Practical Disorientation

The second part of Things fall apart narrates a sudden decline in Okonkwo’s story following the funeral of Ogbuefi Ezeudu, when Okonkwo’s gun, intended for firing a farewell tribute to a great clansman, explodes of its own accord, killing Ezeudu’s son. Okonkwo has to go into exile, and his compound is stormed and burnt down to signify his being driven out in ignominy. Among his mother’s kin, where he takes refuge for seven years, Okonkwo ruminates in “silent half-sleep”:

His life had been ruled by a great passion—to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken... Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.

(Achebe 1958:43)

Okonkwo’s world as he has known it has collapsed. That world had been founded on the single principle that having set himself a goal and put in the necessary labour, his chi would do the rest—unless he had been aspiring “beyond the destiny of his chi”, which in his thinking he has not done. So it can only be that he is one “whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation”.

The crisis is a grave one for Okonkwo because it threatens his sense of the rhythm of existence, in other words, his ‘lifeworld’ (Habermas 1994). His earlier career going from success to success is reassuring because the lifeworld is confirmed and reproduced. The crisis has shaken both his understanding of the world and his own self-understanding, thus the great need for self-clarification (Habermas 1994:11) in the above passage. He comes out of it with the joy of life gone, never to return. Early signs are seen in the violent bent of his ruminations and actions. Mulling over his son Nwoye’s defection to the Christians:

A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a strong desire to take up his machete, go to the church and wipe out the entire vile and miscreant gang. But on further thought he told himself that Nwoye was not worth fighting for. Why, he cried in his heart, should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son? He saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile and now his despicable son’s behaviour?

(Achebe 1958:50)

His lifeworld with the derived ethical values is upset, spelling disillusionment about justice underlying the functioning of things. Henceforth he is more unyielding, more implacable, more insistent on shaping events by his own personal sense of what ought to be.

Given the initial disadvantages with which he had started life, and the vast change in fortune he experiences with single-minded effort, there is apparent confirmation of the wisdom of the elders that “when a man says yes his chi says yes also”. The change in fortune starting with the accident at Ezeudu’s funeral, despite his yes not having been withdrawn, is as though this traditional kind of natural law had broken down (Habermas 1994:71). His ‘practical disorientation’ (Cronin 1994:xix), results in errors of judgement, as seen in his pursuit of singlehanded revenge against the white man’s machine, and the killing of the court messenger. His fellow elders asking, “Why did he do it?” is a clear sign that he is now all alone. No doubt his action is in line with a certain code, but it is a code the validity of which no one else recognises.

Throughout Achebe’s fiction, codes are the occasion for practical disorientations for many reasons. Sometimes they have ceased functioning without the agents knowing it, as in Arrow of God, or are no longer what they were thought to be, as in No longer at ease. At other times, agents operate in uncharted terrains seeking to make a way forward, as in Anthills of the savannah.

The Wrestler Figure

Arrow of God (Achebe 1964) is related to Things fall apart in its attitude to the outside social discourse; and this is a very important sense in

Proverb Translation to the Realm of the Story 183 which the two works are regarded as traditional. Although all Achebe’s texts admit of the existence of a specific social tradition through citations of its frozen discourse, no others quote or show identification to that culture as much as these two. They also share two common features, namely the personal god or guardian spirit (chi) functioning in the narrative matrix, and the wrestler figure. Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler in Umuofia; in Arrow of God, Ezeulu is also called a good wrestler (Achebe 1964:40). However, when we see Ezeula wrestling (all the incidents between him and people who are not his friends or family members can be viewed as wrestling contests), it is in metaphorical terms. To John Nwodika, who compliments him on his struggle against the white man, he says:

You call this wrestling? No, my clansman. We have not wrestled; we have merely studied each other’s hand. I shall come again, but before that I want to wrestle with my own people whose hand I know and who know my hand. I am going home to challenge all those who have been poking their fingers into my face to come outside their gate and meet me in combat and whoever throws the other will strip him of his anklet.

(Achebe 1964:179)

Whereas Okonkwo wrestles as a sportsman and a warrior, Ezeulu’s wrestling is a political act, a struggle for power and precedence.

Ezeulu enjoys power as the chief priest of the common deity of the six villages of his town, Ulu, but he is not certain whether he is not just a figurehead. In the opening scene, he is already worrying about this, and is mentally coming to grips with an invisible enemy who stokes his fears that the power he claims is empty . At the public level, in the assembly of elders, the enemy is Ogbuefi Nwaka from a rival village. He already knows that Nwaka is not acting on his own, but as proxy to another priest, Ezidemili, “Nwaka’s great friend and mentor” (Achebe 1964:40). He is to learn even deeper truths by a revelation from his deity Ulu:

Beware you do not come between me and my victim or you may receive blows not meant for you! Do you not know what happens when two elephants fight? Go home and sleep and leave me to settle my quarrel with Idemili, who wants to destroy me so that his python may come to power.

