“Rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu.” - Mallarmé
Plato had a cyclic – or “spiraling” – view of history, in which the cycles bear the regular scars of catastrophe, the plural catastrophes being epochal in the root sense of articulating a dehiscence between one age and another. The most dramatic expression of Plato’s catastrophic theory of history comes with the story of Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens in the two linked dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. The Atlantis story has a pedigree, which Timaeus supplies. The statesman Critias, who narrates the legend in the two dialogues, heard it in his youth from his grandfather, who knew it in turn from his source, the famous lawgiver Solon, who got it from certain records kept by the Egyptian priestly college at Saïs in the Nile Delta. Solon visited there in early career on an embassy from Athens. The filiations of memory that permit Critias to rehearse the story are important in context because Plato, putting his notion in the mouth of an Egyptian priest, believes that one effect of the regular cataclysmic events is periodically to interrupt the record of history and reset cultural development at its degree-zero.
When the earth shakes or fire falls from the sky or the oceans rise to inundate the land, civilization, painfully built up over the centuries, vanishes under the onslaught of nature; only a few mountain-dwellers or lucky, remote people survive. Since the simple, unlettered survivors take no custody of the written lore, almost every verbal trace of the smashed civilization also vanishes. The priest tells Solon that quirks of nature permit a few exceptions, and that the Nile Delta is one – a place unaffected by universal disasters, where continuous records chronicle humanity’s adventures going back tens of thousands of years into the past. Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens attained high civilization; their achievements, technical and political, indeed put to shame all the societies of Solon’s day, including Attic society. A scourge of earthquakes and flooding obliterated both nations and the stunned survivors managed to live at a stone-age level of material culture only.
The Atlantis story has fascinated readers since the Hellenistic period. Strabo and Seneca wrote about it. Over the centuries, a number of investigators have put forth “explanations” of it, some of them quite literal. Most notoriously, writers like the American Ignatius T. Donnelly and the Scotsman Lewis Spence argued that a mid-Atlantic continent once existed which was the actual native ground of high civilization, from whose civic matrix all other historical societies directly or indirectly derive. In a paroxysm of volcanoes and earthquakes, Atlantis sank beneath the waves, engendering not only Plato’s story, but also the various legends of a universal deluge, and myths of semi-divine culture-givers who bestowed the boon of law and order on primitive ancestors of today’s evolved nations.
More recently, beginning in the 1960s, archeologists have documented how a colossal explosive eruption around 1500 BC obliterated a branch of the Cretan Bronze-Age civilization on the island of Thera north of Crete. A.G. Galanopoulos put forth in a 1969 book Atlantis that the details of Plato’s insular utopia corresponded to those of the Thera civilization, as long as one accepted that the Egyptians were indeed the curators of the lore and that the Greeks of Plato’s day consistently inflated Egyptian numbers by a magnitude. This would make Plato’s date of nine thousand years before Solon come out to an adjusted date of nine hundred years before Solon, which corresponds fairly well with the known date of the Thera eruption. It seems plausible.
Yet another possible source exists for the Atlantis legend that one ought to consider. At the end of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean a sociological event occurred that archeologists call “The Catastrophe.” Around 1100 BC, in a swath stretching from the Peloponnese through Asia Minor and southward through the Levant to the Nile Delta, a swift incendiary destruction of existing civilized societies took place that caused a radical discontinuity in the cultural life of the affected region. This event saw the obliteration of the so-called Mycenaean civilization in Greece, of the Hittite civilization and related societies in Anatolia, and of the chief cities of the commercially prosperous Levant. The marauders responsible for the havoc found their check only in the sands of Egypt, where Pharaoh’s armies at last held the line. But in Greece, in particular, the arrangement of life, organized and literate, declined abruptly to a near stone-age level; and there it persisted, in poverty and depopulation, for something like four hundred years before a recovery of political awareness and artistic vitality began in the Tenth and Ninth centuries BC.
One historian of “The Catastrophe” refers to it as a more devastating event than the disintegration of the Roman administrative apparatus in the West in the Fifth Century AD. “The Catastrophe” supplies the background of Homer’s Odyssey (the wreckage of the polities, the usurpation of rightful authority by schemers) and informs the cultural pessimism of Homer’s contemporary, the theological poet Hesiod. Many Greek legends such as that of “The return of the Heraclidae” distantly echo this event, as possibly does Plato’s story of Atlantis, which transforms the mass of looter-killers into a natural rather than a human force. Metamorphoses of human into natural agency are hardly unknown in ancient myth.
“The Catastrophe” might well qualify as worse than the fabled “Fall of Rome,” but the latter certainly marked a downturn of higher existence in the forlorn provinces of the Western Empire. Although there was a good deal more cultural continuity than the now discredited idea of a suddenly descending “Dark Age” ever admitted, a dearth of material amenities nevertheless characterizes the archeological evidence beginning right at the end of the Fifth Century. Before that time, even during the early phases of Gothic disruption, cheap but attractive consumer goods, such as ceramic table services, made their way from manufacturing sites in North Africa all the way to Gaul and Britain. But, as the Sixth Century sets in, such imported wares no longer appear in the strata. Their manufacture and exportation have ceased. Other signs betoken a crisis too. The physical infrastructure deteriorates. Aqueducts and roads fall into disrepair, monuments crumble and no one rebuilds the walls, while brigandage afflicts the countryside as central control breaks down, and politics becomes increasingly local and feudal.
