Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Telling the Dancer from the Dance: A Deconstructionist Engagement with Okot p'Bitek's Song of Prisoner

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Telling the Dancer from the Dance: A Deconstructionist Engagement with Okot p'Bitek's Song of Prisoner

Article excerpt


"Is it possible to have a final reading of a text? I mean a correct interpretation, and is there an absolute meaning of a text?" These are the questions that a student asked when he came across the following statement by Aloo Ojuka--"I hope that I have sufficiently exposed this total misunderstanding of the meaning of The Song of Prisoner". This in fact was Ojuka's response to Atieno Odhiambo's critical interpretation of Okot p'Bitek's The Song ofPrisoner. The student's questions reminded me of an article I had read by Solomon O. Iyasere, in which he illustrates the process of criticism in an oral performance, which took place in Benin City where "The Murder of Adesua" was being presented. In that article, he notes that after one artist performed the story another was quick to point out the flaws of the first rendition, by re-creating the tragic story, giving it the following opening:

Please be patient, Open your ears and listen, stay awake wide-eyedto the end. I have the same tale to tell. A tale I know full toowell not a plain tale as those that have reached your ears. Here is where my story ends. Forgive me for what defects there may be in this tale of Woe: Not for the old knots here and there, brought by Old tangles in the broken yarn but for those rifts brought by my own runs. Well a tale is not a tale, without a word or two on howit fares my ears are wide open to the ground for what errors you may find for one hand cannot wash itself clean. It needs the help of the others. (Iyasere in Durosimi, 1980:171-172).

The oral artist's/critic's confession that, 'well a tale is not a tale,/without a word or two on how it fares' and that, 'for one hand cannot wash itself/it needs the help of the others,' becomes very crucial as concerns the student's question. It suggests the complementary role that exists between the creative process and the critical process. It implies that critical process is never final as "errors" are always introduced--'here is where my story ends/forgive me for what defects there may be'. For him to claim forgiveness for any "defects" is ironical. He had taken it open himself to re-tell the story because he felt that an earlier rendition had flaws. From his proclamations we can deduce that there is never a correct interpretation or an absolute meaning of a text: How is all this, then, important in answering the student's questions?

The student wanted to know if there is a final reading, a correct interpretation and an absolute meaning. The artist/critic implicitly implies that it is not possible to have a correct interpretation or an absolute meaning. So, to answer the student comprehensively a reading and interpretation of interpretations on Okot p'Bitek's poem, Song of Prisoner is not only necessary but also inevitable. Through a reading of the critical interpretations by Atieno-Odhiambo, Aloo Ojuka and Margaret Marshment, it is hoped that the "confusion" in the student's mind will be cleared.

Derrida and other deconstructionists have said that the discourse of texts have no fixed centres of meanings leading to constant deferring of an absolute meaning. Therefore Derrida and the deconstruction enterprise become very significant in our quest to answer the student's interrogative. Thus, before we can answer the student's question we must get some grasp of the concept of deconstruction.

The Outside of Inside: Centre without Centre

What is deconstruction? Like the student's questions this is not an easy question to answer. Answering this question is like trapping the wind. It is not even possible to define deconstruction. Deconstruction defies the very logic, process of definition. As we know it, to define is to characterise, to describe the nature of something making it clear, stating precisely its meaning and as such making it more vivid. Conversely, deconstructionists argue that meanings and definitions are not absolute but involve the spin-of a potentially endless play of signifiers rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier. …

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