Words' horse, or the proverb as a paradigm of literary understanding


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Words' horse, or the proverb as a paradigm of literary understanding
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vi, 229 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Adéè̳kó̳, Adéléke
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Subjects / Keywords:
Proverbs -- History and criticism   ( lcsh )
African literature -- History and criticism -- 20th century   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1991.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 221-228).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Adélékè Adéèkó.
General Note:
General Note:

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Source Institution:
University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 001690068
notis - AJA2110
oclc - 25151728
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Full Text







In Gratitude
to my Parents,
E. Taiwb and Dorcas Abosede,
and to the other Taiwb, the one who is my wife.
In Memoriam
to my Brother
Adebiyii A. Adedk6 (1947-89).


This dissertation would perhaps not have been written

but for the spirited support of several people. These

include Dr. R6pb Sek6oni and his wife, Banke, and the

members of my committee--Professors Daniel Cottom, John

Perlette, Alistair Duckworth, and Oldbiyii Yai (from whom I

started to learn "classical" Yoruba). For my director,

Professor John P. Leavey, Jr., I reserve a special praise

that words cannot express. In fact, if he were Yoruba, I

would this day nickname him Sokddalaye. As a way of

admitting the incalculabe debt I owe to my wife, Tayelold

Ejire, I seize this opportunity to thank her for enduring

the inconveniences of a husband who heads straight into five

years of graduate school soon after marriage.

These words of gratitude would not be complete if I

failed to mention Dr. Paul Kotey, Dr. Hunt Davis, Jr., and

Dr. Haig Der-Houssikian who, as the Chairman of African and

Asian Languages, gave me Teaching Assistantships throughout

the course of my studies.




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS........................................ iii

ABSTRACT............................................... v

INTRODUCTION........................................... 1
Notes ....................................... 10


1 DIFFERENCES IN MEMORIAM.......................... 11
Notes ....................................... 48

OF AFRICAN LITERATURE............................ 54
Notes ...... .............................. .... 78

ANTHROPOLOGY ..................................... 80
Notes ......................................... 106

OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING........................ 109
Notes ........................................ 137

ACHEBE'S ARROW OF GOD............................. 140
Notes ..................................... ... 166

Notes.................................. ....... 195

ABSURDITY........................................ 197
Notes .... .................................... 220

WORKS CITED ..................................................... 221

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH..................................... 229

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Addleke Adeeko

May 1991

Chairman: John P. Leavey, Jr.
Major Department: English

This dissertation is written around three issues:

contemporary critical theory, the study of proverbs

(paremiology), and postcolonial African literatures. It

considers ideological and textual questions in African

literature, particularly the role of tropes in the

interpretation of narratives whose overt political intents

are said to overshadow all their literary qualities.

Figural elements in literary and nonliterary texts alike do

not facilitate a painless realization of the aims of

communication. Regardless of the claims of anthropology,

this fact is no less true in non-western cultures. In the

Yoruba language, for instance, the terminologies for

figuration and meaning demonstrate that language use writes

reality as a centerless tropological construct.

With the insights promised by some proverbs on

signification, narration, and literality--"a messenger does

not choose its message," "all that we do today is narrative

tomorrow," and "if the host begins to show the bottom of the

yam tuber to the guest, that is a proverb of it is time to

go home"--I re-examine the usually unproblematized political

messages of Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God, Ngugi wa

Thiong'o's Devil on the Cross, and Femi Osofisan's Kolera

Kolej. Reading against the grain, I suggest that the

proverbs provide a useful tool for understanding how

figuration disables any univocal apprehension of the

manifest socio-political themes of the novels. By selecting

an "African" trope to explain African texts, I criticize

works that take the preponderance of political themes in

African literature to be the main marker of its "otherness."

Post-colonial figures of speech also pose problems for

traditional critical language.


In summarizing the reasons why conservative figures in

American English departments might oppose the inclusion of

third world literatures in the regular curriculum, Frederic

Jameson says that the conservatives can rightly claim that

the third world novel will not offer the
satisfactions of Proust or Joyce; what is more
damaging than that, perhaps, is its tendency to
remind us of outmoded stages of our own first
world cultural development and to cause us to
conclude that they are still writing novels like
Dreiser or Sherwood Anderson. (65)

What is old-fashioned in Dreiser and Anderson that third

world writers perpetuate? Mainly, they write causally

lineal narratives in which the chronology of events happen

in an undisrupted order. Besides that, these plain

narratives often deal with socio-political issues with very

little attention paid to the individuals that populate the

social environments.

In order to rationalize their preferred mode of

writing, African writers and critics hark back to pre-

colonial times during which artists perform only in specific

socially responsible roles that the communities carved for

them. Heeding such explanations, Cairns says, "Achebe's

'applied art,' for example, continues the tradition of the

old-time Ibo artists. The production of these artists were

functional and utilitarian, with a clearly defined place in

the social and spiritual life of the entire community" (1).

While American conservatives might reject African writers

for producing structurally anachronistic cultural materials,

the Africans thematize their output as modernizations of a

native tradition. This model of art has produced two

critical stances: the usually conservative nativist cultural

critic and the radical art-for-politics commentator. Both

sides, while seemingly antithetical on the ideological

level, firmly claim inspiration from traditional African


I join the debate. It is not true, I argue, that

African literatures "naturally" orbit around certain

tradition-sanctioned functions of the artists strictly

defined by political experiences. As contemporary critical

theory points out, prior to asserting the necessity of

political struggles as the referent of all literatures, the

critic must ascertain whether literature, in de Man's words,

"functions according to principles which are those, or which

are like those, of the phenomenal world" (Resistance 11).

Taking up de Man's challenge, I first examine certain

critical terminologies in the Yoruba language and discover

that, contrary to the "nativist" position of an essential

responsibility of arts to social concerns,2 Yoruba language

conceives of art as constructs that remark the

centerlessness of signification. I then proceed to probe

the notion that the proverb is paradigmatic of African art

because it employs concrete images, and thus clearly

foregrounds the African's penchance for non-abstraction.

According to Cairns, for example, when Achebe's proverbial

language is contrasted with the robust prose of Graham

Greene and Joseph Conrad, the fact emerges clearly that "the

non-concrete diction of Greene's maxims and the long,

complex, involved sentences of Conrad are, respectively,

manifestations of the Western tendency to abstract or

generalize and to arrange our world in a hierarchical order"

(16). In my study of proverbs I find no evidence for this

rather brave "ethno-philosophy."

Why, in carrying out my project, do I adopt de Man and

Derrida to write about African literature? Would I not, by

applying non-African theories to African texts, be doing

exactly what nativistss" criticize? I articulate de Man and

Derrida with the texts I read because their writings direct

the reader to the "letters" of the "native" text so that one

cannot but be a nativist. In the same breath, however, the

attention to the "letters" precludes the construction of an

"essential" native.

How do I respond to my theoretical choices? In the

first chapter I restate the tenacity of the age-worn

conceptualization of rhetoric as a handmaiden of deeper

truths that would otherwise not be easily understood. In

Kantian terms, rhetoric is "the art of transacting a serious

business of the understanding as if it were a freeplay of

the imagination" (190). This definition occupies a tiny

spot in a spectrum that extends as far back as Plato and as

recently as A. J. Greimas. De Man proposes a contrary

position that could be summarized as saying that rhetoric--a

supposed end product of understanding--is actually the

creator of its supposed enabler (understanding). That is,

understanding exists in no other locus outside the

imaginative freeplay of rhetoric: a fact that ties

rhetoric's fate to that of understanding. Taking off from

this "elementary" basis that rhetoric as a name for

apprehending understanding is not a memorial to a

transcendental object, I suggest that while African post-

colonial literatures memorialize British imperialism, they

are neither its cadavers, nor mere representations of those

cadavers, but themselves acts of creating cadavers. That

is, rather than simply commemorating the departure of

British rule, African literature set in motion a series of

"proverbs" whose referents transcend colonialism.

In the second chapter, I examine how Yoruba people

conceive of art in general and how meaning functions within

such terms. In doing this, I synthesize the Yoruba-based

theories of Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the

nature of "African" art. I also contrast their views with

the Marxists' who regard Soyinka's and Gates's

essentializations as fetishizations of the past. Soyinka

appropriates certain motifs in Yoruba myths and rituals to

construct a theory of African art that he says unequivocally

resists mere historical and psychological reductions. Art,

in Soyinka's view, belongs to the realm of transition

between the three principal planes of existence--the living,

the dead, and the unborn. During transition, matter is

formless, and art, which celebrates this stage, cannot

function mimetically. Therefore, reducing art to emblems of

material struggles, for Soyinka, is a misguided effort.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on his part, mixes history and

myth to weave a theory of an African figure of

interpretation: signification (duplicity). From the Yoruba

pantheon, Gates' picks Esu, the master of multiple voices,

whose itinerary he traces from West Africa to the Americas.

In all its sojourns, Esu changes forms and takes on the

figures of Papa Labas, Jigue the Monkey, and the Signifying

Monkey. Gates affirms, as a form of homage to Esu's ability

to transform itself by freely adopting the speech materials

of diverse peoples, that intertextuality is an African

trope. I stake a position in the "essentialists-Marxists"

debate by favoring the "essentialists," but only to the

extent that we both share a concern that it is necessary

that "African" texts be read. Such reading I believe,

however, cannot guarantee the firmness of race- and epoch-

specific essentialization. Literature, as conceived in the

Yoruba language, is in one breath a gathering and a

dispersion that renders all essentializations suspect. The

proverb, I hint, is an emblem of this process.

The third chapter analyzes representative descriptions

of the proverb from classical times to the modern era. I

discover that, almost to the last person, the proverb is

characterized as a means by which simple people encode their

observations of life. From anthropologists to folklorists,

the proverb is regarded as a short and witty statement that

has no value beyond the ethnic observations it contains.

Most of the descriptions I analyze acknowledge the

rhetorical nature of the proverb but, like Kant (speaking

generally now), believe that the rhetorical part is largely

dispensable. For that reason, some scholars study the

proverb to fathom primitive thoughts and psychology, others

to understand social laws of days gone by. Still many

others study the proverb to understand the differences

between the so-called oral and literate cultures. I react

to these propositions with the thoughts implied by a German

proverb that says "a proverb never lies; it is only its

meaning that deceives." If a proverb has no particular

truth, I ask, why pursue it for truth-seeking ventures like

legal codes, ethno-psychology, etc.? I conclude by

borrowing Derrida's words to say that proverbs are like

writing in general and that they function like a mark.

In chapter four, I set out a literal translation of a

Yoruba meta-proverb, "proverb is words' horse; if words are

lost, proverb is what we use to search for them," to

counter-balance eight "idea-based" others. My comparison

reveals that the latter set of translations distort the

focus (word) of the saying in order to emphasize idea,

subject, and truth. I propose, instead, that the proverb,

as conceived in Yoruba language, is a name for the

materiality of expression. For support, I recall and

analyze an ethnographic narrative recorded by Rowland

Abiodun. I also employ the literal truth of another proverb

that says, "when the host begins to show the bottom of the

yam to the guest, that is a proverb of it is time to go

home." This proverb makes a statement, offers a meaning of

that statement, and labels it as another proverb. Toeing

the line drawn by the proverb, I submit that any meaning

ascribed to a proverb does not exist objectively beyond the

proverb. In subsequent sections of the chapter, I claim

that the proverb is a figure of speech first and foremost.

I also speculate that the proverb is the figure of

figuration in general because several other tropes--

metaphor, personification, allegory, irony, simile, etc.--

are certainly proverbial in the Yoruba language sense.

The fifth chapter applies the implications of the

previous chapter to Achebe's Arrow of God by arguing that

the novel dramatizes the irreconcilable differences that

always exist between text and context, and that contrary to

received wisdom, texts and contexts do not converge amicably


in the literary text. To demonstrate this point, I employ

the proverb "a messenger does not choose its message" to

show that in this novel, contrary to the proverb, messages

are made and unmade largely by messengers. I also contend

that this play of messengers involve animate--Akukalia,

Ezeulu, Oduche, etc.--as well as inanimate ones--Ezeulu's

eyes and the calendrical yams. I propose that while the

novel certainly revolves around the colonial encounter, it

also undoubtedly deals with the proverbial texture of such

encounters. In the all pervasive conflicts between text and

context, neither prevails.

Chapter six proposes the saying "all that we do today

is narrative tomorrow" to explain what I perceive as the

"aborted" mission of Ngugi's novel Devil on the Cross to

realistically propose an outside for itself. In this story,

every character has a dual existence: one is realistically

delineated and the other proposed as a reproduction of the

first. With the wits-dom of my reading proverb, I assert

that the novel does not achieve its aim because both

existences are narratives. Both stories are reconstituted

with certain recurring techniques that show that no

consciousness totally contains itself. The manner in which

the main characters construct their stories by borrowing

motifs and personae from lives that apparently belong to

others confirms my reading. In spite of its mentioning

historically identifiable personages, I maintain that the

fact of figuration, of the constitution of narratives,

irreparably damages any bridge the first-person narrators

erect to connect themselves and their stories.

Finally, in chapter seven, I describe how Osofisan's

Kolera Kolej cannot be reduced to a mere symbol of post-

colonial malaise in Africa. The chapter claims that non-

realistic tales are loyal first to the act of writing, the

act of signification, and cannot, simply because they do not

obey the laws of the phenomenal world, be reduced to mere

signifieds, either in the name of magical realism or of

fantastic realism. The "magic" in the novel, so to say, is

that it erects palpable barriers to the defiguralization of

devices we normally call irony, sarcasm, metaphor, and

proverb. In this novel, events that are normally termed

absurd proffer explanations why they are not so. In the

light of these features, I imply that symbolization or

defiguralization is itself another "magical" construct that

can only be understood if the prominence of signifiers is

totally disregarded. Here, my reading proverb is "when the

host begins to show the bottom of the yam to the guest, that

is a proverb of it is time to go home."

Why do I select these three stories for analyses? My

main motivation is that together they straddle three

critical options in African criticism. Arrow of God

fictionalizes an African community at the threshold of

colonial capture, Devil on the Cross allegorizes the

situation in Kenya two decades after independence, and

Kolera Kolej proverbializes the situation of a fictive

African country soon after independence. Besides the fact

that Achebe and Ngugi are paradigmatic writers in African,

nay, contemporary world literature in English, their

selected novels, along with Osofisan's tale, together

traverse several fictional modes: Achebe's is realistic,

Ngugi's is both realistic and allegorical, and Osofisan's is

blatantly anti-realistic. The diverse eras and modes

represented in the three novels permit me to explore a wide

range of options in demonstrating the potential of

proverbial apprehension of several rhetorical forms.


