Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

John Smith.

An editorial article from a Journal. Of May 3rd, A.D. 3873.

At the quiet little village of Smithcester (the ancient London) will be celebrated to-day the twentieth, centennial anniversary of this remarkable man, the foremost figure of antiquity. The recurrence of what, no longer than six centuries ago, was a popular fête day, and which even now is seldom allowed to pass without some recognition by those to whom the word liberty means something more precious than gold, is provocative of peculiar emotion. It matters little whether or no tradition has correctly fixed the date of Smith’s birth; that he was born — that being born he wrought nobly at the work his hand found to do — that by the mere force of his intellect he established our present perfect form of government, under which civilization has attained its highest and ripest development — these are facts beside which a mere question of chronology sinks into insignificance.

That this extraordinary man originated the Smitharchic system of government is, perhaps, open to honest doubt; very possibly it had a de facto existence in various debased and uncertain shapes as early as the sixteenth century. But that he cleared it of its overlying errors and superstitions, gave it a definite form, and shaped it into an intelligible scheme, there is the strongest evidence in the fragments of twentieth-century literature that have descended to us, disfigured though they are with amazingly contradictory statements of his birth, parentage, and manner of life before he strode upon the political stage as the liberator of mankind. It is stated that Snakeshear — one of his contemporaries, a poet whose works had in their day some reputation (though it is difficult to say why)— alludes to him as “the noblest Roman of them all;” our ancestors at the time being called Englishmen or Romans, indifferently. In the only fragment of Snakeshear extant, however, we have been unable to find this passage.

Smith’s military power is amply attested in an ancient manuscript of undoubted authenticity, which has just been translated from the Japanese. It is an account of the water-battle of Loo, by an eyewitness whose name, unfortunately, has not reached us. In this battle it is stated that Smith overthrew the great Neapolitan general, whom he captured and conveyed in chains to the island of Chickenhurst.

In his Political History of the Twentieth Century, the late Mimble — or, as he would have been called in the time of which he writes, Mister Mimble — has this luminous sentence: “With the single exception of Coblentz, there was no European government the Liberator did not upset, and which he did not erect into a pure Smitharchy; and though some of them afterward relapsed temporarily into the crude forms of antiquity, and others fell into fanciful systems begotten of the intellectual activity he had stirred up, yet so firmly did he establish the principle, that in the Thirty-second Century the enlightened world was, what it has since remained, practically Smitharchic.”

It may be noted here as a curious coincidence, that the same year which saw the birth of him who established rational government witnessed the death of him who perfected literature. In 1873, Martin Farquhar Tupper — next to Smith the most notable name in history — died of starvation in the streets of London. Like that of Smith, his origin is wrapped in profoundest obscurity. No less than seven British cities claimed the honour of his birth. Meagre indeed is our knowledge of this only bard whose works have descended to us through the changes of twenty centuries entire. All that is positively established is that during his life he was editor of “The Times ‘magazine,’” a word of disputed meaning — and, as quaint old Dumbleshaw says, “an accomplished Greek and Latin scholar,” whatever “Greek” and “Latin” may have been. Had Smith and Tupper been contemporaries, the iron deeds of the former would doubtless have been immortalized in the golden pages of the latter. Upon such chances does History depend for her materials!

Strangely unimpressible indeed must be the mind which, looking backward through the vista of twenty centuries upon the singular race from whom we are supposed to be descended, can repress a feeling of emotional interest. The names of John Smith and Martin Farquhar Tupper, blazoned upon the page of the dim past, and surrounded by the lesser names of Snakeshear, the first Neapolitan, Oliver Cornwell, Close, “Queen” Elizabeth, or Lambeth, the Dutch Bismarch, Julia Cæsar, and a host of contemporary notables are singularly suggestive. They call to mind the odd old custom of covering the body with “clothes;” the curious error of Copernicus and other wide guesses of antique “science;” the lost arts of telegramy, steam locomotion, and printing with movable types; and the exploded theory of gunpowder. They set us thinking upon the zealous idolatry which led men to make pious pilgrimages to the then accessible regions about the North Pole and into the interior of Africa, which at that time was but little better than a wilderness. They conjure up visions of bloodthirsty “Emperors,” tyrannical “Kings,” vampire “Presidents,” and useless “Parliaments”— strangely horrible shapes contrasted with the serene and benevolent aspect of our modern Smithocracy!

Let us to-day rejoice that the old order of things has for ever passed away; let us be thankful that our lot has been cast in more wholesome days than those in which John Smith chalked out the better destinies of a savage race, and Tupper sang divine philosophy to inattentive ears. And yet let us keep green the memory of whatever there was of good — if any — in the dark pre-Smithian ages, when men cherished quaint superstitions and rode on the backs of “horses”— when they passed over the seas instead of under them — when science had not yet dawned to chase away the shadows of imagination — and when the cabalistic letters A.D., which from habit we still affix to the numerals designating the age of the world, had perhaps a known signification.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31