Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Postcolonial Mock-Epic: Abrogation and Appropriation

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Postcolonial Mock-Epic: Abrogation and Appropriation

Article excerpt

In his 1974 essay "Colonialist Criticism," Chinua Achebe criticized American and British critics of contemporary African literature for praising "universality" whenever they sensed its presence: for praising fiction, in particular, that transcended African parochialism, although set in Africa, and dealt with the universally human, even though its characters happened to be Africans. Achebe's point, of course, was that the colonialist critics--by which term he apparently meant all western critics of African literature--didn't really have any conception of the universally human. They said "universal," but they meant, without knowing it, "western," or "like us." "I should like to see," Achebe wrote, "the word universal banned altogether from discussions of African literature, until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe" (13).

What bothered Achebe most was not what the colonialists said or thought but the fact that their criticism "exert[s] an influence on our writers" ("Colonialist" 13; italics added). Good literature, indeed, real literature, had to be universal, and when African writers looked at their continent, past, present, and future, universality seemed in short supply. This vital essence evidently belonged in Europe and was most fully accessible in the European novel. The trick seemed, then, to appropriate what was done there, but African writers wanted to write about Africa, and Africa was not Europe. If not different in a fundamental way--humanity always being fundamentally the same--there were still some differences only a moron could ignore. Nor did Africa want to remain tied to Europe, which had finally dragged herself away politically. To complicate matters, writers would find few African readers, even within their own countries, unless they wrote in the European languages through which, of course, they themselves had found out about the universal. But how does one write about Africa in those languages? In "Colonialist Criticism," Achebe made a promise: "And let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it" (10). Who can say now, a generation later, whether that promise has been fulfilled?(1)

Paradise Lost and Pope's Horatian Essay on Criticism were written in English. English writers who sought to appropriate ancient forms and styles had to do it in English--if they wanted readers. This does not mean that they--these neoclassicists--round themselves in a situation altogether different from that of mid- and late-twentieth-century writers in Nigeria, Ghana, or Kenya. There was a tradition that came from some other place and was genealogically authoritative. One had to follow in it, somehow--appropriating its forms, following its "rules"--to make authentic literature, but this increasingly seemed a quite unnatural and unreasonable course for contemporary writers to follow. Resistance, often quite explicit, to this classical tradition grew throughout the eighteenth century, and its influence eventually withered almost entirely away. The story of this decline has been told many times. There are many ways of accounting for it, but all of them involve a shift in the meaning of the word "universal" from "them" to "US."

In An Essay on Criticism, Pope followed tradition in celebrating the "clear, unchang'd, and Universal light" (71) found, above all, in the sublimely instructive Homer, who displayed in his heroes, with the help of this light, the universal human traits that somehow also were this light. The same light shone, if not quite so brightly, in Vergil and Horace. And to be universal is to be everlasting: "Still green with Bays, each ancient Altar stands, / Above the reach of Sacrilegious Hands" (181-82). Only the real thing lasts because all who read it can find themselves there:

   See, from each Clime, the Learn'd their Incense bring; Hear, in all Tongues
   consenting Paeans ring! … 
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