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.
I'm listening to The Commentaries of Julius Caesar on audio right now. Some thoughts on the book:
1. This is the second time I've gone through the book, and it's much more understandable. The book is hard to fully grasp without background.
Caesar is an immensely clear writer, but there's 10,000 things left unsaid in his book. If you don't understand the background of his life, and the general scope and plan he had -- and the general machinations of Roman society -- then a lot of actions don't make as much sense.
I've gone through enough Roman history now that I understand the backstory about how Roman politics and military works -- tribunes, consuls, governors, the immunity to prosecution while in office yet retroactive liability to prosecution after leaving office, how the various Popularii leaders had been executed or murdered, how indebted most of the aristocratic politicians became to run for office, the state of the equestrian class, troop makeup, etc.
To really get the most out of the book, you need to know something of the political and financial situation of Caesar, his men, and their general political party. It's a good read without that, but a fantastic read with it.
Professor Ellery wandered the halls in a daze, moving on autopilot the way that a non-lucid dreamer does while asleep. He somnambulated from one room to the next, moving purposefully, never rethinking, always in motion, until he came to the room he was searching for: his own office. There, on his desk, lying in a circle of moonlight framed by the parting clouds, was the vial he was looking for. He picked it up, opened a drawer and retrieved an empty syringe in a carrying case, checked to make sure he had all of the components necessary, and strode out of the room. As he was leaving it, a thunderous explosion boomed from nearby, and the window shattered inwards. He closed the door just in time to keep the pieces of broken glass from colliding with him, and strode forward purposefully, not looking back even for a moment. He was driven. He was a man with a plan, a man in love, a man with mad, intense purpose, and nothing would keep him from his mission.
Jim hobbled out of the room he formerly thought of as Professor Rice’s office, and now thought of as “the Glass Pit.” He held tight to his crutch in one hand, and had clutched in the other the scrap of paper. He found himself in a study hall, a long, empty table with chairs on all sides, used for review sessions. He sat down and finished reading the paper while he picked glass out of his hair.
Adam woke up with Molly standing over him, her hands on her hips. He had a not unpleasant view of her from this angle, and he was glad she wasn’t quite so “forward thinking” as to wear skirts. “Come on, up you get, doofus,” she said, reaching down and grabbing his hand. He looked down at the rubble in the hallway and let her help him up. “You’ll have to pay for what you did here,” she said. He was looking down and away from her face while he was standing up, but as she said that, he looked up and into a gaping, shattered head, her face completely destroyed, her brains leaking out of the front of her face and onto their clasped hands.
Jim sat, struggling with the translation of the paper. “A most ancient… sorry, no, elder, charm or sign, to use to stopper/prevent/block the movement through a passage/gate/portal by anything… not of the old world? No, that’s old and not of this world. That’s interesting. It almost looks like the Greek translator had trouble with the Arabic here. God I wish I knew Arabic, maybe I should take that next semester,” he muttered to himself as he pulled Adam’s gift from his pocket and laid it next to the parchment. The parchment clearly had a depiction of the amulet on it. It was very precisely the same, in all possible ways, down to what looked like scratches and dings in it. There were a few extra marks on Jim’s necklace, but it was also the case that every mark on the one the parchment showed was also on his necklace. The material looked like pewter. If that was the case, he should be able to squish it pretty easily. He pinched it between his fingernails, and no dent appeared. Okay, well, that means it has a low lead content, it could still be pewter. It certainly doesn’t look like steel or silver. And if the dates on this thing are accurate, it would have been a pretty big deal o make it out of steel. He put it between his molars and bit down on it until he felt like he was about to do damage to his teeth, and then took it out and wiped it on his sleeve to dry it off. No marks at all.
Why am I doing this? he thought. Sure, this thing is probably a (remarkably skillful) reproduction, but even if it is, why am I trying to damage it to prove that? And what if it’s not? This is probably a valuable artifact, and it might be of interest to the University. In fact, I know it is, Professor Rice had this paper on his desk! I could show it to him when the break is over, I’m sure he’d be fascinated. So why was I trying to destroy it? What was I afraid of?