History as Literature / Lewis Mumford, The City…


Lewis Mumford / Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961

“Mid the wanderings of Paleolithic man, the dead were the first to have a permanent dwelling: a cavern, a mound marked by a cairn, a collective barrow.”

“The city of the dead antedates the city of the living. In one sense indeed, the city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every city. Urban life spans the historic space between the earliest burial ground for dawn man and the final cemetery, the necropolis, in which one civilization after another, has met its end.”


I’ve been sorting piles of books to find those that I can dispense with, at the same time   reacquainting myself with those to which I return for inspiration and reference, and vitally, responsible for a handful of ideas that set me off on a journey many years ago toward understanding human behavior, which for this Asperger, is/was a critical topic. It is my hypothesis that Asperger types have a hyposocial, visually-based brain organization that “resembles” that of pre-agricultural Wild Homo sapiens.

The City in History, by Lewis Mumford, is one of those books. I have never read all 576 pages of its exhaustive details; the quote at top occurs near the beginning, and it struck me immediately with its importance to modern human destiny; not predestined destiny, but the path of human civilization as it has played out over the previous 10-15,000 years of humans becoming domesticated humans, a distinction that has become more obvious to me as I have explored this “thing” called Asperger’s.

Modern social destiny, and the “type” Homo sapiens sapiens who created it, continues to be further defined by adaptation to hypersocial modern environments.  This social destiny was not a collective direction decided upon by “mankind” but the result of individuals pursuing survival. Climatic change and other natural geologic processes forced the dependence on agriculture and a sedentary life; the “idea” of controlling nature must have seemed to be a great and victorious reality at the time, one which could only be “good”. This quest for dominance over nature and its contents, remains the central self-important and disastrous goal for modern techno-social humans, but from this one step into domestication 10-15,000 years ago, a global environmental tragedy has followed.

Mumford’s book is filled with the grandiose “narrative” that archaeologists and anthropologists envy – frustrated novelists that they are. Historians are free to do this;  history has always been a scheme of cultural focus, of mythology with few facts, or a deluge of facts, added to “support” the myth. Our mistake is in thinking that mythology is “false” and has no value, and that history must be “scientific” – which it is not. It is literature that serves to remind us of the hundreds of millions of lives that have been lived, and great writers like Mumford remind us of the delusional belief that we are a supreme and intelligent species that has fulfilled a supernatural evolutionary destiny, but instead, our behavior shows us to be one more repetition of the necropolis stage of civilization.

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