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Difficult works of literature

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When I first read TS Eliot’s iconic poem called ‘The Love songs of J Alfred Prufrock’, I was in school.

I must confess that I understood nothing even with a re-reading and a third and even fourth reading!

I have always known that some works of literature, passages or whole books, can be very difficult to comprehend. I now know that difficult literature is sometimes referred to as opaque, inaccessible, obscure etc.

Much later and with a lot of hand holding from my mentors, I gradually woke up to the realisation that ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot is the inner monologue of a city gentleman who is stricken by feelings of isolation and inadequacy and incapability of taking decisive action.

He goes through community, through rooms full of women as if he is about to declare his love but rambling on and on about either his memories or his expectations. The difficulty is that the unwary reader does not know what exactly this man’s journey is about. The poem begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

You read and say, why is the voice in the poem inviting us to make a visit that leads us into asking the so-called “overwhelming questing.”

As the poem continues, you find out that ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ is driven by a persona who is constantly very self-conscious with his thoughts flowing forward, backwards and sideways, sparking various psychological associations.

He goes to and fro the streets insisting that there will be time to do virtually all things that we want done in life but you wonder what all these things would be. There are also here obscure yellow smoke revisions and revisions:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

When you eventually get used to it, you may find out that this poem is an examination of the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man—overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted.

Prufrock, the poem’s speaker, seems to be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to “force the moment to its crisis” by somehow consummating their relationship.

You may actually start to like the so called Prufrock and feel that he is in fact an aged man who is very concerned with the way people may think about what he thinks is his not so appealing appearance.

Meanwhile he is thinking about proposing love to a woman. He constantly addresses himself while he is in one spot.

He imagines himself straying into various rooms where there are many women who could easily pass negative comments about him. Finally he undertakes no physical journey at all, having already travelled mentally.

At that point you notice that had this poem not been part of your school set texts, you may not have travelled this far listening to a narrator who appears dreamy and hesitant.

You go back to this difficult poem simply because of the examination in the end. You plod and suffer.

Prufrock finally goes out to the beach and takes a restless walk, still holding mental debates within himself.

It is apparent that the use of the interior monologue in this instance is difficult to a new reader as it captures the mind of the individual who fails to come to terms with a practical reality and ends up living in his mind. In literature this tends to dramatise the neurosis of the individual in modern society.

Christopher Okigbo (born August 16, 1932, Ojoto, Nigeria—died August 1967, Nigeria), is considered one of the best and most widely anthologized African poets.

But his poetry is sometimes considered dense and inaccessible.

You learn that he is what is called a poet’s poet! Okigbo’s blending of Western ideas and techniques with a Nigerian perspective has distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries but also making it difficult and impenetrable to many others.

You eventually learn that despite his father’s devout Christianity, the late great Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo had an affinity with traditional Igbo Gods or deities.

You are told that he actually came to believe later in his life, that in him was reincarnated the soul of his maternal grandfather, a priest of Idoto, an Igbo deity.

Idoto is personified in the river of the same name that flows through Okigbo’s village, and the “water goddess” figures prominently in Okigbo’s work. In his poem ‘Heavensgate’, Okkgibo writes that:

Before you, mother Idoto, naked I stand
When you read that poem Heavensgate away from the concept of Nigerian Gods, you may actually get lost. It is a poem that has to be read with the use of footnotes so that you don’t bring in the wrong meanings! Your teacher tells you that this is a re-incarnation of Okbibo’s maternal grand-father, who used to be the priest of the shrine called Ajani, where the Idoto, the river goddess, is worshipped and that Okigbo, should carry on his duties. In most of his poems, Okgibo takes a deep religious stance and it is after a re-reading that you access all this crucial information. Left on your own, you may put Okigbo aside and find other things to read.
In another of Okigbo’s poems, “The Passage” the reader meets the “oil bean” symbol. You are told that among the Igbo traditions, the oil bean tree is regarded as a totem, and legend has it that the spirits of little children stay there to wait for kind women that would become their earthly mothers. It is a sacred tree found in most shrines in Igbo land. There are some other trees which are equally considered sacred. In this poem, the protagonist is seen:
leaning on an oil bean,
lost in your legend
under your power wait I
on barefoot,
watchman for the watchword
at Heavensgate.

