June 20, 2005

Returning to Africa

I've been enjoying Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa for the past five years or so, averaging maybe fifty pages per annum. It's one of those books that lends itself to episodic visits since it is chockful of anecdotes and small stories. Lately the book concerns itself with the differences between the native Africans and Europeans. Written in 1937, she sees moderns growing continually less civilized and the natives more so, and predicts we'll eventually trade places.
The people who expect the Natives to jump joyfully from the stone age to the age of motor cars, forget the toil and labour which our own fathers have had, to bring us all through history to where we are...We of the present day, who love our machines, cannot quite imagine how people in the old days could live without them. But we could not make the Athanasian Creed, or the technique of the Mass, or of a five-act tragedy, and perhaps not even a sonnet. And if we had not found them there ready for our use, we should have had to do without them. Still we must imagine, since they have been made at all, that there was a time when the hearts of humanity cried out for these things, and when a deeply felt want was relieved when they were made.
Dinesen goes on to suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation was greeted with the same delight by natives that moderns greet technological innovations. She chided the skeptical Europeans who blamed ulterior motives.
Father Bernard came over on his motor bicycle one day, his bearded face all beaming with bliss and triumph...[for] nine young Kikuyu, from the Church of Scotland Mission, had come and asked to be received in the Roman Catholic Church, because they had, upon meditation and discussions, come to hold with the doctrine of the Transubstantiation, of that Church.
On where Europe and the natives will be a few generations hence:
Where shall they find us then? Shall we in the meantime have caught them by the tail and be hanging on to it, in our pursuit of some shade, some darkness, practising upon a tomtom? Will they be able to have our motor cars at cost price then, as they can now have the doctrine of the Transubstantiation?
Prescient, she.

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