With our former hegemons in precipitous decline I am often reminded of Aesop's inquisitive fox, who visits an old lion one day as he lies enfeebled amidst the cold shadows of his cave. Presumably the story had as much to say to us in the early 1900s with the slow shrinking of the Pax Britannica as it does today as our vexed Pax Americana gradually hits the dust. It is a fable well known to us. The ailing lion, by crafting a subterfuge that his complaints will be more audible from within the cave, invites his guest to approach him at the moment our fox is teetering at the mouth of his dark den.
However realizing the lion's cunning in so effortlessly procuring his prey, the astute fox quickly dismisses his host's offer by remarking upon the absence of animal tracks exiting the cave at exactly the point where so many hoof prints are seen to have entered it.
Here again, Aesop's wisdom leaves us at that dividing line between clarity and doubt, suddenly uncertain whether it is we who are reading history or if it is history that is reading us. In tracing the rise and fall of various successive empires and as the sun sets tentatively over America, we can only reasonably view the U.S. as just another in its place along the queue. And while pundits prime themselves for our next 'beginning of the end' narrative, so coveted by political orators as they announce the demise of an era, it may already be befitting to conjecture whether future generations will interpret the falling of the Twin Towers as we later came to consider the sinking of the Titanic.
The same architects of history prompt some reflection now upon how the pen has been enlisted over time to brave that battle even at its thickest -- assuredly a banality for those who still recall us to their past courage in joining the fight. Thus, anyone who could write might usefully have made their voices heard in numerous struggles for inclusion, with all text wrested, at the advent of the printing press, from the jealous fist-hold of dated paradigms of prescriptive thinking.
Like literacy itself, that accomplishment too came at no small cost in sidestepping state-sponsored crimes against individual liberty or by employing an appropriate shrewdness in anticipating the plots of censorship. Such was the price to pay for keeping abreast of the speed of intellectual enquiry. Freedom of expression -we are taught- came of age through literary achievement only after that obligatory conduit between those who produced ideas and those who consumed them was eventually redirected. It subjected antecedent branches of coercive 'learning' by religious castes to some selective pruning. Moreover, it re-examined whether claims to revealed truth were being helpful to the advancement of ideas or if they had merely become an added means to 'command' thought.
With Humanism, the abandonment of a privileged appropriation of God steadily reshaped the West's take on authority, further influencing the way it would reassemble any distinguishing sense of a shared identity. Needless to say the term 'West' is adopted, here and elsewhere, only in reference to its related geographical associations.
It is not intended as an accolade to some intractable cultural reality unshaped by cross-fertilization with numerous peoples around the world, nor does it assume it is without debt to the many who contributed to its peculiar experience of civilization. Indeed clarification around a similar word choice became no less important with an introduction of the new vocabulary necessitated by our aforementioned shift from a power legitimized through divine anointing to a more participatory citizenship within the ambitious Respublica literaria advocated by French philosophes. In consequence, as we were articulating our many complex drives and tensions through nominating good and evil with greater economy, an alternative linguistic repertoire was also replacing earlier facile polarities between right and wrong. Here Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde duo aptly embodies a telling motif of 'the double', accentuating some recognition of a conflictual trait within our 'collective personality'.
That adversarial doppelgänger accompanies a frenzied momentum towards industrialization -- just one among Victorian Literature's various offerings in propelling itself into a contentious hotchpotch of duplicity. Dorian Gray too, with his likeness upon Hallward's canvas, would become another impulsive artifact of a society pushed to its limits. Each arose from a fervid fascination with earlier anti-heros, characters who came to us in the guise of such cogent creations as Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.
Their over-reaching temperaments wowed us with a veritable treasure trove of tantalizing behavioural concessions, from waiving the directives of doctrine to taking intellectual risks to making whoopee with Helen of Troy. Who, indeed, could ask for anything more -- despite any contingent woes looming in the background following that fatal pact with Mephistopheles ? Yet while, by degrees, the slow maturation of our fresh post-Renaissance reason was permitting all manner of delights, a rampant individualism also risked bypassing human solidarity and countless unglamorous questions of conscience. All had been packaged to tout an imperialistic vision of civilization which, though outwardly ostentatious and self-assured, was a work in progress that remained, from day one, fiercely inwardly contradicted.
