What Genius Looks Like

The last time I wrote here, I suggested that America and its leadership is getting worn out — becoming the Hollow Men that TS Eliot speaks of in his poem. This time I’d like to talk about the other direction that people can go. I’d like to tell you about a man of true genius.

My wife Damaris and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia in the mid-80s. We were there before the long civil war broke out, but during some of the early rebellions that presaged the war. We lived in Zwedru, a provincial town in the back-end of the country. And there we met Africain Always.

Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia
Africain Always, Zwedru, Liberia

 

You can get a sense of the man’s gravitas from the fact that everyone called him “Africain.” He lived in the middle of an African nation, and everyone around him (except a handful of American PCVs, two Canadian missionaries and a German priest) was African. But nevertheless, he was known by everyone as “Africain.” (He spelled it the French way, but everyone pronounced it the English way.)

A few other people have pulled off this trick. Charles deGaulle and Kemal Ataturk both had names that declared them the leader of their nation. Sapurmarat Niyazov did too, but Turkmenbashi was his own maniacal creation and not really his name. As I understand it, deGaulle was really the name of the French leader. And in the case of the “Father of the Turks,” nobody had last names until he transformed the Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey.

Anyway, Africain Always, whose real names was Musa something, had no pretensions of leadership. He just wanted to be a friend. As the picture shows, he was something of an artist and he would paint a mural on the side of your house if you wanted it. The rest of the time he spent philosophizing.

The reason I say Africain was a genius, and why I offer him as a hopeful antidote to a more widespread degeneracy, is his revelation about life and art.

Africain worked with wood as well as paint. He told me once that he had formerly made things from butterfly wings and turtle shells. He described to me the way he had formed these creations. And he admitted that people had liked them. But then his voice took on a more serious tone, and he said, “But then I realize the turtle should live. I realize the butterfly is God’s artwork — not mine.”

 

An example of butterfly wing artwork. Not made by Africain.

 

If you had an immediate impulse to disapprove of killing butterflies and turtles, then good for you. But you live in a time and place where animal rights is “a thing.” You may just be following the crowd. It may be that the virtues you value most, in yourself and others, might by nothing more than following the crowd and taking the easy road.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Africain was definitely not taking the easy road or following the norm. He lived in a time and place where animal well-being was not considered. Dogs were tormented by children. Poison was thrown into ponds to kill fish (which the people would then eat). So the realization that the butterfly already existed, already was beautiful — was in fact more beautiful fluttering in the sunlight than pasted down on a canvas — was a moment of true genius.

By offering this example of an African man, I am not saying anything about the relative merits of any nation or race. I’m saying goodness may occur anywhere.

I also want to ask each person who reads this: When have you gained a new understanding that came straight from God? True, we aren’t all called to be prophets. Most right ideas are already out there, and all we need is to learn them and follow them. But as the culture around us become more and more effete, degenerate and “hollow,” it becomes more and more like a thing of genius to stand against the norm.

 

 

 

 

Of Bangs & Whimpers

This week there were two fatal shootings on college campuses. The one in Oregon was the typical, disgruntled white male with a history of scary posts on social media. The one in Texas doesn’t really count, because it was a personal dispute and not a “mass shooting” as such. Still, somebody died and somebody with a gun killed them.

I’m struck by how vacuous and effete the ongoing conversation has become. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, had an editorial that can be summed up as, “We’re numbed to this, but can you blame us? Somebody ought to do domething.” And consider this from Peter Weber in The Week:

Today, pretty much anyone can buy armaments that would have given the Framers nightmares, kill a dozen or more strangers, and terrorize a whole nation. As Obama said Thursday, “this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” Would James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the other gentlemen who wrote the Constitution have wanted to give such tyrannical powers to lone Americans? I doubt it, but I can’t be sure.

 

What do you mean, you can’t be sure, Mr. Weber? If the framers of the Constitution had intended to enable the persistent, rampant violence against innocent bystanders that occurs in America, they wouldn’t be gentlemen. They’d be some of the worst monsters in history.  You know good and well they didn’t envision or condone persistent violence.

The problem is, the founding fathers didn’t think of everything. They didn’t mean to. They gave us a good start at justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. But they expected us to do our part as well.

I’ve ranted on this before, but Thomas Jefferson explicitly stated that the constitution ought to be written anew by each generation. Indeed, I’ve told a lot of people wrongly that Jefferson suggested a new constitution every 29 years. In fact, he said rewrites ought to come every 19 years. Here is Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison in 1979:

[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.
The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.[1]  They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

 

[1] Usufruct is a legal word meaning the right to use something, as opposed to the absolute right to own it. Jefferson insists that the living generation has usufruct rights to the land and to civic institutions, but they do not have the right to impose their will on future generations.

Many Americans will tell you that the Constitution mustn’t be tampered with because it is the product of great minds and that no ordinary people could make one as good. If you then point out to them that those great minds expected us to fix their mistakes and take changing circumstances into account, they will tell you that what the founders intended doesn’t matter.

That is terribly inconsistent thinking. But it is an accurate representation of the calcified American system, which in no longer based on the will of the people, but on a moldy ill-fitting old document. Now, you might say it isn’t reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to discourse rationally. You might say we elect congressmen to represent us, and that those congressmen and women do the hard work, freeing us from the need to be well-informed and rational ourselves. But what happens when the elected representatives are no more – or even less – rational than the people?

 

It may just be the case that guns, and an incompetent, leaderless national government are not our greatest problem. TS Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, is the source of the famous lines: “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Earlier in the poem Eliot writes:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

 

A nation of such hollow men, filled with straw and meaningless words, would be about as effective in curbing gun violence (or any other social problem) as the US of A is, wouldn’t it?