Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, And The Invention Of History

"Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin.

The “Lost Civilization” theme has cropped up in kindred literary genres, both fiction and non-fiction, since the authorships of H. Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925), C.  J. Cutcliffe Hyne (1866 – 1944), Pierre Benoît (1886 – 1962), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), to name but a few prominent fiction writers.  The theory of a lost Ur-Civilization, usually identified with Plato’s Atlantis, is even older.  The exemplary cases are those of the Swede Olaus Rudbeck (1630 – 1702), the Frenchman Augustus Le Plongeon (1825 – 1908), the American Ignatius T. Donnelly (1831 – 1901), and the Scotsman Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955), all of whom purported to traffic in non-fiction.  In such novels as King Solomon’s Mines (1885), She (1887), and Ayesha (1905), Haggard’s African explorers turn up remnants of Sumerian civilization or outposts of lost Atlantis deep in the “Dark Continent’s” uncharted interior.  Hyne, drawing on Plato’s Timaeus and Critias and adding liberal doses of his often lurid imagination, wrote the fantastic account, in The Lost Continent (1889), of the drowned kingdom’s last days, with vivid descriptions of the events leading up to catastrophic foundering.  Benoît’s protagonist stumbles into an Atlantean redoubt in the Algerian desert.  Burroughs’s most famous character, the “Ape Man,” learns that Atlantis still exists, and is still as wicked as Hyne testified, in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1916).

Rudbeck and the others produced large-scale prose studies alleging to prove that all known historical civilizations, and by extension modern civilization, stemmed (or stem) from a unique matrix-civilization that existed ten thousand years ago – and whose memory has informed myth and legend.  Most “Atlantologists” placed the fabled sunken land-mass in the middle of the namesake ocean, after Plato’s account.  Rudbeck placed Atlantis in the plains around Uppsala, where he taught, asserted that Old Swedish was its language, and “demonstrated” that all other grandfather-languages including Hebrew and Greek stemmed from the ancient tongue of Skåne.

"Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin.
Detail of “Isle of the Dead” (1880) by Arnold Böcklin.

Never mind the magnificent pleasure in Rudbeck’s text: By way of a natural response to such stories and claims, educated people tend to arch their eyebrows and frown condescendingly.  Everyone knows, in the hackneyed phrase, that civilization begins with Sumer, and that the river-valley of the Tigris and Euphrates became the cradle of civilization, roughly speaking, some four thousand years before the present and not so much as a jot earlier.  A few people conversant with archeological discoveries of the 1950s might concede that much evidence for civic society as long ago as ten thousand years – and in Anatolia rather than Mesopotamia – resists dismissal, but the literature on Çatalhöyük, the best-documented of these sites, mostly and stubbornly withholds the “c-word.”  Never mind that if Çatalhöyük resembled anything it would resemble one of those architecturally avant-garde apartment blocks that one sees in modern Montreal or Toronto.  Historians have long since tidied up history and set all the dates.  The professors know what they know.

But do they really know what they know or are they merely being professional such that, like all professionals nowadays, their choler boils over preemptively concerning any idea not fully vetted by the peer-review committee of Soporifica?  Or on the other hand is there not in the imaginations of Messrs. Rudbeck, Spence, Haggard and Hyne, and their kith and kin, something like a profound intuition?  As late as the Nineteenth Century plenty of respectable people, not a few of them holders of university chairs, firmly believed that geological time was only as old as a few thousand years.  The origins of archeology go back only to the late Eighteenth Century.  That science ceased, in fact, to be a genteel form of tomb-robbery much more recently than that.  If indeed one discerned progress in archeology its character would be remarkably consistent.  It would consist of the regular pushing-back of the chronology and the regular confirmation of myth, legend, and intuition, as famously and prototypically Heinrich Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy.  Schliemann provides a case for something else that the open-minded should take into consideration.  Initial skepticism about his claim, that he had discovered Homer’s fabled city, ran strong.  His critics complained of his amateur status because he held no degree.