1. Easily, Chinweizu has become an icon of the
conservative nativists and Ngugi the champion of the radical
group. It is needless for me to say that this "African"
philosophy of art has some very close but often
unacknowledged cousins somewhere else. This philosophy has
definite affinities with "aesthetic ideology," to use
Christopher Norris's description, or what Derrida identifies
as the influence of logocentrism in western thought.

2. According to Chinweizu, for example, "the artist in the
traditional African millieu spoke for and to his community"



S. the material and formal basis of texts is
absolutely indifferent to what comes before it and
what follows it. It is irreducibly singular,
destitute of all possible relations. (Rodolphe
Gasche, "In-Difference to Philosophy" 281)


One of the main puzzles in becoming an academic

literary critic is the degree of re-petition and re-

searching, in the literal sense, encountered in every corner

of one's studies. One worries over why critics have not

invented new topics and refrained from re-discovering the

same topics all over. One is consoled, however, by the

assuring knowledge that if there was not a singularity of

purpose that draws together all the writers one reviews,

perhaps there would not have been the discipline that one is

trying to enlist in.1 With this self-justification at the

back of my mind, I begin this chapter by returning to a

philosopher who once succinctly defined rhetoric in words

and terms that have not changed considerably in over a

century. To further demonstrate the tenacity of this

definition, I will briefly contrast it with a modern

theorist's view.

It was Immanuel Kant who defined rhetoric as "the art

of transacting a serious business of the understanding as if

it were a free play of the imagination" and "poetry that of

conducting a free play of the imagination as if it were a

serious business of the understanding" (190). Sweeping

ashore all the debates that surround the fate of rhetoric,

language, and literariness, Kant makes it clear in a

nutshell that, even in their "natural" domains, rhetoric and

poetry are means of achieving things that they are not. In

the absence of rhetoric and poetry, one might say serious

business of understanding can be conducted seriously and

imaginative freeplay conducted freely and with imagination.

Imagination and understanding are two different forms of

knowledge each with an appropriate vehicle: freeplay and

seriousness respectively. Rhetoric and poetry, coming from

nowhere (perhaps as effects of imagination, or uncontrolled

understanding), pollinate the two domains by crossing their

modes of existence and apprehension. Rhetoric, in that

sense, evolves by borrowing freeplay and grafting it onto

seriousness in the business of understanding. Likewise,

poetry comes into being by lifting free play from

imagination and giving it to understanding.

Kant considers both rhetoric and poetry to be means of

persuasion and so carefully formulates his definition such

that, whereas the possibility exists of inferring that

imaginative free play used for understanding creates

rhetoric, the chance of claiming the inverse that

understanding can be used for conducting the affairs of

imaginative freeplay is denied. Nonetheless, the definition

itself suggests that we consider both poetry and rhetoric

beyond their psychologistic effects because in persuading

they create new subjects and different forms of knowledge.

Writing in a different era and using different

terminologies, Richard Ohmann surmises that literature and

rhetorical utterances are special varieties of language use

that function differently from the regular order of things.

According to Ohmann, literature is not abnormal in terms of

the linguistic structures it employs. He says, employing

Speech Act theory terminology, that identical locutionary--

"acts of speaking of one or another sentence"--and

perlocutionary--"acts performed by means of uttering the

sentence"--rules guide fictional and non-fictional modes of

utterance (50). In other words, literature does not invent

a new language in order to constitute its subject and

subjectivity. Ohmann, however, finds literature different

in one respect: in contradistinction to other utterances,

literature deviates from regular illocution--"acts performed

in speaking"--by its reticence in giving believable

directions. As he says, "literary works are discourses with

the usual illocutionary rules suspended" (53).2

Ohmann argues further that, when the reader encounters

a fictive utterance, a regular illocutionary act must be


presumed. That is, for cognition to take place, the reader

reverses the process by which the utterance is created. The

reader re-inserts the locution that has been suspended. In

Ohmann's words, readers "assume the felicity of the

hypothetical acts, and infer a world from the circumstances

required for this felicity" (55). In effect, reading

literature brings to consciousness the intuition that is

hidden in ordinary language acts. All the above come to

light in literary apprehension because certain media

circumstances against which ordinary speech is supposedly

immunized necessarily affect literary utterances.3

Ohmann separates the writer from the written' but does

not separate the spoken from the speaker. I think that in

ordinary speech as well, the speaker invites us to share

his/her illocutionary and perlocutionary goals by means of a

locution which, I have indicated, Ohmann says is not

different from the fictional. This is to say that the

speech is a surrogate of the speaker with an implied

narrator and, as the author of literature is not present

even in a live reading, so is the speaker not present in a

"live" speech. Working within a frame of mind that regards

poetry and rhetoric as media of understanding, Ohmann

suggests that literature appears to be without consequence

because the medium of writing has erected a barrier between

the maker and the consumer of utterances. Whenever this

barrier occurs, the literary disease spreads widely and

wildly. To substantiate his point, Ohmann cites a little

anecdote drawn from a television commercial.

A young woman's runaway grocery cart is rescued in
the parking lot by a man. She says, "Say, you're
George Kirby." He admits it, and goes on to
administer a brief encomium to Ivory liquid
dishwashing soap. (59)

Then follows, for me, the crucial commentary. "The

encounter is plainly fictional, but does George Kirby have

no responsibility for the things he says about Ivory?

Somewhere at this point, the art of television ad man meets

that of Borges, Barthelme, and Beckett coming from the other

direction" (59). Ohmann's comment, though cast in the form

of a doubt, suggests that illocutionary felicity (as

determined in speech acts) can be vitiated and corrupted

when stretched over extensive communication channels. On

the contrary, I believe that it is not this stretching that

turns reality into fiction, because even in the so-called

non-literate societies the fact of language does not allow

speakers to be "present" in their speeches--fictional or

ordinary. Regardless of the medium, the speaker has always

been part of the speaking (the syntax). As such,

illocutionary acts, as long as they are dependent on

language (or signs in general), are never truly "ordinary."

Therefore, blaming fictionality, under the guise of media

obfuscation, for the attenuation of a purportedly past

locutionary abundance begs the question and symbolizes a

refusal to understand fictionality, rhetoricity and


literature-ness as legitimate terms capable of belonging to

"ordinary" understanding.

If we compare Ohmann's description and Kant's

definition cited earlier, it will be very clear that Kant is

more sophisticated. Kant's definition suggests that both

rhetoric and poetry turn mode into subject. For him,

rhetoric and poetry are, ordinarily, processes of

apprehension. Yet in performing their assigned roles, they

become subjects worthy of philosophical investigations. If

we believe Kant, rhetoric results when understanding is

approached with imaginative jollity and poetry is the

outcome of free imagination done with deep sobriety. In

effect, rhetoric is poetic understanding, poetry is

rhetorical understanding, and understanding is poetic

rhetoricity. Drawn further, Kant's definition suggests that

whenever understanding is carried out with free play,

rhetoric is what we experience and not understanding, per

se, any more. In other words, the supposed end product

(rhetoric) is the creator of its supposed enabler

(understanding) in free play. In like manner, poetry could

be said to have resulted from the activity of an imaginative

freeplay approached with a mission to understand freeplay

itself. Poetry, then, is also a process. The main

difference between poetry and rhetoric arises from the

subjects they bring into the world apart from themselves.

Freeplay, which is a means in the domain of understanding,

becomes a subject in imagination, whereas serious business,

which is a means in imagination, transforms into a subject

in understanding. Poetry and rhetoric together shake the

subjectivity of imagination and understanding and establish

the possibility of their own subjectivity.

Kant and Ohmann raise two issues that I want to address

in greater detail in this chapter. Their works show that

the problems of literature-ness reside at the core of

signification in general (Ohmann) and the materiality of the

medium in particular (Kant). But instead of reducing the

literary problem to mere matters of medium, I want to use it

to open up the stomach of signification in general. So, in

the rest of this chapter I will talk about literary and

linguistic semiology by way of memories and difference. I

will then set out some specific components of literary

semiology and how they function in texts.


In contemporary criticism, semiology has proved to be a

handy tool in making fictionality a genuinely philosophical

course of study. By converting all forms of knowing into

varieties of signs, semiology, especially its linguistic

branch, removes literature from the realm of pleasure and

instruction that classical western thought, in pursuit of a

singular desire of having direct access to being, has

consigned it to. Unfortunately, linguistic-based semiology

inherits the legacy of the classical opposition of medium

and being. It elevates its own particular characteristics

into linguisticity--that is, that which makes language or

signification possible--and subjugates other signifying

forms--like literature--into variants of itself. By so

doing, linguistic semiologists extend the age-worn

classification of literature as a form of colloquial

semiology or, using a speech act term, everyday, though

special, illocution. Some contemporary literary critics

have reacted to this subordination and have interrogated the

opposition in terms of its origins. These critics contend

that linguistic semiology cannot be legitimately regarded as

the semiological basis of language in general and literary

semiology its derivative because language itself is only

another sign. They suggest that literature and language be

put on par and that semiology in general be made to retain

the status of the non-sentient, non-spiritual, and non-

corporeal foundation of both. In such studies and queries,

the dyadic configurations that have hitherto governed the

studies of both literature and language are reworked, and

semiology is defined from both the literary and linguistic

points of view.

In the modern movements towards a redefinition of the

sign in literary terms, Paul de Man occupies a front-line

position. He repeatedly asks questions about the linguistic

origins of literature and often re-examines the (in)adequacy

of literary language in the service of literary thematics.


In the course of these interrogations, de Man frequently

finds faults in works that present literature as an aspect

of language use that removes pain from cognition. From his

corpus, I have selected the article "Sign and Symbol in

Hegel's Aesthetics" to elucidate his reassessment of the

usually assumed compatibility of literature-ness and

linguisticity. The article deals with almost every major

issue that has been the concern of literary criticism over

time: temporality, symbolism, literariness, and a host of

other matters. The essay is also important in one other

respect: it rejects criticisms that cite parts of Hegel's

Aesthetics as their basis for conceiving of literature as

symbols of non-literary entities.

According to de Man, tradition dictates that a symbol

mediates the interaction of a sentient mind and the concrete

world. A symbol performs this role because it occupies a

unique position that allows it to straddle the mind and its

object of cognition. De Man quotes Hegel: the symbol is "a

perception whose own determination [meaning] more or less

corresponds, essentially and conceptually, to the content it

expresses as a symbol" (766). If this were all Hegel said

about the essence of artistic representation, de Man

believes no question would be raised. But, he says, Hegel

is also the one who wrote that "art is a thing of the past."

How can art, de Man asks, be a thing of the past if its

paradigm, the symbol, shares the same moments with its

referents? That is to say, how can art belong to the past

if it is a symbol of the palpably present?

De Man suggests a solution to this impasse by going

back to the Encyclopedia where Hegel deals with the

relationship that obtains between the subjective mind, the

physical world, and the operation of signifying and symbolic

forms. Therein, Hegel separates the thinking subject from

the perceiving subject and subordinates the latter to the

former because thought, like a sign, ingests the world into

its own system that is organized differently (in accordance

with abstract logic) from the physical world.5 Thought

orders intellectual observations mainly by means of

language. It does not arrange the disparate phenomena it

encounters according to self-evident schemas but in

accordance with other second-order abstractions and

generalizations. Language responds to facts ordered

according to the rules of these second-order allingments and

not mere sensory apprehensions. Hence, de Man quotes Hegel

again, "'we cannot say anything in language that is not

general'" (768).

Hegel gives abstraction a very high intellectual regard

because of its objective distance from the raw data it

organizes, but the rating is already compromised, de Man

says, by its heavy reliance on language. If we cannot use

language (a system of arbitrary signs) without expressing

things that are un-linguistic (even if and when these things


are generalizations), it is a foregone conclusion that every

language use destroys its autonomy and its signifying power.

Building on the possible discreteness between the

semantic and syntactic function of the pronoun "I," de Man

further complicates the question of the relationship between

conceptual observations and language. He cites Hegel again:

"'when I say "I," I mean myself as this at the exclusion of

all others, but what I say, I, is precisely anyone; any I,

as that which excludes all others from itself'" (769). For

a particular subject to be this "I," such entity must be

distinguishable from all other "Is," because the word "I"

belongs to a class of pronoun that has nothing to do with a

meaning or an individual. This sense of "I" cancels out the

possibility of an "I" coming into being. For a particular

"I" to be indicatable, it has first to disappear, i.e., be a

member of a class that is not the same as the individual or

the sum total of all the individual "Is" constituting it.

In the strictly philosophically logical sense, then, saying

(meaning) "I" will be an impossibility though one utters it.

In de Man's words,

S. the I, on its freedom from sensory
determination [thoughtful, general, abstract, and
logically coherent], is originally similar to the
sign [i.e., arbitrary, autonomous, and coercive].
Since, however, it states itself as what it is
not, it represents a determined relationship to
the world that is in fact arbitrary, that is to
say, it states itself as a symbol. (770)

Once an "I" is uttered, a deictic sense accompanies it,

i.e., this meaning. That is, the general and abstractive

logic of syntax is necessarily subjected to the demands of

particulars. One could say, speaking figuratively, an

essential symbolic undercurrent castrates the sign. "To the

extent that the I points to itself, it is a sign, but to the

extent that it speaks of anything but itself, it is a

symbol" (770), so writes de Man. Since deictic marking must

accompany every sign, symbols, contrary to received wisdom,

cannot be the uncontested reconciliation sites of

observation and utterance. Symbols, then, legitimately

belong to both.

In order to justify the interpretation summarized here,

de Man attempts an explanation of how perception and

representation relate to one another. Reflection occurs

after there has been a necessary movement of the mind's

sensory apparatus from perception through a memorization:

the icon-free--though "not devoid of materiality altogether"

(772)--process by which the mind re-marks observations. In

a sense, thought can be characterized as the creation of

names (inscription) that memorialize sensory stimulations.

Strangely enough, the names and inscriptions do not preserve

the body of thought because "memo-making" does not entail

the use of wax-like images. As such, the mementoes, so to

say, are not logically connected to the form of the process

that leads to their creation. Were this so, the mementoes

would simply be forms of nostalgic remembrance. The upshot

of all these arguments is that "the faculty that enables

thought to exist also makes its preservation impossible"

(773). In other words, the meaning of a name does not

coincide with that of its bearer.' While inscriptions are

the material forms of thought, they are not thought.

