History is not to be absent but to become absent; to be someone and then go away, leaving traces. A relic, any relic, is a will, we are present at its coronation. The will is where the dead are most alive; a functional autobiography, immortality secured in the greed of others.
Some deaths are mere slips or illusions. Do I need conclusive evidence that history existed? Do I need conclusive evidence that art is what it is? I don’t doubt my own sense of history’s existence, but I clearly feel that I need to prove it to others. The evidence for this past’s reality is the fondness and specificity of the art itself: conclusive. But the near-death of Iraq’s art, its rescue at the hands of memory and patience, are alarming brushes with the brutal violence of history, reminders of the appalling variety of ways in which real treasures can be lost.
I start with these mementos because I am about to talk about what was to become a short while later, a fictional and a metaphorical death, and I want to give physical death its due–”a mark of piety towards what is actually irreplaceable, un-transferable in those artifactual lives now gone. In art as in science there is no delight without the detail.
There is another possibility: that the real life of prehistoric figures, as of anyone who has succumbed to what I call the “strange habit of human death”, is just the “life” we shall never see again, the life that was once secret and is now lost. I wonder if the “individual” is wholly subordinate to the larger pattern of history. History in this sense is not a quest for truth but a refusal of death. The refusal is vain in the literal sense, since nothing will bring these antiques back. Beyond all easy spiritualism, antiques do speak, they counsel us through memory, through our late but often luminous understanding of what they would have said.
In the scheme of things, concerns about artifacts and shrines may seem marginal. But religion and history are intricately woven into military action in the Middle East. Amid the plumes and uniforms and the calm paraphernalia of a tyrant-states going to hell in a bucket, there is a widening sense of history lost.
According to reports, Iraqi prized treasures have been looted in the most despicable, negligent and obfuscated fashion. Some of the world´s most important ancient finds chronicling the achievements of the Uruk, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and early Islamic civilizations were there. Included were mankind´s earliest written documents, ancient mathematical texts, ancient sculptures and other works of art. Also the riches from the royal death pits at Ur from the late third millennium BC and tablets of the Gilgamesh Epic describing a great flood with many elements similar to those of Noah´s Flood. At Nuzi, about 3,500 tablets were found dating from 1600 to 1400 BC. Many of the tablets deal with laws and customs and provide some of the best available evidence for the common social, economic and legal practices in the ancient world. Such things as a childless couple adopting a slave to be their heir, having children by proxy, deathbed blessings and the importance of household gods are illuminated in the texts. The absence of objects reveals the fact that art and culture is in the firing line and that the country´s truly unique and internationally precious cultural treasures have suffered and have been enslaved.
Although amongst the cultured there is a sense of great love–”veneration might be a better word for the astonishingly rich and ancient culture of Iraq, a widespread general hostility towards Iraq reflects a misunderstanding in the west which fails to make the connection between a modern country and ancient Mesopotamia, the “Cradle of Civilization.”
Most things that the west regards as fundamental to the progress of man have their origins in Mesopotamia–”the ancient land that forms the heart of modern Iraq. One must not forget that all of our information about the early part of the Bible is in this part of the world. This heritage disaster also highlights the role of the west as a myopic consumer of heritage, rather than cherishing it as a vanishing irreplaceable shared resource. History, unfortunately, is a force that does not discriminate.
History in Iraq is very much in the firing line and an inevitable victim of violence, opportunism and greed. There were not long ago tens of thousands of archaeological sites in this celebrated land. The United Nations sanctions against Iraq have finally destroyed Sennacherib´s Palace, finishing the work begun by the ancient Medes and Babylonians who sacked Nineveh in 612 BC. To be sure, market and political forces are also at work here, but the fact remains that without the sanctions, this destruction would not have happened.
This forgetfulness is strange, since museum in Europe and the United States are packed with cultural booty brought back from Mesopotamia in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most striking examples are from Assyrian Empire–”the power that came after the Sumerians and that reached its zenith around 850 BC and from the Babylonian Empire of King Nebuchadnezzar II. When these great finds were made at ancient and long forgotten cities–”a lost civilization was found. It became necessary for man to rewrite his own history. For example, when clay tablets carrying the tale of Gilgamesh were found and desiphered in the 1860s and 1870s they shocked the West. Here was an epic–”not only 1,500 years earlier than Homer but clearly earlier than the Bible that included the story of the great flood, just like the story of Noah. In the same way that Darwin´s theories of evolution were challenging the literal truth of the Bible´s account of creation, so the translation of Gilgamesh questioned orthodox Christian beliefs. It suggested very forcefully that the Bible was not the world´s first book and not the result of Divine revelation but a composite work including stories from earlier theologies.
The time…it passes and although we measure its passage on clocks, it indolently writes itself into the ageing body and never looks back. History´s quest is not for a unit of time but rather for a universal perception of the sense of time–”the lining of time and its essence.
Memory is one´s absence revisited. The pretence of forgetting governs and distorts everything we choose openly to remember. There can be no loss without a memory, no design without the design maker. Nature is beautiful but not meaningful. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world seem to be justified. Only aesthetic implies not art for art’s sake but a pointed contrast to the moral and specifically religious interpretation of existence and the world. The future doesn’t come after the present, in a straight line from the past, and the present isn’t much of a straight line anyway. The future, as Nabokov said, is always imaginary and could always be cancelled.
You may feel that there is an implication that loss may actually be sought, although not perversely, not for its own sake. A loss is a reality displaced; reality is a rehearsal for dream. Regret is a fulfillment rather than an accident.
After all, there is a delicate but considerable difference between accepting loss when we have to and judging loss to be acceptable. It is the point of reference. The same goes even more emphatically for the nature of beauty.
Human difference, the incomplete human project, will be asserted against the indifference of the realm where all echoes are the same. What matters is not the consequence of its absence, but the need for consequence; it is that need that makes us yearn for what we have lost. Loss is irredeemable, it goes on and on, an endlessly discomposed face in the mirror.
Tiptoeing around culture is not easy in Iraq. However, once out of sight and out of mind it is far easier for history to be ignored on any war.