Had they possessed the term, Schliemann’s critics might have called him a “pseudo-archeologist.”  Martin Gardner (1914 – 2010) seems to have coined the locution in 1950 in the chapter of his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science dealing with topics of Atlantis and Lemuria.  The same epithet occurs today in articles in The Skeptical Inquirer, in reviews of books with titles like Gateway to Atlantis (2000) by Andrew Collins, The Atlantis Blueprint (2001) by Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath, and The Atlantis Enigma (2000) by Herbie Brennan.  Reviewer Kevin Christopher concludes his assessment of those titles and others, couched strongly in the negative, with the observation that “Atlantis continues to captivate people’s imaginations because it offers the hope that lost ideals or some untapped human potential will someday be uncovered.”  Otherwise for Christopher the fascination of the Lost Continent is so much “scrying” and other stock pejoratives.  Maybe it is so.  But Wilson and Flem-Ath avow together a different motivation.  Wilson writes in The Atlantis Blueprint of his conviction, to which the hypotheses of Donnelly and Le Plongeon remain unnecessary, that “civilization is thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of years older than we think.”

This is a quite different position, on the one hand, from the one that claims to rediscover mystic powers, and on the other hand from the one that attempts, through dubious geological data, to affirm Plato’s story literally in its details.  Wilson’s position is moreover a critical one, which takes to task the parochialism and complacency of a rigidly institutional point of view.

When James Mellaart (1925 – 2012) published the results of his fieldwork in Çatalhöyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967), he altered forever the standing picture of human social development.  Here on the Konya plain of Turkey, excavated meticulously by a Fellow of the British Academy, was an advanced Stone-Age settlement whose people practiced both agriculture and animal husbandry, adhered to a symbolically rich cult, and produced impressive murals and statuettes.  Çatalhöyük’s heyday occurred around 7000 BC.  On the basis of Mellaart’s work, another impeccably credentialed scholar, Colin Renfrew (born 1937), Professor of Anthropology at St. John’s College, Cambridge University, advanced his “Anatolian Hypothesis.”  Agriculture developed first, Renfrew argued, not in the region of the Tigris-Euphrates, but in Asia Minor as early as nine millennia ago, making Sumer a very late beginner indeed on the timeline of social and technical development and moving the geographical birthplace of farming significantly westward.

In the last decade, Anatolia has again attracted attention, this time for revelations of the spade at a place called Göbekli Tepe, in its way as remarkable as Çatalhöyük, and even older.  Göbekli Tepe, excavated by Klaus Schmidt from the mid-1990s until his death in 2014, differs from Çatalhöyük in not having been a domiciliary settlement for farmers and herders but rather a ceremonial center for many surrounding communities analogous to the Salisbury Plain’s Stonehenge and rivaling (some would say exceeding) Stonehenge in the sophistication of its architecture.  The last curators of Göbekli Tepe undertook a bizarre errand.  They deliberately buried the site after two millennia of use around the time that Çatalhöyük entered its robust main phase.  Hittites, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans built structures atop the mound and lived upon it, but none guessed at its abyssal past.  Göbekli Tepe lay absolutely unsuspected until Schmidt’s intuition drove him to explore the site.

Since the work of engineer Alexander Thom (1894 – 1985) archeologists have acknowledged the cosmological import of Stonehenge and the myriad of other European Neolithic circles, barrows, and mounds.  The peoples of Neolithic Europe had constituted themselves as cosmological societies well before the ages of Pyramid building in the Nile Delta and ziggurat construction in Mesopotamia.  Eric Voegelin defines a cosmological society in his study of Israel and Revelation (1956) as “a symbolic form created by societies when they rise above the level of tribal organization” and therefore as a “leap in being” for human consciousness.  According to Voegelin, “Cosmological symbolization is neither a theory nor an allegory”; but rather “it is the mythical expression of the participation, experienced as real, of the order of society in the divine being that also orders the cosmos.”  A cosmological society is, among other things, a scientific society.  Its priestly elites study the celestial movements, correlate them with the agricultural cycle, and interpret worldly events for the people.  As Thom proved, Stonehenge is a celestial observatory, meticulously laid out accurately to predict regular celestial events – mathematical in its conception.

