bookmark_borderPost-374: “A Generalized Crisis of Confidence” (on the political situation in the West by the 2010s)

Like many, I have an interest in the question of why cultural-political entities “decline” — call them states (or proto-states), cultures, or, most-grand of all, civilizations. (This includes “lost civilizations.”)

This interest has informed some of the writing on these pages over the 2010s, most usually indirectly but sometimes pretty directly. Post-252, Western Civilization’s long-forgotten collapse, circa 1200 BC, is an example of the latter.

I recall once being put on a team of three and given ten minutes to come up with something that made sense on the following question: “Was the the French Revolution inevitable?

This is a classic question, or maybe better stated is a variant on the classic question, Why did the French Revolution occur. Many, many volumes have been published on this.

This question was posed to be by a Dr. C. Ch., in a course in my first semester at graduate school, fall 2016. The course had an elaborate name but was effectively on European political history from 1648 to 1945.

I think the team was split between Yes, No, and Unsure. At my suggestion, our team finally agreed on a ‘No’ general response. It was not inevitable. The single critical element was poor leadership. This not only at the level of the king or royal court alone, who definitely are guilty of mismanagement, but all throughout the leadership classes in France and they didn’t seem to “want it” anymore, had stopped trying. Phrased another way is, there was a crisis of confidence in the mid-late 18th century in France.

Continue reading “Post-374: “A Generalized Crisis of Confidence” (on the political situation in the West by the 2010s)”

bookmark_borderPost-366: The Book-as-Time-Capsule: My Great Uncle’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930 edition)

I wrote in 2017 about the film All Quiet on the Western Front [1930], which I rewatched recently in honor of the centenary of the end of the 1914-1918 war.

(See also Post-365: Scenes from the End of the Great War, Plus 100 Years.)

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Scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, WWI film

The 1930 film was based on a 1929 novel, Im Westen Nichts Neues ([lit. “In the West, Nothing New [to Report]”) by a German veteran of the 1914-1918 war. The book was a major hit of its time.

A June 1930 printing, English translation (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was among my grandfather’s books, and it is the rediscovery of it that is inspiration for this post.

Aged a not quite ninety years, here is the book as it appears today:

My grandfather died in the late 1990s but his books and other papers and files remained intact until the 2010s (as my aunt continued to reside in the house) at which time I was able to discover many of them, preserved as they were twenty years or so before, some from decades earlier still.

The oldest few books in the house I believe belonged to my grandfather’s grandfather [1857-1917], which I base on years of publication, subject matter, language, and especially the font used (a few of the oldest volumes use that awful font called Fraktur). Some of the books were those my grandfather bought himself. Others somehow ended up, this way or that way, over the decades, at the house (which my grandfather, his wife, daughters, and other relatives lived in from the 1940s through the 1990s), as in those from relatives. This copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those. It originally belonged to George Kosswig, my grandfather’s brother.

Now, I think this is a great discovery not because it is a rare book (which it is not; it would be easy to find for free in any library, and probably without difficulty online for free somewhere in PDF form, in a pinch, if you really want the text). It is rather, I would say, an example of a “time capsule” in book form.

This book-as-time-capsule idea came to me suddenly to me from the inner cover of this copy of All Quiet: Continue reading “Post-366: The Book-as-Time-Capsule: My Great Uncle’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930 edition)”

bookmark_borderPost-364: On the Isle of Saint Helena

Napoleon, following his second capture in 1815, was sent off to one of Earth’s most remote places, Saint Helena.
He would never again leave the island. After years alone there, with hardly even anyone to talk to, he died.

The image of Napoleon alone on Saint Helena, for years, thousands of miles from the continent of which he was nearly undisputed master for most of the 1800-1815 period, is poetically tragic even if one doesn’t like Napoleon.

Are there any lessons from Napoleon for the rest of us? In the imagery of Saint Helena, there are. I would here cite the traditional folk song  “The Isle of Saint Helena” which describes the man island-bound to Saint Helena and contemplating his life every day as he watches the waves.

“He sees his victories,
and how fleeting they all were!”
 
The point is that things are fleeting. All things. Here is the full song The Isle of Saint Helena (starting at 0:47) and lyrics:

Continue reading “Post-364: On the Isle of Saint Helena”

bookmark_borderPost-363: The Future of Fiji (and the World) as Seen From 1859

(Expanded from a draft from mid-August 2015. I was reading about Fiji at the time before I was to spend twelve hours in that mysterious, tropical island-country as part of one of my returns-to-the-USA in late August 2015. I was coming from Brisbane, Australia, visiting my cousin, Mel. W. The long layover in Fiji was also the cheapest option. From my perspective fortuitous as it would give me a foray into Fiji on the cheap.

 

 

In the weeks before I was to briefly spend time in Fiji in August 2015, I looked around for material. One thing I found to be so amazing as to be worth recording here. It is something published in March 1859, which concludes with a series of futurist predictions about Fiji and the world. Reading these predictions from 1859, I am amazed.

