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In Memoriam: Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 25, 2013: Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, died in Boston on March 21, 2013. He was 83. May he rest in peace.

Before I retired from teaching at the University of Minnesota Duluth at the end of May 2009, I was happy to receive a complimentary copy of the new 600-page 2009 Norton Critical Edition of Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel THINGS FALL APART, edited by Francis Abiola Irele.

Over the course of my teaching career, I taught THINGS FALL APART and Achebe's novel NO LONGER AT EASE (1960) more often than I taught any other works of imaginative literature of comparable length.

In THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967), the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003) perceptively discusses Achebe's novel NO LONGER AT EASE that is worth quoting at length here:

"In his sensitive novel NO LONGER AT EASE, concerned with the acculturation of his native Nigeria, Chinua Achebe cogently portrays (pages 126-127) the awesome impression which knowledge of writing has made on a thoughtful elderly man, who is fascinated by its order and stability and rather given to explaining this order and stability to illiterate kinsmen. He urges them to meditate on Pilate's words (which he quotes in oral fashion, that is, thematically, not verbatim, suppressing Pilate's "I'): "What is written is written.' The same man is even more impressed by print. He never destroys a piece of printed paper, but in boxes in the corner of his room saves every bit of it he can find. Order so assured as that of printed words deserves to be preserved, whatever the words say. It appears reasonable that such experience of this spectacularly ordered environment for thought, free from interference, simply there, unattended and unsupervised by any discernible person, would open to the overstrained psyche the new possibility of withdrawal into a world away from the tribe, a private world of delusional systemization -- an escape not into violence or tribal magic, but into the interior of one's own consciousness, rendered schizoid but once and for all consistent with itself." (pages 136-137)

Yes, Ong here does explicitly characterize the interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought as delusional systemization, rendering the consciousness of those of us who have interiorized literacy and literate modes of thought schizoid.

Digression: In the posthumously published book THE WAY TO LOVE (1992; reissued Image, 2012), the Jesuit spiritual director from India Anthony de Mello urges us to cultivate awareness in the hope that by cultivating awareness we will eventually be freed from our cultural conditioning and programming. For those of us who have learned through our formal education to be functionally literate, our Western cultural conditioning and programming includes our interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought. As a result, if we were to undertake to cultivate awareness, as Anthony de Mello urges us to do, we would in effect also be seeking to be freed from the schizoid consciousness that the delusional systemization that our cultural conditioning in literacy and literate modes of thought has engendered in us. But we should also note here that Ong explicitly describes the psyches of people in primary oral cultures as being "overstrained" (his word). As a result of their psyches being overstrained, people in primary oral cultures might welcome the measure of relief to their overstrained psyches that interiorizing literacy and literate modes of thought would give them. However, when we turn our attention to the kind of awareness that Anthony de Mello urges us to undertake, we should note that people in primary oral cultures, and perhaps also certain people in residual forms of primary oral cultures, would have a decided edge in cultivating the mystic awareness that he urges us to cultivate, because they do not have the schizoid consciousness that Ong says accompanies the interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought. In short, mystic awareness comes more naturally to people in primary oral cultures than it does to us Westerners whose cultural conditioning in the print culture of the West has solidified our schizoid consciousness. End of digression.

In an interview published as "Named for Victoria, Queen of England" in the journal NEW LETTERS, volume 40 (1973): pages 14-22, which is published out of the University of Missouri - Kansas City, Achebe revealed that his own father, who was an Anglican catechist, had served as the real-life model for the elderly man he portrays in the ways that Ong describes above:

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""My parents' reverence for books was almost superstitious. . . . My father was much worse than my mother. He never destroyed any paper. When he died, we had to make a bonfire of all the hoardings of his life.'" (Quoted from page 20)

However, despite my enthusiasm for teaching these two novels by Achebe, I was not impressed with Achebe's revised 1988 version of his 1977 essay criticizing Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, which appeared in the 1988 third edition of the Norton Critical edition of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS (pages 251-262). Because that essay has stimulated much discussion, Francis Abiola Irele has also reprinted it in the Norton Critical Edition of THINGS FALL APART (pages 169-181), along with various responses to it by other authors.

The most recently published piece about that essay that is also reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Achebe's novel (pages 200-208). The piece is an interview of Achebe conducted by Caryl Phillips, the British-educated novelist of African descent who was born in 1958 in St. Kitts in the West Indies. Phillips' interview/article was published in THE GUARDIAN on Saturday, February 22, 2003.

In his interview with Achebe, Phillips questions the aging Nigerian novelist closely about Achebe's charge that Conrad is a thorough-going racist in HEART OF DARKNESS, which is set in the 1890s in King Leopold's Congo empire.

At one point in the interview, Achebe faults Conrad for not being bigger than his times because he did not have a benevolent view of Africa. When pressed by Phillips to give an example of somebody of Conrad's time who was bigger than his times, Achebe gives Livingstone as an example.

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But what exactly shows that Conrad did not have a benevolent view of Africa?

Phillips ventures to say, "Conrad does present Africans as having "rudimentary' souls."

Achebe replies, "Yes, you will notice that the European traders have "tainted' souls, Marlow has a "pure' soul, but I am to accept that mine [as an African] is "rudimentary'?"

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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It is sad for me to lose somebody whose work playe... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Mar 25, 2013 at 11:52:44 AM