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

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Title:
Words' horse, or the proverb as a paradigm of literary understanding
Creator:
Adéè̳kó̳, Adéléke
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English
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vi, 229 leaves : ; 28 cm.

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Linguistics ( jstor )
Literary criticism ( jstor )
Literature ( jstor )
Narratives ( jstor )
Novels ( jstor )
Poetry ( jstor )
Proverbs ( jstor )
Rhetoric ( jstor )
Signification ( jstor )
Yams ( jstor )
African literature -- History and criticism -- 20th century ( lcsh )
Proverbs -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

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

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University of Florida
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Copyright [name of dissertation author]. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
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WORDS' HORSE, OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING














By

ADELEKE ADEEKO


A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


1991
















Dedicated
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).















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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.


iii

















TABLE OF CONTENTS


page

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

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

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

CHAPTERS

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

2 ON THE FATES OF FORM IN THE CRITICAL DISCOURSE
OF AFRICAN LITERATURE............................ 54
Notes ...... .............................. .... 78

3 ". IT IS ONLY ITS MEANING THAT DECEIVES": ON
THE FATES OF PROVERBS IN PHILOLOGY AND
ANTHROPOLOGY ..................................... 80
Notes ......................................... 106

4 "WORDS' HORSE," OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING........................ 109
Notes ........................................ 137

5 "A MESSENGER DOES NOT CHOOSE ITS MESSAGE": THE
CONTESTS OF TEXT AND CONTEXT IN
ACHEBE'S ARROW OF GOD............................. 140
Notes ..................................... ... 166

6 "ALL THAT WE DO TODAY IS NARRATIVE TOMORROWW:
REFERENCE IN NGUGI'S DEVIL ON THE CROSS.......... 169
Notes.................................. ....... 195

7 KOLERA KOLEJ: A PURE PROVERB OF POST-COLONIAL
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

WORDS' HORSE, OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING

By

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.















INTRODUCTION

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

aesthetics.'

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


i











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.

Notes

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"
(241).















CHAPTER ONE

DIFFERENCES IN MEMORIAL

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)

1

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









14

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









16

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.

2

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.









19

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









21

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.
(773)

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.









25

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.

3

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









26

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

signs.'











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

perspective.

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

system.

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









35

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

meaning.

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.

4

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









39

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

existence.

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









41

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









42

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-

undoing.

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









43

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









46

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

problems.

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?""











Notes

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
longest.

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
meta-illocution?

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
materials.
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-
271.

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).









53

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.















CHAPTER TWO

ON THE FATES OF FORM
IN THE CRITICAL DISCOURSE OF AFRICAN LITERATURE

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.









55

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

Lawal's.

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









57

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.

1

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

difference.

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

figure.

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








71

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)

2

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








72

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

confines.

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

themselves.

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.


Notes

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).














CHAPTER THREE


". IT IS ONLY ITS MEANING THAT DECEIVES":I
ON THE FATES OF PROVERBS IN PHILOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY

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








82

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

chapter.

1

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








83

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

294).3

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








84

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"
48)

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








87

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








88

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)*

3

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








89

under thematist, holistic, archetypalist, and functionalist

headings.

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








91

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

matters.

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,"




Full Text
WORDS' HORSE, OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING
By
ADÉLÉKÉ ADÉÉKÓ
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
1991

Dedicated
In Gratitude
to my Parents,
E. Táíwó and Dorcas Abósédé,
and to the other Táiwó, the one who is my wife.
In Memoriam
to my Brother
Adébiyií A. Adéékó (1947-89).

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This dissertation would perhaps not have been written
but for the spirited support of several people. These
include Dr. Ropo Sekóoni and his wife, Bánké, and the
members of my committee—Professors Daniel Cottom, John
Perlette, Alistair Duckworth, and Olábiyii Yái (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 Sókúdalávé. As a way of
admitting the incalculabe debt I owe to my wife, Táyélolú
Éjiré, 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.
iii

TABLE OF CONTENTS
page
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS iii
ABSTRACT v
INTRODUCTION 1
Notes 10
CHAPTERS
1 DIFFERENCES IN MEMORIAM 11
Notes 48
2 ON THE FATES OF FORM IN THE CRITICAL DISCOURSE
OF AFRICAN LITERATURE 54
Notes 78
3 "... IT IS ONLY ITS MEANING THAT DECEIVES": ON
THE FATES OF PROVERBS IN PHILOLOGY AND
ANTHROPOLOGY 8 0
Notes 106
4 "WORDS' HORSE," OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING 109
Notes 137
5 "A MESSENGER DOES NOT CHOOSE ITS MESSAGE": THE
CONTESTS OF TEXT AND CONTEXT IN
ACHEBE'S ARROW OF GOD 140
Notes 166
6 "ALL THAT WE DO TODAY IS NARRATIVE TOMMORROW":
REFERENCE IN NGUGI ' S DEVIL ON THE CROSS 169
Notes 195
7 KOLERA KOLEJ: A PURE PROVERB OF POST-COLONIAL
ABSURDITY 197
Notes 220
WORKS CITED 221
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 229
IV

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
WORDS' HORSE, OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING
By
Adéléké Adéékó
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.
v

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 Achebe1s Arrow of God. Ngugi wa
Thiong'o's Devil on the Cross, and Femi Osofisan's Kolera
Kolei. 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.

INTRODUCTION
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
1

2
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
aesthetics.1
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 expediences. 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" fResistance 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

3
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 "nativists" 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

4
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

5
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, Jigüe 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

6
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

7
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

8
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

9
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 Kolei 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

10
situation in Kenya two decades after independence, and
Kolera Kolei 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: Achebe1s 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.
Notes
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"
(241).

CHAPTER ONE
DIFFERENCES IN MEMORIAM
. . . 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
Gasché, "In-Difference to Philosophy" 281)
1
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.
11

12
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

13
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

14
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

15
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 liguid
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 guestion and symbolizes a
refusal to understand fictionality, rhetoricity and

16
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,

17
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 différance. I
will then set out some specific components of literary
semiology and how they function in texts.
2
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

18
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.

19
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

20
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'" (7 68) .
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

21
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, saving
(meaning) "I" will be an impossibility though one utters it.
In de Man's words,
. . . 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

22
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

23
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, retrouvé.
(773)
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

24
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 différance 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 différance.7 By combining difference and
deferment, Derrida, in one stroke, joins together several
philosophical questions such as temporality, spatiality, and
being itself.* He describes différance 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). Différance does not
constitute itself outside of differentiation and deferring.

25
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 différance? First,
différance 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 'past1 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 différance (and
memorization), objectivity exists in its medium and egually
owes a good part of its destiny to the medium.
3
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

26
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
signs.9

27
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.10 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.

28
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

29
untenable. Let us now examine fictionality from this
perspective.
Reality frequently serves as the foil against which
fiction is deciphered. In such critical enterprises,
reality and content are equated with the referent
(literality), 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

30
with which it configures extra-literary items into its
system.
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.

31
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.

32
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)

33
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,

34
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.14 In order to set literature on a
semiological track, de Man suggests that literary theory

35
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.15
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

36
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.17 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

37
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
meaning.
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 "Folásadé is like a zebra"
is meaningful and "Folásadé is a zebra" is not because both
"meanings," "Folásadé" 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 "Folásadé
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

38
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, Folásadé'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.
4
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

39
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 Morazé remarked that,
concerning the dialogue of the past twenty years
with Lévi-Strauss on the possibility of a grammar
other than that of language—I have a great
admiration for what Lévi-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 Morazé, 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
Morazé's remarks is reproduced at the core of the critical

40
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
existence.
Certainly, rhetoric destabilizes grammatical univocity
and thematic coherence with the alogical powers of
figuration, but in order that a rhetorical reading not turn
itself into another meta-totality, Rodolphe Gasché says it
should "... [re]deconstruct the totalizing effects of the
rhetorical dimension of a text" ("'Setzung1" 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

41
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, alleaoresis. 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
Gasché'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

42
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 différance.
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¬
undoing.
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

43
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,

44
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.14 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 eguate
historicity with culture and eventuality with nature. The
latter terms in the oppositions are apprehended only on the
signification processes of the former. The former set of

45
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.21
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 [historicity] 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

46
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

47
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
problems.
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?"21

48
Notes
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
longest.
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 guestion 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.
49
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
meta-illocution?
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 'meaning1 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
materials.
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 Gasché, calls de Man a poor
reader of Derrida, and a critic interested in Derridean

50
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,

51
"'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.

52
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-
271.
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)
. . .'" (quoted in Derrida, Edmund Husserl's "Origin of
Geometry" 67n).

53
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 Gasché'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.

CHAPTER TWO
ON THE FATES OF FORM
IN THE CRITICAL DISCOURSE OF AFRICAN LITERATURE
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.
54

55
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. 0. 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

56
instance, Lawal surmised that "altar figures are not the
messengers of o!6run [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 ¿>rlsá (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
Lawal's.
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 focusses 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

57
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

58
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.
1
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
gualities 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.

59
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 psychologism 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

60
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

61
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 acceptances 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, Esü,3
whose figurines are at times carved with two mouths. In the
absence of Ésü. Gates insists, no hermeneutic step can be

62
taken to decode the elaborately structured signs of the
entire Yoruba narratives of the gods. In the light of this
phenomenon, Gates says Ésú lores and motifs can provide a
genuine clue to the structuring principles of African arts.
According to Gates, Ésü. for several reasons, became the
emblem of "black" speech in the Americas.4
He further proves that the descendants of African
slaves, borrowing from the Ésú motif and Jigüe 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 Ésú
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

63
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 Esü,
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
difference.
By virtue of their awareness of "intertextuality," both
the Signifyin(g) Monkey and Esü thrive on borrowing others'
utterances to edify or denigrate, or simply enjoy the
pleasures of rearranging others' words. Ésü'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

64
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.5 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

65
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
figure.
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 Fanón to condemn the
naivety and apparent loss of historical sense displayed by
those scholars who passionately advocate the virtues of pre¬
colonial cultural forms. Fanón 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, Fanón says, are ostensibly objective, but

66
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 Fanón's forgetful foreigners.
Fanón'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 Fanón. 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

67
identity concerns of the culturally "uprooted"
petit bourgeois class that was emerging in the
'30s. (28)
There is an assured eponymous relationship between Fanón'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 Fanón is the most visible source of these rejectionist
attitudes, I want to look into the hasty cauterization of
what he calls "cast-offs."
Fanón, 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

68
Fanón 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
Fanón 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

69
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

70
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

71
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)
2
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 itán, á!6. or irán,
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

72
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 pitan (pa_itan) 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 ltán. 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
aló, another name for narration, may mean hatching or
killing an "entwinement." Particular creative instances are
usually called árógún, árófó, or áróso. The root morpheme
in all the three words, ro, may mean to stir, to ponder
deeply, or to contrive. The first word, arpgün, will
translate as the aligned (or the straightened) contrivance,
thought, or stirring; the second, árófó. will mean the
spoken, the washed, or the bleached, contrivance, thought,
or stirring. The third term, áróso will then signify the
said or thrown contrivance, thought, or stirring. The
relationship between the latter set of words (árófó, áróqún,
áróso) and the former (pa ltán or alp, etc.) is that of

73
product and producer. When a narrator pa itán or aló.
he/she produces an example of árófó or árócrún within genres
confines.
In all these forms, interpretation involves some sense
of centerlessness, destruction, and construction.
Interpretation is 1-tú-mó 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
(kókó) 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 owe (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 section(s) devoted to remarks
on the preponderance of proverbs in the literary works.
Nonetheless, little attention is paid to the figural role

74
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
themselves.
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 (eran),
hyperbole (ihale, épón), metalepsis (áfikún. éni. or ajamó),
and under metaphor he collapses two comparatives. Following
the practice in contemporary Yoruba literary criticism,
Gates labels these comparatives as áfiwé ganan or straight
comparison and áfiwé elélóó or crooked comparison (87).
These are often times transliterated as simili and métáfó.
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.1
Yoruba language does not employ metaphor as a frame of

75
reference. It uses owe (proverb) instead. Concepts and
things wrap around each other as the root word wé implies.
It is also perhaps not accidental that the same word is the
root of iwé "book." We may quickly connect this to áfiwé
(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 orno ti kó qbón (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 bá
owe lá n lúlü óaidiabó. oloabón níi ióo ómórán níí lúú (it
is like proverb, again, like proverb, that we beat the
óaidiabó drum, [for] only the wise dances to it and only the

76
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, owe lesin oró, bi
oro bá sonü owe la fii wá 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

77
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 oió (rain)
when the culprit is Óió (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 owe (the "proverb"), they are hatched like
chickens. Immediately they are hatched, the contents, as we
say, become irrecoverable. Being forms of ár begin. 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

78
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.
Notes
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

79
point, Yai cites a famous poet who composes a song in honor
of his duplicity. Akéréburú orno Jálugun says,
Iwón ilú láá sélú
Akéréburú ni báa bá ti lówó si
Leégún i fi í jó fún ni
Mo nijó olójá loto
(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, Jigüe 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).

CHAPTER THREE
. . IT IS ONLY ITS MEANING THAT DECEIVES":i
ON THE FATES OF PROVERBS IN PHILOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY
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
80

81
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

82
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
chapter.
1
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

83
that conceals intellectual depth, triteness that has fuller
implications, and popular vulgarity that obscures great
wisdom. In each of the oppositions, 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
294) .3
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

84
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.

85
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.
86
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"
48)
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

87
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
capita" (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

88
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)*
3
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.* Proverbs are thus analyzed

89
under thematist, holistic, archetypalist, and functionalist
headings.
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

90
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 focusses on effects, as opposed to meanings,
but most scholars after him disregard this aspect of his
work. That aspect of his work notwithstanding, Messenger

91
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).*
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'

92
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
liberalized 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

93
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, "kí aditi ba le qbórán la se n
soó lóiú orno ré (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 silé. má pa mí 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 kó nó máa ti abó pé ivá báálé
láiéé (it will not be my mouth that will proclaim that the
gueen 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 "áábó oró láá so fómolúwábí. tó bá dénú ré vóó di
odindi (to a well-bred person half of a speech is enough;
when it reaches his inside it becomes whole)" suggests the

94
imperative of brevity in public discussions of sensitive
matters.
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
"óvinbó tó se léédi ló se irésá (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,"

95
little could he have imagined the amount of controversy his
observation was going to generate. Still less could he have
predicted the magnitude of structural studies that would be
aimed at digging up the something "that tells us" a
statement is a proverb. Taylor is not alone in his
quandary. His colleague, B. J. Whiting, says almost the
same thing when he comments that "to offer a brief, yet
workable definition of a proverb, especially with the
proverbial phrase included, is well nigh impossible"
("Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings" 331). In spite of these
doubts, structural descriptions of the proverb have
attracted equally bewildering efforts. Some of them are
actually reactions to Taylor and Whiting, while many others
are products of the era of structuralist studies around the
mid 1970s.
Whatever the inspiration, structural descriptions of
the proverb generally set out to construct the definitive
linguistic characteristics that distinguish the proverb from
other utterances. Many of these studies often conclude that
proverbial statements are usually unmarked by tense or
number and whenever they are so marked the modifiers are
usually inclusive words like "all," "every," and "none."
These characteristics lend the statements an aura of
timelessness: a lasting quality not subject to the ravages
of circumstances or change. The import of this is that it
could be scientifically predicted that any sentence with

96
these characteristics is either a proverb or carries the
potential of becoming one. But Dundes thinks (and I concur)
that linguistic definitions are flawed because proverbs
exist beyond the linguistic sentence. Were this not so,
Dundes says, "Salem village was not built in a day" should
be as proverbial as "Rome was not built in a day" ("On the
Structure of the Proverb" 965). *
In order to avoid the Dundesian criticism above, G. B.
Milner goes beyond the sentence in his characterization of
the proverb. He begins by breaking proverbial statements
into thematic quarters that he calls minimum structural
elements of true proverbs. After studying several German
proverbs with the aid of these units, he concludes that
every proverb has four segments clustering into two opposing
halves. Milner calls the first two quarters the "head" and
the last two the "tail." He also assigns positive and
negative values to each depending on whether the concerned
quarter recommends or repudiates an action. Thus, "penny
wise, pound foolish" is glossed this way: "penny wise" is
the head and "pound foolish" the tail. In assigning values
to the head-words, "penny" is negative and "wise" positive.
In the tail section, "pound" is positive and "foolish"
negative. According to Milner, if the two quarters in a
half carry similar values, such a half is positive, and
negative if otherwise. After testing this schema
extensively, Milner concludes that only four classes of

97
proverbs exist: (a) positive head and positive tail, (b)
negative head and positive tail, (c) positive head and
negative tail, and (d) negative head and negative tail. In
this almost algebraic classification, Milner seeks to remove
subjective (including cultural) feelings from scholarly
discussions of proverbs.
However, in assigning charged values to the quarters,
one huge foot sticks out of the concrete slab with which
Milner attempts to seal up the proverbial tomb: there are no
scientific measures for determining the cross-cultural
accuracy of those values. There is this very interesting
example of "rolling stones gather no moss," which
illustrates the fact that the very subjective factor Milner
seeks to remove returns by way of assigning values.
According to Dundes, "the Scottish and English
interpretations of the meaning of the proverb necessitate
different value assignments. In England, the stones refer
to the stones in a brook and these stones rarely move. In
addition, moss is considered to be wealth, prosperity, etc."
In England, therefore, "rolling" is negative, "stones"
positive, which makes the head negative. Also, "gather" is
positive and "no moss" negative. "In Scotland, however,"
Dundes continues, "the stones are thought to be the
cylindrical stones of an old fashioned roller. Such stones
must not be idle or else moss (lichen) will grow on them.
In the Scottish context, then, rolling is plus, stones are

98
plus, gather is plus and no-moss is plus" ("On the Structure
of the Proverb" 964). By reinserting the cultural factors
that Milner seeks to remove with his quadripartite theory,
Dundes queries its consistency and shakes its claim to
"scientific" classification.
Accepting the challenge of Taylor and Whiting, and
aiming to avoid Milner's "scientific" pitfall, Dundes
suggests that, like riddles, proverbs are ordinary
statements with "topic-comment" constructions. To him,
therefore, "all proverbs are potential propositions that
compare [identificational] and/or contrast [oppositional]"
(967). Dundes does not contest the fact that linguistic
structures make up the proverb, but he contends that it is
also made up of "folkloristic" structures, by which he means
suprasegmental semantic clusters that form the bedrock of
genre identification. For him, a structural study of
proverbs is best based on deduced formulae that are
functions of the interaction of syntax and semantics.
Working with this initial supposition, Dundes, therefore,
says there are only two types of true proverbs:i«
equational and oppositional proverbs. The first type ("A is
equal to B"), the equational proverb, includes "time is
money" and "business is business."n In oppositional
proverbs, the basic formula is "A is not equal to B,"
including statements like "two wrongs do not make a right"

