Blogging Things Fall Apart, part one

by zunguzungu

“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid achievements”
–Things Fall Apart, opening lines

I’m going to try to blog as much of my class prep as I can, and since I’m starting my class with Things Fall Apart, I’m starting my class-blogging with that (best to begin at the beginning, right?).

So, first things first. Okonkwo is character whose psychology is so simply as to be almost absent. As our narrator tells us (and more on the narrator later) as early as chapter two, “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness…[i]t was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.” And in one sense, this is exactly as simple as it sounds: who Okonkwo is now is not only a function of who his father was (or, rather, wasn’t), but it’s a story which can easily be summarized: “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion–to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.”

Okonkwo really isn’t a deeper character than this, and one of the book’s limitations is probably this lack of psychological dynamism in its central character. I’m saying this not as a negative criticism, however, but rather as a description of how what the book is means it can’t be anything else than that. Because it is about a character without an interior life, it can’t be a psychological narrative. But that’s the point: Okonkwo doesn’t develop as a character because it’s a book about a character who can’t develop as a character. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart not as a description of “the Igbo character” or some bullshit like that, but as a drama about change, using a character who could not change as his protagonist (in fact, I’ve always suspected that Achebe wrote Arrow of God because he wanted to tell the “colonial contact” story with a genuinely intelligent African as his protagonist).

But this is why Okonkwo’s relationship with his father is, precisely in its boring lack of complexity, an index to the kinds of complexity which Okonkwo’s personal rigidity and lack of imagination are filtering out, a kind of negative description which shows by its failure to show. As Achebe has acknowledged in interviews, Okonkwo’s father is a lot more like Achebe than Oknokwo is: both are artists, and what Okonkwo simply sees as idleness is, in fact, the same kinds of artistic production that brought this book into being in the first place. In a certain sense, then, the book’s critique of Okonkwo’s ruling passion (to have fame which “rested on solid personal achievements”) is, at the same time, a kind of inverted defense of the thing which Okonkwo’s desire to achieve forces him to disdain: if we define “Art” (as many have) as a production divorced from considerations of utility, then what is it but a non-pejorative idleness?

That’s not all he’s doing though. “Idleness” isn’t at all an innocent concept when it comes to Africa or to the colonial (and postcolonial) effort to integrate the continent into global market economies.  And in that vein, compare the description we get of Unoka (filtered through Okonkwo) to this set of quotations I managed to toss together using that marvelous entity known as googlebooks:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1959): “Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back…When Unoka died, he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt.”

Peter Kolb, Present State of the Cape of Good-Hope (1731): “They are, without doubt, both in Body and Mind, the laziest People under the Sun. A Monstrous Indisposition to Thought and Action runs through all the Nations of ’em: And their whole earthly Happiness seems to lie in Indolence and Supinity”

John Matthews Voyage to the River Sierra Leone on the coast of Africa (1788): “The disposition of the natives is nearly the same every where, extremely indolent, unless excited by revenge.”

Sir John Barrow, An account of travels into the interior of southern Africa (1801): “The indolence of a Hottentot is a real disease, whose only remedy seems to be that of terror. Hunger is insufficient to effect the cure. Rather than to have the trouble of procuring food by the chase, or of digging the ground for roots, they will willingly starve the whole day provided they may be allowed to sleep. Instances frequently occurred in the course of our journeys, when our Hottentots have passed the day without a morsel of food, in preference of having the trouble to walk half a mile for a sheep.”

Sir Richard Francis Burton, The lake regions of Central Africa: a picture of exploration (1860): “Nor can even lucre prevail against the ingrained indolence of the race—an indolence the more hopeless as it is the growth of the climate. In these temperate and abundant lands nature has cursed mankind with the abundance of her gifts; his wants still await creation, and he is contented with such necessaries as roots and herbs, game, and a few handfuls of grain—consequently improvement has no hold upon him.”

Charles Spencer Smith, Glimpses of Africa, West and Southwest Coast (1895): “Charity suggests the belief that the African is not wantonly indolent, though he seems to be. But let it be remembered that the munificence of Nature, in relieving him to a great extent of the necessity of work to sustain life, appears to largely indulge and approve his idleness. Nowhere else on the habitable globe has Nature bestowed her gifts with a more lavish hand than upon the Continent of Africa. Surely it is a land where one can reap without sowing, and gather without scattering abroad. It is well known that the European speedily loses both physical and mental vitality in tropical climates—that he soon experiences a disposition toward indolence. However, this observation is not made in extenuation of the indolence of the African. He can work if he will…In order to understand how futile are all efforts to Christianize the African without the aid of civilizing forces, and to instruct him in matter of religious faith before teaching him the necessity and value of labor, let us note the complete failure of the Roman Catholic Church to make substantial converts to the Christian Religion in the Kingdom of Congo, from a time that may be said to be coeval with the discovery of that region.”

Charles Eliot, The East African Protectorate(1905): They are dominated by the transient emotion or impulse of the moment, and neither remember what has preceded, nor look forward to what is likely to follow. On the whole, this is a happy and cheerful cast of mind; the African suffers little from the pangs of remorse or apprehension, and is always ready to be pleased by any agreeable trifle. The disadvantage of such a disposition lies in the negative side, that it is incapable of self-restraint, foresight, and fixed purpose or organisation. A typical African action is that of the caravan porter, who, after serving for weeks, perhaps months, and carrying laboriously a heavy load, deserts a day before he reaches home, regardless of the fact that he forfeits all his wages to gain twenty-four hours, whereas he would probably have worked an extra week without grumbling. The African does not care to be rich, or at any rate will not take the trouble to become so. If he is a chief, and his position allows it, he will accumulate wives and cattle; but the example of Arabs and Europeans has not inspired him with any desire to acquire money and property. This, I fear, can hardly be attributed to Arcadian simplicity, uncorrupted by the lust of wealth. The African is greedy and covetous enough, but he is too indolent in his ways, and too disconnected in his ideas, to make any attempt to better himself, or to undertake any labour which does not produce a speedy and visible result. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than is that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animal’s placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the stage he has reached.”

John Rogers Commons, Races and Immigrants in America (1907):“The improvidence of the negro is notorious. His neglect of his horse, his mule, his machinery, his eagerness to spend his earnings on finery, his reckless purchase of watermelons, chickens, and garden stuff, when he might easily grow them on his own patch of ground, — these and many other incidents of improvidence explain the constant dependence of the negro upon his employer and his creditor…Other races of immigrants, by contact with our institutions, have been civilized–the negro has only been domesticated.”