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This article is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.from A History of Our Own Times
Edited by Solon Beinfeld, Department of History, Washington University and Sondra J. Stang, Department of English, Washington University.
Ford Madox Ford's unpublished A History of Our Own Times was conceived as a three-volume work that would provide the historical context for the events of Parade's End. The first volume, about 500 pages in typescript, was written in the late 1920s and deals with England, Germany, France, and the United States as well as diplomatic history from 1870 to 1895. Volumes II and III, which would have brought the History forward from 1895 to 1930 (the entire work was to be co-terminous with Ford's life), remained unwritten because Ford was unable to find a publisher for Volume I, although he tried repeatedly in the course of the 1930s. The manuscript exists in several versions; the editors have restored much of the material Ford deleted in his various efforts to have the book published. What follows are excerpts from Chapters 1, 2, and 6. (A History of Our Own Times will be published by the Indiana University Press.)
It is published by permission of Janice Biala, literary executor; the Cornell University Library Board; and the Indiana University Press.
Something emotionally formal attaches itself to the consideration of a decade; something singularly proprietorial tinges irresistibly the thought of our own times. In spite of scientific historians, ages do differentiate themselves to the human mind in terms of hundreds of years, half-centuries, lustres and the rest; in spite of the fact that, never in the history of man has the individual been less able to direct the destinies of peoples, still we must consider that our own times are our own property in a sense that nothing else is or can be, for our own times are made up of the most intimate and most inviolate portion of a man - of his memories. Great movements go on, passionate popular ideals are consummated or found vain, the faces of whole regions of the earth may change, dynasties may disappear, laureates may sound across the world and then be no more listened to - but for us these immense movements are alive and our own because of minute contacts with immense happenings. And the sense of those minute contacts we shall never lose till memories fade and we and our world go out together. One may lose one's house, one's nation may be eliminated, floods may destroy our pastures and our standing crops, we may lose our wives, our children, our loves; our very personalities may so change with the revolution of the years that we may no more be the same men. But still, mention the earliest public phenomenon of your time and your early, tiny memory will at once spring into your mind - and that will be the beginning of your own time, and your own time will continue with you from that point until the end.
Mention to me the British Raj - the British domination - in India and I will at once see myself being a small boy dragged along unwillingly by an irresistible nurse's hand - I will still see a poster that I was not allowed to look at for long enough because of my nurse's impatience. It represented a fat man in a fez, falling to the ground, his feet above his head. He was Arabi Pasha. Alexandria had fallen before the British warships; the route to India was rendered by so much the more impregnable. We are still pegging away at that task.
Or mention to me Literature and I will see myself a tiny boy - it must have been in 1880 - peeping into a cage of doves in my grandfather's [Ford Madox Brown's] tall, dim, Georgian studio, and behind me will be standing - Turgenev! Or, if I mention to you, my a little junior, American colonial expansion, you will see a headline running: MAINE SUNK IN HAVANA. I knew an old German whose appreciation of the marvels of electricity was coloured by the fact that in 1877 or so Bismarck had the telephone installed between his country seat at Varzin and the Berlin Foreign Office. The old gentleman's father had smashed his favourite beer mug on the dogs in the open ingle in Pomerania - out of rage that the craze for modernity should have invaded even the Iron Chancellor. And I know a charming and intelligent lady in the French provinces who still shudders when she really thinks of Paris. Being in that city as a young girl on a visit during the Affaire she had once seen the face of Dreyfus, in a carriage that was stopped by a traffic block on the way to one or other of the trials. The ghastly appearance of the face, in the terrible atmosphere of hate that vibrated from the boulevards to the quietest and remotest of Parisian homes, had so affected this little girl that all that Paris, with its secular architecture, its intense intellectual life, its gaiety, its music and its immense glare of light showered up against the dark skies - all that all Paris stood for for her was pain and horror and exclamations of hatred and a single pallid face. She had never again visited Paris without the greatest reluctance and even on her honeymoon had found it insupportable.
The question of what each of us may consider his own time is not so easy to settle. The other day a young man said to me with considerable fierceness: 'What in Hell do you consider our own times to be?' as much as to say: 'You old dotard, what right have you to speak for me in the age of Zeppelins and post-Dadaism and the Presidency of Mr Hoover and rapidities and outcries . . . and of triumphant youth?' And I daresay he was right. We cannot speak for the youth that is treading on our heels and shouldering us out of our favourite seats in cafés. On the other hand one can speak of the past in the light of past lamps. And we are so ruled by the dead that my time that began, say in 1880, had irrevocably across it the shadow of the dead hand that stretched from the Middle Ages to the beginning of that decade - and that young man's teeth are still set on edge by the sour grapes that were planted centuries before the phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of the world. His claim was that his generation with its imperious desires not only dominated its own future but stretching back into the past had decreed that he and his contemporaries must alone rule today - because there could be nothing else.
