Note: I apologize to my classmates for missing last week’s discussion. My time management skills apparently had not yet returned from break. I have since forcibly extracted them from the void and, battered as they are, am working diligently to get them ship-shape. Considering the time-stamp on this post, they are still a little…disgruntled.
Language is like clay. The one you are born into benefits from years of kneading, handling, molding, and is soft and pliable. If you are lucky, you spend your life creating different shapes with the clay, using examples of sculptures that came before you, refining your process. Then one day, another language beckons you, and you answer the call. A new, hard lump of clay is placed before you and the slow, arduous kneading process begins. It is frustrating, tiring, and, all the while you are kneading this new language you realize that you may never achieve the same malleability of your own language, but, at the same time, that even an approximation of that malleability will be ultimately rewarding. The two essays I chose to abstract for this week discuss the sculpture that Achebe creates with language and his ability to form a recognizable story with foreign–and often diminished–clay.
James Snead opens “European Pedigrees/African Contagions: Nationality, Narrative, and Communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed” with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Languages are the pedigrees of nations” (264). He spends a great deal of time deconstructing that statement and as well as our definition of nation. He questions our notion that nations are naturally formed geological separations between people, created independently and having a shared culture and history. But this definition neglects the naturally porous nature of all societies, the unnatural creation of borders by colonization, and the diverse populations that entertain ideas of national “purity.” He also argues that the larger an empire spreads its control, the more diverse it becomes and, therefore, the more insistent its “original” members become when it comes to a “pure” race. Rethinking the concept of “nation” and, by extension, the idea of a “national language” and a “people” also forces us to see nations as populations living within an imaginary boundary and consenting–or being forced–to exist under a single law. After the nation is created, the language established, then, Snead argues, literature takes hold as the signifying voice of that nation. We continue to see remnants of that process in our own course listings today. Snead also argues that as certain texts and literatures are elevated, they become synonymous with a sense of “universality” and as other texts are produced outside that national culture, the critic’s first instinct is to search for the universality of the piece. Yet, that instinct is entirely Eurocentric, and therefore, has difficulty recognizing the universality of a story without the common features of the national literature that came before. In a sense, this is where Achebe, as well as others, have succeeded–and in some cases, confounded–to the critics demands. By molding the English language into approximating the oral tradition of the Ibo, Achebe forms the language into an African sculpture–though the notion that any author can speak for all of Africa is an Eurocentric view as well. Snead suggests that, for Achebe’s novels, “their most interesting aspect is the almost casual manner in which they present African norms to primarily non-African readers” (278). Achebe uses the language most accessible to the European audience to render a story initially unrecognizable to them, yet one that slowly reveals its universal theme throughout the rhythm of the narrative.
That rhythm is discussed in detail in the next essay, “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” by B. Eugene McCarthy. At times McCarthy delves into the analytical of scanning lines and marking repetitions, but they are all pointers to a larger pattern in Achebe’s book. He quotes Walter Ong’s definition of the oral tradition, citing that “thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balances patterns, in repetitions and antithesis, in alliterations and assonance, in epithetic and other formulary expressions” (428). The repetition, or “backlooping” is an integral part of the oral narrative–folklore, fairy tales, myths are replete with these patterns–but not necessarily a staple of the Eurocentric novel tradition. There may be cycles in theme or symbols, but, McCarthy argues, Achebe creates these cycles with the language itself, allowing the larger theme to be not only symbolically cyclical, but literally. As he progresses through his close reading, McCarthy shows how Okonkwo is bound by the cycles of the village and of nature, but ultimately rejects them. He is so absorbed into projecting his own masculinity, he rejects the natural cycles embodied in the feminine. While the masculine moves forward unrelentingly, the feminine recognizes seasonality. Ultimately Okonkwa’s inflexible push forward meets head on with another inflexible force, the white man, resulting in his committing the arguably unmasculine act of suicide. Achebe, in his use of the English language, showcases not only the cyclical nature of oral storytelling, but the cyclical nature of the life in which Okonkwa is bound. There is a danger of dismissal when likening written prose with oral narrative, as the Western tradition elevates the former over the latter, but McCarthy’s essay shows the beauty of this rhythmic storytelling in Achebe’s novel and the effectiveness of this long-diminished strategy.