The Atlantis Syndrome P.1

Atlantis started with Plato and in his hands it was never a supercivilization of the sort conjectured by later authors; perhaps in strictly Greek terms it was no civilization at all but rather a fatally luxurious elaboration of an essentially barbarian way of life, for all its inception by a god. At all events, it was no seminal civilization: it wasn't the fons et origo of all later civilizations in the world, indeed Athens was its independent contemporary. Both Atlantis and old Athens were, for Plato, but episodes in the ever ongoing cycle of catastrophes and renewals that he saw as the most rational and scientific interpretation to which the world of human experience could be subjected. For him, science and religion were quite bound up together, so that the natural catastrophes were at the same time eras in which the divine light was withdrawn from the world and the equally natural renewals were times when it returned. So rational and obviously true was this scheme of things to Plato that the "problem" of the real historical location and fate of Atlantis that has exercised so many writers after him would have left him cold, or perhaps amused to think of what he had started. We quoted early in this book several passages of Plato to show how he handled stories in his works.

In the Republic, we find Socrates remarking that "We first tell stories to children. These are in general untrue, though there is some truth in them." Again, "We then make the fiction as like the truth as possible, and so make the lie or untruth useful." In the Protagoras we are asked by Socrates, "Now shall I, as an old man speaking to his juniors, put my explanation in the form of a story or give it a reasoned argument? ... I think it will be pleasanter to tell you a story." In the Pbaedrus, we recall, Socrates is told to his face that "It is easy for you, Socrates, to make up tales from Egypt or anywhere else you care to." Atlantis is just such a tale from Egypt, made up indeed to bring home the truth of Plato's view of history and his warning about the direction that he saw his civilization taking. Aristotle appreciated that, and we would have heard a whole lot less about Atlantis if everyone else had agreed with him.

The literal-minded, not very interested in Plato's science and philosophy, were soon taking him at face value in the classical world. But before the age of European exploration, there was small scope for them to speculate where in detail Atlantis may really have been sited. With the discovery of the New World at the end of the fifteenth century AD, and then the exploration of the Far East and Africa, speculation could run riot and Atlantis was given a new lease of life, or rather a myriad of new leases in places as far apart as Mexico, South Africa, Spitzbergen and Mongolia. But, only justly in view of Plato's Atlantic placing of Atlantis, it was the New World and the western Atlantic that had the biggest pull and the best staying power. In the nineteenth century it was possible for Donnelly to take the idea on in a really significant way by popularizing, if not inventing, the grand theory of a uniquely seminal civilization lurking behind all known ancient civilizations. There was in Donnelly, and in Spence after him, very little of the supercivilization concept. Their versions of Atlantis were Bronze Age or advanced Stone Age entities, full of wonders for their time but not noticeably decked with the sort of achievements in high technology or sophisticated astronomical science or general 'ancient wisdom' that later writers load on to theirs. Still, there was in the very idea of a prior civilization, which influenced and inspired all later ones, the seed of a notion of superiority, of a pristine quality that all the rest only aped and fell away from in their various ways. Donnelly at least did not push this and managed to keep his theories looking as though they belonged in the rational world of nineteenth-century science.

After Donnelly and Spence, there comes a divergence between two different sorts of Atlantological speculation (though Spence's later work foreshadows both developments). This divergence is still with us and nowadays presenting further subdivergences. On the one hand there are the people still looking for a fairly mundane explanation of Atlantis, more or less in terms of conventional archaeology: Thera, Old Anatolia and even antediluvian Cuba are examples of this relatively sober approach. On the other, there are bolder spirits looking to unknown Antarctica or the oceanic deeps for their rather more exotic long-lost civilization. On the whole, the more mundane-minded favour much less in the way of a supercivilization of sophisticated science and ancient wisdom, while the bolder speculators usually add on the hints of anti-gravity, astronomical expertise, spiritual quest and what have you. Atlantologists willing to settle for the Neolithic Antilles or Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean usually employ the catastrophist approach to explain the particular demise of their versions of Atlantis, but tend not to elevate catastrophism into such a cosmic principle as the other group does, with all its apparatus of arcanely encoded warnings and immortal longings. There is within this latter group something of a further division between the high-tech and the Arcadian tendencies: submarines and lasers versus contemplation of stars and navels; anti-gravity makes a good bridge between these two wings, since manoeuvring pyramid blocks or the cyclopean masonry of Tiahuanaco can be attributed either to advanced physics or to superior mentalist powers or a blurry indistinction between the two. Finally, of course, there is the divergence between those who leave their supercivilization rooted on earth and those who project it into outer space.

The possible combinations of traits exhibited in any particular piece of Atlantological writing are large in number, and sometimes quite startling. You may find the supercivilization in question given exalted cosmic origins - and then reduced to clanking around in steam-powered Zeppelins, looking for sex. You may encounter some survivors of another such supercivilization of purely terrestrial origins, lost under the ice or in the deeps, bringing a religion of immortality and anti-materialism to some benighted corner of the world, only to see it collapse for the most part into mass human sacrifice, with just a golden thread of the original ancient wisdom to be detected by the most recherche "decodings." You may be invited to see in some vanishingly paltry neolithic or Bronze Age remains the sure sign of the invisible presence of yet another version of the lost supercivilization.

At the core of the Atlantis Syndrome, in both its mundane and exotic manifestations, is a stubborn literal-mindedness that cannot credit the human race with what is actually one of its most obvious traits: its inventiveness. I have wryly commented before on the oddity that these highly inventive and imaginative writers of Atlantology evidently cannot believe that anyone else ever invents anything - whether it is Plato inventing Atlantis, Ute Indians inventing a folk-tale or various human groups around the world inventing civilization. This is where the Atlantologists' powers of imagination fail them: their own imaginations are revealed to be of a strictly trammelled variety after all, rarely if ever breaking out from the prejudices of their own time and place.

I believe it is no undue simplification of the case to say that modern Atlantology is in essence little more than certain vulgar assumptions of western religion and colonialism unthinkingly imposed on to the entire past history of the human race. The conviction that civilization must be a gift from the gods (of one sort or another) and must be introduced around the world by an elite of priests (of one sort or another) is precisely in line with such religious and social prejudices, of a very low order of sophistication it must be said. (There is nothing of this in Plato, who saw civilization as endlessly renewed, reinvented countless times all over the world, in the natural course of events. On the contrary, his Atlanteans are condemned for their imperialism in reaching out for Europe and Egypt.) It is really no wonder that the Nazis showed such an enthusiasm for every sort of Atlantological theory: Nazism was the product of a bunch of romantic autodidacts, stuffed full of the popular prejudices of their time and place (exceptionally spiteful prejudices in their case), bent on expansion - eastward in Europe, rather than in overseas colonies - at the expense of the current inhabitants of the regions they wanted to get their hands on.

There is about the Nazis' aspirations and exploits something like a pathological perversion of the romantic adventure stories for boys of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: stories by no means free of inhumane attitudes and assumptions in themselves. Stories of white explorers among, at best, gullible natives, frequently senselessly hostile; and stories of lost tribes and cities and treasures, sometimes presented in a pseudo-Egyptological or pseudoarchaeological context. (It was one of the depressing aspects of the Hollywood revamping of this genre in the 1980s that an apparently liberal sector of an essentially non-colonial country could have carried on so many of the negative traditions of the pre-war empire adventure story ethos.)

See also:

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 2

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 3

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