Wednesday, 24 April 2013

When Things Fell Apart

By Bhekizizwe Peterson

It is not surprising that Chinua Achebe, as a writer and scholar, attached great significance to the cultivation of critical thinking in society in order to negate the prevailing “poverty of thought”. His novels, he once asserted, were meant to explore “when the rain began to beat us”. This was in relation to the colonial experience and the post-independence predicaments that seemed to plague African states.
In relation to the former, Achebe noted in a famous essay, The Novelist as Teacher, that “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf, delivered them.”
The essay, first published in 1965, was included in the 1975 collection of essays, Morning Yet On Creation Day, whose title evocatively intimates the deferral of the “dreams” and “promises” of the nationalist struggles for independence. The task of the artist and scholar was to simultaneously look at the past and the future from the vantage point of the present.
With regard to the present, the duty is the need to grasp and explore the Hopes and Impediments (the title of another collection of essays published in 1988) that constitute the socio-economic, political, cultural and intellectual limits and possibilities that informed post-independence African states.
Achebe’s nuanced and powerful recuperation and affirmation of the integrity of pre-colonial African polities is well acknowledged. It is his wrestling with the antimonies of “freedom” that I want to focus on. In a sense, all his post-independence novels, No Longer At Ease, Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, are profound, self-reflexive meditations on the seemingly intractable problems that seem to beset Africa.
The list of litanies is well known: colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, poverty, ethnicity, patriarchal despots, corruption and impunity, to mention some of the key ones. What distinguishes Achebe’s reflections on the challenges that face the continent is his willingness to also cast a critical eye on African leaders, intellectuals and artists who regard themselves as enlightened visionaries and whether their ideas, analyses or works shed light or cast further darkness on the nightmares of the post-colony.

