The Question of Consciousness
Is Chinua Achebe a writer who calls into question colonialism while at the same time benefiting from it? Superficially this might indicate a hypocrite, but when a fine mind works at its own contradictions paradoxes arise and new possibilities become available. Achebe, speaking of his background says that "my parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children" (Paris Review). In another interview, he analyses what this meant. "More and more of them (the Igboland people) became Christian when it dawned on everyone that if you wanted to get on in the world this is the way to go. It's not necessarily because what it was saying was truer than what the ancestors had said. It was because if you went to school you automatically became a Christian, because you were going to a Christian school. So that's the life that was given to me, that's the hand that was dealt to me, and as a writer you deal with what you're given. " But he says too, in this interview with Sobukwe Odinga, "you may also attempt to deal with something that you're not given, but I think the first thing is where you are. Why am I in this place? Why are there two religions here? Why do we look down on the religion of our ancestors? How did this begin? How did my parents get into this?" "Did they not see for instance", he says, "that they were sort of betraying the culture and the religion of their people? Was there something more complex to this relationship?"( Black Renaissance) Achebe was also one of the first graduates of Ibadan University, Nigeria's oldest college, and also studied, in affiliation with the burgeoning Ibadan in London as he would acknowledge the hand dealt him was, from a certain point of view, a very good one.
Achebe might seem to have much to thank colonialism for as he would end his career teaching at Ivy League college Brown. Yet to acknowledge the benefits a western education can provide is not the same as being grateful for it, and Achebe's work, from earlier books like Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, to later novels like Anthills of the Savannah and the story collection Girls at War, often explore the contradictions in men who have an education that very much puts them in a minority, and thus a member of the elite. This is far from the democratic ideal, which would be to have a standard of education that allows for a national conversation, with many of the citizens capable of contributing to a debate in how a country should be run and what principles should be behind it. This was central to the post-war BBC that Achebe became part of in a Nigerian context. After studying he wondered what to do next. "So the next thing was the broadcasting department, which was newly started in Nigeria, with a lot of BBC people." Nigeria was granted full independence in 1960, but it couldn't pretend that the British influence had gone away, or that status wasn't bestowed on those who had spent time in England. Speaking of the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe says, "the thing is it is published in London, far away London you see and a prize beyond the reach of most people." (Publishing Research Quarterly) In his second,No Longer at Ease, London is a ticket to a better life, a sign of status at home even if you have to leave it briefly for the great Smoke to make yourself valid back in Nigeria. The good life couldn't itself come from conscientious work in the country. Thinking of his father, the central character says, "he was all bones, though he did not look nearly as bad as his mother. It was clear to Obi that they did not have enough good food to eat. It was scandalous, he thought, that after nearly thirty years' service in the church his father should retire on a salary of two pounds a month." Thus, many hope for a scholarship to England. "A university degree was a philosopher's stone," the novel informs us. "It transmuted a third -class clerk on one hundred and fifty a year into a senior Civil servant on five hundred and seventy, with car and luxuriously furnished quarters at nominal rent...to occupy a European post was second only to actually being a European." Published the year of Nigerian independence, No Longer at Ease looks at the price of what independence means when it isn't a national endeavour but a personal goal: to seek one's own independent lifestyle at odds with the development of a national consciousness. At one moment an Englishman who has been living in Nigeria for fifteen years says, "I cannot begin to understand the mentality of the so-called educated Nigerian....Education for what? To get as much as they can for themselves and their family. Not the least bit interested in the millions of their countrymen who die every day from hunger and disease."
This is the contradiction that is at the same time the paradox. In A Rap on Race, James Baldwin, in interview with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, says "history must, in one way, be a metaphor for the techniques of survival people have used. And something of that must rest with you forever..." Both Baldwin and Achebe were the sons of Christian preachers, and while Achebe states that this was a useful way in the Nigerian context to get on, it also raises questions about the means of survival. Does one survive by fighting against the white man's influence, succumbing to it, or utilising it? By examining a situation novelistically, we can see clearly the approaches taken. In No Longer at Ease, central character Obi Okonkwo is the minister's son who has studied in London and returns to Nigeria with a decent post, good enough for people to want him to use his influence. Initially resistant to the bribes, with people asking him to help him get them scholarships to London, physical beauty gets the better of him, and compromises elsewhere weaken him: he gets his girlfriend Clara, from a lower social class, pregnant, and expects her to abort the child. By the end of the book we are at the beginning - where he is arrested for accepting bribes. Obi Okonkwo is one of Nigeria's compromisers, someone who has benefited from being in a lucky minority in a country with an enormous population given the size of the continent and the relative smallness of Nigeria geographically: 186 million. Not many get to go to London.