99
and "one swallow does not make a summer." In summary Dundes
says,
proverbs must have at least two words. Proverbs
which contain a single descriptive element are
non-oppositional. Proverbs with two or more
descriptive elements may be either oppositional or
non-oppositional. "Like father, like son" would
be an example of a multi-descriptive element
proverb which was non-oppositional; "Man works
from sun to sun but woman's work is never done"
would be an example of a multi-descriptive element
proverb which is oppositional . . . Non-
oppositional multi-descriptive element proverbs
emphasize identificational features, often in the
form of an equation or a series of equal terms;
oppositional proverbs emphasize contrastive
features often in the form of negation or a series
of terms in complementary distribution. (970-71)
Written in a period when the study of folklore was
suffering from scientific anxiety, Dundes' wished to cure
paremiology of folk simplicity and fully describe the
distinctive features of the proverb. I do not think he
fully achieves his aim. If his suggestions were to be of
any unusual value, they ought to have predictive
capabilities: a lack for which he criticizes linguistic
descriptions. That is to say, that a Dundesian
understanding of the oppositional proverb "an ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure" should help us to
positively make up our mind that "a cent of admission is
worth a dollar of expulsion" is one. However, I do not
think this is Dundes's fault. Proverbs, structuralist
studies—to which Dundes's study belongs—often ignore, do
not subject themselves to neat categories because the
process for turning one statement into one proverb to the

100
exclusion of similar others is largely arbitrary. In other
words, Taylor's surrender is more honest because it suggests
that what makes a statement a proverb (its proverbial-ness,
so to say) cannot be "communicated."
5
There have been a few interesting studies on the
literary quality of the proverb. Among them is Lawrence
Boadi's study of Akan (Ghana) sayings. Boadi discovers
that, among the Akan, "the primary function of proverbs is
aesthetic or poetic and not didactic" (183). To test the
validity of his hypothesis, Boadi proposes some biblical
proverbs to some Akan elders and asks them if the statements
ring proverbial. In spite of the fact that these statements
express some incontrovertible truths, Boadi's informants
reject the following: "hear the instruction of thy father
and forsake not the law of thy mother" (Proverbs 1:8) and
"the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: but the
foolish despise wisdom and instruction" (Proverbs 1:7).
This rejection appears very curious to me because this is a
society that values age and respect for parents. The
informants also reject the following non-biblical proverbs:
"a stitch in time saves nine," "honesty is the best policy,"
and "a friend in need is a friend in deed." Fully
recognizing the fact that Boadi translated these statements
to his informants, and that this might have affected the
final forms presented to the subjects, it is still very

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important we notice Boadi's observation that the Akan people
valorize profound use of imageries in what they call
proverbs. In his opinion, the lack of such imageries
immensely contributes to the rejection of all the above.
According to Boadi, Akan people hierarchize their proverbs
"not on the basis of their factual content and validity but
on the quality of their imagery. The more concrete and
unusual the image, the higher the proverb rates" (185).
Boadi's study indicates that definitions of proverbs are not
universal and, more importantly, that proverbs are "set"
ways of speaking.
Quite unlike Boadi's, however, a great majority of
other literary studies of the proverb emphasize its
persuasive effects. For authority, most of these studies
cite several proverbs in many cultures stating such a point.
Blind to the fact that some of their explanations might have
been based on wrong translations, such studies begin with
the theory of rhetoric as pleasurable persuasion. Hence,
these literary paremiologists focus on the aesthetic quality
of the proverbs. So, when they gloss the Igbo statement
that "proverb is the palm-oil with which words are eaten,"
or the Somali saying that proverbs "put spice into speech,"
or the Northern Indian statement that says "proverb without
utterance, feast without house," they argue that proverbs
are primarily speech helpers. According to Kwesi Yankah,
for instance, proverbs being pleasure-inducing sayings are

102
aesthetic devices that breathe life into speech. "Thus," he
says, "a drooping conversation receives a sudden lease of
energy from the proverb and subsists on that" (328) .
No study, to my knowledge, on literary values of the
proverb surpasses that of Ruth Finnegan. She strongly
advocates that proverbs are more valuable for scholarship
when studied as literary figures rather than as other things
(cultural values, ethnic wisdom, legal codes, etc.). The
general tenor of her review supports Nketia's observation
that
the value of the proverb . . . does not lie only
in what it reveals of the thoughts of the past.
For the poet today or indeed for the speaker who
is some sort of an artist in the use of words, the
proverb is a model of compressed or forceful
language. In addition to drawing on it for words
of wisdom, therefore, he takes interest in its
verbal techniques—its selection of words, its use
of comparison as a method of statement, and so on.
Familiarity with its techniques enables him to
create, as it were, his own proverbs. This
enables him to avoid hackneyed expressions and
give a certain amount of freshness to his speech.
(21)
Agreeing with Nketia's characterization, Finnegan reads
proverb collections with the intention of cataloguing the
figures of speech that occur in them, and she finds
metaphor, simile, metonymy, and allusion among others.
Nonetheless, studies like Finnegan's are good only to the
extent that they can be used for comparative rhetoric,
because in several of the cultures that Finnegan studies,
those tropes she discovers have no other names apart from
the general word signifying the proverb. 12 Finnegan's work

103
is very important for underscoring the ethnic imperative of
genre if not also the generic imperative of ethnicity.
6
From the foregoing it is clear that proverbs are many things
to different scholars depending on the discipline of the
investigator. In fact, one would not be exaggerating if one
says that to still a few others the proverb is almost
everything about everything. How else could one
characterize this ambitious definition?
The proverbs are common sayings, based upon
collective and long-matured experience, knowledge
and wisdom, uttered often abruptly or as a matter
of habit, in a briefly set-terminology, in full
sentences or in small idiomatic phrases, not
necessarily grammatically correct, but quite
clearly understandable to the people in the exact
context and spirit, as tid-bits, hints, rhymes,
verse-couplets, often as practices and formulae
touching various aspects pertaining to different
situations of routine life and behavior. (Lourdu
79-80)
To further underscore the desperation that characterizes
proverb definitions, let me quickly cite another long
omnibus definition by B. J. Whiting, at the end of his "The
Nature of the Proverb:”
a proverb is an expression which, owing to its
birth to the people, testifies to its origin in
form and phrase. It expresses what is apparently
a fundamental truth,—that is a truism,—in homely
language, often adorned, however, with
alliteration and rhyme. It is usually short, but
need not be; it is usually true, but need not be.
Some proverbs have both a literal and a figurative
meaning; but often they have but one of the two.
A proverb must be venerable; it must bear the sign
of antiquity; and, since such signs may be
counterfeited by a clever literary man, it should

104
be attested in different places at different
times. (302)
A superficial comparison of these definitions will reveal
that proverbs are everything about nothing as some cynics
describe philosophy itself. Especially in Whiting, almost
everything that a proverb is said to be, it is also found
not to be.
7
It should have become clear from most of the researches
reviewed here that all of them seem to have a deep faith in
the communicating power of the proverb: either of ethnic
wits-dom or of its wisdom. Beneath these assumptions rests
the belief that proverbs are conduits of profound meanings
that are deducible from the permutation of contextual
constraints and sociological determinations. But I want to
ask, if proverbs are time-worn statements that contain such
depth, why is it their meanings change over time?
Obviously, a full story of the proverb must include the
change phenomenon in its destiny. Equally intriguing is the
fact that almost all the scholars reviewed here belong,
covertly or overtly, to the school of thought that views
permanence in speech forms as an indication of stable
content. Hence, the proverb is said to codify laws, mores,
and social attitudes of the people that use it. Traditional
wisdom reviewed here also says proverbs are handed-down
ageless forms that the ancients invented to communicate
their observations, and by so doing, guide, if not control,

105
succeeding life forms. In my own estimate, it is this very
fact of repeatability beyond the point of creation that
makes the proverb a form of writing in the general sense, if
we take writing, in the Derridean sense, to be
a mark that subsists, one which does not exhaust
itself in the moment of its inscription and which
can give rise to an iteration in the absence and
beyond the presence of the empirically determined
subject who, in a given context, has emitted or
produced it. ("Signature" 181-82)
One does not need much argument to show that all the
descriptions summarized above jointly share the very old
tendency in western scholarship—Derrida calls it
logocentrism—to relate every signifying form to a separate
inspiring being whose destiny remains the same, though
disguised, in spite of the experience of the signifier.
Such scholarship assumes "the simplicity of origins" and
"the continuity of all derivation, of all production, of all
analysis, and the homogeneity of all dimensions"
("Signature" 174-75). However, if proverbs are all that the
above discussions say they are, then they are incorrigibly
graphematic. In describing a grapheme or a mark Derrida
says that the permanent features that make a mark readable
are also those that chop it up into countless pieces
applicable in limitless contexts and thus take on
uncountable communications. Every citation then is an
iteration, a re-writing (repetition) which creates another
proverb. To quote Derrida again,

106
every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken
or written ... in a small or large unit, can be
cited, put between quotation marks, in so doing it
can break with every given context, engendering an
infinity of new contexts in a manner which is
absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that
the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the
contrary that there are only contexts without any
center or absolute anchoring. ("Signature" 185-86)
Apparently, proverb studies have always touched upon but
have not fully penetrated several of the issues of literary
understanding I discussed in the opening chapter. Without
doubt, proverbs directly problematize rhetoricity,
literality, and figurality.
Notes
1. This is the fragment of a German proverb cited in
Ojoade (23) . The full text says, "a proverb never lies; it
is only its meaning that deceives."
2. One current manifestation of this age old trend is that
hardly does any significant handbook or dictionary of
literary terms contain any entry on proverb.
3. I initially had the impression that these definitions
are simply ethnic ruminations of the Western world until I
came upon Tolkapiyyar, the earliest grammarian of Tamil—a
Northern Indian language—who, around the 7th century B. C.,
defined the proverb as "an old saying containing depth of
knowledge, brevity, clarity and simplicity as its special
characteristics and will come as a quotation in a given
situation" (Lourdu 129).
4. The question arises, however, as to what purpose
historical studies like Loeb's and Whiting's aim to achieve.
If, for the sake of argument, we say Whiting's is
philological and achieves no purpose other than satisfying a
curiosity for knowledge, we cannot, I believe, say that
Loeb's is as altruistic, especially if we consider how he
seizes on a particular way of speaking and constructs
elaborate ethnic psychologies and presumptuous cognitive
theories out of it. For example, at the end of his lineal
sketch of human intellectual growth, he says that proverb
formation is the first unemotional thought form ever
developed. As a corollary, all proverb-less societies are

107
unintellectual. And there are many of such societies, among
whom are a majority of North American Indians.
5. The writers believe that their so-called analytical
categories are not ethnic and that ethnic genres cannot
rightly aspire to analytics. They work mindless of the fact
that categoriality and genre can be both analytical and
ethnic.
6. Owomoyela's A Kii. for instance, is devoted only to
texts that either recommend or prohibit particular
behaviors.
7. He cites a situation he once observed in an Anang
courthouse in colonial Nigeria. "A man accused of being an
accessory in a theft became incensed at the manner in which
evidence was turning against him as the trial proceeded.
After a particularly damning piece of evidence was
introduced by a witness with the precept 'when the fire
burned the dog, it also burned the hunter holding the rope
attached to the neck of the dog,1 the accused pleaded his
innocence with the maxim 'the snail is bleeding.' Since a
snail, lacking blood, cannot bleed when wounded, the
defendant was asserting that he could not be punished for a
crime which he had not committed" (Messenger 70-71).
Actually, the accused committed the crime but was
acquitted by the jury (of elders) because the jurors felt
that if they were to convict him, they would be doing a
great injustice to the defendant, thereby making the snail
bleed more.
"Legal" usage of proverbs interests me because it
raises the question of citationality and precedence. To my
mind, anyone who takes the text of a proverb for a legal
code will ultimately be misled because proverbs do not have
statutory stipulations. As a way of preempting myself, I
want to say that proverbs are messengers of themselves and
of other words and not of any property law as Loeb proposes
above, nor of judicial inequity as Messenger argues. Were
these not so, the limitations on paternity that Johnson
explains above will not be contradicted by the fact that the
mother's brothers "own" the children. Proverbs function
like modern legal precedent citations that are referred to
not as laws but as illustrations of how the law might be
read and applied. In other words, they are not on their own
pieces of legislation.
8. All the sayings are so glossed because they are taken
to mean nothing beyond what they claim to be saying. Were
this to be really so, these proverbs will be ethical and/or
cultural codes and not proverbs. But the very fact that
they are proverbs raises the impossibility of
straightforward meaning. Proverbs, at least, are not

108
supposed to sav what they mean even when they mean what they
say.
9.Dundes substitution in the "Salem" proverb is not
acceptable because proverbs are "incorporated" pre-formed
utterances. Unfortunately, it is only the limitation on
what makes statements acceptable to the corpus that
linguistic and structural descriptions define (see Norrick
25) .
10. He makes this assertion after removing aphorisms and
wellerisms from consideration. Aphorisms, he says, are
literally true proverbs and wellerisms are attributed
statements. I believe that this division is false and
unproverbial because no aphorism is literally true and no
wellerism is actually literally attributable.
11. There are three variants of this group: (a) "he who is
A is B"; (b) "When there's an A, there's a B"' (c)
eguational verbs without the copula, e. g., "many men, many
minds." This classification pays no attention to the
different figurative and grammatical functions of the copula
verb. It does not matter to Dundes that the verb is a
copula in the first, which thereby makes the statement
metaphorical, and also unimportant to him that the verb also
contributes to the assonance and alliteration in the second.
12. She says, "proverbs are not always distinguished by a
special term from other categories of verbal art. The
Nyanja mwambi. for instance, refers to story, riddle, or
proverb, the Ganda oluqero means, among other things, a
saying, a story, a proverb, and a parable, and the Mongo
bokolo. is used of all poetic expressions including fable,
proverb, poetry, and allegory" (390-91).

CHAPTER FOUR
"WORDS' HORSE" OR THE PROVERB AS A PARADIGM
OF LITERARY UNDERSTANDING
De Man distinguishes at least three aspects of the
literal and material properties of language;
characteristics of all of these have a disruptive
effect on the illusory continuity of the text and
its meaning: (1) referring to the classical
theories of the sign, he determines these
properties to be relatively independent; (2) their
free play in relation to . . . their signifying
function shows them to be characterized by
randomness and arbitrariness; (3) their
representation or figuration in the text "disrupts
the symmetry of cognition as representation," or
to use more colorful terms, it extinguishes and
buries "all poetic and philosophical light.
(Gasché, "In-Difference to Philosophy" 278)
We must, first, demand that the major theorists of
Western literature be accountable for African
literary theory; and we must, second, turn into
our own vernacular traditions to define indigenous
systems of interpretation that arise from within
African cultures themselves. (Gates, "On the
Rhetoric of Racism" 16)
Is there any more fitting way to begin this chapter except
with two stories (not yet proverbs) about the proverb? The
first is from Ghana:
In Kumasi there was an incident in which a
subchief appeared before the elders in an unusual
style of clothing. He wore his wraparound cloth
inside out, his right sandal on the left foot and
vice-versa. Indeed his whole demeanor portrayed a
systematic violation of cultural and behavioral
norms. Against the prevailing background of order
and cultural conformity, the subchief's unusual
comportment was instantly decoded as a proverbial
message and challenged. "Tell us what you mean by
109

that proverb; how dare you! Do you seek to turn
the state upside down?" (Yankah 330)
110
The original collector of this story says "the subchief,
through a violation of the grammar of behavior, was
obliquely conveying his dissatisfaction with a previous
decision taken by the council of elders" (330). What does
this narrative tell us about proverbs and about sign systems
in general? In other words, are proverbs a "systematic
violation" of cultural and behavioral norms? Are these
systematic violations also systematically sanctioned? If so,
where is the violation, and if not so, why is it still
called a violation?
The second is actually not a story but part of the
introduction to an essay on proverb reception and
illustration.
There is in Yoruba a group of frequently used
proverbs which have the common point that a
person's actions, particularly if they are evil,
will surely have repercussions either on himself
or on some member of his family. [One of them],
eni ba so oko soia ara ile eni nii ba (he who
throws a stone into the market, it is of his own
household it hits), was used as an essay subject
in a Yoruba [expository, not creative writing]
examination paper a few years ago. . . . With a
few exceptions the greater part of the answer in
each case was taken up with an illustrative story;
in fact in some cases there was no introductory
comment at all, the "essay" beginning with phrases
corresponding to, "there was once a man who
. . .," "this proverb reminds me of the story of
. . . ." Sometimes the stories were given a
certain amount of setting with such phrases as
"about ten years ago there was living in our town
a man who . . ." or "one evening after supper my
father told me the following story." (Rowlands
250-51)

Ill
The Reverend E. C. Rowlands, the investigator cited above,
was surprised that
only six percent of those who wrote on this
subject discussed it in a manner which one might
be expected to adopt in an English essay, i.e.,
without reference to an illustrative story. All
the others felt impelled to introduce such a
story, and the five percent who produced stupid
and irrelevant stories . . . while not
understanding the point of the proverb . . . still
felt that some sort of story was necessary.
(251)i
What does this sociological description tell us about the
relationship between fiction, proverb, and reality? What
does it tell us about the relationship between fictional and
proverbial reality? What does it tell us about the speaker
in the proverb, or about the relationship of truthfulness
that obtains between the proverb utterer, the proverb
persona, and the proverb context? My answers to these
questions will be part of the main concerns of this chapter.
In the process of demonstrating that proverbs yield more
proverbs when interpreted, I discuss the relationship
between the proverb and reality on one hand and other
figures of speech on the other. It would not, of course, be
out of place for me to say at this stage that quite unlike
some theories of metaphor, proverbs are neither substitutes
for nor the names of unnameable entities.
1
In proverb studies I do not know of any saying cited
more often than the Yoruba proverb "owe lesin oró bí oró bá
sonú owe la fi í wá a."
This saying is so frequently quoted

112
that no less than eight (by my counting) different versions
exist in English language studies alone. Among all the
translations I have read, none surpasses Isaac Delano's "a
proverb is the 'horse' of words; if a word is lost, a
proverb is used to find it" (ix). For no apparent reason,
he puts scare quotes around "horse." Nonetheless, his
translation is very loyal to the source except for its
omission of the agent that employs the horse to search for
lost words and its substitution of "find" for "search."
With these corrections, the translation would read, "a
proverb is the horse of words, if a word is lost, we use a
proverb to search for it." Curiously, in the body of the
collection wherein Delano glosses each of the proverbs, he
translates differently: "a proverb is the horse which
carries a subject under discussion along; if a subject under
discussion goes astray, we use a proverb to track it" (109).
Thus, we have two different translations from the same
collector of the same statement, each with a different
focus. Still in the same book, Archdeacon S. A. Banjo, the
foreword writer, translates the same statement as "a proverb
is a horse which can carry you swiftly to the discovery of
ideas sought" (vi). The Venerable Banjo has no doubt in his
mind that this is the "meaning" of the proverb.j
If there are three different versions (two of them by
the author) of the same proverb in one book, we can estimate
how divergent others will be. I am therefore little

