Barbarians are smashing the tombs of the Muslim saints in Timbuktu, and nobody gives a shit. Certainly I don’t; it’s not my field. And they aren’t my saints—and I wouldn’t care if they were. Hell, you could drag the bones of Galileo and Samuel Clemens and Martin Luther King about the streets and have one merry old celebration desecrating them and it wouldn’t bother me any; let the dead take care of the dead as some old wise guy once said. You could do the same with my bones for that matter, once I’m dead and not using them any longer. It’s all one to me.
I care more about the old libraries of Timbuktu, though it’s still not my field and I couldn’t read them if I had them sitting right here in front of me. So far, if the reports be true, the old documents with their ghosts of the thoughts of the dead and forgotten are safe; the barbarians care nothing about them. But that’s the thing—who knows what a barbarian will choose to destroy next? That’s the cool thing about barbarism; it takes no effort of any kind to eradicate permanently what generations of human beings have treasured and preserved so that the memory of humankind may be kept to some limited extent alive. It takes effort to remember; none to forget.
We hear that an assault on one of these old shrines was deflected when local citizens formed a human chain to protect it from the vandals. Cynically we may suppose that they were doing it for all the wrong reasons—superstition, fanaticism, tourism. What’s the difference? It’s a magnificent gesture, a finger of light given to the darkness. Inevitably the darkness of oblivion wins, order dissolves into chaos, nothing is left but firefly glow in the darkness. Oblivion is easy; continuity is hard. Which, when you think about it, is why the barbarians can be given no quarter. There is no compromise between existence and non-existence, movement and stillness, light and darkness. Darkness inevitably wins in the long run—but we live in the short run. And there light can prevail. It’s not much—but it’s all we’ve got.
“Dr. F. with a number of boys of his age” - Last year I discussed how the experiences of Pvt. Jacob Frost had inspired and informed the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody’s 1829 sketch “The Young Provincial”—tho...
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