Magazine article New African

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Magazine article New African

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Article excerpt

Ayi Kwei Armah, author of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (first published in 1968 and recently reprinted by PER ANKH) writes a preface to the new edition, and tells how--to this day--no critical assessment of the book has zoomed in on the conceptual content of the title or the thematic core: the provenance of the concept and image of the beautyful ones. And he has a little issue to settle with Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian author.

THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE Not Yet Born was first published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, in 1968. It attracted considerable attention then, much of it focused on the author's perceived artistry. There was a tendency, from the beginning, to contrast this supposed authorial virtuosity with the novel's subject matter, rather inaccurately summed up as the pervasive negativity of the human condition in Africa. This bias didn't surprise me, and I assumed it would take little time for some careful scholar to balance it by zooming in on the conceptual content of the title, which I think expresses the meaning of the text as accurately as any title can. It is a matter of some bafflement to me, therefore, that to date, as far as I know, no critical assessment has actually gone to that thematic core: the provenance of the concept and image of the beautyful ones. The phrase "The Beautiful One" is ancient, at least five thousand years old. To professional Egyptologists, it is a praise name for a central figure in Ancient Egyptian culture, the dismembered and remembered Osiris, a sorrowful reminder of our human vulnerability to division, fragmentation and degeneration, and at the same time a symbol of our equally human capacity for unity, cooperative action, and creative regeneration.

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When I first encountered the image of Osiris I was a schoolboy addicted to reading, and fascinated with myths of all kinds. Wags have sometimes accused the boarding school I went to, Achimota, of being a crypto-Masonic institution. The rumour is doubtless silly, but it is true that the colonial world had its share of oddfellows, templars, doo-dah cultists and freemasons, a few of whom bequeathed parts of their ex libris collections to the well-stocked school library.

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My reading then was restless and wide-ranging, and my first encounters with Ancient Egypt took the form of some rather dull lessons based on a hoary classroom text by Breasted, which I followed up with livelier reading in the library.

Most of the texts tended to cast information about Ancient Egypt in a religious light, and my first impressions of Osiris left me with vague notions of a primitive religious leader, a spirit roaming the cosmos, on a self-chosen mission of social construction without brutality, a creator of new societies who went out into the world leading no armies, carrying no weapons, his sole instrument his trust in the capacity of human beings to reorganise their lives intelligently, justly and harmoniously.

I remember no special attachment to the mythic figure in those days, but by the time I wrote the novel my impressions of Osiris, though still relatively disorganised, had evolved to the point where I was ready to recognise the image as a powerful artistic icon. Here, in mythic form, was the essence of active, innovative human intelligence acting as a prime motive force for social management. I have yet to come across an earlier, or more attractive, image for the urge to positive social change.

Among its attractions is the fact that it is a radically original African concept, utterly unlike better-known images of social change that tend to see the process, sometimes reluctantly but more often with bloodthirsty enthusiasm, as the outcome of unavoidable violence.

Though I was casually familiar with the words "The Beautiful One"' from my earlier reading, they were far from my mind at the time I was writing the book. …

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