By contrast, Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart is a proud and strong figure who has become a success despite humble beginnings and a weak father. Yet his resistance to the new is as readily his downfall as Obi's acceptance of the modern happens to be his. In the lengthy introduction to the book in Heinemann Classics in Context, Don C. Ohadike explains the mores of Igbo culture, which included until the beginning of the 20thcentury that the birth of twins or triplets was a bad omen and the children were left to die in the forest. Yet in other ways, it was, relatively, more compassionate. If a murder occurred, rather than killing other members of the murderer's family, they were held hostage until the murderer returned and the murderer would then be hanged. If a murderer escaped, after a period of time a fine would be paid by the murderer's family and a daughter given to the family of the murder victim. For Ohadike this showed the Igbo people's "abhorrence to blood-letting" even if it could also be extremely harsh and cruel.
Yet what happens when so traditional a culture comes up against a very different ethos? If in No Longer at Ease Obi's compromises are examples of contemporary corruption, those of Okonkwo are based on the more classical problems of hubris. If bureaucratic corruption generally suggests at best the tragicomic, the small lives of characters caught in petty situations that leave them looking out for their own best interests, tragedy often has an aspect of the hubristic as it rests on a character flaw that could in other circumstances be a positive quality. Corruption indicates the selfish; hubris indicates the unselfish turned egomaniacal. Whether it is Oedipus or Faust, ambition is key. Oedipus thinks he can ignore the Oracle as he will not abandon his search for the killer of the king of Thebes, and Faust believes he can improve on medical science through magic. In the contemporary tragicomic as we choose to see it, in plays by Chekhov, Beckett and Pinter, the events are grubby not grand, the motivations selfish rather than ambitiously selfless, and this is partly the difference between No Longer at Ease and Things Fall Apart, even if both indicate the limitations of a certain type of African consciousness.
In No Longer at Ease, Obi sees his destiny within the immediate context of his life, aware of the limitations placed upon his father's quoted above. He will eat well, he will receive a decent salary and live in a nice house. In contrast to his father who is "all bones", he envies Sam Okoli, "one of the most popular politicians in Lagos and in Eastern Nigeria where his constituency was. The newspaper called him the best dressed man in Lagos and the most eligible bachelor." Of course Obi has a reason to perceive Okoli a certain way: it looks like Clara might go off with him. "Although he was definitely over thirty, he always looked like a boy just out of school. He was tall and athletic with a flashing smile for all." Obi admires the accoutrements of success not the integrity of a political position, and with sexual desire for Clara at the centre of it, just as beauty and desire will again become an issue in the context of his arrest. He manages to reject the offer of a bribe, and feels all the stronger for it, but at the same time, he is aware of obligations towards paying off debts and helping out his family. Before the end of the book he will be accepting bribes, receiving money and girls in return for the favours his civil service position offers. He has become another corrupt official and even if he insists in the final chapter that he will accept no more bribes, his arrest leaves that question moot: a possible moral decision superimposed upon by a categorical legal demand. Obi's is not a tragic fate but a banal one: yet another lowly official taking advantage of the system.
In contrast, Okonkwo is a tragic figure, a self-made man of authority and will-power whose arrogance gets the better of him, and whose fate works against him. As he thinks: "his life had been ruled by a great passion - to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken. He had been cast out of his clan like a fish on a dry, sandy beach, panting." Partly of course what would make Things Fall Apart a tragedy in the way that No Longer at Ease happens not to be is that Okonkwo has a notion of his fate, while Obi merely has a career. Accepting a bribe is to jeopardise his employment record; to fail to achieve success for Okonwko is to fail in one's destiny. "Clearly his personal God, orchi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of chi...here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation." Is this Okonkwo's bad faith, or are we imposing a modern, western sensibility and philosophy onto a very African story? Perhaps a bit of both, as we might think of Jean-Paul Sartre who differentiates the lie we tell ourselves from the lie we offer others. In the latter instance, the lie is fully conscious as we have to construct a story that is there to convince other people; not convince ourselves. We know we are lying and our purpose is to make others believe that we are not. The belief is theirs not ours. They must have faith in the truth that is a lie. We do not have such faith: we know we are lying. But bad faith is a faith: a lying to oneself that one believes. "Bad faith, then, has in appearance the structure of falsehood. Only what changes everything is the fact that in bad faith it is from myself I am hiding the truth." (Being and Nothingness) When Okonkwo believes that he cannot succeed any longer because he cannot rise above the destiny of his chi this can seem like bad faith: he is lying to himself about his failure, and thrusting the responsibility onto superstition. But this would be to impose a western problematic onto an African consciousness: its validity can only go so far, and not least because Okonkwo is part of a community that believes in such 'superstition', which in turn impacts on one's beliefs. When a belief is believed by an entire culture it becomes not only a belief but a code: a means by which to organise reality.
