The Writer and His Community
ONE OF THE MOST critical consequences of the transition from oral traditions to
written forms of literature is the emergence of individual authorship.
The story told by the fireside does not belong to the storyteller once he has let it out of his mouth. But the story composed by his spiritual descendant, the writer in his study, "belongs" to its composer.
This shift is facilitated by the simple fact that, whereas a story that is told has no physical form or solidity, a book has; it is a commodity and can be handled and moved about. But I want to suggest that the physical form of a book cannot by itself adequately account for the emergent notion of proprietorship. At best it facilitates the will to ownership which is already present. This will is rooted in the praxis of individualism in its social and economic dimensions.
Part of my artistic and intellectual inheritance is derived from a cultural tradition in which it was possible for artists to create objects of art which were solid enough and yet make no attempt to claim, and sometimes even go to great lengths to deny, personal ownership of what they have created. I am referring to the tradition of mbari art in some parts of Igboland.
Mbari is an artistic "spectacular" demanded of the community by one or other of its primary divinities, usually the Earth goddess. To execute this "command performance" the community is represented by a small group of its members selected and secluded for months or even years for the sole purpose of erecting a befitting "home of images" filled to overflowing with sculptures and paintings in homage to the presiding god or goddess.
These representatives (called ndimgbe; sing. : onyemgbe), chosen to re-enact, as it were, the miracle of creation in its extravagant profusion, are always careful to disclaim all credit for making, which rightly belongs to gods; or even for initiating homage for what is made, which is the prerogative of the community. Ndimgbe are no more than vessels III which the gods place their gifts of creativity to mankind and in which the, community afterwards make their token return of sacrifice and thanksgiving. As soon as their work is done behind the fence of their seclusion and they re-emerge into secular life, ndimgbe set about putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their recently executed works of art.
As Herbert Cole tells us in his study of this profound phenomenon:
A former onyemgbe fears that be might slip up and say, "Look, I did this figure." If he [says] that, he has killed himself. The god that owns that work will kill him.
This may sound strange and exotic to some cars, but I believe that it dramatizes a profoundly important aspect of the truth about art without which our understanding must remain seriously limited.
I am suggesting that what is at issue here is the principle which has come to be known as individualism and which has dominated the life and the psychology of the West in its modern history. The virtues of individualism are held to be universally beneficial but particularly so to the artist. John Plamenatz in his introduction to Man and Society separates the artist from the scholar in these words: "The artist ploughs his own furrow, the scholar, even in the privacy of his study, cultivates a common field."
It has been said that the American Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the first to use the word "individualism" in the English language, rather approvingly, as a definition for the way of life which upholds the primacy of the individual. His definition was imbued with typically American optimistic faith. Emerson's contemporary, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, was far less enthusiastic. In his book Democracy In America he used "Individualism" pejoratively-as a threat to society. As it turned out, however, it was the vision defined by Emerson that carried the day not just in America but in the Western world generally, from where it has made and continues to make serious inroads into the lives of other peoples.
The phenomenal success of the West in the mastery of the natural world is one of the dominant facts of modern history. It is only natural to attribute this dazzling achievement to the ruling values of the West, and also to hold these values up to the rest of the world not just as values but as the right values. By and large the rest of the world has been increasingly inclined to be persuaded. But from time to time, in life as in literature, voices of doubt have also been heard.
In a crucial passage in the novel Ambiguous 4dventure, by the Senegalese Muslim writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the hero, an African student of philosophy in Paris, is asked by his dinner host how the history of Western thought strikes an African. And his reply-in my view one of the highlights of that fine novel - is as follows:
It seems to me that this history has undergone an accident which has shifted it and, finally, drawn it away from its plan. Do you understand me? Socrates's scheme of thinking does not seem to me, at bottom, different from that of Saint Augustine though there was Christ between them. The plan is the same, as far as Pascal. it is still the plan of all the thought which is not occidental . . . I do not know. But don't you feel as if the philosophical plan were already no longer the seine with Descartes as with Pascal? It is not the mystery which has changed but the questions which are asked of it and the revelations which arc expected from it. Descartes is more niggardly in his quest. If, thanks to this and also to his method, he obtains a greater number of responses, what he reports also concerns us less and is of little help to us.'
It may be thought over-bold, if not downright impertinent, for anyone, but more particularly for an African student, to describe Descartes, the very father of modern Western philosophy, as the cause of a gigantic philosophical 'dent But there are undoubtedly good grounds for the proposition advanced here that if they should return to the world today Socrates--or his student Plato, whom we know better-and Augustine might find African communalism more congenial than Western individualism. The Republic, "conjured out of the ruins of fourth-century Athens," was afterall a grand design for the ordering of men in society; and The City of God a Christian reordering of society after the destruction of the Roman Empire by pagans. In other words, philosophy for Plato and Augustine, historically equi-distant from Christ, was concerned with architectural designs for a better world.
