On The Collapse Of Civilisations

Every now and then, civilisations collapse. Usually this happens after a gradual decline due to an immensely complicated set of factors which future historians seek to understand and explain. Sometimes, the collapse is sudden, as when barbarian hordes come sweeping o’er the plains on horseback, bringing ruin and desolation in their wake. Barbarians have their part to play in gradual collapses too, just not so dramatically.

In understanding why civilisations collapse, then, it would be a great boon to historians were they able to sit down on a sofa with a barbarian and have a chinwag. What were you thinking, as you swept across the plains on horseback, accompanied by your horde?, the historian might ask. Was it your settled intention to cause the collapse of any civilisation you happened upon, or was its destruction an unforeseen consequence of your penchant for havoc and mayhem? Were you pernickety in your choice of civilisations to sweep towards, or was it a more haphazard process? Give me some insight into pillage. And so on.

The benefits of such direct evidence from the mouths of barbarians have not been forthcoming, partly because the barbarians involved are long dead, each and every man jack of them, and partly because, being barbarians, they are, or were, incapable of coherent speech. Barbarians, remember, merely grunt.

Two recent developments, in different fields, promise to pull the rug from under this dispiriting state of affairs. Actually, I am not sure “to pull the rug” is the appropriate metaphor, but ipsum dipsum, let it stand. First, separate investigations into the reanimation of the dead, mediumistic communication with the ethereal realm, shamanism, and séance etiquette have coalesced to the point where it may well be feasible to plop a long dead barbarian on to a sofa and actually engage him in conversation. However exciting this prospect is – and make no mistake, it is! – it is made somewhat less so by the fact that any such conversation is likely to be one-sided, consisting on the one hand of searching, piercing questions delivered in a series of well-turned phrases in a plummy baritone, and on the other hand, of barbaric grunting.

That is why the second recent development may prove so decisive. Boffins in Switzerland (where else?) are putting the finishing touches to some kind of contraption that, fitted to the head of a grunting person – whether he be a barbarian or not – and with wires and nozzles poking, variously, into the mouth and the brain and certain glands, is able to “translate” the grunts into any of a dozen or so modern languages. I placed inverted commas around the word “translate” because it is not yet clear if the resulting print-outs, created with biro-nib on a gelatine wafer attached to a docking hub – are, strictly speaking, what we would understand as translations of grunts in the commonly accepted sense. But billions of Swiss currency units are being poured into this research, so I expect it will come good in the end.

The implications dizzy the mind. We will have, at first hand, the accounts of individual barbarians as they describe the process of congregating in a horde, supplying themselves with arms and victuals, mounting their horses, and sweeping o’er the plains to loot and pillage and lay waste to sundry isolated villages on their implacable way towards a more advanced civilisation, the collapse of which they will then bring about, either deliberately or inadvertently. For the first time we will be able to apprehend a grunting enhorsed barbarian raining death and terror where’er he roams as a person, a person like you or me, subject to the same whims and pangs, jumping through the same hoops, balancing upon the same ledge over the awful existential abyss. The only difference between us is that we are quick and alive, breathing in the air of the twenty-first century, and he is barbaric and dead and can but grunt. But such fripperies ought not divide us. Already, even before the reanimation of the dead, and improved mediumistic communication with the ethereal realm, shamanism, and séance etiquette, and the final tweakings to the contraption with poking wires and nozzles and biro-nib and gelatine wafer and docking hub, human rights lawyers and Guardian columnists and Occupy protesters are suggesting that it is due time barbarians were allowed to play a full part in society, given the vote, and a living wage, and, most importantly, legally protected from being offended by the so-called civilised.

Far too many people dismiss a dead grunting barbarian on a sofa as a “zombie”, or similar pejorative description. However, those who show such disrespect may temper their views when techniques for the reanimation of the dead are perfected. For then, just one barbarian, reanimated for the purpose of an historical chinwag, might seize control of the machinery and bring back to life his entire horde. Then, in their inimitable barbaric fashion, they will exact their own revenge.

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