essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I had a dream last night. Five little purple men from the planet Tralfamadore, representing the Universal Health Organisation Hortatory Orbit (UHOHO) appeared in the sky and broadcast a message to everybody’s mind that the human race was being terminated. The Amorphians in the Sirius cluster were on the point of developing a reliable form of time travel, and the human race was forecast as using that life form as a water source in the year 2889, seriously affecting its development. The little purple men had documents showing that humans were classified a non intelligent life species and disposable, and had difficulty understanding this was a clerical error. After defusing 15 nuclear bombs from Egypt, Iraq and Hawaii, which they at first put down to unexpected bad weather, the Tralfamadoreans agreed to allow time for humans to file a Further Ongoing Ontological Logistics Report with UHOHO.
Then my dream turned into a nightmare, as various organisations claiming to represent humanity squabbled among themselves as to whom should make the Report. Several wars later, and after a concerted effort to defuse several terrorist groups who wanted to use the crisis to draw attention to their cause (those who could remember one), it was agreed that submissions would be sent to three high ranking UNESCO officials, all, strikingly enough, from the USA, Sebastian Burn, Michael Pillage and Augustus Rape, who would represent humanity to UHOHO. After some preliminary discussion about forming a firm at some stage, as all three men were lawyers, this group decided to employ the public relations company of George Light and Rudolph Sweet to inform the public of progress being made and to defuse any panic felt at the situation. To this end Light and Sweet organised 24 hour broadcasts of football finals on every available public television channel. Unfortunately this only confirmed the Tralfamadoreans in the idea that the Non Intelligent and Terminated Classification was the correct one.
There was much discussion as to how humans could be presented as an intelligent and non harmful life form, but to each suggestion there were drawbacks. Progress in health care, it was pointed out, had resulted in a stagnant public health system and overpopulation. Likewise, technological development had resulted in ecological crises threatening the future of the planet. Development of sustainable natural resources had led to continuous war in resource rich areas as rival governments had fought to control them. Developments in democracy and human rights had led to control of a handful of rich industrialists and a state in which the majority of most populations had their rights recognised, but were unable to exercise them. The most advanced developments in computer and communications technologies had resulted in unprecedented barriers to communication matter, and there were thought to be a growing number so detached from their deteriorating environment to be considered delusional.
In the end it was decided to draw up a list of great men, whose achievements would justify the future existence of the species. There was some consternation as it was discovered this would indeed be a list of great men, as no women had been allowed to present their insights and discoveries. Nevertheless the list was drawn up, one man per century. Objections were overruled from Asian, African and Native Americans that all those chosen came from western Europe. Leonardo from the 15th century, Shakespeare from the 16th century, Newton from the 17th century, Mozart from the 18th century, Freud from the 19th century and Einstein from the 20th century. But more consternation was felt as it was realised each of these, as well as being devalued in their own lifetime at some stage, had acquired a reputation with posterity which devalued them even more. All of them, every one, had feet of clay.
I felt a bit upset at this, as these were men I happened to admire, so I woke up, made a sandwich and had a cup of coffee, thought a bit, then went back to sleep and switched on the dream where I had left off.
Leonardo (1452-1519) had been used by Ludovico Sforza of Milan to produce light entertainment at events such as marriage feasts, was fired as military engineer by Cesare Borgia, had an equestrian model destroyed by the soldiers of Charles VIII in target practice, the Last Supper partially destroyed by the friars who commissioned it (they knocked out a section to make a doorway), experienced great difficulty in being paid for any of his work, and eventually found refuge at the court of Francis I, where he mourned that he had so much to do and so much left undone. In fact the only people who appreciated Leonardo in his lifetime were other painters, who swiped all his ideas to use in their own work and made him by far the most influential painter in history.
Since his death Leonardo has made it on to calendars and tea towels, and several of his paintings are venerated in a very solemn manner. Somebody stole the Mona Lisa and since then it has more protection than Fort Knox, which gives the impression that the only attention it gets is the wrong attention. As a scientist and inventor Leonardo is thought of as a precursor to 20th century developments, and almost as good as us. Freud found evidence of his homosexuality and Oedipus Complex (he was prone to these discoveries and had lots of them). One historian of painting has decried Leonardo’s influence, preferring instead to demonstrate his own expertise by detailing the originators of the techniques Leonardo popularised, and suggesting Michaelangelo was far more influential (even though his influence led mainly to the dead end of the Rococo). Most of all though, we think of Leonardo as a procrastinator, someone who didn’t finish things, including publication of his scientific findings. Despite his astounding accomplishments in so many diverse fields, can we promote Leonardo as a justification of humanity? What’s so great about procrastination? We’ll have to consider that (later).
