Part 1 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
As told to my daughter Anima
Man is a terrestrial, an earthling. He lives, moves and walks on the firmly-grounded Earth. It is his standpoint and his base. He derives his points of view from it, which is also to say that his impressions are determined by it and his world outlook is conditioned by it.
Earth-born, developing on it, man derives not only his horizon from it, but also his poise, his movements, his figure and his height. That is why he calls Earth the star on which he lives, although, as it is well known, the surface of the planet is three fourths water and only one fourth firm land; even the largest continents are but huge floating islands. And since we found out that our earth is spherically shaped, we have been speaking quite naturally of the “terrestrial sphere” or of the “terrestrial globe.” To imagine a “maritime globe” would seem strange, indeed.
All our existence down here, our happiness, our misfortunes, our joys and our pains are the “earthly” life for us, that is to say, a paradise or a valley of tears, depending which aspect is taken into consideration. Thus, it is easy to understand why earth is represented as the primal mother of mankind in a great many myths and legends that give expression to the oldest memories and the innermost trials and tribulations in the lives of nations. She is considered the oldest of all the deities. Sacred writings tell us that man, emerging from earth, would return to earth. The earth is his maternal support, because he himself is the son of the earth. He sees in his siblings his ground-brothers, the inhabitants of the same earth. Among the four elements (earth, water, air and fire), it is the first which is vowed to man and which leaves its mark on him to the fullest. The idea that he could be marked as strongly by any of the other elements appears quite chimerical at first sight: man is neither fish nor bird, and even less a being of fire–were one to exist.
Are we to surmise from all this that human existence and the human being are essentially and exclusively earthly and earth-oriented, while the other elements are but accessories of a secondary rank? The problem is not so simple. The question whether a human existence other than strictly terrestrial is possible has more sense than it appears at first sight. It is enough for you to go to the seaside and glance into the distance from the shore: the immense surface of the sea will occupy all your horizon. Is it not remarkable that a human being standing on the shore would direct its eyes quite naturally from the land towards the sea and not the other way round, that is, from the sea to the land? In people’s deepest and often unconscious memories, water and the sea are the mysterious and primordial source of all life. In their legends and in their myths, most peoples conjure up deities and human beings emerging not only from the ground but also from the sea. All speak of the sons and daughters of oceans and seas: Aphrodite, for instance, the goddess of feminine beauty, had been born out of the foam of the billows. But the sea has also delivered some other children, and later on, we shall meet the “children of the sea,” as well as some wild “sea-roamers” who have little in common with the engrossing image of feminine beauty born out of sea surf! This world which suddenly opens before you is quite different from that of the soil and of the firm land. You may now understand the reason why poets, natural philosophers, and the men of science seek the origins of all life in water and why Goethe wrote these solemn verses: “Everything is born of water,/ Everything is preserved by water/Ocean, bring us your eternal rule!”
It is to Thales of Miletus, a Greek naturalist and philosopher of around 500 before our era that in general is attributed the thesis of the aquatic origin of all life. Nevertheless, the notion is both older and newer: it is perennial. In the nineteenth century, it was a German scientist, Lorenz Oken, who claimed a maritime origin for any and all life. As a matter of fact, in the evolutionary trees drawn by the Darwinian naturalists, fishes and ground-animals coexist, follow or, precede one another. The aquatic creatures appear as man’s ancestors. The protohistory and prehistory of mankind seem to confirm the oceanic origin. Illustrious scientists have come to the conclusion that alongside of “autochtonous” peoples, that is to say, people born on land, there lived “autothalassical” peoples, that is to say, peoples exclusively shaped by the sea, peoples that had never been terrestrial and who knew only one thing about firm land, namely that it was marking the boundaries of their strictly maritime existence. In the isles of the South Seas, one still comes across the last survivors of the men-fish among the maritime Polynesians, the Kanaks and the Sawu islanders. Their entire existence, their spiritual universe, their language, all are attuned to the sea. Our own representation of time and space, which we have inherited from our terrestrial surroundings, appeared to those people as strange and incomprehensible as the world of those genuinely maritime peoples is to us. So, it is worth asking: what is our element? Are we the children of the earth or of the sea? The answer is not clear-cut: we are neither through and and through. The myths from time immemorial, the hypotheses of modern natural sciences and the results of the research in prehistory leave both questions open.