The predictions have (nearly) all come true:

(Final two paragraphs of an anonymous, ten-page book review appearing in The Knickerbocker [March 1859 issue] . The reviewed book is the 1858 Fiji and the Fijians by Thomas Williams and James Calvert (ed. George Stringer Rowe). The Knickerbocker was a New York literary magazine with an 1833-1865 publication run. It was similar in style, and likely a partial antecedent to and/or inspirtation for, The Atlantic [first issue published in 1857]). The entire March 1859 edition of the Knickerbocker is online here.)
 

 
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Fiji Sunset — approximately the view I had. (Updated in Sept. 2019 with website move; I cannot now recall whether I took this picture, but it looks exactly like mine and what my memory tells me.)

First, my own brief experience in Fiji, then an attempt to evaluate the Knickerbocker writer’s predictions with the distance of 159 years of time elapsed since publication. Summary: Very accurate.

 

A Brief Foray into Fiji, Late August 2015

Fiji is not like any place I have been, before or since.

I formally entered the country and have the passport stamp to prove it, which means I am counted as one of the Continue reading “Post-363: The Future of Fiji (and the World) as Seen From 1859”

bookmark_borderPost-356: Unlimited Economic Growth Forever

There is a sense among economists, I would propose, that they constitute a latter-day priestly class ruling over the destiny of civilization regardless of who sits on the throne of overt political power, thus that the priestly (economist) class is above the political class. This priestly economist class sees itself as responsible for the steering of society in the right direction, as responsible for pleasing the gods, for performing the proper rituals, for overseeing that the holy teachings be obeyed to a sufficient degree that the good times go on and the wrath of the gods be averted.

This priestly class has its own debates over theological specifics:  Continue reading “Post-356: Unlimited Economic Growth Forever”

bookmark_borderPost-252: Western Civilization’s Long-Forgotten Catastrophe (circa 1200 BC)

We tend to think of “history” and “progress” as synonyms. But….A few weeks ago, I borrowed a book from my friend Jared, on his recommendation. The title is The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine. Chapter Two deals with the period 1100-800 BC. Therein I find this:

[T]he archaeology paints a depressing picture of the Greek world in the centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces [circa 1200 BC]. Overall, the number of inhabited places in mainland Greece fell by two-thirds in the twelfth, and by another two-thirds in the eleventh century. This was the low point, and recovery then began: settlement numbers doubled in the tenth century, and doubled again in the ninth-eighth centuries.

Of course, settlement numbers on their own mean nothing: the crucial variable is settlement size. […] [I]n fact, the scale of settlements in the early Iron Age [i.e., circa 1100-800 BC] is generally smaller than that in the periods on either side. […] Not only did the number of settlements fall, but the places themselves were less complex than what had gone before.

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This points to a civilizational catastrophe for early Western Civilization, the scale of which is enormous, of “Old Testament” proportions (and it is contemporaneous with Old Testament times).

Let me try to present the data in a simpler way:

Number of Inhabited Places in Mainland Greece
(Mid-1200s BC=100 [arbitrary; for easy comparison])
1200 BC: 100
1100 BC: 33
1000 BC: 10
900 BC : 20
700 BC : 40.

During the long decline, the remaining settlements were smaller-scale, so we have to magnify the drop even more in real terms. If the settlements were half as dense at the 1000 BC nadir as before the long decline began, that implies a 95% population drop from 1200 BC to 1000 BC in mainland Greece, a cradle of Western Civilization. Other cultures in the region fared similarly. Political, economic, and cultural collapse. The authors say that literacy came grinding to a halt in these centuries; writing was all but lost; we find no monuments at all from these centuries.

There are always people around warning about impending collapse but few are ever listened to and even fewer are ever right. One such man I know of today who has a substantial following is John Michael Greer. He is one of the most prominent Peak Oil theorists. He writes something called the Archdruid Report. I have read some of his writings. He writes well but I don’t know what to think of his grand thesis, that industrial civilization is slowly coming to an end, with perhaps a population fall-off similar to the one described above in ancient Greece coming to us in this century. This is too radical an idea to easily believe. (I am likewise sure that the same was said by Greek intellectuals in the late Bronze Age, in the 1200s BC, when someone tried to point to signs of coming decline, whatever those may have been.)

The amazing thing is that nobody knows why things fell apart so dramatically starting around 1200 BC. The authors reject an old theory that it was caused by pressure from seaborne raiders. They say that while raiding did increase at this time, it was the effect, not the cause, of the civilizational decline. They start talking about internal social and political problems within the states affected, and soon their explanation bogs down in the muck and leaves the reader unsatisfied. They don’t offer any kind of firm explanation for the “collapse”. It remains a mystery.


“The worst disaster in ancient history”

— Historian Robert Drews on the Mediterranean world decline beginning ca. 1200 BC