Descartes, on the other hand, would probably become an American citizen if he should return. He had rejected the traditional contemplative ideal of philosophy and put in its place a new experimental rationalism and a mechanistic view of the physical world. He regarded science as a means of acquiring mastery over nature for the benefit of mankind and led the way himself with experiments in optics and physiology. But-and this perhaps more than all else makes him a true modern, Western man-he made the foundation of his philosophical edifice, including the existence of God, contingent on his own first person singular! Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am!
Perhaps it is the triumphant, breathtaking egocentrism of that declaration that occasionally troubles the non-Western mind, conscious as it must be of hierarchies above self; and so leads it to the brazen thought of a Western ontological accident.
But troubled though he may be, non-Western man is also, in spite of himself, dazzled by the technological marvels created by the West; by Its ability to provide better than anybody else for man's material needs. And so we find him going out to meet the West in a bid to find out the secret of its astonishing success or, if that proves too rigorous, then simply to taste its fruits.
The philosophical dialogue between the West and Africa has rarely been better presented than in Ambiguous Adventure. In the first part of the story the proud rulers of the Diallobe people--bearers of the crescent of Islam in the West African savannah for close upon a thousand years-are suffering the traumatic anguish of defeat by French imperial arms, and pondering what the future course of their life should be. Should they send their children to the new French school or not? After a long and anguished debate they finally opt for the school but not on the admission that their own institutions are in any way inferior to those of the French, nor on the aspiration that they should become like the French in due course, but rather on the tactical grounds only that they must learn from their new masters "the art of conquering without being in the right."
The trouble with their decision, however, is that the children these "wanderers on delicate feet" as the poet Senghor might have called them, these infant magi launched into an ambiguous journey with an ambivalent mandate to experience but not to become, are doomed from the start to distress and failure.
The hero of the novel, the deliverer-to-be and paragon of the new generation, returns from France a total spiritual wreck, his once vibrant sense of community hopelessly shattered. Summoned to assume the mantle of leadership, his tortured soul begs to be excused, to be left alone. "What have their problems to do with me?" he asks. "I am only myself. I have only me." Poor fellow; the West has got him!
Western literature played a central role in promoting the ideal of individual autonomy. As Lionel Trilling pointed out, this literature has, in the last one hundred and fifty years, held "an intense and adverse imagination of the culture in which it has its being." It promoted the view of society and of culture as a prisonhouse from which the individual must escape in order to find space and fulfillment.
But fulfillment is not, as people often think, uncluttered space or an absence of controls, obligations, painstaking exertion. No! It is actually a presence - powerful demanding presence limiting the space in which the self can roam uninhibited; it is an aspiration by the self to achieve spiritual congruence with the other.
When people speak glibly of fulfillment they often mean self-gratification, which is easy, short-lived and self-centred. Like drugs, it has to be experienced frequently, preferably in increasing doses.
Fulfillment is other-centred, a giving or subduing of the self, perhaps to somebody, perhaps to a cause; in any event to something external to it. Those who have experienced fulfilment all attest to the reality of this otherness. For religious people the soul of man aspires to God for fulfillment. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and one of the greatest fathers of the early Christian Church, understood this very well, having led a life of self-centred pleasure his youth. He found fulfillment and left his great prayer in testimony: "For thyself hast thou made us, 0 God, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee." Artists, scientists and scholars may find fulfillment in their creative work, humanitarians in their service. But even more important, ordinary men and women have found fulfillment in their closeness to others--to children, to parents, to wife or husband, to lover-and in social work of all kinds.
The French anthropologist O. Manoni wrote as follows about the Merina of Malagasy:
We do not find in him that disharmony almost amounting to conflict between the social being and the inner personality which is so frequently met with among the civilized.
We must note in passing, but not be diverted by, Manoni's typically occidentalist notion of civilization. The valuable part of his observation is that there is "disharmony almost amounting to conflict between the social being and the inner personality" in Western culture and, we may add, increasingly among its newly "civilized" and "civilizing" surrogates. It was widely believed that this psychological disharmony, if not exactly- desirable, was the inevitable price to be paid for the enormous advances made by the West in material wealth, in technology, in medicine, etc. Consequently the possibility that non-Western values might have insights to contribute to the process of modernization around the world was hardly even considered-until Japan.
