BOOK REVIEWS (2014): PA Egejuru’s (1980) Towards African Literary Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers

8 May 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Not shared beliefs but a shared willingness to discuss beliefs with one’s neighbours provides one of the bedrocks of human community; the novel as a genre in general undermines this.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: PA Egejuru’s (1980)[2] Towards African Literately Independence: A Dialogue with Contemporary African Writers

It surprises me when—when I tell (White) people that I preferentially spend my discretionary income, especially for food, first on non-White-owned business, then locally owned businesses second, and finally on non-locally owned business last—that people looked surprised and ask me, “Why?” Also to my (perhaps naïve) surprise, it seems this surprise on the part of others comes with distinctly racialised overtones.[3]

By this, I mean that sometimes overtly but almost always discernibly the “why” seems rooted in the question “why Black businesses” and thus the implication, “Isn’t that racist of you?” However (and here comes my potential naïveté again), I think my statement about my commitment to how I spend my money more prompts people to have to confront such a choice rather than “flushing out” a hidden or secret racism that actually lurks consciously in their thinking. Of all the people who have reacted this way, I would say that none position themselves as race warriors on behalf of Caucasians, so it seems more a case of ignorance than malice.

However—and the temptation rises to banish this to a footnote rather than interrupt the “flow” of this post—these days the argument for “innocence” seems dangerously thread-bare. At Transracialeyes, a site dedicated to critiquing the human trafficking industry around the production and adoption of orphans, one notes a distinction between the will-to-adopt of would-be parents from the earliest phases of international adoption (from approximately 1950–1990) compared to those who persist in resorting to human trafficking these days. Like those deceived into the health benefits of smoking, if early adopters in the United States (and elsewhere) really believed the “industry propaganda” in a sincere way that seems to mitigate the heinousness of their act by a plausible innocence, that no longer holds, given the now vast amount of information available about the real characteristics of this kind of human trafficking. And even if a would-be adopter has managed to remain ignorant of this, when confronted by the facts, they go ahead and choose to traffic in the human life of a child anyway.

The claim of innocence no longer seems plausible. Similarly, the harangue of the Holocaust industry cannot get decontextualized from the facts of the Palestinian occupation. Or, again similarly, as just about anyone who has worked for justice in the domain of “race” knows, during the encounter with an (assumed) innocent ignorance, once the facts of the matter get presented to the person and they persist in their (now-wilful) ignorance, one deals with something that no longer deserves treatment as “innocent”.

To return to my main point, the example from the human child trafficking industry makes a good example and case in point because the discourse it resorts to frequently has the marks of this arrogant, wilful ignorance. Commentators have noted elsewhere of US culture a shift from not merely the usual pragmatic anti-intellectualism as one of the dominating threads in US cultural life but a positively aggressive snottiness and pride in such ignorance. Not that US history has no previous cases of this; the Know-Nothings provide an ample case, but it seems much more widespread now than then, though perhaps “thanks” only to the greater (non-)communicative connectivity of the Internet and other like technologies.

And so it seems perhaps ill-advised, when I encounter surprise at my statement about how I choose to spend my discretionary income, to too quickly or readily explain away that surprise as “innocent”. We may have passed that point in history, just as those who practise human trafficking of children no longer have the luxury of claiming innocence about that fact. The arrogance of those who would adopt points, then, to a similar arrogance in those who seem offended by my choice and who allow themselves the intellectual laziness of parroting the current reactionary discourse: “Isn’t that racist?”

I want “No, get educated” as my response to this, but knowing the surprise lacks innocence, then education will not provide solution, because wilful ignorance, precisely, avoids education. Avoiding, and denying, knowledge operates as the very metier of ignorance. So a more proper response—whether more strategic remains an open question—gets directed at, “Try stepping down from your White privilege.” Because not everyone has the luxury of ignorance; more specifically, White people (even poor ones) have the luxury of ignorance. &c.

I mention White privilege because stepping down from it constitutes the great, (largely) unaddressed factor in social justice; by “largely unaddressed,” I mean principally within White circles.[4] For all that McIntosh’s (1988)[5] seminal essay on white privilege addresses the issue, for me the most key and haunting point arises in her first paragraph:

Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended (¶1).