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a popular poet whose patron, the Earl of Southampton, was involved in the Essex conspiracy. Shakespeare quickly switched to the low prestige world of popular theatre where there was a boom going on and a lot of money being made. Highly successful as a writer of hit melodramas, Shakespeare enjoyed the esteem of his fellow actors with whom he had formed a co-operative theatrical business and whom he had made very rich as well as himself. He eventually retired to his hometown of Stratford, showing no interest in publishing his plays which he probably regarded as rent payers (unlike his early poems, published with meticulous care in his youth). In his lifetime known primarily as a good businessman, Shakespeare enjoyed continuing popularity with succeeding generations, which was an embarrassment to later writers, most of whom thought his plays very badly written and only staged them after extensive rewriting.
It was Voltaire and other French writers who first ‘discovered’ the literary worth of Shakespeare, even though they had to explain his apparent uncouthness and inability to write Alexandrines. Soon the English adopted Shakespeare as their greatest writer (I mean, if the French think so…) and he came to be part of English patriotic armour, trotted out at every crisis by the more conservative. But a rival school developed, claiming Shakespeare never existed, and that his plays were written by someone else. ‘Evidence’ for this claim was found by carefully excluding any examples of poetic or dramatic achievement, focusing instead on minor literary, political or geographical subtexts which it was claimed Shakespeare could not have known about but which (insert name of rival claimant here) could have. Yet another school claimed to have discovered sources to Shakespeare’s plays in earlier ones, and said he was a mere play joiner. However, the conservative majority flock to Shakespeare’s plays today, despite the fact they are written in an archaic English which playgoers can’t understand, and are full of contemporary slang and topical references needing a growing army of commentators to elucidate. So can we advance Shakespeare as a justification for humanity, just because he is revered but not understood? Let alone that he might not have existed, or been a 16th century equivalent to a TV scriptwriter with a buying public in mind? Would the Tralfamadoreans buy that?
Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is a revered 17th century mathematician and physicist, one of the inventors of the calculus and a pioneer in optics. His theories in optics were derided by contemporaries, and Newton became as secretive as Leonardo da Vinci. His discoveries in calculus resulted in an acrimonious rivalry with Leibniz, and his theories of motion applied to planetary bodies were so mathematically abstruse that few contemporaries could understand them. Newton, like Darwin, made his impression on posterity by means of popularisers of his discoveries and findings. Science was only one of Newton’s activities: for many years he was fully occupied as Master of the Mint. His major preoccupation, at least in his later years, was an attempt to co-ordinate Biblical and Egyptian chronology, in the manner of Velikovsky, using astronomical data. He felt he was able to demonstrate that the prophecies mentioned in the Old Testament had all been fulfilled. Another absorbing occupation was alchemy, the search for the Philosophers’ Stone.
Newton was in reality only posthumously a great scientist, as his ideas took hold of later generations. The 18th century in particular found his picture of an orderly clockwork universe appealing. There is no doubt that Newton revolutionised scientific thought, as Aristotle had before him, yet like that philosopher, Newton became so influential he eventually served as a brake to scientific development, and a revolution was required in the late 19th century to unseat him. Do we want an unsociable crank whose ideas only became influential after his death but which eventually proved stultifying to further research to represent humanity?
At this point the debate was interrupted by a group of clergymen, all clad in leather jackets and riding motor bikes and with a marijuana joint prominently displayed in their pocket, in an effort to get street credibility. They were joined by a group of middle class mums, all Buddhists. Both groups agreed that spiritual leaders best justified the achievements of humanity. The names of Jesus Christ, Moses, Muhammad and Gautama Buddha were mentioned.
There was a little trouble with the Tralfamadoreans at this point, as they refused to allow mythological personages to be representative, as there was no provision of this category on the FOOL Report form.
The Christians had to admit that evidence for the life of Jesus dates only from 100 years after his alleged death, that his teachings are the standard Judaism of his day and not original and that the religion founded in his name by Paul of Tarsus posits that he is god. Hence he cannot represent humanity. Evidence was forthcoming that disputes as to whether Jesus was god and man, god, or man, whether Christianity was monotheistic or polytheistic, whether men could think for themselves or should let the Church think for them, whether dissent should be allowed, whether savages and women have souls and should be converted, had all led to bloody conflicts, and even the precept that you should love your enemies had led to conflicts, as ‘enemies’ may or may not include members of other faiths. Unfortunately during the hearing of this application the clergymen themselves fell into dispute, switchblades were drawn, and the group had to be hustled out of sight onto a football stadium, where the crowd were delighted to see them, thinking that due to a time warp they were seeing a group of gladiators sent to entertain them.
