After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For a hundred and fifty years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and which spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India or the Far East.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves to create the profits which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique qualities of European capitalism which had perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then to subjugate less advanced nations, which would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World, 1914 – 42
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Indians, and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was (after the British gave up in 1783), set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This remind me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209). America gave the Europeans an entirely new understanding of human Time. Because here they encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development. In fact, maybe societies evolve and change and develop.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting how societies progressed from the x age to the y age and then on to the z age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

And once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere definitely lower or backward on these paths or stages of development. And being at the top of the tree, why naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of then European empires, there is this huge difference between the 18th century and the 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to complete collapse in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

After all the Scramble happened very quickly – unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as it’s always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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Imperial fiction

The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis (1981)

Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong. (Amis in his preface)

Amis

Kingsley Amis was a grumpy old bugger. This judgement is based not only on reading his articles and reviews when he was still alive (he died in 1995), but having read and reviewed all twenty of his novels for this blog.

Amis was deliberately middle-brow and flexible. He wrote a James Bond novel (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), a lot of light poetry, reviews and articles, as well as several odd science fiction novels.

In fact he was a science fiction hound, a real addict, and tells us that he leaped at the chance to deliver a series of lectures on the subject at Princeton University in 1959. These were then published as a book purporting to review the history and state of science fiction as it had led up to the state of the genre in 1960, garishly titled New Maps of Hell.

Twenty years after New Maps of Hell, in 1981, Amis was asked to make a selection of favourite science fiction short stories and to write an introduction. Hence this book.

Amis’s introduction

With typical glumness, Amis reckons science fiction has had its glory days and is in decline. He judges this decline to have started at more or less the moment he delivered those lectures, back at the start of the 1960s. He describes how, in the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction belonged to ‘an embattled few’ – hard-core fans who read everything they could get their hands on, despite the sniggers of their parents or teachers. A bit like the ‘hot jazz’ which he and his buddy Philip Larkin liked listening to, while their mothers and girlfriends told them they really ought to be listening to Haydn.

But all this changed in the 1960s. Up till then Amis and other fans had called it SF. During the 60s it became rebranded as ‘sci-fi’, symptomatic of the way it got infected with all the other radical experiments of the decade.

Suddenly there was ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ ‘sci-fi’, as there was free poetry, rock music, women’s lib and hosts of other innovations which Mr Grumpy objects to. The first two university courses on science fiction were opened in 1961, and Amis thinks that as soon as you start teaching literature or film, you kill its originality.

Only twelve years separate the hilariously kitsch Forbidden Planet (1956) from the slick and sophisticated 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968, and which Amis found repellently self-indulgent) but they inhabit different cultural universes.

The New Wave

The young writers with their trendy experimental approaches to science fiction who came in with the 1960s, became known as the New Wave. Fans argue to this day about when New Wave started, but most agree a tipping point was when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine in 1964, and Moorcock, along with J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, were the prime movers of British New Wave. All three moved away from ‘hard’ science fiction stories about space ships and robots and aliens, showing more interest in literary effects and psychology, often in a very garish late-60s, tricksy sort of way.

Planetary exploration

Another problem which the SF writers of the 1960s faced was that a lot of science fiction came true. In the 1960s men actually started rocketing into space and in 1969 walked on the moon, thus killing all kinds of fantasies with their dull discovery that space was empty and bathed in fatal radiation, while the moon is just a dusty rock. So no fantastic civilisations and weird Selenites after all. In the story Sister Planet in this collection, Poul Anderson imagines Venus to consist of one huge, planet-wide ocean teeming with intelligent life, where men can stride around requiring only respirators to breathe. But when information started to come back from the Mariner series of probes, the first of which flew by in 1962, and the Venera 7 probe which actually landed on the surface in 1970, Venus turned out to be a waterless rock where the atmospheric pressure on the surface is 92 times that of earth, and the temperature is 462 C.

Fiction becomes fact

Meanwhile, in terms of terrestrial gadgets and inventions – the kind of mind-liberating technological innovations which festoon H.G. Wells’s fantastic prophecies – well, jet planes came in, along with intercontinental travel and it turned out to be glamorous but in a, well, yawn, touristy kind of way. Everyone got coloured televisions, but these weren’t used for announcements by the World State or amazing educational programmes; they were used to sell soap powder and bubble gum. Satellites were launched and people were amazed by the first live global broadcasts, but none of this led mankind onto some higher level of culture and civilisation, as so many thousands of sci-fi stories had predicted. Now we have digital communication with anyone on the planet, but the biggest content area on the internet is pornography, closely followed by cats who look like Hitler.