In other words, the gestures of social justice available to the advantaged include “lifting up the disadvantaged” and “stepping down from one’s advantaged position”.[6] The critique of the former gesture points to how such “lifting up” merely increases membership in the already oppressing class. It points to both the Devil’s Bargain of assimilation and the implicit demand to become White. The marriage equality movement illustrates this dilemma, as the Civil Rights movement for non-heterosexual people evolved from a demand for a recognition of their humanity (the slogan in the 1980s “we are everywhere” exemplifies this) to the watered-down demand for entrance into the world of Whiteness, by demanding access to marriage (and now adoption as well, of course).

The counter-gesture, of stepping down, which McIntosh so poignantly notes men’s wilfully ignorant resistance to thus points to the same refusal by Whites to step down from their privilege; thus, Shahid Khan’s grotesque employment practises, which specifically target and abuse (amongst others) newer, more recent immigrants from Africa represents simply the visible hypocrisy involved in Whiteness. To enter the club, he had to act that way, just as Israel has to forsake whatever culture it actually possesses in order to act White and hypocritically dominate and dispossess the local population of Palestine. Membership has its privileges but the costs seem even more severe.

Thus, in terms of daily practice, I see the gesture of stepping down from privilege more essential than lifting up, and not simply because this avoids the problem that lifting up accomplishes little more than granting someone access to oppress others (typically the more recently arrived poor). Stepping down from privilege opens a space for the Other to express herself without presupposing how that expression should or will occur. If I lift someone up to marriage equality, this carries the implicit demand not only that marriage must mean a folie a deux but also that it must conform only and exclusively to the existing legal sanctions that go along with the form of marriage available Federally, at the State level, and locally. To step down from privilege, by contrast, would open a space for marriage as understood by the not-privileged. This might include polyamory (whether polygamy, polyandry, and/or whatever else along with all of the necessary legal apparatuses to support those)—in other words, an expansion of the notion of marriage to include more than two people in the party—or other elaborations of the institution as well. “But maybe someone will want to marry a goat then,” one of the shrill objections runs—well, why not? Let us not aspire to act like narrower-minded ninnies than already.

One often hears the prospect of a discussion of race as “hard”. I find this disingenuous. TO step down from privilege does, necessarily, require one to give up some privileges—let us remember that these represent unmerited advantages. Simply by having acquired Whiteness (by personally trampling on the heads of people or by inheriting the blood of those who previously trampled), you get this unwarranted social advantage. Thus, one encounters the operatic self-pity of (usually male) Whiteness confronted by the reality that (his) egocentric self-congratulations about all of the hard work (he) accomplished actually came about through the smooth(er) sailing afforded by White privilege. Doubtless, it may seem “hard” to confront that unpleasant fact: that the whole paradigm by which you puffed up your ego and licensed yourself to treat others like shit for the “laziness” or “stupidity” or “racial inferiority” rests on an even more unpleasant lie, that Power has duped even itself in its self-delusion.[7]

But none of this makes “hard” stepping down from that privilege, because this involves nothing more than no longer taking advantage of it. If I have the privilege to go to a café and I can count on most of the patrons there having the same colour skin I do, then I can stop going to that café. “But where will I get my coffee and implicit sociability?” I cry, as if my rampant sense of entitlement to that takes any account of the fact that countless people in my community have limited or no access to coffee and sociability already. Or, more pointedly, the form of supposed sociability a café offers represents a bogus bait-and-switch in the first place—as anyone in my area might see by going “north of Bradley” and witnessing the jostling sociability going on at a local combination barber shop/beauty parlour/social hub.

I find people often resistant to my insistence that stepping down from privilege “isn’t hard” because (it seems to me) underneath it all they attempt to evade making the most central confession: “I don’t want to.” I certainly don’t want to, but I at least don’t especially pretend that my not wanting to has a justifiable base. It also seems to me, so long as someone doesn’t admit “I don’t want to,” then nothing can change—because as long as I accept whatever facile excuses I give myself to (secretly) justify my “I don’t want to,” then the “rational good” my justifications propose argue for the continuance of my behaviour.

This actually represents a gamble, because when I say nothing will change, this overstates things. One may say the French revolution happened because the French aristocrats refused to acknowledge their “I don’t want to.” Similarly, the Haitian slave revolution (1791–1804)marked an instance where the French tyrants of the island refused to acknowledge their “I don’t want to.” Similarly, 9/11 happened because US foreign policy oppressors refused to acknowledge their “I don’t want to.” Denial only works so long as the environment around you does not change too severely.

