Jan 1, 2004 10:21pm

Sitting alone in my living room – surrounded by Chinese art, listening to American music, eating a breakfast of Australian food, and reading the paper with news from around the world – I’m struck by the realisation that we are on the summit of a vast edifice, a gargantuan, sprawling, labyrinthine complex emerging from the rubble of a thousand cultures. From our rooftop sofa the city slopes to the horizon in every direction; through the haze it’s possible to make out concentric rings of skyscrapers, towers, temples, castles and cathedrals, minarets and monoliths, connected by capillary networks of roads and walkways. Parts are in ruins; other quarters swarm with cranes.

Within the many levels of the city are homes, markets, shopping malls, libraries and laboratories, museums and theatres, workshops and smithies and factories, filled with merchants, technicians, labourers, historians, alchemists and scientists, artisans and artists, all creating, consuming, restoring, recording and selling nouns. Encircling the superstructure – this New York, this Rome, this Babylon – are the fields and forests that feed and clothe the populace. Produce is taken from the backs of mules and loaded into aircraft flitting back and forth. A dozen majestic rivers snake into the gates of the metropolis, which consumes them whole. Below, the dull throb of machinery pumps fuel and water through hidden tunnels, and drains the effluent of billions. Further down, the catacombs. Deeper, the archaeologists lay bare the city foundations. Deeper still, the cave artists burn torches and work their magic. Underneath them, middens and flint stones. Finally, at the lowest stratum, kilometres beneath the streets, palaeontologists chip away the rock, revealing fossils.

The inhabitants of the architectural map unfolded below us are born, then work, play, worship and finally die in their tiny piece of space-time with little comprehension of the Great Project they are part of. Very little of what they produce lasts for any length of time. Most is crushed beneath the weight of history. Their blood is the mortar which binds the city together. But here and there it’s possible to find records of the words and deeds of our ancestors. Even their names. People who breathed aeons ago. That always amazes me, when I read something that another person inscribed thousands of years ago on a tablet of stone or scrap of parchment. Amazing it survived to form part of our inheritance. Even more incredible, we understand what it means.

And yet, this great and wondrous creation, Civilization, the size and scope of which is barely within our powers of comprehension, is paint on a sandgrain, a grain suspended in the ocean the depth and width of which has no measure.


Happy New Year.


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