun
- The more things change, the more it stays the same
- Shit happens (hope that doesn't offend, it is not meant to be offensive but pragmatic)
I see history as an endless natural tide of cause and effect. Force creates pressure and nature abhors a vacuum. The only free will involved in the process seem to be (human) intent. What is of more importance (to me) is whether humanity is still evolving and to what end result. Are we learning from the mistakes of the conquerors of the past or simply repeating these mistakes in new ways with more destructive tools?
I read this passage and I have to think have things really changed as you say? Sure times have changed, people, places, and ideas have changed. But the struggles of the past and the future are all the same.
A few thousand years ago it was ancient armies fighting for vast swaths of land to please some emperor or king with a superiority complex or support an ideology that appealed to his people. Today it's no different, fighting for resources over ideals the will inevitably bring us to the "end of the world" once more.
What I find interesting is how far closer to that end we are today, then in any other point in human history. And as the years continue to pass we inch closer to such a reality. And in a thousand years after the empires of the world today are long past, I wonder if another novel will be written reflecting on such things and how people must have felt during our time?
Such is human nature, the ability to reflect on past events and continue relive the past as if it never happened and the lessons of our ancestors were never learned. I do enjoy writings like this I just wish more people appreciated history instead of ignoring it.
In the year 1853, the Ottoman Empire had been in power for 554 continuous years. Abdülmecid I was Sultan and, shortly into the year, the Albanian-descended Governor of Crete Giritli Mustafa Naili Pasha took the post of Grand Vizier.
Queen Victoria was the Monarch of the British Empire and Lord Aberdeen was her Prime Minister, though the Queen favored one of his rivals, Benjamin Disraeli, as an advisor.
In France, Napoleon III had been elected President of the Republic in 1848, and had dissolved the National Assembly two years previously in 1851. In December of 1852, the Second French Empire was established, with Louis-Napoleon becoming named "Napoléon III, Emperor of the French."
Across the Atlantic, Franklin Pierce was the President of the United States of America and Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War. There were 31 states at that time, and the American Civil War had not yet been fought.
In mid-1853, the Russian Empire started maneuvering troops to key places on the Baltic Sea near Ottoman territories. Hostilities were about to break out into the Crimean War. The primary forces were Ottoman, British, and French fighting the Russians. The war ended with a decisive British/French/Ottoman victory.
Professor Ellery thought of himself as an honest man, though he had to admit to himself that he had just lied to the students. What’s done is done, that’s true, but to say it cannot be undone, that is something else entirely. It is far from certain that what was considered irrevocable in years past must continue to be so in the future. He was aware of recent discoveries showing that a mold - a mold! - might well be able to eliminate most diseases. He had no doubt that one day polio would be cured. These views were not uncommon among learned men. Indeed, in the modern era, to consider anything permanent and ever lasting seemed a sign of an outdated and antiquated world view, or of a weak or ignorant intellect unaware and unobserving of the incredible progress being made in every field of Science, as well as in culture and society at large. The automobile and assembly line had already begun to change the face of the nation’s economy; what learned man thought that their progress would stop where it was now, or stop at the arbitrary borders of nations? None, no one could possibly think such a thing and still be considered a reasonable man. Why, then, did so many of them have their thoughts stop at still other arbitrary borders? What was it about their minds that made them unable to correlate all its contents and follow them to their natural, logical conclusion, and join him in his beliefs and aspirations? Before the invention and discovery of the chemicals used in the embalmer’s arts, the body of a loved one would surely decay as fast as any other meat. But now it could be preserved, almost indefinitely! And it had been demonstrated to the satisfaction of surely anyone who cared to look that electricity, when applied to the limbs of a live man or a dead man alike, made them twitch and leap about as surely as any intentional motion, albeit significantly more clumsily. Who then could doubt that the mind controlled the body by means of electrical stimulation? A motion, a flow of electrons carried from the brain via the nerves to the muscles, made more precise by the tiny size of the nerves and their ability to be layered precisely within the muscles, unlike their crude approximation with electrodes - what more was needed to explain how the brain controlled the body?
