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Chinua Achebe: The Temper Before Things Fall Apart

Creativity as the hallmark of imagination challenges orthodoxy. In a warped social system therefore, the artist is emotionally disturbed. That appeared to be the state of mind of the novelist, Chinua Achebe, in the perverted social system in Igbo land – when Western religion and culture through the instrumentality of colonialism embarrassingly encroached on the people’s traditions. This thesis traces the several emotions of the artist that precipitated the trail brazier in Nigerian literature: Things Fall Apart.  The thesis insists that anger, rage, fear, panic, despair, anxiety and resistance that gave birth to the creative engagement manifest themselves in the book. It therefore concludes that emotional disorders are dependable allies in creativity.
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Our point of departure perhaps, may be the use of English language as the mode of communication. And that borders on resistance. Transfixed between the use of Igbo language and the use of English, the artist resolved his dilemma by choosing to communicate his emotions in English language, but not without resistance. In Things Fall Apart, “The language of Okonkwo and the other villagers is expressed in the idiom of the Ibo villagers as Achebe transmutes it into modern English.” (Killam: 13) Achebe’s approaches in this sense are two fold: language as an artefact reflects people’s culture. If English language imposed itself on the Igbo people through colonialism, the only form of resistance by the creative writer was to “Igbonize” English. This was a feeling “deep within himself” and is capable of allaying fears that the writer would imbibe Western culture without traces of his African traditions. The Igbo generations before Achebe probably were not conscious of this.  Achebe had to therefore “Igbonize” English lest he be considered a weakling like the past generations of Igbo men. This may be the source of resistance in Okonkwo who like the writer hates the gentility of his forefathers:

  • It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion –to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. (Pp.9-10)

Achebe hated the imposition of English language on his people. It may perhaps, be the one passion behind the “Igbonization” of English at the levels of religion and culture to ameliorate the damage done to Igbo tradition.  Though things fall apart, “Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility,” remains the “ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed fathers of the clan.” (p.26)  The lexicon has to reflect the culture of the Igbo people to ensure credibility of the story and that of the personal integrity of the artist. As Achebe puts it “…the past needs to be recreated not only for enlightenment of our detractors but even for our education.” (Achebe “The Role of the writer”: 158) Achebe’s temper before the creation of Things Fall Apart was that of an artist in search of truth obliterated by the colonial detractors. But emotion of defiance is impetuous to creativity.

In any emotion, there could be several acts that may include speech and imitation of nature called mimesis. Imagination as a mental operation may be in the visual form. In such a case, the artist may be involved in self-movement – kinematic imagery. It seems therefore, that Achebe’s inner feelings or linguistic thought on the submerged culture of the Igbo were automatically retrieved in his mind. The human mind according to Merlin Donald engages “self-trigger recall from memory in two ways: by means of mimetic imagination, and by the use of word symbols, either of which could be overt or covert.”  (Donald: 15) Achebe’s imagination on the conflict between Igbo culture and Western culture came in word symbols –hence the novel that chronicles the history of the Igbos under colonialism in Nigeria from 1850-1900.

As a novel meant to enlighten white people on the culture of the Igbos, Achebe’s characters display enough anger and rage on conducts that negate African tradition. Unlike the white man who could return from work, cooks food and wakes the wife from sleep to come and eat, Achebe clearly states in some episodes that the African culture differs from that of the West. Take the episode where, for instance, Okonkwo’s youngest wife leaves the house to plait her hairs. While Achebe acknowledges her right to do so, he deplores the unacceptable attitude of a wife who is not sensitive to the dictates of tradition. The lost of self-esteem in the male dominated society triggered the social withdrawal and irritability in the writer. That is why Okonkwo’s rage against Ojiugo is traditionally pardonable: “Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife.” (21)

chinua achebeBut in another breath, the writer further enlightens the white man that African religions are not in any way inferior to Christianity. This idea is highlighted in the Week of Peace during which all persons are expected to exercise restraint in actions against one another. Ezeani the priest of the earth goddess stresses this point with anger by refusing to take kola nut from Okonkwo: “Take away your kola nut. I shall not eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors.” (21) Ezeani speaks the mind of Achebe who believes that self-contempt is the bane of African pride and identity. Kiaga’s view, “Before God, there is no slave or free” (111) is instructive. In “Morning Yet on Creation Day” published seventeen years after Things Fall Apart, Achebe re-enacts his rage against self-contempt by Africans: “If I were God I would regard as the very worst our acceptance – for whatever reason – of racial inferiority.” (Achebe, “Morning Yet”: 44)