Okonkwo's lament comes not long after he has been exiled from the community in which he had established himself, exiled after accidentally firing a gun that kills the son of a great clansman on the day of the latter's funeral. But there is no such thing as an accident: as Ohadike notes, "the line that separated the religious life from the secular in Igbo was as thin as air...since nothing happened by chance, everything - good health or illness, fortune or misfortune - was attributed to the will of God." We can see that Okoinkwo's thoughts might be bad faith in the context of the post-war France Sartre was writing in, but functions rather differently in the Igbo tribe in Nigeria. This is partly why we can say Things Fall Apart is a tragedy rather than a tragicomedy. While Chekhov's stories and plays often offer the tragicomic through characters who look for reasons to blame circumstances for their situation, finally aware of making us aware of their bad faith, Okonkwo's insistence on blaming his chi is acceptable because bad chi is seen as a justifiable reason by the community for a man to be removed from it. This is not at all the bad faith of the individual who cannot live up to the perception of themselves and convinces him or her self that it is not their fault; this is the man who knows that God and community are one and that he has failed both. When he leaves the place where he had made a success of himself and returns to his homeland, his uncle hears his story and says "it is a female ochu [murderer]" as he "arranged the requisite rites and sacrifices." Okonkwo's fatalistic failure is generally sanctioned, not personally justified.
Yet while Achebe's novel absorbs aspects of classic tragedy as it explores tribal specifics, it also acknowledges the modern in a further crisis that befalls Okonkwo. When he returns eventually to the place from whence he has been exiled, he finds that the white man has imposed Christianity on the region. Okonkwo's warrior mindset steels for a fight; many of the others want a quieter existence but Okonkwo's pride will not rest easy and he beheads a Christian messenger before going on to take his own life. Okonkwo is both a man out of his time and a man destined by his fate, a double tragedy that leaves him a more 'heroic' figure than Obi despite, or because of, deeds that include cruelty and violence on Okonkwo's part. He is a flawed figure (Aristotle's term is hamartia) but he is not a weak man. We would be inclined to think Obi is. After all, Obi is a vain figure but not a hubristic one, and if we regard vanity as a graver weakness than hubris we do so from the point of view of higher case qualities like honour, virtue and sacrifice. Tragic heroes are often misguided but they aren't usually lowercase ineffectual: they don't simply look after their own interests timidly. They just often misguidedly believe that they are also protecting others: perhaps their family, their people, their nation. Whether it is Medea thinking that it is better to destroy the unfaithful Jason's life even if it means killing her own family, or Macbeth believing that he has the qualities to rule Scotland no matter if he can do so only by killing those around him, the characters are not acting in bad faith but with a misguided sense of their own destiny. Medea or Macbeth could not tell themselves everyone is killing their children or trying to kill the king, while Obi can see that he lives in a country where corruption is everywhere and thus banal.
Okonkwo is thus misguided but not weak; he is aware of his status and tries to live up to it: to be faithful to the ideal of the Igbo people. Yet he is still a character whose qualities Achebe would be unlikely to wish a modern African to emulate. What would those positive qualities be, and does Achebe offer some kind of answer in a later novel,Anthills of the Savannah? Early in the book, we notice of the three main characters one, Chris, initially knows his place in the hierarchy. He works for the government as Commissioner for information, and the government in charge is there as a result of a military coup. Chris thinks "worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass. It wouldn't be so bad if it was merely a matter of dancing upside down on your head. With practice anyone could learn to do that. The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to the next, from one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down." This is the pragmatic bureaucrat, neither a bully for the regime nor a figure determined to fight it. But later on, he will die a death so noble that another character talks about it in hushed terms as he compares Chris to his own father. "Though he was an old man compared to Chris, he had not learnt to die. He snapped at people; he even cried. He was frightened, scared to death...every day some vulture would descend on us from nowhere with the story of a prophet or prophetess in some outlandish village and my father would drag my poor mother there the next morning." "But look at Chris", he says, "a young man with all his life still in front of him and yet he was able to look death in the eye and smile and make a joke." Chris had faced down a corrupt cop and even with the gun pointing at him did not flinch. The cop fired and Chris was dead, but not before gathering "all his strength to expel the agony on his twisted face and set a twilight smile on it."
