To fully appreciate the devastating encounter between Europe and Africa,
it is a good idea to follow the clue provided by Chimamanda Adichie when she
speaks of “the danger of a single story.”
What was happening in Europe between 1400 and 1650 that locked it into a
single story? One can name all
kinds of events, but is there anything they share that could point the way to a
distinct perspectival framework? I
would argue that these were the years of science.
The movement involved is that from Aristotle (rediscovered in Arabic) to
Copernicus and Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes.
The West has increasingly taken on a belief in the quantification of all
things. For Kepler planetary
orbits could be determined, not as circular but as elliptical, through the
addition of triangles, whose properties were known.
Galileo used water in a jar to count off time and claimed that the book
of nature was written in math.
Descartes held that the external world was principally characterized by
extension—namely, that feature most easily convertible to mathematical
What has been the result of this way of thinking, of analysis and
atomization? The late
19th-century proclamation that “God is dead.”
This is not due to sickness, but because “we” have “killed” him. That is, science has swept the field,
leaving religion, philosophy and art to wither away in the shadows.
Even the religious aren’t very religious. (Kierkegaard spoke of “Sunday
Christians”.) To say “According to
science” became synonymous with “It is undeniably the case that,” and it is this
belief that seems to me decisive.
No single narrative could permit one to comprehend Africa.
It is far too diverse. But
once it is axiomatic that truth is science and science truth, there is no
turning back. Science assumes that
it “sees” things just as they are, objectively, and that whatever it cannot
currently grasp it will one day.
In other words, reality is transparent. It is without secrets.
It is a chaos of “atoms.”
Man has the upper hand on nature, and reality is without depth of
is thoroughly disenchanted.
It is easy as such to see why Africa would become the “Dark Continent,”
the “heart of darkness,” in the Western imagination.
According to the quantifying, atomizing Western mind, there was really
only one story, the story borne out in sailing ships, advanced navigation, all
the technologies that dominate space and time as well as other people. After all, the same language (math)
that gave us these things would induce in Newton the belief that he was reading
the mind of God. The African
narrative of the world was holistic.
One belonged to a family and an entire kinship system, as did the unborn
and the dead. In other words, time
was not quantified. Those who were
yet to be and those who were no more, by the Western linear understanding, were,
paradoxically, participants in the present, in what is.
And all of this was wrapped in the impenetrability of a numinous natural
In the West it would take someone like Martin Heidegger to induce a sense
of the qualitative dimension, the inexhaustibility of being, but most
professional philosophers claim not even to be able to read his works. No wonder.
It is hard to truly read when all stories must conform to the one one
Romanticism was the movement in art that would also spawn the greatest
challenge to the monochromatic world of science. It was an attempt to re-enchant the
world, to restore to being something of its genuine depth.
Human emotion was not merely Plato’s unruly horse, an affront to reason
and sanity. It was
intelligent. The great canvases of
Turner were anxiety and awe-inspiring (rather than neoclassically precise). And
anxiety, for instance, has a story to tell, one of finite beings whose existence
comes to them very largely from the future, whose being is time.
Romanticism was the art of qualitative differences.
These two tendencies, toward enchantment and disenchantment, have
alternated in the modern West but, ultimately, science has carried the day. It wasn’t merely fortuitous that the
camera changed the history of art.
Technology is sure to dominate.
But that means that being will be experienced as a standing reserve, as
the “stuff” (whether matter or energy) of which all things consist—that which is
without inherent value (especially given the humanly created fragility of the
natural world, once a subject suitable for Turner).
But Romanticism was always too little too late, an afterthought. And Wordsworthian nature (with spirit
rolling through all things) now seems as hopelessly quaint as Aristotelian
teleology (e.g. the idea that horses are as they are for purposes of
riding). Being will always resist
science. It will always throw
romantic obstacles in the otherwise smooth course of its progress.
But there will always too be continents of darkness, unfathomable
otherness that can only be denied in violence and death.
Posts below must be read in reverse order, beginning with the oldest.