In the area of literature, I recall that we have sometimes been informed by the West and its local zealots that the African novel we write are not novels at all because they do not quite fit the specifications of that literary form which came into being at a particular time in specific response to the new spirit of individual freedom set off by the decay of feudal Europe and the rise of capitalism. This form, we were told, was designed to explore individual rather than social predicament
As it happens the novel, even in its home of origin, has not behaved very well; it has always resisted the straitjacket. What is more, being a robust art form, it has travelled indefatigably and picked up all kinds of strange habits!
Not so long ago the Czech writer Milan Kundera was reported as follows:
The novel is an investigation into human existence . . . [It] proclaims no truth, no morality . . . That is a job for others: leaders of political parties, presidents, terrorists, priests, revolutionaries and editorial writers. The novel came about at the beginning of modern times when man was discovering how hard it is to get at the truth and how relative human affairs really are.
I must confess I do like some things in that statement, not least his juxtaposition of presidents and terrorists, for when a president pursues a terrorist the two become quite indistinguishable! Nevertheless, I consider Kundera's position too Eurocentric, too dogmatic and therefore erroneous. If the novel came about in particular ways and circumstances, must it remain forever in the mould of its origin? If Europe discovered relativity in human affairs rather late, does it follow that everybody else did? And finally, can anyone seriously suggest that the novel proclaims no morality?
In the introduction to his book Ninety-nine Novel - the Best in English Since 1939 the British novelist Anthony Burgess states--correctly in my opinion--that "the novel is what the symphony or painting or sculpture is not-namely a form steeped in morality." Needless to say, Burgess is not talking about what he himself calls black-and-white, Sunday- sermon, conventional morality. "Rather," he says, "a novel will question convention and suggest to us that the making of moral judgements is difficult. This can be called the higher morality."'
And yet we cannot simply dismiss the desperate plea of Milan Kundera, an artist speaking out of the experience of an authoritarian state that arrogates to itself powers to define truth and morality for the writer. No! We must recognize his special exigencies or, as he himself says, "how relative human affairs r6lly are." Or, as Burgess says, "that the making of moral judgements is difficult."
We may have been talking about individualism as if it was invented in the West or even by one American, Emerson. In fact, individualism must be, has to be, as old as human society itself. From whatever time humans began to move around in groups the dialogue between Manoni's polarities of "social being" and "inner personality" or, more simply, between the individual and the community must also have been called into being. It is inconceivable that it shouldn't. The question then is not whether this dialectic has always existed but rather how particular peoples resolved it at particular times.
One of mankind's oldest written records, the Old Testament, has a fine and dramatic moment when the prophet Ezekiel proposes to his people a shift in dealing with the old paradox. "the soul that sinneth, it shall die," he says, superseding in that bold declaration the teaching that when fathers cat sour grapes their children's teeth are set on edge.
Some years ago, John Updike after he had finished reading my 4rrow of God wrote me a letter in which he made some interesting observations. I'd like to quote a paragraph from that letter because it has an interesting bearing on what I have been trying to say:
The final developments of 4rrow of God proved unexpected anti, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand up so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.
Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy "in a page or two" the very angel and paragon of creation- the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given as final tribute the limelight in which to speak a grand, valedictory soliloquy!
The non-Westerner does not as a rule have those obligations because in his traditional scheme and hierarchy the human hero does not loom so large. Even when, like Ezeulu, he is leader and priest, he is still in a very real sense subordinate to his community. But even more important, he is subject to the sway of non-human forces in the universe, call them God, Fate, Chance or what you will. I call them some- times the Powers of Event, the repositories of causes and wisdoms that are as yet, and perhaps will always be, inaccessible to us.
To powers inhabiting that order of reality the human hero counts for little. If they should desire his fall they will not be obliged to make a long-winded case or present explanations.
Does this mean then that among these people, the Igbo to take one example, the individual counts for nothing? Paradoxical as it may sound the answer is an emphatic "No." The lgbo are second to none in their respect of the individual personality. For whereas many cultures are content to demonstrate the value and importance of each man and woman by reference to the common fatherhood of God, the lgbo postulate an unprecedented uniqueness for the individual by making him or her the sole creation and purpose of a unique god-agent, chi. No two persons, not even blood brothers are created and accompanied by the same chi.
And yet the Igbo people as we have seen immediately are about balancing this extraordinary specialness, this unique passed individuality, by setting limits to its expression. The first limit is the democratic one, which subordinates the person to the group in practical, social matters. And the other is a moral taboo on excess, which sets a limit personal audition, surrounding it with powerful cautionary tales.
