From the Past



By Uthman Shodipe

IN the cosmology of ancient Hellene, there was a uniform cultural guid­ance which graced every nuance of life with the hovering presence of the immortal gods. The Greeks were nurtured beneath the watchful firmament of the  unerring Olympian symbols, rooted in the belief that the gods were every­where, observing the unceasing quests of man, affecting the will of power, rec­tifying wrong, humbling the wicked, ul­timately affirming an invincible majes­ty.

Everywhere, there was a suggestive fatidical pronouncement, the subtle inti­mation of an augurial content, the astute stripping of the veil of heaven. Here, every action was subjected to some spiritual, interpretative bearing. There was always a cause, some providential rationale for the grand constituents of the human confrontations. The gods were permanent signposts, visible in the measure of harvests, salient in the for­tunes of war, apparent in the dramatic sway of electoral contests, obvious in the mercantilist temperament and in the tenor of peace.

This cultural idealism, which the Ro­mans later appropriated and called deux ex machina (the intervention of the gods), could be seen in poignant, com­prehensive expressiveness in the mysti­cal largeness of the Homeric Iliad and the Odyssey, where the gods jostled in partisan discretion, rescuing a fallen hero from the mortal blight, exposing treachery and the conclave of treason, strengthening the weak, enervating the cruel, sweeping across the fields of com­bat and the tempestuous seas, imposing victories and defeats with divine liberal­ism.

This thematic illustration of the di­vine judgment would invariably course through the subsequent tragedies of Ae­schylus, Sophocles and Euripides, heightening the arbitrating permanence of heaven, invoking a normative moral about the transience of monarchs, the in­evitability of the passage of warriors, the uncertainties of the lowly tribe; the pat­ent insignificance of the human frame.

It is in these verities that the conceptual anchor of the old Hellenistic principle reposes in instructive awareness, rousing the wise to the consciousness of his own finitude, mocking the foolishness of the unwary, revealing both the benign and the harsh contents of our fated universe.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the inspira­tional bard of Devonshire, invokes a powerful mastery of the Hellenistic leit­motif in the vivid evocative flourishes of his narrative poem, Kublai Khan. In an imaginative canvas of luxuriant, expositional imagery, Coleridge gracefully conjures the historical Kublai Khan from the depths of the Mongol dynasty, illustrating the barbarian monarch in a prodigal, festal theatre, wandering in the rich, verdant, epicurean expanses, con­sumed by the chimerical filigrees of a manufactured paradise.

Sprang from a primitive nomadic tribe which had no notion of governance, save the howling rabble of a loose, expeditional hunting, Kublai founded the Mon­gol dynasty in China, imposed the ruth­less will of an untutored race upon an enlightened people, subjected an higher civilization to the absolute fetters of an illiterate horde.

The greatest successor to Ghenghis Khan — through guile, bravura and sudden shocks of cruelty — Kublai swept across the vast steppes of Asia in obsessional conquests, decimated the fiefdoms of contending princes, whirled about in imperial hugeness, yoked almost every tract of earth from China to Russia and far into the distant extremities of Per­sia and Mesopotamia.

And yet Kublai was unsatisfied. He har­assed the wide frontiers of Japan in blind, acquisitive compulsions, flung his armies everywhere in relentless campaigns. He was indifferent to human losses. He could not rest. He would not rest. He was en­snared by an inner greed. Kublai per­ceived himself as the monarch of the world, the invincible symbol of a vaunted deity. And while the soldiers perished in endless imperial marches, Kublai reposed in a loud bacchanalian revelry of personal engrossment.

At the fabled seat of impe­rial power, he built an enchanting, scented paradise whence he lolled in to­tal sybaritic majesty, eclipsed from the worries of the world, festooned in the consuming tinsel of oriental splendour; feasting, hunting, wrapped in an impul­sive, festal liberty.

Quote the poet:

“In Xanadu did Kub­lai Khan

A stately pleasure dome decree

Where Alph the sacred river ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round

And here were gardens bright with sin­uous rills

And here were forests ancient as the hills

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery

But here beneath that romantic chasm

That lies athwart a cedarn cover…

Kublai heard from afar

Ancestral voices prophesying war.”

It is the old Hellenistic trap again. The barbarian monarch, vaulted to the star­tling height of imperial glory, who ruled with arbitrary consciousness, fa­voured the unlettered Mongolian hordes who immersed themselves in leisure while the conquered tribes en­gaged in productive labours. Steeped in unchallenged grandeur, Kublai flaunted his own divinity, until the gods stirred from their watchful firmament and affirmed their imperative denouement in the revolting spectacle of the Mongolian theatre. Kublai could not evade his own mortal passage. He yielded to the final arbitrating cudgel of the gods.

Even here, in the fortress of splendour, the gods could still reach down and smite the errant monarch. The Hellenistic cultural idee fixe about the intervening ubiquity of the gods does not signify the helplessness of man, nor does it invoke the inherent fettering of the human aspirations. No.

The Hellenistic philosophical summation is about the full accounting of the human *action, the fated ineludity of the judgment of heaven, the sovereigns and the subjects, the swaggering generalissimo and the tripled captives are all invariably leveled, united in an insignificant delineation amid the intervening rupture of the gods. But this much is never obvious until the sovereign is confronted with his own frailties, until the mighty perceives his own ruptured armour.

There is this testimony in the stricken power once poised on a vengeful tyrannical permanence, emboldened in invincible pretences. No more. He is now enfeebled in wobbly, piteous portrait; a victim of his own fetters, a captive of the intervening gods. He is now destined for a barren fate; a moral to those who would palter with the immortal gods for eminence.

First published Tuesday, 16 September, 1997.

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