Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

This week, we move to consider Amos Tutuola's weird yet groundbreaking novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. When it first appeared in 1952, the reviews were a mixture of astonishment and admiration; Dylan Thomas famously proclaimed it a "brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story," and other reviews were also quite positive; others called it a "strange, eerie, poetic novel" and praised it as the embodiment of an African perspective of Africa. And yet, today, modern African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o have tended to disparage Tutuola, accusing him of being too eager -- even if unconsciously -- ready to write just the sort of exotic, juju-filled story that Western readers expected from the "dark continent."

Forty years after its publication, in 1992, I was fortunate to have a brief correspondence with Mr. Tutuola, and to receive a contribution from him for a book I had proposed at the time: Without Any Rules: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the book proposal never found a home, and when Mr. Tutuola passed on in 1997, I found myself with his contribution still unpublished. And so, it occurred to me that I might share it with the class here on the website. I had asked contributors to reflect on what they considered their "vernacular" mode of writing, and what follows is the opening section of Mr. Tutuola's reply -- it has never been published before now:
By vernacular, I suppose, one means the language into which a child is born and is brought up. A language he picks up almost spontaneously as a matter of course when growing up. By this definition, my own ‘vernacular’ or ’mother tongue’ is Yoruba – a language spoken by a subgroup in West Africa, particularly in the Western and Eastern parts of Nigeria and the Benin Republic. Their root is of course in Nigeria. The people in these areas would now be about 20 million. The sub-group is also called Yoruba people. 
I was born at a time the meeting of our own culture and that of Europe had taken place – indeed at a time British colonialists still held the political and economic leverages of my country and that of some other African countries. This is to say I grew up at a time I had no choice but to be exposed to another language. The language of our colonies. The language in which the official business of my country is conducted, to wit, English. 
But I was not to confront this language until I started schooling. And as fate would have it, I could not get far in formal schooling due to lack of finance (as I lost my father at a tender age). Thus, I had what can be referred to as a tolerable exposure to Yoruba, my mother tongue. 
Years after, when I wanted to write, English, the official language of my country, was the one I wrote in. Ordinarily, this would be a little surprising, given my barely indepth knowledge of the language on the one hand, and my appreciable grounding in Yoruba, my mother tongue, on the other. But that was what I found myself doing.
Although I wrote (and still do)in English, my writings, looking back now, are still in Yoruba, my mother tongue. In here is deliberately put in italics. The medium in which my ideas are expressed is English, but when I write, the ideas I express, the atmosphere I create, and as reviewers of my works (perhaps rightly) maintain, the gestures readers encounter on the pages of the books I write are YorubaishThus I think it can be said that beyond being a Yoruba writing in English, my works are African in conception.
I think that Mr. Tutuola's comments here give us a remarkable account of the unexpected combinations, conflicts, and sometimes fortuitous collisions of language and consciousness that are a powerful feature of postcolonial writings. Should a writer seeking to resist colonization be obliged to write in the colonizer's tongue? And if she or he chooses it despite its histories, can it be shaped, as Tutuola suggests, back into a "native" language?

Two years after The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he published My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was later the inspiration for an electronic album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, which is widely regarded as one of the most powerful, pioneering recordings of its kind. I urge everyone to read -- and listen to -- all of these remarkable works.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was a man between cultures -- quite a few of them, in fact. His father was Irish, but his mother was a Greek noblewoman. The one thing they had in common, apparently, was a fanatical devotion to Roman Catholicism; the one thing their son felt most strongly was an aversion to it. After an acrimonious separation, Lafcadio was packed off to Ireland to live with a series of relatives, each of whom abandoned his care to another; eventually he was sent off to a Catholic boarding school and later to a seminary, both of which only hardened his feelings. Hearn, as soon as he could, left for America, where he supported himself as a journalist, first in Cincinnati, then in New Orleans. From there, he went as a foreign correspondent, initially in the French West Indies and then in Japan. He was 40 years old when he arrived, and would only live to be 54, and yet it was in Japan that he made an international name for himself; he obtained a teaching job, married the daughter of a local samurai, and learned Japanese, which he came to speak fluently. His collections of Japanese stories, among which Kwaidan is the best known, have remained in print ever since; in 1965, three stories from this book were adapted by Masaki Kobayashi in his film Kwaidan. His life was also the basis for a play, "The Dream of a Summer Day," which toured Ireland in 2005.