113
surprised when Yankah renders it as "the proverb is the
horse of conversation; when the conversation droops, the
proverb picks it up" (328). In a similar vein, Alan Dundes
translates in "Metafolklore and Oral Literary Criticism"
that "a proverb is like a horse: when the truth is missing,
we use a proverb to find it" (509). To Whiting and Ojoade,
"a proverb is the horse of conversation; when the
conversation droops a proverb revives it. Proverbs and
conversation follow each other" (Ojoade 20; Whiting, "The
Origin" 65). The oldest of these translations and perhaps
the one from which everyone else—Yoruba scholars included—
borrows is that of R. F. Burton, a British colonial
anthropologist: "a proverb is the horse of conversation,
when the conversation is lost (i.e. flags), a proverb
revives it: proverbs and conversation follow each other"
(306). Burton's collection was first published in 1865, and
had he not printed the original along with his translations,
I would have been of the inclination that all these varied
translations are results of historical distortions. But
apart from the orthography and the clause "proverbs and
conversation follow each other," the proverb has remained
unchanged for almost one and half centuries. Why did these
scholars translate 6r6 into "conversation," "ideas,"
"subject," and "truth?" I also wonder why sonú becomes
"droops" and "flags." Wá, suffering similar fate, turns
into "revive," "find," and "discover." These changes are

114
all the more intriguing because there are common equivalent
English words for the Yoruba originals. In one of the
translations, Dundes even adds the word "like,” which
entirely redirects the thrust of the proverb.
I surmise that these collectors and exegetes turn this
statement around to suit their own purpose, which very often
is supposed to be an explanation of the truth of this
statement with little respect paid to the manifest truth of
the language of the statement itself. Dundes, a folklorist,
cites it as an example of metafolklore. and Burton, an
anthropologist interested in ethnic wisdom and primitive
psychology, talks about lost conversation and its revival,
as all the others echo. To the last person, the translators
in one way or another focus on the function of the proverb
and bend its terms to such ends. For them, proverbs are
manners of elegant speech, but instead of granting them the
full status of a figure of speech, these scholars suggest
proverbs are like such figures.
Now let us consider an "unvarnished" translation:
"proverb is words' horse; if words are lost proverb is what
we use to search for them." Apparently, word (6ro) is the
master, the rider of proverb (owe), but only before the word
gets lost. Soon after, the proverb suggests, we (a) become
the new rider searching for the old rider. Thus there are
two riders, one before the loss and one after, but the
latter only takes on ownership to search for the original

115
owner who the proverb does not say will be found. Thus,
when word (oró) is lost, wg ride its horse (also known as
the proverb) to search for it, and not to recover, revive,
discover, or find it. Who is the "we" of this proverb? It
is certainly not reducible to the speaker, or else the
proverb would have to be a real rideable animal and the word
a real rider. The rider, "we,"i is as fictional and
figurative as the horse, the lost word, and the proverb:
that is, the riders are no more animate and thus more
materially important than other clearly "inanimate" parts of
the saying. Speaking proverbially, both the rider and the
horses are two partridges of equal height.*
One question I have not been able to answer and for
which this proverb has been of no help is, for what purpose
does the word ride its horse before the word gets lost?
This question leads to several insurmountable obstacles to
understanding that I believe the translations above sweep
under the horse's hoofs. It can be logically presumed that
word (orb) can never search for itself, hence "we" do that.
But still there is another incongruity. If proverb is
word's horse before the word gets lost, how comes it that
the horse does not disappear with its rider? To underscore
the importance of loss/absence in the entire configuration,
we need to note again that word (or6) cannot ride itself in
search of itself, because if this were so, there would
really have been no loss. We can also infer, again infer,

116
that since the proverb (owe) is the horse of words, "we"
shall simply disappear if and when, hypothetically speaking,
word (oro)—and not truth—is ever found. But the proverb
does not set out the conditions under which the word would
be found, though it mentions the circumstance in which it
will lose its riding privilege to "us." All these
incongruities set up blocks to understanding the proverb,
and if this is paradigmatic of other proverbs, what, if
anything, does it tell us about the proverbial understanding
of other proverbs and, perhaps, real life?* For succor,
let us turn to another proverbial anecdote.
"In one of the stories of the Akan we are told of
an Omanhene (Paramount Chief) who had heard
another Omanhene to be well versed in proverbs,
and sent his linguist to him praying to him that
he might recite a hundred proverbs to the linguist
so that he could pass them over to his own
Omanhene. The linguist went and having been given
water to drink as the custom demanded, was asked
the reason of his appearance. He told the king
the reason of the errand. The king asked him to
close his eyes. After a time he was asked to open
them. The king asked what dream he had dreamed.
He replied that he had not slept to be able to
dream. The king interjected saying, 'You have
rightly answered. Go and tell your Omanhene that
one sleeps to dream, proverbs do not come out of
the absence of a situation.1" (Evans-Pritchard 7)
The above is cited in a paragraph illustrating the
importance of context in proverb elicitation and
interpretation. As it is commonly said, proverbs are
generated and interpreted according to the demands of the
situation. Although the proverb says contexts generate
elicitation, it is quite silent about the relationship of
N

117
the context to the proverb to be cited. For us to be able
to do that we must equate "situation” in the above with
"word" in the previous proverb. If we do that, we will have
something like "proverb is the horse of a situation, when a
situation is lost, we use a proverb to search for it."
According to the second saying, proverbs subsist in a
"situation," whereas the first statement says that what
emerges in a "situation" (assuming for now that both
cultures mean similar things when they mention the proverb)
is the horse of words. Neither implies that the horse of
words is identical to the situation. If for the sake of
argument we assume that the "word" is equal to "a
situation," a combination of the two proverbs will still not
tell us that the proverb is a function of "word." Instead,
a situation or word rides the proverb (it's its horse), and
when the rider (a situation or "word") is absent, we mount
the proverb (word's horse) to search for it. In other
words, instead of the context generating proverbs, proverbs
give voice to contexts.
In fact, as Rowland Abiodun's ethno-semantic study of
Yoruba verbal and visual meta-language shows, "a situation"
is inconceivable without the machination of the proverb. In
that study, Abiodun employs a mythical narrative to explain
how Yoruba people employ owe (the proverb) as the emblem of
all "the communicative properties" in stylized expressions
like dance, drama, chant, song, poetry, incantation, and

118
even sculpture. As I read Abiodun's evidence for this
assertion, he denotes by communication, not the
"transmission of meaning," but a representation of the
"letters" of meaning. The mythical origin of word (pro),
proverb's rider, goes thus.
"Ódumáré [God] sat back and thought about how to
create more things in his universe. For this
purpose he realized he needed an intermediary
force, since he was too charged with energy to
come into direct contact with any living thing and
have it survive. Therefore he created Qqbón
(wisdom), held it in his palm and thought where it
could live. After a while, Ódúmáré released Qqbón
to fly away and look for a suitable place to
lodge. When Qqbón could not find a suitable
abode, it flew back, humming like a bee, to
Ódúmáré who took Qqbón and swallowed it.
Similarly, Imo [Knowledge] and Ove
[Understanding], which were also created, returned
for lack of suitable abodes, and were swallowed
for the same reason. . . . After several
'thousand' years during which Ódúmáré was
disturbed by the incessant humming of Qqbón. imó
and Ove. he decided to get rid of them in order to
have some peace.
So he ordered Qqbón. imp, and Ove to descend
(ro) making the sound hop." (254-55)
According to this narrative, the three elemental forms—
Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding—"became" word (pro)
only as onomatopoeia—a combination of the sounds hob and
ro—formed by God's grunt when commanding the three elements
to descend to the earth. The word, in essence, is not a
representation of the three elements but the marker of their
disappearance as life forms. (Hop is contentless, and rb
means to hang in mid-air or to descend.) So, "word" (pro),
the transfiguration of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding,
splits into many fragments (lá in Yoruba) when it lands on

119
earth and thereafter assumes the form of owe (the proverb):
hence the proverb "owe lesin oró.11
The story summarized above offers interesting channels
for the rhetorical reading I am trying to chart here. If it
does not do anything else, it offers an "ethnographic" proof
that the word is not necessarily a surrogate of wisdom and
understanding (or a situation), but the designation they
assume after their fall from the sky. Word (oro) is an
allegoresis, so to say, of understanding. By implication
then, whatever wisdom, knowledge, and understanding might
have meant in Ódúmáré1s stomach, once exhaled, they become
irremediably "poetic," and there is no return route by which
they can be made to reveal their prior selves. By
implication, too, the proverb (ówe) is the material
substance of speech, for it is the only item figured in
"physical" terms. "Word" (the descent of understanding and
wisdom) therefore has no life outside the proverb. Abiodun,
an art historian, also cites another saying, "élá loro
(splitting is the name of the word)" to demonstrate that,
since the moment of splitting felá) precedes the formation
of the proverb (owe), the latter are aesthetic forms of the
former. He says, "with the aid of Élá [the split], óró is
made manifest, and it is beautifully 'clothed' in poetry,
maxims and wise sayings, all of which are owe" (256). Given
the logic of the myth, I believe such inference is faulty.
Élá simply signifies the moment of touch down (or the

120
splitting) of the sound hóóró. and the only earthly
embodiment of this phenomenon is the proverb (owe).
Abiodun's justification of his "aesthetic" interpretation is
equally faulty. He cites the statement "kolombo ni oró n
rin (Oró moves around naked)" as portraying the stark nudity
of knowledge forms prior to their beautification, but oró in
this proverb is neither word nor knowledge but a homophone
that refers to a certain type of evil spirit that paralyzes
anyone who confronts it in its dense forest habitat. In
other words, this oró is a life form which the oró of the
myth is not.
In light of the clearly figurative suggestions of the
"ethnographic" texts discussed above, how can we
characterize the proverb away from Aristotle and the burden
of metaphor? At the general level, the proverb is the
collective name for all factors that make signification
possible. At the literary colloquial level, it refers to
any verbal or behavioral expression in a linguistic
community. But these descriptions risk meaninglessness: if
every utterance is proverbial, then none is actually
proverbial, because for anything to be, even linguistically,
there must be at least one thing that it is not. One rather
quick explanation is that the ruling classes in a society
determine what utterance becomes a proverb. As one Ghanaian
proverb says, "when a poor person makes a proverb, it does
not spread." It is very important we note that the proverb

121
does not say poor people's proverbs do not form, but only
that they do not enjoy wide circulation.
Focussing on the colloquial dimension of the proverb
that is our immediate object here, my characterization is
consistent especially after considering the problems I
highlighted with proverb definitions in the previous
chapter. Given those problems, it is rather accurate, I
believe, to say that the difference between a proverb and a
similar statement that is not may not necessarily be
linguistically perceptible but simply a factor of inventory
limits. That is, the difference between a proverbial
statement and others that are not is only a matter of
inventory boundary limits that are arbitrarily set and
without whose creation there would be no proverbs in the
first instance and also, perhaps, no non-proverbial
statements.
Proverbs are, most times, ordinary statements with no
exclusive linguistic markers. Proverbial statements are
arbitrarily selected among countless possible others and
incorporated. In fact, every proverb has the potential of
being replaced by a similar statement in the language.
Proverbial statements, in other words, are not selected
because they contain some wisdom which cannot be found in
other non-proverbial sentences. Rather, proverbs are
defined by arbitrarily imposed limits because, like other
"writing" systems, they are inventorized items. As one

122
proverb puts it, "a kii ié nil mórisá nivl (it is the
absence of an audible response to praise that makes a
divinity respectable)." In effect, what is responsible for
proverbiality is perhaps not the saying but what is silent
or invisible about it.
Another proverb demonstrates the above scenario more
cogently. It says, "awo félé bonú kó ié a ríkun asebi (the
thin diaphragm covering the stomach prevents us from seeing
the inside of the evil-doer)." Normally, this is supposed
to be a statement about cheerful guile covering up evil
intentions and how intent is undecipherable from the
outside, especially when it is not the case that every
cheerful face conceals evil thoughts. But let us look at
the proverb as commenting on itself. First, the proverb
says figuration covers up intention. Second, it implies
that although identities have boundaries, the boundary
markers also permanently efface the extent of the limit. If
we take the inside of the evil-doer as mere intention, we
are misled in that once the thin diaphragm is removed (the
figuration), we have an unlimited access to the gutting of
the insides of intention. But to my mind, that is not fully
correct, because once the diaphragm goes, only intestines
remain. We are left with only other diaphragmatic organs
covering up other things. Speaking meta-proverbially, the
"evil doer's" inside is only because the diaphragm is in
place. Once one disappears, the mystery (the identity) of

123
the other follows. So, the boundaries between the proverb
and the "literal" statement are non-phenomenal, a-formal,
and if I may say so, imperceptible. After all, what is a
proverb today may not be one tomorrow. According to one
other saying, "aboabo ohun ti a bá se lónii itán ni lóla
(all that we do today is fiction tomorrow)."
Proverbs are not easily divisible alongPthe traditional
literal-figural dichotomy because their "literal"
grammatical forms often present them as normal utterances,
whereas they are not literal statements. For their
"literal" demeanor, proverbs are studied as expositions of
moral, legal, and philosophical concerns of the societies in
which they occur. Tradition instructs us that we must trust
the "truth" value of the lexical items in the proverb
without any regard for the fact that, once labelled
proverbial, these words are no longer literal as such but
already part of a figure of speech. Most unfortunately, we
often forget that the meaning and the "situation" that we
impose on a proverb are no less proverbial. As soon as a
statement or a pattern of behavior becomes a proverb
(crosses into the inventory), its terms can no longer be
trusted literally, for they are now "floating" lexes that
have no particular meanings.
When a proverb says, Hlmáá wóo ká qbó,1 évin re níi fii
láá (* I will drag you through the bush,1 it is with his back
that he will make the path)," at the literal ex-proverbial

124
level, all the lexical items are self-explanatory, and
together they make an incontrovertible assertion about
someone partaking of the pains such a person wants to
inflict on others. But if examined figurally, this proverb
is not ordinarily about these actions mentioned here,
because the meaning, as I suggest above, is also another
proverb. This statement is deceptively simple, with each
word having a particular meaning. There are even quotation
marks to make it appear as if it is a citation of someone's
words. But since this is a proverb, there are no positive
identities for the bush, the person making the threat, and
the person making the comment. Some scholars evade this
question of attributing identities to proverbial elements by
saying that attributed proverbial sayings are wellerisms.
They also claim that "literal" proverbs are aphorisms (e.g.,
Dundes, "On the Structure"). No proverb is literally
proverbial except, perhaps, those about proverbs.
Immediately a statement crosses the boundary into the
inventory, it can not be "literally" true anymore. That is
to say that, while being outwardly realistic, the statement,
or the behavior, is no more real: it is now a proverb some
of whose characteristics I will further explain below.*
While still on the topic of the inseparable union of
the literal and the figural dimensions in the proverb, I
want to examine another proverb: "bí onilé bá ti n fi idi
isu han áleió. owe ilé tó lo niven (If the host begins to

125
show the bottom of the yam tuber to the guest, that is a
proverb of it is time to go home)." In other words, the
moment a host begins to scratch the bottom of the pot while
the guest is in the kitchen, the visitor needs to start
thinking about leaving. In its source language, Yoruba, the
saying interprets—before the guest does—the host's actions
as another proverb.
It is very tempting for us to translate the word
"proverb" in the saying as signifying meaning. Thus, the
glossed statements would be "if the host begins to show the
bottom of the yam to the guest, it means it is time to go
home." I renounce this temptation by reminding myself that
the language of this proverb has a word for "meaning." More
importantly, the term "proverb (owe)" fits into the symmetry
of the saying. There are at least three proverbs here and
it is the word owe (proverb) that joins them together. The
first proverb is the whole statement itself. The second is
"if the host begins to show the bottom of the yam tuber,"
and the third is "it is time to go home." The third is a
proverb of the second and together both constitute the first
proverb. Relating this to Okediji's preface cited above
(note 6), one could say that the playwright is telling his
readers and audiences that whatever they might regard as the
"meaning" of his work are other proverbs.
There is no doubt that proverbs do make references
beyond themselves, but these references, if not proverbs,

126
are not un-proverbial, if not proverbs, as the proverb above
states. So, if a proverb says, "when a proverb is spoken
about a wasted basket, the thin man understands," a thin man
may recognize the resemblance between his literal thinness
and the proverbial one, but this knowledge is not literal,
and it will be unwise for him to take visible offense
however provoked he might be. It is also true that "bi owe
bá io teni á á mó ó (if a proverb resembles ours we will
recognize it)," but on the authority of the proverb cited
above, I want to say that the knowledge is another proverb.
2
When proverbs are cited they become de-inventorized.
What results, however, is not literalization but a re-
figuralization or re-proverbialization. Before I discuss
the eponymous relationship of the proverb to other figures,
I want to describe, with examples from Okediji's Aiá Ló
Lerü, a few of the methods by which proverbs are used and
what effects these methods produce.»
When the narrator in a realistic story cites a proverb,
several problems of perception arise. In such situations,
one fictional voice cites another one with the proverbial
voice obscured. The proverbial voice is usually taken for
granted as part of a real world that the realistic fictional
voice is appropriating. But as the example I am about to
cite demonstrates, both the speaker and the spoken in a
proverb are equally fictional.

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Bí ó ti n ronú báyií, ó rí i pé ilékün motó náá
sí, eni tí ó wá nínú ré si jáde sita, ó si n to
Lápádé bó. Lápádé mú ákó ré nílé, bí eni pé ó fé
fi kó éjiká. Iró ni o, kó fé fi kó éjiká o; ó fé
fi se ohun Ijá ni bí óró bá di ijá. Sé oabón ni
áabálaabá fi n sá fún málúú. (As he resumed
contemplation, he saw that the car door was
opened, and the occupant stepped out, heading
straight towards Lapade. Lapade picked up his
scabbard from the ground, and swung it as if he
was going to hang it on his shoulder. It is a
ruse, he does not want to hang it on the shoulder;
he plans to make it a weapon in case a fight
breaks out. Is it not with caution that the
elderly one runs awav from a cow?) (7; my
emphasis).
In the inventory, the proverb reads "it is with inner wisdom
that an elderly person runs away from the cow."
Rhetorically, the usage makes the proverb an allusion.
However, the speaker's identity calls for some questions,
for we do not know who is making the allusion. It looks as
if it is the narrator, but this is a narrator that knows
more than the story it is telling and knows in particular
the proverb it is citing. These two instances of knowledge
destroy the atmosphere of believability that the author
creates through the realistic mode.
Here we have a fictional voice alluding to another
fictional voice, in order to create a realistic scene. In
so doing, the narrative voice assumes the ownership of a
voice that does not belong to it in a voice that,
realistically speaking, is not its own. Hence, Lapade, the
protagonist, is both himself and the elder running from the
cow and none of them exists. Furthermore, when the narrator
asks, "is it not with caution . . ."it addresses a reader.