But whatever rigours get practiced upon your soul in the process of coming out to yourself as a beneficiary of White privilege, if you have begun to make the effort, then a sign of progress arises when those who in principal share your privilege start acting betrayed. Imagine a group of bros going on in a vulgar way about [women] and [breasts], &c. Let one of the fellows there say, “That’s really a disgusting way to talk about women,” and the ribbing and joshing and possible ostracising he may experience for crossing that line signals a stepping down from privilege. Or let him suggest that maybe they should talk the same way about males, and the joshing, or ribbing, or violence he experiences as a [homosexual] will similarly signal a stepping down from privilege. One sees in this the harrowing prospects, and while to get cut from this herd risks losing the safety of numbers as well as whatever access to social goodies membership affords, we may counterbalance that by reminding ourselves that the not-privileged do actually have ways and means of thriving (not just surviving), which we might learn from if we’d come down from our (conceited) high-horse and (bourgeois) terrors about “poverty”.

This echoes what Es’kia Mphahlele, a Sotho writer [from South Africa] interviewed in Egejuru’s book, says when answering the question whether Africa has anything to offer the Occidental world culturally.

On a cultural level we have a lot that other people can learn, but I don’t think the West would want to learn it, given the whole framework of the mentality of the West … We could say that the Negro race has humanism in abundance, but it is difficult to implant this into the cold-blooded materialistic mind that goes out to grab and own property; the two just don’t work together (140–1).

One might make a similar point about the so-called Poor. In general, I distinguish between poverty and impoverishment. Under poverty, it may take a great deal of work (such as walking miles to and fro to collect water) but the means still exist to meet the needs of one’s life, which needs less essentially include things like nutrition, hydration, rest, and shelter and things more like fairness, empathy, cooperation, and recognition in human social settings. By contrast, impoverishment represents a circumstance where one cannot meet these needs, such as we find in urban food deserts, in countries where the destruction of the infrastructure makes access to necessities impossible, or where occupying forces quarantine populations (e.g., the Warsaw ghetto, Palestine), &c. In US history, one may trace the imposition of impoverishment on communities otherwise thriving in poverty, specifically in the transformation of Harlem into a ghetto, but much more extensively in how the disingenuous War on Drugs decimated urban centres of poverty. I propose neither to idealise poverty by saying this nor to declare equitable the excess degree of work those living in poverty must perform to thrive in the human way they do. Rather, I would emphasise how middle-class neurotics, becoming suddenly the nouveau pauvre thanks to the post-Reagan articulations of neoliberal capitalism, bring with them a fetishistic terror of “poverty” that imagines “poverty” as impoverishment.

This makes them especially act like selfish dicks, and history has hundreds of examples. Burton’s (1620)[8] Anatomy of Melancholy notes that few become so miserable and awful as those who had but now don’t. Canetti’s (1960)[9] repellent book waves its hands a lot about what Canetti calls “the survivor,” exemplifying this type of bastard at one point with the notorious historical figure Josephus, who so offended his Jewish community members that his writings were placed under interdiction from reading for more than one thousand years.[10] Solzhenitsyn’s (1974)[11] Gulag Archipelago details how the worst political prisoners were those who had previously enjoyed the privileges of Communist Party advantages; one might expect similar embittered whining from Wall Street failures. The biblical curse of Noah upon his son Ham represents a focussed case in point, while Abraham himself presents no end of entitled abuse of everyone around him under the guise of someone who had but lost.

Egejuru—then a professor of literature at UCLA—conducted a series of interviews in circa 1974, separated thematically after the fact, with eight celebrated African authors: Leopold Senghor (poet and President of the Republic of Senegal, and one of the instigators of the Negritude movement), Chinua Achebe (an Ibo from Nigeria, and most famous for the “first” English-language novel from Africa, Things Fall Apart), Laye Camara (a Malinke of Guinea), Mohammed Dib (Algerian, and “the most prolific writer of North Africa” [157]), Pathé Giagne (a Wolof of Senegal and co-editor of a Wolof-language magazine with Ousmane Sembene), Cheik Hamidou Kane (a Peulh of the Diallobe clan of Senegal, who “believes that religion is of primary importance in solving life’s problems” [159]), Es’kia Mphahlele (cited above), Ousmane Sembene (a Wolof from Senegal who became a film-maker in order to reach a wider cultural audience), and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’O (a Gikuyu from Kenya, now teaching as a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well serving as the Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine).

