Recently, Susan Bergholz, the devoted literary agent of the late Uruguayan writer and planetary great Eduardo Galeano, sent me this brief email: “A friend of Eduardo’s and mine called yesterday to tell me, ‘Now we know where Eduardo went: he became pope!’” Somehow, that thought raised my spirits immeasurably. I was about to turn 71 and feeling my age as the dog days of summer approached. After all, when I flip through my address book — and yes, I’m old enough to have a “dumb” one filled out with that ancient potion, ink — it often reads like a book of the dead. I miss friends and authors I worked with like Chalmers Johnson and Jonathan Schell whose ways of thinking helped me make sense of our world. Eduardo has now entered that realm. I was once his English-language book editor and couldn’t be more proud of it. He remains one of my heroes.
When I’m in such moods, TomDispatch offers me an advantage few have. I can resuscitate the dead — and so, with Pope Francis’s excoriating words about our deteriorating planet in mind, I thought I might bring back from the grave the “pope” of my life. History had a strange way of spilling its secrets to Eduardo Galeano, who died in April, and in his late-in-life masterpiece, Mirrors, a history of humanity in 366 episodes, he took us from our first myths to late last night. He could blend the distant past and yesterday (or even tomorrow) in a fashion that took your breath away. Here, for instance, is a passage he wrote early in Mirrors on the “origin of writing” that captures the essence of those first scratches on clay tablets and of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
“When Iraq was not yet Iraq, it was the birthplace of the first written words.
The words look like bird tracks. Masterful hands drew them in clay with sharpened canes.
Fire annihilates and rescues, kills and gives life, as do the gods, as do we. Fire hardened the clay and preserved the words. Thanks to fire, the clay tablets still tell what they told thousands of years ago in that land of two rivers.
In our days, George W. Bush, perhaps believing that writing was invented in Texas, launched with joyful impunity a war to exterminate Iraq. There were thousands upon thousands of victims, and not all of them were flesh and blood. A great deal of memory was murdered too.
Living history in the form of numerous clay tablets were stolen or destroyed by bombs.
One of the tablets said:
We are dust and nothing
All that we do is no more than wind.”
If George W. Bush did a remarkable impersonation of the (whirl)wind across the Greater Middle East, with results that grow more horrific by the day, here is a set of passages from Mirrors on the planet’s previous superpower, a small island nation that caused its own kind of devastation. This little history of Great Britain from the Opium Wars to Darwin’s finches ends on a typically spectacular Galeano riff on the nature of humanity. My thanks go to his publisher, Nation Books, for allowing me to bring Eduardo alive again at TomDispatch. I hope his spirit continues to inhabit this planet for a long time to come.
- God’s Masterpiece or the Devil’s Bad Joke?
Eduardo Galeano • July 26, 2015 • 2,400 Words