What remained, then, was to determine how the mind controlled the brain. Some men, mechanistic, deterministic atheists, of a sort that Prof. Ellery found distasteful, considered there to be no such separate thing as a mind. They thought that what was perceived as a mind was simply the operations of an incredibly complex machine. Their explanations of this he might have perhaps found convincing, were it not for a number of objections he had argued at length with some of them. How could one explain qualia, then? The subjective experience of a mind, which surely did not extend beyond the body during waking life, but which seemed to wander through this world and others during sleep? Who had not dreamed of unknown Kadath, so vivid in sleep, so inaccessible when waking, yet surely no less real than the waking world? Who had not had signs sent to them in sleep, visions of the future, of distant galaxies unseen as yet by waking man, of great alien beings dancing in the darkness to mad, soundless piping? James Ellery had long been fascinated by dreams, and kept a dream journal which he wrote in every morning immediately upon waking. He had started this as a young man shortly before going to University, and had found that after a week he could always remember his dreams, whereas before he had often forgotten them within a few minutes of waking. A few weeks later he had become able to lucid dream-to have dreams wherein one realizes one is dreaming, and is able to control oneself. This seemed to him so eerily similar to the primitive concept of so-called “astral projection” that he felt he had no choice but to read more on the subject. He had attended Miskatonic for his education, in part because he had formed a friendly relationship with some of the faculty, his father being a friend of Dr. Allen Halsey, the aged Dean of the Medical School, and in part to gain access to the locked vaults of the forbidden section of the library, which contained numerous books that he had discovered, in his research concerning astral projection, as rarely but influentially cited primary documents on the subject. Upon becoming a student, he had read all that he could gain access to without arousing suspicion, which to his frustration was not all of them. When he graduated with honors, went to a different Massachusetts university to attain his doctorate, and then returned to Miskatonic as first an adjunct and then tenure track and now full Professor, he had access to all of the books he wished, and plenty of time to read them (thank heavens for hard working lab assistants; he only needed to describe the setup of experiments and then could almost leave them be).
His reading had convinced him fully of at least one thing: that the concept of a “soul” pointed at a real, tangible thing. Tangible may seem like a poor choice of words, but he was convinced it was not. There was a real, actual, physical reality to the soul. Others had done experiments and determined that it even had a precise mass: 21 grams! The soul was not made of the same sort of material as everyday matter. It was not made of protons and electrons. It could not be held in one’s hands. But the soul is hardly the only physical thing that that is true of. Oortz and Zwicky have conjectured that there is a sort of “dark matter”, invisible to humans, incapable of touching ordinary matter, but which still exerts a gravitational pull that can be felt by ordinary matter. Perhaps this is the stuff souls were made of? Professor Ellery was not an expert astrophysicist, he could not say the hypothesized properties of dark matter for certain, but he had consulted with those who were. He had his own theories, as well. If this is what souls are, then it must have electro-magnetic properties. We know already that the body is controlled by electricity, and the body by the brain, and the brain by the soul. This must mean that the soul is either able to exert electrical or magnetic forces (for really, they are the same) on the body, or that the brain has some sort of organ able to sense the soul, and which the soul can interact with it by. But given that the brain, such as it is, seems to be made entirely of ordinary matter, and that surely the brain cannot be directly controlled by means of gravity - if the gravity around one’s head were to change regularly, that would surely be a hair-raising experience! This left either the nuclear forces or the electro-magnetical. The nuclear forces it seemed clear to Ellery were not the ones responsible. Those only showed up either in the molecular interactions of regular quotidien chemistry, or in the unimaginably small-scale forces of the particles making up the atom. These it seemed to Ellery were both too small and too large to be the mechanism of action for the soul. They were too small, they could only affect the very smallest of components in their immediate vicinity, and they were too large - fine control like the motion of electricity necessary for control of the muscles seemed impossible, given the huge amounts of energy needed to break or form their bonds. This, combined with the pre-existing evidence of the fact that muscles were controlled by electricity, led Professor Ellery to the conclusion that the means by which the soul harnessed the body and set it into motion were most likely to be the electro-magnetic forces. And so that was where he concentrated his investigations.
With the aid of some students eager for extra credit, even if that meant being the subject of strange science, he had performed a series of experiments. Though they seemed to straddle the divide between chemistry and biology, he had his tenure now and could do as he liked. Plus, he had other, more mundane experiments being performed by his assistants, and as long as he kept churning out publications at a regular rate, the University didn’t mind what he did. Indeed, his papers soon became so well received that he found himself moving up the ladder, and with the retirement of his predecessor, he found himself Chair of the Chemistry Department. Though he now had almost unfettered freedom and a budget large enough to perform any experiment he wanted, he still kept the true nature of his beliefs secret to nearly all, save his wife Marcia. He knew from bitter experience that talk of astral projecting and of using science to study souls was not well received, in the scientific or theological communities. There were some in the esoteric circles he occasionally visited that took to his work, but they were usually far too ignorant to be of any help or interest to him.
The experiments he performed were as such: he built a series of contraptions which would hook onto a person’s head. There were two types. The first contained electrodes placed in various parts around the head, which, when the device was hooked to the control panel he had developed, allowed for the conductance of electricity throughout the brain. The second device was quite similar, save that it used magnetic field generators instead of electrical ones. In this instance, a powerful, well organized magnetic field was directed through various parts of the brain, again at the control of the panel that he had developed.