Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

empire and critique

Many years ago I wrote an essay on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in which I looked at what I believed to be a neglected element of his novels: their critique of the Igbo society they describe. 

One of the most-quoted passages in his work comes from his autobiographical essay, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” because it is there that he describes his discovery of his literary calling: "At the university I read some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary's much praised Mister Johnson) and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned.” And so he was set upon a path: "Although I did not set about it consciously in that solemn way, I now know that my first book, Things Fall Apart, was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” 

But Achebe was a prodigal who had not really chosen to walk apart from his people: that choice was made by his father, who had become a Christian as a young man and, with the zeal common to the new convert, set himself quite apart from the culture he had grown up in. (When Achebe was a boy his father forbade him to eat with non-Christians in their town.) Achebe may have decided to come back towards the world that his father had rejected, but he did not simply despise his father’s choice, and had a sympathetic understanding of what drove him to it. In Things Fall Apart, one of the characters, a boy named Nwoye, is a portrait of Achebe’s father, and he is drawn to Christianity because he sees it as offering an alternative to some of the practices of his society that seem to him cruel — for instance, the belief that twin babies are evil and must be left to die.

Achebe discusses this very matter in that same autobiographical essay, though this passage is almost never quoted: 

And in fairness we should add that there was more than naked opportunism in the defection of many to the new religion. For in some ways and in certain circumstances it stood firmly on the side of humane behavior. It said, for instance, that twins were not evil and must no longer be abandoned in the forest to die. Think what that would have done for that unhappy woman whose heart torn to shreds at every birth could now hold on precariously to a new hope. 

Achebe wants to honor the integrity and the beauty of the culture his father set himself against — but not at the price of denying or even obscuring its flaws. This is a particularly powerful theme in Arrow of God, which I believe to be the best of Achebe’s novels, where a priest and clan leader called Ezeulu insists that white Europeans have come to be dominant because they have not been resisted: 

Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? . . . How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five.... Five. Now have you ever heard that five people — even if their heads reached the sky — could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit. 

Ezeulu is not wholly right about this — but he is not wholly wrong either, and Achebe shows quite clearly that the other clan leaders unwisely neglect his counsel — seeking their own individual prestige rather than the good of the clan as a whole — which furthers the division of the people. 

So that’s what my essay is about: Achebe as not just a celebrant but an interpreter and critic of Igbo traditional culture — his elevation of “humane behavior” as the standard by which the Igbo people and the English imperialists alike should be judged.

I had a lot of trouble getting it published. (Eventually it ended up in this book.) I sent it out to several journals, and each time the peer reviewers made more-or-less the same reply: You can’t say that. My argument, one claimed, is “profoundly offensive.” Another said that the world didn’t need another “justification of the colonial enterprise.” I thought to myself: I’m not saying these things about the flaws or blind spots of traditional Igbo culture, Achebe is saying them. But I suppose my sin was pointing out what any decent person would have passed over in discreet silence. 

I recalled this experience when I read this post by Nigel Biggar about the response he has received to his claim that the moral legacy of colonialism is a mixed one. Rhetorical Leninism once more: Biggar’s claim makes him indistinguishable from Cecil Rhodes or for that matter Colonel Reginald Dyer. One must deal in moral absolutes or be absolutely damned. But if we’re truly to learn from history we need to be able to see more than what our predecessors got wrong. Most human beings — and all cultures without exception — are mixed bags. Chinua Achebe understood that. 

Enough said on that. But another thing nags at me: I don’t understand why Biggar thought that the best response to his critics on social media was to report them to their bosses. I guess this is the New Normal — maybe especially in the U.K.? I saw a comment the other day (can’t remember who said it) that whenever anyone in the U.K. says something on Twitter that’s even slightly controversial someone else reports them to their local police: “Hey, this person obviously needs to be arrested.” But I don’t like it. And when well-established academics do it it’s far less seemly than when woke students try to call down administrators on noncompliant professors or fellow students. Trying to get someone in job trouble for incivility doesn’t seem very … civil. 

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