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The quintessential in literature

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When you sit down to look back at the books that you have enjoyed in your life, you may realise that in each of them there are certain quintessential lines or scenes. These are lines or scenes that carry the most perfect embodiment or the most typical of the essential meaning of the works from which they are drawn.

In 1990, Gary Taylor argued that “Shakespeare was consciously a quotable writer, whose phrases were made to be memorable.” Taylor explains that Shakespeare actually “worked in a repertory system that stood on mutability and variation, with many new plays, frequent revivals, short runs and little rehearsal time” and so he wanted each overworked actor “to remember his sweet and honeyed sentences, so he made them as sticky as possible.”

Therefore literature survives through its capacity to be rhetorical or through striving to paint permanent images on the mind of the reader. There must be something that remains on the mind long after you have closed a book and you walk down the road.

Today we recall Shakespeare’s Hamlet through his extraordinary “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. It is often considered one of the most quotable passages in world literature. The melancholic “To be, or not to be” is found in Hamlet: Act Three Scene One. It is the opening line of a soliloquy in what is called the nunnery scene. Hamlet is contemplating death and suicide while waiting for his lover Ophelia. He bemoans the challenges of life but contemplates that the alternative — death — could be worse:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

The speech explores Hamlet’s confused mindset as he considers murdering his uncle Claudius, who killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother to become king in his place. Throughout the play, Hamlet has hesitated to kill his uncle and avenge his father’s death.

Whenever I look back at my favourite Ernest Hemingway’s short story, ‘Old Man at the Bridge’, how can I forget the old man’s steel rimmed spectacles and his dusty clothes as he sits by the bridge?

The story begins in medias res with “An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road…” This old man running from the wars and now unable to proceed any further than the bridge in his flight, stands for all people everywhere rendered vulnerable by wars.

The old man’s dusty clothes and thick spectacles constitute what may be called a chorus, the words that a short story returns too regularly in order to bolster its ultimate meaning. A few lines down this story, the soldier narrator who is helping people to cross the bridge to safety looks again at the old man and is told that in his life, the old man had been looking after animals.

Once more the clothes and the spectacles come back as he says once more: “He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”

When the story ends, the old man is encouraged to stand up and walk. He tries but he falls back into the dust and you have a feeling that he will not go any further. You are left with the conviction that this is a dust-to-dust situation and that the old man is as good as dead. He is dusty and belongs to the dust. I cannot think about this short story without feeling this dust. I actually sneeze as I read this story.

TS Eliot’s iconic poem, ‘The Love songs of J Alfred Prufrock’ is an amazing poem even when it is a work from as far back as the 1920’s. It is very condensed but as soon as you are able to access it, you find that there are particular lines and scenes from it that keep on ringing. They become the permanent stations through which you return to the poem.

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ 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 in a particularly naively laid back but memorable few lines:

“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…”

There is also here obscure yellow smoke rising in the industrial city and there are also revisions and revisions. The smoke and the indecisions remain with you long after and you may actually smell the choking yellow gas:

“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;”

This reinforces Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the subconscious dimension of the mind, explaining how the subconscious influences the way we think about thought and reality. Freud emphasized on the idea of the life of the mind and he influenced the poet in Eliot. He thought that thought has privilege over action.

Freud wrote about the primacy of the mind and that truth existed beneath the surface and that truth reveals itself through complex abstract symbols and perverted actions.

For Freud, the individual is more important than society. Confessions, meditations and dreams are repositories of deep and privileged truth and therefore art should do the following things: A) art should focus on individuals and show how the individual is in conflict with society. B) art should focus on the inner lives of individuals as they struggle to find their real selves. C) art should use symbols that are abstract and as complex as dreams. D) art should privilege characters who achieve a deeper understanding of the self.

“Brother…Brother, what are we? What are we black men who are called French?” Toundi asks in Ferdinand Oyono’s novel, Houseboy and this question is often considered to be the most pertinent question that a character in African Literature has ever asked about identity and belonging. You cannot recall that novel and fail to recall that chilling question.

Toundi, the young Cameroonian narrator, asks that question rather late, on his death bed, when he has just escaped to a neighbouring country for refuge from his very violent white masters.

Although in becoming the priest’s houseboy, Toundi gave up his tribal identity, he finds that he will never fit in among the colonisers. Tragedy ensues when the commandant and his vain wife seek to “dispose” of Toundi when they think he knows too many of their secrets.

Toundi has fled down the path of assimilation, leaving his village for missionary school, then working for the Commandant, becoming the chief European’s houseboy. His dying question shows that his departure from the village precipitated an identity crisis. As a black man who has aspired to be French, Toundi, is now neither fully accepted as French, nor is he fully African anymore.

He fled home just before he was to be initiated as a man into his own ethnic group, only, ironically, to receive a brutal initiation into colonial life instead.

Tsitsi Nomsa Ngwenya’s novel, A Portrait of Emlanjeni, which was published by the UK-based Carnelian Heart Publishing last month, will definitely bring back the literature and environment subject. From a human perspective, it is very easy to declare that this is a story about the rise and fall and rise of one Zanele, the daughter of Hadebe of Matobo, Zimbabwe.

The first time that I read the first phase of this intriguing novel, I kept on saying to myself, but where are the people, where are the people? As what Paton does to Ndotsheni in Cry the Beloved Country, you can only fully see these people if you are ready to feel the pulse of the landscape.

In what many will be able to call an environmental novel, Emlanjeni in Matobo is integral to the story and becomes one of the major and very active characters. It is an art that uses a known geographical area thoroughly, describing and dwelling on its natural features to show that the life, social relations, customs, language, dialect or other aspects of the culture of an area and its people can indeed become overridden by what the environment is becoming.

“To reach Emlanjeni, one has to plan a three-hour drive from Ematojeni, about twenty kilometres south of Bulawayo…” the novel begins and you know that you are already journeying. Then you are warned, “The place is dry. One can smell its dryness. Acacia bushes dot the flat landscape which is littered with little, whitish, dusty stones. The whole surrounding area, all the way to Mwewu River, is mostly gullied and dry, giving the impression of a place being frequently cleaned by nature’s maids.”

Then you are taken into the sky: “If one cared to imagine the aerial view of the two rivers bordering the village, Simphathe and Marabi, with the Kwanike hillocks on the south, the picture would be a breath-taking one, the kind you find framed as a monument in a museum. The sandy loam, some patches of black clay on some areas and red soils on the other, holds the ground together. Grass slowly dies of thirst after the February-March rains only to come to back to life during the October-November planting season…”

Then you are told that the journey has always been bumpy, “That is the bridge that makes bus drivers forbid women and children from occupying the front seats. As the bus descends, fearful passengers on their maiden trips to Bulawayo, koNtuthuziyathunqa, let out shrieks which sometimes cause the driver to lose control of the steering wheel…”

Eventually the people fully pour into the story creating a din – “Most young boys in Emlanjeni do not take school seriously. The schools are far apart such that pupils walk long distances. Even if some, especially girls, want to pursue education, they fail to do so because idlers and school dropouts wait for them on their way from school. These girls are persuaded and forced into love affairs which lead to pregnancies and hastily planned marriages…”

So indeed certain words, phrases, whole passages or a certain rendition of the landscape endears us to the story and they begin to encapsulate the story or become its pith. Everything depends not on the subject itself but on the writer’s treatment of it.

In describing Dickens’ description of London fog in Bleak House, a critic says, “Dickens is enjoying the fog he creates, and that enjoyment is inevitably conveyed to us as we read. In fact, part of what Dickens delights in as he puts the fog together word by word is his very ability to describe so interestingly!”

Memory Chirere

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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