Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
For no particular reason, certainly not because of the politics of our day and the new UN environment report saying that we have twenty good years left, #sarcasm, I have had the end times on my mind.
It was in this frame of mind that I visited ancient Mycenae the other day. I first saw pictures of the Lion Gate and Cyclopean Walls when I was in high school and read the mythology surrounding this place. Many of you know the story. The three major “tholos” or beehive-shaped tombs here are ascribed to three major characters from that tale: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy, Menelaus and his big brother demanded satisfaction. So Agamemnon rallied the Greek states for a join assault on Troy. But the goddess Artemis commanded unfavorable winds so that the Greeks could not set sail; for the winds to change Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his own daughter. He did so, killing his daughter Iphigenia. The Greeks attacked Troy and finally destroyed it after ten long years. During Agamemnon’s absence, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as a lover. And upon his return, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. His son Orestes then killed his own mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father.
That’s the mythological version of what happened at Mycenae. Scientifically, archaeologically, we know that not long after the Trojan War, in the late 13th century B.C., something destroyed Mycenae and all the other major Bronze Age Greek settlements. We don’t know what the catastrophe was; we only know that it sent Greece back into the dark ages for the next five centuries until civilization dawned again.
To my mind, the mythology surrounding Agamemnon seems to tell a story about how civilization ended here the first time. Is it not, after all, a story about a deeply dysfunctional ruling class? A king, all but maniacal, prioritizing his family’s private grudges over the public good. A queen through nepotism inducting her favorite into the halls of power. Everyone a murderer, which is to say, each member of the ruling regime blatantly committing crimes. And whatever the disaster was that befell Mycenae, the government was clearly either unable or unmotivated to forestall it.
The analogy is obviously imperfect, but does any of this sound familiar to you?
Here we are, another human civilization facing impending catastrophe. The UN report says that by 2040 the global environment will have irrevocably altered much for the worse. And our ruling houses, most egregiously the House of Trump but certainly not limited to it, cannot get their act together. The world may marvel at the stupidity of the half of Americans who still deny the evidence of science, but then the world must also marvel at the shortsightedness of Russia for putting them in charge.
And contemplating the splendors of Mycenae as well as its inability to save itself puts me in mind of something else Greek — Antigone by Sophocles — in which the chorus delivers an “Ode to Man”:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
Just as no individual can escape death though we see it coming from a mile away, so human civilization seems forever doomed to be unable to save itself even when the coming collapse is obvious to all.
Or as Shakespeare would write two millennia later in Hamlet:
What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an Angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Maybe we are fundamentally a tragic species. Tragic because our reach will forever exceed our grasp. Tragic because we have the aspirations of gods but the frailty of animals. Tragic because we have the ingenuity to make Apollo rockets and iPhones and polio vaccines but never the wisdom to secure our own happiness. Tragic because, like Cassandra of Troy, even when we foresee our own demise, we are powerless to prevent it.
We are the greatest wonder of the world, and we are the quintessence of dust.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."