Unlike many African leaders, intellectuals and artists who reduce all problems to the legacies of the “colonial experience”, Achebe is insistent that Africans also acknowledge their complicities and contributions to the malaise that afflicts the continent. He does this without diminishing the impact of or being apologetic about the deep destruction and all forms of alienation wrought by colonialism.
In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe describes our contemporary crises as being characterised by what he calls “social injustice and the cult of mediocrity”. One of the distinctive features of the cult of mediocrity is its thorough lack of clarity, creativity, depth and independence in, particularly, its arguments, thinking and vision.
Achebe sees creative and intellectual work as deeply constitutive since, with language and narrative, they form primary tools of cognition and social interaction. It is through narrative that we create senses of our personal and collective selves and destinies. As he notes in The Truth of Fiction, “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. (It is) one of the forms he has fashioned out of his experience with language – the art of fiction”.
Or as described in Things Fall Apart, “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. The art of conversation and the ability to render social experience through a higher order of reasoning, signification and meaning (as encoded in, for instance, proverbs and other symbolic and social modes such as literature) is a fundamental attribute and necessity in society, even in so-called traditional ones.
Why is it then that the post-colony is so adverse to the cultivation of a critical consciousness amongst citizenry, whether it is channelled through the arts, education or ideology?
This is a question that Achebe foregrounds in A Man of the People. Soon after independence, the new government embarks on an “Africanisation” programme of sorts which includes the “purging of intellectuals”, or miscreants, from the government.
The main charge against critically minded citizenry is that they are tainted, diseased “hybrids” who have read too many books (and foreign ones at that) and that they have lost touch with their “roots” or culture (à la “clever blacks”).
The obverse is the liberal disdain for articulate blacks who, during colonialism, were dismissed as “cheeky natives” and, after independence, as being “aloof” and “detached” from the people. Interestingly, both sides repudiate a critical consciousness as a sign of a loss of some primordial essence of some unstated notion of “Africanness”.
The antidote is to call for a singing and dancing “man of the people” as president. However, once in power, the leader is charged with being all show and no substance.
How are we then to understand and respond to the intricacies of the post-colony? Particularly the shifting alliances, muddled pronouncements and increasing abdication of the demands and duties of governance and their replacement by a “theatre-state” that is hell-bent on mesmerising all and sundry with its inane performances and projects that are underpinned by more promises, double-speak, corruption and increasing violations of the rights, means and dignity of ordinary people.
I cannot resist quoting Achebe on what he terms the “siren mentality” where even “the movement of president and governors is… a medieval chieftain’s progress complete with magicians and wild acrobats chasing citizens out of the way. Is there no one in this country perceptive enough to understand that after two decades of bloodshed and military rule what our society craves today is not a style of leadership which projects and celebrates the violence of power but the sobriety of peace?”
At any rate, Achebe, in The Trouble with Nigeria, poses the following dilemma: “Why is it that our corruption, gross inequities, our noisy vulgarity, our selfishness, our ineptitude seem so much stronger than the good influences at work in our society? Why do the good among us seem so helpless while the worst are full of energy?”
This is a difficult question asked about an equally complicated world. Answering it requires that we recall the advice that Ezeulu gives to his son in Arrow of God. Ezeulu observes that in order to remain pertinent and adept, we need to proceed from the awareness that “the world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.”
There are a number of crucial insights in Achebe’s formulation. There is the suggestion that since we live in a local and global context where, like the masquerade, the world and life is constantly changing, we also need regularly to reassess our views.
Second, the contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes of life are more likely to be better understood and ameliorated if we promote the need for a plurality of critical views in society rather than suffocate reflection by insisting on singular or monological perspectives (the so-called “line” of the Party that is often marshalled against “alien”, “counter-revolutionary” and “populist forces” and “tendencies”).
Achebe is similarly ill at ease with other strategies of enforcing obedience and conformity such as the calls for patriotism, unity and faith in the Party. He questions patriotism, unity and faith – for “what?” and “to what end?” If it is for the “common good” than he is all in support.
However, if it is the unity of crooks or faith in “money… talismans and fetish” then he will have none of it.
For Achebe, calls for patriotism can be entertained only “if the nation is ruled justly, if the welfare of all the people rather than the advantage of the few becomes the cornerstone of public policy”. For him, “patriotism is an emotion of love directed by critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people.”
Last, given his view inThe Novelist as Teacher that “no self-respecting writer will take dictation from his audience”, Achebe felt strongly that a writer “must remain free to disagree with his society and go into rebellion against it if need be” not out of any indulgent sense of self-importance or eccentricity but because of the significant role that social interpreters can perform, particularly in contexts where ordinary voters or “the masses of the population have so little access to untainted information”. In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe throws the gauntlet at interpreters and demands their intervention in order to foster “decent and civilised political values”: “We have stood too long on the sidelines; and too many of us have adopted the cynical attitude that since you cannot beat them you must join them. Our inaction or cynical action are a serious betrayal of our education, of our historic mission and of succeeding generations who will have no future unless we save it now for them. To be educated is, after all, to develop the questioning habit, to be sceptical of easy promises and to use past experience creatively.”
And what are some of the crucial terms of engagement that should guide our social conduct and hopes? We must, first, be prepared to aspire and work towards a different and better future instead of relying on the “cargo cult mentality”: “a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing”. We must also resist the temptations of power and wealth. They are seductions that once tasted, can paralyse even previously critical minds and compassionate hearts.
In Man of the People, after a brief visit to Chief Nanga’s house where he experiences unparalleled luxury (the house even has “seven bedrooms and bathrooms, one for each day of the week”), Odili (who, earlier, was critical of the mismanagement and looting conducted by Chief Nanga and other colleagues in government), admits that “I had to confess that if I were at that moment made a minister I would be most anxious to remain one for ever”.
Last, we must remain vigilant about the kinds of narratives we tell and visions we pursue. In The Truth of Fiction, Achebe suggests that “there are fictions that help and fictions that hinder. For simplicity, let us call them beneficent and malignant fictions.” Imaginative literature belongs to beneficent fictions: “It does not enslave; it liberates the mind. Its truth is not like the canon of an orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.” - published April 28, 2013.

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