Human nature makes history cyclical. Technological progress is linear though, and so it would seem that technological advances should override history’s persistent retrograde patterns in favor of linear progress. However, the technological arms race is driven by men and we are subject to our nature, and that makes technology’s entanglement with human affairs a cyclical function as well. This is why Detroit’s production of flying cars is behind schedule.
There are now more cars but less smog in Los Angeles than thirty years ago. The nuclear bomb eliminated conventional wars between large states. Governments today have better technical means of killing their own people than they did 80 years ago, yet due to mass media’s ability to disseminate awful images, you can’t have Cheka committees butchering the European countryside anymore. Instead, civilian pacifications have become Stone Age again, with Somalian visitors groping girls in Stockholm while a caveman’s weapon — a baseball bat and the will to swing it — disperses them.
There are satellites and drones, but drone operators have families in unguarded houses. The state used the television to brainwash its citizens but later citizens used the internet to knock down that totem.
The decadence-drift of the elites: a generation or more after a faction seizes power and secures the collaboration of its mercenary classes, its successors lose faith in their original mission and turn to short-term opportunism. The ruled populations, concurrently, lose faith in the founding mythology that legitimizes the elites’ rule. Martin Trayvon King wut? Today’s liberal voter now clings to that last plank of the Civil Rights revolution, pervs in bathrooms.
In his 1981 – 82 series of Harvard lectures that he published under the title The Witness of Poetry, Czesław Miłosz shares his own reflections on history. His 1980 poem “Bypassing Rue Descartes” appears in that volume, and I include it at the end of this post. He provides autobiographical context for the poem:
In my youth [c. 1930], apprentices of poetry, if they came from the blank spots on the map, had to undergo a short or longer period of training in Paris. That was the case with me […] Arriving in Paris as a young man, I later had many opportunities to wonder at the contrast between the radical changes occurring in myself and in my geographic zone to the east of Germany, on the one hand, and the perfect stability and the continuity in the life of la ville lumière on the other. Half a century later I wrote a poem on that subject, which better explains what I just said than does my prose.
He also ties “Bypassing Rue Descartes” to the current events at the time of writing this:
Though universal ideal long ago lost their appeal for those of us from [Vilnius], Warsaw, or Budapest, this does not mean that they lost their appeal everywhere. The young cannibals who, in the name of inflexible principles, butchered the population of Cambodia had graduated from the Sorbonne and were simply trying to implement the philosophic ideas they had learned. As for ourselves, since we had seen firsthand what one achieves by violating, in the name of doctrine, local mores (that is everything which grows slowly, organically, for centuries), we could only think with horror about the absurdities haunting the human mind, indifferent as it is to the repetitive character of blunders.
A water snake appears at the end of the poem that follows. As Miłosz’s explains in The Witness of Poetry, the water snake was considered holy in his native Lithuania, a pagan belief that persisted in Europe’s last nation to become Christianized. The poem:
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,
A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.
We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which nobody here should ever be told:
The clapping for servants, barefooted girls hurry in,
Dividing food with incantations,
Choral prayers recited by master and household together.
I had left the cloudy provinces behind,
I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.
Soon enough, their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.
Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,
Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,
Baking long breads and pouring wine into clay pitchers,
Buying fish, lemons, and garlic at street markets,
Indifferent as it was to honor and shame and greatness and glory,
Because that had been done already and had transformed itself
Into monuments representing nobody knows whom,
Into arias hardly audible and into turns of speech.
Again I lean on the rough granite of the embankment,
As if I had returned from travels through the underworlds
And suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of the seasons
Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead.
There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner of later, the breaker of a taboo.
(translated by Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass)