Thursday, December 20, 2012

Feeding Time

Beginnings and endings always grab our attention more than the middles where most of life plays out. Classic publisher’s advice (origin uncertain):  “The first three lines of the first page are when you win or lose a reader.” Classic producers’ advice (origin also uncertain): “You’ve got to have a good Third Act.”

The first three lines in all of literature were etched on clay in Sumer, in present day southern Iraq, sometime after 3000 BC. We don’t know what they were, but they must have been pretty good because the Sumerian authors kept at it, and neighboring peoples soon adopted their cuneiform script. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing arose soon afterward, apparently independently; written Chinese appeared a bit later, also apparently independently.

We don’t know the origins of the Sumerians themselves. Sumerian is a language isolate, unrelated to any other known language. Several (conflicting) hypotheses of relationships to other languages have been offered, but none has found widespread scholarly support. There might be a clue in their word for themselves, which literally means “black-headed folk.” In southern Mesopotamia? You might as well try to distinguish yourself by saying “We’re the guys who have ten toes.” It seems likely they migrated from somewhere where some people didn’t have black hair. Guesses have ranged from the Caucasus to the Indus Valley. Whatever the case may be, once settled by the Persian Gulf they developed a remarkable urban culture and got the whole of human history started.

If the friends of mine who are throwing an end-of-the-world party are right (the Mayan Apocalypse and all that), human history will end tomorrow. I suspect they’ll be stuck with the job (bummer) of cleaning up after the party on Saturday, but I suppose one never can be 100% sure about that. Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Few people take the apocalypse seriously, but I can’t help noticing a tone of growing pessimism about the future in everyday casual conversation. I sense a conviction that, while the world may not end with a bang tomorrow and while Apple may have yet more gee-wiz gadgets to offer us, civilization nonetheless is grinding down as demographic, economic, and environmental realities slowly catch up with us. Oh, to be sure, there always have been people convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The following poem dates at least to 1910 but might be older:

My grandpa notes the world's worn cogs
And says we are going to the dogs!
His grandpa in his house of logs
Swore things were going to the dogs.
His dad among the Flemish bogs
Vowed things were going to the dogs.
The cave man in his queer skin togs
Said things were going to the dogs.
But this is what I wish to state
The dogs have had an awful wait.

Yet, the Zeitgeist really was more confident when I was a kid. Even though the existing social conditions by and large were far worse than today, we had high expectations. We were going to end poverty, end injustice, colonize space, and (my generation’s lagniappe) usher in an era of peace and love – in our lifetimes. Really. I don’t hear much talk like that anymore. At least it’s not mainstream opinion. In part, this has to do with an economy seemingly permanently jammed in first gear (in many Western countries anyway), but it goes deeper than that. It extends to personal expectations, too – even to romance. While relationships always have been tough (Sumerian proverb: “Marriage for pleasure, divorce to regain it”), we didn’t assume formerly that the odds were against us. Now (correctly) we do.

Does the first civilization have anything to tell us about the current one and the patience of dogs? Yes. After a period of heroic poetry and mythological literature, a literary genre called Lamentation developed in Sumer. It was what it sounds like. We read in these poems about defeat in war, about the end of law and order, about the drying of rivers and canals, and about how a shekel of silver can buy only half a sila of grain. Sumer was going to the dogs. To be sure, The Lamentation on the Destruction of Nippur ends with a call for hope and change (translation by Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer):

A day when man not abuses man, the son fears his father…
A day when there is no strife between the weak and strong, when kindness prevails…
A day when all suffering will be gone from the land, light will pervade it,
A day when black darkness will be expelled from the land, and all living creatures will rejoice.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, more Lamentations followed. Then they stopped, because so did Sumer. When was the last time you met a Sumerian? The Sumerians were crushed by the Akkadians to the north and vanished as a people.

So, civilization didn’t end. It flourished. But Sumer ended. At least in a local context, the pessimists of the day had a point.

Modern civilization in a grand sense is likely to continue as well in some form. However, it’s worth paying attention to the warnings of our Cassandras. (We tend to forget that, in the Greek myths, Cassandra was right.) It’s entirely possible that, at least in our corner of the world, we soon could be dog food after all.

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