You also learn that Okigbo death came when he was very young during the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War (July 6, 1967 – Janaury 12, 1970) in the service of Biafra soon after enlisting in the secessionist army.

You then realise that Okigbo was blamesd for being inaccessible and he even once remarked sulkily to delegates that, “I don’t read my poems to non-poets!”

Another difficult poem is by an English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He uses what is called “sprung rhythm,” making it sometimes elusive.

His poem called “The Windhover” is written in the “sprung rhythm,” a metre in which the number of accents in a line are counted but the number of syllables does not matter.

This technique allows Hopkins to vary the speed of his lines so as to capture the bird’s pausing and racing. Hopkins goes:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

With lots of assistance, you eventually learn that the windhover is a bird with a rare ability to hover in the air, essentially flying in place while it scans the ground in search of prey.

Much like the African eagle! The poet describes how he saw (or “caught”) one of these birds in the midst of its hovering!

The bird strikes the poet as the darling (“minion”) of the morning, the crown prince (“dauphin”) of the kingdom of daylight, drawn by the dappled colours of dawn. It rides the air as if it were on horseback, moving with a steady control like a rider whose hold on the rein is sure and firm.

In the poet’s imagination, the windhover sits high and proud, tightly reined in, wings quivering and tense.

Its motion is controlled and suspended in an ecstatic moment of concentrated energy.

The other poem of Hopkins called “God’s Grandeur” begins with the surprising metaphor of God’s grandeur as actually an electric force!

The figure suggests an undercurrent that is not always seen, but which builds up a tension or pressure that occasionally flashes out in ways that can be both brilliant and dangerous:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Hopkins is defiantly affirmative in his assertion that God’s work is still to be seen in nature, if men will only concern themselves to look.

Refusing to ignore the discoveries of modern science, he takes them as further evidence of God’s grandeur rather than a challenge to it.

Dambudzo Marechera of Zimbabwe’s novella of 1978 called House of Hunger is an iconic piece of work in African literature. But it can make your head spin, if you read it unaided for the first time.

The novella is about an extremely sensitive young black man growing up in colonial Rhodesia with its racist laws and its oppression that gave black folk very limited space. Doris Lessing says reading The House of Hunger is “like overhearing a scream.” It is very dense and impenetrable.

House of Hunger is also about the struggle for physical and spiritual spaces. That is why; maybe, the word ‘house’ is used in various ways in that book. House means the physical home and its troubles.

It also stands for the mind of the individual as that space with turmoil. Finally ‘house’ could stand for troubled Rhodesia which is permanently in the background to this story.
In this book, Marechera adopts a style that is modernist and not linear.

Which really makes reading difficult. The story shifts constantly and in a seemingly irregular manner between home, school, home and bar. If you manage those sudden shifts, you will be able to enjoy and understand the story.

The only physical space that is travelled realistically is the journey from the point the nameless major character (who is the narrator throughout) packs all his things, leaves the house in anger and goes to the nearby bar and you may fail to come to terms with this story.

From that point onwards, the story goes ahead in series of the narrator’s reminisces, colliding in and out of one another.

At each point when an old acquaint comes into the pub, Marechera’s narrator takes us back to his old days with him or her, but always comes back to the present.

This demonstrates Marechera’s very close experience with modernist literature especially with the writings of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Kafka and others, who felt that only a disjointed style would best describe a disjointed experience.

Throughout the novella, we observe that the nameless narrator is a vulnerable individual.

At home he is a victim of the violence of the father, mother, brother and others.

He is also morally assaulted by the township experiences for example his observation with other children of the man who rapes his wife openly and in broad daylight.

The narrator’s response to this violent society is to write. He tries to respond creatively and his first short story is about the prostitute with the drip.

The prostitute is, for the author,a symbol of Rhodesia.

Difficult texts make some people give up on a story.

When I first read Soyinka’s novel, Season of Anomy, I actually could read and comprehend the simple words but I felt the ennui or boredom underlying the text.

Its essentially a feeling of detachment from the surrounding society and its mores, often due to living in a period and or place where things are stagnating, often coupled with a general boredom with everything and everybody.

The ennui in that novel was so overpowering that I almost dropped the book.

I could only continue when a colleague told me that the novel was written in such a way that the reader should feel the anomy in the society itself and that this was actually deliberate on the part of the author and not an artistic fault! Ah, the difficult texts of literature!

Memory Chirere

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Insight

Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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