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This address from a fictional voice to an ostensibly organic
body—the reader as a biological being—also complicates the
question of the reader: and organic addressee, organically
speaking, ought to have an organic addresser. To put it in
a question, is the addressee (the reader) partially an
appendage of the writing and not simply the "literal”
person?
The dilemma of the originating voice becomes more
complex in the next paragraph. The person who comes out of
the car is Audu, Lapade's former colleague who is now a
police commissioner. As soon as Lapade recognizes him, the
narration shifts into an internal monologue reported in the
omniscient voice. "Áabákó kini vil Asórán ibáié sebi t'óun
l'á n wi. asebúburú kú ara ifu (What trouble is this? The
[guilt-ridden] evil doer thinks we are discussing him,
salutations to the guilty one for the restless conscience)"
(8). Lapade has just stolen some money from an accident
victim, and as soon as he saw Audu he thought he was going
to be arrested, hence the relevance of the proverb. Here
again, it appears the speaker's identity is not clear. On
one level it seems Lapade is consoling himself, and the
narrator is reporting his voice (thus creating a realistic
scene), but on another level it may also be that the
narrator is passing a comment on Lapade's thoughts. But
whoever is the speaker, the statement remains a citation and
citations in proverbs are not attributable, because every

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instance of proverb quotation is inhabited by no less than
two voices.
Often subject to modifications, proverbs are not always
cited in their full inventoried forms. When a proverb is
altered on the paradigmatic axis—"Salem village was not
built in a day"—a "new" saying is not formed. Such
variation often creates humor. In the proverb "ohun tí mbe
léhin éfá ó iu óie lo (what is beyond six is greater than
seven)," the number "six" is partly homophonous with the
name of a northern Yoruba town Ofa. It is not uncommon to
hear the proverb cited as "ohun ti mbe léhin Ófá ó iu ilorin
(what is beyond Ófá is greater than ilorin)." Ilorin is
more northern than Ofa, hence the reason for the
substitution. I think the fact that this proverb is
acceptable further shows that the "genre" operates on
lexical play and not just on meaning. Substituting Ófá for
éfá and ilorin for die brings out the artificiality
(arbitrariness) of the canonical inventory.
However, if a substitution is made at the syntagmatic
level, greater disruptions are produced and often times a
new figure is created in the process. I will refer to Ájá
Ló Lerú again. At the introduction of a new character, Táfá
igiripá, the narrator fills in his background by saying
níbikíbi tí wón bá gbé n se ipádé ósélú, Táfá
gbódó wá láárin won ni. Nínú k'ó wá níbé láti da
ipádé náá rú, tábí kó dúró ti wón láti bá áwon tí
ó bá fé da ipádé náá rú já. Óun ni iqi wórókó tí
1 da iná rú. (Wherever a political meeting is
taking place, Tafa must be in their midst. He is

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there either to disrupt the proceedings, or to
stand guard against those who might come to do the
same. He is the crooked fagot that upsets the
fireplace.) (21; my emphasis)
The clause "he is" is not part of the inventory. It is used
by the narrator as a deinventorization method. This device
converts the proverb into a metaphor. Through a
nominalization process, the "lifeless" proverbial adjective,
"a crooked faggot that upsets the fireplace," is made to
describe a "real" person. The copula verb directly removes
the citational boundary the inventory imposes. This fact
questions the validity of all metaphoric theories of the
proverb. One may venture to say that instead of describing
the proverb as a species of metaphor, we should say that
metaphors constitute a way of deinventorizing a proverb.
The most common means by which proverbs are used is by
direct quotation.» When the quotation marks are omitted,
the proverbial statement is usually incongruous in the
general context. In such instances, the proverb appears
utterly "irrelevant." Unfortunately, such "irrelevances"
are usually reduced to literal realism when the proverb is
glossed.» In the following example, Taiwo berates Audu
(the police commissioner), for wrongly accusing him of grand
larceny.
"Aúdü áb'o ti njé, mo má ti mú süúrü tó o. Mo se
süúrüCi fún e tó o. . . . Bééni kii se iwo ni mo
bérü, bíkóse ijoba. A mbérú aláiá, ajá seb'óun
1 'a mbérti (Audu or whatever you go by, I have
been too patient with you. My patience is running
out. ... I have respected you long enough. And
I am not even afraid of your person, but the

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government [that gave you the police uniform]. We
defer to the dog out of respect for its owner and
the dog imagines we are afraid of him.)” (42; my
emphasis)
Here, the proverb is thrown into the conversation with no
explanations whatsoever, and the reader has to figure out
the different identities. We may say that Audu is the dog,
the government its owner, and Taiwo the respectful one. But
actually Taiwo is not respectful to Audu—and by extension
the government, and I think we must be able to say that the
dog is not an animal, but a police commissioner, however
"absurd" it may sound. The proverb denies the very respect
it recognizes.
We should not confuse the above method with ones in
which an un-inventoried persona is subtly added to the
proverb while still giving the impression that nothing has
changed. This is usually done either by the use of an
interrogative or by changing the speaker in the proverb. In
one example from Áiá Ló Lerú. Táfá igiripá, who has just
told Lapade that he (Táfá) has reformed his ways and now
stays out of trouble, throws down a burning cigarette butt
into the street from a second floor. When Lapade asks him
why he did that without giving any thought to whether or not
it hurts someone else, Tafa says he cannot care. Lapade
then slips in a proverb, "A ó ti se 'Fá kó má húwá éküró?
(How can we manipulate Ifa so that he will not exhibit his
nutty behavior?)" (23). The interrogative word is not part
of the proverb, and the "we" is a persona. In a related

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instance, Lapade chastises Audu for taking excessive
measures in investigating a road accident and ends his
speech with "B'élúbó bá ti mo ni e dá'mi re lé'ná mo o (as
the yam flour is so should be the amount of water you put on
the fire)" (30). Lapade adds "you" to make the proverb
address Audu and the police force and create a persona. 10
3
I want to shift my attention to the possibility of
describing metaphor and allegory—two standard tropes used
in literary criticism—as forms of proverbs. Although
Aristotle says, as we have seen, that "proverbs are
metaphors with transference from species to species of the
same genus" and also says in his illustration that, "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
Carparthian and the hare, for both have suffered unexpected
injury," proverbs are simply not metaphors. Metaphors,
literally speaking, do not mean what they say, i.e., they
are patently false, whereas proverbs must, most times, be
apparently true. Hence proverbs "literally" mean what they
say, though they do not necessarily say what they mean and
no trope ever does. Nevertheless, metaphors are, so to
speak, de-inventorized proverbs, or in other words, proverbs
tied to specific instances. What is true for metaphor is
generally true for many other figures. Any time a proverb

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is cited, one trans-proverbial trope is created and,
ironically, this trope makes the proverb "realistic."
Let us consider the relationship that obtains between
the proverb and the allegory. Broadly defined, allegories,
like proverbs, mean what they say, but they do not say what
they mean. Every proverb could be elaborated into an
allegorical tale,n and the tale, even when realistic,
will, of course, remain proverbial. By the same token,
every allegorical tale could be reduced to a proverb in
which the original allegorical indices will have totally
disappeared. I want to tell an allegorical tale for
illustration.
Once upon a time there lived a handsome young man who
through hard work became a very prosperous farmer. He was
richer than everybody in the village. His family loved him.
So did his colleagues and everybody in the village. He had
his eyes on one very beautiful young lady in the village.
This woman was so beautiful that when men met her on the
road they muttered to themselves, "Lord, why would you not
make this woman my mistress, if you cannot make her my
wife." Our young man wanted this lady's hand in marriage
but could not persuade her heart. After talking to the
village chief about the matter, he (the chief) intervened on
his behalf, and the lady finally agreed to marry the man.
Their wedding day was a holiday in the whole village.
Everyone was happy that this once-in-a-lifetime combination

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of look and luck was about to marry a befitting lady. As is
the custom, the lady was brought in the evening. While the
family performed the entry rites for the bride, the groom
went outside and leaned on a low wall to have a glimpse of
his sweetheart. The wall, suddenly collapsing on the young
man, killed him instantly. Henceforth, it became a saying
that "the person for whom we are bringing a wife does not
peep over the wall to steal a glance."
Here we have two texts: a truncated version of the
allegory and the full proverb text. The proverb, I can
easily assert, is not the moral of the tale, for both the
tale and the saying are fictional and proverbial
simultaneously. In Áiá Ló Lerú. Lapade cites the same
proverb to calm himself on an occasion when Tafa gives
directions to a taxi driver without telling him (Lapade),
the person paying for the trip. Lapade consoles himself by
saying, "eni a n obé'váwó bo wá bá ki i má nágá wo ó lorí
óqiri (heh, the person for whom we are bringing a wife does
not peep over the wall to steal a glance" (33) . This
proverb recalls the allegory, but Tafa is not a bridegroom
and he has no filial relationship to the place they are
going. Tafa and Lapade are going to interrogate someone
they have kidnapped and hidden somewhere. So while it may
be correct to say that the tale gave birth to the proverb
(though I doubt it), the "originating" tale has no causal
relationship to the contexts of citation. Who is the bride

135
here, who is the groom, where is the wall? Immediately we
say Taiwo the kidnapped, Lapade, and Tafa's undue secrecy
respectively, we destroy the meaning of the word "is." If
Lapade is the groom, then there is no original groom, etc.
In effect, we can say with a great degree of confidence that
when proverbs are allegorized, or vice versa, the fact of
endless signification is flaunted. One will be deceived if
one succumbs to the ruse of realism that the resulting
deinventorization may suggest. For example, in the
situation cited above, Lapade uses the interjection "heh" to
make the proverb a profound personal observation, but this
word does not bridge the gulf that separates the context and
the proverb. Proverbs, to adopt Roland Barthes, signify
"ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated
to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure" (12).
To close this section, I want to further borrow
Barthes's words to assert that proverbs subvert "the
opposition between true and false," disregard "all respects
for origin," and muffle "the voice which gives the text its
organic unity" (44). Proverbial reality is not literal and,
as the Ghanaian incident reported above shows, even literal
reality can, to a large extent, be proverbial. Proverbial
elements, like the referential indices in realistic
narratives, do not de-figuralize the situation described.
Instead, they are like "we" in "proverb is the horse of

136
word; when word is lost we use proverb to search for it":
they have no palpable referents outside the saying.
4
In conclusion, let us refer back to what I said earlier
in the second chapter about fiction, hermeneutics, and the
proverb. When someone recites a narration (róqún. rofo, or
roso), that person hatches proverbs. In the same manner,
every proverb citation is a form of narration (árógún) or
alignment of words. As narration may effect a proverbial
reaction, so could a proverb be the product of a narration.
What is the place of meaning here? As I said in the opening
chapters, meaning is not a graspable entity but the undoing
of proverbial folds that—equally ungraspable—lead to the
creation of other folds.
From the foregoing, I can also say that the ethnic
imperative in the definition of the proverb is part of the
problem. Africans, at least the Yoruba, figure the proverb
in much larger terms than European-derived cultures.
Nevertheless, my discussions also demonstrate that ethnicity
cannot be an excuse for avoiding comparative "rhetorical"
reading, for issues addressed in my Yoruba examples apply as
well to their non-Yoruba counterparts.
If only for the fact that its author conspicuously
hovers around this chapter, I cannot resist the temptation
of giving the last words to the following passage as it
relates in almost exact terms to the question of the

137
proverb. I am struck the more by the very close similarity
between the metaphors "sheaf" and "book," and the proverb
(owe). Recalling what I said about hermeneutics and
interpretation in the second chapter, I believe no English
word could better describe the interpretation process in
proverbial understanding of literature than the sheaf as
used by Derrida in "Différance."
. . . the word sheaf [owe] seems to mark more
appropriately that the assemblage to be proposed
has the complex structure of a weaving [irán], an
interlacing [aló] which permits the different
threads and different lines of meaning—or of
force—to go off again in different directions
[the voice is an egg . . .], just as it is always
ready to tie itself up with others. (Margins 3)
Notes
1. I imagine how well these candidates fared in the
examination conducted by those English gentlemen (and
perhaps women) whose idea of an essay was radically
different from that of the examinees. Reverend Rowlands, I
must indicate, acknowledges that this is a crucial
difference in perception, but how widespread that sentiment
was among the examination bureaucrats, no one can easily
tell. Reverend Rowlands does not explain how he determines
relevance, but I guess that it must have been based on
perceivable correspondences between events in the proverb
and the narration.
2. Both Reverend Banjo and Dr. Delano are well steeped in
English and Yoruba. Both men possess, at least for Yoruba,
what linguists will call native speaker competence.
3. As Gayatri Spivak might put it, "the 'self' is itself
always production rather than ground" (212) .
4. This is in reference to the Yoruba proverb "aparó kan 6
ga iü kan lo. áfi éví tó bá aun ori ebé." Translated
literally, it says "one partridge is not taller than the
other except the one that climbs onto a heap."
5. Is this proverb about proverb different from all other
proverbs? I raise this question because there are other
proverbs that say that the words of a proverb should not be

138
trusted. In other words, is my reading not putting too much
unproverbial trust in this proverb? Is the proverb in
"proverb is the horse of words" the same as in proverb as
such? Does this proverb include itself in the
characterization? If so, which words ride it?
6. Let me quickly refer to a situation in which a
playwright used this dichotomy between the inventorized unit
and the literal utterance to educate his audience on
realism. After the first performance of his Réré Rún.
Oladejo Okediji received tons of letters asking him why he
put the workers in the play under the rule of feudal rulers
and not that of modern captains of industry. In reaction,
Okediji took the pains to explain in the preface to the
published version that "6we ni mo fi eré onitán vii pa; owe
náá si ié óaédé ená fifó (it is a proverb that I make this
play to be; and the proverb is entirely ciphered)" (p. vi).
For Okediji, although the play is "literal" (or realistic)
in parts, it is on the whole a proverb and whoever, reading
just the literal parts, takes it otherwise is misled.
Okediji, a master of proverbs, believes that proverbs are
"meaningful" and not meaningful at the same time.
7. The story is about a retired Nigerian police Inspector
who unwittingly gets himself involved in crime. The main
body of the story narrates how the Inspector extricates
himself from evil associations by solving the crimes and
putting the Police to shame.
The title is an abbreviation of the proverb "áiá ló
lerú. iró ni pepe n pa (it is the rafter that owns the load,
the shelf is merely an impostor)." Speaking non-
proverbially, assuming that is possible, the rafter (áiá),
as part of Yoruba farm-houses, carries more weight than the
shelf (pepe). The novel is full of proverbs, and the
narrator cites proverbs in ways that thematize the problems
associated with the proverb as a literary phenomenon.
8. The quotation marks I want to say can also be verbal
and indicated with formulas like, "as they say," "as you the
elders put it," or "to cite a proverb."
9. As a matter of fact, however, the very reason that the
incongruous "unrealistic" proverb can be made real shows
that the realistic narration is not "real."
10. This example leads me to the point that proverbs
comment on situations as well as the narration or
conversation itself. On the next page, which is the end of
a chapter, Lapade summarizes his troubles thus: "since the
time he has walked into trouble on the way from the farm, it
had been multiplying relentlessly. Instead of the witch to
be getting better, she continues to give birth to daughters;

139
birds roll into birds" (31). While the proverb is part of a
report on Lapade's thoughts, it is also a comment on the
story line. It summarizes the unravelling of the plot
structure which, up till that point, has been a catalogue of
reproductions of the same.
11. This is the relationship between the proverb and
extended fiction Kenneth Burke has in mind when he asks,
"could the most complex sophisticated works of art
legitimately be considered somewhat as 'proverb writ large"'
(256). This is a conclusion to the views that literature is
a strategy for dealing with complicated human situations
which, albeit in miniature forms, the proverb also deals
with. He therefore describes the proverb as "realism for
promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling,
instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such
acts have upon matters of welfare" (255) .

CHAPTER V
"A MESSENGER DOES NOT CHOOSE ITS MESSAGE”: THE CONTESTS
OF TEXT AND CONTEXT IN ACHEBE'S ARROW OF GOD
"Are tropes African?”—when we have pinpointed the
relation between a metaphor and metonymy . . .
have we learned anything new, or have we
domesticated the text to our own cognitive system,
subjugated it to our "theories?" (Miller,
"Theories of Africans" 139).
Chinua Achebe is the paradigmatic "post-colonial" writer
both in theory and in practice. Among his peers, he is the
most consistent in calling for employing literature to show
that colonialism is a dated event and that it occupies a
little, though very important, chunk in the historical
experience of peoples conguered by Europe. He deems it
imperative to enlighten his readers about, to use his
favorite phrase, where the rain started to beat the
colonized African. Achebe begins his crusade at the most
elementary level by insisting that "African" topics are
appropriate for creative writing. In his famous essay, "The
Novelist as a Teacher," he says, for example, that part of
his duty as a writer is to teach a school boy trying his
hands on poetry but ashamed of writing about harmattan
because it is not as "poetic" as winter that "there is
nothing disgraceful about the African weather, that the
palm-tree is a fit subject for poetry" (162). At the
140

141
rhetorical level, Achebe devises a clever way of weaving
African idioms and patterns of speech into his stories,
among which he makes translated Igbo proverbs his signature
figure. On this technique, many critics agree that the use
of proverb is the "most self-conscious” aspect of Achebe's
writing. As it were, Achebe's use of proverb is itself
proverbial in the criticism of African literature. These
sayings are so conspicuous in his novels that they
constitute the most studied singular feature of his craft.1
Critics of anthropological persuasion point out that
Achebe's "vernacular" English bears African native interests
without strain because it flies on the wings of proverbs and
tales that "embody general truths" (Cairns 4). Due to the
fact that proverbs often employ concrete images, Cairns
suggests, rather barefacedly, that the sayings are accurate
reflections of the African disposition for non-abstract
thoughts (16). There are, of course, more perceptive
studies of the proverb, among which are those that argue
that Achebe uses proverbs to add distinctively local shade
to his settings, depict the speech patterns and conventions
of Igbo characters who would not ordinarily speak English,
define his characters by particular types of proverbs, and
also exercise narrative control by changing "thematic"
statements as his plots develop. In addition, such studies
reveal that women and children do not cite proverbs in
Achebe's Igboland and that "educated" people (ironically,

142
like Achebe himself), more often than not, forget or misuse
proverbs.
In spite of the large attention paid to Achebe's
inventiveness, I want to argue that something is missing in
these analyses: a lack of rhetorical consideration of this
all important aspect of Achebe's work and, by extension,
African literature in English.! Two factors could have, in
the main, contributed to this neglect. First, paremiology
used to be almost exclusively an anthropologist's forte
wherein proverbs were defined in terms of the mores of the
people that use them. Second, many critics believe that
Achebe chooses the proverb as his signature idiom because he
is a teacher, his novels are his lesson plans, and no other
figure known to literary anthropology helps the teacher
better than the proverb (Achebe, "The Novelist" 162).3
In another sense, the lack of rhetorical attention in
proverb studies in African literary criticism may also be
due to the type of cautions Miller expressed in my epigraph
that non-western critical idioms be left undisturbed by the
angst of theory. Following Miller's caution as such, the
proverb is best studied as an index of ethnic difference and
should not be subjected to "literary" evaluation. In fact,
several other advocates of non-western cultures in western
and westernized academies have expressed similar concerns
(e. g., Tifflin, Slemon). They argue that if the African
text is wholly absorbed into the conventional critical