There is nothing to object to in the theory. For myself I would rather be ruled by my great-granddaughter than by my great-grandfather. Nevertheless I think that a man may justly speak of the half-century or so that sees his rise and wane as his own time. That, while proprietary, is by no means exclusive since it does not prevent the young from coming in and taking their share. If I am fifty-six and you twenty-eight we have twenty-eight years in common and the differences of our unknown pasts, if the course of man back to the beginning be considered, will be almost infinitesimal. You are making momentarily all things new - but not, relatively, so new as all that.
From Chapter Two
The Congress of Berlin is unimportant compared with any one book by Darwin or the discovery of anaesthetics. But the peace and honour that for thirty-five years or so were procured for the world by the dangerous provisions of that treaty - that armed peace and that doubtful honour, were the frame within which the mental processes of the period applied colour to the canvas of the world. If instead of the 1878 Congress of Berlin after the Russo- Turkish war the dismemberment of Turkey in Europe had led in 1879 to a world war with as many participants as took part in the struggle between 1914 and 1918, the colour of human thought would have been materially influenced by the conflagration. It would today be in all probability singularly different from what it is. We might perhaps have made greater progress towards world solidarity in matters international and less in the direction of inventions, comfort, and material prosperity.
Taking then the horse before the more congenial cart let us consider for a moment the relationship of the Sick Man to Europe and the World.
During the last three decades of the nineteenth century the Mediterranean problem which we have examined in our first chapter was still an integral factor in civilisation. Most of the struggle between Europe and what remained of Oriental civilisation and hegemony took place north of that sea itself. But that was more because most of the participants were not - though they desperately wanted to become - naval powers than because of any strategic desire to fight on land. Their desire to become Mediterranean powers had become all the greater ever since in 1869 Lesseps had pierced the Isthmus [of Suez] and rendered the Mediterranean no longer an inland lake. As soon as that sea had the aspect of a highway of commerce to the rest of the world, the necessity that Russia had long felt for an ice-free port appeared all the more urgent. Her northern harbours were always bound in winter and her only access to non-frozen seas appeared to be through the territory of Turkey in Europe. For Great Britain on the other hand as soon as the Mediterranean had the aspect of a highway towards India, it appeared to become urgently necessary that no Great Power other than herself should assume the naval command of Eastern Mediterranean waters.
In 1877 war broke out between Russia and Turkey. It lasted till 1878. At its beginning the Ottoman Empire still retained great possessions in Europe. They had been the product of a vast non-European movement that was in part religious, in part the outcome of that pressure towards the Mediterranean that has affected practically the whole of the Old World. We may put it that the motive was economic and the driving-force religious, or we may choose to see it the other way round. In either case the bond of union of widely dissimilar, imperial races was Islamism, propagandist and for long apparently irresistible. You may see the remains of Turkish hill-forts on the Western land borders of Greece and those of the Saracens far to the East, going the other way, amongst the towers of Carcassonne and on the Alpilles beyond Tarascon on the Eastern side of the Rhone . . . Thus did Islam nearly succeed in circling that blue sea.
It is wrong, with Occidental self-sufficiency, to regard Islamism as synonymous with savagery. Indeed it would be nearer to exactness to say that during the dark ages of Europe, when the only flickerings of the light of European civilisation were to be seen here and there in lost monasteries, all the culture and civilisation that the world held outside the Great Wall of China were the possession of Mahometan races. It is a commonplace to say that amongst them were to be found all the world's mathematicians and astronomers, physicians and decorators, musicians and architects. The Alhambra still stands on western European soil; in the Middle Ages when popes were sick, Arab doctors were smuggled from the Tarascon hills through the territories of the Counts of Toulouse, to cure the head of Christendom. Today , in the medical schools of the United States and the German Empire, agnostic and cynical researchers still twit officially-minded modernists with the allegation that Arab leeches of the twelfth century knew more than we of today of prognosis, diagnosis and treatment.
To the contemptuous survivors of that proud civilisation, the Greek, Balkan and Near Eastern sects who were then their serfs appeared, and no doubt still appear, to be tribes as savage as - or indeed as tribes far more savage than - did the Tonkinese to the French, the Hindus to the British, or even the Filipinos of today to the inhabitants of official buildings at Washington. We at least can perceive in these, our darker-skinned fellow subjects, innumerable traces of ancient, still-living civilisations. The Turks could perceive nothing of the sort in their slaves, whether Kurdish, Albanian, Armenian, Macedonian, Bosnian, Montenegrin . . . or whether Hellenic, Roumanian, Bulgar or Serb. All traces of Periclean civilisation had long vanished from Greek life; though there may have been once a Serbian Empire, Black George, the founder of the Karageorgevitch dynasty, was for the Turks a mere hill-bandit in a desert region. And though, in the saying, the roots of Ararat may go deeper than those of the seven hills of Rome, a delicate, erudite and refined pacha of the selamlik reclining on his silken cushions above the waters of the Bosphorous could hardly be expected to perceive traces of those profundities in monstrously ragged Armenians plying their trade of mendicant in the streets of Stambul.