De Man links memories, memorization, and

memorialization to semiology by saying that "in

memorization, in thought and, by extension, in the sensory

manifestation of thought as an 'art' of writing, we are

dealing only with signs" (773). On one hand, signs must not

be forms of remembrance whereas, on the other hand, the

scourge of remembrance afflicts memorialization, because all

mementoes possess certain values assigned to them

mechanically, or systematically, within the sphere of

thought. Once these values are allotted, even if they do

not signify any more than the name of the sign, this

association of name and value makes the sign symbolic, in

the classical sense of name and form. In light of all these

explanations, de Man says:

to the extent that the paradigm of art is thought
rather than perception, the sign rather than the
symbol, writing rather than painting or music, it
will also be memorization rather than
recollection. As such it belongs indeed to a past
which could never be recaptured, retrouve.

Literature, like all art forms, like all signs, belongs to

the past as Hegel said. Operating like memorization, they

forget experience. Nonetheless, thought, sign, gram,

literature, and memorization in general, take on

perceivable, symbolic, and recollective forms that are not

the cadavers of old existence but assigned values in the

group of mementoes. Memorization, expressed another way,

erects a permanent barrier in the path of recovery for

remembrance. In other words, memorization allegorizes the

impossibility of joining the subject and its predicates or

of equating the value of a sign with that of its symbols.

Jacques Derrida is one other contemporary theorist who

emphasizes the necessity of shifting attention from the sign

as a fully abundant representation to the understanding of

the disruptive capabilities of the materiality of the sign.

Thus, as de Man tries to put asunder all the traditional

interpretations of Hegel on sign and symbol as the

codificaton of a foregone plenitude, Derrida, in an

analogous manner, employs difference to query the

traditional philosophical status of being. While de Man

approaches art from the sign-angle, Derrida opens up the

significance and signification of being with the neo-semeia

he calls difference.7 By combining difference and

deferment, Derrida, in one stroke, joins together several

philosophical questions such as temporality, spatiality, and

being itself.' He describes difference as "the movement

according to which language, or any code, any system of

referral in general, is constituted 'historically' as a

weave of differences" (Margins 12). Difference does not

constitute itself outside of differentiation and deferring.


That is to say, it has no value prior to the differences it

establishes. It "is the non-full, non-simple, structured

and differentiating origin of differences" (11).

How does memorization resemble difference? First,

difference seeks to establish that signs are not

aesthetically set up on the goodwill and patronage of a

presence or a perception that they might signify. Instead,

it indicates that an archaeological digging up of the sign

will not yield a pristine reappropriation of a deferred

presence, just as the moment of apprehension and or

constitution cannot be reified and kept away beyond the

reach of differences. As Derrida puts it, "the alterity of

the unconscious makes us concerned not with horizons of

modified--past or future--presents, but with a 'past' that

has never been present, and which never will be "

(21). As signs can never be except as they are symbolized,

and symbols can not exist except by the grace of their

antithesis, the sign, so is it that signification cannot

exist except by differentiation (which, in one sense, means

that it cannot be). In the operations of difference (and

memorization), objectivity exists in its medium and equally

owes a good part of its destiny to the medium.


Literature departments have for too long accepted the

findings of their linguistic and psychology counterparts too

readily, and most literary critics do not question the given


fact that literary texts are signifying forms that dramatize

human behaviors in the fictive mode. That is why strong

ripples are made when contemporary thinkers like Derrida and

de Man--and similar thinkers usually lumped together as

post-structuralists--contest such time-wearied claims. Such

ripples become too noticeable when it is asserted that

language (and by implication, linguistics) has no "natural"

characteristic that makes it superior to other signifying

forms, especially literature.

Consequently, instead of employing literature's lack of

"worldly" content to determine its relative worthlessness,

contemporary literary theorists use this particular

yardstick to assess the relative truth of the claims of

language. They accept that no other discourse form is as

baseless and incapable of giving ethically followable

directions in material life. However, this referential

distrust ties literature to language in general and vice-

versa. Hence, critical theorists argue, literature, just

like language, possesses some thick sedimentations that

cannot be bored through by the environment that creates and

consumes it. Relying on the Saussurean principles of

arbitrariness and identification based on no positive terms,

they further claim that literature is the truest

semiological form. Literature receives this acclaim because

it announces, unabashedly, the absolute formality of all


After exploring the boundaries that join and separate

language and literature, post-structuralists call for a

detailed study of the literary dimensions of linguisticity

to thereby complement the stylistician's study of linguistic

dimensions of literature. Fully assuming that nothing

exists outside language (after equating language and

literature), some of these theorists affirm that nothing

exists outside literature.'" Many others stake claims that

vary between saying that language is literature-like,

literature is being-like, and being is literature-like.11

As a result, markers of literariness that have hitherto been

the concerns of only literary critics now serve as entry

points by which philosophers, and literary critics alike,

ponder philosophical issues about philosophy itself. These

developments pilot my discussion of the issues that have

dominated the redefinition of literature. I will, in the

rest of this chapter, specifically examine fictionality vis-

a-vis its limitations in reality, rhetoricity and the

reliability of literary utterances, literality and the truth

of literary figures of speech, historicity and literature.

Traditional criticisms create elaborate theories to

explain the humanistic values of literature and to

rationalize literary texts as top skins beneath which rest

profound thoughts that need to be unearthed. In search of

thematic preoccupations, critics set up dyadic models like

form and content, text and politics, modernity and history.

They also quickly dismiss the first term of each of these

dyads as the expendable part of literary interpretation

because it is believed they are ephemeral. Furthermore,

each of the second terms is regarded as the motivator of the

first. Thus, form is a construct whose place is determined

by the intended effects of content, modernity is pre-

ordained by history, and textuality functions according to

the powers of political determinations.

When literature is construed as signs, criticism stops

being apologetic about its object because in such an

environment all literary elements become variable

differentials. Form, for instance, would not be deemed a

graspable entity that subsumes transformed contextual

elements but a value created in the interaction of the

elements called contents that are, on their own, also values

created in different contexts. Form, then, ceases to be

content-adequate or context-specific ways of speaking. In

like manner, the author's psyche and/or historical

circumstances, while still important to the overall meaning,

are not regarded as foundational. The one great implication

these shifts have for literary understanding is that both

form and content are construed as signs and neither is

regarded as necessarily truer than the other. Consequently,

the tradition that sets up fictionality in negative terms so

as to ethicalize content as true and desirable becomes

untenable. Let us now examine fictionality from this


Reality frequently serves as the foil against which

fiction is deciphered. In such critical enterprises,

reality and content are equated with the referent

literalityy), and the material work thought of as

figuration. One other common manifestation of this

opposition is the transfiguration of the literal referent as

sublimation of political experiences. In Readings' words,

such conceptualization "performs the analysis of literary

form solely in terms of its becoming-literal in the sphere

of the political" (226). Hence, from Plato to Plekhanov,

literature and criticism are often ethicalized on the basis

of the closeness they ascribe to politics as the ultimate

referent: "a referent that is conceived literally as

something exterior to the text" (Readings 226). Politics

(the literal referent) and text (figurality) have enjoyed a

long history of hierarchized opposition mainly because

politics, often proposed as the higher of the two terms,

have always been explained from a standpoint that is neither

figural nor textual. This tilted argument can be balanced

if we query the ethics of a position that claims extra-

textual meaning or pre-literary autonomous existence (if

there is any) takes on a meaning in the text without

conceding to the text that it perhaps has some properties

with which it configures extra-literary items into its


If Readings were right, it is only in linguistics that

ex-linguistic literality (meaningfulness) has any value at

all. Literality is literal only to the extent that language

functions by differentiating ex-linguistic referencing and

linguistic referencing, and also by making what is generally

called ex-linguistic reference linguistic. In that wise,

pre-linguistic existence cannot be grasped or understood

until it is linguisticized, and once this is done it is no

more ex-linguistic. Paradoxically, the idea of linguistics

exists only by virtue of the fact that it could ingest the

extra-linguistic, i.e., it can refer to other things beside

itself. If this were not so, linguisticity itself would

simply be another naturally existing self-referencing entity

and thus ex-linguistic. Coming down to literary discourse,

we see that literality and politics are erroneously

conceived in as much as they are taken to be present to

themselves. But, as soon as we accept that they are not,

literality, among other things, becomes a function of

fictionality and politics that of textuality. In such

circumstances, distinguishing between the figural and the

literal dimensions of a text will not be restricted to the

order of literal meaning alone. As pre-linguistic meaning

functions as a linguistic device so will literality be a

rhetorical gesture and politics a textual gesture.

To refer to Readings again, literality, meaning, and

referents are all rhetoric's tropes of the absence of

"rhetoric" that in itself is fictional. It then becomes

apparent, he argues, that materialist views of the political

as pre-textual are imprecise and can at worst be a ruse for

legitimizing (rather than its proclaimed aim of ending)

political domination. If it is true, Reading further says,

that politics is absolutely extra-textual and therefore

real, then what is real will be absolutely inconceivable

because, as noted above, the ex-linguistic literal space is

a linguistic device. In Readings' words, "the operation of

domination is in defining the political [which is a text of

representations], so that power appears to operate in a

political vacuum (that is, in no place, nowhere), a vacuum

guaranteed by the notion of representation as transparency"

(230).12 These arguments, to my mind, demonstrate that

politics and fiction are forms of texts and are so

intricately interwoven that one cannot be honestly placed

above the other. Fiction, viewed from that angle, is then

not a mere cask of political distillates but also a basis of

which casks are made. Both the cask and the distillate are

descriptive values, and either of them can attain a

prescriptive status. "Everything will be the same but

different" (236), says Readings, and the real (including the

material signifier) will not be a strong enough alibi for

refusing to assess the importance of the unseen.

I now want to shift focus to another prime marker of

literariness: rhetoric. As evidenced in Kant's definition

earlier cited, rhetoric is traditionally studied either as

the effects certain word-patterning can produce in a

particular audience, or as the catalog of figures of speech

by which such effects can be achieved. These traditional

pursuits, to quote de Man, are inspired by a "highly

respectable moral imperative that strives to reconcile the

internal, formal, private structures of literary language

with their external, referential, and public effects"

(Allegories 3). The said imperative, of course, derives

from the philosophy of the useful form that theorizes that

all forms exist for the sake of certain contents even if

they are still unknown. Consequently, what could be

summarily called grammatical structures are yoked onto

rhetorical possibilities and rhetoric reduced to mere

signifieds of grammar. Without first verifying that

rhetoricity is compatible with grammaticality, like IBM and

its clones, rhetoric is joined to syntax.

De Man leads the critical movement that, by refusing to

consider rhetoric as persuasion, challenges the purposivity

of rhetoric and subsequently presents it as a fundamental

means of understanding the literary dimensions of language.

Rhetoric is one literary factor, according to de Man, that,

strictly speaking, is not linguistic in the narrow sense.

In order to highlight the non-logical (non-linguistic)

aspects of rhetoric, de Man puts rhetorical questions to

grammar and grammatical questions to rhetoric, and he

concludes that rhetoric and grammar, regardless of

tradition, do not mutually support each other.13 In

studies like de Man's, rhetoric is neither treated as

presentation procedures of speech acts, nor as the effects

such acts produce, but as an important key to understanding

signification. Rhetoric, like fiction, compounds identities

and as such "radically suspends logic and opens up

vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration"

(Allegories 10). De Man finds it easy to propose a single

ensign for rhetoric and literature because both are

philosophical categories whose being, at least in Western

thought, rests on not being motivated by a causative truth.

Since literature is the use of language that flaunts

the separation between usage and possible reference, and

language is ostensibly the ultimate sign, it may not be too

far from the truth to assert that literature is the

paragonal use of language. Furthermore, if what defines

literature's ability to be paragonal is the fact of its

rhetoricity, i.e., its ability to constitute its existence

in a system of tropes where all elements can take up

different functions and values with no center of value

assignation beyond the names given the tropes, linguisticity

may in turn be seen as composed of tropes. Put another way,

rhetorical understanding, from the theoretical perspective,

is the affirmation of the capabilities of signs to refer

without an ultimately identifiable positive referent.

De Man also proposes a different way of examining the

psychological perspective of rhetoric (and by extension

literature and language) by comparing two aspects of

classical Greek education: the trivium (rhetoric, grammar,

and logic) and the quadrivium (geometry or the study of

space; astronomy or the study of motion; arithmetic, that of

numbers; and music, that of time). As the quadrivium

describes the world, so does the trivium describe language

(or how to express the discoveries of the quadrivium).

Logic (substitute syntax), because it shares mathematical

rigor with the quadrivium, joins the form of expression to

the tools of observation. Thus, logic is modeled as the

articulation of a linguistic conceptualization that

demonstrates that syntax (or the logical in language) is the

litmus test of all referencing. Therefore, for many

grammarians and logicians--from Aristotle to Greimas--"the

grammatical and the logical functions of language are co-

extensive" (Resistance 14), and grammar an "isotope of

logic." According to de Man, if literary theory or

semiology in general continues to seek its justification in

grammar, it will continue to anchor the justification for

the existence of literature outside literary

signification."1 In order to set literature on a

semiological track, de Man suggests that literary theory


should break the cycle of logic and grammar by foregrounding

rhetoric. He says that the need for rhetoric to be made a

prime factor in discussing the trivium (or linguisticity) is

made more poignant by the fact that, while logic and grammar

are fully meaningful only in the light of the real world,

rhetoric has confined itself to language alone.

Before I discuss how literary understanding takes place

in the environment I have been drawing up, I want to discuss

one of the tropes from which rhetoricity, fictionality, and

even semiology derive. By so doing, I want to point out

that figurality, parodying the old definition of an atom, is

the smallest indivisible part of a literary sign.

Figures and tropes are the primary modules of rhetoric.

They are the disablers of logical and metaphysical

totalizations. Figures are the means by which fiction

coerces ex-fiction reality into a signifying form. They

constitute the primary modules of transformation by which

"literal" signs become literary signs. If fictionality is

analogous to signification and figurality the bedrock of

fictionality, I concur that figurality may be the basis of

signification itself."

It is with such temperament that de Man declares in

"The Epistemology of Metaphor" that "all philosophy is

condemned, to the extent that it is dependent upon

figuration to be literary and, as the depository of this

very problem, all literature is to some extent

philosophical" (28).1" So, when Condillac says

abstractions come into being when the mind ceases "to think

. of the properties by which things are distinguished in

order to think only of those in which they agree with

each other" (qtd. in "Epistemology" 20), De Man interprets

him to be saying that the structure of abstraction is

nothing more than the metaphorical process.

Given the vastness of titles in the bibliography, one

would almost assume automatically that students of metaphor

share a consensus on metaphoric value. Unfortunatley, that

is not the case. While some say that metaphors convey

knowledge about metaphoricity and signification in general,

others say they are transformations of the truth of simile.

The two schools argue in the courts of positivity wherein

metaphor's fate is determined by the yardstick of

truthfulness. So, when one says patent negativity is false,

the other says it is a truth about positivity itself." It

seems as if the scourge of literal meaning afflicts all

efforts directed at making figuration (exemplified by

metaphor) assert an epistemological worthiness.

