Commonplace, beginning of February

by zunguzungu

From Chinua Achebe,’s No Longer at Ease, I’ve always loved how complexly this passage recasts the tragedy of Okonkwo’s suicide at the end of Achebe’s prior novel, Things Fall Apart (especially since the first speaker is Okonkwo‘s grandson):

“It’s much too simple. Tragedy isn’t like that at all. I remember an old man in my village, a Christian convert, who suffered one calamity after another. He said life was like a bowl of wormwood which one sips a little at a time world without end. He understood the nature of tragedy.”

“You think that suicide ruins a tragedy,” said the Chairman.

“Yes. Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W.H. Auden. The rest of the world is unaware of it. Like the man in A Handful of Dust who reads Dickens to Mr. Todd. There is no release for him. When the story ends he is still reading. There is no purging of the emotion for us because we are not there.”

From J.M. Coetzee’s White Writing, I offer you this bit of argument that I read a long time ago, forgot, and have since sort of painstakingly re-created a version of in my dissertation only to find that Coetzee got there first:

“Pastoral in South Africa therefore has a double tribute to pay. To satisfy the critics of rural retreat, it must portray labour; to satisfy the critics of colonialism, it must portray white labour. What inevitably follows is the occlusion of black labour from the scene: the black man becomes a shadowy presence flitting across the stage now and then to hold a horse or serve a meal. In more ways than one the logic of the pastoral mode itself thus makes the incorporation of the black man–that is, of the black serf, man, woman, or child–into the larger picture embarrassing and difficult. For how can the farm become the pastoral retreat of the black man when it was his pastoral home only a generation or two ago?”

Another nice piece of macro-frame setting from James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World. This book is very good, not because he re-invents the wheels (almost all the scholarship is other people’s) but because he collected some wheels that matched and put them all on a single car:

“Britain was certainly first, and the Northeastern United States probably second, to industrialization. But Belgium and the associated regions of France and Germany were close behind. Similarly Anglos controlled more newlands, rich in eco-technic resources, than anyone else. But Spanish-speakers and Russian speakers came pretty close; their newlands too teemed with wood, water, wind, and work animals. The key point is not so much the Anglo edge in each of the two suites of technology, eco-technic and peleotechnic, but that they overlapped. Belgium had early industrialization. Russian and Spanish-speakers had vast settler newlands. But only the Anglo-world had both.”

And just because Raymond Williams is always worth quoting, this is one of those statements that one needs to keep in mind always, from an essay called “Ideas of Nature”:

“In our complex dealings with the physical world, we find it very difficult to recognise all the products of our own activities. We recognise some of the products and call others by-products; but the slagheap is as real a product as the coal, just as the river stinking with sewage and detergent is as much our product as the reservoir. The enclosed and fertile land is our product, but so are the waste moors from which poor cultivators were clered, to leave what can be seen as an empty nature. Furthermore, we ourselves are in a sense products: the pollution of industrial society is to be found not only in the water and in the air but in the slums, the traffic jams, and not these only as physical objects but as ourselves in them and in relation to them. In this actual world there is not much point in counterposing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature. We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out. Except that if we draw back, if we go on with the singular abstractions, we are spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity.”