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Looking Backward Post by :evergreen Category :Essays Author :William Cowper Brann Date :July 2011 Read :1798

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Looking Backward

When it comes to "Looking Backward," Bellamy isn't in it a little bit with Prof. Herman V. Hilprecht. The retrospective glance of the latter covers a period of at least 11,000 years; and what is of infinitely more importance, it is that of a learned paleologist instead of a sensation-mongering empiric. The Professor has succeeded in lifting a corner of that black veil which hangs between the prehistoric and the present, in affording us a fleeting glimpse of our fellow man as he appeared long ages before the birth of Abraham. He has demonstrated that man has been a civilized animal much longer than is popularly supposed--that at least 5,000 years before the supposed advent of Adam he not only lived sociably in cities and had gods and kings, but was able to read and write! For eight years past the Professor and his co-laborers, under the patronage of the University of Pennsylvania, have been carrying on their explorations. The site of Nippur, the ancient capital of Kengi, later known as Babylonia, is the scene of their labors. Hitherto Nippur has been supposed to have been the world's oldest city; but the excavations made not only prove that it rose upon the ruins of others, but affords some knowledge of a long line of kings who lived so long ago that their very names were forgotten before the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, or even the building of the Tower of Babel.


"What is the story of this buried past?
Were all its doors flung wide,
For us to search its rooms?
And we to see the race, from first to last,
And how they lived and died."

Sargon is the most ancient Chaldean monarch mentioned in the Bible, and hitherto archaeologists have agreed that he was a fiction; but the Professor has not only proven that he had a habitation as well as a name, but has catalogued some thirty of his predecessors. Science has amply demonstrated the existence of man upon the earth long before the psychozoic era of the Biblical cosmogony; but Prof. Hilprecht is the first to demonstrate the high antiquity of his civilization. To the average man this will appear neither more interesting nor profitable than a two-headed calf or petrified corpse; but to the philosophic mind it affords much food for reflection. We have presumed that we could trace the history of man back to the time when he began to practice the art of writing, as distinguished from the transference of thought by crude pictorials--that our prehistoric progenitor was simply a savage. It now appears that people may build indestructible temples, and kings and priests write intelligently on imperishable material, and the nation be as utterly forgotten as though it had never existed. With these facts in mind, it were curious to speculate on what the world 11,000 years hence will know of our now famous men--such, for instance, as Cleveland and McKinley! What will the historian of that faraway time have to say of Mark Hanna? Printing has been called "the art preservative"; but is it? Suppose the priests of Bel--that deity who antedates by so many centuries the Jewish Jehovah--had committed the history of their temples to "cold type" instead of graving it upon sacred vases: Would Prof. Hilprecht and other Assyriologists be deciphering it to-day? Printing has substituted flimsy paper for parchment just as the pen substituted parchment for waxen tablets, as the stylus substituted the latter for the far more enduring leaflet of torrified clay. Imagine the effect of 11,000 years upon a modern library! Where will the archaeologist of the year 12,896 turn for the history of our time--where search for those "few immortal names that were not born to die"? Oral transmission of historic data, such as prevails among savages, such as prevailed among the Hellenes in the age of Homer, has been supplanted by the press. Long before Macaulay's New Zealander stands on a broken arch of London bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's, every book now extant will have perished. Will they be continuously reproduced, and thus, like the human race itself, run ever on? Quien sabey? Eras of barbarism have overtaken civilizations as pretentious as our own-- intellectual nights in which the patiently acquired learning of ages was lost. Petrifaction as in China, retrogression begotten of luxury as in Athens, submersion beneath an avalanche of human debris as in Rome, ignorance-breeding despoliation as in Ireland--these be the lions in the path of civilization. No race or nation of which we have any record has avoided a recrudescence of barbarism for an hundred generations. A few centuries of our wasting climate obliterates inscriptions on brass and wrecks the proudest monuments of marble. The recently imported Egyptian obelisk, which stood for ages on Nilus' plain, is already falling into ruins. We can scarce decipher the deep-cut epitaphs of the Pilgrim Fathers. The mansion of the sire is uninhabitable for the son. The history of McKinley's promised era of "Progress and Prosperity" will be written by the press reporter, that busy litterateur who has neither yesterday nor to-morrow. Some subsidized biographer may bind McKinley up in calf, and chance preserve a stray copy for some centuries--then good-by to all his greatness! The mighty Washington has not been dead a hundred years, yet has already become--as R. G. Ingersoll informs us--"merely a steel engraving." Adams and Hancock and Franklin are paling stars, despite our printing-presses, have become little more than idle words in the school-boy's lexicon. Our proud Republic, our boasted civilization will pass, for change is the order of the universe. What records will they leave behind? What is to prevent them being as utterly forgotten as were Sargon's predecessors? Here and there the delver of far years will find the fragment of a wall, perchance an inscription carved in stone and protected by chance from the gnawing tooth of time. And from these posterity will construct for us a history in which we will appear, perhaps, as the straggling vanguard of civilization instead of heirs of all the ages. They may dig up a petrified dude and figure out that we were a species of anthropoid ape--learnedly proclaim us as "the missing link!" Suppose that by some mischance a picture of the new woman in bloomers and bestride a bike should be preserved: Would posterity accept her as its progenitor, or class her as a lusus naturae--perchance an hermaphrodite? A few coins will doubtless be discovered--if the excavators avoid the Texas treasury--and triumphant Populism take it for granted that 'twas on these curious disks that our "infant industry" cut its teeth. The "In God We Trust" inscription may be regarded as a barbaric hoodoo to prevent infantile bellyache or the evil eye, but the dollar mark will be entirely unintelligible to a people so many thousand years removed from the savage superstition of metallic money. Of course woman will have ruled the world so long that "tyrant man" will be regarded as a sun myth, and the Goddess of Liberty on our coins be mistaken for portraits of our female monarchs. Thus will Cleveland and McKinley, like Hippolyta and other amazons of old, be passed down to remote posterity in petticoats. If the electrotype from which the New York Journal prints its portraits of Mark Hanna should be found among the tumuli of Manhattan Island, it were well worth remaining alive until that time to hear the curious speculation of craniological cranks. Should the paleologists unearth the World building, they will find in the basement an imperishable object about the size of a bushel-basket, which will puzzle them not a little, but which his contemporaries could readily inform them was the gall-bag of Josef Phewlitzer's circulation liar. The discovery of Editor Dana's office cat nicely embalmed may get us accredited with the worship of felis domestica alias cream-canner, as a "judgment" for our persistent slander of the ancient Egyptians. But seriously, is it not a trifle startling to reflect of how little real importance all our feverish work and worry is, and how small a space it is ordained to occupy in the mighty epic of mankind! Here we have been fretting, fuming, and even fighting for months past to "save the country," only to learn that it will in nowise stay saved--is hastening rapidly on to the tomb of the world's history, will pass in turn through that gloomy sepulcher of countless nations into the great inane, the eternal void, the all-embracing night of utter nothingness! With all our patriotism and scannel-piping, our boasting and our battlefields, our solemn Declarations and labored Constitutions, we are but constructing a house of cards.

