Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Both Sides of the Story

Among the principle issues surrounding post-colonialism is the conflict between the significance of oral culture and the supposed “superiority” of written culture. The literacy the Europeans brought with them on their religious and political conquests are often believed to have overtaken the oral cultures of the nations they occupied or to have, at the very least, struggled relentlessly with them. In Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, Bill Ashcroft writes that the relationship between the native oral and European written culture is frequently undermined and that the culprits “convey the impression that the oral was not as socially or aesthetically valuable as the literary” (166). That is to say, that they would believe that European literacy was the more civilized foe attempting a hostile takeover of the savage orality of the natives. Ashcroft contends this view, earlier referring to it as a “misperception” (166) and presenting the argument that the meeting of the two cultures was most times a mutual exchange rather than an aggressive overthrow. He writes that “the oral forms in Africa, for instance have a continuing and equal relationship with the written” (167). He claims that the two cultures are equal and, therefore, able to share with and learn from one another.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart demonstrates both sides of this dispute through the steady progression of his language and the evolving interaction of his characters. Part one of the novel presents the Igbo culture as a yet pure and unified entity. Achebe dedicates his pen to a rhythmic, almost incantatory language, closely resembling the fashion of oral storytelling and thus immersing the reader into the culture he describes. His repetition and frequent use of proverb speak to the Igbo oral tradition as well. Also at the novels opening, the character interaction is exclusively Igbo to Igbo. Whatever variance exists remains within the boundaries of their culture. Part two exhibits Ashcroft’s argument of equality and mutual growth. The proverbs and dance-like rhythm fade slightly from Achebe’s language (the remnants of which are shown in the lessons and wisdom of Uchendu) and become intermingled with more direct plot. The character interaction expands to include the missionaries, particularly Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown, the symbol of European authority and colonization in general, embodies Ashcroft’s ideas through his kind understanding with the Igbo people of which Achebe writes that “he trod softly on their faith” and “made friends with some of the great men of the clan” (Achebe, 178-9). Achebe further emphasizes the mutual acceptance between the cultures when he writes, “Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs” (Achebe, 181). This environment of shared respect and development is broken when Rev. Smith assumes Mr. Browns position. At this point, all rhythm and life is removed from Achebe’s language, representing the wiping out of Igbo oral culture by the new regime. Acceptance rapidly turns to hatred, violence and death, and the notion of forcefully conquering a savage nation comes alive.

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