The massiveness and complexity of the monuments betoken something else about the societies that raised them.  Not only were those societies intellectually sophisticated at the elite level, pioneering the sciences of astronomy and engineering, for example; but they must have been organized on a large scale, capable of complex inter-communal cooperation, and adept at marshaling impressive man-power over the long term to accomplish objectives that the original planners knew would require two or three generations.  No wonder that folklore attributed the megaliths to giants and magicians; those stories represent the proper awe due the structures themselves and their anonymous architects.  Frank Joseph writing in Before Atlantis (2013) fulsomely describes Göbekli Tepe as “not only the most ancient temple on earth, but the first celestial observatory.”  Remarking the structure’s rich decoration of bas-reliefs, Joseph also points out that they record a prehistoric zodiac noticeably antecedent to the zodiac of the Classical Mediterranean world.  The zodiac is as much a monument as any standing stone or stone circle and in its way more permanent than any dolmen or obelisk.

When modern people recognize Leo, Taurus, or Scorpio against the background of the Milky Way, they owe a debt to their ancestors of 11,000 years ago although those ancestors probably invested the constellated forms with a greater degree of significance than do far-away descendants.

Robert Schoch writing in Forgotten Civilization (2012) asserts that “Göbekli Tepe boggles the imagination.”  According to the textbook representation of the Late Paleolithic, Shoch writes, “ten thousand years ago was supposedly the time of brutish, nomadic hunters and gatherers who… did not have the technology, the governing institutions, or will to build structures such as those found at Göbekli Tepe.”  Schoch sees “a disconnect [sic] between what conventional historians and archeologists have been teaching all these years and the clear evidence on the ground.”  Schoch shares certain experiences with Schliemann.  Although the possessor of a PhD in geophysics, he has focused his research on the dating of prehistoric monuments, most famously in the case of the Sphinx at Gizeh, parts of which he assigns to 5000 BC.  Schoch has always vindicated himself on evidence, but he has also repeatedly suffered the slings and arrows of academic detractors who regard him as a professional outsider lacking the proper credentials and trespassing on archeology.

Of course, Before Atlantis and Forgotten Civilization belong to the genre of “pseudo-archeology” denounced by the reviewers who contribute copy to The Skeptical Inquirer.  So does John Michell’s by-now-classic View over Atlantis (1969; revised 1983 as The New View over Atlantis).  When Michell (1933 – 2009) wrote The View, the spade had not yet unearthed Göbekli Tepe, but Mellaart had already published the record of his discoveries at Çatalhöyük.  Michell, a more literary and sensitive writer than Joseph or Schoch, might be said to have “pre-included” their work in his.  Michell took interest not only in the megalithic monuments themselves, in Britain and on the continent, but also in their linkages.  Some linkages remained conjectural, being implied by a topographical geometry, but some were tangible: The “straight tracks” or “old roads” or “ley lines” that run across the countryside from one prehistoric site to another in Britain and elsewhere.  Michell argued that many a medieval Cathedral or church had supplanted a pagan temple and that the great pattern he saw embracing all of Northwestern Europe including the islands showed cultural continuity between the Celto-Germanic Christian world of the feudal era and a remote High Stone Age culture of the social-cosmological type.  “A great universal civilization in deep prehistory,” Michell called it, the memory of which persisted until the moment when the Enlightenment ceased to countenance anything except itself about midway through the Eighteenth Century.

Atlantis and map of Atlantis
Walter Heiland’s rendering of Plato’s Atlantis, published in Albert Herrmann’s Unsere Ahnen und Atlantis, 1934 (left), and Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus, 1664 (right).

