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Looking Backward
by [?]

When it comes to “Looking Backward,” Bellamy isn’t in it a little bit with Prof. Herman V. Hilprecht. The retrospective glance of the latter covers a period of at least 11,000 years; and what is of infinitely more importance, it is that of a learned paleologist instead of a sensation-mongering empiric. The Professor has succeeded in lifting a corner of that black veil which hangs between the prehistoric and the present, in affording us a fleeting glimpse of our fellow man as he appeared long ages before the birth of Abraham. He has demonstrated that man has been a civilized animal much longer than is popularly supposed–that at least 5,000 years before the supposed advent of Adam he not only lived sociably in cities and had gods and kings, but was able to read and write! For eight years past the Professor and his co-laborers, under the patronage of the University of Pennsylvania, have been carrying on their explorations. The site of Nippur, the ancient capital of Kengi, later known as Babylonia, is the scene of their labors. Hitherto Nippur has been supposed to have been the world’s oldest city; but the excavations made not only prove that it rose upon the ruins of others, but affords some knowledge of a long line of kings who lived so long ago that their very names were forgotten before the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, or even the building of the Tower of Babel.

“What is the story of this buried past?
Were all its doors flung wide,
For us to search its rooms?
And we to see the race, from first to last,
And how they lived and died.”

Sargon is the most ancient Chaldean monarch mentioned in the Bible, and hitherto archaeologists have agreed that he was a fiction; but the Professor has not only proven that he had a habitation as well as a name, but has catalogued some thirty of his predecessors. Science has amply demonstrated the existence of man upon the earth long before the psychozoic era of the Biblical cosmogony; but Prof. Hilprecht is the first to demonstrate the high antiquity of his civilization. To the average man this will appear neither more interesting nor profitable than a two-headed calf or petrified corpse; but to the philosophic mind it affords much food for reflection. We have presumed that we could trace the history of man back to the time when he began to practice the art of writing, as distinguished from the transference of thought by crude pictorials–that our prehistoric progenitor was simply a savage. It now appears that people may build indestructible temples, and kings and priests write intelligently on imperishable material, and the nation be as utterly forgotten as though it had never existed. With these facts in mind, it were curious to speculate on what the world 11,000 years hence will know of our now famous men–such, for instance, as Cleveland and McKinley! What will the historian of that faraway time have to say of Mark Hanna? Printing has been called “the art preservative”; but is it? Suppose the priests of Bel–that deity who antedates by so many centuries the Jewish Jehovah–had committed the history of their temples to “cold type” instead of graving it upon sacred vases: Would Prof. Hilprecht and other Assyriologists be deciphering it to-day? Printing has substituted flimsy paper for parchment just as the pen substituted parchment for waxen tablets, as the stylus substituted the latter for the far more enduring leaflet of torrified clay. Imagine the effect of 11,000 years upon a modern library! Where will the archaeologist of the year 12,896 turn for the history of our time–where search for those “few immortal names that were not born to die”? Oral transmission of historic data, such as prevails among savages, such as prevailed among the Hellenes in the age of Homer, has been supplanted by the press. Long before Macaulay’s New Zealander stands on a broken arch of London bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s, every book now extant will have perished. Will they be continuously reproduced, and thus, like the human race itself, run ever on? Quien sabey? Eras of barbarism have overtaken civilizations as pretentious as our own– intellectual nights in which the patiently acquired learning of ages was lost. Petrifaction as in China, retrogression begotten of luxury as in Athens, submersion beneath an avalanche of human debris as in Rome, ignorance-breeding despoliation as in Ireland–these be the lions in the path of civilization. No race or nation of which we have any record has avoided a recrudescence of barbarism for an hundred generations. A few centuries of our wasting climate obliterates inscriptions on brass and wrecks the proudest monuments of marble. The recently imported Egyptian obelisk, which stood for ages on Nilus’ plain, is already falling into ruins. We can scarce decipher the deep-cut epitaphs of the Pilgrim Fathers. The mansion of the sire is uninhabitable for the son. The history of McKinley’s promised era of “Progress and Prosperity” will be written by the press reporter, that busy litterateur who has neither yesterday nor to-morrow. Some subsidized biographer may bind McKinley up in calf, and chance preserve a stray copy for some centuries–then good-by to all his greatness! The mighty Washington has not been dead a hundred years, yet has already become–as R. G. Ingersoll informs us–“merely a steel engraving.” Adams and Hancock and Franklin are paling stars, despite our printing-presses, have become little more than idle words in the school-boy’s lexicon. Our proud Republic, our boasted civilization will pass, for change is the order of the universe. What records will they leave behind? What is to prevent them being as utterly forgotten as were Sargon’s predecessors? Here and there the delver of far years will find the fragment of a wall, perchance an inscription carved in stone and protected by chance from the gnawing tooth of time. And from these posterity will construct for us a history in which we will appear, perhaps, as the straggling vanguard of civilization instead of heirs of all the ages. They may dig up a petrified dude and figure out that we were a species of anthropoid ape–learnedly proclaim us as “the missing link!” Suppose that by some mischance a picture of the new woman in bloomers and bestride a bike should be preserved: Would posterity accept her as its progenitor, or class her as a lusus naturae–perchance an hermaphrodite? A few coins will doubtless be discovered–if the excavators avoid the Texas treasury–and triumphant Populism take it for granted that ’twas on these curious disks that our “infant industry” cut its teeth. The “In God We Trust” inscription may be regarded as a barbaric hoodoo to prevent infantile bellyache or the evil eye, but the dollar mark will be entirely unintelligible to a people so many thousand years removed from the savage superstition of metallic money. Of course woman will have ruled the world so long that “tyrant man” will be regarded as a sun myth, and the Goddess of Liberty on our coins be mistaken for portraits of our female monarchs. Thus will Cleveland and McKinley, like Hippolyta and other amazons of old, be passed down to remote posterity in petticoats. If the electrotype from which the New York Journal prints its portraits of Mark Hanna should be found among the tumuli of Manhattan Island, it were well worth remaining alive until that time to hear the curious speculation of craniological cranks. Should the paleologists unearth the World building, they will find in the basement an imperishable object about the size of a bushel-basket, which will puzzle them not a little, but which his contemporaries could readily inform them was the gall-bag of Josef Phewlitzer’s circulation liar. The discovery of Editor Dana’s office cat nicely embalmed may get us accredited with the worship of felis domestica alias cream-canner, as a “judgment” for our persistent slander of the ancient Egyptians. But seriously, is it not a trifle startling to reflect of how little real importance all our feverish work and worry is, and how small a space it is ordained to occupy in the mighty e
pic of mankind! Here we have been fretting, fuming, and even fighting for months past to “save the country,” only to learn that it will in nowise stay saved–is hastening rapidly on to the tomb of the world’s history, will pass in turn through that gloomy sepulcher of countless nations into the great inane, the eternal void, the all-embracing night of utter nothingness! With all our patriotism and scannel-piping, our boasting and our battlefields, our solemn Declarations and labored Constitutions, we are but constructing a house of cards.