The world according to me, myself and I

June 29, 2000|By Stephen Vicchio

I WAS part of the last generation to memorize.

What seems now like prodigious amounts of materials found their way into my Butch-waxed cranium: prepositions -- about, above across, after, against, among around ... ; the states and their capitals; the holy days of obligation; spelling rules: i before e, except after c... ; the seven deadly sins; the five cardinal virtues; and irregular verbs from half-leamed classical and romance languages.

Most of this material -- forgotten or recalled -- has little to do with my life these days. It makes little difference whether it is stored in a trunk in the attic, or in a bony compartment between my ears. I don't use this stuff, except when I am showing off.

These lists of things -- a Periodic Table of the Elements, circa 1963, the names of each of the Brady Bunch, or the nine kinds of angels as outlined by Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1272, and committed to memory by me in the winter of 1958 at the insistence of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Frey -- rarely impinge upon my everyday existence.

But a recent headline in the New York Times has brought one of the feats of memory to the surface: "Many Armies Ravage Rich Land in the `First World War' of Africa." The headline gave me a small jolt, like the little shock that sometimes comes with kissing someone hello who has just come in from the cold and has dragged her feet across the carpet.

I glanced at the headline, and then a moment later, there it was, a still moderately impressive feat of mental retention had appeared before the mind's eye. It was Africa -- the entire dark continent as it was carved up and apportioned by the powers sometime around the early Kennedy administration. I had dutifully and doggedly committed it to memory in the fall of 1962, during Sister Redemptina's afternoon world geography class. At the time, the lines on this map seemed as real as oxygen.

Mauritania, Spanish Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, the U.A.R., Sudan, Ethiopia, and something called the Afars and Issas Territory, all arose from some uncivil, unconscious, watery wilderness, like Atlantis mysteriously floating to the surface after a long underwater swim.

There was Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Dahomey, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Sudan, imaginary lines drawn across a ghost continent.

Traveling east to the southern tip: the Somali Republic, Tanzania and tiny Zanzibar; Mozambique, Rhodesia and little Swaziland. They shimmered in memory -- Mozambique and Angola in light blue for Portugal; Zambia in stripes for the French; South Africa, oddly enough in off-white for "independent."

This is, of course, a phantom continent -- at least half of the 50 memorized nations no longer exist -- and yet, I speak of it in the present tense, for it remains unaltered by thought, unhindered by time and space, like a page tom from a solipcist's atlas.

The mind is at once a fine palace and a terrible dungeon, but it is also a great storehouse. It is a domain where a pair of old basketball shoes or the phone number of a high school sweetheart, might be found nestled beside the memory of a now lost broach that hung around a grandmother's neck or the dying words of a loved one.

This morning, I have before me, laid out on the desk in my study, the map accompanying the recent Times article on Africa. It is a story about the Congo, rebels, Hutus and Tutsis. It is a modem tale of broken promises and violent confrontations in the heart of a continent. It is the story of what has come to pass since an 11-year-old boy committed an entire continent to memory. It is also the story of an 11-year-old imagination's inability to understand the carnage that came with his first drawing of those ephemeral lines, and a now 49-year-old man's mind that knows too well what Joseph Conrad meant by "the heart of darkness."

In my great storehouse things sleep, until a single look, a line, a smell, a word, a picture, awakens this lost continent, and I am immediately and forcefully brought back to another time before these new lines, now stretched out before me, were rewritten in fresh blood.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of stories and essays recently was published by Woodholme House.

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