To sum up: a lot of what had seemed like exciting technical predictions in the 1940s had turned into commonplaces by the 1960s. As Amis pithily puts it, ‘Terra incognita was turning into real estate.’

So you can see why the New Wave wanted to take a new approach and look for the weird and alien here on earth, particularly Ballard. By the mid-70s the New Wave was itself declared to be over (about the same time that post-war Serialism in classical music breathed its last gasp), at the same time that a lot of the political and cultural impedimenta of the post-war years ran out of steam. As I view it, this led to a decade of doldrums (the 1970s), and then the appearance, during the 1980s, of bright new commercial styles, Post-modernism in art and literature and architecture, the importation of Magical Realism in fiction, and a new era of sci-fi blockbusters in cinema, the rise of computer aided animation which has transformed the look and feel of films, and to an explosion of all kinds of genres and cross-fertilisations in writing.

Specific examples

But to Amis back in 1980, he says science fiction suffers from ‘gross commercialism’, and uses the Terra incognita argument to explain why many even of the New Wave writers had dried up or gone into alternative forms – Arthur C. Clarke ceasing to write novels, Aldiss writing histories of the genre, and Ballard turning out never to have really been a sci-fi writer, more a writer about modern psychosis who started out by using sci-fi tropes, before moving on.

All this goes to explain why the stories Amis selected for this collection are all from the 1950s (1948 to 1962, to be exact) – from the decade when sci-fi writers had racked up a tradition of sorts to build on, had achieved a mature treatment of recognised tropes – but before those tropes were burned out from over-use and the 1960s ruined everything with its silly experimentalism. You can strongly disagree with this view, but at least it’s a clear defined view, put forward with evidence and arguments.

The short stories

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper (1948) (American)

It is 1809. A series of letters from officials in Imperial Austria tell the tale of Benjamin Bathurst, who claims to be a British government envoy who, we slowly realise, has somehow got transported from out 1809 to a parallel history in which the Americans lost the war of independence, there was no French Revolution, no Napoleon, no wars raging across Europe, and so Herr Bathurst is regarded as a lunatic.

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham (1950) (Pseudonym used for his sf by American astronomer Robert Shirley Richardson)

Physicists Stoddard and Arnold discover that radiation above a certain frequency is no longer being detected. Radio stations are becoming unavailable. They measure the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons as happening absurdly nearby. Suddenly they think of Friedmann and his theory of the Xi Effect, namely that space isn’t continuous but made up of ‘clots’, clots which can be disrupted by bigger-scale events. Stoddard and Arnold and then everyone else learns that the world and the solar system are shrinking. Since everything is staying in proportion relative to everything else you’d have thought that wouldn’t be a problem except that the one thing which can’t shrink is electro-magnetic radiation. In other words, the world is getting too small for light to travel in it. One by one all the colours disappear, and then everyone is left in universal blackness.

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher (1951) (American)

After a nuclear apocalypse a ‘monk’ is sent by ‘the pope’ to find the body of a supposed saint in the hills outside San Francisco.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953) (American)

Genuinely upsetting story in which a child with telepathy and unlimited powers is born and, while still young, either destroys the world or transports his small town into some void wherein the remaining inhabitants must think nothing but positive thoughts – repeating to themselves ‘it is a good world’ for fear that the little monster – Anthony – will detect negative thoughts and turn them into something unspeakable.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) (English)

A computer company supplies its latest model to a Tibetan lamasery whose abbot tells the chief exec that they will use it to work through every permutation of names for God. They have a belief that, once all the names of God have been expressed, the need for a planet and humanity will cease and the universe will move on to the next stage.

Months later, the two bored technicians tasked with overseeing the installation and running of the machine are relieved to be making their way to the little Tibetan airport to return Stateside when the computer reaches the end of its run and… the world comes to an end.

Specialist by Robert Sheckley (1953) (American)

Interesting description of a galactic spaceship made up of living parts which all perform specialist functions e.g. Walls, Eye, Tracker, Feeder. When their ‘Pusher’ dies in an accident they trawl nearby planetary systems for a new one and, of course, come to earth, where they kidnap a guy who is out camping under the stars, and induct him into the galactic code of co-operation.