Michell came to believe in the total inadequacy of the existing horizon of history.  That horizon, as he judged it, represented the petulance of scholar-specialists who had succumbed to the dogmatism and complacency that overtake all ensconced authority sooner or later.  “That there have been worlds and civilizations before our own there can be no reasonable doubt,” Michell writes in The View.  Michell also remarks that “the patterns of aligned tracks and monuments around the world belong to a forgotten code of science and religion, once universal.”  According to Michell, “The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan, 1678] can be read on one level as an accurate account of a journey along the old straight track…  It is an allegory which has its roots in primeval nomadism and in the way of life of the people who laid out the sacred paths of the archaic landscape.”  On the testimony of his prose, Michell, a cranky Traditionalist, sympathized deeply with the antique people who created the global “sacred architecture” of those foreclosed millennia, just as he disdained the modern world for its profanity and spiritual desiccation.  So did William Blake (1757 – 1827), who also regarded Britain as having been in a distant Time-before-Time a kind of island-temple, “Albion,” of which the hoary megaliths and medieval minsters were the mute remnants.

If Michell were close in his intuition to Blake he would not be so far distant in his worldview from Arnold J. Toynbee (1889 – 1975).  Toynbee’s Study of History in twelve volumes (1934 – 1961) develops the theme, among many others, that civilization always begins apocalyptically, in a religious vision.  Perhaps the prevalence in Toynbee’s work of the religious perspective accounts for the fact, as one commentator puts it, that “his work has seldom been cited in recent decades” by the publishing professoriate. Doubtlessly the professors would dismiss A Study of History, and Spengler’s Decline of the West (in two volumes, 1919 and 1922), and Voegelin’s Order and History (in four volumes, 1956 – 1974) as examples of stylistically sophisticated literary speculation, endowing both elements of the phrase with an eyebrow-arching connotation.  But history is itself a literary and speculative activity, beginning with the prototype of all subsequent histories of anything whatsoever, the study of the origins of the Greco-Persian conflict by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 – 425 BC).  Even when archeology supplies artifacts to the historian, the historian must still rely on his imagination to reconstruct the forms and meanings that the items represent.  All real history therefore resembles poetry in that it relies on intuition, empathy, and a willingness to engage the creative faculty.  Archeology itself was invented by readers such as the autodidact Schliemann, with his love of Homer, and the classically trained Arthur Evans (1851 – 1941), later knighted, who did for Central Crete what Schliemann did for Northwest Asia Minor.

The modern mentality distrusts the imagination as much as it distrusts religion.  The modern mentality therefore distrusts poetry and literature and in distrusting poetry and literature it must distrust history.  Thus Rudbeck’s Atland, despite its fanciful etymologies deriving Hebrew and Greek from Old East Norse, is not entirely wrongheaded; Rudbeck’s thesis that there had been an impressive ancient proto-civilization in the North and that both physical remains and myths pointed to it has only grown in plausibility since the Seventeenth Century.  Martin A. Hansen’s stylistically felicitous study Orm og Tyr (Serpent and Bull, 1952), while more restricted in its claims and sober in its presentation than Atland, owes a debt to Rudbeck, in whose tradition it modestly follows.  Books by Donnelly and Spence also have value – and not merely as curiosities or objects of footnoted debunking in rationalistic quarterlies.

Thoughtful people will perforce take literary speculations about the past seriously because they possess no other access to the past.  This is not to say that they will take those speculations literally.  It is not in the character of the genuinely poetic to be literal in any case because poetry deals in the subtleties of metaphor and inference.  Rather, it is the modern mentality that takes things literally, especially its own “pet conceptions of the universe,” to borrow coinage from Benoît’s Atlantide, of which everyone can swiftly make his own list.  (The Skeptical Inquirer writer, whose review the present discussion has already cited, warns that readers must regard Plato’s Atlantis-saga as nothing but a fable because the proximate source of the narrative in the two dialogues wherein it appears, Critias the Younger, was “anti-democratic and pro-Spartan.”)  Non-normative discussion rocks the boat of the institutional ego, whose notion of existence expresses itself in the myth of Progress, so-called, than which intellectually nothing could be more jejune and one-dimensional.