The topics included (1) who is the audience of African literature, (2) the place of foreign languages in African literature, (3) issues of publication and distribution, (4) the question of influence on the writers, (5) what distinguishes one as an African writer, (6) the appropriateness and utility of the novel as a genre in African literature, (7) whether Africa proposes the only genuine topic of African literature, and (8) focused discussions with only Achebe, Dib, Mphahlele, and Kane about their specific work. Having previously read Mkandawire’s (2005)[12] African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender, And Development, several of the themes Egejuru “echo forward” to the essays (by African intellectuals) curated by Mkandawire, especially the challenge of language in Africa, where the colonial era has left behind by default the former colonizer’s language as the national default.

Mkandawire’s text—again, a series of essays written by numerous African intellectuals—does not offer “merely” an apologetics for the course of various African histories in the wake of colonialism, but the framing it offers, generally socio-economic, makes it seems less critical, or less willing to accept the premises that a socio-economic framework demands, than the authors interviewed here, and not only because two authors have explicit Marxist commitments. The end of colonialism did not, unfortunately, spell an end to exploitative meddling—one author notes how Africa almost immediately got back into bed with its former oppressors—and this can read in a reactionary way, as if to say: Whites insist we Africans cannot govern ourselves and the history of Independence bears that out. This does not pay no attention to the fact and deliberate strategy by the Occidental world to continue colonialism by different means (and without the “overhead” of actually having to administrate the situation). Still, a social critique that says, “It turns out, contrary to our better humanistic traditions, that the Occident found a way to tempt certain elements in our cultures into becoming our new oppressors,” obscures to some extent the role of the Occident in that, even when no one loses sight of the fact that the ground for such predatory opportunism arises out of the destructions afforded by colonialism in various African histories.

At one point, Mphahlele characterises the difference between Francophone and Anglophone experiences of colonization, specifically: a more laissez-faire attitude toward language on the part of the British compared to the French. African novels in English, for instance, were able to more adapt local language use into English without causes storms of controversy, whereas any sort of modification to the French language resulted in censure and often censorship (in the form of non-publication). Mphahele characterises French colonialism as distinctly at pains to assert and demonstrate its superiority and also to offer educationally, as an indispensible part, training in philosophy, while the British educational coloniality took a more pragmatic (less intellectual) approach and also bothered much less with any insistence on cultural superiority.

I think it has a lot to do with French education, which lays emphasis on the philosophical approach to life while British education relies much more on the empirical approach to life …

Again, with the British Indirect Rule [in Africa] you had enough room to maneuver. It left a lot of room for the traditional rulers to have an attachment to their people. Also, in school the English teachers tended to be more tolerant with the way we spoke English; more tolerant than the French teachers were toward us in the way we spoke French. I don’t think there would have been an Amos Tutuola [at one time sterotyped as writing in “broken English”][13] in French literature because the English reacted very differently to any native setting; there was a kind of primitive exotic going on in the minds of the British in the nineteenth century in their attempt to escape from the restrictions of reason which had been paramount in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From there we get the kind of Englishman who comes to Africa, who is ambivalent in his attitude towards Africa; an exotic territory with which he is in love. But at the same time he thinks he has a mission to teach something to Africa, and this conflict breaks down the extent of assimilation for the African, it handicaps it so that it doesn’t go full length. And then there was a kind of love/hate relationship going on among the British who lived in Africa, who just didn’t seem to make up their minds as to what their mission was going to be. And that is why we came out of that system the way we are; half-baked as it were. And having continued to live in Africa, we were still confident that we hadn’t lost anything at all.

The French Africans who were assimilated are the ones in revolt. When they found themselves uprooted in Paris, they felt much more bitter about it than we could have, removed and cut off as they were from the African roots. And the French intellectuals’ abated and aided Negritude, promoted it out of a sense of guilt. They seemed to say to the Africans, “Tell us what we did to you,” and then they could suffer through the whole process of being told what they had done to the black man. The Frenchmen who have been to Africa are always longing to be back there, almost as if they were running away from something which that they invited Africans to join. Also to them it is a romantic escape which is typical of nineteenth century Frenchmen. This revolt against the French is at the elite level; there are lots of Africans who didn’t go to France for their education but still they aspire to things French. I think this is a general reaction of Africa towards things European. We are going to continue in this way. I look at it as the taste for the exotic, something that lifts them into another life style (139–40).

