"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 13, 2018

African Dreams–Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

While the slave trade had operated from both coasts since the 1500s, Europeans never ventured into the interior, relying on African middlemen to buy directly from tribal chiefs who had already enslaved their enemies.  Tribal warfare was common in Africa, and the capture, sale, and barter of captives was common.  The Atlantic trade was directly by Europeans through African wholesalers, but the Indian Ocean market was operated by the English but also by Arabs who had a lucrative market in the Middle East.

Mungo Park was one of the first European travelers to explore central Africa and his adventures were recorded in a series of books chronicling his journeys in the late 1700s.  In The Life and Travels of Mungo Park in Central Africa he provides a firsthand account of life in heretofore unexplored regions of the continent.  The story was not pretty.  In fact, it was savage, brutal, and primitive.  He himself had been captured many times, bartered as a slave, and only escaped death because of his value as a European and for the clothes he wore.

The eunuch and his four followers were here butchered, after a very slight resistance, and stripped within a few yards of me: their cries were dreadful; and even now, the feelings of that moment are fresh in my memory. My hopes of life were too faint to deserve the name. I was almost instantly surrounded, and incapable of making the least resistance, as I was unarmed, was as speedily stript; and whilst attempting first to save my shirt and then my trowsers, I was thrown on the ground. My pursuers made several thrusts at me with their spears, that badly wounded my hands in two places, and slightly my body, just under my ribs, on the right side. Indeed, I saw nothing before me but the same cruel death I had seen unmercifully inflicted on the few who had fallen into the power of those who now had possession of me; and they were only prevented from murdering me, in the first instance, I am persuaded, by the fear of injuring the value of my clothes, which appeared to them a rich booty,--but it was otherwise ordained.

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René Caillié travelled to Timbuktu in the early 1800s and was the first European to explore the Sahelian interior.  Sir Richard Francis Burton, perhaps the most famous of African explorers, travelled extensively in the interior of East Africa in the early 1800s, searching, with Speke, for the source of the Nile.   Both Caillié and Burton relied on disguise and language to make their way to the holiest places of African Islam, while Park – a very innocent and naïve traveler – made no attempt to hide his European background nor the reason for his travels – to find the source of the Niger River.

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As a result, Park’s accounts are particularly compelling.  While Burton, always a careful intellectual (his books on his travels to Mecca, complete with meticulous descriptions of culture, tradition, society, and religion were academic staples in the early days of exploration), Park travelled headlong and in so doing became an unwitting and unwilling part of tribal conflict, slavery, and the trade in human cargo.

Park’s images of African savagery confirmed whatever impressions Europeans had of the continent and certainly contributed to the more exaggerated cannibalistic images of the interior spread about, but there was no doubting his accounts.  Later travelers like Paul du Chaillu – a zoologist/explorer who intended to study gorillas, but whose accounts of the tribal culture of Central Africa were as troubling as those of Park – confirmed the internal warfare, slave trade, and primitivism of the region. 

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Joseph Conrad writing much later in the 19th century drew indirectly on these accounts when he wrote Heart of Darkness, a story of an English ivory trader at an outpost far up the Congo River in the interior who discovers the primitive and the savage within himself.  ‘The horror….the horror’, he says at the moment of his death when he finally understands human nature.  The African interior – largely unknown, mythical, rumored, but far removed from civilized Europe – was Conrad’s metaphor for this human primitivism.

D.H. Lawrence throughout his central works, especially Women in Love, explores human sexuality as a struggle between European rationality and cold logic and African sensuality and passion.  Only when the two were in perfect equilibrium could final sexual partnership and an emotional/sexual union be achieved. An African mask features in his story – it is a frequent and unsettling reminder of that part of human sexual nature which is essential but dangerous and destructive if not tempered or balanced by its polar opposite.

It was with this baggage that Arnie Frank left for Africa.  It was not a neutral place, nor a benign one, nor a predictable one; and he had managed to mix myth, metaphor, and chronicle to produce great expectations.  There could be no more romantic place.  If, as he expected, it would have the passionate primitivism of Conrad and Lawrence, the excitement of risk, and a cultural exploration that few of his colleagues would ever think of taking.  It would also be the third leg of his cultural adventures.  If India and the East were places of philosophy, cosmology, and ancient history; and if Latin America was environmental beauty; then Africa would be intensely personal, demanding, and unremittingly challenging.  India would always be for the eye-painter, impossible to take in all at once, demanding only in a sensuous and intellectual way; Latin America the Andes and the Amazon; but Africa would take a different measure.  There was no telling how Europeanized Africa’s tribalism had become, nor in what forms it might reappear.  Frank knew of Africa’s lawlessness and civil disorder, and had his qualms because of that; but he was no American naïf, assuming that the world was as sanitized and policed as his own.  He would be able to navigate or better circumnavigate problems if and when they arose.