In respect of the literary imagination and the remote past, consider an episode from Hyne’s Lost Continent.  The narrator Deucalion has returned to Atlantis after twenty years as a colonial governor in Yucatan.  He finds that in his absence the realm under Queen Phorenice has devolved into decadence and corruption, but he must play his sense of rampant injustice close to his vest.  Like Napoleon III through his amanuensis Baron Haussmann in the Paris of the Second Empire Phorenice seeks the demolition and reconstruction of the Atlantean metropolis along lines that she considers appropriate to her imperium.  Deucalion accompanies Phorenice on an inspection of urban renewal.  In the exact metropolitan center Deucalion comes to the familiar place “which even Phorenice had not dared to encroach upon with her ambitious building schemes, and stood on the secular ground which surrounds the most ancient, the most grand, and the breast of all this world’s temples.”  It is a great stone circle reputedly raised by “Our Lord the Sun” himself “to be a place where votaries should offer Him worship.”  Deucalion, decorous but skeptical, must nevertheless admit that “to uprear the stones of that great circle would be beyond all our art, and much more would it be impossible to-day, to transport them from their distant quarries across the rugged mountains.”  It likens itself more to a Giants’ Dance than to the labor of man.

Hyne describes the sanctum sanctissimum: “There were nine-and-forty of the stones, alternating with spaces, and set in an accurate circle, and across the tops of them other stones were set, equally huge.  The stones were undressed and rugged; but the huge massiveness of them impressed the eye more than all the temples and daintily tooled pyramids of our wondrous city.  And in the centre of the circle was that still greater stone which formed the altar, and round which was carved, in the rude chiseling of the ancients, the snake and the outstretched hand.”  Stonehenge supplies Hyne with one prototype; the Central American monuments supply him with others.  Hyne also draws on Plato’s description of the primeval Atlantis.  Compare Hyne’s description of the megalithic solarium in The Lost Continent with Schoch’s description of Göbekli Tepe in Forgotten Civilization: “Immense finely carved and decorated T-shaped limestone pillars, many in the range of two to five and one-half meters tall and weighing [from] ten to fifteen tons, form circles…  Various pillars at Göbekli Tepe are decorated with bas-reliefs of animals, including foxes, boars, snakes, aurochs (wild cattle), Asiatic wild asses, wild sheep, birds (cranes, vultures, and ducks), a gazelle, arthropods (a scorpion, ants, and/or spiders).”

Hyne’s Ur-Temple corresponds to the roughly dressed stone architecture of the Northern European monuments; Schoch’s Anatolian henge, whose details the curious may verify by recourse to the extensive photographic record of the site, belies the assumptions of fumbling rudeness that attach prejudicially to its fantastic age.  Hyne’s Ur-Temple is fiction; Schoch’s Anatolian henge is real.  Negotiating the minor differences, however, the two descriptions might be swapped without disrupting either Hyne’s novel or Schoch’s study of cycles of civilization interrupted by catastrophes – the Platonic theme at the heart of the original Atlantis-saga in Timaeus and Critias.  It is worth recalling what the Saïtic priests tell Solon in Timaeus when he visits Egypt and learns of Atlantis, whose legend he later celebrates in an epic poem.  When Solon tried to impress his hosts by invoking the most remote events remembered in Greek lore, they rebuked him, saying, “O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are ever young, and there is no old man who is a Hellene…  You are children; there is no opinion or tradition of knowledge among you which is white with age; and I will tell you why.”

The priest then gives the explanation: “Like the rest of mankind you [Greeks] have suffered from convulsions of nature, which are chiefly brought about by the two great agencies of fire and water…  When a deluge comes, the inhabitants are swept by the rivers into the sea [and] the memorials which… nations have once had of the famous actions of mankind perish in the waters at certain periods; and the rude survivors in the mountains begin again, knowing nothing of the world before the flood.”