In traditional terms, the name a metaphor asserts (the

apparent meaning) does not correspond to its nature (literal

meaning). In the same tradition, similes assert names that

are true both figuratively and literally. All similes,

therefore, are said to be literally true and all metaphors

literally false. What puzzles me, however, is why we do not

always state the corollary that all metaphors are

figuratively true and all similes figuratively false. That

is to say, that we need to maintain a consistency in

defining the categories of truthfulness. Once we do this,

it immediately becomes inappropriate to oppose literal and

figurative, or metaphor and simile, under the rubric of


Both simile and metaphor are, in literal terms,

figurative. At the figurative level however, especially

when a distortion of a discoverable "ordinary" meaning is

the main criterion of belonging, simile cannot be properly

figurative. At the grammatical level as well, metaphor is

certainly neither the figuration of a simile nor of a

literality. Remembering that meaning and saying are not

positively delimitable, one may say that metaphors simply

mean what they say. For example, it would be traditionally

correct to say that the statement "Folasadd is like a zebra"

is meaningful and "Foldsadd is a zebra" is not because both

"meanings," "FolAsad&" and "zebra," belong to entirely

dissimilar beings. It is very wrong, however, as

traditional interpretation claims, that "Folasade is a

zebra" is the same thing as saying "Folasade is like a

zebra." More appropriate would be the idea that "Folasade

is a zebra" means she is one in several respects.'1

What I am saying here is akin to Derrida's criticism of

Aristotle's insistence on the imperialism of names and

being. Derrida says that Aristotle, differentiating human

language from animal sounds because one produces meaning and

the other does not, neglects the fact that even in human

language there are whole words made up of meaningful letters

but bereft of meaning that can be called theirs: e.g.,

syllables, conjunctions, articles, and in fact, articulation

itself. These classes, along with "everything that

functions between signifying members, between nouns,

substantives, or verbs" (Margins 241), are simply neglected

in the Aristotlean insight, and when considered they are

assessed by the degree to which they help meaning and names

come into being. In like manner, FolAsad6's zebra-icity is

reduced to the animal itself without due regard paid to what

puts the zebra in place. One major consequence of

reasserting the existence of intermediaries is that we shall

be forced to grant an important place to figuration in

literary understanding: when a poet calls on his readers to

"grab a falling star," we know that stars do not necessarily

reside in the sky and grabbing does not necessarily require

a hand with five fingers.


So far, I have attempted to delimit the confines of

literary understanding to signification, fictionalization,

and figuration. I have also implied along the way that

literary understanding necessarily calls for understanding

literarily, that is, the two names--understanding and


literature--must cross each other's paths at all times. In

other words, the epistemology and ontology of the sign, of

fiction, and of figure must involve the signification, the

fictionalization, and figuration of epistemology and

ontology. Hence, we cannot talk of literary understanding

or understanding literarily without discussing the total

picture (pretending this can be gotten) that this mixing

creates. For that reason, I want to devote this section to

sketching the operations of literary understanding in time

and space. In particular, I want to look briefly at

rhetoric in history and history in rhetoric.

In the discussion that followed Derrida's paper,

"Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human

Sciences," at the now anecdotal 1966 Johns Hopkins symposium

on structuralism, Charles Moraze remarked that,

concerning the dialogue of the past twenty years
with Levi-Strauss on the possibility of a grammar
other than that of language--I have a great
admiration for what Levi-Strauss has done in the
order of a grammar of mythologies. I would like
to point out that there is also a grammar of the
event--that one can make a grammar of the event.
It is more difficult to establish. I think that
in the coming months, in the coming years, we will
begin to learn how this grammar or rather this set
of grammar of events can be constituted. (269)

Many critical thinkers would agree with Moraze, though only

a few would want to put it so bluntly. More important for

my purpose here, however, is the fact that the tenor of

Moraze's remarks is reproduced at the core of the critical

debates on the relevance of rhetoric-centered theories of

literature to history.

According to one view, a true foregrounding of rhetoric

begins only when concepts are turned inside out to make them

show their absolute other that, like the silent difference

between two phonemes, is irreducibly non-phenomenal and

structured. In practice, therefore, literary critics merely

demonstrate the textuality of discourse without accounting

for discursivity or textuality. Such efforts are effete

because they merely make the literary text reflect back onto

itself. In order to get out of that trap, fictionality,

rhetoricity, and figurality (as defining elements of

literature) must be opposed to the non-literary phenomena

against which and in conjunction with which they come into


Certainly, rhetoric destabilizes grammatical univocity

and thematic coherence with the logical powers of

figuration, but in order that a rhetorical reading not turn

itself into another meta-totality, Rodolphe Gasche says it

should [re]deconstruct the totalizing effects of the

rhetorical dimension of a text" ("'Setzung'" 44). In such

exercise, "a literary text [is] always both thematic and the

simultaneous deconstruction of that thematism" (44), because

both syntax and theme memorize and memorialize one another.

In other words, rhetorical reading demonstrates how the

rhetorical and syntactical structures of an utterance


subvert instead of simply confirm the text's reference. In

order to prevent the subversion from becoming a stable

reference, it is resubverted. Resulting from this series of

subversions is an endless interrogation of epistemological

calmness. The most appropriate name for this interminable

subversion, according to de Man, is allegory, or more

appropriately, allegoresis. In allegoresis

the relationship between the sign and its meaning
(signified) is not decreed by dogma; we have,
instead, a relationship between signs in which
reference to their respective meanings has become
of secondary importance. But this relationship
between signs necessarily contains a constitutive
temporal element; it remains necessary, if there
is to be allegory, that the allegory refer to
another sign that precedes it. The meaning
constituted by the allegorical sign can then
consist only in the repetition of a previous
sign to be pure anteriority. (Blindness 207)

For several reasons, allegoresis supplants metaphoricity in

literary apprehension. Prominent among these factors is the

ability of allegory to reconstitute the destiny and

destination of the sign each time it is used. Allegoresis

respects the boundaries that separate and join meaning,

structure, and usage. It does not seek to obliterate the

identity of other sign(s)--generally called its meaning--

because allegoresis is, by definition, formed as a

reiteration of an equally palpable anterior sign. To use

Gasche's words again, allegoresis reiterates the permanent

cleavage that separates "successive and repetitive moments"

("'Setzung'" 49) in the constitution of its signification

process. Furthermore, allegoresis, through its necessary


gesture of reaching outside of itself, demonstrates that no

full self exists, and self-reflexivity thus manifestly wrong

(Blindness 207).

Many critics are not persuaded by the promise of

allegoresis especially because it deemphasizes the

importance of historical input to rhetorical formations to

an uncomfortable level. One such critic is Suzanne Gearhart

who, relying on the authority of Derrida's difference,

claims that historicity must be a prime factor in all

reading strategies that begin from the text. She says in

"Philosophy Before Literature" that "if considerations

related to 'context' always limit and relativize the

privilege of certain times, they also preclude other terms

from being efficacious or strategically appropriate ."

(71). In that wise, because allegoresis widens the gap

between successive and co-present moments in a text, it

cannot serve as an adequate reading tool. To become

effective, allegoresis must join these successive and

contemporaneous elements. Since it is incapable of doing

that, allegoresis, willing or not, absolutizes literature

and gives it a monopoly of the self-knowledge of self-


Gearhart specifically accuses de Man of repeatedly

defining "literature and literary language in opposition to

a natural or phenomenal world" (72). Whenever he discusses

history, Gearhart continues, it is put to literary questions


under the assumption that literature is able to ask history

many questions that history cannot ask itself. These

questions are illegitimate because, as Gearhart insists, the

basis of historicity in Derrida is the unrepeatable

characteristic stamp of an age or era.

Nonetheless, it ought to be mentioned that if, as

Gearhart herself admits, the circumstances of an utterance

cannot fully explain its strategic importance, then she

agrees with de Man that "the hermeneutics of experience and

the hermeneutics of reading [which is a necessary companion

to writing] are not necessarily compatible" (Resistance 62).

Allegoresis, by insisting that historicity is the

imposition of un-historical metaphysically determined schema

on the unfolding of events and time, lays to rest the

misconception that historicity is synonymous with

temporality. Since historiography cannot stand on its own

because it too is an effect of a substitutive play, it is

implicated in a chain of other terms like philosophy,

translation, and criticism that are all derivations of

antecedent discourses. Thus, philosophy derives from

perception, criticism from literature, and history from

events. But quite unlike the way Gearhart will desire it to

be, these "derivations," remarkably enough, do not resemble

or imitate what could be roughly called their predecessors.

The discourses occur mutually exclusively of one another

while they are also mutually interdependent. Philosophy,

for example, arises from perception but lies outside it

because philosophy exists to interrogate "the truth of

perception" (Resistance 83). In like manner, history might

arise from subject-dependent events but is not actually

subjected to them because history is a structure of

narration or of apprehension of these events. Were this not

so, history would simply be the name of events, which, I

believe, it is not. At any rate, names live much longer

than their bearers in the same manner that history survives

events." Since history, like allegoresis, is not itself

stable, it cannot stabilize the apprehension (or reading) of

other differential items.

Without doubt, events, culture, and epochal variables,

like the letters in a word, in historical discourse take on

culturally acceptable meaning only in history. But, since

we can neither have history without events, nor have events

without history, history has no ground for claiming to be

the sole determinant of all things.20

A grammar of history is possible, but that of events, I

am not sure about. Marxism, to date, constitutes the

boldest attempt to draw up such a grammar, and it appears

events are betraying such constructs. Fully conscious of

the risks of absurd reductionism, I want to equate

historicity with culture and eventuality with nature. The

latter terms in the opposition are apprehended only on the

signification processes of the former. The former set of

terms signifies the materiality of the letter (or of the

signifier) and thematizes the lack of fullness of the latter

set. Crass historicism is a variant of the worship of names

as fully representing being, and modern critical theory has

shown that the existence of a name signifies the existence

of a lack.2

As such, instead of subsuming literature and philosophy

under history, they all need to be bracketed into the same

category and assigned identical values because they are all

implicated in signification. All three thrive on the

ability to make pronouncements about everything in the world

and, as I have said repeatedly, only constituted signs can

do that. And literature being the only sign-form that

formally announces that fact, we can also say that de Man is

right, to a large extent, for asserting that literature is

the signifier par excellence. In his words,

the divergence between grammar historicityy] and
referential meaning [events] is what we call the
figural [literary] dimension of language
[signification]. We call text any entity
that can be considered from such a double
perspective; as a generative open-ended, non-
referential grammatical system and as a figural
system closed off by a transcendental
signification that subverts the grammatical code
to which the text owes its existence. .
(Allegories 270)22

In the light of the foregoing, how do we read

literature? One method that foregrounds all these issues is

what I call literary semiology. To effect such a reading,

the critic concentrates first on the thematic aspects of the


text. This is the cognitive phenomenal phase. Second, the

critic proceeds to describe its non-representational (or

material) dimensions. At the next stage, the critic

demonstrates the incongruity between the revelations of the

first two stages. The third move is necessary in order to

demonstrate the asymmetrical nature of cognition and

representation. This last stage is crucial because a truly

"semiological" reading must show that every text is, so to

say, a reenactment of the arbitrariness that "literary"

signification emblematizes.23

For a student of African or, to generalize, what is

usually called Third World Literature, a little

justification may be necessary before the analyses done

above could be articulated with a body of cultural

expressions that deal with the colonial burden. The case is

further worsened by the fact that the said colonial yoke was

imposed by a hegemony to which the writers herein analyzed

belong. A politically--speaking traditionally--aware "third

world" critic who articulates issues raised above with the

discussions of African literature risks, to borrow an Achebe

idiom, being identified with the proverbial irresponsible

man who chases rodents while his entire barn is on fire.

While I fully recognize the rationale for such objections, I

adopt this reading strategy not as the proverbial hungry dog

who, in order to cover up its abject poverty, seeks the

company of well-fed Alsatians but as someone making two

cultures, in the least, speak to each other. The views I

sketch above make no pretensions to universal applications,

and I adopt them because they address questions concerning

language, literature, and the apprehension of reality as

represented in fiction. Incidentally, these are three of

the great problems that African writers and critics have

been grappling with for a very long time. It is worth

remarking that African critics (quite like the writers

discussed above) have not found one single solution to these


Without belaboring the point further, all that I have

done in this chapter talks to the issues of function and

form in African critical discourse. The matters discussed

here are also designed to serve as entry points into the

then non-orthodox (in African critical circles) insights of

Wole Soyinka, and the now not-so-unorthodox view of Henry

Louis Gates. Most importantly, the questions addressed here

directly converse with my discussions of the proverb as a

trope in subsequent chapters. In the following chapters, I

employ the proverb to probe further into matters relating to

rhetoricity, figurality, and literality. As I continue, I

ask myself, what better tools are appropriate for discussing

a literature that memorializes colonialism but whose

"structures of feeling" are said to be "post-colonial?""


1. This consolation, if not rationalization, lifts the
specter of skepticism that one feels when one reads a
statement that says "a critic is one who leaves no turn
unstoned." The deep skepticism underlying this statement
always haunted me as a student at the Obafemi Awolowo
University in Nigeria whenever I went to Dr. Wole Ogundele's
office. Dr. Ogundele, our poetry--dreaded subject--
professor, decorated his office with statements that mock
literary criticism. The above sticks in my brain the

2. One hardly needs any pyrotechnics to show that, like
Kant, Ohmann, writing under the auspices of Speech Act
Theory, implies that understanding, which we can substitute
for illocution, never takes place in literature. He chooses
for illustration a line from John Donne: "Go and catch a
falling star," and surmises that, although the line is an
imperative sentence, it contains no illocutionarily
believable directive; for that reason the regular commanding
force that such sentences enforce is suspended. Since this
observation contradicts regular linguistic explanations, and
statements like this abound in culture and are consumed at
phenomenal rates, Ohmann shifts his discussion into
explaining how rational human beings apprehend such
locutions. He says, "as we participate in ordinary speech
we use what we know of the speaker and of the circumstance
to assess the felicity of the speech acts" (55). Since this
process is not ordinarily possible in literary utterances,
and since literature is an utterance and must naturally be
susceptible to apprehension and understanding, it goes
without saying that the reader and the writer must devise
irregular means of comprehension that would bring these
aberrant utterances to conform with illocutionary rules.

3. Prominent among these situations is the permanent
cleavage that separates the poetic persona and the poet. To
cite Ohmann again, "only the poet or the performer," even in
live performances, ". is supposedly responsible for the
speech acts" (56).