The word “element” needs a short explanation. Since the age of Thales, since the Ionian natural philosophy of the pre-Socratic thinkers, and so by and large, since the year 500 before our era, the European peoples have been talking about four elements. Until now, these four elements — earth, water, air, and fire — have remained a living notion that could not be uprooted, despite all the objections raised by science. In return, modern natural science has broken up the four primal elements: nowadays, it distinguishes over ninety “elements” with an altogether different structure, as it understands by “element” any simple body that cannot be further decomposed or dissolved by modern chemical procedures. The four primordial elements and the elements with which modern science deals both theoretically and practically have only the term “element” in common. No modern chemist or physicist would dare to state that any one of the four “elements” is the one and only “primal element” of the world, as did Thales of Miletus in regard to water, Heraclitus of Ephesus about fire, Anaximenes of Miletus, concerning air, and Empedocles of Agrigentum, who favored a combination of the four. In rest, the quest for a precise meaning of “primal matter,” “elements,” “origin,” and “root” would ensnare us in insoluble questions of physics and natural sciences and in no less inextricable epistemological and metaphysical inquiries. For our historical analysis, however, we retain the four elements, with their simple but evocative names. As a matter of fact, they are global designations of the various possibilities of human existence. So, we may keep on using them while talking particularly of land powers, on the one hand, and maritime powers, on the other, in the sense conveyed by these elements.
Accordingly, the “elements” land and sea, of which we shall talk anon, must not be regarded as purely scientific entities, lest they dissolve into chemical substances, in other words, into historical nothingness. The implicit determinisms, and particularly the land and and maritime forms of historical existence do not act according to a compulsory and mechanical program. Were man merely a living being wholly determined by his environment, he would accordingly be a ground animal, a fish, a bird, or still, a fantastical combination of these elemental determinants. The different human types belonging to the four elements, such as for instance, the exclusively terrestrial and the exclusively maritime, would have little to do with each other. They would be strangers to each other, and the mutual isolation would be all the greater, as their “exclusivity” increases. The mixed breed would produce good and bad specimens and entertain friendly or hostile relations on the pattern of chemical affinities or repulsions. Human life would be entirely programed by nature, as would be its destiny, in the way plants and animals are. Man would be reduced to observing how some gobble the other and how still others live in a kind of symbiosis. There would be no human history in the sense of a history of man’s acts and decisions.
Nonetheless, man is not a creature wholly conditioned by his environment. Through history, he has the ability to get the better of his existence and his consciousness. He is aware not only of the act of birth, but also of the possibility of a rebirth. When in danger or in a desperate situation, circumstances in which the other animals and plants left to themselves are likely to perish, man can save himself and start anew by his perspicacity, the conclusions he draws from his analysis, and the soundness of his decisions. The scope for his abilities and for action on history is vast. Man can choose, and at certain moments in his history, he may even go so far, through a gesture peculiar to him, as to change himself into a new form of his historical existence, in virtue of which he readjusts and reorganizes himself. In this sense, when correctly understood, man has got “the freedom to go wherever he wants,” as the poet would say.
World history is the history of the wars waged by maritime powers against land or continental powers and by land powers against sea or maritime powers. By giving the generic title Sea Against Land (La mer contre la Terre) to his book on strategy, Admiral Castex, a French military expert, resumed an old and enduring tradition.
The elemental opposition between land and sea had been acknowledged throughout history: and almost until the end of the nineteenth century, the tensions between Russia and England were given the popular image of a scuffle between a bear and a whale. The whale was leviathan, the great mythical fish of which we shall talk more later. The bear, on the other hand, was one of the many symbols of the terrestrial fauna. According to the medieval interpretations put forth by the cabbalists, world history is a combat between the strong whale, leviathan, and the no less strong behemoth, a terrestrial animal, which was represented imaginatively as a bull or an elephant. The names leviathan and behemoth had been borrowed from the Book of Job (40 and 41). According to the cabbalists, behemoth tries to tear leviathan to pieces with its horns and teeth, while in turn, leviathan tries hard to stop the land animal’s mouth and nostrils with its flaps and fins in order to deprive it of food and air. This is a graphic illustration, which only the mythological imagery can convey, of the blockade to which a sea power subjects a land power by cutting its supplies in order to starve it to death. In the end, the two opponents kill each other. But the cabbalists go on to say that the Jews solemnly observe the millennial festival “The Feast of Leviathan,” about which Heinrich Heine writes in a well-known poem of his. More often than not, the cabbalists quote Isaac Abravanel, who lived between 1437 and 1508, in the era of great geographical discoveries, as their authority for this historical interpretation of the Feast of Leviathan. He had been treasurer firstly of the king of Portugal and then of the king of of Castile, and died surrounded by honors in Venice in 1508. He had acquired a good idea of this world and its wealth and so knew what he was talking about.