The longer a lifetime’s attention lingers over this prologue to the Atlantis-saga in Timaeus, the more central the framework looms in Plato’s import of the narrative.  Plato makes a point related to that which he makes in The Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, namely that consciousness is subject to complacency and diminution and that the worst epistemological disease is the paradoxical one of the erroneous certitude that increases while consciousness blithely abets its own diminution.  Consciousness might either never grow up (“you Hellenes are ever young”) or it might become sclerotic, losing all contact with its original nourishing Eros.  Plato’s careful prologue to the Atlantis-saga also implies that consciousness is historical and literary.  A catastrophe, whether of fire or water, destroys the written records – even literacy itself.  The society must begin again at the degree-zero of collective memory.  Neither holocaust nor deluge is necessary to effectuate such a radical break, however; indifference and petulance can accomplish the same result, as perhaps they have already to a great degree in the modern world.  If consciousness were literary and historical then a society bent on its own anti-historical premises and resentful of the literary archive would soon have divested itself of consciousness.

The “Lost Civilization” stories invoked at the beginning of the present discussion are remarkably bibliographical.  When Captain Saint-Avit arrives at the desert station early in the development of Benoît’s Atlantide, the narrator comments on the unusualness of his superior officer’s baggage: “Herodotus and Pliny, naturally, and likewise Strabo and Ptolemy, Pomponius Mela, and Ammien Marcellin.  But besides these names which reassured my ignorance a little, I perceived those of Corippus, of Paul Orose, of Eratosthenes, of Photius, of Diodorus of Sicily, of Solon, of Dion Cassius, of Isidor of Seville, of Martin de Tyre, of Ethicus, of Athenée, the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, the Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, the Geographi Latini Minores of Riese, the Geographi Graeci Minores of Karl Muller.”  L’Atlantide tells the story of an erotic quest, taking the form of a geographical expedition, both to fill out the map and to push back the horizon of the past; this same quest can only have the concomitant purpose of deflating the false certitude of the ensconced view.  Benoît gives it to his character Monsieur Le Mesge, the last Atlantean queen’s scholar-in-waiting, to speak this way to Saint-Avit and his trekking companion Captain Morhange: “I do not envy my colleagues on the summits of their official honors; I read their works with commiseration; and the pitiful errors to which they are condemned by the insufficiency of their documents would amply counterbalance my chagrin and fill me with ironic joy, had I not been raised long since above the satisfaction of self-love.”

The consciousness eager to discover the ground of its own being and thereby to redeem its own partiality can really only search for its goal in one domain, that of the past.  Benoît employs a felicitous conceit to suggest the relation of the questing intellect to its remote origins.  One item of Le Mesge’s library astonishes Morhange, himself no bibliographical slouch, more than any other.  Morhange trembles when he asks Le Mesge, “What is that book?”  “This book,” as Benoît gives to Le Mesge to answer, “is the greatest, the most beautiful, the most secret, of the dialogues of Plato; it is the Critias of Atlantis.”  (Note the qualifying phrase, “of Atlantis.”)  Morhange replies that Plato left the Critias unfinished.  Morhange tells him: “It is unfinished in France, in Europe, everywhere else… but it is finished here.  Look for yourself at this copy.”

By an irony of no little poignancy, Benoît at last found himself elected to the Académie Française, which three decades earlier had awarded a prize to L’Atlantide, in 1931.  Apart from L’Atlantide, Benoît remains largely unknown outside of France and largely unread in France, although he was a prolific novelist.  Recognition by the National Academy of the most reasonable nation of all nations would seem to bestow on L’Atlantide the imprimatur of respectability.  But no.  The great emporium of the Internet will offer it for sale, but, in English, only in the meager Ace paperback from the mid-1960s, in the translation by Mary C. Tongue and Mary Ross, whose preposterous names suggest a literary hoax by the editors.  Insofar as dignified people (they always know who they are) find The Lost Continent, L’Atlantide, Before Atlantis, and Forgotten Civilization to be infra dig, then one might easily invoke against their collective great arched cilium such titles as Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) by Henry Adams (1838 – 1913) and La Cathédrale (1898) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848 – 1907).  Both books attempt the recreation at the highest artistic level of a lost mentality, that of the High Middle Ages, as an antidote to the modern diminution of consciousness and de-spiritualization.