Achebe created his characters and invested them with emotions consistent with his mood of anger against colonialism. In what appears to be the hallmark of the creation of Things Fall Apart, one of the defining characters Obierika narrates: “The elders consulted their oracle and it told them that the strange [white] man would break their clan and spread destruction among them.” (97) Here, there is seeming anxiety in the writer despite that the adventure of the white man is done with tact –religious and economic motives.  Achebe writes with nostalgia the use of violence by white men to take Africans as slaves across the seas to Europe and America: “We have heard about white men who made powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.” (99)

That feeling of unreality or panic attack is represented in the brutality meted on Abame in the novel and it is meant to confirm the stories told of white men in Africa and to assert that the African ways of life are rooted in tradition and belief. The idea is further authenticated by the Oracle. In an attempt to give voice or meaning to his intense feeling, Achebe as an intellectually gifted individual not only expresses self but the collective feelings of others. The anxiety, fear and apprehension experienced as an artist in Igbo society are part of the evolution in the traditional society. But as has been stated by Liane Gabora, “the bottleneck in cultural evolution is the capacity for innovation.” (Gabora: 5) The consequence of the conflict between African and Western cultures is the creative output in form of a novel. Achebe’s in-depth knowledge of his culture and his mastery in transplanting his emotions in the indigenous people and the foreigners alike make actions and reactions in Things Fall Apart quite realistic. The realism of life is further accentuated by the decision of rulers and elders in Mbanta to ostracize those among them that embrace Christian religion. Such a collective decision has semblance of rage.

“These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okeke says we should pretend not to see.” (113)  This remark coming from Okonkwo expresses the people’s feeling. But “The more conflict, the more rage, the more anxiety there is, the more the inner necessity to create,” says Stephen Diamond. (Eby: 1) Coming out of the cultural shadow, Achebe created an enduring story of a period which according to Umelo Ojinmah “saw the traumatic results on the African psyche of decades of European calumniations of their cultural and religious heritages.” (Ojinmah: 7) At Umuru, the white man coercively used court messengers to intimidate chiefs. The indigenous people resented the arrogance and high-handedness of the messengers who also guarded the prison. Achebe writes,

  • They were beaten in the prison by the kotma and made to work every morning clearing the government compound and fetching wood for the white Commissioner and the court messengers. Some of these prisoners were men of title who should be above such mean occupation. They were grieved by the indignity and mourned for their neglected farms. (123)

Distortion of cultural heritage is one thing that sharpens the writer’s social vision in Africa. When Okonkwo asks Obierika, “Does the white man understand our custom about land?” (124) he speaks the mind of Achebe. “To Achebe,” says Koffi Awoonor, “the African world before the arrival of Europe was a well-integrated one, with dignity and honour…As a story of the tragic encounter between Africa and Europe, [Things Fall Apart] is an attempt to capture and restate the pristine integrity which has been so traumatically shattered by the confrontations.” (Awoonor: 252) Obviously, the state of mind of an artist who watched the happenings was that of anger, rage, and despair. When he writes with social commitment, the artist simply reminds us of what happened and how he felt it at the time. The creative product may touch some aspects of the social life he found repulsive, his eyes were watching the bigger issues of foreign culture and religion forcefully imposed on his people.

Contrary to the view of Killam, culture can only be alien but not “more powerful” than the other. And that is the point of anger in Achebe that Christianity and European culture in Africa only created disunity between those who would maintain status quo and those that enslaved themselves to alien ways of life. That is the essence of the song:

Kotma of the ash buttocks
He is fit to be a slave
The white man has no sense,
He is fit to be a slave. (123)

Achebe’s state of mind could not have been directed at the foreigners alone without looking back at those aspects of social life he considered denigrating in his own society. Consider the many actions of Okonkwo built around fears – from the beating of his wife at Week of Peace to the killing of Ikemefuna and later his suicide. Achebe demonstrates through Okonkwo the consequences of breaking tradition. The writer makes his hero remorseful for his actions either by repentantly appeasing the gods, willingly going on exile or choosing to commit suicide – an act sanctioned by the goddess of earth.

