Progress, Civilisation and Land Reclaimation

This is an extended piece from Graham Swift’s brilliant book, Waterland:

Who will inherit the world…

When the children of the French Revolution threw off their tyrannical father Luis XVI and their wicked step-mother Marie Antoinette (who, as it turned out, were only  like figures in a puppet show, you could pull of their heads just like that), they thought they were free. But after a while they discovered that they were orphans, and the world which they thought was theirs was really bare and comfortless. So they went running to their foster-father Napoleon Bonaparte, who was waiting by the old puppet theatre; who’d dreamed up for them a new drama based on old themes and who promised them an empire, a destiny – a future.

Children, there’s this thing called civilization. It’s built of hopes and dreams. It’s only an idea. It’s not real. It’s artificial. No one ever said it was real. It’s not natural. No one ever said it was natural. It’s built b he learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one said it couldn’t fall to bits. And no one ever said it would last for ever.

Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world Look in the old books: see how many times and on how many pretexts the end of the world has been prophesied and foreseen, calculated and imagined. But that of course, was superstition. the world grew up. It didn’t end. People threw off superstition as they threw off their parents. They said, Don’t believe that old mumbo-jumbo. You can change the world, you can make it better. The heavens won’t fall. It was true. For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had fashioned for itself all the tie it was growing up.

Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress, it doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away.My humble model for progresss is the reclaimation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retreiving what is lost. A dogged, vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldnt’ g mistakng the reclamation of land for the building of empires.

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