143
jargon, such literature would have served no purpose other
than supplying further validation or, put another way, a
wider data base for western theories and, if you will,
tropes. Unfortunately, leaving these texts alone produces
an equally detestable tendency, because non-western
literatures will simply become transparent, self-explaining
markers of difference around which independent systems of
apprehensions must be constructed. My own approach is that
non-western texts, assuming for now that they are radically
and positively non-western (which I doubt), do not need the
protection of either contending option. Each side of the
fence (western and non-western), contrary to what its
partisans might recommend, recognizes, as one Igbo proverb
says, that "where one thing stands, another will stand by
it." To put it crudely, the trope has no race, and if not
anything else, it is not caucasoid. An appeal to
anthropological difference, as Miller does, cannot be an
antidote for imperial arrogance because, if Edward Said is
to be believed, all anthropologies exist at the pleasures of
imperial interests (225).
As I have argued, certain fundamental questions, which
no anthropology may defray, can be raised legitimately about
the proverb. Where is the place of context in proverb
explanations? What is the reliability status of the
cultural information a proverb provides? And how do we
overcome the high degree of indeterminacy that must be

144
factored into the interpretation of proverbs? To begin
answering these questions, I want to introduce a different
dimension to the study of proverbs in Achebe's fiction by
embarking on a rhetorical reading of one thematic saying in
his Arrow of God. I am going to discuss the discrepancy
between the injunctions of the proverb "a messenger does not
choose its message" (158) and the activities of messengers
in the story. In doing this, I intend to show that while
the proverb might be considered to be an indigenous teaching
tool in Achebe's hands, it may sometimes fail to obey
Achebe's instruction.
1
Arrow of God is the story of a priest called Ezeulu,
the British colonial administration in an African community
around the second decade of this century, and the Umuaro
people at the time a distant power crawls in over them. In
the encounter, the destinies of the chief priest, his deity,
and his people are permanently altered. The Priest performs
certain cleansing rites during festivals whose dates he sets
and appoints. At these festivals, especially the New Yam
feast, every one in the federation restates his or her
commitment to the survival of the community by actively
participating in the celebrations and making special
offerings to the deity, Ulu. The most important of these
offerings is the healthy yam tuber that every male head of
each household leaves at Ulu's altar. From among these

145
tubers, Ezeulu selects the best ones, which he eats one at a
time as he sights a new moon. In all, he eats thirteen yams
every year, and at the end of each cycle he announces the
end of the calendar and the commencement of another planting
cycle. This is an extremely powerful but hitherto dormant
political attachment to the office that no Ezeulu had
contemplated exercising.
Events force the current Ezeulu to test that power.
While away from his village, detained by the colonial
administrator for not readily agreeing to be a chief over
his people (who recognize no such office), he misses eating
two yams. This means that sometime towards the end of the
calendar, life in the federation will be at peril for two
months during which the citizens can neither harvest, nor
eat new yams. Since its whole economy is tied to the yam
trade, it also means the society, as it were, will grind to
a halt. When Ezeulu is eventually released, he refuses to
eat more than one yam at a time. In the midst of the
crisis, his favorite son dies and Ezeulu goes mad. In order
to survive, family heads ask their sons to present their
yams for blessing at the local Anglican Church's harvest
ceremony, which thus renders Ezeulu and his deity
irrelevant.
The colonial and Christian missionary presences in the
area also contribute in other ways to the schism that the
yam-eating imbroglio expands. Of utmost importance among

146
these intrusive behaviors is the offer of a Warrant
Chieftaincy (a euphemism for kingship) to Ezeulu by the
local British representative. Ezeulu rejects the offer, but
his people receive the news with a lot of cynicism because
he has, in the recent past, behaved in ways that suggested
he was scheming for the chieftaincy. Among many other
things, he has sent one of his sons to the missionary school
and has testified against his people, in a white man's
court, over a bitter land dispute with their neighbors.
This novel can be easily interpreted as dwelling on the
destruction of local customs by a colonial machine aided by
the technological inferiority of the colonized. It requires
little effort to prove that the colonial bulldozer razes
every thatched roof in its path because the local community,
being a house divided against itself, cannot resist the very
first surge of assault. Be that as it may, the story is as
well about the proverbial texture of the interactions
between the colonial administration and the natives. In
fact, the novel can be understood differently if we examine
the relationship that exists between the terms of some key
proverbs in the story and the course of events therein. One
such major statement that summarizes the context of the
tragic encounters between the Umuaro Federation and the
British invaders says "a messenger does not choose its
message." As I argue presently, much as they are over
political control, the tragic conflicts are also about the

147
superiority of the message (meaning) over the messenger
(text).
2
The proverb is first used in the middle of the story
shortly before Ezeulu rejects the chieftaincy offer. The
District Officer sends a Court Messenger to summon Ezeulu to
the district headquarters. An interesting dialogue on
message and messenger ensues after Ezeulu tells the
messenger that he is not going to honor Captain
Winterbottom's invitation.
"Do you know what you are saying, my friend?"
asked the messenger in utter unbelief.
"Are you a messenger or not?" asked Ezeulu.
"Go home and give my message to your master."
(157)
Everyone in the room is surprised by the messenger's
impetuousness. Ezeulu's closest friend, Akuebue, sensing
his friend's irritation, quickly intervenes by appealing to
tradition:
"In Umuaro it is not our custom to refuse a call,
although we may refuse to do what the caller asks.
Ezeulu does not want to refuse the white man's
call and so he is sending his son."
"Is that your answer?" asked the Court
Messenger.
"It is," replied Akuebue. (157)
Then, in an absurd twist, the messenger rejects his
commission and says, "'I will not take it'" (157). Utterly
surprised, Akuebue says, "'I have never heard of a messenger
choosing the message he will carry'" (158). The messenger
"chooses" his message, as Akuebue implies, because there is

148
no proverb prohibiting such behaviors where he comes from,
but because the messenger believes he speaks for the English
Crown, and he finds it incomprehensible that a local
potentate could so dismiss the white master's sub-poena.
This miniature colonial encounter is going to lead to
greater tragedies for Ezeulu and his community as the story
unfolds.
In tracing the itinerary of the sad events that ensue,
it strikes me that most other key conflicts in the novel—
even before this encounter—occur over the control of either
messages or messengers. At several crucial moments, the
plot relies on the outcome of struggles over the command of
the message and messenger interaction, and on every such
occasion, the messenger succeeds regardless of whatever each
of the contestants think. The messenger at each of these
turns demonstrates that it has a mind of its own independent
of the fates of its message, its sender, and its intended
receiver. In every instance, the messenger accepts all
messages dumped on it, but delivers only those that suit it.
3
The first consequential conflict in the novel arises
over a land dispute between Umuaro and her neighbor, Okperi.
To negotiate a settlement, the Umuaro village council sends
a delegate, led by Akukalia, to Okperi with the traditional
instruments of bargain—a lump of white chalk (peace) and a
few yellow palm fronds (war). The council charges Akukalia

149
and his companions with the mission of presenting to Okperi
the choice of either a bloody or a peaceful resolution of
the dispute. One of the elders at the meeting, speaking on
behalf of the council, specifically tells Akukalia, "'we do
not want Okperi to choose war; nobody eats war. If they
choose peace we shall rejoice. But whatever they sav you
are not to dispute with them. Your duty is to bring word
back to us'" (19). As Ogbuefi Egonwanne bids here, the
emissaries are to be true messengers, though, according to
Ezeulu's disputation, not necessarily messengers of truth.
The clan expects Akukalia to be a transparent messenger in
whom its message could be easily read, for according to
proverbial injunction, he cannot choose his message. But as
events unravel, Akukalia, like all messengers in this novel,
does not remain innocent for long. For one, his mother is
from Okperi, and he still nurses a grudge against her for
brutality towards him when he was younger. This hidden
animosity influences the way he chooses to deliver the
message.
The message, partly due to the messenger's meddling
with his charge, actually miscarries when Akukalia reaches
Okperi. First, that is the market day in Okperi, and there
are not too many qualified people around to receive the
message. Second, Akukalia is impatient and refuses to
return at a more convenient time because, according to him,
his "mission could not wait" (25). The urgency, I need to

150
state, is not part of the message, and there is therefore
little surprise, except for the messenger who has added the
urgency, when Ebo, his Okperi host, says, "'I have not yet
heard of a message that could not wait"' (25). A heated
argument ensues, and at one point Ebo, presumably
innocently, censures Akukalia that, "'if you want to shout
like a castrated bull you must wait until you return to
Umuaro'" (26). Incidentally, Akukalia is an impotent man,
"whose two wives were secretly given to other men to bear
his children" (26). At this point the hitherto wayward
message totally falls through. Akukalia runs into Ebo's
family shrine and breaks his ikenga, "the strength of his
right arm" (27). By so doing, Akukalia commits the greatest
sacrilege, for the action amounts to severing Ebo's
communication channel with his ancestors. To convince his
primogenitors that he is still alive, Ebo dashes inside,
loads his gun, and blows off Akukalia's head. By virtue of
this incident, the Okperi people unwittingly choose war
because, as tradition demands, Umuaro must draw equal
compensation for Akukalia's loss. Akukalia does not live
long enough to deliver personally the options as his charge
demands, but the message is delivered one way or the other.
The messenger's body, even in death, appears to be the
anchor of the mission.
Before discussing the biggest singular conflict in the
story, I want quickly to examine another important episode

151
involving an argument over the supremacy of message and
messenger. The colonial administration wants to make Ezeulu
chief over his people and therefore be its messenger.
Already, Ezeulu is a messenger of Ulu and the Umuaro
community, but Tony Clarke and his superiors in the colonial
hierarchy do not perceive him as one. So, after making his
offer through an interpreter, Clarke asks, "'well, are you
accepting the offer or not?'" (196). Ezeulu replies,
"Tell the white man that Ezeulu will not be
anybody's chief, except Ulu."
"What!" shouted Tony Clarke. "Is the fellow
mad?"
"I tink so sah," said the interpreter.
"In that case he goes back to prison."
Clarke was now really angry. What cheek! A
witch-doctor making a fool of the British
Administration in public! (196)
Clarke's detention order spells doom for the community, and
greater conflicts over the role of the messenger develop.
Ezeulu already sees himself as a messenger of his god,
whose command he does not dispute, but Clarke and
Winterbottom read him incorrectly by assuming that he is a
transparently honest messenger on whom they could load their
own message. They develop the wrong prompt after listening
to the chief's testimony against his own clan during the
Okperi-Umuaro land dispute. Somehow, they cultivate the
belief that Ezeulu's deposition, which contradicted his
clan's claims, marks him out as a transparently honest
person who can be trusted with the Crown's directives to
Umuaro citizens. The colonial operatives do not know that

152
Ezeulu's testimony is one aspect of a crusade he is waging
against a section of the community. That is to say that
Ezeulu, contrary to the perception of the British officials,
is not a mute messenger on whose face anyone can just
inscribe messages. Ezeulu is a messenger with a mission.
What I regard as the biggest singular conflict in the
story happens over the eating of two calendrical yams I
mentioned above. As earlier remarked, the chief priest sets
aside thirteen big yams after the New Yam Feast, and he eats
one at the sighting of a new moon. On eating the twelfth
yam, he announces the date for the next New Yam Feast. This
is a very important festival because until it is celebrated
no titled (knighted) elder eats from his harvest, and it
goes without saying that the yams are not sold until after
the feast. Ezeulu's detention at the district headquarters
far away from home lasts 32 days, and he is thus prevented
from eating two of the sacred yams. On his return, the two
moons will either have to compensated for one way or the
other, or the economy of the Federation will collapse. The
detention undoubtedly contributes to the dilemma, but as the
drama proceeds, it becomes clearer that this is going to be
a quarrel over interpretation, the will of the messenger and
of the sender, and the interests of the message. It is also
going to be a battle over the nature of nature.
Ezeulu has assistants in each of the six villages in
the federation who also "reckon" the number of months (at

153
least that is what they say) with him. As is their
practice, they approach the chief priest after the twelfth
moon to make arrangements for the next New Yam Feast.
Ezeulu gives them a cold reception. When one of them says,
"It is now four days since the new moon appeared
in the sky; it is already grown big. And yet you
have not called us together to tell us the day of
the New Yam Feast—"(232)
Ezeulu responds, "'I see. I thought perhaps I did not hear
you well. Since when did you begin to reckon the year for
Umuaro?1" (233). One of the assistants, Chukwulobe, who
thinks Obiesili is tactless, puts the request in another
form and says, "'we do not reckon the year for Umuaro; we
are not Chief Priest. But we thought that perhaps you have
lost count because of your recent absence—'" (233). Ezeulu
completely loses his temper and retorts,
"What! Are you out of your senses, young man?
. . . There is nothing that a man will not hear
these days. Lost count! Did your father tell you
that the Chief Priest of Ulu can lose count of the
moons? No, my son ... no Ezeulu can lose count.
Rather it is you who count with your fingers who
are likely to make a mistake, to forget which
finger you counted at the last moon." (233)
There is no doubt that Ezeulu's incarceration in Okperi
could not but result in loss in counting: in fact, that is
partly the reason why tradition does not allow the chief
priest to stay away from Umuaro for so long. But if
counting the yams is all there is, then he has not lost
count, for he has the yams to refer to, and there can be no
arguments over that. But one more visit two days later by

154
the federation's titled elders further shows that there is
more to this conversation than mere yams. The elders call
on Ezeulu to urge him to amend the calendar so as not to
change as they know them to be. But to their gracious
entreaties Ezeulu replies, "'I need not speak in riddles.
You all know what our custom is. I only call a new festival
when there is only one yam left'" (236). When the elders
persist that Ezeulu should seek a way out, with one of them
even suggesting that he eat up the yams, the Priest restates
his position saying, "'you have spoken well. But what you
ask me to do is not done. Those yams are not food and a man
does not eat them because he is hungry. You are asking me
to eat death'" (237).
Again, Ezeulu is both right and wrong, and the
ambiguity is not totally of his own making. The yams are
food and, of course, not food. They are food because he
eats them, they are not food because these particular yams
satisfy more than nutritional needs, and someone will have
to eat them if the community is not to starve. In other
words, the yams are yams and not yams at the same time.
They are markers (messengers or signifiers, if you like) of
the communal calendar, and Ezeulu is the messenger (another
marker or signifier) designated as the writer and reader.
As a result, the yams are messengers doubly removed from the
community. Surprisingly, Ezeulu the designated reader now
makes an unprecedented move to refuse to read according to

155
the senders' (the community's) will. He hedges the elders
and his assistants because the yams (messengers) have a will
of their own that he exploits, knowingly or ignorantly, to
the maximum. He denies the elders their wishes by telling
them that, although they are the initial creators of the
calendar, the yams and whatever they now signify are beyond
their direct control. The elders, on the other hand, also
recognize the yams' will, and they too seek to bend it to
serve the purpose imperilled by current circumstances but
for which the yams were originally invented. Ezeulu hides
behind the invincibility of the messenger (signifier), and
the elders wave the banner of the infallibility of the
social will. The elders do not know that their problem is
more compounded than Ezeulu's because they have to contend
with two messengers: the yams (the text) and their eater
(the reader). The situation is more problematic because
this is supposed to be an open text whose letters everybody
can read but which no one can now read.*
Ezeulu is supposed to count the moons with the aid of
the yams and not the yams with the moons. Therefore,
Chukwulobe suggests he has lost count, but Ezeulu rejects
such counsel because the yams (the messenger, the signifier)
say he has not. In a way, the yams carry transparent
messages that neither the yams, nor Ezeulu, nor the aides
and the elders can choose for them. Ezeulu accordingly
rejects the pleas of his aides and the community that he

156
should count moons and not yams. He maintains that it is
impossible for him and anybody else to do so, and anyone who
has a contrary opinion must actually be miscounting. The
yam counter, he insists, is forever right, and the finger
counter incessantly susceptible to miscounting.
The yams are relatively permanent and differentiable,
and once eaten they are no more countable. Every yam eaten
(thus counted) disappears, and its absence announces its
conspicuousness and thereby contributes immensely to the
values of the remainder. On the other hand, the fingers are
not removed, they are always present and so could be
recounted. These facts notwithstanding, the community
believes that Ezeulu is wrong in the values he assigns to
the remaining yams. The citizens do not share Ezeulu's
calculations that the yams represent the unalterable
(naturally fixed) number of moons.* Ezeulu holds everybody
to ransom because the yams, like him, though messengers, and
contrary to proverbial injunctions, have their own designs
that are indifferent to whatever purpose for which the users
(the senders and the receivers) might wish to make of them.
Ironically, it is also this independence that tethers them
to the schemes of whoever deems them useful.
It is also possible for us to see the Ezeulu-Umuaro
fiasco as the product of a quarrel over the cultural control
of nature and its signs. In Ezeulu's logic, there can be no
culture (the year, the calendar) beyond the signification of

157
the yams. The year ends only at the mercy of the calendar
and not because it has a natural end. That is why, after
consulting the deity over whether or not he should announce
the New Yam Feast as the elders demand, he comes out with a
negative result that "... the six villages will be locked
in the old year for two moons longer ..." (240). But the
arbitrariness of the whole marking system, the lack of
organic connection between the yam (the signifier) and the
New Yam Feast (the signified, the planting season and, by
implication, the fiscal year) is highlighted by the elders'
insistence that Ezeulu either eat the yams or substitute a
sacrifice. The elders believe they made Ulu, not because
Ulu gave birth to the yams or the harvest, but because they
made it so. In fact Anichebe Udeozo speaks to this effect
when he asks Ezeulu, "'I want you to look around this room
and tell me what you see. Do you think there is another
Umuaro outside this hut now?'" (237). Ezeulu agrees with
him that the elders are the creators of the Federation and
the tradition. Udeozo then tells him
"Yes, we are Umuaro. Therefore listen to what I
am going to say. Umuaro is now asking you to go
and eat those remaining yams today and name the
day of the next harvest . . . and if Ulu says we
have committed an abomination let it be on the
heads of the ten of us here." (237-38)
Udeozo's plea falls on deaf ears, and Ezeulu's wish
partially prevails because the same arbitrariness that the
elders' entreaties hang on also permits the chief priest to
read the yams his own way.