4. He goes as far as asserting, ". the saying of the
story is itself part of the story" (54). The question then
arises, "why is the speaking of a regular illocution not
itself part of the speaking?" Nothing that Ohmann says
indicates this cannot be so and, in fact, if this were so,
literature will erase definitive boundaries and the so-
called ordinary illocution will show itself as being no less
fictional than literature. Admitting such would have
contradicted the tradition that states that the presence of

a biological speaker guarantees the existence of whatever
such person speaks.

Ohmann sometimes acknowledges the influence of this
tradition on his work. He says, for example, that
literature belongs to the category of the substantially
inconsequential even though the author may indirectly give
us access into his "wishes and fears" through his surrogate.
But so as not to be seen as somebody who regards literature
as escapist and therefore worthless, he says that "reading
literature is a form of play and the fictional worlds
we construct in this game constitute a judgment on our own
real world" (56). This citation, so full of un-suspended
illocution, surreptitiously undermines its author's
arguments. Here, Ohmann fully deploys what in his own
description will be called literary activity--
metaphorization--to say things that are not literary. Since
it is not possible for judgment to work (just like a reader
does not catch a falling star), do we then suspend our
regular "illocutionary" sense before we can understand this

5. De Man says, "more specifically, thought subsumes the
infinite singularity and individuation of the perceived
world under ordering principles that lay claim to
generality" (767).

6. According to Wittgenstein, "it is important to note
that the word 'meaning' is being used illicitly, if it is
used to signify the thing that 'corresponds' to the word.
That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of
the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of
the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be
nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have
meaning it would make no meaning to say that 'Mr. N. N. is
dead'" (20).

7. While de Man writes philosophy from the literary point
of view, Derrida, we can say, writes philosophy with a
literary perspective. Unfortunately the inheritors of the
estate of Derrida and de Man do not usually see any
similarity in them. While "outsiders" perceive them as
members of the same guild producing identical crafts
according to the requirements of a school, "insiders"
consider them to be the most divergent of workers whose
semblance does not extend beyond the use of identical
Generally, these divisive discussions have tended to
follow disciplinary lines which, ironically, both de Man and
Derrida consistently cross. Thus, a critic with
philosophical erudition, like Gasche, calls de Man a poor
reader of Derrida, and a critic interested in Derridean

historicism, like Suzanne Gearhart, will take de Man to task
for being unfaithful to the tenets of Derridean criticism.
Paradoxically, the arguments risk a continuation of the
classical separation of philosophy and literature.

8. Derrida says, "an interval must separate the present
from what it is not in order for the present to be itself,
but this interval that constitutes it as present, must by
the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby
also dividing, along with the present, everything that is
thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our
metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance
or the subject" (Margins 13).

9. For concise, though short, discussions of these
possibilities see the first chapters of de Man's Allegories
of Reading and The Resistance to Theory.

10. De Man, for example, often substitutes literature for
language. For him, language means linguisticity and not
necessarily an aggregate of phonemes, syllables, words, and
sentences, but what grounds them.

11. Poetic ambiguity, for instance, is said to be no more
than a repetition of the basic split in being itself.
According to de Man, "the ambiguity poetry speaks of is the
fundamental one that prevails between the world of the
spirit and the world of sentient substance: to ground
itself, the spirit must turn itself into sentient substance,
but the latter is knowable only in its dissolution into non-
being [or linguisticity]." Taking what I said above about
language into consideration, being, de Man seems to be
saying, is groundable only when subjected to the spirit of
literature (Blindness and Insight 237).

12. Hence, the "terror" of western representative politics
and/or metaphysics lies in its continuous misrepresentation
of reality as non-textual when the text is the most easily
apprehended form of representation. Readings further says
that, "the voice of pure literality, which speaks the law as
such, always performs the operation of terror, in that to
assert the law as literally representable is to silence its
victims by relegating the operation of resistance to the
condition of transgression those who lie outside the
law (since the law is the justice of non-metaphoric reality)
are unreal, and cannot speak" (232).

13. De Man insists that for as long as objects and their
representations mean differently, we must distinguish
between grammar and rhetoric. In order to illustrate this
fact, de Man analyzes some passages from Proust, Yeats, and
Archie Bunker. In the Archie Bunker case, Archie replied,

"'What's the difference?'" to his wife's question on whether
she should lace his shoes under or over. In de Man's view,
"grammar allows us to ask the question, but the sentence by
means of which we ask it may deny the very possibility of
asking" (Allegories 10).

If grammar permits the question, i.e., the rules that
order the word-order into an interrogative, but the
resultant sentence disallows such formations to be
univocally realized, there is, simply speaking, no asking.
The question could be said to be demanding the difference,
if any, between lacing under and over. It could also be said
that the sentence would have been no question but a
statement. In the former there can be a literal and
figurative meaning; that is tell the difference. But to de
Man this is not where the rhetorical disruption resides.
The real aporia occurs when we do not even know whether
there is a literality or a figuration.

14. I think this is analogous to saying that mere reversals
without reinscription create no ripples. On the contrary,
building literary theory or understanding on rhetoric will
be appropriate because rhetoric is the material basis of
literary signification (the linguistic overturning of
logical prescriptions on language).

15. Among these figures, history of criticism shows,
metaphor is the primus inter pares. The definition of
metaphor, from Aristotle to Jakobson, has lingered around
"the transfer to a thing of a name that designates another
thing" (Allegories 146). This definition is so broad that
all other figures relate to it in one way or the other. As
the true meaning of fiction is said to lie in what it is not
about, so is that of metaphor said to reside in its
'literal' meaning, i.e., the common factor that exists in
the items of substitution or transference. This simple
notion of substitution has been the subject of sometimes
acrimonious debates over the importance of metaphoricity in
signification. Thus, we have on one side critics who argue
that metaphoricity is the basis of all signification and so
of all understanding, and on the other side, those who
insist metaphors have no content.

16. Earlier on in the essay, he has given philosophy two
difficult alternatives: give up your pretentious claims on
rigor and embrace your figural destiny or free yourself from
figuration instantly and evaporate into nothingness. The
second is undesirable, and in order not to be caught doing
the first, philosophy, in a face-saving maneuver, cuts out a
separate space for figuration.

17. "Metaphor has been issued from a network of
philosophemes which themselves correspond to tropes or to
figures, and these philosophemes are contemporaneous to or
in systematic solidarity with these tropes or figures"
(Derrida, Margins 219). Discussing the basis of Aristotle's
philosophy and refuting Benveniste's linguistic criticism of
Aristotle, Derrida says that in Aristotle's thought system
the ability to nominalize is the only condition in which a
word can be said to have a definite meaning. In Aristotle,
the first semantic unity is the noun. The noun is the
smallest signifying element that displays the capacity to
join composite elements that are on their own meaningless
and thus unable to fulfill the condition for truth.
Consequently metaphor analysis is usually restricted to
onomastic and at bottom remains a crossing of names. Since
philosophy is a discourse of self-sufficient and self-
asserting truth, conspicuous discourses like metaphor that
tend to contradict it are explained away as either a
temporary loss of meaning that can be properly fixed or an
inevitable detour that can be properly retraced to its
literal meaning. See Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology:
Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," in Margins, pp. 207-

18. I use the zebra example advisedly. I want to
underscore both the ethnic and analytic characters of
metaphor. The Yoruba people of Nigeria associate zebra with
ultimate beauty for reasons I do not know. I am not aware
if other people do that.

19. As de Man says in a notoriously famous statement, "the
bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but
written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise
of wars or revolutions" (Blindness 165). I do not believe
that this statement denies the physical evidence of wars and
revolutions, but that wars and revolutions, as real as they
are, cannot bypass the travails that representation impose
on other "less real" events. Ironically, de Man's anti-
semitic trails during World War II are later betrayed mainly
by textual remains and not events.

20. This is not to say that events and their discourses are
not important. It is only to assert that one is not
"aesthetically" (historically) joined to the other.

21. "Hegel also writes: 'The first act, by which Adam is
made master of the animals, was to impose on them a name,
i.e., he annihilated them on their existence (as existents)
S. .'" (quoted in Derrida, Edmund Husserl's "Origin of
Geometry" 67n).


22. As my discussions should have shown, "non-referential"
does not mean a total lack of reference but a lack of a
positive, exclusively univocal bearer of the sign.

23. For a more detailed explication see the first three
chapters of de Man's Allegories and Gasche's "In-Difference
to Philosophy."

24. For temporal and structural reasons, contemporary
African literature is doubly post-colonial. Its emergence
was closely tied to the colonial presence in (by way of
Western education and the imposition of European cultural
forms) and disappearance from Africa. There are also
numerous post(beyond)-colonial characteristics, among which
the proverb is very prominent.



All third world texts are necessarily, I want to
argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way:
they are to be read as what I will call national
allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say,
particularly when their forms develop out of
predominantly western machineries of
representation, such as the novel. (Jameson 69)

In the earliest academic attempts at understanding

"primitive" thoughts, function and use were the dominant

themes mainly because the scholars--usually conservative in

outlook--supposed that their subjects had no intellectual

capacity to create anything that was not for immediate

consumption. Paradoxically, this frame of inquiry also

served radical political ideologues who espoused the view

that socio-economic polities that did not produce surplus

value could not, as a corollary, have developed non-

utilitarian artifacts. What else, they asked, could occur

in not-yet-feudal, petty political holdings in which there

are no propertied classes? Surprisingly, both ends of the

political spectrum unite in divining the functions of

"savage" arts without asking the savages what they thought

of their creations.


One consequence of the above is that the contemporary

African writer, who was initially deemed to be a curious

phenomenon, came to be burdened with various duties that

range from that of a seer (like the traditional poet-

priests), a diviner (like the spirit mediums), a teacher

(like the folktale narrators), to a revolutionary (like the

Tanzanian Kinjeketile). Chinua Achebe, thinking along this

line, once advocated the necessity for the African writer to

teach, envision the course of events, and adjudicate

impartially on social issues, because, among other things,

he or she is "acting also within the traditional concept of

an artist role in society--using his [her] art to control

his [her] environment" (Morning 15).

While it is true that Africans, to the extent that

literature can help accomplish it, and, using an Achebe

imagery, have a right to find out where the rain started to

beat them, it is equally true that many roads lead to the

market place. As such, the expediency of political demands,

to my mind, does not exclude paying due attention to the

significant "non-functional" dimensions of the African

artifacts or orafacts.1 In pursuit of such rethinking, two

art historians, Babatunde Lawal and C. O. Adepegba, looked

into some "aesthetic" terminologies in Yoruba language and

how these words confirm or, as they often emphasize,

contradict the functions that traditional academic criticism

ascribes to African religious icons. In a 1974 article, for

instance, Lawal surmised that "altar figures are not the

messengers of ol6run [chief of the sky], as was once

believed by the christian missionaries [and some early

anthropologists and European travellers]" (244). He also

added that they are neither representations--realistic or

stylized--nor portraits of the 6ris& (deities). Nine years

after, Adepegba returns to the issue of functions with

examples of art criticism terms among the same Yoruba

people. He arrives at conclusions that are very similar to


In one sense, however, Adepegba transcends Lawal by

granting no concession to any extra-"aesthetic" motivation

for the creation of religious art objects. Whereas Lawal

admitted that religious sculptures differentiate the altars

from the drudgery of quotidian existence and enhance a

serene transition from the bodily to the spiritual realm,

Adepegba simply focuses on these altar pieces as stylized

forms of expression that have no proven or even provable

connection between the religions, the modes of worship and

the devotees' dedication. The entire field of creation and

consumption of the art objects, he says, displays no links

that might suggest any necessity of function or use either

in the material components, the finished objects, or the

sculpting processes. He further argues that whatever

aesthetic pleasures the art objects provide, they, like the


engraven images in catholic churches, contribute very little

to the "spiritual" experience of the devotees.2

In an apparent rebuttal of anthropological claims on

how "Africans" produce and consume art, Adepegba says that

the attractiveness or the repulsion of specific masks, for

example, have little, if anything, to do with the appeal or

repellent value of the religious sect they might serve.

"The basic slanting helmet shape of the Gelede masks of the

Western part of Yorubaland," he writes in the "The Artist in

the Set-Up," "can be said to have been conditioned by the

way they are worn on the head, but their imagery does not

show that the masks represent the powerful force of elderly

women which the masquerading for which the masks are carved,

and the festivals in which it takes place celebrate" (33).

In short, both Adepegba and Lawal underscore the point that

the artistic sign has no naturally perceivable motivation in

its so-called "non-artistic" socio-functional coordinates.

In this chapter, I want to discuss the "vernacular"

literary theories of Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates and

review, as a contrast, the challenge of radical historicists

who consider these theories irrelevant to contemporary

existential demands in Africa. The debates between the

radicals on one hand and the textualists on the other are

variants of the issues discussed earlier in the previous

chapter. While Soyinka and Gates argue that literary

scholarship must not skirt the problems of literary

specifities as they pertain to African cultures, their

opponents in the historicist camp argue that the grim social

realities in Africa fully inscribe the literary ones and as

such should be discussed within this larger frame.


Soyinka repeatedly impresses on African literary

critics that an understanding of African, or any literature

for that matter, must begin at the metaphysical level so

that the degree of intellection that the people invest in

their choric and plastic forms can be estimated. Soyinka

repeats, almost to absurdity, that while historical

circumstances are not unimportant in the understanding of a

particular literature, such circumstances have no inherent

qualities that should put them in a privileged position over

other considerations. In fact, this concern partially

explains his obvious impatience and almost absolute contempt

for all criticisms of African literature that do not take a

necessary pause to explore the rich cadences of traditional

concepts, conceptualization, and attendant idioms. As an

alternative to simplistic historical and functional

explanations, Soyinka abstracts some ideals from Yoruba

myths and rituals and constructs elaborate speculations on

the essence of African art out of them. In the following

citation, he expresses what he believes sets off African

artifacts from all the others in the universe of global

cultural production.

Commonly recognized in most African metaphysics
are the world of the ancestor, the living,
and the unborn. Less understood or explored is
the fourth space, the dark continuum of transition
where occurs the inter-transmutation of essence-
ideal and materiality. It houses the ultimate
expression of the cosmic will. (26)

The world of the living is real enough, that of the

ancestors can be accessed with propitiation, and the unborn

stretch is approachable through the physical labors of

procreation. Since the crossing over of propitiable matter

from one state to the other cannot, of necessity, be

materially apprehended because no form has yet congealed,

society, Soyinka says, resorts to the fertile backyards of

imagination to lyricize the movements. Ritual arts and myth

"celebrate" this realm, but certain segments of the

community, out of illusion, often reduce them to ordinary

language so that it can employ its morals to energize itself

into confronting the everyday. Any effort on the critics'

part to reduce these forms to historical particulars,

Soyinka says, will amount to a naive continuation of the

initial delusion that the community suffered.