There are still only two types of travelers to Africa.  First, American progressives who want, finally, to visit the ports of the slave trade and the apartheid-era South African townships, to do visible penance for the crimes of their ancestors, and to confirm their belief in the validity of African culture and civilization at least equal to that of Europe.  Second are safari and game park visitors who have always thought of Africa as a place first of animals, savannahs, veldts, and forests.  Other tourists are incidental – returning Peace Corps volunteers, academics completing their basic research on the African diaspora, musicologists, and linguists.  Most, since their objectives are clear, narrow, and achievable, come away satisfied.  They never expect to figure out the persistence of African under-development, Big Man tyranny, endemic disease and poverty – why Africa remains far behind every other continent in social, economic, and political development.

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Anyone who knew Africa at all knew that the fanciful, romantic ideas of Arnie Frank would never be realized.   The days of 19th century European adventurism, a by-product of empire, expansionism, and colonialization were long gone.  Africa had been mapped, surveyed, and chronicles – a continent to be dealt with and done with.  Tribalism – that potent, primitive, sensual, undeniable force of human nature – was, as Kurtz understood would never disappear; but would be tamed or at best sublimated.  More accurately, it was a persistent vestige of prehistory – isolated, animist, subsistence societies that had little chance of economic and social development.  It was that very primitivism romanticized by Conrad and Lawrence that would always hold them back.

Most importantly, those who had travelled to Africa with few expectations and out of professional duty, knew that decades of international ‘development’ had done little to encourage progress.  Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa were still overwhelmingly poor, corruptly ruled, inefficiently administered, grossly inequitable in terms of wealth and well-being – despite the billions of American and European assistance.   The donor’s geopolitical agendas had always taken precedence over development and governance.  They tolerated the likes of Idi Amin, Bokassa, Debry, and Mobutu because of oil, rare earth minerals, or strategic geographical positioning.

“Where”, Frank wondered, “should I start?”

He considered Mungo Park who started at the Atlantic and worked his way inland; so perhaps a soft landing in Dakar, and then trips through Mali, Burkina, and Niger might be a way to ‘penetrate’ Africa but not through the malarial swamps and forests of the Congo.  Until the very recent incursions of Islamic militants in the Sahel, the region was always safe and accommodating.  Religion was a matter of faith and some mysticism but never radical or threatening.  The arid climate limited disease, cities were small and manageable, and crime nonexistent or low.

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Southern Africa, depending how it was considered, was not really Africa.  Hottentots, Boers, and Zulus in a semi-industrialized, wine-producing state was not what he envisaged, too far from any of his mythical ideas.  He had no interest in visiting Angola or Mozambique, relatively recently emerged from civil wars and still badly governed, and too influenced by Cuba, Brazil, and Portugal to have rediscovered their traditional past,.

Needless to say, Arnie Frank ran into the same unpleasantness experienced by other African travelers.  Paul Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde, memoirs of trips down the African coast of the Indian Ocean and back up the Atlantic.  Theroux had been a teacher in West Africa as a young man and was charmed by its open sexual culture, generosity, and a society uncomplicated by Freud and Christian guilt.  At the end of his voyages of rediscovery up and down the coasts, he was disappointed, tired, disillusioned, and beaten.  Africa had become a different place.  Whatever tribal positioning had kept it cohesive and even remarkable had come apart.  Poverty, venality, corruption, and inefficiency were everywhere.

In Lower River, a novel, Theroux wrote about a Peace Corps Volunteer who had had a transformative experience in a small African village and who went back to visit many decades later.  The village had completely changed.  The formerly cooperative culture had become antagonistic, self-serving, and hostile.  He was at first welcomed as a familiar figure, but soon taken advantage of and threatened.  Soon he was seen for only what he could give. The story does not end well. 

The major cities that Arnie visited were crime-ridden, lawless, and malarial.  Nairobi, Kinshasa, Lagos, Abidjan, and Johannesburg were as violent as any American inner city.  If one had money or diplomatic support, one travelled in convoy with armed protection. If not, travel was discouraged.

The smaller cities like Bamako and Niamey had become threatened by Islamic terrorists, had garrisons of French troops stationed nearby, and were nervous, unpleasant places.  The rural areas were, as Theroux described, unhappy places of persistent poverty and little opportunity.

Africa had been left to founder, plundered by the autocrats who governed, supported by politically driven donor interests who had little interest in serious ‘poverty alleviation’ or social progress and more in domestic political priorities, and ignored by everyone else.  Only if Africans crammed into country craft to make their way from Libya to Italy or rioted in the northern suburbs of Paris did anyone pay attention.