158
Were Udeozo talking to a messenger that had no interest
in his message, his invocation of public interest might have
swayed Ezeulu. But the chief priest is prosecuting a
personal agenda while furthering the course of Ulu. He
pursues his grievance under the pretext that he is a mere
messenger who does not select his messages, whereas he
chooses them at every turn. He could not be proved false
because, "cultural” (proverbial) prohibition
notwithstanding, it appears that all messengers possess the
ability to bear their own messages in addition to others
latched onto them.
What are the specifics of Ezeulu's grudge? Prior to
his detention, Ezeulu has had a long running disagreement
with some sections of his community in the persons of the
rival priest of Idemili and his active supporter, the
wealthy Nwaka. The high point of this conflict occurs
during the land dispute inquiry I mentioned above. Ezeulu,
the Chief Priest of Umuaro's "highest" deity, almost
singlehandedly gives the land in dispute to the foreigners,
who, by the way, are his mother's people. In this society,
historical recollection is a reconstitution, subject to
conjecture and personal interests. Ezeulu, even with his
high office, does not possess the right to a correct
historical reconstruction and as such has no right to speak
for the community. But, acting on the belief that his is
the voice of a messenger speaking only for the deity he

159
serves, he testifies against his people. He thereby chooses
his message, which he believes belongs to his deity. Ezeulu
also uses the same rationale at the acrimonious pre-war
deliberations when he appeals to the people to listen to him
because he speaks on behalf of a deity that never endorses
unjust courses. "'Ulu would not fight an unjust war,'" he
says. To buttress this point, he informs the assembly, "'my
father said this to me that when our village first came here
to live the land belonged to Okperi. . . . This is the
story as I heard it from my father'" (17).« At this
meeting, Ezeulu maintains he does not speak for himself but
as a simple messenger of truth, and Nwaka, his most
notorious opponent, replies that that does not make him a
truthful messenger.
"Wisdom is like a goatskin bag; every man carries
his own. Knowledge of the land is also like that.
Ezeulu has told us what his father told him about
the olden days. We know that a father does not
speak falsely to his son. But we also know that
the lore of the land is beyond the knowledge of
many fathers. ... My father told me a different
story." (17-18)
Nwaka may be right in several other unstated non-political
respects. At the least, Ezeulu's mother, of whom he has
fond memories, comes from Okperi. In addition, the priest
is also involved in a theological war of supremacy with
Ezidemili. He cannot for these reasons be a messenger of
unimpeachable truth.7
While taking refuge in the proverb of a messenger not
choosing its message, Ezeulu testifies against his people

160
and conveniently forgets another proverb: "no man, however
great, can win a judgment against his clan" (148).
Henceforth, the community regards itself as set against
Ezeulu and so sees nothing heroic in his refusal to be the
white man's chief. As fate would have it, it is this very
lack of enthusiasm that Ezeulu, still using the old alibi
that he is a mere messenger, now avenges on his people by
refusing to bend the message of the yams. At any rate, only
in Ezeulu's mind does such a notion exist, because evidence
abounds that there is nothing like a mere messenger and that
every messenger bears its own message, if only that of a
message bearer.
The tragedy in this novel further takes shape partly
because Ezeulu does not understand that even the messenger
cannot totally control the messages in its care, its own
messages included. This is so because, like their carriers,
messages have their own wills, and these wills are
messengers in another sense.
As dramatized in the pre-war meeting described above,
Ezeulu's anti-war message, for which he claims divine
guidance, can easily be interpreted against him, as Nwaka
does, as "I am the voice of Okperi that also happens to be
the land of your chief priest's mother." In other words,
Ezeulu knows that he is not a mere messenger even as he
shelters himself behind the proverbial "injunction" that
says he is.*

161
To conclude this section on the apparent discrepancy
between the narration and the proverb, I want to cite one
occurrence between Ezeulu and his son, Oduche, whom he has
sent to join the local Anglican Church so as, in Ezeulu's
words, "to be his eyes" among the people of the new
religion. While packaging the boy, as it were, Ezeulu does
not think that Oduche may like the new faith and all the
benefits and prestige that come with it. Ezeulu never
imagined that the new faith will make his son an inheritor
of an Adam's legacy that empowers the boy to kill the sacred
snake of Idemili (another Umuaro deity and Ulu's arch¬
rival) , which the local teacher interprets to be a species
of the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve. None of Oduche's
independent but prohibited actions as a Christian—which his
father never foresaw when he dispatched the boy as his
messenger—surpasses his not telling his father that Umuaro
citizens, in a desperate attempt to escape hunger and
poverty, are sending the sacrificial yams that they normally
give to Ulu on the day of the New Feast to Jesus, the
Christ. When Ezeulu learns about this development from his
friend, he is extremely disappointed that his son (his eyes,
his messenger) did not alert him earlier. In reaction, he
calls the boy and rebukes him:
"Do you remember what I told you when I sent you
among those people? ... I called you as a father
calls his son and told you to go and be my eye and
ear among those people. I did not send Obika or
Edogo; I did not send Nwafo, your mother's son. I
called you by name and you came here—in this

162
obi—and I sent you to see and hear for me. I did
not know at that time that I was sending a goat's
skull. Go away, go back to your mother's hut. I
have no spirit for talking now. When I am ready
to talk I shall tell you what I think. Go away
and rejoice that your father cannot count on you.
I say, go away from here, lizard that ruined his
mother's funeral." (251)
Once more, the messenger derails the message. The messenger
chooses, due to the comforts of the destination, not to
fulfill his commission. He returns no answer to the sender.
One other imagery that aptly illustrates the itinerary
I am drawing appears in the narration of Ezeulu's first
night in detention at Okperi. Ezeulu has vowed not to watch
for the moon while he is in detention, "but," the narrator
tells us, "the eye is very greedy and will steal a look at
something its owner has no wish to see" (179). Ezeulu
watches out for the moon that night although he did not see
anything. The eye imagery, again, demonstrates the
inevitable errancy of the messenger. In other words, the
messenger has its own business to attend to that, many
times, might not coincide with the dispatcher's^
I find the greatest support for the disparity between
the proverb and the narration at the point at which Ezeulu's
mind cracks up. He seeks explanations for the unfortunate
turns of events in proverbs that focus on the non¬
culpability of the messenger in the effect of its message.
Why, he asked himself again and again, why had Ulu
chosen to deal thus with him, to strike him down
and cover him with mud? What was his offence?
Had he not divined the god's will and obeyed it?
When was it ever heard that a child was scalded by

163
the piece of yam its own mother put in its palm?
What man would send his son with a potsherd to
bring fire from a neighbor's hut and then unleash
rain on him? Who ever sent his son up the palm to
gather nuts and then took an axe and felled the
tree? But today such a thing had happened before
the eyes of all . . .
Perhaps it was the constant, futile throbbing
of these thoughts that finally left a crack in
Ezeulu's mind. Or perhaps his implacable
assailant having stood over him for a little while
stepped on him as on an insect and crushed him in
the dust. But this final act of malevolence
proved merciful. It allowed Ezeulu, in his last
days, to live in the haughty splendor of a
demented high priest and spared him knowledge of
the final outcome. (260-61)
One can hastily read these sayings as confirming that Ezeulu
is a victim of the social vagaries of messages and
messengers. In fact, Lindfors interprets the sequence as
Ezeulu's belated regret of not knowing the limits of his
powers. He says, "Ezeulu, in trying to adjust to the
changing times, takes certain inappropriate actions which
later lead him to neglect his duties and responsibilities.
Not knowing his limitations, he goes too far and plunges
himself and his people into disaster" (15). Rightly, I
think, Griffiths has said this interpretation is inadequate.
But Griffiths's replacement is equally short on several
marks. Though it might be correct that Ezeulu, in this
final gesture, seeks help in proverbial wisdom and that
"frantically he runs through the proverbial wisdom seeking
for a clear sign that the relationship of trust which must
exist between high priest and god still endures" (97), it
is, however, not true that this so-called proverbial society

164
(as opposed to written ones) and its mores succumb to the
"irresistible and incomprehensible force of the white man, a
force blind to the values and meaning of tribal life" (97).
The invading force is not blind to local values. In fact,
it bends over backwards to understand and manipulate them
for its own purpose.
Closely examined, the conglomerate of proverbs running
around in Ezeulu's head all center around the unjust
culpability of the messenger. Ezeulu, the ordinary
messenger (though of a deity), wanders in a web of proverbs
about message and messenger, and ponders why he must suffer
for carrying out his duties "faithfully." His assailants
are certainly not the white man as Griffiths claims. Ezeulu
is crushed by the burden of his office as both a message and
a messenger at the time when a "discursive displacement"
(Spivak 197) is about to take place in his land.
4
We need to ask whether or not the proverb is wrong
about the irremediable servitude and muteness of the
messenger. I believe that the proverb is, in spite of
itself, correct to a very large extent because all the
messengers who choose to appoint their messages, consciously
or not, regardless of their purpose, lose out because
everything they had hitherto perceived as controllable
messages slipped off their grips and became other
messengers. The proverb seems to be wrong because each

165
manipulator enjoys temporary successes that events usually
negate later. Ezeulu makes of the yam a message of
vengeance, but they eventually turn into messengers (which
they have always been anyway), in the hands of the famished
citizens, the local mission school teacher, and the local
Anglican church catechist. The teacher, in particular,
recognizes the "open" letters of the yam and fully exploits
them by urging his church members to convince their fellow
citizens to substitute the church harvest for the New Yam
Feast. He even tells them that if the "dead" Ulu can eat
one fine tuber from each family, the "living" god deserves
at least two. Both the Feast and the church ceremony
inhabit entirely different worlds, but Mr. Goodcountry tears
them from their different universes and yokes them together
because both the yam and the harvest are so usable: they are
independent messengers that, so to say, conventions and
trappings of history cannot hold from circulating. The yam
controversy certainly revolves around the struggle of text
and contexts over the control of social actions.
It is tempting to say that Ezeulu's foresight prevails
because Christianity becomes widespread and the colonial
administration fully settles down in Umuaro. Yielding to
such temptation will amount to giving Ezeulu more than he
deserves, for he is certainly not clairvoyant. Events do
not happen the way they do simply because Ezeulu wishes them
so but in spite of his desires. Events turn around because

166
the traditional calendar markers refuse to obey Ezeulu's
wishes. It is true many kids go the mission school as
Ezeulu suspects they would: even Nwaka—Ezeulu's most
vociferous critic—sends his laziest son there. I submit
that events turn out this way because of the yam text's
favorable response to the local teacher's perceptive, though
opportunistic, reading. For readers like Ezeulu, the
teacher's substituted text, I need not state, is the anti¬
thesis of all that the yam was created for.
Notes
1. For an overview of proverb criticism in Achebe's
fiction see Azeze, Cairns, Griffiths, and most especially,
Lindfors.
2. This is not an exaggeration because Achebe's influence
on African writing in English is incalculable. He midwifed,
as the General Editor, the extremely successful Heinemann's
African Writers Series, under which many contemporary
African writers were published. Furthermore, Achebe is the
only modern African novelist who has invented a whole school
of writers who imitate his successful bending off English
language to deal with local themes. These followers include
T. M. Aluko, John Munonye, and Elechi Amadi.
3. As one proverb will summarize the situation: when the
willing dancer meets a drummer with an itching palm, a dance
ensues.
4. The calendar furor is not simply the dilemma that
sometimes arises when a community puts its fate in the hands
of one person but, in addition, a dramatization of the
problem of fetishization of knowledge. Every one in Umuaro
knows it is the end of the year, but the fetish guide of
knowledge says they do not know. The elders could not fault
this argument because it is so.
5. The aides and the community could have asked, "counting
yams and counting fingers, what is the difference?" and
Ezeulu would have responded, "that is the only difference!"

167
6. Umuaro is certainly a patriarchal society, but,
surprisingly it does not take any individual patriarch's
words, no matter how great, as absolute. Every father, the
society believes, has his own story to tell, and even the
Chief Priest's father's narrative has no superior force.
7. To show that this novel is also about the authenticity
and authentication of historical narratives, let me quickly
cite Winterbottom's retelling of this and related incidents
to his assistant a few years later. "This war between
Umuaro and Okperi began in a rather interesting way. I went
into it in considerable detail. ... As I was saying, this
war started because a man from Umuaro went to visit a friend
in Okperi one fine morning and after he'd had one or two
gallons of palm-wine—it's quite incredible how much of that
dreadful stuff they can tuck away—anyhow, this man from
Umuaro having drunk his friend's palm wine reached for his
ikenaa and split it in two. I may explain that ikenaa is
the most important fetish in the Ibo man's arsenal, so to
speak. It represents his ancestors to whom he must make
daily sacrifice. When he dies it is split in two; one half
is buried with him and the other half is thrown away. So
you can see the implication of what our friend from Umuaro
did in splitting his host's fetish. This was, of course,
the greatest sacrilege. The outraged host reached for his
gun and blew the other fellow's head off. And so a regular
war developed between the two villages, until I stepped in.
I went into the question of the ownership of the piece of
land which was the remote cause of all the unrest and found
without anv shade of doubt that it belonged to Okperi. I
should mention that every witness who testified before me—
from both sides without exception—perjured themselves. One
thing you must remember in dealing with natives is that like
children they are great liars. They don't lie simply to get
out of trouble. Sometimes they would spoil a good case by a
pointless lie. Only one man—a kind priest-king in Umuaro—
witnessed against his own people." (41)
8. For example, he reflects several times on the immensity
of his latent powers. In the opening chapter, soon after
citing a new moon, Ezeulu, while waiting for the yam to
cook, contemplates the extent of his political clout and
debates with himself whether "His power was no more than the
power of a child over a goat that was said to be his. As
long as the goat was alive it was his; he would find food
and take care of it. But the day it was slaughtered he
would know who the real owner was. No! the Chief Priest of
Ulu was more than that, must be more than that. If he
should refuse to name the day [the Feast of Pumpkin Leaves]
there would be no festival—no planting and no reaping. But
could he refuse? No Chief Priest had ever refused. So it
could not be done. He would not dare" (3).

168
Lest it be thought that Ezeulu is a thoroughly evil
person, it is very important I remark that he thinks he is
obeying social conventions when he acts, but as my
discussions should have shown, it is not in the nature of
things (i. e., it is not conventional) that conventions
control all things.
9. In one other incident, Nweke Ukpaka appeals to Moses
Unachukwu, the only Umuaro citizen who speaks some English,
to help his age group inquire from the white road overseer
why he is not paying them for the work they do. In his
appeal, he says, "'a man may refuse to do what is asked of
him but may not refuse to be asked . . .'" (18) That is to
say, a messenger does not choose which message he accepts
but exercises a considerable control over that which he
delivers. If Ukpaka is right, a messenger cannot just not
choose a message, he also cannot not bear a message.
However, he cannot choose which ones will reach their
destinations.

CHAPTER VI
"ALL THAT WE DO TODAY IS NARRATIVE TOMORROW": REFERENCE
IN NGUGI'S DEVIL ON THE CROSS
I had resolved to use a language which did not
have a modern novel, a challenge to myself ... I
had also resolved not to make any concessions to
the language. I would not avoid any subject—
science, technology, philosophy, religion, music,
political economy—provided it logically arose out
of the development of theme, character, plot,
story, and world view. Further, I would use any
and everything I had ever learnt about the craft
of fiction—allegory, parable, satire, narrative,
description, reminiscence, flashback, drama—
provided it came naturally in the development of
character, theme and story. But content—not
language and technique—would determine the
eventual form of the novel. And the content? The
Kenyan people's struggles against the neo-colonial
form and stage of imperialism! (Ngugi, Detained
8)
Once upon a time there lived in Ilmorog (Kenya) a very
intelligent and very beautiful—the stuff of which heroines
are made—little girl who did extremely well at school and
nursed the burning ambition of becoming an important person
in the not too distant future. But these dreams were soon
aborted by an uncle who gave her out to a rich lascivious
friend in return for some financial favors. The little
girl, Jacinta Wariinga, was impregnated and subsequently
abandoned by her rich man-friend. Wariinga, in frustration,
attempts suicide but was rescued from the rail tracks.
Following some vocational training later, she went to
169

170
Nairobi to work as a confidential secretary. She got a job
after a long search and several rejections from prospective
employers who wanted to dictate letters on the inside of her
thighs.
As if trailed by misfortunes, she was not to work for
too long because her employer, Boss Kihara, was not
different from his libidinous colleagues. One terrible day,
Wariinga was fired by Kihara, ejected from her tenement, and
suddenly found herself on the streets, homeless. Again, she
tried to commit suicide by throwing herself into fast moving
traffic, and she was once more saved by a stranger. Her
rescuer, a university student, invited her to a feast of
thieves and robbers in Ilmorog, where the Devil's Angels'
Band was going to entertain. At the bus station, Wariinga
boarded the very last vehicle heading to Ilmorog with
Muturi, a labor leader; Wangari, a peasant woman; Mwireri an
economics professor at the University of Nairobi; and
Gatuiria, a music professor in the same university. All the
passengers were going to the cave at Ilmorog to attend the
same feast.
At the cave, members of the Thieves and Robbers
International boasted about their prowess in competition for
a crown of the master thief. A little commotion broke up
the feast when Wangari, the ex-maumau but now a very poor
peasant, brought in the Police to arrest the thieves. A
much more significant turmoil broke out when Muturi and the

171
Student Union leader led a mass protest to disrupt the
meeting. The feast ended in an atmosphere of mayhem.
When the story resumes Wariinga has fallen in love with
Gatuiria, the music professor. She has also become a self-
confident auto-mechanic. Misfortune returns when Wariinga
and Gatuiria head home to announce their engagement. Then
Wariinga discovers to her dismay that her father-in-law-to-
be is also the father of her son. She kills him with a gun
that Muturi, the Union Leader, had earlier given her for
safekeeping. The story ends as she walks away from the
murder scene, shooting in the knee two members of the
Robbers International who are there to attend the wedding
engagement ceremony.
Ngugi occupies an avant-garde position among writers
who oppose the unfettered march of cultural imperialism in
Africa. To this class of writers, the English language
advances, albeit remotely, the cultural genocide that
colonialism perpetrated during its heyday. To stem the
colonial tide, these writers renounce part of their colonial
inheritance and learn anew the expressive habits of their
mother-tongues: an opportunity that colonial education had
denied them. Ngugi outdoes his colleagues in one major
respect: mid-career, he rejects English and makes Kikuyu his
primary creative language. It is therefore surprising that
such a language conscious writer vows to de-emphasize
language in his very first work that reacts to language

172
politics in post-colonial Africa. In spite of Ngugi's
resolve, however, it so happens that none of his other
novels—written in or translated into English—dramatizes
the problem of language with greater acuity than this work
dedicated to content. Unfortunately, many critics (e.g.,
Ogunjimi, Ekwe-Ekwe) accept Ngugi's obvious declaration of
intent and read Devil on the Cross as no more than a
political satire, because it employs registers that are
usually preserved for political polemics: words like
bourgeoisie, class, oppression, etc. In this chapter I am
going to argue that, in spite of its author, this most
stylized of Ngugi's novels concedes very little to content.
Devil on the Cross is a story of many stories. It sets
up two simultaneous worlds in which one is "real" and the
other fictional. In almost every instance, the narrator of
the fictional world draws attention to the fact that each
re-telling is a re-creation of a "real" version. With this
main schema, the novel insists that its referents are
present within its boundaries. That is, the novel
deliberately points to the "truth" of its depiction of the
making and unmaking of poverty in Kenya. Nevertheless, some
discrepancies between the fictional "transformations" and
"reality" show that the two modes do not coalesce so easily.
In setting out the terms of the representational
inconsistencies that betray Ngugi's dedication to content, I
am going to employ the wits-dom of the proverb that says