Achebe makes a similar point (filling out specifically what I summarised further above):

First of all we must realize that the French take cultural things seriously as opposed to the lukewarm attitude of the British. In something like language, the British never had anything like the French Academy to decide on words to be admitted. The British don’t bother how you speak English, and this (attitude) got into the educational system. Nobody ever studies philosophy in British schools; you don’t even hear the word. It was compulsory in French schools. When the Francophones responded, they did so philosophically, and the Anglophones did so politically. SO there was no poetry in Nigeria; they talked about practical things. (The [the French people] taught the Africans better and more seriously.) The British left things to the missionaries (132).

This all provides an illuminating distinction, as also the various critiques of the adequacy of the novel as a form in African literature.

Part of the problem here involves language again: if one writes in the local language, illiteracy prevents it from having readers (either due to the educational illiteracy of local populations or linguistic illiteracy of foreign audiences). But also, the novel represents a distinctly European invention, a fact that most Occidental readers likely do not realize, believing that “books” exist everywhere so that the novel represents a universal form.

Not so, and the brevity of many African novels seems a very notable feature. Mphahlele notes that, indeed, the African novel might indeed go on and on and on:

We could write novels which are just like epics, but because we’ve got this restriction that the novel has got to be a certain shape, we cut it at a certain point. It has got to be rounded. Something has to be done so it doesn’t have to end like that. It has to do with the way we tell stories (102).

And in fact, the inadequacy of the novel in general to meet the cultural challenges faced by Africa have led Ousmane Sembene to become a filmmaker, led Senghor and Achebe to return to poetry, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’O to compose native-language drama for theatre. In a general way, one may say that African writers understand that their post-colonial readers (in the Occident) expect novels. But I would widen the degree of the novel’s inadequacy even more.

In Baldridge (1994)[14] surveys a portion of the history of novel studies, tracing the line of descent from dominant interpretations of the novel once from a quintessential act of artistic resistance now to a hopelessly complicit act of bourgeois ideology. Writing at a time when Foucauldian despair (and other stuff like that) played a dominant role in academia, Baldridge sets his shoulder against that bar, risking pulverisation from the recoil, and de-simplifies this salvation or damnation dichotomous view of the novel and demonstrates that (a Bakhtinian understanding of dialogics in) it discloses how even texts ideologically committed to bourgeois values cannot always two that line. More specifically, the structural features of the genre—in particular, characterisation—may work against certain kinds of (reactionary) authorial intentions.

This point runs in two directions.

First, as a handmaid of bourgeois individualistic values—exemplified, for instance, in the concretization of individuality as the highest aim of human life—this makes it implicitly a class-carrier for the comparative elite (the educated) in Africa. As Berger (1972)[15] insists that oil painting serves as a marker of bourgeois attainment (and rises to popularity at the time of the rise of the bourgeoisie especially), so does the novel serve as a carrier of middle-class ideology.[16] Thus, the novel serves as an access point to Whiteness, however much it aspires to speak “for the people”. The various expressions of resistances to the novel by authors in Egejuru’s book seem to point to this problem, even as others do not entirely forswear the genre.

In their discussions of the novel, the critique (by non-African and Occidentally trained African critics) of a lack of roundedness in characters receives push-back. Baldridge specifically cites characterisation as a fundamental trait of the novel as historically determined in its European (and US) forms—so much so that Austen’s relentless resistance to character development in her Mansfield Park becomes the occasion that dialogises and undermines the project of projecting bourgeois ideology in her book. To criticise African novels for a lack of characterisation then represent a clear case where the Occident fails to see what Africa places before its eyes. Just to offer a distinction, the African author writes a “book” but the non-African (or Occidentally trained African) reader/critic insists on treating it as a “novel”. Achebe offers an extended objection to this critique:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

This idea does not never occur in Occidental thinking; Jung’s (1921)[17] notion of individuation seems to capture it as well:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[18] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

In Jung’s remark, “A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life,” the diagnosis of pathology and inimicalness to life seems in solidarity particularly with Achebe’s remarks, which come from the “opposite” side of individualism. Jung himself worried about individuality-only (Capitalism, though rarely called out by name) and collectivist-only (Communism) as absolute problems of social life, with history at the very least since the twentieth century showing unambiguously how destructively these form of “only” play out.