To a mentality restricting itself to the present, nourishing itself only on itself, the Twelfth Century AD will, of course, be as remote and opaque as the Ninth Millennium BC.  That ignorance of history afflicts the modern world is a thesis proffered by many keen minds over the years, from George Santayana to Oswald Spengler to Arnold Toynbee and by many less exalted writers who nevertheless knew of what they wrote, like the eccentric ones discussed at length above.  In Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (2011), Charles Hill attributes the chaos of the prevailing geopolitics to the abysmal historical education of the Ivy-Leaguers and their peers who staff the foreign ministries of the nations.  Schoch, in Forgotten Civilization, argues that the global Stone Age ecumene to which monuments like Stonehenge and Göbekli Tepe are, in his view, related, came to a catastrophic end due to acute climate-change triggered by a solar outburst.  In The Year that Civilization Collapsed (2013), Eric Cline marshals the knowledge concerning the Brandkatastrof that brought to their simultaneous ends the Bronze-Age civilizations of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.  Cline attributes the Twelfth-Century BC catastrophe to “system collapse.”  Gregory Copley in Un-Civilization (2014) warns that the modern globalized world is about to suffer a “system collapse.”

Hyne’s protagonist-narrator Deucalion – taking his name from the Noah-like paterfamilias-and-survivor of the universal flood, according to Greek myth – boards an ark in the final moments of the Atlantean civil war, when the social catastrophe and the geological catastrophe merge into one another to become indistinguishable.  Sealing himself inside the floating asylum with the archive of Atlantean knowledge, he never witnesses the cataclysm itself.  Before he senses the ark floating free from what was once its dry dock, he hears the panicked people pounding the orichalcum hull with axes and hammers in order that they might break into it, and so save themselves, from impending doom.  In vain!  A wave palpably hoists the great metallic vessel: “We tossed about on the crest and troughs of delirious seas, a sport for the greedy Gods of the ocean.  The lamp had fallen, and we crouched there in darkness, dully weighed with the burden of knowledge that we alone were saved out of what was yesterday a mighty nation.”

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

2 Replies to “Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, And The Invention Of History”

  1. Michael Presley says: Reply

    We tend to identify progress with technology, and this is quite understandable since it is easy to measure, or quantify, the production of artifacts. But many know better, and understand that the intrinsic quality of life, really, a spiritual thing, is no better now than in the long almost forgotten past. In fact, there are grounds for thinking that things have gotten a lot worse than, hitherto, was ever the case. Or, at the very least, things are really no better. Are Neolithic jade ornaments better than whatever is available, in stores today? Well, there are certainly more of the modern product to be sold, so for capitalists and consumers, that is a good thing. What is most interesting in all of this, is how little we really know about our origins (and how much we will never know), apart from modern-day speculations disguised as authentic anthropology. Yet the core of accepted academic speculation can easily be shown to be driven by politics (ideology), which at once removes it from the sound methodological criteria one has a right to expect from any true science. Of course, it is not just ancient history that suffers from a delimiting political intrusion, as any investigator of contemporary events understands.

    1. Dear Michael,

      Thank you very much for your comment. Thomas Bertonneau — who also thanks you — asked me to post his response. Here it is:

      Michael Presley’s remark that contemporary institutional discourse – for example, the college-textbook version of history – is ideologically driven goes to the core of the argument that I have tried to make in my essay. Insofar as it is ideologically driven, contemporary institutional represents both an extremely selective attitude toward facts and a dogmatic preference for its own “grand narrative.” The mental disposition suggested by such discourse is aggressively controlling, with a Gnostic certainty about the rectitude of its own story and a predilection to categorize dissent as intellectual deficiency. I find a refreshing contrast in the non-institutional discourse of writers like Benoît, Hyne, Michell, Schoch, and the others to whom my essays makes positive reference.

      Mr. Presley is also accurate in his remark that the most important thing that we “know” is often that we know so little, either about our origins or practically anything else anyone might care to name. This is Plato’s point exactly in the framework in which he ensconces the Atlantis-story in the two dialogues Timaeus and Critias. Plato offers the Atlantis-saga as one of his “likely myths,” not as a literal claim regarding the past. Would only that modern college textbooks offered themselves as “plausible accounts” rather than indubitable “deconstructions” of everyone else’s “grand narratives.”

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