173
"whatever we do today is narrative tomorrow." Applied to
the narrative structure of Devil on the Cross, the fictions
that characters weave out of their lives are not replicas of
what they did yesterday, but today's activities that are
also narratives in waiting. "Today" and "tomorrow," so to
say, are functions of intertexts. By the same token,
"tomorrow," of course, is not 24 hours hence.
1
To the young man who saves her life, Wariinga narrates
all the evil things that had happened to her that fateful
day. After listening to her tale, the young man consoles
her by saying,
"You are right to be weary . . . Nairobi is large,
soulless and corrupt. . . . But it is not Nairobi
alone that is afflicted in this way. The same is
true of all the cities in every country that has
recently slipped the noose of colonialism. These
countries are finding it difficult to stave off
poverty for the simple reason that they have taken
it upon themselves to learn how to run their
economies from American experts. So they have
been taught the principle and system of self-
interest and have been told to forget the ancient
songs that glorify the notion of collective good."
(15)
Wariinga listens very attentively to this mini-lecture and
comments, "'your words have hidden meanings; but what you
say is true. These troubles have now passed beyond the limit
of endurance. Who would not welcome change in order to
escape them'" (16). As Ngugi may want us to read the
narrative, here is a well-educated young man fully aware of
the political and economic crosscurrents—regardless of his

174
representing the egalitarian past with an "unreal" form—in
his society teaching a young woman full of despair partly
because she is too ignorant about the forces responsible for
her plight. But Wariinga's response creates one important
problem for such a reading. She shows she is certainly the
ignorant person when she says, "'what you say is true.'"
Normally, we should say that "true" refers to the "hidden
meanings" of the young man's words, except for the "but"
that quickly alerts us that the "true" possibly refers to
apparent meanings. "'Your words have hidden meanings. But
what you say is true,"' she says. Certainly, "but"
contrasts what the student "says" and the "hidden meanings."
To Wariinga, in other words, the apparent is very true, and
meanwhile she does not actually know what the hidden
meanings are.
If Wariinga, the nucleus of our education, is not
certain as to the fundamental meaning of the lecture, it may
be due to the fact that her own "hiddenness" is not very
clearly defined. In narrating her life experiences to her
rescuer, she adopts the story of a folk-tale character—
Kareendi—whose travails, surprisingly, fit hers. She
begins her tale of horrors saying, "'take a girl like me.
. . . Or take another girl in Nairobi. Let's call her Mahua
Kareendi'" (17). At the end of the Kareendi narration,
which Wariinga will later claim is hers, her interlocutor
calls it a parable and invites her to a feast where she will

175
learn "'more about the conditions that breed modern
Kareendis and Waigokos'" (28). In light of this statement,
one may claim that the impoverishment of young women like
Wariinga is the "hidden" factor in the student leader's
lecture. But if Wariinga is the same person cleverly
disguised as Kareendi, there is no need for anyone else to
teach her how she is produced because that is what her
narration has just detailed.1 The novel's attempt to close
up Wariinga's story through allegory (proverb, in a sense)
is betrayed by the separation of Kareendi and Wariinga as
two distinct beings whose identical experiences do not
derive from a single source.
2
Not knowing that there are other people in the vehicle
also heading towards the Devil's feast, Wariinga rides Robin
Mwaura's matatu (taxi-van) to Ilmorog. Quite unlike
ordinary motor rides, this journey is one full of stories.
In fact, I call the matatu a vehicle of story-telling
because as the journey proceeds all the fellow travelers—
Muturi, Gatuiria, Mwireri, and Wangari—divulge the contents
of their minds. These stories are different from
Wariinga's: the narrators, without adopting a persona,
declare that the stories are pages from the different books
of their lives. One does not need much justification to
interpret this conglomerate of tales as symbols of the state

176
of things in neo-colonial Kenya for, if nothing else, almost
every stratum of the society is represented therein.
Wangari, the peasant woman, gives accounts of her
bravery during the maumau independence war, of her loans for
which she mortgaged her inherited land, of her subsequent
bankruptcy and her current vagrancy that is a result of the
bank's takeover of her property. Her story sets for other
narratives the tone of disenchantment with the current
condition of things in Kenya. Her bitterness is portrayed
even in the very first sentence of her narrative: "'I
Wangari, a Kenyan by birth—how can I be a vagrant [she had
been arrested earlier in the day by the Nairobi police] in
my own country? How can I be charged with vagrancy in my
own country as if I were a foreigner? I denied both
charges: to look for work is not a crime'" (43). Following
Wangari's jeremiad, Muturi (another maumau veteran), now a
wandering laborer, describes his own life experiences during
the war and now as a poorly paid urban worker. Gatuiria
follows with stories of his sojourn overseas learning music,
and how his education removed him from the creative fountain
of his people. In a slightly different tone, Mwireri, the
middle-class professional who is also a Business Professor,
tables his disgust with agitating university students who
ignorantly oppose capital accumulation and seek to make
everybody equal when "'it's fitting that property should be

177
in the hands of the nation's successful men, those born with
ability to manage wealth in their sleep'" (71).
Wangari's narrative constitutes another gesture by
which the novel tries to close itself up. Wangari joins
together her discrete experiences during colonial and post¬
colonial Kenya in a story in which, as if in conspiracy,
everything works for her financial ruin.2 As set up, the
narrated events refer to her actual struggles with the
stifling effects of an oppressive bourgeois rule in Kenya.
To further confirm that Wangari of the narrative is a
creation of Wangari the van rider, the latter Wangari agrees
with Wariinga that the relationship between Wariinga's life
and her Kareendi illustration is similar to hers (74). But,
rather than being reproductions of their lives, the two
women's narratives are reconstructions done with diverse
materials: folk motif in one and tragic portrayal in the
other.3
3
Muturi's story of oppression is told through his
numerous interventions in other people's narratives by
either acquiescing with the narrator or contesting the facts
of the stories. The important aspect of his interventions
that is important to my purpose here is his philosophy of
historical reconstructions—easily deducible from his
several interruptions of other people's stories. Muturi
says, for instance, that

178
"our actions are the bricks that we use to
construct either a good or an evil heart. The
heart in turn becomes the mirror through which we
can look at ourselves and our work on this Earth."
(54)
"I believe that God and Satan are images of our
actions in our brains as we struggle with nature.
. . . The nature of God is the image of the good
we do here on earth. The nature of Satan is the
image of the evil we do here on earth." (57)
Quite like Wariinga, he insists that his narratives, as well
as his understanding of others', are disguised positive life
stories. He further argues that the fictional masks can be
removed with the least effort, and the reality behind the
facade clearly revealed for what it is.
Muturi's social and narrative philosophy is
unequivocally materialist, and his persistent claim that
satanism is the appropriation of other people's products and
godliness eating from one's own sweat strictly conforms to
such conviction. In one of his interventions, Muturi enters
into an argument with Mwaura, who is no less intelligent,
over copies and originals. Mwaura rejects Muturi's
observations—as cited above—on heart and earthly deeds and
dismisses them as too simplistic because hearts, in reality,
get mixed up. Mwaura challenges Muturi that
"The affairs of the heart are difficult to fathom.
The hearts of men do not open up to each other
like mole holes. . . . Once when I was a child my
grandmother told me a story about a sick lion
which, after eating a donkey's heart, was cured of
its illness. I was very sad. I asked my
grandmother: 'What will that donkey do when Jesus
comes back and wakes the dead?' My grandmother
told me: 'Don't bother me with chatter; your
animals won't be resurrected. . . .'"

179
"The other day I came back to the very
question I asked as a child when I read in a
newspaper . . . that these days a heart can be
removed from one person and planted inside someone
else. The question is this: that person, is he
the same man as the one who was there before, or
is he now a new person as he has a new heart?
When the Day of Resurrection comes, what will the
two people do when both bodies claim the same
heart? Think about the heart that has been shared
by two bodies. Suppose the heart is upright,
obedient, clean. What will prevent both bodies
from scrambling for it? . . . When a heart is
transferred from one body to another, does it
emigrate with all the integrity or wickedness of
the first body, or does it assume the corruption
of the new body?" (49-50)
Though self-serving, Mwaura's philosophy is deep, and it
raises a fundamental question about Muturi's construction of
reality. According to his logic, if "natural" heart, from
which spiritual metaphors are made, can be reconstructed,
the figural derivative should be susceptible to similar
fate. To Muturi, however, the two hearts are separate: one
is given and natural and can be exchanged like a commodity,
whereas the other is individually fashioned and does not
travel. Hence, he says godliness is a reflection of social
consciousness. Ironically, Mwaura's point is endorsed by
the textual sources of Muturi's imageries and examples.
Muturi's statements that satanism is the pseudonym for
profit motive and godliness another name for collective
consciousness are, so to say, hearts ripped off from
religious narratives. The fact that Muturi borrows from
Christian sources to illustrate his apostatic views confirms
the profundity of Mwaura's observations.

180
Evidently, Muturi's source is the bible: in the book of
Genesis god condemned Adam and Eve to toil for their daily
fare because they succumbed to Satan's wiles. "And unto
Adam he [God] said, because thou has hearkened unto the
voice of thy wife ... In the sweat of thy face shalt thou
eat bread, till thou return unto the ground" (Genesis 3:17-
19). Given the fact that the necessity of sweat to human
sustenance arises out of satan's deceits, Mwaura could have
argued that Muturi's godliness is actually a vicarious
production of Satan and a show of God's anger. This
possibility demonstrates that Mwaura's queries are
unresolvable, and Muturi's position, even if we rely on only
his illustrations, is certainly vulnerable to
inconsistencies, i. e., it lacks a solid heart.
In a related incident, Muturi ridicules the wisdom in
Mwireri's analogy of heaven and capitalist order. According
to Mwireri, the capitalist world is a reflection of heavenly
orders where ranks and duties are distributed according to
individual capabilities. "'People,'" he says, "'can never
be equal like teeth'" because even in Hades hierarchy
exists, and "'the king of Hell is not the one who makes the
fire, fetches the firewood and turns over the burning
bodies'" (78). Piqued by such "anaestheticizing" remarks,
Muturi jumps in asking "'this picture that you have sketched
for us—where did you get it from? Isn't a picture like a
shadow of a tree? Where is the tree itself?'" (78).*

181
Muturi believes that shadow lacks material substance, and
effete. Pictures, Muturi forgets, can be as "real" as the
tree.
Muturi often acts as the resident interpreter in this
novel. His interventions provide us insights into how the
different narratives assembled here can be decoded, but
unfortunately this decoder is not fully equipped to clarify
his explications. His materialist metaphors are riddled
with images that jeopardize the context they illustrate.
Muturi's ideal of dismissing the literal meaning of figures
of speech falls short of the proverbial injunction that
whatever we do today becomes a narrative another day. In
Muturi's scheme of things, the difference between today and
tomorrow is merely 24 hours.
In the novel as a whole, copies and, sometimes,
forgeries are usually more productive than the originals
that inspire them. For example, the Muturi-Mwireri
controversy discussed above actually results from a dispute
on the values of originals and counterfeits. The entire
novel owes a considerable part of its contents to the
autobiographical tales that forged invitation cards
generate. But for one person, all the travelling characters
whose life histories, as narrated during the journey, make
up a good chunk of the novel, are on the van at the behest
of the counterfeit. By various means, each person in the
van carries either an original or a forged card inviting him

182
or her to a feast at which robbers will compete over their
skill. Ironically, Mwireri (whom Muturi accuses of picture
painting), being a member of the Chamber of Commerce, is the
only one with an "original" card. Some dissident groups,
consisting mainly of students and workers, steal the
original design, and replace some words in the Chamber
version with their own. Instead of the heading "A Big
Feast!" (77) the dissidents use "The Devil's Feast" (28).
In place of
"Come and see for yourself
Competition to Select Seven Experts in Modern
Theft and Robbery" (78)
they put "Come and see for yourself—A Devil-Sponsored
Competition to Choose Seven Experts in Theft and Robbery"
(28). Where the original promises prizes of "Bank Loans and
Directorships of Several Finance Houses," its copy simply
pledges "Plenty of Prizes." The original is "Signed: Master
of Ceremonies," but "Satan King of Hell" dispatches the
copy. As a result of the machinations of the subversives,
the "original" card, like a corrupted version of Ezeulu's
eyes in Arrow of God, travels into terrains that its owners
did not design it to tread. Surprisingly, in spite of
whatever Muturi might say, the forgery is equally, if not
more, effective than the Chamber edition.
4
At the banquet, members of the local Chamber of
Commerce take on the personae of grand robbers and thieves.

183
According to the rules of the contest, each person must
vaunt his unparalleled skills in property accumulation. In
reporting these speeches, the narrator disappears almost
totally and the revellers given the freest hand in reporting
their activities. At the frame level, the Robbers'
competition takes the form of a Sunday morning mass. It
begins at 10 o'clock with the master of ceremonies (whom the
card forgers call Satan) opening the service with a speech
that straddles a homily and a scriptural reading from the
New Testament.
Still borrowing from Christian liturgy, the robbers'
brag, which constitutes the longest single section of the
novel, is patterned like a confessional. Quite unlike the
Christian rite that normally takes place in secret between
the confessor and his god (or his ordained representative),
this novel makes the robbers' confessions public and rewards
the most vociferous of them with a license to commit more
sins. In other words, the robbers and thieves recount
instead of recanting their iniquities. They also reaffirm
their commitment to the devil in order to persuade him to
grant them the ultimate reward of greater robbing capacity.
Instead of each confessor highlighting the point at which he
sees the light, every one of them underscores the time he
realizes the orgasmic joys of robbery. For example, one
communicant, Gatheeca, describes the turning point in his
career with the expression "'the scale fell from my eyes'"

184
(111) just as they fell off Paul's eyes in the bible. But
while Paul's eyes opened towards salvation, Gatheeca's open
towards perdition.
The most elaborately distorted "reproduction" in the
story, the Master of Ceremony's speech, is a caricature of
the biblical Parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In the
"source" version, Jesus opens his narrative with the
formulaic expression "'for the kingdom of heaven is as a man
travelling into a far country who called his servants, and
delivered unto them his goods'" (Matt. 25:14). The copy
adapts this formula as "'for the kingdom of Earthly Wiles
can be likened unto a ruler who foresees that the day would
come when he would be thrown out of a certain country . .
.'" (82). Both narratives signify that they are comparisons
and that the events they narrate are not their "objects."
Unfortunately, both narratives do not tell us what these
other "real" things are. As the biblical parable does not
tell us anything beyond the experience of the servants, the
correlations they might have with the kingdom of heaven will
be largely matters of reading. The same applies to the
master of ceremony's analogy; it does not present the
departing colonial lord, but the antics of his minions.
When Cook and Okenimkpe say that "'the scene in the
Cave mirrors the brazen confidence now being expressed by
comprador capitalist society in parts of Africa'" (123),
they seek to provide the missing "objects" of the two

185
parables. But if we closely read both the master of
ceremonies' adaptation and the original, we will discover
that the said comprador class is perhaps no more than the
"comprador" narrator. He is the one who appropriates the
rich man trope and turns it into a ruler about to be
dethroned. He is also the one that converts the talents into
Kenyan shillings. Thus, five, two, and one talents
respectively become 500,000; 200,000; and 100,000 shillings.
Where the biblical narrative is silent on how and what the
servants do with the Talents, the copy informs us that
"the servant who had received 500,000 shillings
immediately set out and bought things cheaply from
the rural peasants, and sold them to the urban
workers at a higher price, and in this way made a
profit of 500,000 shillings. And the one who had
received 200,000 shillings did the same: he bought
cheaply from producers, and sold dearly to
consumers, and so he made a profit of 200,000
shillings." (83)
There can be no argument that, like the dissidents' forgery,
the master of ceremonies' re-telling is effective: it, at
least, galvanizes the faithful to compete.
Nonetheless, I do not think that it fully achieves the
aim of defiguralizing the parable of talents. The analogies
derivable from the speech mainly refer back to the biblical
source and not the colonial legacies of the thieves about to
contest for a crown. Given the antithetical uses of the
biblical parable and its parody in this novel, the only
lesson taught, as a proverb will put it, is that the figure,
like rain, befriends no one in particular.

186
When the actual contest begins, each robber's testimony
constitutes a separate story. The judges, representatives
of the International Organization of Thieves and Robbers
headquartered in New York, are figured as copies of the
various national ideologies from which they emanate. In
order to ensure that the reader may grasp this fact, the
adjudicating delegates are stylized in as onomatopoeic a way
as possible. They are, in other words, cast in icons whose
identities speak for themselves. To begin with, their skins
are red because they drink working people's blood, and their
suits are made of the national currency of each character.
Thus, the jacket
worn by the leader was made of dollars, the
English man's of pounds, the German's of
Deutschmarks, the Frenchman's of francs, the
Italian's of lire, the Scandinavian's of kroner,
and the Japanese delegate's of yen. (91)
This "transparent'' representation is drawn further in the
type of hats the delegates wear:
on their heads they wore hats like crowns. Each
crown was decorated with seven metal objects
shaped like horns. . . . All the horns looked
alike . . . the tips of the horns were twisted
into the initial of the country that each delegate
came from. (91)
The Kenyan competitors are equally stylized. The first
contestant, Ndaaya wa Kahuria, is a "literal" thief.
Introducing himself he says, "'if these long fingers were to
slide into your pockets, I assure you that you wouldn't feel
them'" (94). As a peerless pick-pocket and petty rogue, he
boasts that "'I don't think that in all of this area there

187
is a single thief who could tell me to step aside so that he
could teach me how to snatch purses'" (94). To confirm that
he is a "real" thief he confesses, "'I only steal because
I'm hungry, because I need clothes, because I have no job
and because I have nowhere to lay this small head of mine at
night'" (94). Ironically, the conclave throws Ndaaya out of
the contest for being too literal. thus unfit for the poetic
mode within which the other thieves function. He is
dismissed because this competition excludes common
criminals. To quote the master of ceremonies' paradoxical
statement, "'here in this cave, we are interested only in
people who steal because their bellies are full'" (95).
Probably for that reason, Ndaaya's protest that "'a thief is
a thief, and motive is not important'" (95) falls on deaf
ears.
The other sincere "unstylized" thief, Mwireri wa
Mukiraai, the professor of economics and business
management, is also thrown out of the competition grounds.
He admits he is a thief, but one with a course quite like
the lumpen Ndaaya. The august assembly of contented thieves
refuses to believe the admonitions of this nationalistic
capitalist who, for the reason that the expatriate rogues do
not have their local interest at heart, proposes unity
against foreign thieves. Mwireri's recommended national
unity for the advancement of unbridled local robbery, which
should normally warm the heart of his colleagues, produces a

