Tuesday, October 14, 2008


As I wander through this world, there are so many things which keep me amazed. It would be easy enough to make a list - of course, that is the essence of poetry, as Chesterton wrote: "The greatest of poems is an inventory." [Orthodoxy CW1:267]

But I am not writing a poem just now. (I don't have time.) But if I wanted to write one, and were stuck for a starting point, I would take the greatest of all inventories - the one which we might call God's Own Inventory - which we know as the Periodic Table of the Elements. When I was younger, I had "inherited" two very old editions of the extremely famous CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, one of the great master references always sitting very near to me, and a heavyweight up there with the great Lewis and Short (Latin) and Liddell and Scott (Greek) Lexicons.... but the older one of the two was very much smaller, almost insigificant among such massive references, as if it were one of the lesser Rings (oh, sorry, I just got to the eucatastrophe in my reading of Lord of the Rings, hee hee!!!)

But I mention that because I love to read about the various elements, and their properties, their history, their uses, their strange powers and unspeakably clever characters... remember, these are elements, almost the maximum possible restriction which we can put on matter and yet still have it be recognisible to us. (I am not sure if even the most powerful tricks can bring any non-atomic particles into visibility, at least not yet.) And now I have to actually suppress the tendency to produce poetry, or to attempt formulating a song - or something - since the whole glory of these wonders has been known for such a short time, and so few people will ever get the chance to see them at all, except maybe for some of the very common ones like carbon, iron, or copper. Alas. Or study them, or explore their uses, or delight in their powers - and yes, even in their dangers, and honour the memory of people (like Marie Curie) who laboured so long and even gave their lives for their work.

But you are wondering why this posting is called "Africa".

Yes, it is about Africa. In one of my books on the elements, there is mention of a strange and most unusual situation which occured some time ago in Africa. I will not go into the details of that today, since it would take too long and may get some people unduly worried. Rather, I take it as an inspiration to talk just briefly about that huge and interesting land.

There are bizarre mountains, unbelievable rivers, vast stretches of barren desert, vast stretches of teeming jungle, terrifying storms. There are strange animals, strange plants, terrible diseases, storehouses of minerals.

There are some 5000 years of recorded history in Africa. There are some of the tallest people, some of the shortest people, dozens of strange and often very difficult languages, and many unusual cultures.

One of the strangest things I recall reading in the last 10 years or so was the fact that even in the 1860s (when America was fighting the Civil War) there were still parts of Africa which were truly unknown. The many forbidding aspects of the physical geography - the mountains and waterfalls and rapids and swamps and deserts - made exploration all but impossible, so the acquisition of simple facts - like the real origin of the Nile River, or of the Congo River - had not been made. Even if all the rest of the strange and remarkable things of the continent were removed, any one of its rivers would be enough to overwhelm you. Part of that strangeness comes from its placement so as to straddle the equator, thereby having rainy seasons which span the entire year.

I am not going to delve further into the details; there are books and references around if you want them. And I will not be writing a poem about Africa today - but at least I have begun roughing out the inventory.

Maybe in another week or two I will be able to tell you a little about the element which led me to think of this great continent, and why I am busy thinking of it at the present time. But for today I will leave you with just a little sample of GKC's own comments about this remarkable place, which - as is fitting - have to do with its art:
The rock-drawings of prehistoric Africa, reproductions of which recently appeared in this magazine, are the sort of things that are really much more sensational than the sensational headlines of the daily Press. The daily Press generally tells us only that politicians are going on as usual, and that journalists are also going on as usual; that is, they are trying to pretend that there is something quite unusual. But the new light that is being thrown on the beginnings of intelligent humanity by reproductions like these really is unusual. That is, it is not what the modern reader has grown used to reading, or even what the modern discoverer has grown used to discovering. The Romans had a proverb which ran, "Out of Africa there comes always something new." It is especially true in those examples, such as the present example, in which something is very new because it is very old.

In the Roman or traditional sense, it is doubtless true that there have come out of Africa many strange exceptions, monsters or mysterious novelties; there was the African elephant and many other extraordinary creatures; there were the higher apes and the South African millionaires. Nevertheless, there has been a general impression, in spite of some highly civilized men of genius such Hannibal and St. Augustine, that Africa is, upon the whole, the savage continent, unlit by the learning and culture either of Asia or of Europe. That is what gives its extraordinary interest to the discovery of an African prehistoric art which, however prehistoric, is most unmistakably art; that is, an art that is really artistic.

[GKC ILN Dec 10 1932; special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother for this essay]
Alas, I do not have the actual ILN itself to examine the art GKC is talking about. But the essay has quite a bit more about African animals and art, serving as a lead-in to a discussion of "Progress" - yes, a completely different topic. Gee, that seems strange, imagine starting an essay about one topic by writing on something else!

But I will defer all that for another time or place - and merely add "art" as another exotic element in my periodic table - er - I mean inventory. I do not know if I will ever visit Africa - there's so much even nearby which I have not yet seen - but even the taste one gets from such an essay, or from more distant works like that on the chemical elements - yes, these help open the eyes of the mind to the glory of God's world.


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