(Achebe 1964:191)

The pattern of metonymical substitution (e.g. Nwaka substituting for Ezidemili, who substitutes for Idemili) reaches a critical level in the disaster that happens in spite of Ulu’s warning, for the deity apparently has not arranged things to enable Ezeulu to stand clear of blows meant for someone else. So it is on him that the calamity falls.

The tragedy has an ironic twist. In his speech at the meeting of elders to consider how to react to the killing of Umuaro’s war emissary, Ezeulu narrates the wrestler folktale:

Once there was a great wrestler whose back had never known the ground. He wrestled from village to village until he had thrown every man in rhe world. Then he decided that he must go and wrestle in the land of spirits ... He went, and beat every spirit that came forward ... His companion who sang his praise on the flute begged him to come away, but he would no ... Rather than go home he gave a challenge to the spirits to bring out their best and strongest wrestler. So they sent him his personal god, a little, wiry spirit who seized him with one hand and smashed him on the stony earth.

(Achebe 1964:26-27)

The proverbial expression of this narrative is oblique: ikwe muo na-aka (to shake hands with a spirit), referring to the ceremonial handshake before combat. There are several other proverbs in Arrow of God that are of similar import. For example, Ezeulu’s son’s night mask cautions: “He who will swallow udala seeds must consider the size of his anus. The fly that has no one to advise him follows the corpse into the ground” (Achebe 1964:226). However, neither Ezeulu nor Obika (his son) heeds the caution.

By Ricoeur’s (2006:11) “interpretation of any meaningful whole within the same speech community”, the wrestler passage and Obika’s proverbs mean that without knowledge of just measure, an adventurer will inevitably come to grief. However, the word “wrestler” is very important for this narrative; occuring most frequently in Ezeulu’s discourse, it raises the question of just measure. In Okonkwo’s vision, the chi, if “made for great things”, can scale any obstacle; in Ezeulu’s, chi itself may be the obstacle: by the logic of the folktale, if a wrestler has come to grief, it is because he has unwittingly done battle with his chi.

The image of Ezeulu as wrestler is at the centre of all the episodes of Arrow of God, which become conversion and expansion of the proverb. Ezeulu survives the encounters, sometimes battered, until the final disastrous episode, where he engages Umuaro itself on behalf of his deity, refusing to eat up the sacred yams. The indefatigable wrestler to all intents and purposes has gone head to head with his own chi. The dialogue with the elders of Umuaro at this juncture is most telling. One of them addresses him pointedly:

“I want you to look round this room and tell me what you see. Do you think there is another Umuaro outside this hut now?”

“No, you are Umuaro,” said Ezeulu.

“Yes, we are Umuaro. Therefore listen to what I am going to say. Umuaro is now asking you to go and eat those remaining yams today and name the day of the next harvest. Do you hear me well? I said ... today, not tomorrow; and if Ulu says we have committed an abomination let it be on the heads of the ten of us here...”

“Leaders of Umuaro, do not say that I am treating your words with contempt... But you cannot say: do what is not done and we shall take the blame.” (Achebe 1964:208)

In Things fall apart, the clan is the ultimate source of affirmation to the hero, and it is when Okonkwo tries unsuccessfully to force it that he gains understanding that all is lost, and commits suicide. In Arrow of God, it is Ezeulu who fails to grasp the proverb that “no man however great was greater than his people; that no man ever won judgement against his clan” (Achebe 1964:230).

Ezeulu, who at the novel’s opening wondered whether his power were real, discovers in the course of the crisis over the new yam feast that he is under uncommon constraint. Against all reason, and against all the ethical guidelines enshrined in his lifeworld, he enforces the socially ruinous will of Ulu:

Because no one came near enough to Ezeulu to see his anguish— and if they had seen it they would not have understood—they imagined that he sat in his hut gloating over the distress of Umuaro. But although he would not for any reason see the present trend reversed he carried more punishment and more suffering than all his fellows ... Beneath all anger in his mind lay a deeper compassion for Umuaro, the clan which long, long ago when lizards were in ones and twos chose his ancestor to carry their deity and go before them challenging every obstacle and confronting every danger on their behalf.

(Achebe 1964:219)

Despite the heavy irony arising from the mixing in of a revenge motive, the Ezeulu figure recalls the Emersonian “great man” who “even whilst he relates a private fact personal to him, is really leading us away from him to an universal experience” (Davis 2007:79). Such an experience is the constraint of a man who is doing what had to be done even though it might mean ruin, as Lukács and Baxandall (1965:155) note. In Anthills of the savannah (Achebe 1987) Chris Oriko and Ikem Osodi also do what must be done notwithstanding the danger to themselves, but the sense of leading away from themselves to a universal experience is more clearly marked.

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