Student Body by F. L. Wallace (1953) (American)

Colonists arrive on a new planet where the Chief Exec is keen to get biologist Dano Marin to manage infestations of mice and rats which attack the crops and stores. Slowly Marin realises they are dealing with a species which can mutate at need, almost instantly, in order to survive and which will always manage to evolve into shapes which can elude them. Worse, he realises it will have stowed away on the earlier reconnaisance ships and have made its way back to earth.

The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1954) (pen-name of American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Deep space travel reveals vicious entities which attack man’s ships, which get nicknamed ‘dragons’. The only way to kill them is with light bombs which disintegrate their bodies, but it all happens so fast that only the handful of humans who have telepathic powers can manage to be plugged into the ‘pin sets’ which detect the dragons; and the whole effort went up a notch when it was discovered that some cats can be in telepathic unison with the humans, and have even faster reflexes.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl (1955) (American)

Maybe the best story, relatively long and persuasive i.e. you get totally drawn into it.

Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare of an explosion, then goes about his humdrum life in the small town American town of Tylerton, dominated by its state-of-the-art chemical works which is run mostly by the recorded brainwaves of technicians. A new guy in the office shops tries to hustle him a new brand of cigarettes. Later a lorry stops in the street and blares out ads for Feckles Fridges. A flustered man named Swanson accosts him on the street then runs away.

Then he wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare, and goes about his day. New cigarettes, lorry ads, flustered Swanson. That night the fuse blows and, rooting around in the cellar, he discovers that behind the brick walls is metal. And under the floor. The reader begins to wonder if he is in some kind of alien prison. He is down there when overcome by sleep.

Next morning he wakes up remembering everything from the day before except that… his wife thinks it is June 15, the radio says it is June 15, the newspaper says it is June 15. On the street Swanson finds him and, discovering that Burckhardt is confused, takes him through shops and into a cinema, all the time telling him that ‘they’ will be after him. they exit the auditorium, Swanson takes him through corridors, into the manager’s office, then opens a closet door into… a vast steel tunnel stretching in both directions.

Swanson thinks it must be Martians? Is it aliens? Or the Chinese who everyone in the 1950s were so terrified of? Read it yourself.

A Work of Art by James Blish (1956) (American)

Richard Strauss is brought back to life 200 years in the future. He immediately wants to carry on composing and Blish gives a very good analysis of the composer’s music, its characteristics, what he looks for in a libretto and so on and the whole process of composing a new opera.

But at its premiere, the applause is not for the composer, but for Dr Kris, the mind sculptor who has, in fact, used all the traits of the composer to create him and impose him on the mind of a perfectly ordinary unmusical man, Jerom Bosch. At a click of Kris’s fingers, Bosch will revert to his normal workaday self.

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) (American)

A rare thing, a first person narrator. In a perfect society of the future (after ‘the Interregnum’) he has been born a brute and a sadist, capable of killing and injuring and defacing while all around him are placid and calm and sensitive. We see, from his point of view, how intolerable and anguished his existence is, forced to live among ‘the dulls’.

Sister Planet by Poul Anderson (1959) (American)

This is a long, involving and bitingly pessimistic story. A small colony of scientists is established on a platform floating on Venus’s endless stormy ocean. They have made contact with ‘cetoids’, dolphin-like creatures and some kind of exchange goes on i.e. the humans leave paintings, sound recordings and so on which the cetoids take off in their mouths, and the cetoids return with various objects, including rare and precious ‘firestones’. These are so precious that ferrying them back to earth and selling them has so far funded the scientific research.

In among their practical duties, the half dozen or so scientists on the outstation chat about how overcrowded and polluted and violent earth is becoming. The main figure among them, Nat Hawthorne is particularly sensitive and close to the cetoids. One day he is astonished when the most friendly of them, who he’s named Oscar, nudges at his feet (on the pontoon which stretches out from the base, where they distribute goodies to the cetoids and receive the jewels in return, level with the ocean and often slopped over by waves) indicating he wants to give him a ride.

Hawthorne puts on breathing apparatus and Oscar takes him deep under the sea to show him a vast coral cathedral which appears to have been shaped, or grown, by the cetoids. there is no doubt that they are ‘intelligent’.

