This post is a commentary of sorts on an excerpt of the late Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah. That’s a book that wins with me every time! Speaking of: S/O to whoever I lent my copy to, it’s time to return it, dontchu think??
This is a bit of a long read so I’ll stop with the prefacing already …
WHAT BEATRICE EVOKED
By Ikem Osodi
Chapter Seven, Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (pp 97-101)
‘The original oppression of Woman was based on crude denigration. She caused Man to fall. So she became the scapegoat. No, not a scapegoat which might be blameless but a culprit richly deserving of whatever Man chose thereafter to heap on her. That is Woman in the Book of Genesis. Out here, our ancestors without the benefit of hearing about the Old Testament, made the very same story differing only in local colour. At first the Sky was very close to Earth. But every evening Woman cut off a piece of the Sky to put in her soup pot, or as in another version, she repeatedly banged the top end of her pestle carelessly against the Sky whenever she pounded the millet or, as in yet another rendering – so prodigious is Man’s inventiveness – she wiped her kitchen hands on the Sky’s face. Whatever the detail of Woman’s provocation, the Sky finally moved away in anger and God with it.
‘Well, that kind of candid chauvinism might be OK for the rugged taste of the Old Testament. The New Testament required a more enlightened, more refined, more loving even, strategy – ostensibly, that is the idea came to Man to turn his spouse into the very Mother of God, to pick her up from right under his foot where she’d been since Creation and carry her reverently to a nice corner pedestal. Up there, her feet completely off the ground she will be just as completely irrelevant to the practical decisions of running the world as she was in her bad old days. The only difference is that now Man will suffer no guilt feelings; he can sit back and congratulate himself on his generosity and gentlemanliness.
‘Meanwhile our ancestors out here, unaware of the New Testament, were working out independently a parallel subterfuge of their own. Nneka, they said. Mother is supreme. Let us keep her in reserve until the ultimate crisis arrives and the waist is broken and hung over the fire and the palm bears its fruit at the tail of its leaf. Then as the World crashes around Man’s ears, Woman in her supremacy will descend and sweep the shards together.
(Ikem:) ‘Do I make sense?’
(Beatrice:) ‘As always. Go on.’
‘Thank you BB. I owe that insight to you. I can’t tell you what the new role for Woman will be. I don’t know. I should never have presumed to know. You have to tell us. We never asked you before. And perhaps because you’ve never been asked you may not have thought about it; you may not have the answer handy. But in that case everybody had better know who is now holding up the action.’
‘The women are, of course, the biggest single group of oppressed people in the world and, if we are to believe the Book of Genesis, the very oldest. But they are not the only ones. There are others – rural peasants in every land, the urban poor in industrialised countries, Black people everywhere including their own continent, ethnic and religious minorities and castes in all countries. The most obvious practical difficulty is the magnitude and heterogeneity of the problem. There is no universal conglomerate of the oppressed. Free people may be alike everywhere in their freedom but the oppressed inhabit each their own peculiar hell. The present orthodoxies of deliverance are futile to the extent that they fail to recognise this. You know my stand on that. Every genuine artist feels it in his bone. The simplistic remedies touted by all manner of salesmen (including some who call themselves artists) will always fail because of man’s stubborn anti body called surprise. Man will surprise by his capacity for nobility as well as for villainy. No system can change that. It is built into the core of man’s free spirit.
‘The sweeping, majestic visions of people rising victorious like a tidal wave against their oppressors and transforming their world with theories and slogans into a new heaven and a new earth of brotherhood, justice and freedom are at best grand illusions. The rising, conquering tide, yes; but the millennium afterwards, no! New oppressors will have been readying themselves secretly in the undertow long before the tidal wave got really going.
‘Experience and intelligence warn us that man’s progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it.
‘Bloody reformist? That’s a term of abuse it would be redundant to remind you I have had more than my fair share of invoking against others across the years. But I ask myself: beyond the pleasant glow that javelin of an epithet certainly brings to the heart of the righteous hurler what serious benefit can it offer to the solution of our problems? And I don’t see any.
‘Reform may be a dirty word then but it begins to look more and more like the promising route to success in the real world. I limit myself to most promising rather than only for the simple reason that all certitude must now be suspect.
‘Society is an extension of the individual. The most we hope to do with a problematic individual psyche is re-form it. No individual psychoanalyst would aim to do more, for to do more, to overthrow the psyche itself, would be to unleash insanity. We can only hope to rearrange some details in the periphery of the human personality. Any disturbance of its core is an irresponsible invitation to disaster. Even a one-day-old baby does not make itself available for your root-and-branch engineering, for it comes trailing clouds of immortality. What immortality? Its baggage of irreducible inheritance of genes. That is immortality.
‘It is the same with society. You re-form it around what it is, its core of reality; not around an intellectual abstraction.
‘None of this is a valid excuse for political inactivity or apathy. Indeed to understand it is an absolute necessity for meaningful action, the knowledge of it being the only protective inoculation we can have against false hopes and virulent epidemics of gullibility.
‘In the vocabulary of certain radical theorists contradictions are given the status of some deadly disease to which their opponents alone can succumb. But contradictions are the very stuff of life. If there had been a little dash of contradiction among the Gadarene swine some of them might have been saved from drowning.
‘Contradictions if well understood and managed can spark off the fires of invention. Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity.
‘I didn’t owe this insight to you, BB. I drank it in from my mother’s breast. All I’ve ever needed was confirmation. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, I contradict myself,” he sang defiantly. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Every artist contains multitudes. Graham Greene is a Roman Catholic, a partisan of Rome, if you like. Why then does he write about bad, doubtful and doubting priests? Because he is a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy.