Soyinka ceaselessly refuses to reduce his

interpretation to mere psychologist or ideological

projections, but focuses instead on what he calls "the

metaphysics of the irreducible" that is related, though not

restricted, to "knowledge of birth and death as the human

cycle; the wind as moving, felling, cleansing, destroying,

winnowing force; the duality of knife as blood letter and

creative implement; earth and sun as life-sustaining

unities, and so on" (53). These balanced opposites and his

recognition of the possible existence of contradictions

without resolutions within a perceivable entity characterize

Soyinka's calls for self-apprehension and also guide his

pronouncements on language, music, and the artistic

construction of reality. He seems to be perennially aware

that speaking definitely in myth and art is impossible

because they do not belong to any state of material being.

His theory joins music, tragedy, and artistic language

together as originating in the domain of "transition" where

referencing cannot be logically established. Myth and

tragedy--which arise from mimetic rites celebrating

passage--embody the bodiless and as such should not be

reduced to mere human actions. They essentially "represent"

a state that has no state. In that wise, it is needless

seeking the "utility" or historical value of liturgy, for

instance, because such expressions belong to the registers

of transition that cannot be realistically rationalized in

the idioms of either the living, the dead, the unborn, or

even of the gods for, being anthropomorphic, they too are

susceptible to human foibles.

Soyinka, due to his full cognizance of the non-

contextual and non-hegemonic potentialities of artistic

utterances, advocates a set of writing and criticism that

will not be wholly explainable in terms of its production

particulars. Such, he says, will be a "creative concern

which conceptualizes or extends actuality beyond the purely

narrative, making it reveal realities beyond the immediately

attainable, a concern which upsets orthodox acceptance in

an effort to free society of historical or other

superstitutions" (66).

On the other side of the Atlantic is one other critic,

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who appears to have paid critical

attention to Soyinka's call for "vernacular" speculative

explorations of African artistic and critical idioms. Two

common concerns join Soyinka's work and Henry Louis Gates'.

First, they both rely on indigenous speech, and second, they

relocate their favored expressive forms--Ogun's myth for

Soyinka and Esu Elegbara's iconology for Gates--in the

linguistic and ideational matrices of particular African

cultures. They also both maintain a primary focus on the

texture(s) of these "speeches." As Soyinka finds the

motivation for his speculations in traditional lores, Gates

locates the source of "black" textuality in the Signifyin(g)

Monkey whose origin he traces back to the West African slave

coast, specifically the Yoruba and Fon kingdoms. Gates

postulates that the source of the black Signifyin(g)

Monkey--that veritable "slave" trickster and master of

indirect direction--is the Yoruba trickster deity, Esu,3

whose figurines are at times carved with two mouths. In the

absence of Esu, Gates insists, no hermeneutic step can be

taken to decode the elaborately structured signs of the

entire Yoruba narratives of the gods. In the light of this

phenomenon, Gates says Esh lores and motifs can provide a

genuine clue to the structuring principles of African arts.

According to Gates, Esh, for several reasons, became the

emblem of "black" speech in the Americas.'

He further proves that the descendants of African

slaves, borrowing from the Esi motif and Jigue the monkey,

characterize artful speaking as "signification." In a

signification, the auditor listens attentively to the

"signified" lexical turns so as to know how to return the

barbs in like terms. The participants must possess very

keen ears for detecting the play of rhymes, repetitions, and

indirections, because these techniques will be needed in

constructing a different rhyme and innuendo in reply. In

Gates' words, "Signifyin(g)," coined by black slaves who

apparently had no knowledge of Saussure or Nietzsche, "turns

on the play and chain of signifiers, and not on some

supposedly transcendent signified" (52). The most valuable

aspect of Gates' analysis in the theoretical sections of

this work is that he listens attentively to what both Esh

and the Monkey say about their activities as activities and

not only what the people use them for. This close attention

to details about structuration leads Gates to the discovery

that the widely acknowledged dual tone of black-American

literature is not simply due to the fact that it has to

address simultaneously a white audience and a "home"

audience, but perhaps more fundamentally because that

duality represents its "blackness." The two-tongued speech

of black texts, Gates maintains, is not necessarily a result

of (though not totally unrelated to) the slaves' subversive

use of the masters' idioms, but more probably because Esu,

the patron saint of indirection, had always been double-

mouthed before the first colonizer or slave merchant ever

dreamt of purchasing his first boat. In other words, the

double voice of black literature in the diaspora is not

solely the result of functional adaptation but a

tropological irreducible that makes it a mark of


By virtue of their awareness of "intertextuality," both

the Signifyin(g) Monkey and Esu thrive on borrowing others'

utterances to edify or denigrate, or simply enjoy the

pleasures of rearranging others' words. Esu's "tricks," for

instance, encompass a very wide array of figures that

"center" primarily on transformation and disfiguration.

These figures, according to Gates, include "individuality,

satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness,

ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and

reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and

disclosure, encasement and rupture" (6). While discussing

these figural attributes, Gates observes that it is nigh

impossible to detect textual motivation outside of the

various transformations and distortions. As a result, he

proposes that literary history be undertaken by studying the

migration of textual matters from epoch to epoch, writer to

writer, or from region to region. Furthermore, since what

matters most in signifyin(g) is the adoption and reworking

(disfiguring) of the other's "speech," the only assured

thing a scholar can establish, as Gates does in the

interpretive sections of his book, will be levels of

"signifiyin(g)" or the play on, or with, other's words. In

fact, in the exegetic section of the book Gates demonstrates

how some black novelists consciously, and "unconsciously,"

borrow the techniques of "signification" in their reaction

to preceding novelists who have commented on the black

experience.' In further demonstration of his theory, Gates

"signifies" on all critics of black literature who, failing

to read all the "signifyin(g)" that goes on in the texts

they study, have been inept victims of utilitarianism. He

says, "critics of Afro-American, Caribbean, and African

literatures have far more often than not directed

their attention to the signified, often at the expense of

the signifier, as if the latter were transparent" (79).

Soyinka and Gates dig deep into Yoruba religious

literature to explain the "writing" and "speaking" (in the

general sense) of both secular and non-secular signifying

forms. Whatever may be their shortcomings, they do "read"

the forms of speaking and writing that they study, and only

dyed-in-the-wool ideologues will totally reject their

methods and results. This positive appraisal

notwithstanding, I need to say that one may have to be

closely acquainted with the religious lores and liturgy of

the people described before one can fully understand some of

the speculative bases of Soyinka's and Gates's works. Since

there are several secular "non-essential" vernacular tropes

that might serve to explain African literary "speeches"

equally well, and especially for the reason that one need

not journey to Oklahoma to obtain the meaning of oak, I want

to propose that the proverb is one such excellent literary


In the interim, I deem it useful to examine the

rhetoric of radical utilitarians who consider Soyinka,

Gates, and similar thinkers as deluded scholars making

futile attempts to cheat a history that will eventually

catch up with them and subsequently discard them as

irrelevant. These critics, without paying attention to the

ambivalences in his texts, adopt Frantz Fanon to condemn the

naivety and apparent loss of historical sense displayed by

those scholars who passionately advocate the virtues of pre-

colonial cultural forms. Fanon certainly condemns

uncritical adulation of old cultural practices, but he also

warns that critics should not read like foreigners who

simply advocate the legitimation of contemporary culture.

These foreigners, Fanon says, are ostensibly objective, but

in reality they have only forgotten that "their own psyches

and their own selves are conveniently sheltered behind a

French or German culture which has given full proof of its

existence and which is uncontested" (169). Unfortunately,

African radical critics refuse to notice this caution and

read like Fanon's forgetful foreigners.

Fanon's text perhaps encourages such a reading because

in one breath it says that the native scholar has no

alternative but to plunge into his native culture to show

that his people are not simply "Negroes" or "Africans," and

in the next it condemns these searches as desperate hugging

of the hulks of long sunk ships.

The artist who has decided to illustrate the
truths of the nation turns paradoxically towards
the past and away from actual events. What he
ultimately intends to embrace are in fact the
cast-offs of thought, its shells and corpses, a
knowledge which has been stabilized once and for
all. But the native intellectual who wishes to
create an authentic work of art must realize that
the truths of a nation are in the first place its
realities. (181)

In order that we may fully comprehend the effect this

opinion has had on subsequent materialist cultural criticism

in Africa, I want to cite two critics writing about twenty

years after Fanon. First, Omafume Onoge, the leading

radical cultural sociologist:

In so far as he advocated a return to the African
roots, Senghor, like Cesaire, implied a rejection
of the surrounding colonial reality. The
invocation of the past contained the implication
of a quest for the reenactment of our pre-colonial
sovereignty. However, unlike Cesaire, Senghor's
Negritude has never strayed beyond the particular

identity concerns of the culturally "uprooted"
petit bourgeois class that was emerging in the
'30s. (28)

There is an assured eponymous relationship between Fanon's

"cast-offs" and Onoge's rootlessness. In a similar re-

writing, Geoffrey Hunt, a British philosopher, says

The colonial experience made its impact on African
societies, but the villages and culture were left
for a time largely intact. Neo-colonialism,
however, intrudes into the whole social space.
The neo-colonial is forced to locate the mystical
unity, the "cohesive understanding of irreducible
truths", not so much in the village life of the
present but that of the imagined past. (71)

Since Fanon is the most visible source of these rejectionist

attitudes, I want to look into the hasty cauterization of

what he calls "cast-offs."

Fanon, being a medical practitioner, knows that cast-

offs of conscious existence are the only sources of post-

mortem examinations and the center of forensic and

psychoanalytic investigations, which he himself admits the

"negro" scholar had to do in order to detect, so to say,

where the rain started to beat the people. In other words,

corpses, because of their immeasurable value for

reconstructive explanations, are not simply dead bodies.

The "negro" scholar who assembles the "cast-offs of

thoughts" is actually the true historicist, for he takes the

colonial experience to be, as it were, an interregnum and

never accepts it as being capable of defining any

"authentic" reality. These dissectors of "cast-offs,"

contrary to the radicals' claim, are the true readers of

Fanon for, by their piecing together all the pre-colonial

fragments that might give a full meaning to the "Negro,"

they try to fill the inner vacuum that colonialism created.

One regrettable consequence of the radicals' reading of

Fanon is that they begin most of their discussions of the

African experience at the colonial period and shun all

expressive forms whose origins could be traced to pre-

colonial times.' As a result, a great majority of

historical and literary reconstructions of the pre-colonial

times in Africa had been done by "bourgeois" historians and

literary critics who accept capitalism and colonialism as

historical, albeit disruptive, events and not as the genesis

of African being.7 It so happens that the radical critics

who vilify capitalism for interrupting the "normal" flow of

historical development in Africa refuse, out of a self-

imposed amnesia, to analyze whatever obtained before the

intrusion of capitalist colonial rule. They thereby

vicariously endorse the rationale of capitalism for

ravishing Africa in the first instance--namely that Africa

has no history before its civilizing mission.

As recently as 1985, Gugelberger was still lamenting

the misfortune of African criticism in the hands of the

bourgeois critics, sociologists, and anthropologists who

deal too much in the "sterile" formalistics of

"Africaneity." For remedy, he suggests that "African

peculiarity" be deprivileged if any meaningful discussion is

to be made of African literature. He also believes the

African experience has been an unabating flood of oppression

and suffering which can only be realistically charted if

internationalized. For this purpose, he proposes Marxism as

a very reliable compass. In recommending this progressive,

humane, and absolutely "realistic" critical tool,

Gugelberger borrows almost exactly the rationalizations of

the colonialists who regarded the native point of view as

backward. Like many other critics who share his peculiar

reading of Marx, he does not analyze any of those idioms he

calls signs of Africaneity before declaring them parochial.

A good number of other radical criticisms repeat

Gugelberger's errors. Biodun Jeyifo, for instance, parries

the issue in his studies of theatre and drama. In his

"Tragedy, History, and Ideology," Jeyifo acknowledges the

theoretical and theatrical efforts that some African

playwrights make to disfigure and transform the "universal"

(Western) ideas of tragedy. He particularly recognizes

certain unequivocally native insights in Soyinka's tragic

theatre. Jeyifo, however, refuses to discuss these

"birthmarks." He says we may discount these readable and

possibly visible--in theatrical performances--signs of

African specificity because, "no matter how strongly they

call for an indigenous tragic art form, our authors smuggle

into their dramas, through the back door of formalistic and

ideological predilections, typically conventional Western

notions and practices of rendering social events into

tragedy" (96). While the critic hastily dismisses the

native elements in these tragedies, he devotes a greater

part of his energy to discussing the historical values of

contraband or, to use his term, smuggled goods.

In the ensuing contrastive analysis of Soyinka's Death

and the Kina's Horseman and Ibrahim Hussein's Kinieketile,

Jeyifo supplies the missing historical background to the

colonial actualities that Soyinka rarefies into racial

rationalities in his work and also to the actual revolt in

Tanzania that Kinjeketile led with the aid of some myths

about the coming of a savior. Jeyifo believes Soyinka's

mythologized history may be theatrically spectacular, but it

is epistemologically chloroforming and therefore suspect.

It beclouds reality and history and, by implication,

progress. On the other hand, he praises Hussein's efforts

at dissolving mythological gallstones into historical

dynamics by making myth serve historically progressive

action. Underlying this assessment is an assumption that

ideology-laden references to current social issues in

creative works may definitely indicate the political value

and class sympathy of a work. Or put differently, the

degree to which a work is closer to reality is directly

proportional to its value. Little attention is thus paid to

what is not "current" about the current issues. All the

theatricalities that make the current not-current are thus


neglected. To the sociological critics, literary works are

products of socio-political deeds, and for support they

always cite so-called didactic tales and, sometimes,

aphorisms that are said to be paradigmatic of African

literature. But it is also in Africa that a Wapangwa

creation myth begins thus,

The sky was large, white, and very clear. It was
empty; there were no stars and no moon; only a
tree stood in the air and there was wind. This
tree fed on the atmosphere and ants lived on it.
Wind, tree, ants, and atmosphere were controlled
by the power of the Word. But the Word was not
something that could be seen. It was a force that
enabled one thing to create another. (Beier 42)


Ropo Sekoni is among the few critics that have ventured

to explore the possibility of looking into the so-called

ethnic genre terms to examine the lore of the folk that he

studies. He discovers, for instance, that his Yoruba

informants refer to their narratives as itan, al6, or irAn,

all implying dispersal, displacement, deferral, and

dispersion or other words emphasizing instability. However,

Sekoni does not pursue the implication of his finding beyond

the fact that the words enable him to ask the storytellers

about how they suture complete tales into wider

elaborations. Nonetheless, he makes an important discovery

that skillful storytellers routinely break down the

structural boundaries that anthropologists and early

folktale morphologists like Propp have constructed around


folk narratives. In this section, I want to follow the path

cut out by studies like Sekoni's.

