AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, has deservedly achieved the status of a classic, not only in the realm of African letters, where its position is iconic, but in world literature as well. It has consistently been regarded both in Africa and elsewhere as "the greatest" African novel, and is widely taught in African literature classes, remaining, after fifty years, on the syllabus of the West African Exams Council for high schools in West Africa (Odamtten 161). For other African writers, Achebe occupies hallowed ground: he is "a dominant point of origin, a hyper-precursor one might say, in whose aftermath virtually every other African author self-consciously writes" (Boehmer 142; emphasis in original). Critic Simon Gikandi, searching for the reasons behind this overwhelming critical and popular admiration, states the prevailing view that Achebe's novel "shifted the idea of Africa from romance and nostalgia, from European primitivism, and from a rhetoric of lack, to an affirmative culture" (8). This idea--that the greatness of Things Fall Apart lies in its championing of African, specifically Igbo, culture in opposition to the racist literature of the colonial era--has been repeated so often that it has almost become a truism. Without denying the importance of this aspect of the novel, I suggest that the sources of its power are more complex, and that its central significance for our own times lies in its unflinching presentation of a pervasive and global reality: the condition of modernity.
The German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, whose works have steadily gained influence in Anglo-American academic circles since the 1970s, was one of the earliest interpreters of modernity: born in the nineteenth century, he died by his own hand in the twentieth, having fallen between the cracks, as it were, of the nations of Europe, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. His writings have powerfully influenced the study of modernity in various disciplines. This essay makes use of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" to explore Things Fall Apart as a project of historical reclamation. In so doing, I show how reading Things Fall Apart through the lens of Benjamin's historical materialism can illuminate the revolutionary aspect of Achebe's work. At the same time, Things Fall Apart can be interpreted as a practical demonstration of what Benjamin calls on historians to do, thus bringing into focus the unique challenges involved in attempting to rescue the past while standing in the present.
1. THE ENDANGERED PAST
Things Fall Apart depicts the coming of European colonizers to West Africa from the perspective of the inhabitants of Umuofia, a community in the land of the Igbo people (present-day Nigeria). The central character, Okonkwo, a man of action for whom the idea of strength is paramount, hangs himself at the end of the novel when it is clear that Umuofia must fall to the "white strangers." In writing a novel of Igbo society at beginning of the colonial period, Achebe re-imagines the past in a manner similar to that described by Walter Benjamin, who calls upon historians "to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger" ("Theses" 255). Benjamin continues:
The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it ... Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. (255; emphasis in original)
The idea of the "moment of danger" is pertinent to Achebe's work, which is explicitly a project of re-writing history in opposition to imperialist discourse. In his own words, Achebe wrote to teach his readers "that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them" ("Novelist" 105). His historical novels are therefore deliberate revisions of the past; to use a much-quoted Benjammian phrase, they are history "against the grain" ("Theses" 257). Benjamin, writing from a Marxist stance, is concerned with the class struggle and the rise of Fascism;
Achebe, writing in English from within the context of English literature, seeks to combat the Western view of Africa as "a place of negations" ("Image" 2). Both approach the past as rescuers rather than chroniclers, and for both the attempt to rescue the past is inseparable from an engagement with the present. Benjamin rejects the historicist approach to history as a mere chain of cause and effect, advocating a method in which the historian "stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary" (263). This historian, the historical materialist, "grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time" ("Image" 2).
The distinction between "Messianic time" and its opposite, which Benjamin terms "homogenous, empty time" (261) can be clarified through the figure of the rosary. In the first image, which Benjamin relates to historicism, the beads are told in sequence, one preceding the next in an unalterable order. In the second image, the historical materialist grasps a handful of beads, gathering past and present into a cluster or constellation: the "time of the now." This "presence of the now" is the site of history, in which the past is not …