Demeaning many of the later insights of the Enlightenment and in parallel with our double throughout that long battle for the Western soul, the identification of a scapegoat, too, was being devised. A ruse to manipulate loyalties at whim, it typically employed an emotionally-charged idiom configured to ultimately transform some isolated ethnic or religious minority into a grave and menacing threat. Anthropological philosophers continue to observe how this project can only gain traction upon actively appealing to our most ancestral fears, stoking them up from that point at which they most challenge our sense of security and survival. From Jews to Communists to immigrants to Mexicans, distinct transmutations of our scapegoat have been consecutively fashioned and refashioned over the ages into enemies rendered so hostile at subconscious level as to finally pit us one against the other upon some ancient, tribal battlefield. Here it may be useful to note that the double opts to travel down a road quite different from the path cut out for the scapegoat insofar as it is only with the latter that all we negate about ourselves is projected outwards into some alien entity, whereas the double remains in tortuous dialogue with its inner antagonist. As such, it displays greater pluck, at least, in braving a confrontation with the demons within.
With Islamophobia, Muslims are popularly styled into precisely this scapegoat. Where it raises a concern is that faith-based identity has a corresponding connection here to any socio-political or cultural value we may attach to Islam in its many vibrant expressions. As such, the West's integration of its Muslim communities demands some specific attention in this camp. This is because the abiding tendency to extricate metaphysics -- and by association religion-- from 'rational' thought (sometimes heralded as Positivism's most apprized conquest) potentially hampers meaningful collaboration with mainstream Islam. It effectively abandons majority moderate members of the Ummah to an unaccompanied jihad against the commandeering by ISIS (to not speak of other crazies) of its most noblest traditions to promote a heretical romp, simplistically perceived as a form of dress rehearsal for global domination on the part of a farcical Caliphate. That could be just one reason why, across Europe and the U.S., we still continue to discern the absence of a unified Muslim voice that rings out loudly enough to offer reassurance by way of concerted and decisive indignation. Here, frightened onlookers might need some briefing, for instance, on how incidents in which the Prophet Mohammed seemed to approve 'holy killing' are reinterpreted for our times. It is a conspicuous detail which indirectly makes us jointly impotent, by careless oversight, before each act of insanity -- whether in Brussels, Islamabad or some other city within our family of nations. Furthermore, in not engaging the conversation of responsible inter-Faith dialogue or by dubbing it an issue 'too sensitive to tackle' we only strengthen current xenophobic schemes to bamboozle the world into believing how a reinvented brand of fascism can miraculously recuperate the shifting ideological confines of our beleaguered model of democracy which -as all already know- was never static to begin with.
In concluding, then, with the literary production of those assorted versions of our double, we must give the last word to Mary Shelley. Her development of Frankenstein's ill-omened alliance with his hominoid was perhaps borrowed in part from Jewish folklore - quite possibly from the myth of the golem of Prague, in which a sixteenth century rabbi moulds a clay 'defender' to protect the city's ghetto from anti semitic attacks. By rousing inanimate matter with one of the names of God, inscribed upon a scroll then put into the golem's mouth, the rabbi's life-generating deed recalls that erratic relationship between the biblical Adam and his creator-God (the name of Genesis' first man probably derives from adamah, or 'earth' in Hebrew). It behooves us then to return here to that inauspicious liaison between creator and creature which was no less a preoccupation for Shelley before our unarrestable pace of nineteenth century progress as it is for present-day homo technologicus, especially in view of the ever sharpening capacity of Man-as-creator to engineer his own creations towards deadlier artificial intelligence or to deploy more customizable war toys for largescale killing. Certainly it acquires new significance today with that jolly superabundance of flashy best practices in contemporary counter terrorism.
This alone serves as a jolting wake-up call in reminding us all that balanced, unpartisan dialogue is no longer an 'optional' during our ongoing narration of those lethal intrigues - lest we be forced, once again, to concur prematurely with Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon that 'all stories, if continued far enough, end in death.'