Arnie Frank travelled to Africa a number of times, refusing to give up; but upon more serious reflection, give up what, exactly? Myth can only be sustained by mythical expression.  Religions founded on myth but responding to emotional, social, and political needs have prospered.  More fanciful folk myths have disappeared.  The once-current idea that myth is essential to human society proposed by Joseph Campbell has long faded as social currency.  A more practical, no-nonsense reality has taken its place.

Myth plus romance has no chance whatsoever; and Arnie should have known better, product as he was of relativism and a good education. So he, like most, had given Africa his best shot but concluded like those before him that if there was ever a uniquely important, potentially significant, and powerful culture in Africa, it had gotten distorted out of recognition.  For the time being at least, it was a place to be avoided.  How he had been infected with such romantic idealism, no one knows; but at least he returned to earth only disillusioned, not disheartened.

Monday, December 10, 2018

True Love–Happy Indifference And Courtship Among Dictatorships

The Oloffson was the place to meet the love of one’s life, even more so because of its romance, the place for European glitterati and American artists, and the precariousness of Haiti itself.  One did not casually visit Haiti or stay at the Oloffson unless by specific design and determination.  No travel agent would have suggested it during any of the post-Duvalier regimes even for the adventurous few who wanted to see Victorian gingerbread Haiti before it became Americanized. Not everyone felt comfortable at the Oloffson, but those who did were made for each other.

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Of course there was no chance whatsoever of Americanization happening.  Haiti seemed to be doomed to be one of the world’s worst - deforested, denuded, pillaged by one corrupt regime after another, desperately poor, and dangerous. 

Even the worst of evils has a positive side, and under the long reigns of Papa and Baby Doc , one could dance in Carrefour, walk the port and the old downtown waterfront, shop at the iron market, and eat at the French and Italian restaurants up the hill in Petionville and Kenscoff without a second thought.  Public safety was a by-product of the Tontons Macoutes for whom any civil disturbance, particularly crime against foreigners was a threat to national order and as importantly national image.

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So the Oloffson was the place to visit, to see and be seen, throughout the Duvalier years.  The tontons macoute, shades, porkpie hats, and Lugers added to the romance of the hotel; and Petit Pierre, featured in Greene’s The Comedians was the actual dwarfish dandy who still drank rum punches at the bar, trim and elegant with cane, boutonniere, and gold jewelry.  Haiti’s Bobby Short played piano at the Oloffson, the same Cole Porter tunes, the same phrasing, style, and easy patter, a Bobby Short clone except for his blackness, Papa Doc’s proud low black bourgeoisie far darker than the monied mulattoes of Kenskoff who never came down the mountain to hear him play.

The two lovers in question – he an American recruited by his government to help Haiti’s foundering economy; she a European musicologist taken with the African roots of meringue – had no more in common than Haiti, a country for those who loved it either a lover, a doppelganger, or the perfect cultural angel; never just a place, one more entry in a musical archive or case study for business school.  The tom-toms in the hills above Petionville, the voodoo, Baron Samedi, and even Papa Doc himself were never just accidental, fictional props to their personal dramas. 

They had both been warned against Haiti.  Nothing in Angola, Chad, or East Timor was like the particular lawlessness of this place.  Every other place of civil disorder, autocracy, and oppression could be understood.  The rise to power of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot were understandable, even predictable; but nothing could be compared to this cannibalistic ritualized, pagan regime.  The lovers, despite their years in black holes and civil wars, were ingenues when it came to Haiti.

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Yet both were accustomed to ‘skating’ – pirouettes on glass above Idi Amin, Edris Debry, Bokassa, Mugabe, and Botha – untouched by the vandalism and murder below.  Privileged travelers with pukka passports, international recognition and home office support.  If the nastiness of pogroms and death squads came too close, they would be withdrawn, secure.

Skating was one of the perks of the business for those who chose their profession for the adventure not the money or the recognition.  Why would anyone choose to be  a clinician in Springfield when the most unpredictable, entirely free, and limitless experience was there for the asking? A life of hazards with lifelines; falaises with Medevac and helicopter rescue.

The criticisms of their attitude and approach were many, consistent, and predictable.  How could they live with their consciences, eating foie gras at Cote Cour, Cote Jardin in Petionville; Nile perch from Lake Tanganyika in Burundi; coquilles St. Jacques in Dakar; or fresh lobster on the Luandan peninsula when millions were being tortured, imprisoned, and disappeared?  Yet the Hutu-Tutsi civil wars, the vicious oppression of the anti-democratic forces in Chad, the derogation of civil rights in Madagascar were of little import to the lovers.