So the failure of the (African) novel lies in its inability to embody community; or, more precisely, one may ask whether or not the novel can embody the community at all. In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, he resorts to some sometimes unintentionally comic attempts to depict collectiveness. Generally, this results in a reification, the proposal of some synecdoche or metonymy to stand in for the collective described, often capitalised. Thus, in Dickens’ novel, the name of a neighbourhood assumes agency in the book in essentially the same way that saying something like, “The Crown acted today to quell dissent” does. But this reification literally turns a multitude into a singular symbol, and one may remain rightfully suspicious if this isn’t just a covert substitution for individualism in the first place, or certainly a consequence of that ideology. How politically neutralized we have become because we imagine “the President” (the figurehead) embodies the actual force of Power, imagining that if we simply swap out the body, trading Bush Jr. for Obama, that this can lead to meaningful change.

In Pasternak’s (1957)[19] Doctor Zhivago, on the opening page of the book, he deploys an impressive paragraph where three people comment on a funeral procession, but rather than providing the conventional paragraph break between all three speakers, Pasternak leaves them joined together in a single one. Nothing especially identifies the speakers either (that I recall), and I would suggest that this gesture does a better job of capturing the multiplicity (the multiple voices) of the community depicted without lapsing into a tacit individualism (by giving them all a single name, like the Bystander). The effect comes across more or less like being a bystander oneself who overhears (but does not look at) others speaking.

One may wonder why the novel poorly depicts community or has a tendency to resort to metonymies or a synecdoche (as Dickens does) to try to depict them. This seems a function of the linearity of the text. In a film (and also in painting and other like visual aesthetic forms) even if one’s attention focuses on a given detail that detail still seems surrounded, contextualized, or contained within the larger whole. As one zooms in and out of focussing on any given detail, the kind of interplay that Achebe and Jung speak of plays out more viscerally. We observe the whole, but then an individual detail captures our attention, asserts itself as part of the whole and thus proposes to change how the whole appears (or risks getting swallowed whole by the whole). With written (and conversational) aesthetic forms, the attention rests almost exclusively upon the Storyteller (the text) as it activates our imagination by unspooling the narrative, but in an unavoidably linear way.

Theatre in this sense stands “midway” between text and film. Certainly, some epic stagings of opera sufficiently evoke community and individual, if you can get enough people on stage. In general, however, it seems usually easier to populate a film image with community, simply by virtue of the presence of the world in the background, for instance in any old filmed street scene. Thus, despite ensemble gestures in theatre, individualism adds gravity to individual speaking voices as they exchange dialogically, even where this involves the tragic hero and a chorus. I suspect that the Greek audience of a tragedy did at least some of the intellectual/experiential heavy lifting involved in turning the chorus into “community” (or “wider reality”), a gesture that seems more contrived or difficult or unconvincing for us these days. We experience the chorus as “obviously” a crowd, more as a symbol of the community than the sort of literal community an (idealized) Greek theatregoer afforded back when.

No wonder then that Ousmane Sembene turned to filmmaking and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’O to native-language theatre. Not simply because this solves the language problem in order to meet common people where they already live, but also because film and theatre generically more deftly support the depiction of the type of conflict or interplay between the individual and community that Achebe and Jung describe, and which makes for such a key theme in African literature (according to the words of its authors). And to the extent that what Achebe and Jung speak for amounts to a fundamental human need for empathy, cooperation, fairness, and recognition that comes primarily if not only through community, then we see that the novel—in its fundamental orientation toward the ideology of bourgeois individualism—threatens to become (or has long already become) one of the weapons used to destroy community.

This point differs slightly, perhaps significantly, from Baldridge’s demonstration that the novel, even now, does not always have to act as the dutiful handmaiden of anti-human ideology,[20] but may sometimes (if accidentally or “unconsciously”) fashion a resistance to that ideology. In this light, the novel—understood “internally” in cultural terms—rehearses, shores up, or reassures our dominating ideology of its rectitude, necessity, or attractiveness; understood “externally” in cultural terms, as something taken up by non-Occidentals, it becomes not just a token of membership but a weapon that helps to destroy the locally dominating ideology of “community”—or, rather, Achebe’s balancing act of the individual and the community or Jung’s similar notion of individuation as the foundation of a healthy culture.