"The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep."

We devote our energies to the propagation of a religion which Reason, that pitiless monarch of the mind, tells us must as inevitably pass as did those of Isis and Bel and Cybele, leaving in the earth's all-absorbing bosom only a few shattered altars and broken fanes. We are striving to win and wear the immortelles, only to be told that mighty empires have passed from the memory of mankind, and proud kings who may have ruled the world, sunk into the far depths of Time and been forgotten. We divide into classes industrial and sets social and give Pride free rein to vaunt herself, knowing that the hour will surely come when not even a Hilprecht can distinguish between the prince's ashes and the pauper's dust--can e'en so much as say, "This cold dead earth, o'er which lizards crawl and from which springs the poisonous worm and noxious weed, once lived and loved." We busy ourselves about the style of a coat or the cut of a corsage; we dispute anent our faiths and plan new follies; we struggle for wealth that we may flaunt a petty opulence in our fellows' faces and win the envy of fools--and the span of Life but three score and ten, while a thousand years are but as one tick of the horologe of Time! We quarrel about our political creeds and religious cults, as though it made any difference whether we wore white or yellow badges, sacrificed at the shrine of Jupiter or worshiped in the temples of Jehovah. Why so hot, little man? Look up! Thou seest that sun? 'Tis the same that shone on this debris when it was the throbbing metropolis of a world. The self-same moon that looks so peacefully down smiled on the midnight tryst in Nippur's scented groves or Babylon's hanging gardens; the same stars that now fret Heaven's black vault with astral fire winked and blinked 11,000 years ago while the sandaled feet of youth, on polished cedar floors, beat out the rhythmic passion of its blood. There too were the Heaven of requited love and the Hell of breaking hearts; there too were women beauteous as the dawn and ambitious men, grasping with eager hands at what they fondly thought the ever-fadeless bays; there too were crowned kings and fashion's sumptuous courts, chanting priests and tearful penitents--the same farce tragedy of Life and Death. And now an unsightly heap of rubbish marks this once bright theater in which prince and pauper each played his part-- marks it, and nothing more. But the sun shines on, and the stars, and the silver moon still draws the restless wave around a rolling world. How small we are, how ephemeral, how helpless in God's great hand! Is it not strange that we do not cling, each to the others, like shipwrecked mariners riding the stormy waters on some frail raft and looking with dilating eyes into the black abyss?--that we waste our little lives in wild wars and civic strife?--that all our souls are concentrated in that one word, selfishness?--that we have time to hate? If History be Philosophy teaching by example, what lesson does Prof. Hilprecht bring us from the chronicles of those kings who died 5,000 years before that garden was planted "eastward in Eden!"


(The end)
William Cowper Brann's essay: Looking Backward

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