To narrate a story, in Yoruba, is pit&n (pa it&n) which

can be translated as "kill or hatch (like a chicken hatching

an egg) a story, a deception, or a dispersion." Narration

may also be expressed as so It&n, that is, "tell or throw a

story, a deception, or a dispersion." "Story-telling" is a

relatively recent terminology, most probably incorporated

into the language after the introduction of English. At any

rate, "story-throwing" correlates better with hatching one.

In fact, all the other words for aesthetic narration have

nothing to do with any "telling" or recounting that might

suggest fidelity to an event. All the expressions insist on

bereavement and creation at the same time. For example, pa

al6, another name for narration, may mean hatching or

killing an "entwinement." Particular creative instances are

usually called &r6bqn, arbf6, or arbso. The root morpheme

in all the three words, rb, may mean to stir, to ponder

deeply, or to contrive. The first word, arbq6n, will

translate as the aligned (or the straightened) contrivance,

thought, or stirring; the second, ar6fb, will mean the

spoken, the washed, or the bleached, contrivance, thought,

or stirring. The third term, ar6so will then signify the

said or thrown contrivance, thought, or stirring. The

relationship between the latter set of words (&r6f6, A&r6crn,

&r6so) and the former (pa itan or &16, etc.) is that of

product and producer. When a narrator pa itan or a&l,

he/she produces an example of ahrf6 or arbain within genres


In all these forms, interpretation involves some sense

of centerlessness, destruction, and construction.

Interpretation is i-td-m6 or the unravelled, the unwrapped,

or the busted (like a ripe boil), which is then known or

apprehended. Knowing here is de-kernelization and not an

apprehension of the essential center.' I have dwelt this

much on these terms not to essentialize nomenclatures but to

highlight the possibility of how narrative can be studied--

unravelled or lanced--for the knowledge of not just its node

(koko) but, more importantly, of its entwinement, alignment,

dispersal, or throwing.

One major figure that might serve as a clue about the

nature of literary signification is the bwe (proverb).

According to Geoffrey White, "proverbs are especially

interesting because" they, "like much of ordinary language

. accomplish both conceptual and pragmatic work" (151).

Proverbs have been so much anthologized, but minimally

studied for their tropological value, and still more

neglected for how they claim to set themselves up. In fact,

hardly is there any comprehensive criticism of African

literature that has no copious sections) devoted to remarks

on the preponderance of proverbs in the literary works.

Nonetheless, little attention is paid to the figural role

these proverbs play in the said works. Like metaphor in

traditional philosophical discourse, they are usually

dismissed as ephemeral colorization of the narrative form.

Contrary to this widely held view, I believe proverbs are

discourses about discourse, signification, and

interpretation. They can, for this reason, provide a

crucial key into the signification process; more than any

other trope, metaphor included, they usually say a lot about


In Gates' book discussed above, proverbs did not

receive a better treatment than it had hitherto enjoyed. In

a comparison of Western and Yoruba figures of speech, Gates

consigns proverbs, along with Naming, to the lower margins

of the chart. He found equivalents for irony (kran),

hyperbole (ihal&, pcn), metalepsis (afikun, @ni, or &ijm6),

and under metaphor he collapses two comparatives. Following

the practice in contemporary Yoruba literary criticism,

Gates labels these comparatives as afiwe ganan or straight

comparison and &fiwe ele166 or crooked comparison (87).

These are often times transliterated as simili and metafo.

Translating metaphor as crooked comparison is "alien" to

Yoruba language, and it perhaps results from transferring to

Yoruba the old English definition of metaphor as compressed

simile. It may also have to do with the fashion of equating

metaphor with the literal meaning of corresponding simile.'

Yoruba language does not employ metaphor as a frame of

reference. It uses 6we (proverb) instead. Concepts and

things wrap around each other as the root word we implies.

It is also perhaps not accidental that the same word is the

root of iwe "book." We may quickly connect this to afiwe

(the equivalent of simile), which means comparison or that

which we wrap around as well as that around which another

thing is wrapped.

Among the Igbo people, proverbs are said to be the

palm-oil with which words are eaten. It is usually assumed

that proverbs perform in discourse situations the same role

that palm-oil performs in swallowing boiled or roasted yams.

Eating boiled yams without the lubricating activity of palm-

oil may result in choking or unpleasant swallowing.

Proverbs, of course, do not lead discourses down the

"throat" of the participants. Instead, they literally put

astray--or choke the unwise--by intruding upon the normal

flow of situational idioms. In other words, I prefer to

read the palm-oil proverb as signifying the opposite of what

it says, that is, it is ironic. If proverbs were simple

discourse aids as such, I believe there would not be sayings

like a kii ran omo ti k6 ab6n (we do not speak proverbially

to a child that is not wise). The following proverb also

contradicts the discourse-helper view of proverbs: bi owe ba

6we l& n ll 6oaidiab6. oloqb6n nii 16o 6bmran nii 1i0 (it

is like proverb, again, like proverb, that we beat the

6oidiabo drum, [for] only the wise dances to it and only the

highly perceptive beats it). Proverbs remind the

discussants that the words they employ are not specific or

natural to what they are discussing. Critics who look for

equivalents between palm oil and the discursive functions of

the proverb are like the proverbial hunchback who approached

the king as the most qualified for the princess's hands in

marriage simply because the king had said he would give his

daughter only to a man who has chest.

One other proverb about proverb says, 6we lesin brb. bi

brb bd sonu owe la fii wa a (proverb is the horse of word,

when a word is lost, a proverb is used to search for it).

Metaphoric explanations of this saying do not usually add

the "search" section, i.e., they usually stop at "proverb is

the horse of word" and thereby equate horse and proverb,

proverb and vehicle. If we consider the full statement, we

will discover that proverbs provide vehicles of search but

do not help speakers recover the words, probably because a

recovery is impossible. Proverbs are not, on their own,

miniature discourses but meta-discourses. They are horses

on which we embark to fix the irrecoverable whereabouts of

"words." Words, another proverb tells us, are eggs whose

content cannot be fully recovered once broken. All

utterances are doubly proverbial because they can be made

into "proverbs" outside the primary situation in which they

are "first" hatched and also for the fact that even this

contextualized point of "first" use is interpretable only

when displaced into a "proverb." Meaning, modern

linguistics shows, "occupies" the blank spaces between

signifiers or, according to Soyinka, transitional abyss.

This nebulous region is the space that proverbs ride. As

such, when we say in a proverb that "the big bug biting an

infant on the head should not be killed with a baseball

bat," the words are true, but they are proverbial only when,

literally, there are no baseball bats, no insect, no infant,

not even somebody attempting to kill the bug.

The question then is how do we read literature

proverbially? First, we must not look for a direct

functional relationship between a text and the immediate

environment that produces it. Any effort in this direction

will be wasted, because we will only be chasing 6j6 (rain)

when the culprit is b16 (the name of a person). No

sociology or anthropology can fully exhaust all the possible

interpretations a text will offer. Second, the meaning of a

literary text is never stable. Literary hermeneutics should

not be a voyage into de-kernelization but an unwrapping of

all the tropological folds that surround the text. Literary

texts are like bwe (the "proverb"), they are hatched like

chickens. Immediately they are hatched, the contents, as we

say, become irrecoverable. Being forms of argban, literary

texts are not content-specific and neither are they epoch-

determined. As my discussions ought to have shown, these

conclusions are not simply, as some will say, borrowings

from discoveries of contemporary critical theory. They are

what African critics, Yoruba language critics especially,

ought to have known long ago had we taken time to listen to

our so-called "ethnic" categories. I will return to these

issues in the fourth chapter. Meanwhile, I want to examine

how the proverb came to be meaning dependent.


1. This dimension continues to be largely neglected mainly
because of the sociology of the criticism of African
literatures. Much of the academic discussions of African
literatures is done outside the continent by critics that
are severely handicapped by their inability to speak
indigenous languages. And a vast majority of the foreigners
who speak these languages are mainly anthropologists and
social scientists with little training in literary studies.
To make matters worse, African critics simply accept the
terminologies handed down to them from the great schools of
the West.

2. He also blames local informants for some of the
misconceptions about the religious art objects that
anthropologists--local and foreign--usually project as the
paradigms of African art. He says, "from my experience
among the Yoruba [and he is one], the people often used by
scholars as informants because they are considered directly
involved in the art either through their vocation or their
use of the objects, sometimes give information which would
make themselves or their activities appear important or
mysterious" ("The Essence" 21). The issue Adepegba
highlights here also goes to the heart of the problem of the
medium. Scholars, for instance, often assume that their
participant-informants are closer to the experience they
narrate and as such are in a position to give truthful
representations of their practices. Olabiyi Yai gives this
matter an in-depth look in his "Fundamental Issues in
African Oral Literature." Yai says, "it becomes more and
more difficult to obtain an authentic performance of oral
literature nowadays. The text is generally polluted right
from the source because the author knows that the European
or African folklorist who requests the performance does not
constitute his normal or natural audience. Hence in his
endeavour to communicate at all costs with his abnormal
audience he loses his spontaneity. The result is rather a
demonstration than a real performance" (9). To buttress his

point, Yai cites a famous poet who composes a song in honor
of his duplicity. Akereburu omo Jalugun says,

Iw6n il l&h seld
Aker6burd ni baa ba ti 16w6 si
Leegun i fi i j6 fun ni
Mo nij6 ol6j& 16to
(The size of a town determines its organization
Akereburu says that the value of one's money gift
Will determine the quality of the masquerade's
performance for one.
I have special performances reserved for the king.)

3. "These trickster figures [Papa Labas, Jigue the Monkey,
Legba], all aspects or topoi of Esu, are fundamental, divine
terms or mediation: as tricksters they are mediators, and
their mediations are tricks" (6).

4. See especially the first chapter of the The Signifying
Monkey, aptly titled "A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and
the Signifying Monkey," pp. 3-43.

5. He says, for example, that James Gronniosaw, John
Marrant, John Jea, Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano all
signified on each other's usage of the "trope of the talking
book." Each writer consciously recycles and revises his
predecessor's obsession with the "talking book" (132-69).

6. Many reasons could be proffered for this amnesia, and
the most cogent of these is that critics find it easier to
cudgel--which sometimes sounds sado-masochistic--capitalism
as the perpetrator of all evils that had plagued the
continent. Capitalism provides a veritable subject because
there are usually a lot of works to review, agree, or
disagree with. Pre-colonial structures are a little bit
difficult to classify and therefore more taxing to analyze.

7. The most notable exception is the monumental and widely
read Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

8. For a comprehensive, though imperfect, study of
"academic" knowledge and knowing in Yoruba language, see the
third chapter of Barry Hallen and J.O. Sodipo, Knowledge.
Belief and Witchcraft.

9. "We can learn much about what metaphors mean by
comparing them with similes, for a simile tells us, in part,
what a metaphor merely nudges us into noting. .
Thinking along these lines may inspire another theory of the
figurative or special meaning of metaphors: the figurative
meaning of a metaphor is the literal meaning of the
corresponding simile" (Davidson 36).



The essential thing about a proverb is its
meaning--and by this is to be understood not
merely a bald and literal translation into the
accustomed tongue, nor even a free version of what
the words are intended to convey. The meaning of
a proverb is made clear only when side by side
with the translation is given a full account of
the accompanying social situation--the reason for
its use, its effect, and its significance in
speech. (Firth 134)

The worst readers of aphorism are the author's
friends if they are intent on guessing back from
the general to the particular instance to which
the aphorism owes its origin; for with such pot-
peeking they reduce the author's whole effort to
nothing; so that they deservedly gain, not a
philosophic outlook for instruction, but--at
least, or at worst--nothing more than the
satisfaction of vulgar curiosity. (Nietzsche 65)

A wise man will hear, and will increase learning;
and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise
counsels. (Proverbs 1:5)

as the sayings used in a nation marked its
character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature
of Infernal wisdom better than any description of
buildings or garments. (Blake "Proverbs of Hell")

Proverbs too are metaphors with transference from
species to species of the same genus. When a man
brings something home which he thinks will benefit
him, and is then hurt by it, he says it is a case
of the Carpathian and the hare, for both have
suffered unexpected injury. (Aristotle 1413a)

With the last epigraph, Aristotle says, "we have now

dealt fairly adequately with felicitous sayings, their

origin, the cause and reason of their success" (96). And

since then, at least in Western academies, the study of

proverbs has usually been handled as an adjunct of metaphor

in the pantheon of figures of speech.2 For Aristotle (from

whom most rhetoricians draw inspiration), the proverb is a

subtype of metaphor. As the description suggests, there

resides inside every proverb an idea that bears a meaning

relationship to both the terms used in the proverb and its

context of usage. That is the reason why the unexpected

injury that joins together the Carpathian and the hare is

also the common denominator further transferred to person

and "something." Subsequent studies transform this semantic

relationship into "clear" and "unclear" ideas, "apparent"

and "hidden" meaning, "belongingness" and "transference" of

properties. In each of these pairs of words, the implied

"unexpected injury" in Aristotle's original is allotted to

the first term and the Carpathian and the hare to the

second. In this chapter I will, speaking proverbially,

review the legacies of Aristotle's definition in the study

of proverbs. Specifically, I am going to review

anthropological and literary analyses of the proverb from

ancient times to the present. Beginning with a few examples

of definitions that focus on theme and function, moving on

to studies of proverb origins, and then presenting some

structuralist views of the proverb, I intend to show how the

study of meanings, in various guises, has been the bedrock


of proverb studies. In conclusion, I will highlight some of

the shortcomings of these approaches with the aim of making

these observations serve as the introduction to the next



In his comprehensive examination of the attitude of

Western European rhetoricians to the proverb ("The Nature of

the Proverb"), Whiting discovers that ancient Romans,

compared to the Greeks, devoted a considerable energy to a

clear definition of the figure. However, as one definition

by Michael Apostolius shows, they did not fare better than

Aristotle. According to Apostolius, the proverb is a

statement which conceals the clear in the unclear,
or which through concrete images indicates
intellectual concepts, or which makes the truth in
furtive fashion. And further in this fashion, a
proverb is a narration by the way, or a trite
phrase constantly used in popular speech, which
can be transferred from small and slight matters
to those larger and more numerous; or a saying
that has become thoroughly habitual in our daily
customs and life in the way that human beings have
(of getting habits). And also, thus, is a useful
saying, or one profitable for daily life, having a
usefulness that is increased by the very fact that
there is a moderate amount of concealment in it,
or it is an exhortation usefully adapted to the
whole course of life. (qtd. in Whiting, "The
Nature of the Proverb" 287)

Examined closely, it seems obvious that a type of binary

opposition hovers around this definition: familiarity and

commonality on the negative end, moral elevation and

intellectual reward on the positive. Also opposed are

apparent clarity that hides a lofty ideal, concrete imagery


that conceals intellectual depth, triteness that has fuller

implications, and popular vulgarity that obscures great

wisdom. In each of the opposition, the less valuable pole

(the obvious quality) is backed up by the guarantees

promised by the positive ideal to which it is joined. Thus

appearance is redeemed by a hidden loftiness, and tangible

imagery rescued by the thoughtful observations to which it

alludes. On the whole, Apostolius says the proverb is a

statement filled with vulgarity and concreteness but saved

by the worthier things like wisdom and intellectual

stimulation for which it stands proxy. Still on the theme

of profitability, William Camden (1614) says, "proverbs are

concise, witty, and wise speeches grounded upon long

experience, containing for the most part good caveats and

therefore profitable and delightful" (qtd. in Whiting 293).