Western audiences have always enjoyed tales of ghosts and, as Hearn calls them, "strange things." The Japanese settings of Hearn's tales have led some to accuse him of exoticizing Japanese culture, but these same stories have gained and retained popularity in Hearn's adopted homeland. The best of them have elements which appeal across cultures, and among them, the tales in Kwaidan rank among the finest tales of terror this side of Edgar Alan Poe.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Chaucer's Pilgrims

We only have time to get to know a few of them -- and Chaucer himself never completed his plans for every pilgrim's tale -- but there are plenty of reasons me might already feel a sense of familiarity with these pilgrims from the past.

The Knight has been a controversial figure; though long assumed to be simply a goodly knight and man, his reputation was challenged in (Monty Python alum) Terry Jones's book Chaucer's Knight. Jones pointed out that many of the campaigns the Knight listed on his resumé were actually disasters -- the siege of Alexandria, for instance, where "crusader" knights looted and pillaged the city, then abandoned it to return home with their booty -- and his adventures in Lithuania and Russia, where mercenary knights similarly came, and went, just long enough to collect their fees and bolster their reputations. Chaucer uses the word "worthy" many times, with the subtle implication that the Knight was more a hired hand than a noble ideal. With the Crusades suddenly in the news again, it's worth noting that, from the very first Crusade to the last, they were, despite their purportedly high ideals, often marked by looting, pillaging, and mass killings of civilians.

The Wife of Bath may be Chaucer's most beloved character -- and she was, in the Tales themselves, the only pilgrim interrupted -- twice -- by admirers praising her "preaching." Of course it was illegal for women to actually preach at the time, and with the Bible in English not yet readily available, it's not clear where the Wife has acquired her extensive knowledge of Scripture. We may assume that it's mostly from her husbands, but if so she was far from a passive recipient of learning; she was eager to interpret the text, and take her place in opposition to men who "gloss up and down" and use the Bible to justify their misogyny. As with the Knight, we may find support for our admiration of her wit, but also -- if we shift our reading just slightly -- a condemnation of her for reading every text to suit her own ends. She remains, in either case, a lively, lovely, sensual, sexual being, one whose frankness still has the power to startle after all these centuries.

The Nun's Priest gets one of Chaucer's best tales, one with its own barnyard brand of sexual politics, as Chauntecleer and his wife Dame Pertelote enact their own domestic disputes. We see the role that Latin plays as a boundary discourse, open to men but closed to women, as Chauntecleer  mistranslates Mulier est hominis confusio ("Woman is the confusion of man") as "Woman is man's joy and all his bliss." There's even a glimpse of contemporary politics, as the noise in the barnyard when the fox enters is compared to that made by "Jack Straw and his many men" during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It's a noise Chaucer would have heard firsthand, as his apartments were in Aldgate, the very gateway through which the peasants entered London.

We haven't time to read all the tales -- and some, to be frank, have stood the test of time less well than others. Some of the "best" pilgrims, such as the Parson, get the "worst" tales -- in his case, a long and tedious sermon. Just for fun, Chaucer gives himself a sing-song ballad, the "Tale of Sir Thopas" -- which is so bad that eventually the Knight commands him to stop, declaring that his "drafty rhyming" is "not worth a turd." It's the contestatory nature of the Tales as a whole, the way they jostle against one another as the pilgrims vie for each other's attention, that in the end endears them to us. We've been there, and done that -- whether in person, on a blog, or Facebook -- so keep those cute cat videos coming.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clericus" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a graduate student at Oxford -- represents a common class today; there are 20.3 million college and university students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.