It was no surprise, then, that they found each other on the veranda of the Oloffson, each drinking one of Petit Pierre’s rum punches, looking out over the swimming pool where the fictional Doctor Philipot’s body was found, listening to the voodoo drums in the hills above the hotel, and wondering whether the Norwegian Line cruise ship would stay or leave.

They, like the characters in Greene’s novel were comedians – actors for whom the real Port-au-Prince did not exist.  They, each on their own stage, were playing, inventing, and creating new scenarios about Haiti.  The ‘real world’ of the Duvaliers did not exist and never existed.  It was a backdrop, fitting for their own personal performances.

To charges of complicity – the more foie gras eaten in Petionville, the more dances danced in Carrefour, the more nights spent at the Oloffson, the more support given to the murderous Duvalier regime, the worse things would become – they turned a deaf ear.  Life was to be lived, tasted, enjoyed, and ingested without concerns for provenance.  In the world of international development, there was no such thing as ‘responsible sourcing’.

When one of the lovers had been travelling in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon and had stopped to eat at a rest house far from the border, he had asked his Cameroonian host what was on the menu.  He was told not to ask, a code for bush meat, whatever one can catch– monkeys, field rats, lizards, and grubs.   

Whether in Haiti, Tanzania, Chad, Angola, or East Timor, one should never asked what one was eating, what was cooking, what was behind the curtain.

She had friends who had criticized her for her travels in the Deep South which could only be considered traitorous and complicit.  The slave-owning, racist, backward society of the Mississippi was still alive and well and travel there was tantamount to treason.  Forget the reconciled civil conflict, the cultural unity of a United States, the predictable trajectory of a human history propelled by self-interest and territorialism.  The South was evil and no one should offer it succor, support, or recognition.

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There are many reasons for successful pairings – family, breeding, looks, intelligence, spirit – but philosophy is never one, or at least never mentioned.  The two lovers found each other because of indifference.  They cared only for what they saw. 
I am an observer, a reader of signs
A decipherer of origins
An eye-painter
Neither cared for implications.  Haiti was the Oloffson, Petit Pierre, rum punches, and Carrefour.  Burundi was Capitaine au Fenouille.  Senegal was Le Dagorne and the corniche.  Angola was giant grilled shrimp.  Antananarivo foie gras.  Bamako was ‘la France profonde’, the Deep South hoop skirts, pilgrimage, and plantation homes. 

The Oloffson was not the only place they could have met – there were hundreds of other places with similar cachet – but the Oloffson had to be the place if serendipity had any place at all.  Haiti was the most corrupt, the most venal, the most oppressive, and the most consequently poor and desperate place not only in the Western Hemisphere, but everywhere.  It had to be there, on the breezy veranda overlooking the pool, the palm-lined driveway, and the city beyond that the lovers were to meet.  They only saw the palm trees and the bougainvillea, smelled the scents of the hills above Kenscoff, listened to the noises of the Victorian gingerbread houses.  The poverty, mud and disrepair, the malaria, dysentery, and police did not exist.

What better, what more romantic, what more idyllic than to exist in a such an invented real world – the rum bar, the veranda, Petit Pierre, and the bougainvillea were certainly real – while being able to ignore the more real world beyond?  it was a marriage of consonant souls – neither cared for anything beyond the palms and bougainvillea, Lake Tanganyika, the corniche, or the old pre-Soviet European neighborhoods of Bucharest.   Devaluations of currency, trade agreements, compromises with Europe and the Unites States, cooperation with China meant nothing to each of the lovers and even less when they were partners. 

Lovers are always said to live in their own worlds, and in the cases of these two, no world was more unique, better, and apart.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Goes Around Comes Around–Deja Vu All Over Again And The Endless Repetition Of History

Determinism is a scary prospect.  It is much harder to gin up enthusiasm for a new day when it will be pretty much the same as the one before, all the rest, and all those to come.  Forget Christian determinism – God’s has planned your life out for you and he will elect you as one of the saved regardless of what you do – natural determinism is far more unsettling.  Human nature – innate, permanent, and absolute – has not changed for millennia and for good reason.  The survival of the species depends on aggressiveness, territorialism, perimeters, self-interest, and limitless ambition; and some unfortunate consequences necessarily result.  Wars of territorial expansion and political hegemony while consolidating power, enriching the kingdom, and enabling the growth of high culture, kill tens of thousands of unwilling conscripts and peasants.  Economic growth – a pacific expression of national power and influence – is not a neutral enterprise.  There have always been haves and have-nots.  For every benefit of human enterprise, there are always consequences expected or not. 