I don’t know to what extent Baldridge did or did not think of the novel as weaponized, but leaving this point for some other time, it suffices for now to remember again that the novel does not represent a universal genre (as opposed, say, to theatre of some sort, which even might boil down to nothing less than ritual simply). Whatever authority gets vested in communal ritual, it seems distinct and different from the sort of authority vested in text (scripture). And on the broader human scale, one might trace how the Word more readily establishes fascisms all throughout our human planet. Unlike theatre, this word gets stripped of the speaking human embodiment,[21] and unlike film, this strips it not only of its visual embodiment but its embedment within the world around the word. &c. It specifically substitutes the individual imagining of that aural and visual/community element in places of the world’s actuality, not merely or objectionably to the end novels get accused of (escapism) but toward an unbalancing of the balance Achebe (and Jung) insist we need for healthy communities.

In theory, if we discussed our readings, then this precisely would qualify any overly individualised reading of a text, and certain religious communities (or at least permitted sectors within those communities) precisely do involve themselves in intense debates about interpretation (and the experience of reading), and this no doubt has helped to foster the strong sense of community that often inheres around religious sects. Thus, belief does not provide the communal glue here but specifically the willingness to discuss the details of belief (within certain absolute constraints).

In that respect, it seems an important aspect of Egejuru’s book that in her interviews she more than once directly challenges and contradicts the claims of various male writers. This makes the word “dialogues” in the title of her book completely warranted.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 1–173.

[3] I say “perhaps naïve” surprise, because no doubt some people would assert to expect such a racialised orientation should constitute the norm.

[4] I should add, when I use the word White, I mean the social club of Whiteness—social “club” both in the sense of something one belongs to and something one uses to beat others. In principal, anyone can join the club: people of Jewish and Italian descent, for instance, were previously not White, but that has changed. To join the club does not, of course, grant you instant access to all privileges and some many never open up for you. Someone like Shahid Khan, a middle-class immigrant from Pakistan who now owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and ranks as the 490th richest person in the world, will not have the same access to the levers of government as the Koch brothers. &c

[5] First published as Peggy McIntosh ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to see Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies’, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Working Paper, 189 (Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988); better known in excerpted form as Peggy McIntosh, ‘White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989), 9-10; repr. in Independent School, 49 (1990), 31–35.

[6] The gestures available for the disadvantaged, of course, involve “raising oneself up” (as the Civil Rights movement did) or “removing the advantaged” (as the French and Russian Revolutions did).

[7] A fact long noted about the seemingly fundamentally schizophrenic middle class.

[8] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up. New York: New York Review of Books.

[9] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback)

[10] That Canetti flags this type of personality as a wretched example of a human being and a significant social problem gets that much right, but his book by no means guards against drawing the conclusion that if one seeks not to become a victim in society, then one should take on the conceit of a victimizer.

[11] Solzhenitsyn, A. I. (1974). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation. [1st ed.] New York: Harper & Row.

[12] Mkandawire, T (2005). African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender, and development. New York: Zed Books.

[13] Taban Lo Lyiong objects (from here):

Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language? Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is written in seven dialects, he tells us. It is acknowledged a classic. We accept it, forget that it has no “grammar”, and go ahead to learn his “grammar” and what he has to tell us. Let Tutuola write “no grammar” and the hyenas and jackals whine and growl. Let Gabriel Okara write a “no grammar” Okolo. They are mum. Why? Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination. Some of these minds having failed to write imaginative stories, turn to that aristocratic type of criticism which magnifies trivialities beyond their real size. They fail to touch other virtues in a work because they do not have the imagination to perceive these mysteries. Art is arbitrary. Anybody can begin his own style. Having begun it arbitrarily, if he persists to produce in that particular mode, he can enlarge and elevate it to something permanent, to something other artists will come to learn and copy, to something the critics will catch up with and appreciate.<href=”#cite_note-1″>[1]

[14] Baldridge, C. (1994). The dialogics of dissent in the English novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England

[15] Berger, J. (1977). Ways of seeing. London : New York: British Broadcasting Corporation.

[16] And here, the coincidence of the rise of the novel in conjunction with the aggressive reformulation of the middle class makes for an uncontroversial point.

[17] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[18] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[19] Pasternak, B. L., Pevear, R., & Volokhonsky, L. (2010). Doctor Zhivago. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

[20] I say anti-human, because we might remember Mphahlele’s remark that Africa has humanism in abundance to offer, but the Occident does not care to accept it.

[21] Although this does not mean the speaking of the Word becomes moot. In the Babylonian New Year’s festival, priests would read the epic Enûma Eliš as part of the literal re-creation of the world, and the reciting of scripture in the temples of intolerant monotheism, of course, do not function only as reminders of what the text claims.

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