James Howell (1660), formulating a related definition,

writes that "the chief ingredients that go to make a true

proverb, [are] Sense, Shortness, and Salt" (qtd. in Whiting


As Whiting's study further shows, modern definitions,

apart from placing a lesser premium on profitability, have

not differed much from those in antiquity. Lord Russell

(1850), for instance, calls it, "the wisdom of many and the

wit of one" (qtd. in Whiting 300). Norman Gottwald, not as

kind, describes the proverb as "a pot-pourri of sayings and

short poems, generally mediocre as literature, tedious as


ethics, banal as religion" (qtd. in Thompson 7). Generally

speaking, it seems that up to the end of the 19th century,

scholars view the proverb as witty and wise and of popular

and vulgar origin. There also appears to be a consensus

that the proverb must unfailingly bear moral imperatives.

One shortcoming of these philological definitions is that

the characteristics they list do not, contrary to their

authors' goals, adequately distinguish the proverb from

other expressive forms.

Historical studies avoid the definition quagmire by

shifting attention to speculations on theories of origin.

These studies seek to know whether proverbs were coined by

gifted individuals who capture in particular statements the

perceptual frame of mind of a particular people or in unison

by the community. Overall, cultural anthropologists believe

that "some unknown person, living in an unknown era, has, in

a moment of creative insight, given eloquent expression to a

universal fact of life or common experience, which has then

been quoted with delight under similar circumstances from

his time to our own" (Thompson 19). Thompson stresses, in

addition, that the proverb acquires the aura of communal

ownership from its long usage and not because of its

creation circumstances. Once created, proverbs, through

popular usage, assume an arresting form, a wide appeal of

endorsement, and a content that commends itself to the

hearer as true.

Thinking along the same line, B. J. Whiting, who with

his Harvard colleague, Archer Taylor, constitutes the

Vatican of 20th-century proverb studies, says that the

origin of the proverb cannot be historically determined

because the proverb could have been the formulation of a

particular sage, prophet, or philosopher. He is certain of

one thing though: proverbs are not mysterious creations in

the people's collective consciousness. It is highly

improbable, he contends, that each word in every proverb is

fabricated by a collective of people sitting around a winter

fire. In a very useful manner, he equates the popular form

of proverb with that of language in general and suggests

possible similarities in their creation and usage. He says

language is the oldest popular linguistic creation, and its

origin, quite like that of the proverb, will forever be

hidden. He adds that, since the proverb (again like

language), either by conscious or unconscious design, can

exist largely unchanged beyond the point of original

construction (thus obliterating several birthmarks), any

theory of origin will be a matter of conjecture. In order

to get out of the impasse, Whiting appeals to primitive

psychology and says that proverbs are products of a practice

by which ancient people convert their "percept" into

"concept." Early human beings, he says, put their concepts

in proverb form so that the small community could adopt them

for later use in characterizing experiences similar to the

initial one. Whiting gives the following example to

illustrate his claims.

A group of men are watching a burning building,
the flames of which are fanned by a high wind; one
of them remarks, "the wind makes the fire burn
more fiercely." This statement, the expression of
a percept, is felt to be common property. If
another man adds, "a high wind always makes a fire
burn more fiercely," his generalization, or
concept, is common property as well. From
this literal application, figurative applications
might grow, until such a saying as "high winds
make fires burn" might be used much as we actually
do use the familiar statement about "fire and tow"
which must, in its turn, have developed from a
percept to a concept with literal application, and
then have been used, as it now is, figuratively,
as a proverb. (Whiting, "Origin of the Proverb"

Whiting seems to be suggesting that the origin of a proverb

is immaterial for its subsequent usage and it matters less

whether it is the creation of an individual genius or of a

collective. If my reading of Whiting is correct, such

questions cannot be properly addressed because there are no

clues for determining the truthfulness or otherwise of

circumstances of first use.

Where Whiting is cautious about the value of historical

studies of the proverb, Edwin Loeb appears to be very

confident that studying the origin of the proverb will

provide a key to our understanding of human intellectual

development. From a correlation of the period certain types

of human societies first used proverbs and the attending

socio-political systems, Loeb derives a theory of human

cognitive evolution. According to Loeb, social and


intellectual development are variables of advances in means

and methods of capital generation and accumulation. Hunter-

gatherers, for example, explained earthly phenomena rather

childishly because they lacked the mental capacity for

generating moveable capital. Loeb deems farming communities

that succeeded hunters to be more sophisticated thinkers

because they invented currencies (e.g., sea shells).

Abstract thought and more imaginative use of language and,

most importantly, proverbs were invented when animal

domesticators joined the farmers. "It was the cattle

peoples everywhere," Loeb asserts, "who originally had

proverbs, and these proverbs had the function of having been

the general fund of primitive philosophy, ethics, and law"

(101). Investing a great deal of faith in the dictum that

says "progress depends on the work energy developed per

capital" (101), Loeb says that cattle breeders were the first

capital efficient humans on earth and hence the creators of

the first proverb. "In Indonesia," for example, proverbs

"extended as far as cattle--i.e. to Java and Sumatra--but

not to the pig-raisers of Bali" (101). In proverbial terms,

wherever there is cattle, there would proverb abide.

In pursuit of his aims to exhaust possible explanations

for human intellectual growth, Loeb conceives the proverb as

the main indication of the type of abstract thinking that

ancient people engaged in. The intellectual development

that leads to proverb formation, Loeb says, evolves from two


preceding modes of thought. Subsequent modes, he continues,

grow out of the legacies of the proverb. Specifically,

proverbial thinking develops from magical and let's-pretend

thinking, and further development--deductive reasoning and

inductive science--build on the mental insights of

proverbial sayings. According to Loeb,

we have four phases of human thought succeeding
one another alongside man's material progress.
First comes play or magical thinking, the let's-
pretend kind, then proverbs, next deductive
reasoning, such as Plato's idealism, or the theory
of the idea, and finally the objective reality of
inductive science. (103)*


Functionalist anthropologists and folklorists do not

usually make overt claims to philosophical observations when

they study proverbs. They also do not often, without the

empirical support of field studies, speculate on the general

origin of the proverb. Striving to almost literally seize

words from death's mouth, they approach field work with the

intention of capturing for posterity proverb texts and their

significance to the particular people that use them. In the

course of such studies, proverbs are compiled and classified

under presumed categories of use that range from

philosophical observations to the codification of ethnic

thought processes. A good percentage of this kind of

scholarship agrees with Ben-Amos that proverbs are ethnic

genres over which analytical methods must be imposed to make

them academically presentable.s Proverbs are thus analyzed


under thematist, holistic, archetypalist, and functionalist


Thematists, in spite of the limitless topics that

proverbs encompass, classify proverbs into subject headings

like philosophy, religion, social ethics, and literary

figuration. Basically, I do not regard the philosophical

rubric as a serious classification. A great majority of

proverbs contain obvious facts, and if all such statements

are deemed philosophical, it will be better--though that may

not be too far from the truth--to say that philosophy itself

is proverbial. However, if we accept the validity of this

sub-class for now, philosophical proverbs are said to

include "a stitch in time saves nine" and "the rooster

certainly perspires, it is the plume that prevents us from

knowing." Also coming under this umbrella would be all

proscriptive and prescriptive statements whose

recommendations are rooted in commonplace observations.,

On the whole, philosophical sayings are those that state

incontrovertible truths. "A wealthy person is a selfish

person," for example, is regarded as a philosophical saying

on political economy because it contains an "unshakable"

truth on human motivation for unbridled accumulation.

Thematists probe proverbs for the purpose of

deciphering the cultural motivations responsible for their

creation as well as the social functions they serve. In

this group are those who, by concentrating on proverbs that

use injunctive and declarative clauses to describe

interpersonal relationships, sift out "unwritten"

theological doctrines and codification of legal principles

in the so-called "oral" societies. In fact, some

folklorists make their reputation on the sophistication with

which they extract these laws. For example, John Mark

Thompson, Edwin Loeb, and the one everybody cites, John

Messenger, have written a lot on how proverbs constitute

"unwritten" legal codes. Thompson cites the Indonesian

proverb "a rooster can lay no eggs" to explain what he calls

the absence of paternity rights among the Indonesian

Minangkabau. Curiously enough, these "non-existent" rights

belong to the mother's brother, who, simply put, is another

"father." In the same vein, Loeb says the Kuanyama--of

Namibia--proverb "a person should not shoot a bird resting

on his own head" proscribes, quite like the American Fifth

Amendment, giving injurious testimony against a relative in

order to prevent self-incrimination (102). Another proverb,

"a messenger in service is never harmed," Loeb also

interprets as expressing the legal dictum that "a king's

messenger has a safe convoy" (102). Messenger studies

judicial uses of proverbs as an example of forensic

eloquence that can decisively affect the cause of a

litigation. He focuses on effects, as opposed to meanings,

but most scholars after him disregard this aspect of his

work. That aspect of his work notwithstanding, Messenger


believes the use of proverbs in courtrooms is wrong because

such rhetoric carries the danger of misleading judges.7

Semanticists study proverbs to understand the cultural

values and ethical orientation of the societies that use

them. Thus, proverbs like the following are said to be

teaching prudence: "pull the child out of the water before

you punish it," "one does not set fire to the roof and then

go to bed." Similarly, the following are said to teach

cultural attitudes towards wealth: "the pipe of the poor

does not sound," "wealth is the man; if you have nothing, no

one loves you." In the same manner, the following instruct

about self-contentment: "an elephant never gets tired of

carrying its tusks," "I have a pot, why then should I search

for another?" The same goes for "one who cannot pick up an

ant and wants to pick up an elephant will some day see his

folly" (Jablow 123-27).s

Among functionalist studies, none are more intriguing

than those that propose the proverb as a veritable key into

understanding the ethnography of abstract thoughts. Such

studies begin with the premise that, though stylized,

proverbs hide behind aesthetic facades deeper patterns of

ethnic thinking. In one recent example of such study,

Geoffrey White seeks to apprehend the cognitive and

linguistic assumption that undergirds the "well-known

truths" that proverbs express. Since proverbs, according to

White, perform the main function of expressing the speakers'

evaluative attitudes about a particular situation, it is

inferable by the same token that proverbs suggest to the

hearers what courses subsequent events should take. He

says, "as compact expressions of important cultural

knowledge, proverbs combine a cognitive economy of reasoning

with pragmatic force aimed at influencing other people"

(152). White acknowledges that proverbs are different from

other forms of speech because they are overtly figurative,

but goes on to assert that they nevertheless function like

most other conversational regular utterances in the

classical communication model of sender-medium-decoder

cycle. Hence, despite their "metaphorical imagery,"

proverbs do signify social themes. Although proverbs do not

really say what they appear to mean, White believes that the

process by which these primary figurative signifiers become

literalized deserves an empirical study.

As I move on to discussing a proverbial utterance that

disrupts this very neat communication model of the proverb,

I want to mention briefly the findings of one study framed

in ethnographic terms like White's model. Starting from the

premise that "the best message is one that accomplishes its

immediate task of transmitting ideas from one entity to the

other, and the ultimate task of preserving social harmony,"

Owomoyela depicts proverbs as paradigms of oral (as opposed

to graphic) communication ("Proverbs" 15). He equates

certain African proverbs on characteristics of harmonious

social communication with what Nobuhiro Nagashima calls

"minimum message" communication, or the mode of speaking in

which "the sender abstracts the essence of the message and

sends it in a few suggestive words that will, in the

receiver's mind, result in an explosion of total

information" (96).

According to Owomoyela, minimum message is the guiding

light of non-western theories of communication, and no genre

or form emblematizes this theory better than the proverb.

Thus, he says the proverb, "ki aditi ba le cb6r&n la se n

so6 16if omo re (it is so that the deaf might learn about a

matter that we discuss it in his son's [sic] hearing),"

suggests that delicate matters that need to be said are best

assigned to a close relative of the concerned. He also

cites another proverb, "Pa mi sile. ma pa mi sita (kill me

at home, don't kill me in public)," as codifying the speech

protocol that "sensitive advice be given only in private."

Owomoyela further says "enu mi k6 n6 maa ti qb6 pe iy bdaal

a11ee (it will not be my mouth that will proclaim that the

queen mother is a witch)" pleads that one must exercise

prudence in deciding the amount of information that one

divulges in a conversation. Finally, he argues that the

statement "I&bp 6rb l1& so f6moldwhbi. t6 ba dend re v66 di

odindi (to a well-bred person half of a speech is enough;

when it reaches his inside it becomes whole)" suggests the

imperative of brevity in public discussions of sensitive


Owomoyela and Nagashima are definitely right in several

respects, but only partially so, for there are several

proverbs that question their findings. The type of proverbs

I have in mind make equally profound observations about

"communication" in so-called oral cultures. I want to

consider the one Owomoyela himself cites in discussing the

differences between oral and literate societies. To

buttress his position that written words attain

monumentality whereas those merely spoken are easily

erasable and deniable, Owomoyela cites a proverb that says

"6y1nb6 t6 se leedi 16 se iresa (it is the white person who

made the pencil that made the eraser)." In his gloss,

Owomoyela says the proverb recommends that the speed at

which all oral utterances can be denied is comparable to

that at which an eraser can easily cancel inscriptions

written in pencil. In other words, the "impermanence" of

the oral sound constitutes the "eraser." Ironically, the

erasable utterance comes into being via this erasing medium.

This contradiction leads me to the question that if the

proverb, like other "oral" genres, contains both its pencil

and eraser, where then are the permanent "communicated"

rules except those of pencilling and erasing?

When Archer Taylor said that "an incommunicable quality

tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not,"