From Chapter Six
We must return seven years. New dooms were coming out of Africa. . . . To look unexpectedly at a table of bare dates concerning European occupations in that continent is almost to be thrown backwards. It is as if a shell should have exploded at your feet, so blinding is the illumination. You seem almost to perceive something like the condition on the borders of Oklahoma in April 1889. The peoples of Europe were aligned on the borders of the Dark Continent, ready for the signal to rush in. Madly hustling and threatening armed violence, they pegged out almost any stretch of territory that their stumbling feet let them fall upon. There was no country so small that it must not expand its chest at the thought of the Congo, the Nile, the Niger, the Sahara, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium: they were all mad to have a knife in that pudding. The signal to start was given by the first British gun fired against Alexandria. The signal to stop was the last one that sounded on November 11, 1918 somewhere in France . . . or perhaps in Belgium. Belgium itself played a sinister part in the tragedy.*
Few nations in Europe escaped the Nemesis of 1914 except Greece, Holland and Scandinavia. These had no share in the partition of Africa. The costs of her African territories to Spain are an unending tale of horror and disgrace. That may appear fanciful, yet it has been from the earliest days proverbial that it is during the division of the spoils that robbers fall out. I have no wish to influence the reader's views of colonisation as such; I have always been a Little Englander. It has always seemed to me that the Colonies have kept back the civilisation of England as the opening of new territories retarded the growing civilisation of the United States in the 1840's and 1850's. I have always had also strong feelings as to the moral obliquity of depriving coloured peoples or such white races as the Irish or the Poles of their lands and properties. But I am also aware of the insecurity of my sentimental position since the main reason for my undertaking this work is to advocate the abolition of world-barriers in the interests of the feeding and incidentally the aesthetic progress of humanity. And if great Empires should throw down their boundaries in the face of peaceful penetration why should not also negroes, the yellow races, subject Slavs and the Erse? The answer is no doubt to be found in the methods of that peaceful penetration.
The argument was mainly directed, it is true, against Asiatic enterprises. The French have always considered North Africa as part of France. Geographically it no doubt is. And the distinction is fairly plain. The Asiatics, Tonkinese, Siamese, Chinese, Japanese and Indians are all races of civilisations more ancient than our own. If they suffer from anything it is hyper-civilisation. That being so it is at once immoral and very dangerous to interfere with them by military methods. On the one hand ancient civilisations should be preserved for the good of humanity; on the other training in modern military methods will make these hyper-intelligent races infinitely dangerous if they are aroused. And even at that, emigration to the tropical climates of India or the rice swamps of Tonkin was unthinkable however gaily the tricolour might float in such breezes as they had.
I have given my account of the French surrender of their interests in Egypt hitherto mostly from the Government or Republican point of view. The French Opposition - the Royalists and the Right generally - evolved, after the event, a fairly coherent theory of peaceful colonisation. They threw out Freycinet and Gambetta over the question of a military expedition to Egypt. Later they threw out Jules Ferry, the great apostle of French colonisation, over the expedition to Tonkin. The French, they said, are above all the people who can settle down beside and fraternise with any sort of races of any sort of colour. Why would they of all peoples, with their desperate need for recuperation after 1870, waste their resources in armed expeditions against races amongst whom they could perfectly well establish peaceful colonies? The reasons for colonisation were trade and outlets for surplus populations. France has no surplus populations and her traders can establish themselves perfectly well in foreign countries without the incentive of the flag to induce them to it, witness the French domination and trade with Egypt. There was no military glory to be got front fighting unarmed races. On the other hand France had desperate need to re-establish herself in Europe, every man in the country being needed for that purpose and that purpose alone.
*For you may put it that the lamentable execution of Casement in London on 3 August 1916 was a direct result of the actions of the henchmen of Leopold II of Belgium on the Congo. Casement had been maddened by the atrocities on the Congo that he had witnessed whilst British Commissioner to the [Congo] Free State. So during the late war he recruited troops for Germany in Ireland. He considered the German invasion of Belgium the direct, avenging act of God. He was in fact mad at the time. I am well convinced of that for I knew him well. But he was already mad when he came back from the Congo - driven mad by the horrors that he had there witnessed. He was hanged for high treason. England has to her credit acts of which she may be more proud.
This article is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.