Moses received short shrift from the Tralfamadoreans. No evidence whatsoever for his existence, the Ten Commandments standard proscripts for societies of that time and region. Evidence was advanced that the Jewish people, convinced they were the Chosen People, had indulged in a reign of terror in Canaan, and later in a series of bloody wars with the reigning power of Rome, none of which was spiritually creditable.
The Tralfamadoreans were initially more impressed with Muhammad. However, it was pointed out he was both a great spiritual leader and a great general, and this they could not understand, as war according to their thinking is immoral.
At this point the Buddhists advanced the claim of the Buddha to justify humanity, pointing out that his spiritual teachings had given solace to millions. The Buddha however fell foul of the FOOL Report form. One school of follower claimed he was mortal, that there were in fact no gods, that freedom from illusions brings peace and detachment. Another school claimed Buddha was a god, that he performed miracles, that there were many gods and demons, that they could be controlled by magical rites. That both schools were followers of Buddha seemed impossible to the Tralfamadoreans, who refused to consider Buddha, pointing out that writings about him did not begin till several hundred years after his existence and that he could be considered as mythological a being as Lao Tsu.
The debate was growing violent, as members of all faiths felt justified in attacking those with differing beliefs rather than merely following their own faith’s precepts or presenting their case. The UNESCO representatives, Burn, Pillage and Rape, felt it best to terminate it and return to cultural figures.
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) first came to note as a child prodigy, performing his own compositions from the age of five at all the courts of Europe. Just what this meant in terms of the appreciation of his contemporaries for his achievement was shown by the fact that when he grew up he had difficulty getting a job. Mozart excelled at all musical genres popular in his day. Although he was rarely original, he gave enormous emotional depth and unexcelled technical competence to the works he composed so prolifically, and was met with blank incomprehension by the churchmen and nobles who employed him to produce background music to their small talk at court functions. Breaking away, in a truly revolutionary way, from the court patronage system that constrained him, Mozart became an entrepreneur, offering a series of brilliantly successful concerts of his piano concertos to Viennese society. However, he was underfunded, and eventually suffered a cash flow problem, and was in dire poverty when he succumbed to an infection and died at the age of 35.
Mozart was forgotten at his death, a failure. But throughout his life and after it he earned the esteem of other musicians, his music became popular again, and now he is the most heard of classical composers, eclipsing even the bombast of Beethoven’s compositions in number of performances and recordings. However, for those not listening, Mozart’s music, because of small orchestras and early instruments used such as the harpsichord (actually the fortepiano) sounds a little akin to music box music, at least to those with ears attuned to Beethoven’s Choral or Bon Jovi. Mozart’s music has come full circle and is seen now as undemanding and pleasant background music, played low in restaurants and used on film scores. Mozart is often dismissed too, as improvident, someone who frittered what money he had away, an awareness of his financial difficulties that followed the relative affluence following his move to Vienna. Besides, his letters have survived, full of simplistic and obscene schoolboy humour. Combining all these facts we have arrived at the notion of Mozart as immature, undeveloped, a lightweight, a sad judgment on the most intelligent and gifted man of his generation. Surely we don’t want a spendthrift and writer of light occasional music to represent humanity?
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a Viennese doctor, one of the founders of psychoanalysis. He was interested in dreams, humour and other phenomena he thought revealed hidden mental processes. Freud scandalised both public and professional contemporaries by proposing sexual processes as primary stages of human development and their inhibition as cause for neuroses and psychoses. Later he evolved a structural map of the subconscious made up of id, ego and superego. Briefly associated with Carl Jung, Freud became very critical of Jung’s ‘charisma’ which he thought not detached and scientific enough. Freud himself made great play of the use of scientific method in his findings, but later revealed much of his theory was based on an intuitive understanding of his own subconscious processes.
Freud divided psychologists and doctors of his own day into pro and anti camps, and the division has continued down to the present. Some contemporary scientists are bitterly critical of his methods and findings, suggesting they themselves are shocked by Freud’s emphasis on sex. While it can be argued that Freud was one of the most influential thinkers who ever lived, it is also true that if he was right, it was for the wrong reasons. Critics delight in finding logical errors, biased use of evidence, concealment of facts and other irregularities in his work. Yet few poets have been as insightful. Every critic and faultfinder, as well as every ardent supporter, pays involuntary tribute to the power of his ideas. But do we want a con man with an obsession with sex to represent humanity?
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a theoretical scientist who spent his time in the unsuccessful search for a unified field theory which would explain everything in the universe, and which was pretty similar to the search for god. Many of his theories, including that of the equivalence of mass and energy (E = mc2) were later proven by other experimental physicists. Einstein was critical of many social trends in Germany, left the country when Hitler came to power, and his one involvement in politics let to President Roosevelt authorising the Manhattan Project. Einstein later advocated nuclear disarmament.
