Tue, 15 Mar 2005

I’m reading H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. It’s a terrific book. I’ve just reached the Prophet Muhammad, whose vaunted moral perfection the author delineates with an endearingly dry sarcasm. Wells was an opinionated guy, who viewed modern man as the inheritor of all the world’s civilisations, and who was therefore untouched by any cultural sensitivity which might restrain him from pointing out the failings of other races and religions. So, for instance, he makes clear his high regard for the teachings of Buddha, but takes no pains to conceal a withering disdain for the accretions of mystical pomp and incantatory mutterings that characterise so much of modern Buddhism. He imagines Gautama returning to earth today and paying a visit to Tibet, where “he might go from end to end…seeking his own teaching in vain.” In a vast temple he would encounter priests, abbotts, and lamas prostrating themselves before a huge golden idol bearing his name. And as he wandered on:

About this Buddhist countryside he would discover a number of curious…little wind-wheels and water-wheels spinning, on which brief prayers were inscribed. Every time these things spin, he would learn, it counts as a prayer. ‘To whom?’ he would ask. Moreover, there would be a number of flagstaffs in the land carrying beautiful silk flags…Whenever this flag flaps, he would learn, it was a prayer also, very beneficial to the gentleman who paid for the flag and to the land generally…and this, he would realise at last, was what the world had made of his religion!

Nowadays, at least in the liberal west, reverence for the Dalai Lama is so widespread, and fear of causing offense to any minority group or religion so absolute, that few authors would dare to point out the fundamental silliness of much of Lamaist doctrine. But Wells isn’t disparaging Buddhism to give Christianity a boost. A few chapters later he makes clear his equal contempt for the hocus-pocus that early attached itself to Jesus’ teachings.

Although in Volume One Wells never spells out the standards by which he judges the great religions, it is implicit in many passages that he views history as a climb upward from barbarism, superstition, and division into the light of peace, reason, and the unity of all peoples. He sees Jesus and Buddha as apostles of this ideal whose teachings were distorted almost immediately by their followers, followers who were unprepared to accept the sacrifice of ego that their new religions demanded. Muhammad, by contrast, is a hypocrite and an opportunist, and is compared unfavourably not only to Jesus and Buddha, but to Mani, the rather obscure founder of Manichaeism. Nevertheless, Wells acknowledges that Muhammad brought into being a religion simple and explicit enough that it couldn’t be hijacked by mystics and priests, and therefore well-suited for proselytising the unity of mankind.

For more primitive religions, Wells’ disdain is unqualified. While expressing an appreciation for the sophisticated art of the Mayan people, the author can’t help but question the very sanity of its creators. Their art is “a record of strange frustrations, with a touch of delirium.” It “perplexes by a grotesqueness, a sort of insane intricacy and conventionality.” It resembles “a certain sort of elaborate drawing made by lunatics in European asylums more than…any other old-world production.” This may seem harsh, but Wells doesn’t hesitate to draw the obvious connection: “This linking of these aberrant American civilisations to the idea of a general mental aberration finds support in their obsession by the thought of shedding human blood.”

In other words, maybe the bizarre sculptures of the Mayas seem crazy to us because the Mayas really were crazy. Why were they crazy? Because their religion, indeed their entire worldview, was centered on ritual human sacrifice, on “the cutting open of living victims, the tearing out of the still beating heart.” Calling such a civilisation “aberrant” seems hardly strong enough.

Though overall Wells’ view seems clear-sighted and measured, periodically he’ll wander off on some idiosyncratic tangent. His fixation on physical characteristics, such as skull size, as an indicator of nobility or intelligence, is especially laughable. After totting up a long list of Julius Caesar’s shortcomings as a leader, Wells feels compelled to offer up the evidence of a bust in the Naples Museum in Caesar’s defense: “It represents a fine and intellectual face, very noble in its expression, and we can couple with that the story that his head, even at birth, was unusually large and well-formed.” Here, then, in H.G. Wells’ considered view, is a balanced assessment of this extraordinary Roman’s career: on the one hand, we have his megalomania, his “vulgar scheming for the tawdriest mockeries of personal worship”, and his vain dalliance with Cleopatra. (His massacres in Gaul and Germania go unmentioned.) On the other hand – just look at his big shiny skull! (But the skull doesn’t necessarily vindicate him, Wells continues – perhaps the bust doesn’t depict Caesar at all.)

Working in a genre – the unitary world history – that had almost no precendents, Wells felt no need to conform to western prejudices regarding the relative importance of various events. Granted, he had little information about India and China, and next to none about Africa and America. Still, he does his best to wrest the spotlight from the overexposed basin of the Mediterranean. It’s a little shocking to read his detailed account of the thwarted Persian invasions of Greece, and then arrive at this brisk dismissal of the Peloponnesian War that broke out some half a century later: “Planless and murderous squabbles are still planless and murderous squabbles even though Thucydides tells the story…and in this general outline we can give no space at all to the particulars of these internecine feuds.”

Wells is quite right. By skipping past the details of which long-crumbled Aegean statelet was allied to which, he can devote more space to the continuous tumbling down of nomadic peoples from the teeming steppes of eastern Europe and central Asia upon the centres of civilisation. This is a history that I’ve always had difficulty keeping track of, but Wells makes it vividly clear how one barbarian invasion settles down and starts to enjoy the fruits of civilisation, only to be supplanted by a succeeding barbarian invasion. Chaldaean supplants Assyrian, Mede supplants Chaldaean, Persian supplants Mede, and (after a Greek interval courtesy of Alexander and his successors) Parthian supplants Persian. And on it goes. Wells uses the analogy of a permanent cloudbank, constantly replenishing, occasionally releasing a rainfall of horse-riding nomads to pillage and burn and claim kingship.

I originally picked up the Outline because I wished to clarify some confusion I had about the succession of the English monarchs, and the events of the Glorious Revolution. So far I’ve covered from the dawn of humanity to the rise of Islam, and it looks like I’ve got at least another half a volume to go before I reach the 1600s. But it’s been a jolly read.

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