In 1969 the BBC aired its “landmark” 13-part series Civilisation. There was – and still is – controversy over the title, given that the scope of the programme was confined to an appreciation of a limited range of western art, though in fairness to the producers, its remit was qualified by the subtitle A Personal View by Kenneth Clarke. This week the BBC announced the imminent broadcast of a similar “landmark” series, the nine-part Civilisations (note the plural.) The stated focus of the series is on art and creativity, though I suspect that the underlying question of what constitutes the civilised will be in play throughout. If, however, we believe that civilisation started with cave paintings 40,000 years ago, then perhaps it makes sense to see art as an index of its development.
Wiser men than me have baulked at the prospect of trying to come up with a definitive description of what civilisation is, as their frequent recourse to humour on the subject seems to indicate. Oscar Wilde once quipped, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation between” – though we should bear in mind that he died in 1900 and much has happened since. Others have come up with definitions that, notably, do not mention art. They include: Arnold Toynbee, “Civilisation is a movement and not a condition”; Samuel Johnson, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation”; H.G. Wells, “Civilisation is a race between disaster and education”; and Emile Zola, “Civilisation will not attain to its perfection until the last stone of the last church falls on the last priest”. And let us not forget Ghandi’s withering riposte when asked what he thought of western civilisation: “I think it would be a good idea.”
The elusiveness of the essence of civilisation seemed to permeate two films that I saw this week. The first, Makala, a documentary about the life of a Congolese charcoal maker, was tough to watch. His precarious, hand-to-mouth existence – trying to earn a living by making and selling charcoal in a war-ravaged country that has no infrastructure and with no support outside of family – seemed unimaginable, though true. The very absence of civilisation was palpable. The second, Phantom Threads, portrays an opposite extreme – the life of a fashionable London couturier circa 1955. It’s a love story, ultimately, but the pampering environment in which it is set – all frocks, flounces and tantrums – led me to question whether this facet of civilisation is, in fact, civilised at all. Decadent seems more apt.
However we might choose to define it, civilisation is always in the process of development, absorbing and incorporating diverse elements along the way – the more the better, for diversity builds resilience. Civilisations built on monocultures have all peaked and declined– Egyptian, Greek, Roman, to name a few. They were ousted by more powerful rivals, which suggests that more of the same would be futile in the long term. The sooner we get used to the idea of a global – but inclusive – civilisation, the better. That is why I was encouraged by other news this week. The village of Cheddar, which already punches above its weight in the fame stakes, has now come up with another knock-out. Eponymous Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old skeleton, has provided scientists with DNA that reveals his skin was black – or dark brown – and that he had blue eyes. People of white British ancestry alive today are his descendents, which means that the connection between Britishness and whiteness is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are probably some of us who may not like the idea, but to them I have to say “hard cheese.”