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651. The family (XV)

Yesterday, I recounted how a Rhodesian tribal elder foresaw the conflict that would eventually end Rhodesia thanks to an omen—a boulder that stood on the hill where Cecil Rhodes made an agreement to end the original conflict between the white settlers and the black tribes tumbled from the summit. I also said that Ian Smith, the Prime Minister who would lead an independent white-minority ruled Rhodesia, noted this event in neutral terms. He did not denigrate it, nor did he seem to take it as an actual omen that the agreement that had secured the country’s foundation had ended.

Although the white settlers in Rhodesia had cars, swimming pools, and all the other luxuries associated with Western civilisation, they were impoverished in one respect relative to the Africans: they lacked omens. The reason why Smith could not engage with the omen was that “Western Christian civilisation”—his words for what he defended in Africa—did not recognise omens. In Smith’s mind—and I think he was this in reality—he was a pragmatic, common sensical, responsible man; and in the Western framework such men do not take omens seriously.

This is because Western civilisation has consciously separated quality and quantity; if a boulder rolls down a hill we, in scientific mode, make no assumptions one way or the other as to what has happened—certainly we do not say “the spirits pushed it to send us a message”. I can tell you what a mid-Victorian scientist, a Thomas Huxley, would say about the boulder: he would go Scooby Doo—a cartoon with considerable explanatory value—and suggest that perhaps the “holy men” pushed it down the hill the night before.

This is the positivistic Victorian world where the locals in a Cornish cove say there is a spirit that swallows people in the caves beneath the cliffs. “Fothergill, the local peasantry say there is a ‘spirit’ down in these subterranean caverns, ‘Merlin’s cave’ they call it. You will lower me down into the caves on a rope, with a Davey lamp and a canary, and we will establish that this ‘spirit’ is mere noxious gasses—possibly sulphurous off-gassing from an abandoned tin mine. I have cotton wool soaked in ether to absorb the emissions for later analysis in the laboratory. Spirits indeed!” Scooby-doo-be-doo, where are you? I’ve got some work for you now!

This was the way Smith thought; and what he meant by “Western Christian civilisation”. To think “the boulder is an omen” is acceptable in this framework in one area: fiction. You can write a novel called The Green Ant Dreams (“An evocative exploration of post-colonial Zimbabwe that unpicks the intersection between class, race, and indigenous religion at the very site where white settler-colonialism was established. When a boulder tumbles down a hill, questions about the country’s future are raised in a way that fuses Márquezian magical realism with Africa’s verdant landscape...”—The Guardian). Yet this is very definitely fiction & poetry, a completely separate activity that is “not real”—and basically, though men like Smith would not put this way, for “women and fags”.

This compartmentalisation, whereby prophetic elements are separated off as “not real”, leads to an impoverished world—Smith’s “practical world” that centred around sports and farming. Yes, the Church is there; yet it is obvious that “Western Christian civilisation” was a pro forma for Smith; practical men do not bring religion into anything at all, do not think it is real—it is also safely bracketed, so that it is dead. The above sums up Heidegger’s critique of modernity: the West is radically disenchanted—effectively dead due to mechanism, even if that mechanism leads to considerable riches. To say the boulder is an omen—or even that to consciously move the boulder would cause Rhodesia to fall—constitutes schizophrenia. “Not a responsible, practical, common-sense chap. He has peculiar ideas,” as a man like Smith would say. Yet Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the whites were driven out—the prophecy was fulfilled.


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