The gods must be obeyed, for instance, once the Oracle pronounces Ikemefuna dead. But Achebe seems to caution against the inhuman act of a father killing his son just because a tradition has to be obeyed. It is sacrilegious: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.” (40) And because the artist disapproves that aspect of the cultural life, the elder Obierika serves as a foil in the episode involving Ikemefuna. Achebe educates us further that blind fears such as that displayed by Okonkwo could be “the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families.” And that may be responsible for the violent deaths in Umuofia of which Okonkwo is a victim of the accidental discharge from his gun that kills Ezeudu’s son:

  • As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of earth goddess, and they were her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (87)

Other aspects of the Igbo customs that do not meet the expectations of Achebe as a writer from within the society include the European inclined culture imbibed at Abame and Aninta “where titled men climb trees and pound foo for their wives,” and the growing practice in marriage that turns their customs upside-down. In such an encounter that looks incomprehensible or foolish in Igbo society is known to engender innovation. As Vincent van Gogh rightly puts it, “one must expect it to cause a struggle, especially a struggle with oneself, because sometimes one literally does not know what to do or what not to do. But isn’t this struggle – and even the mistakes one may make – better, and doesn’t it develop us more than if we systematically avoid emotions. The later thing is, in my opinion, what makes many so-called strong spirits into nothing but weaklings in reality.” (van Gogh: 1) Achebe’s defence of the Igbo customs is in high spirit: “They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or a cow in the market.” (51) The novelist’s mood changes according to situations to reflect the sense of abnormalities in the land. Those aspects of social life that engender excitement need to be retained. There is wisdom in the episode on Ezinma identified as ogbanje. Achebe’s creative potential recognizes that aspect of Igbo tradition.

In ecstasy, Okagbue performs the rites to uncover the smooth tiny pebble hidden deep in the red earth. As the source of pain and distress to a mother the discovery of the buried iyi-uwa has religious and cultural implications for our generation. When Ezinma acknowledges that the dug out pebble in the hand of the medicine man is her own, “All the women shouted with joy because Ekwefi’s troubles were at last ended.” (60) The temper that generated this aspect of Things Fall Apart is rooted in excitement. It expresses Achebe’s happiness that European culture in spite of its devastation is unable to obliterate that part of our cultural heritage. It is in that light we are to see the indestructible nature of Igbo’s oral tradition that forms the bedrock of the entire novel. Indeed, “When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.” (7) In a way, the oral tradition was critical to Achebe’s creativity.

Achebe was certainly agitated by the people’s tradition and probably assumed the position of the tortoise – the orator who “in spite of all his failings in other directions, was a widely travelled man who knew the customs of different peoples.” (68) Things Fall Apart is part of that fulfillment and exhibits enough of orality typically African, always alive and well despite the acts of our detractors. But the novel devoid of embellishments appears to have been written out of fear of the unknown or anxiety. Okonkwo’s fearless acts of confrontation lend support to such a claim. He strives, like Achebe, to maintain tradition to the best of his ability. But he is deeply aware of our failure for allowing the pretentions of the so-called peaceful religion of the white man to take root in the land: “Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (125)

Okonkwo’s redemptive but tragic measures to regain the lost glory of the land are seen by many as excessive. But it is often forgotten that on many occasions the people act collectively against the establishment of churches in their land. In Umuofia, for example, “When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr. Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the land was pacified.” (135) In a land where all the gods are “weeping,” Okonkwo’s willful suicide may be redemptive sort of, as the sympathy of the artist lies with the people:

  • If an artist is anything he is a human being with heightened sensitivities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The African writer cannot therefore be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer. (Achebe, Morning Yet: 79)

Achebe probably created Okonkwo deliberately to expose the weakness of our leaders in the confrontation with the white man. Lack of a well coordinated approach on the social crisis by the chiefs could have been responsible for the large converts among the subjects.

This failure is exemplified by Okonkwo whose action according to Charles Nnolim “is not tempered by reasoned dialogue with himself or his peers; too much in a haste to inquire into the whys and consequences of things; too proud to show love and affection; too afraid of being thought weak.” (Nnolim: 20) The chiefs could be patriotic in rejecting foreign culture and religion but at the same time some of their actions challenge tradition. That was a source of worry to Achebe as a writer. He therefore created Okonkwo as a failed leader of his people so as to highlight his weakness for future generations to avoid the same mistake of the past.