While Obi in No Longer at Ease is arrested for grubby compromises and petty corruption, Okonkwo takes his own life in Things Fall Apart aware that he is out of his time and in threat of arrest. Chris however is of his time, finding in his behaviour the necessary resistance to the sort of state that Obi accepts. This particular form of heroism is even more pronounced in his friend Ikem, killed earlier in the book. Ikem is a political journalist whose talks are improvised and yet not at all casual: they carry the conviction of truthful enquiry rather than given stances. As the narrator says, "it was during question-time that he finally achieved the close hand to hand struggle he so relished. By nature he is never on the side of his audience. Whatever his audience is, he must try not to be...It is not that he ever sat down to reason it out and plan it; it just seems to happen that way." Ikem's purpose isn't to proselytise but to undermine the sort of presuppositions that allow a dictator's position to remain firm. Yet of course his need to undermine the established order contains within it an inflammatory potential, especially when he says on hearing of the president's wish to have his head on the currency: "My view is that any serving president foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know that he is inciting people to take it off; the head I mean." It will cost Ikem his life but allow others their dignity. This is the martyr's death, which is in many ways the inversion of the tragic figure's. The hero in tragedy is perhaps not usually a hero at all as their personal flaw comes up against their hubristic ambition and the lesson we learn is a negative one: this is not how to conduct oneself. The martyr's death, however, is exemplary: they die not as a cathartic lesson which we must learn, but as a euphoric sacrifice from which we gain inspiration. Focusing on a martyr's death can seem like a lesser mode of creativity because it potentially contains within it an optimism that is less complex than the pessimism of the tragic. The tragic figure as we have seen possesses a serious flaw, and there is the risk that one's need to create a martyr means eschewing that level of character nuance. Yet literary martyrs would include Winston in 1984, Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, even Boxer in Animal Farm. While such figures might lack the greatness of the figures Oedipus, King Lear and Othello, they are not insignificant, and all three books are works of literature. Both Chris and Ikem take their place in modern fiction as key characters in the work of martyrdom, as though Achebe wanted to explore the different modes in which African political experience can manifest itself: the petty, the proud and the heroic.
Achebe would seem to be a writer of conflict, but then this isn't saying very much: how many writers aren't? Isn't this centrally what drives narrative? Perhaps a better way of putting it is that Achebe, like many writers from burgeoning and/or repressed nations, feels an obligation towards his people that would seem absurd when seen from another perspective. Did John Updike feel obliged to speak for the white Protestants on the East Coast, does Ian McEwan feel that those in southern England must be spoken for, does Borges defend the entitlements of the comfortably off in Buenos Aires? The notion of the people in this context has no meaning, but if James Kelman invokes the Glaswegian people in his fiction, James Baldwin the black American experience in his work, and Patrick Chamoiseau in the context of Martinique, they will all feel that to invoke the people is a necessary question. Milan Kundera puts it quite well when writing on Chamoiseau in Encounter when he says, "because every people in search of itself thinks about where to locate the margin between its own home and the rest of the world, thelocation of what I call the median context, [is] the realm between national and global contexts." The US does not need to define itself through the context of North America, nor France in Europe. But smaller countries, or a people that happen to be in a minority within a broader culture (be that in very different ways Scots or Afro-Americans) will see the importance of this resistance and exploration. As Kelman says, "as a young writer there were no literary models I could look to from my own culture. There was nothing, whatsoever...So because of this dearth of home-grown literary models I had to look elsewhere. As I say, in English literature, but in English language literature - well, I came upon a few American writers..." The writer creates a space for themselves that gives existence to a people, that can show them in their complexity rather than their stereotypical simplicity. As Kelman says "how do you recognize a Glaswegian in English literature?...he's the cut-out figure who wields a razor blade, gets moroculous drunk and never has a single solitary 'thought' in his entire life." (Some Recent Attacks)
Kelman's position is not so different from Achebe's in a well-known article, 'An Image of Africa', attacking Heart of Darkness. "The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked." And not least because of his style: "The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad's "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery." That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity." As Achebe adds, "generally normal readers are well armed to detect and resist such under-hand activity. But Conrad chose his subject well - one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance. He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths."
