Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part Second, 4

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Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West by Ameen Rihani
Part Second
IV. Over Ancient Babylon


IV


OVER ANCIENT BABYLON


FROM Aleppo to the City of the Abbaside Khalifs, over ancient Babylon and Nineveh!—O seers of Chaldea, did you ever behold this in your visions,—did you ever read of it in your book of stars?

Indeed, the railroad and the aeroplane are rumbling to-day over buried Babylon. And in the golden silence of the desert the modern capitalist, after the Man of Neishapur, will sing,

Awake! for steam is scattering to flight
The Beduin tribes into eternal night.

For after all, Nineveh and Babylon might only be asleep. To be sure, wherever there are streams of opalescent water, human life is imperishable, immortal. But sleep is often mistaken for death; and the apoplexy of a nation is of longer duration than that of an individual. Under the magic wand of modern industrialism, therefore, Babylon and Nineveh might rise again and put Paris and New York to shame. No; they might rise and help to bring the better mind of Europe nearer to the East and the purer soul of India nearer to the West : they might become the connecting link between the Orient and the Occident of the future. Geographically, this is logical; historically, it is possible. Meanwhile, the idealists in both continents, the proclaimers of the confederation of the world, may go on dreaming; and Capital, the pioneer of the children of dreams, will sing in the valley of the Euphrates the song of the dawn of industry.

Awake! for steam is scattering to flight
The caravans into eternal night.

And along with them, perhaps, the poetry of the Arab and his horse. But this lament over the passing of the poet might not be wholly justified. For after the nations of the past are resuscitated, after the work of creation, lasting six days or six centuries, is performed, Capital will want to rest and be entertained. She will welcome again the poet; she will build temples to his Muse. At present, however, the bard must not hover on the horizon of Capital. We must forge ahead. Nothing in the way is sacred.

The Young Turks themselves once spent a few piasters in this business of redemption. They tried to mow down the Arabs to pave the way for the European steam engine. Now the English are conspiring against the lethal but sacred lethargy of the Euphrates. They will dam the river to bless its valley. They will mutilate it, chop it into pools, so to speak, and cage its currents in canals and ditches to make them sing in the wilderness the song of plenty. Indeed, there is a kind of poetry, deep and elemental as Ossian's, even in the achievements of science, even in the mechanical marvels of engineering. We live in an age, which, in its vast inclusions at least, is the most poetic of all ages. No nation, however far removed from the pivot of its dynamic influence, no people, however stolid and hidebound, is free to shake off its thrall or to reject its boon. A truth or a fallacy uttered in London is echoed the following day in Baghdad; an idea born in New York soon captures the mind of Damascus; a discovery made in Paris benefits even the silk worms in the shadow of the Lebanon cedars. A marvellous thing this civilization, even to a sophisticated Oriental, who revels in its romance, which the scribes translate from the columns of the American and European newspapers, as he would in the Arabian Nights. Indeed, those who produced the Arabian Nights are to him incarnate in the makers of our civilization. Therefore—but let the logician draw his own conclusions. This international game of Give and Take is as baffling as any other. To lose in it is to gain, and vice versa.

If the poet of Baghdad realized this, he would not waste his soul in lamentations over buried kingdoms.—O Babylon, Europe is desecrating thy sacred dust. O Nineveh, the Franks have come to mock at thy past. Over thy palaces, O Samiramis, over thy grave, O Belshazzar—but let the poet of Baghdad sit upon the highway and lament. The train will soon be coming.

Meanwhile, the doctors of the Mohammedan law, the ulema of Islam, will scan their sacred books to see if aught therein is mentioned about the railroad and the aeroplane. And if, after straining their theological faculties, they can not find, expressed or implied, a divine sanction of these inventions, they will forthwith curse them from the pulpit. Yes; this has already been done in Nejd. But the Arabs, though they begin by waylaying the trains to Medina, will soon be laying rails themselves across the Nefud. The genius of this industrial age is destined to world conquest and power. And the Koran, that divine encyclopedia of the Muslem, has an elasticity of phrase that can be made to cover any heresy, ancient or modern, speculative or industrial.

Speaking one day with one of the ulema of Damascus of the extravagance of practical science, I mentioned the Meteorological Bureau at Washington, which has two hundred employees at its central office, and spends over a million dollars a year for the purpose of forecasting the weather. The sheikh held up his hands in horror, exclaiming, "And all this to blaspheme the great Allah! For who but He and His Prophet Mohammed can read in the Book of To-morrow? Is it not writ in the Koran. 'And what is in the bosom of the Heavens, and what is in the bosom of Time, and what is in the bosom of woman, only Allah knoweth?"

But the irate sheikh and the lacrymose poet are gently reminded by the modern editor, who in most cases is in aladinist, a free-thinker, that the times have changed, that the Prophet himself has said, Every Age hath its Book, and that the fabulous wealth and prosperity of America, for instance, are the natural outcome of co-operation.—They are the fruits of organized industry, O my Brothers,—they are the legitimate offspring of the Trust. Let us, therefore, co-operate like the Americans: let us organize the Trust. Science will yet resuscutate Arabia.—Steam and Electricity will be the servants of her virtue and glory. But let us organize the Trust, and straightway. In the Trust, O my Brothers, is our salvation....

And my friend the social reformer will find, methinks, herein some food for thought. A distant view of the question, an Oriental view, is not unworthy of consideration. For when a people hail what another people spurn, when a nation blesses what another nation is cursing, then there must be still room on one side or the other for the deeper truth, the sounder view of the matter. Some people among us will find these between the curse and the blessing. I, for one, refuse to peep with the radical reformer into the boudoir of the Trust; and I admire her not, as do the aladinists of Damascus, in her travelling toggery. But in her workaday clothes I behold her walking with the people, and I dare say she is tolerably human.

For in spite of what is set down in the Criminal Code, I am convinced that the Trust hath a soul. Else how could she be so fair and so wicked, so voracious withal and so bounteous? Indeed, the soul of the Trust is accumulative, even like her capital. It is a somatic soul, as it were, which you might not find mentioned in the book of metaphysics, but which the skeptic might see, and touch, and even steal thereof. Behold it exteriorized in these monumental marvels of materialism. The Soul of the Trust!—it broods in the mines; it sings in the mills; it cries in the Stock Exchange; it sweats in the fields; it throbs in the engine room; it vibrates in the electric wire; it poetizes in the Marconi mystery; it hitches its aeroplane to the dog-star.

Ay, the Trust hath a soul, believe me, and it is as good as all the other trust-in-Mammon souls of the present day, which were once divine and immortal. True, it has no sentiment. But who has, in this beautiful iron age? Neither Darwin nor Carl Marx ever worried about sentiment. Capital and Thought, these are the living principles of the Trust. Of these is composed the duality of her somatic soul.

And Capital and Thought will dance in triumph over the tombs of ancient kingdoms and in the valleys of sacred rivers, even as they do in the mills and mines and around the palaces and temples of Modern Industrialism. Thus sayeth my aladinist friend of Damascus, who never tires of repeating, In the Trust, O my Brothers, is our salvation. But let us hope he will be able to find the truth somewhere between his blessing and the curse of the social reformer. Or better still, beyond both. For the Trust, like all other human institutions, must soon or late outgrow its usefulness. Meanwhile there is something suggestive and useful in the enthusiasm of the Oriental. And if Europe gives Arabia a railway, Arabia gives Europe an idea. Which, I think, balances the account.