Back in the crew quarters of the colony, he is about to tell everyone about his encounter, when the quiet, intense Dutch scientist Wim Dykstra bursts in to make a major announcement. He has been analysing Venus’s core and has realised that it is on the unstable edge of making a quantum leap upwards in size. If it did that, it would project magma up through the sea creating continents and the presence of rocks would absorb carbon dioxide from the (currently toxic) atmosphere. In other words it could be ‘terraformed’, made fit for human inhabitation – an overflow for what has become a poisoned earth.

it is then that Hawthorne tells the roomful of colonists about his discovery, that the cetoids are undeniably intelligent and creative. At which point there is an earnest discussion about man’s right to colonise new planets, even at the expense of the natives – all of which made me think of contemporary, 2018, discussions about colonialism and racial oppression etc. Reluctantly Dykstra agrees to suppress his work in order to let the cetoids live.

But Hawthorne is gripped by a kind of panic fear. Sooner or later more scientists will come to Venus. They will repeat his experiments. Sooner or later humans will realise they can transform Venus for their own use. Tortured by this knowledge, Hawthorne blows up and sinks the research station, flees in a mini submarine and, when the cetoids come to investigate, slaughters them with a laser machine gun. Then submerges to go and blow up their beautiful coral cathedrals. Before calling the ferry ship which is in orbit down to pick him up. He will claim the cetoids blew up the centre despite his attempts to stop them.

His aim is to demonstrate to earth that Venus is a violent environment which cannot be colonised. And to show the cetoids that humans are murdering barbarians who cannot be trusted.

To save the cetoids – he has to destroy them and their cultural achievements.

The Voices of Time by J. G. Ballard (1960) (English)

A classic expression of Ballard’s interest in entropy and decline. Among the empty swimming pools of some desert American town, scientists go about their work in alienated isolation from each other. A plague of narcolepsy has attacked humanity. More and more people are falling asleep never to waken, the central figure, Powers, keeps a diary of the way he, too, is falling asleep earlier and earlier, his days are getting shorter and shorter. In what time he has left he conducts obscure experiments on plants and animals which seem to mutate at an accelerated rate if exposed to near fatal doses of radiation. He has a typically distant, autistic ‘relationship’ with a patient whose brain he operated on and who now is collecting the last works of art, books and so on by famous artists, writers and such. And has discovered that astronomical research centres have come across series of numbers being sent from apparently different locations around the universe, all of which are running down, like countdowns.

The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov (1961) (American)

A short and characteristically tricksy Asimov story. It is the end of the war against the Denebians. Everyone credits victory to the vast supercomputer, the Multivac, which processed all the information and provided pinpoint accurate decisions about the war.

Executive Director of the Solar Federation, Lamar Swift, has gathered the key men in the team who ran Multivac to celebrate, namely Henderson and Jablonksy. But as both hold their champagne glasses, one by one they reveal that the data they received was never good enough, the sources around the solar system and beyond were too scattered, information came in too slowly… and that the head of the team processing it never trusted them, and so falsified many of the figures.

But instead of being shocked, Swift smile and says, he thought as much. He made all the key decisions which won the war by using a much older technology. And he takes out a coin, flips it with his thumb, covers it as it lands in his palms, and asks: ‘Gentlemen – heads or tails?’

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) (American)

A short glib story set in 2018 when everyone is equal because everyone is handicapped by the Handicapper General. Fast athletic people are weighed down by weights. Tall people forced to stoop. Beautiful people wear face masks. Clever people have earpieces fitted which emit piercing noises every 30 seconds. Thus everyone is reduced to the same level, and is equal. Anyone tampering with any of this equality equipment is arrested and imprisoned.

George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, was born unusually tall and handsome. He was immediately locked up. The trigger for this short story is George and Hazel settling down to watch TV (George’s thought processes continually interrupted by the screeches in his ear, to prevent him being too clever) and hearing on the news that their son has escaped from prison.

Then he bursts into the TV studio and throws off his restraints, the handicap harness which weighs him down, the rubber mask which makes him ugly – to reveal that he is a tall god. He declares to the watching audience that he is the Emperor, who must be obeyed.

He had interrupted a live broadcast of a ballet and now he asks who among the ballerinas wants to be his wife. One comes forward, throws off her face mask and feet cripplers to reveal that she is beautiful and elegant. Together they start dancing a beautiful ballet of freedom.