Okonkwo no doubt was “one of the greatest men in Umuofia” but had to kill himself instead of waiting to be killed by the invaders. Unfortunately, the act of suicide is an abomination in Igbo society. It must be acknowledged that psychologically, Okonkwo’s reality of himself as a man and an Igbo man for that matter is distorted by the many calumniations on African culture. Peter Fonagy’s study on psychoanalysis of violence posits that a man whose personal identity is modified by certain forces may have trouble in differentiating reality from fantasy, and physical from psychic reality. As a result, he is restricted to instruments that manipulate him rather than communicative or signal use of affect. He concludes, “This instrumental use of affect is a key aspect of the tendency of violent patients to express and cope with thoughts and feelings through physical action, against their own bodies or in relation to other people. Such physical action may well come to involve various forms of self-harm or aggression towards others.” (Fonagy: 2)  This is the fate of Okonkwo that may not be too far from Achebe’s vision as an artist –that those Africans culturally suppressed and were unable  to realize their identity were forced to express themselves, using violence.

At the end of Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents a picture of the white District Commissioner as contemplating the writing of a book on his experience in Igbo land with Okonkwo as the central character. But the temper, the urge to present the realistic picture of the period was essentially that of Achebe. The missionaries regarded their mission to Africa as “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” That book could not have been any thing other than Kurtz’s report on colonial atrocities titled, “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” in The Heart of Darkness whose opening paragraph reads:

  • We whites, from the point of development we had arrived [Africa] and must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings –we approach them with the might of a deity. By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded. ( 78)

No other book written in Europe except that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness perhaps, has a better account of how economic gain was the driving force for colonialism in Africa. But Chinua Achebe thinks other wise. He describes Conrad’s story as defective. In particular he says, when viewed from proper perspectives, Marlow’s discomfort at lying to Kurtz, the indices of morality are not enough to counter the sufferings of Africans in episodes such as the “grove of death.” The African writer concludes, The Heart of Darkness is a product of a “bloody racist” with little sympathy for oppressed Africans. (Achebe Massachusetts Review: 18)  And no other writer in Africa has painted the picture of how the white man disorganised African values in the name of Christianity other than Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart.

Such an artist could hardly admit “pacification” as the motive for white men in Africa but a crude disorientation of existing values in situations of abnormalities. The emotional disorders in Achebe at the time could hardly produce a literature of laughter devoid of pain, anger, panic, despair, and resistance. That emotional turmoil was enough to create Things Fall Apart to contradict the white man who claimed he was in Africa to pacify the people.

 

WORKS CITED
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 1958. London: Heinemann, 1962.
______ . “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation.” African Writers on African
Writing
. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
______ . “An Image for Africa.” Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977): 782-94.

______ . Morning Yet on Creation Day.
Awoornor, Kofi. In Killam,G.D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. London:
Heinemann, 1969.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness & Other Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth,
1995.

Diamond, A. Stephen. “The Psychology of Creativity: Redeeming Our Inner
Demons
.” Hoard Magazine. 2003.
<http:www.hoardmag.com/psychcreativity.htm>.

Donald, Merlin. “Precis Origin of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution
of Culture and Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 16, 14 (1997):
737-791.

Gabora, Liane. “The Origin and Evolution of Culture and Creativity.” Journal of
Memetics –Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 1 (1997).

Fonagy, Peter. “The Psychoanalysis of Violence.”
Killam, G.D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. London: Heinemann, 1969.
Nnolim, Charles. Chinua Achebe: Writer as a Nigerian. Port-Harcourt: Systems
and Support, 2000.

Ojinmah, Umelo. Chinua Achebe: New Perspectives. Ibadan: Spectrum Books
Limited, 1991.

Van Gogh, Vincent. “Letter To Theo van Gogh.” The Hague, c. 11 January 1883.

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1 Comment

  • I see an ‘explanation’ of a lot of things but…that has all been said. I believe though that this is a nice piece but, the way a lot of personal opinions were stated as fact was detracting…

    …(case in point) lest he be considered a weakling like the past generations of Igbo men…which generation? by whom?

    again, there’s, Okonkwo’s suicide allowed by the goddess and suicide; abomination in Igbo land.

    and i hate that when I saw the Temper before Things fall apart title, I expected to see something ‘before’ plus, the abstract was a bit misleading…thought it would be about Acbebe’s creativity and all.

    however, the sources cited are good ones.