Even so, in pockets of survival in Northern Italy and Gaul, something like the old Imperial way of life held out right through to the beginning of the Seventh Century. Similarly, at the end of the Bronze Age, after “The Catastrophe,” archeology can attest pockets of continuity, where something like the old way of life went on, as in Attica and Cyprus. Then again, the concrete remains of the old order sometimes lay in view, suggesting to those struggling to eke out an existence in impoverished circumstances that a previous, luxurious society had once flourished. The Greeks of the wretched centuries could see the Lion Gate at Mycenae. The Goths had the Roman wreckage everywhere before their eyes. The Anglo-Saxon poem “The Ruin” expresses poignantly the elegiac glamour of such smithereens. The poem’s lyric persona contemplates the dissociated stones of a Roman villa in what was once an imperial province, Britannia, but is now a domain of Saxon predators; he measures his own idea of wealth and happiness, the barbarian idea, against the criteria suggested by the dilapidated mass. It dawns on him that the past outdid the present and quite suddenly his long-standing sense of sufficiency goes glum.
Is it possible that a consequence of civilizational collapse is a refusal of the afflicted to admit that disaster has overtaken them, or even to know that a calamity has taken place? The controversial psychologist-historian Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), who traced events in Greek myth and Old Testament chronology to celestial mishaps such as a comet-strike or disturbances of the lunar orbit, argued that existential events on a world-scale that toppled societies and disrupted the civilization-continuum also produced a kind of collective amnesia in the survivors. I am not an advocate of Velikovsky’s Cosmic-Biblical literalism (many respectable people charge Velikovsky with being a crank), as articulated in the notorious Worlds in Collision, but I do think that the man’s theory of collective amnesia merits consideration. It is, after all, not so different from the theory advanced by the Egyptian priest on the occasion of Solon’s visit to Saïs.
The smiting of cities means the erasure of literacy, which means the loss of the records and a break in the archival memory; the disappearance of the infrastructure furthermore affects the most civilized people most drastically, killing off the elites and leaving only the unlettered populace to carry on life. These fellaheen vaguely remember the vanished splendor but without understanding it and without being able to duplicate it. The actual previous society becomes a metaphorical Atlantis that only ever existed in the realm of fancy. No one can any longer believe in its reality. Thus the Hittite Empire, literate and sophisticated, vanished so entirely in “The Catastrophe” that subsequent peoples entirely forgot it, until its rediscovery by archeology in the late Nineteenth Century. Velikovsky was acutely aware of “The Catastrophe” and wrote about it in Ages in Chaos and The Peoples of the Sea. A student of Freud, Velikovsky assumed that collective trauma, like individual trauma, resulted in the psychic response that the Master called repression.
I pose for consideration, with much tentativity and reticence, the following questions related to Velikovsky’s collective amnesia-thesis: Has not the West been living through a prolonged crisis, with catastrophic episodes, since 1789, with hundreds of millions dead by violence? Was not the Twentieth Century particularly bloody, disintegrative, and coarsening? Do sensitive people not suspect that, in the last twenty-five or thirty years, we have seen a drastic decline in civic conscience and bourgeois gentility and a concomitant widespread “forgetting” of civilized lore? (We call it, among other things, an education crisis, which everyone recognizes and no one had been able to overcome.) Is it not the case that to comment on these changes by describing them accurately in duly admonishing critical terms has itself fallen under interdiction? (We call it political correctness, an uncivilized taboo that everyone recognizes and no one has been able to overcome.) And is that interdiction not a case of memory repression, abetted by the free circulation of electronic baubles, whose effect is further to stultify consciousness?
Do we not live under daily threat of wanton violence perpetrated against the civilized by the savage, who wish to reduce everything to savagery because civilization measures for them their own productive sterility and so inspires them with bloodthirsty invidia against real achievement?
Is travel not now arduous, humiliating, and risky compared to forty years ago? Are public servants not surly and useless? Is art not debased? Are not criminal gangs effectively in control of huge swaths of the urban environment and police forces unable ensure public safety? Is our politics not corrupt and soulless, a kind of large-scale bribery and Caesarism under the mendacious rubric of democracy? Are we not haunted by the depletion of fuel and with it energy and prosperity? Is wealth not disappearing as we live and breathe? Are we not therefore less free and is our situation not much less civilized than in previous generations?
And if these things were so, as indeed they are, would we not, in fact, be living in the ruins, saying over and over to ourselves – as though words had a magic to make malign events un-happen – that everything remains normal, life holds together as always, and nothing evil has befallen us? To quote the first line of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s magnum opus of 1897, “Un coup de dès,” or “A Roll of the Dice,” “Nothing will have taken place but the place.”
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.