Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux

Fitzgerald was wrong; the pilgrims weren't the last people to come "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder": Paul Theroux did it ten years ago during an overland trip across eastern Africa.

Dark Star Safari, the riveting account of his journey, made it clear to me that: 1) the same experience is available to me, right now; and 2) it's unlikely I'll have the courage to seek it.

Africa, after all, is a frightening ruin, according to Theroux—its cities, which best embody its politics, especially. But he also observes that the West is its own kind of ruin, alienating us from ourselves in manners so profound that to even discuss them puts one at risk of becoming a pariah. By evoking that alienation—by evoking the mystery of Africa's pervasive lawlessness (we have no other word)—Theroux's travelogue becomes less an exploration of Africa than a mediation on the limits of the Western imagination.

Theroux arrives at a second insight that is, in some respects, more provocative: the large-scale international aid that characterizes the developed world's primary relationship to Africa should end immediately. Theroux comes to believe that it's not just unproductive; it's dangerous—to Africans in particular.

Which begs the question: might it not be the case that we don't provide that aid for them, but for ourselves? And if so, what might be the cost—to us—of ending it?

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