Let us now have a look at some events in world history from this point of view of the struggle between sea and land.
The world of Ancient Greece was born of raids and wars undertaken by nations of sailors. “It is not for nothing that the sea god trained them.” The maritime power established on the island of Crete chased the pirates out of the Eastern Mediterranean and laid the foundation of a culture, the originality of which has been uncovered by the archaeological excavations at Knossos.
A thousand years later, it was behind a wooden wall made up of ships that free Athens defended herself against her enemy, “the almighty Persians,” at Salamis in 480 before our era. She owed her survival to the outcome of that naval battle. On the other hand, during the Peloponnesian War she herself was defeated by Sparta, a land power. Because of it, though, the latter was unable to unite the cities and the peoples and place herself at the head of a Greek empire.
It was the opposite with Rome, which at home was a rural republic of Italy and a genuinely continental power. She raised herself to imperial greatness in the struggle against Carthage, a commercial and a maritime power. Both with reference to this long confrontation between Rome and Carthage and in general, Roman history has often been used as term of comparison with other conflicts and events in world history. Although quite interesting at times, such comparisons may leave room for strange inconsistencies as well. In this way, the British Empire is at times compared to Rome and at other times, with Carthage. Generally speaking, such comparisons are like a stick which may be grabbed by either end.
The declining Roman Empire saw its domination of the seas snatched by the Vandals, the Saracens, the Vikings, and the Normans. After a long sequel of failures, the Arabs ended by occupying Carthage in 696 and afterward laid the foundations of Tunis, the new capital city, and so established their age-long domination of the Western Mediterranean. The Eastern Roman Empire, that is to say, the Byzantine Empire ruled from Constantinople, was a coastal empire. It still made use of a powerful fleet and besides had the exclusive control of a secret weapon, the famous Greek fire. Notwithstanding, it was reduced entirely to a defensive position. In spite of that, as a maritime power, it managed to achieve what Charlemagne’s empire, a land power, could not: it acted as a rampart, a katechon, as it is called in Greek. However weak, it held several centuries against the onslaughts of Islam, preventing the Arabs from conquering the whole of Italy. In its absence, Italy would have become part of the Moslem world, like Northern Africa, and all of the Ancient and Christian civilization would have been destroyed. Then a new maritime power emerged in Christian Europe, as a result of the Crusades: Venice.
With her, a new mythical name entered the grand stage of world history. For almost half a millennium, the Venetian Republic symbolized the domination of the seas, the wealth derived from maritime trade and that matchless feat which was the conciliation of the requisites of high politics with “the oddest creation in the economic history of all times.” All that the Anglophiles admired in England, between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, had already made the fame of Venice: the great wealth, the diplomatic superiority by which the maritime power was exploiting the rivalries among the Continental powers and made others fight its wars, the aristocratic system of government which seems to have resolved the problems of internal, political order, the forbearance of philosophical and religious notions, the asylum extended to the political emigration and the ideas of independence. To all these may be added the magic attraction exerted by sumptuous festivals and by artistic beauty.
One of those festivities had caught people’s fancy in particular and helped to make Venice world-famous: the legendary “marriage to the sea,” the so-called spozalizio del mare. Every year, on the eve of the Assumption (or “Sensa”), the doge of Venice would go out to sea aboard the Bucentaro, the official vessel of the Republic, and toss a ring into the waves, as symbol of the union with the sea. The Venetians themselves, their neighbors, and even people from afar saw in that gesture a manifest sign that gave its mythical consecration to a power and a wealth that had been surging from the seas. We shall see what was really behind this beautiful symbol as soon as we probe its deeper meaning.
The glory of this fairy-tale-like “queen of the seas” kept expanding from the year 1000 to the year 1500. Before the year 1000, Nicephorus Phocas, the then Byzantine emperor, had been justified in stating: “the dominion of the seas rests with me alone.” Five hundred years later, the Turkish sultan in Constantinople told the Venetians: “Until now the sea was your bride, from now on, it is mine.” The age of Venetian supremacy over the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Eastern Mediterranean seas stretched between those two dates. The legend that would attract to Venice countless travelers, the celebrated Romantics of all the European nations, the poets and the artists, such as Byron, Musset, Wagner, and Barrès, as late as the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, dates from that age. Everybody would succumb to the spell.
Far from me the intention to darken the brightness of such splendor. But when we raise the question whether we are dealing here with a truly maritime destiny, with a genuine choice in favor of the sea element, it does not take us long to realize the smallness of a maritime power limited to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean basin alone, at a time when the huge expanses of of the oceans of the world were cast open.
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