Infinite Ethiopias

While working at the Robarts Library recently, I came upon a book that very innocently contains infinite possibilities. The book is the 1901 volume of Empire Review, and it exists in its own ontological universe. For it time has stood still, while its own empire (that of the British), and others, have risen, and fallen. The future the book assumes, that of a continued, ever growing, Empire, does not exist; likewise the future we assume, and conjure, may be radically different in ways we do not expect. The same must be true of the present. Our present is a different present than it is for our parents, as it will be different for our grandchildren…

It follows that every generation may be lost in their own epochs. There must be some, a dwindling number, for whom the Holocaust is still happening; there are many of the most recent generation who still inhabit, and have no plans of leaving, their own pampered childhoods.

If we agree that a state of constant dreaming can alter our perception of reality, and that our perception of reality is reality, perhaps there are those who are still dreaming, and living, a past haunted by old magic that does exist, but only in the heads of those who still live it. A quote from the opening paragraphs of “The Abyssinian Question”, an article from the above-mentioned Empire Review, may illustrate this:

The movement which has convulsed the whole of the the Dark Continent, since the European powers commenced the partition of Africa into spheres of influence, has extended into Abyssinia. Before the discovery of the sources of the Nile, the kingdom of the Negros was located by geographers in the unknown country depicted in the early maps of the last century as the site of the so-called mountains of the moon.

In the above paragraph we notice two things: first, that the sentences above are steeped in a sensibility that is so alien to our own it can’t seem anything but hopelessly backward. Evidence is the casual and indifferent way the division of Africa is catalogued; the mystery underlining the introduction of “the kingdom of the Negros”, as if it’s still doubtful such a place could ever exist, and the author had to work hard to capture it and pin it up so that it might be fathomable to his European readers; the statement “the kingdom of the Negros” itself, which, for obvious reasons, would be not be used today.

The second thing we notice is the author’s own disdainful reference to the the apocryphal truths of previous generations: “the so-called mountains of the moon”. The “mountains of the moon” imply that they are located on, or have some secret relationship with, the moon. But they are so-called because in the next sentences (not recorded here) he describes the actual location of the kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), as discovered and noted by men of his race.

Before this “discovery”, it’s obvious that Ethiopia existed, and that it wasn’t on the moon. But perhaps there were two Ethiopias: the historical Ethiopia, and the Ethiopia of the Englishman’s imagination, which enjoyed some sort of (unexplained) relation to the moon. Perhaps the mountains of the moon, in this Ethiopia, existed on the moon and on earth, or perhaps the mountains contained a hidden staircase that extended to the moon, or maybe the mountains were the moon itself, and where it rested in the morning and during the day. Perhaps, in the fragmentary imaginations of an entire nation, they were all three, and more. An infinite number of Ethiopias, just as there might have been an infinite number of Englands.

In Don Barthelme’s short story, Paraguay, the traveller descends from the mountains on Paraguay’s borders, and into a Paraguay not contained on any maps, a world containing fields of red snow, whose inhabitants are regulated entirely by body temperature, and where gold and silver abound. The Paraguay isn’t the historical Paraguay, but it does exist, because it was suggested by just the sort of passage quoted above, and there (and in Barthelme’s story) it still lurks, at all times, just as an infinite number of Paraguays lurk infinitely, in everything, as well as an infinite number of Canadas, Bolivias, Florences, Shanghais, Indonesias, Englands, and Ethiopias.

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