Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Martyrdom of Man

Wikipedia: 'William Winwood Reade (1838-1875) was a British historian, explorer, and philosopher' ... no desire to enclose that last word in inverted commas, I see. Still, Reade is most famous for a book of which many nineteenth-centuryists have heard, and few have read:
The Martyrdom of Man (1872), is a secular history of the Western world. In it, Reade attempts to trace the development of Western civilization in terms analogous to those used in the natural sciences. He uses it to advance his philosophy, which was secular humanism. He attacks traditional religion and morality.

Reade was an atheist (although this has been disputed by a surviving family member) and a social Darwinist who believed in survival of the fittest and wanted to create a new civilization. Cecil Rhodes, an English-born South Africa politician and businessman, said that the book "made me what I am". The title of the book is well known to many who have not read it: in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson: "Let me recommend this book, -- one of the most remarkable ever penned."
My interest in the book is its sciencefictional aspect: for Reade takes his sweeping overview of history from the past through the present and into an imagined utopic future. But in fact the proportion of the book that is SF is small.
I began it intending to prove that “Negroland” or Inner Africa is not cut off from the main-stream of events, as writers of philosophical history have always maintained, but connected by means of Islam with the lands of the East; and also that it has, by means of the slave-trade, powerfully influenced the moral history of Europe and the political history of the United States. But I was gradually led from writing the history of Africa into writing the history of the world. I could not describe the Negroland of ancient times without describing Egypt and Carthage. From Egypt I was drawn to Asia and to Greece; from Carthage I was drawn to Rome. That is the first chapter.

Next, having to relate the progress of the Mohammedans in Central Africa, it was necessary for me to explain the nature and origin of Islam, but that religion cannot be understood without a previous study of Christianity and of Judaism, and those religions cannot be understood without a study of religion among savages. That is the second chapter.

Thirdly, I sketched the history of the slave-trade, which took me back to the discoveries of the Portuguese, the glories of Venetian commerce, the revival of the arts, the Dark Ages, and the invasion of the Germans. Thus finding that my outline of universal history was almost complete, I determined in the last chapter to give a brief summary of the whole, filling up the parts omitted, and adding to it the materials of another work suggested several years ago by The Origin of Species.

One of my reasons for revisiting Africa was to collect materials for this work, which I had intended to call The Origin of Mind. However, Mr. Darwin’s Descent of Man has left little for me to say respecting the birth and infancy of the faculties and affections. I therefore merely follow in his footsteps, not from blind veneration for a great master, but because I find that his conclusions are confirmed by the phenomena of savage life.

On certain minor points I venture to dissent from Mr. Darwin’s views, as I shall show in my personal narrative, and there is probably much in this work of which Mr. Darwin will disapprove. He must therefore not be made responsible for all the opinions of his disciple.
But looking at it again, I'm struck by how much the book's opening paragraph reminds me of the opening paragraph of Our Mutual Friend.
The land of Egypt is six hundred miles long, and is bounded by two ranges of naked limestone hills which sometimes approach and sometimes retire from each other, leaving between them an average breadth of seven miles. On the north they widen and disappear, giving place to a marshy meadow plain which extends to the Mediterranean coast. On the south they are no longer of limestone, but of granite; they narrow to a point; they close in till they almost touch; and through the mountain gate thus formed the river Nile leaps with a roar into the valley, and runs north towards the sea.

In the winter and spring it rolls a languid stream through a dry and dusty plain. But in the summer an extraordinary thing happens. The river grows troubled and swift; it turns red as blood, and then green; it rises, it swells, till at length, overflowing its banks, it covers the adjoining lands to the base of the hills on either side. The whole valley becomes a lake from which the villages rise like islands, for they are built on artificial mounds.
I think it has to do less with specific lingusitic echoing, and more with the idea of setting one's text out with a description of a real river topography that also articulates a potent, carcereal symbolic logic.

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