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This natural calculus is obvious; but its predictability is often overlooked.  Human activity, generated by the same, unchanged, natural engine that has never lost speed, direction, or inertia, will always produce the same results.  Of course the expressions of human nature are infinite.  Shakespeare, a confirmed determinist, understood that history would always repeat itself.  Jan Kott, a Shakespeare critic noted that if one were to lay all of Shakespeare’s Histories down in chronological order, the characters, scenario, setting, staging, and lighting would be different but the drama would be the same.  The Bard saw no contradiction whatsoever in writing about superficially unique individuals marching to the same drummer.  In fact, that is the nature of drama.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, but are fascinated to learn how.   We know that Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romances cannot possibly end well, but we can’t put them down for wondering just what particular twists of fate will doom the lovers.  Turkish soap operas show unvarnished human nature as well as any serious drama.  Greed, ambition, and deceit are their staples.  There will be winners and losers but who, how, and why?

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All of which is why no one should be surprised at the news.  Why should presidents, politicians, Wall Street bankers, evangelical preachers, generals, and university presidents behave any differently than kings, popes, tribal warriors, and shoguns? The capacity for ambition, greed, venality, and self-service is limitless.  Competition is hardwired and absolute.  No one in power takes defeat lying down; no one on the way to power is careful not to trample on the flowers; and no one up and down the social phylogenetic scale will take insult, dismissal, or disregard with a smile.

Yet idealism is hard to dampen.  Life simply cannot be so predictable.  Human beings can harness the power of human nature for the best.  Why not an aggrandizement of good? A juggernaut of progress? A demanding, insistent, aggressive movement for peace, harmony, and a better world? Because people bicker, movements fracture, and competing interests destroy whatever unity there might have been.  Not only do religions disagree on salvation, but the many sects, branches, and affiliates of each religion disagree.  The pie is only so big.

Environmentalism is the biggest tent around, and in principle there should be room for those who want to protect the spotted owl, the snail darter, the air over the Mojave., the water in the Chesapeake, the small farmer, and organic agriculture.  All are welcome, but resources are never infinite and every dollar that goes to cleaning up the Bay is a dollar not invested in solar power. While the overarching principles of protecting the Earth may be universally respected, the fight for territory, resources, and political support is as internecine and bloody as any.

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As in all events, there will be environmental winners and losers.  Evangelical, mediated religions will get more adherents while Catholics, discouraged at their church’s dereliction of moral responsibility and leadership turn away.  Women who have benefitted from feminism and the civil rights movements will move from the kitchen to the boardroom and contribute to capitalism’s amoral acquisitiveness.  The virtues of motherhood, homemaking, and tradition will be diluted and finally forgotten.  Something has to give.  Human nature is unforgiving; and history keeps a well-kept balance sheet.

Why do so many people, then, persist in their idealism? Isn’t an even casual glance at history enough to conclude that there are no absolutes, that horrific things are done in the name of good, and that there is no such thing as progress? The Twentieth Century saw dramatic improvements in life expectancy, material wealth, and well-being; but it was also one of the bloodiest in history.  Not only were there as many wars as in previous years, but the nature of the wars took on a more sinister character.  Hitler did not only want to conquer Europe and Russia – that would be very understandable – but he wanted to exterminate an entire race.     Stalin and Mao were strong and powerful leaders but were responsible for the death of millions because of their policies.  It was not enough for Pol Pot to follow the example of Mao in his desire to create a perfect socialist state.  He had to murder millions to do so.

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This ‘ignorant’ idealism may have its roots in religion.  God cannot simply let the world fall apart.  He cannot let us destroy ourselves through war, environmental neglect, greed, and divisiveness.  He will have to intervene, perhaps with another Flood, a new start, and a new vision.  Jesus Christ’s words of compassion, love, and inclusivity must have metaphysical importance.  If we follow his example, the world will indeed be a better place.

Of course this may all be hokum, religion only a fancy myth, and the Catholic Church built on mythical false promises of Christ in the desert, may have taken advantage of man’s simple desire for miracle, mystery, and authority to build a powerful political institution. 

It is even more likely that idealism is an ironic by-product of human nature.  One must be convinced that the political struggle for individual rights is a noble one, of a higher order than mundane affairs.  Belief in a cause makes that cause more valid and energizes those in the struggle.

Or perhaps idealism is simply a happier version of life than doom-and-gloom determinism.  A Disney, Hollywood version.  Life may be sordid affair, but why look that closely?

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Besides, who wants to dwell on the fact that we are random, valueless bits in an equally random and valueless but infinite universe? We are better off at the movies.