‘Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners. In the grand finale of things there will be a mansion also for them where they will be received and lodged in comfort by single-minded demigods of their devotion. But it will not be in the complex and paradoxical cavern of Mother Idoto.’
Chinua Achebe has never been my favourite literary icon but I know to doff my hat when I read words such as these. I doffed my hat the first time I read these ones. I read them over and over; typed them out to see if they’d fit perfectly with 21st century tech-thinking; recorded my voice as I sang their poetry in my Blackberry voice notes. Suffice to say Ole! To you Chinua Achebe!
As probably only he could, the Professor penned these thought-provoking words, employing just the right ratio of indigenous to foreign inferences. Candour has never been more poetic.
We all have theories about how our problems began. Whether it is the forced marriage of conflicting cultures or the greedy lot who but for their ancestral line-up would not have been entitled to chunks of the cake they (now and probably will always) covet. Of course there are more; theories, that is. And there are even more theories on how to create a solid wall of defence against these corruptions and some more on ‘far-reaching’ methods of resolving these problems as a whole or in parts –many of which are best left on the living room couches where they were developed.
Long before #NoToXenophobia, #JeSuisCharlie #BringBackOurGirls #JeNeSuisPasCharlie #BlackLivesMatter #LetsAllBeFeminists and sundry movements demanding the better world we say we want- in 5 pages and a fictional conversation between two deep-thinking characters, Chinua Achebe had gone on to explain the problems of our new world, starting with the most volatile- gender equity- and some of its pretences, poverty, social injustices (some others too). He did this and some. In a timeless fashion, he linked the solution to what we all know within to be the real solution but what is also probably the most difficult move to make throughout human existence. Michael Jackson was sonorous about it. We are all even more vocal about it –“Change begins with you”.
Short and always apt, the statement is not always as easy to live up to so bear with me as I share a few notes on the matter. First, and most importantly, I have come to understand in the past few years, how difficult it is to accept responsibility for one’s part in any problem. We always seem to have done right. Let’s take feminism as the case in point here: “we have been disadvantaged, abused, cheated and walked over”. It’s not that women haven’t. As a group, women certainly have but there’s often that underlying of denial of the facts of ‘cause and effect’ and of ‘resignation’. Consequently, it feels like #LetsAllBeFeminists leaves too much room for speculation as to what the role of Woman is– both in the cause and in the effect. Like Ikem, we should not presume to know what the role of Woman is. Woman should tell us what her roles are; what is her #, if you please. I have used the feminist movement as an example here, there are many other examples of ‘reformist’ movements that seem to be a little to silent on the issue of #Responsibility of the ‘victims’.
Secondly, I have also come to acknowledge the heroism of #Courage. Courage to take a stand, make it known and go forth with it whether or not one is beside oneself in so doing. There is also that remarkably beautiful courage not only to acknowledge the stand taken by others but also to:
“carry the weight of honest differences, however sharp they be” (Gandhi).
But then I have also learnt that #Courage to be open-minded and accepting of differences has an extra cost of being labelled a sell-out, hypocrite or being two-faced, depending on the conversation.
Now I am reminded of something else- double standards. Surely, it’s impossible to avoid. This is why we will continue to preach the truth of Freedom of Expression but its exercise is constrained to the extent that another person’s method of expression offends our sensibilities or the values we’ve chosen to define us.
Finally, let’s consider the grand illusion that we exist in a global village. In our world-wide-web stance towards the resolution of every issue, we often forget that while problems are often global in their existence, there is rarely always a single or uncomplicated #Responsibility or cause to be identified for each problem. This means that there is rarely a proper way for each person or even State to accept and process a response to each. I strongly believe in this truth on several levels starting with the definition of the said problems to the methods proposed to inoculate ourselves against them or solve them if need be. Each person/State is possessed of a distinct background/history that may not allow concurrence of opinion on a given issue. It’s really ironical actually when you consider the speed with which cultures have been assimilated in recent times. One would think the rate at which trends spread from East to West and back would have created one single race but the fact is things are still perceived differently depending on a great number of factors, geographical location inclusive. This is why I have often been critical of the ‘involved’ attitude that many a country exhibit under the pretence of implementing their foreign policy. I am of the opinion that it is possible that a problem is not your own and for whatever reason, it is totally okay not to try to solve it. Ubuntu regardless.
Now, “none of this is a valid excuse for political inactivity or apathy” and I will add compassion. So, none of this is a valid excuse for political inactivity, apathy or compassion by a people when faced with any problem ‘belonging’ to them or when told of those ‘belonging’ to others. There should always be room for empathy or at least a culture of refraining from escalating things we have no idea about.
We must accept that the world will never be perfect, even if individual societies could be. Some will always be polar opposites and as such will never get along. This kind of contradiction is the very stuff of life. It doesn’t need to degenerate to cause rifts as long as we understand it and do not tout the universalism of theories.
We must also understand that societies are made up of individuals and the former is only an extension of the latter. Besides the necessary extension of the rule on carry the weight of honest differences, however sharp they be, we must always be courageous enough to accept responsibility for how our individual lifestyles have played any role(s) in the problems of our societies.
As we beckon #Change, let’s be battle ready to tackle whatever issues it comes with, if it does come. By being your own positive change, and starting with the person in the mirror, it becomes possible to be participatory and consequently identify what our individual roles are. This simplifies the process of reform beyond what any # can.
The featured image by Roqeebah O. was taken 20th February, 2014 in Ilorin.