What can a writer do when his culture has been defined so casually and brilliantly? He can condemn the colonial mindset and also find the purpose behind his own: to make a people visible that had before been caricatural, to give dimension to the character beyond the limitations that sees only the Other. In the three key novels we have mentioned, that is exactly what Achebe does, but it is also there in the stories too. In 'The Madman', central character Nwibe is a man who believes in status and was looking to gain more of it. "Nwibe was a man of high standing in Ogbu and was rising higher; a man of wealth and integrity. He had just given notice to all of the Ozo men of the town that he proposed to seek admission into their honoured hierarchy in the coming initiation season." This social standing comes to an end when one day he goes to market and, washing beforehand in a stream, finds his clothes stolen by someone who remembers Nwibe as a man with whom he had a few justifiable grievances. He takes Nwibe's clothes and runs off, with Nwibe running after him shouting and hollering, stark naked. It is one of the misfortunes of the aggrieved that they often come across as far more dangerous than the person who has robbed them. Observing the behaviour in isolation can seem an awful lot like witnessing a nervous breakdown. It doesn't help that a couple of people from Nwibe's village to see the spectacle, nor that after the incident he really does seem to lose his senses before a doctor manages to cure him. By the end of the story his character has changed; he is a quiet figure still hoping to achieve higher status in the village, but the others make clear this is far from likely as they pass over the question in silence.
Earlier we discussed the idea that in Things Fall Apart, Okonwko isn't practising bad faith because the Igbo people really do believe that one's fate is decided by a world greater than one's own self-motivations. In 'The Madman' society again is a powerful force and indicates that Nwibe's madness comes out of social shame, a social force of a different kind than in the novel, but for Achebe's purposes part of the same problem. Achebe manages to indicate the depths in the shallow: the fact that Africans cannot move on not only because of the many valid reasons he offers in interviews, saying "the devastation that was wrought on the continent by the event of the slave trade cannot be put in the corner. This is a major event in world history, the consequences of which are still all around us today. You can see it on the African continent itself. All of the confusion that seems to reign on the continent, all of the poverty and disease and lack of success is not accidental. It is a result of centuries of devastation." (Black Renaissance) That is undeniable and powerful. Yet what makes Achebe's writing quite specific is the presence of the social and its internalisation as a mode of false consciousness. "Consciousness" Marx says, "is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. Consciousness is at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious." "At the same time", Marx notes, "it is consciousness of nature, which first appears to men as a completely alien, all-powerful and unassailable force, with which men's relations are purely animal and by which they are overawed like beasts; it is thus a purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion) just because nature is as yet hardly modified historically." But Marx also notes that, "on the other hand, man's consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around him is the beginning of the consciousness that he is living in society at all. This beginning is as animal as social life itself at this stage. It is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one." (Essential Writings)
False consciousness can appear when one is working against one's own best interests - as when the factory worker is unaware of their exploitation by the factory owners who make huge profits on their surplus labour, but it can also be a useful way of exploring someone's inability to see the full nature of their situation even it isn't an exploitative predicament. In other words, characters whose situation is very different from each other are all in danger of falling into it because of the benefits accruing to them rather than the nature of their exploitation. As the narrator says of the third major character in Anthills of the Savannah, "Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played but little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen a world apart: was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jew and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put in a word for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved." Or we can think of the narrator in the short story 'Uncle Ben's Choice': "like all progressive young men I joined the African Club. We played tennis and billiards. Every year we played a tournament with the European Club...One Sunday morning I was playing my gramophone, a brand-new HMV senior. (I never believe in second-hand things. If I have no money for a new one I just keep myself quiet; that is my motto.") This is the false consciousness of the African on the make, but it can work in reverse also. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is of course the proud man with an idea in his mind that isn't matched by changing times, and the father in the short story 'Marriage is a Private Affair' is someone who cannot tolerate his son marrying a woman of a different tongue. False consciousness in Achebe's work takes many forms, but whether it is a longing for the past or a wish to reject it and become modish, there is a sense in which the individual's relationship with society is too easily taken for granted. It is when characters counter the societal expectations (whether new or old) that character is formed and proper change possible. At the end of 'Marriage is a Private Affair', the father knows increasingly that he has allowed social expectation to impose itself on very basic human contact. The story ends: "that night he hardly slept, from remorse - and a vague fear that he might die without making it up to them."Whether it is No Longer at Ease and the guilty conscience that will not go away, a conscience that isn't simply the pressure of society that will have Obi arrested for his actions, or the unsettling space that the father feels inMarriage is a Private Affair, false consciousness takes many forms. As Achebe says "Culture is very robust and very strong, because in culture there is something which we respond to about our origins. Something we cannot explain, which tells us that there is a better tomorrow. And we can say that because we know that there are some good things in our past and there are good things in the present. So there's no reason why we should feel that somehow the future will lack these possibilities." (SO) Culture is the word it would seem for the balancing act between the old and the new, self and other, society and civilization. It is culture in its broadest sense that can ward of false consciousness, and allow someone who has benefited from aspects of a western education not to feel overly grateful for having done so.
© Tony McKibbin