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. 

Frum and literature

David Frum makes a familiar argument in several parts: 1) “Literature is a declining presence in our modern society.” 2) “What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this: Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity.” 3) “Why not treat comic books as literature? After all, that’s how we treat Alice Walker!” Look, I’m a literature professor. It is my job, and also my joy, to spend many of my days celebrating and investigating some of the most wonderful books ever written. I love to argue, as passionately as I can, that some books really are greater — deeper, wiser, more beautiful, more continually rewarding of the reader’s attention — than others. And it’s wonderful that Frum takes the time to give Kafka’s The Trial the praise that eerie masterpiece deserves. But I can’t give full assent to the three claims listed above. 1) What Frum shows — what almost all people who make this kind of argument show — is that literature is a minority taste: Look at how many more hits there are for the Sopranos than for Kafka! But literature has always been a minority taste. If you want to argue that that minority is shrinking, you going to have to acquire some comparative data. You’ll need to define literature, and you need to gather as much information as you can about literacy rates, book sales relative to population, library use, and so on. You’ll need to figure out what time frame you’re talking about: the past thirty years? Seventy-five? Two hundred? You’ll need to get as much historical context as possible, and context from other societies, by reading historians of reading like Robert Darnton and Jonathan Rose. Once you’ve done all that work, you will be entitled to draw some tentative conclusions about whether the reading of literature is declining or not, and, if there is a decline, whether it’s from a well-established norm or from a unique high point. 2) Yes, a lot of crap gets taught because of “political correctness.” But a great deal of major literature has been discovered as a result of paying attention to cultures beyond the West. Harold Pinter never wrote a play worthy to be compared with Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I would give up the complete works of John Updike and Philip Roth for Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and a handful of the gently brilliant comic novels of R. K. Narayan. And yes, I’m serious. 3) I don’t know what Frum means by “comic books,” but there are graphic novels that are significant works of art, that need to be reckoned with. Books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, and David B.’s Epileptic defy condescension — and indeed, I might give up a good chunk of Updike and Roth for them too. So three cheers for The Trial, and three cheers for David Frum’s celebration of The Trial. But I don’t really know whether literature is declining or not; and I believe that at least some of the changes in literary culture in recent decades have been for the better. Just wanted to get that off my chest. (Cross-posted at The American Scene.)