Why do we hold the ancients so tightly in our imaginations?
Civilization, I suppose. Because they are not built all at once: the brilliant dream of a tyrant, the epic ambitions of an emperor king. Plans of individual men – no matter how powerful – will fall away if they hold no place in the imaginations of their people. Genghis Khan seated upon a throne of fur under a camel skin tent is remembered no more, despite the flashing reach of his armies. No, civilizations are built in layers, by the strength of the backs and the immense acts of discipline of successive generations of men adding their own strength and texture and character to the work of others.
A castle.Castles are built like that – over centuries. Each level impregnated by the environments, the times; rains whipped around by the winds, a drought, black earth rich with minerals – soot from a fire and blood from an attack. It starts small – humble sometimes. A few rooms – a simple roof. Then the castle expands as the family grows, rising upwards responding to the needs of new children, new wives brought home in happiness and celebration, new wealth. It ebbs and flows with the fates of the family. Kitchens added, innovations adopted; hostility brings walls and ramparts and moats. Poverty cloisters halls too cold to heat, and the once-grand furniture fills with termites and mice.
A castle is the visual eternal representation of Europe’s civilizations, reminding us of when it all began and the risks taken to bring us to where we are. Of war and aggression: politics and power. Often times of violence – though the violence is not the mortar of the civilization any more than it is the cement of castles. The perpetual search for peace and protection, of our property and our family and our futures – that is what a castle represents.
So why then do many people want to deny us our past? Why does the brutishness of our ancestors offend so? And why do the stories of tremendous resilience, of family and purpose and fight and faith offend them? We are told that because they were not perfect – that they held prejudice in their hearts or often misbehaved – we are not to look to them; certainly not as a means to better understand ourselves. As if we are not even now brutish and vile – albeit in different ways. As if the progress we have been sold, so carefully scraped of all vestiges of the past, is even healthy – even progress at all really, instead of another dark age served to us by know-nothings.
How can it be? All journeys are measured from their starting points. And all paths are straightened only by looking back at our “great cloud of witnesses” for signals. Taking that from us only makes our life shallower, narrower like a canyon in which we can neither see in front, behind or above. Caught in the eternal bewilderment of now.
I for one love the castles – walking through them, imagining how life had been and reveling at the ability of some things to endure despite the constant erosion of the levelers. And as I walk through the old buildings that hum with past, I feel sorry for those who – looking at a spontaneous civilization see only their own petty predilections.
That must be the real brutish place.