Einstein’s theories, or ‘thought experiments’, on particle physics, quantum mechanics and gravitation, not only influenced modern physics, but created it. He is thus one of the major figures in human thought. At the same time he made physics an arcane subject, because instead of explaining perceived reality, his theories suggested that these perceptions were in fact illusory. The outstanding fact about the General and Special Theory of Relativity is that it should be so clear and so simple, yet so difficult to explain (except to physicists). It could be argued that Einstein is so important a scientist because his discoveries took place in a period which is for many reasons an age of uncertainty, where long cherished facts and principles have been found to have no substance. A scientist whose results were uncertain and who disdained experiment, a visionary responsible in part for the results at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the man is ambivalent, a questionable representative for humanity.
Are we best represented as an intelligent species by a procrastinator, a best selling melodramatist, a antisocial Biblical crank, a spendthrift writer of light program music, a fraud engaging in bogus science or an absent minded visionary? If these men achieved something worthwhile for the human race, why do we want to see them in such an offhand way? Could we be alternating overestimate with underestimate? How intelligent is that?
This concerned Michael Pillage in particular, the eldest of the UNESCO representatives. In fact he was so disturbed by the negative reputation the men selected as justification for the continued existence of humanity had acquired that he suggested their claim be dropped in favour of some other criteria. Challenged to give an example, he proposed the saintly Dr David Livingstone, who had spent so many years seeking the salvation of native Africans. Burn and Rape were horrified. Africa was not to be mentioned to the Tralfamadoreans. For every African saved there were a thousand killed or exploited. The atrocities in the Belgian Congo. The slave trade. That seven million men and women had been bought and sold, over a period of 200 years, brutalised and treated worse than animals was not going to impress the UHOHO. Let alone that the outstanding achievement of civilization could well be seen as the selling of worthless glass beads for payment in gold and ivory tusks, or later equivalents, to people so honourable the practice never occurred to them as fraudulent, a process still going on today and known as capitalism.
The Tralfamadoreans themselves suggested looking at a village near Cayambe, Ecuador, where a landslide had demolished the home of Miguel Feliz and his family. He, like all the villagers, was engaged in banana cultivation, and all earned a pittance. Most were Indians, with virtually no possessions. However, following the collapse of the house, all the village men had voluntarily taken a day off work to labour in building a new house, a wooden frame with adobe walls. When it was completed, every villager had arrived to present a gift, a worthless item which nevertheless they needed for their own use. Bowing low, they offered the gift to the new householder with a ritual phrase, “May this house prosper”. As the village was on an earthquake fault line there was every chance it would collapse again, but the villagers were hopeful. The UHOHO representatives thought this generosity was a sign of intelligence on the part of mankind, and besides the FOOL Report had a provision for its reportage. Burn, Pillage and Rape vetoed this suggestion. They felt to be represented by ignorant savages was to ignore the great achievements of human civilization, even though they were having problems pointing out what these were.
The UHOHO representatives were getting nowhere, and asked for advice from their seniors on Tralfamadore. The answer was instantaneous. A red neon lever materialised, clashing quite horribly with the purple aliens, with the words Preserve at one end, Terminate at the other, written in Ancient Gwryllic, the universal language of the universe (though the Gwrylls were no more). The lever moved of its own accord to the Terminate end. I woke up, getting out of there as quickly as possible. No more humanity, I thought. I wonder how the planet, and its animals, will like that?
No more fishing trips, with old schoolfriends remembering the days. No more groups of girls giving support to the one with the philandering husband and the broken heart. No more in depth discussions as to whether Bon Jovi is as good as he was when we were younger or what’s wrong with the last three Star Wars films. No more exaltation as Red Sox scores on closing time. No more holding parties so we can invite that new girl at work. No more showing off at pool and sending the ball to the floor. In Izmir, groups of dignified Turkish men won’t be smoking non stop cigarettes, drinking coffee so bitter it doesn’t need a cup, not saying much but somehow asserting honour nevertheless. No more tracing the Songlines in Arnhem Land. No more meaningless remarks about the weather, or saying “How-are-you-I’m-fine-how-are-you?” to neighbours. No more giving directions to lost souls who don’t understand a word we say and go off cheerfully in the wrong direction. No more jogging while smoking a cigarette, dieting and still driving to the shop on the corner, cutting out dairy foods while bingeing on chocolates. No more starting the car for the middle aged woman who promptly stalls it again. No more foul ups at ten pin bowling and derisory remarks about poor eyesight and how it occurs.
What a pity nothing could be said to justify the continued existence of humanity. Oh, whatthe, it was just a dream.
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.