At which point the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and machine guns both of them dead. The TV goes black. Loud sounds burst in George’s ear. He goes to get a beer from the fridge. Loud sounds interrupt him on the way back. By the time he’s back on the sofa he has a sense that something sad happened on the TV but neither he nor his wife can remember what.

The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) (American)

Trader John Garth is happy living alone on Wesker’s World, dealing with the slow but logical alien inhabitants, the Wesker amphibians, who have learned to speak English.

One day a fellow trader stops by (his spaceship causing hundreds of square metres of devastation) to drop off a priest. Garth tries to prevent him landing, then is very rude to him. To his horror, the slow logical Wesker creatures are awestruck by the priest and the stories he has to tell about God their father and how they are saved. Garth is a typical trader, rough and ready, a hard drinker, but he has been honest with the Wesker creatures and told them as much about the universe and earth as he thought wise.

One day Garth is called along to a meeting the Weskers are having with the priest. In their slow logical way they have come to the conclusion that the priest needs to prove his religion. The Bible – which he has given them to study – brims over with examples of miracles which God was happy to perform to prove his existence. Surely he will perform at least one miracle to convert an entire new planet and save an entire species.

Suddenly Garth sees where this is heading and leaps up to try and bundle the priest out of the meeting hall but he is himself overwhelmed by the Wesker creatures and tied up, from which powerless state he has to watch the creatures overcome the priest and very methodically nail him up to a cross, just like the pictures in the Bible he had given them, the Weskers expecting him to be resurrected.

But of course he isn’t. Days later, still tied up and in a pitch black lumber room, Garth finds the most sympathetic of the Weskers undoing his ropes and telling him to flee in his space ship. Having failed with the priest the Weskers have decided to experiment with him next.

The Wesker asks: ‘He will rise again won’t he?’ ‘No,’ replies Wesker. ‘Then we will not be saved and not be made pure?’ asks the Wesker. ‘You were pure’, Garth sadly replies. ‘You were pure, but now…’ ‘We are murderers,’ replies the Wesker.

Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss (1963) (English)

This is the most poetic of the stories, Aldiss deliberately using onomatopeia and rhyme in his prose, as well as rich verbal pictures, to convey a dreamlike scenario.

In the far distant future the Moon has left the earth and earth and Venus orbit each other. Humans have long ago left the planet which is now populated by a mix of of animals and ”Impures’, intelligent creatures created by human experimenters on Venus.

Dandi Lashadusa is a giant sloth who traipses round the desert world seeking out musicolumns, insubstantial pillars into which the last people converted themselves, and which become audible music when life forms come close enough to them.

She is guided and advised by a mentor who she is telepathically in touch with, who is slowly revealed to be a dolphin living in a coral cell.


Almost all the stories – 14 out of 17 – are by Americans, the other three by Brits i.e. all very anglophone i.e. wasn’t there any Russian, French, German etc sci-fi during the period? Even in translation?

That’s probably something which came in to rejuvenate the genre after Amis’s day, particularly stories from Russia and the Eastern bloc.

The pros and cons of science fiction

Is Amis right when he says: ‘Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong’? Well, on the evidence here, Yes. The Xi Effect, Sister Planet, The Streets of Ashkelon, Student Body and, especially It’s a Good Life, which I found very disturbing – they are extremely negative and pessimistic. But then gloomy Amis chose them. Is the genre as a whole pessimistic? Well… I’d make a case that most of literature is pessimistic. I’m looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald books next to Flaubert’s on my shelves. Not many happy endings there.

Maybe you could argue that there is a kind of ‘global conceit’ about science fiction. In ‘ordinary’ novels one or two people may die; in a science fiction story it is likely to be a whole world, as the world comes to an end in the Clarke story, or man corrupts an entire species as in the Harry Harrison.

Science fiction may be more apocalyptically pessimistic than other types of fiction. This is one of its appeals to the adolescent mind – the sheer sense of scale and the world-ending nihilism. But is at the same time one of the reasons it used to be looked down on. As a flight from the trickier complexities of real human relations in the here and now, the kind of thing supposedly tackled by ‘proper’ fiction.

But all this is to overlook the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspect of science fiction, the teenage sense of exuberance and escape and release conveyed by some of the stories. The sense of the genuinely fantastical and imaginative, that life is stranger and richer and weirder than non-sci-fi readers can ever realise.

A feeling conveniently expressed in one of the stories here:

As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendent was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. (The Xi Effect, p.65)


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 – The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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