I began by describing-all too briefly-an aspect of the question of the "ownership" of art among a major Igbo group. I will end by quoting what an American anthropologist, Simon Ottenberg, reported about another group. He is describing an African carver at work on ritual masks:
Sometimes his friends or other secret society members hear him writhing in the bush, so they come and sit with him and watch him carve. They give him advice telling him how to carve, even if they themselves do not know how. He is not offended by their suggestion...I know myself that he rather enjoy the company.
Clearly, this artist and his people are in very close communion. They do not all have to agree on how to make the mask. But they are all interested in the process of making and the final outcome. The resulting art is important because it is at the centre of the life of the people and so can find some of that need that first led man to make art: the need to afford himself through his imagination an alternative handle on reality.
There is always a grave danger of oversimplification in any effort to identify differences between systems such as I have attempted here between "The West and the Rest of Us" to borrow the catchy title of Chinweizu's remarkable book "I hope that while drawing attention to pecularities which, in any view, are real enough at this point in time I have not fallen nor led my indulgent reader, into the trap of seeing our differences as absolute rather than relative. But to be completely sure let me restate that the testimony of John Updike and certainly of Anthony Burgess does not encourage the motion of an absolute dichotomy between the West and virtues on the issues I have been dealing with.
And I should like to go further and call to testimony a distinguished witness indeed- J. B. Priestley - who wrote in a famous, "Literature and Western Man," as follows:
Characters in a society make the novel...Society itself becomes more and more important to the serious novelist, and indeed turns into a character itself, perhaps the chief character.
Priestly could be speaking here more about the fictional as a novelist might make of his society rather than the realistic relationship between them. But in either case the level of understanding of, and even identification with, society he demands of the writer is a far cry from the adversary relationship generally assumed and promoted in the past.
The final point I wish to address myself to is the crucial issue of identity. Who is my community? The mbari and the Igbo examples I referred to were
Clearly appropriate to their rather small, reasonably stable and self-contained societies to which they belonged. In the very different, wide-open, multcultural and highly volatile condition known as modern Nigeria, for example can a writer even begin to know who the community is let alone devise strategies for relating to it?
If I write in novels In a country in which most citizens are illiterate, who then is my community? If I write in English iii a country in which English may still be called a foreign language, or in any case is spoken only by a minority, will use is my writing?
These are clearly grave issues. And it is not surprising that very many thoughtful people have exercised their minds '111 seeking acceptable answers. Neither is it surprising that less serious people should be handy with an assortment of instant and painless cures.
To the question of writing at all we have sometimes been counselled to forget it, or rather the writing of books. What is required, we are told, is plays and films. Books are out of date! The book is dead, long live television One question which is not even raised let alone considered is: Who will write the drama and film scripts when the generation that can read and write has been used up?
On language we are given equally simplistic prescriptions. Abolish the use of English! But after its abolition we remain seriously divided on what to put in its place. One proferred solution gives up Nigeria with its 200-odd languages as a bad case and travels all the way to East Africa to borrow Swahili, just a in the past a kingdom caught in a succession bind sometimes solved its problem by going to another kingdom to hire an underemployed prince!
I will not proceed with these fancy answers to deeply profound problems. To those colleagues who might be tempted into a hasty switch of genres I will say this: Consider a hypothetical case. A master singer arrives to perform in a large auditorium and finds at the last moment that three quarters of his audience are totally deaf. His sponsors then put the proposition to him that he should dance instead because even the deaf can see a dancer. Now, although our performer may have the voice of an angel his feet are as heay as concrete. So what should he do? Should he proceed to sing beautifully to only a quarter or less of the auditorium or dance atrociously to a full house?
I guess it is clear where my stand would be! The singer should sing well even if it is merely to himself, rather than dance badly for the whole world. This is, of course, putting the case in its utmost extremity; but it becomes necessary to do it in defence of both art and good sense in the face what I see as a new onslaught of barbaric simple-mindedness.
Fortunately, in real life, we are not in danger of these bizarre extremes unless we consciously work our way into them. I can see no situation in which I will be presented with a Draconic choice between English and Igbo. For me, no either/or; I insist on both. Which, you might say, makes my life rather difficult and even a little untidy. But I prefer it that way.
Despite the daunting problems of identity that beset our contemporary society, we can see in the horizon the beginnings of a new relationship between artist and community which will not flourish like the mango-trick in the twinkling of on eye but will rather, in the hard and bitter manner of David Diop's young tree, grow patiently and obstinately to the ultimate victory of liberty and fruition.