188
contrary effect. The majority "gnashed their teeth and
shouted with rage" after this presentation. The foreign
delegates, especially "the one who carried the sign USA on
his crown," was particularly bitter. The party would have
ended here had the compere not placated the audience that
Mwireri will be taken care of: a euphemism, we later learn,
for murder. Once again, the literal thief is ejected, and
one wonders if this is actually a robbers' contest.
Gitutu wa Gataanguru, the land speculator, with his
testimony, provides a lecture on the unexpected turn of
events in post-MauMau Kenya. Gitutu, a descendant of a
home-guard (the local designation for collaborators with the
English Crown) protected with enemy guns during the war, and
whose father betrayed those who fought for the land, now
sells land to the children and grandchildren of those who
died in the war. With readily available bank loans, he buys
land cheaply and resells it to peasants at a very high
profit rate. In his very first deal, he makes a "modest"
profit of 220,000 shillings. His signature technique during
his presentation is grotesque exaggeration. When he appears
on stage,
Gitutu had a belly that protruded so far that it
would have touched the ground had it not been
supported by the braces that held up his trousers.
It seemed as if his belly had absorbed all his
limbs and all the other organs of his body.
Gitutu had no neck—at least his neck was not
visible. His arms and legs were short stumps.
His head had shrunk to the size of fist. (99)

189
There is, however, an incongruity between Gitutu's intended
referent and his chosen figure. Superficially, one can
associate his grotesque stature with his greed for land and
profit, but subsequent testimonies show that wealth and the
love of profit have little to do with physical build. More
importantly, Gitutu's physique is clearly "unreal," whereas
his account of capital accumulation is largely plausible.
Consequently, I think the exaggeration of the physique
automatically questions the literal value of his acquisition
tales. Closely related to the effect of this confusion of
modes is the discrepancy in the possible symbolic
interpretation of his activities and his own interpretation.
He specifically reiterates that he never works for his
wealth, whereas evidence abounds that he does: he seeks bank
loans, gathers his father's testimonials to convince a white
settler to sell him land, divides the plots of land he buys,
and figures in his own profits. In light of these efforts,
I know no reason why Gitutu still says he does not work,
unless by work he means receiving measly returns for great
physical exertion.
Pitching one's tent outside the novel, one might argue
that Gitutu's absolutely physical abhorrence will warn a
prospective land speculator to disdain such thoughts, but an
unsympathetic critic might equally seize upon the rhetorical
disparity in his presentation and interpret the testimony as
a lesson on elementary land speculation. The incongruity in

190
the mode of his physique (hyperbole) and his account
(realism) could be marshalled to assert that the account
begs for an ironic (contradictory) reading. In that wise,
the confession would not be a portrayal of the absolute
undesirability of land grabbers but a reversed praise poetry
of land speculation.
The next speaker, Kihaahu wa Gatheeca, offers a
contrast study to Gitutu. He is slim, has a long neck, a
long mouth, and "everything about him indicates leanness and
sharp cunning" (108). This last statement is intended to
imply that Kihaahu's physical features are factors of his
behaviors, but as I have shown with Gitutu above, it is not
necessarily so. In fact, shortly after his description,
Kihaahu himself says, "'tallness is not a misfortune, and a
hero is not known by the size of his calves'" (109). For
one thing, Kihaahu is no more "cunning" than the fat Gitutu.
In addition, Kihaahu is a business relative5 of Gitutu, for
the former deals in real estate and the latter in land: and
both are wealthy tycoons. These contrasting characters
together warn against the type of symbolist association the
narrator suggests above.
One other important indicator of such warning is
evident in the way the two characters interpret Kihaahu's
thesis on how to advance the course of capital in the
country. As part of his presentation, Kihaahu proposes as
his ultimate profit-making scheme a construction company to

191
build nest-like houses that will cover only the face so that
shelters would become highly mobile, more mobile than "Gene
Jim, and Roy's."* Surprisingly, Gitutu, whom we need to
remember is a land speculator and whose business will be
adversely affected if people no longer need land to erect
houses, rebuffs Kihaahu, and accuses him of being a
communist agitator. "'Who'd ever agree to buy a nest just
to shelter his nose and lips?'" (120), Gitutu asks. Before
Kihaahu could provide the results of any feasibility
studies, he further charges:
"The man wants the workers to become so angry that
the scales will fall from their eyes and they will
rise up against us with swords and clubs and guns.
. . . the man wants to introduce chinese-style
communism into this country." (120)
Kihaahu replies in like manner, condemning Gitutu's plan of
potting arable soil for sale as a more pernicious communist
ploy. He says Gitutu's scheme "'for grabbing all the soil
and all the air in the universe that's the dangerous one and
the one that could spread the disease of chinese-style
communism more quickly'" (123).
The hermeneutic exchange between these two interesting
characters problematizes the interpretation of the work in
which they appear. Here are two characters turning around
what should readily be simple cases of clear apprehensions
of capitalist boasts. Instead of being mere carriers of the
author's declared intentions of exposing capitalist tricks
of deprivation and oppression, they intervene in the reading

192
process and offer plausible interpretations that will negate
the purpose for which they are created. Their reading
definitely interrupts the copy-original dyad through which
we can read their stylization as playful transformations of
actual land speculators.
5
I cannot conclude this chapter without referring to the
several instances in which the story mentions historical
persons to lend credence to its absolutely fictional
narratives. During the smuggler's testimony, for example,
Nditika laments the departure of Idi Amin, and says,
"'personally speaking, Amin's departure was a loss. During
his rule Uganda coffee brought me more than 50 millions'"
(178). This statement is made by someone whose "head was
huge, like a mountain," and whose eyes "were the size of two
large red electric bulbs . . ." (176). In a different
setting, Mr. Hispaniora Gitahy, in order to persuade his son
to pursue capital and forsake culture, employs the parable
of talents. The son rejects his father's interpretation,
and the elder asks ,
"What! Do you mean to tell me that you know better
than the Rev. Billy Graham, who came here very
recently and preached to us about those very
talents? You are not fit even to clean the shoes
of Billy Graham!" (134)
The name Billy Graham happens to belong to a certain
American preacher who visited Kenya while Ngugi was in
detention, during which he drafted this novel.

193
The same gesture of referring to historical figures is
repeated at the beginning of the devil's feast when one of
the local robbers, reacting to the "parable of capital,"
confirms that
"The master of ceremonies has told the truth about
the unity that exists between us and foreigners.
They eat the flesh and we clean up the bones.
. . . The dog that has a bone is better off than
the empty-handed . . . but make no mistake, it is
a bone with a bit of flesh on it. . . . That's
true of African socialism . . . not like that of
Nverere and his Chinese friends, the socialism of
pure envy. ..." (86; my emphasis)
Nyerere used to be the President of Tanzania, a neighboring
country to Kenya, and he is still the most respected of
Africa's post-independence rulers. He is famous for his
concept of "African socialism" (Ujamaa) that is now
apparently being turned around by a local "thief." The
issue I am trying to highlight here is not whether the
capitalist is right or wrong, but that a "real" Nyerere is
brought into the perception of an "unrealistic" narrative.
This problematic of positive identities and their possible
contribution to interpretation corresponds to the problem I
earlier discussed about the identity of the "we" in the
saying "proverb is the horse of word, when word gets lost we
use a proverb to search for it." In other words, are
Nyerere, Graham, and Amin those people we know in real life,
or are they no less fictional parts of the story? Evidence
compels me to support the latter option. These historical
characters, like the parable of talents (now of capital) and

194
the beatitudes (now workers' catechism), are no less
functions of intertexts or transplants, as Mwaura might have
said.
In concluding my discussion of a few of the reading
effects of these problematics, I want to tie together some
of the resultant rhetorical disjunctions that I discuss
above. By skillfully setting up two simultaneous worlds
with one making stylized reference back to the other, Ngugi
intends to remove any doubts about what his novel means.
But, as I have explained, this very act muddies the waters
of referencing and beclouds the specifics of contents. One
may ask, for example, that if literal thieves (Ndaaya the
chicken rogue and Mwireri the nationalist capitalist) are
murdered and "poetized" thieves (Kihaahu, Gitutu) survive,
where is the privilege of literality for content? I pose
this question because these two characters are often the
pivot of uncritical appraisals that hail this novel as a
compendium of revolutionary education. According to Ekwe-
Ekwe, for example, "Ngugi uses the testimony of Mwireri wa
Mukiraai to emphasize those historical limitations of the
African (national) bourgeoisie to construct an independent
capitalist state in the epoch of neo-colonialism" (28). I
think that before the lessons that these characters could
impart can be understood, their figuration must be
addressed. Prior to apprehending them as surrogates of
Kenyan history, we must ask whether they are consistently

195
factual, because if these characters are facts, they are
certainly not true, and if true they are not factual.
Furthermore, if "literal" thieves are not allowed to
participate in a robbery competition, then the revellers may
not be true robbers.
This is undoubtedly a novel of "hidden" meanings that
critics (Ekwe-Ekwe, Stratton) have taken pains to spell out,
often to the detriment of the apparent. One fact critics
agree upon is that the novel is a satiric criticism of
contemporary Kenya. According to Ogunjimi, the story is "an
attack on the politics of Cartels and International monopoly
capital" (62). He further says that through satirical
portrayals,
The whole Lenin's theory of imperialism and
capitalism is rendered convincingly in a fictional
mode to expose the inhumanity of an ideology that
"wraps poison in the leaves of sugar." (62)
This interpretation (and such is very common in Ngugi
studies) rests on one fact: that the distortions that the
figuring process produces are inconsequential. For one
thing, in the stylization process, all the agents of
"poison" in this novel survive and all implements of "sugar¬
making" suffer crushing defeat.
Notes
1. The unnamed young man could be interpreted as asking
Wariinga to attend the feast to learn about the making of
the novel in which she appears. We need not be deceived by
her saying "'I don't want any more affairs, be they with
Waigokos ... or with Kamoogonyes'" (28). This is an
expression of a reluctance to continue with her story. At
any rate, she has not told us she is the Kareendi of the

196
story. The situation is complicated when later in the
story, in a conversation with Gatuiria and recalling this
particular incident, she says, "'but his face, his voice
made me open my heart to him at once, and I told him all my
story. I felt that my heart was lighter'" (74). Apparently
Wariinga now claims that Kareendi is her persona and that
Kareendi's experiences are hers. While it cannot be denied
that the story is her story, the fact that Kareendi's
problems are hers is contestable. Once Jacinta accepts the
invitation, it becomes clear that through her we will know
the story of the story of Ngugi's novel. This acceptance
launches two stories; the story of Wariinga's journey to
Ilmorog and the story of how she knows how the story of
Waigokos are made. Without the invitation card, the story
of knowing the story would have been suppressed and we would
have had only the story of Wariinga's journey to Ilmorog.
2. Using an earlier term, this is an Arfeqdn: a well
aligned narrative.
3. The only other difference between the two stories is
that, while it takes Wariinga a little while to convert her
story into her story, Wangari appropriates her own narrative
instantly.
4. Muturi continuously searches for the tree and leaves
pictures unattended, while everybody around him, his
capitalist exploiters included, deal in "pictures." I am
tempted to speculate that perhaps this is one reason why the
oppressing class, the "mercedes" nation, consistently beats
the oppressed—as emblematized in Muturi—at every
confrontation. The articles and instruments of trade are
apparently unequal.
5. They are poetic cousins as well. Kihaahu contests
elections, bribes his way into key committees, sponsors
outrageously expensive housing projects, awards the
contracts to his construction company and those of his
foreign collaborators from whom the loans for the projects
came initially, and like Gitutu, declares that he never
sheds a drop of sweat in acquiring his wealth. As part of
his professional hazard he almost got killed during an
acrimonious election campaign but still says he does not
sweat. To my mind, if that is not sweating, his idea of
sweat is beyond regular understanding.
6. The local triumvirate of mobile home construction in
Gainesville, Florida. These "brothers" are very notorious
for their starring roles in their sale pitches on local
television. They are, in a sense, similar to Kihaahu and
Gatheeca. After all, they all deal in real estate.

CHAPTER VII
KOLERA KOLEJ: A PURE PROVERB OF POST-COLONIAL ABSURDITY
No statement can exclude the possibility that with
it, something is meant. Where the unensurability
of semantic content of language itself becomes the
theme of statements, as occurs in allegorical
texts, its referential function is not
extinguished but rather is related to the
possibility that what is said is not said, that it
is not yet or not sufficiently said. (Hamacher
184-85)
In the course of my journey from Arrow of God to Kolera
Kolei. I have travelled from a realist narrative to a quasi¬
realist story and now head on to an "anti-realist" story
that breaks many conventions of the novel in favor of oral
folk narratives. More than the other two novels, this story
calls attention to itself as an "other" reality, whose first
loyalty, like the messenger in Arrow of God, is to itself.
In referring to the definitively strange turn of events in
the novel, one commentator labels it an absurd writing. I
prefer not to so name it for the main reason that the story
does not just deviate from the norm but lays bare the
arbitrariness of the norm.
In chapter four, I pointed out that the proverb
establishes an indeterminable relationship between
figuration and literality. I also illustrated such
indeterminacy with the saying "bi onílé bá ti n fi idi isu
197

198
han alejo, owe ilé toó lo niven (if the host begins to show
the bottom of the yam to the guest, that is a proverb [of]
it is time to go home)." Like this saying, Kolera Kolei
throws out several indications that it is a figuration and
almost every time also suggests what we could call its
meaning. Extending the analogy further, this novel behaves
like the proverb in which the host makes a statement but
quickly decodes the same as another proverb. Being
unrealistic, the novel calls for interpretation, whereas it
always offers itself as the interpretation.
Kolera Kolei breaks ranks with similar novels written
on the post-independence African situation. Among its many
peculiar qualities, Balogun remarks in his "Kolera Kolei: A
Surrealistic Political Satire" that the story turns the
table on university-based writers who, hitherto, had always
dealt in a realistic form with the tomfoolery of improperly
educated Africans who took over the whips of power from the
colonizers. First, Osofisan, himself a Professor at the
Ibadan School of Drama, departs from his colleagues and
writes a "folktale" like the relatively "uneducated" Amos
Tutuola, the author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Second, he
sets the work on a university campus wherein reign eminent
scholars who had received the best education money and
intelligence could purchase anywhere. Surprisingly, these
distinguished scholars rehash all the absurdities that the
half-wits of hitherto realistic post-independence stories

199
had perpetrated.1 But—following the predominant practice
in African critical circles of turning every fabula into a
suiet. as if the former exists only to ensure the sustenance
of the latter (Miller, "Ethnicity and Ethics")—Balogun,
after one more paragraph of "literal" reading switches over
to a de-metaphorization. He then goes on to prove that,
compared to its realistic peers, Kolera Kolei's main
argument is that "it is not the level of education of
politicians that matters as much as a degree of socio¬
political awareness and the willingness to forego class
exploitation that goes with this awareness" (18). In an
earlier essay, "Modernity and African Literature," Balogun
has argued in a similar vein that the story "lampoons
misgovernment and the absence of a theoretic and practical
understanding of the meaning and purpose of government among
highly educated but nonetheless corrupt African elites"
(65) .
Undoubtedly, Kolera Kolei deals with contemporary
issues in an apparently African country that has just gotten
its "flag" independence. It also consistently demonstrates
that this fictive country is its referent and not a country
outside it. Though superficial, the first index of the
latter feature is that the name of the story is the name of
its referent, and as the title announces, life therein is
both collegial and choleric. Building on Balogun's aborted
literal reading summarized above, I intend to show how the

200
story argues against the opinion that local knowledge can
help decode the meaning of a proverbial text. In other
words, I plan to pursue the potential of "literal" reading
that this story offers, and also underscore the point that
the absurdity such a reading produces is not totally
meaningless, if only for the reason that it gives us an
insight into how meanings are made.
1
An "affirmative action" cholera epidemic breaks out on
a college campus killing a large number of people across
class, gender, race, and education. Among the victims are
the expatriate Vice Chancellor (President), the Bursar,
Academic Deans, and lowly clerks. Beginning with the first
page, the novel flamboyantly indicates that its mode of
making meaning is totally unconventional. So, the novel
begins at a press conference the Vice Chancellor has called
to dispel what he refers to as "rumors" about the diseased
campus. At the said conference,
when the journalists had assembled, in the freshly
pruned garden near the Women's Hall, the acting
Vice-Chancellor mounted a small rostrum and
adjusted his glasses. And it was then that a
curious thing happened. The VC was suddenly seen
to double up, so suddenly in fact that his chin
hit the lectern—and, even before the journalist
could record this spectacular manner of beginning
a speech he had straightened up again and just as
suddenly his arms spread out beside him like a
bird about to take off. Cameras flashed at once.
The VC had definitely invented a novel form of
rhetoric. And once again, he had done it, bending
forward to hit the lectern and straightening up,
with the same precision and same remarkable
swiftness. And for a third time. The gathering

201
cheered, incredulous. But at this stage the VC
seemed to have reckoned that the performance was
getting monotonous, for this time, as he came up
again, arms outspread, he added a low growling
rumble of undecided decibel from somewhere low
down under his academic gown. The journalists
recorded fast: the VC had added a subtle
variation—he had farted. And suddenly, from his
mouth and from anus strange hot liquids began to
gush out, and the VC began to dance violently like
an apostle mounted by the spirit. (9-10)
This crisis precipitates others in geometric proportions,
such that one "unrealistic" event yields not just another
one but countless others. The nation's administrators, in
the wake of the epidemic, suddenly find themselves in a
quandary over the measures they need to take in order to
curtail the spread of the disease. After one brief
"emergency" cabinet meeting, the Mother Country decides to
grant immediate autonomy to the college now christened
Cholera College. The national cabinet rapidly draws up an
instrument of power transfer and commissions its Minister of
Education to conduct an election and perform the handing-
over ceremony on behalf of his colleagues.
Immediately after independence, the brave Minister of
Education passes away, and a few hundred others are killed
by the independence facilitator: cholera. Amidst political
intrigues, power-bloc formations, and office sharing among
the professorial ruling classes, the disease rages on,
especially in the Junior Staff Quarters. Many people not
killed by the disease fall to police bullets during protests
and demonstrations. For a diversion, the College Cabinet

202
launches a name-changing contest and a "cultural revolution"
of "authenticity" (71) that, like "electricity," it expects
to jolt the populace into action. The Cabinet urges the VC
to make a national broadcast "acknowledging the people's
protest" but "instead of admitting any guilt for their
sufferings, he will blame it all on colonialism, or neo- or
paleo-colonialism ..." (70). During a nationally
televised deliberation over the choice of a new name, the
Defence Professor announces a military coup d'etat hatched
by him and executed by members of the hockey team. As an
antidote to the malaise of the recently overthrown
government, the new regime builds preventive detention camps
that it rapidly fills up with malcontents. Meanwhile, the
independent epidemic rages on, decimating the population
until another military putsch.
2
According to the "host" proverb again, the brief
synopsis of actions that I describe above could be called
the equivalent of the host's actions. What is now left for
me to do is present how the narrative, through various
gestures, incorporates its suggested meaning into itself.
Contrary to Balogun's interpretation that all the events and
actions in this story are meaningful only at the symbolic
level, the novel, like the "host" proverb, insists that the
symbolic meaning (which, by the way, is unimpeachable) is as
well non-symbolic (i. e., proverbial).

203
At the beginning of the novel, the Vice-Chancellor
calls a press conference to "dispel the rumors circulating
in the town" (9) that a cholera epidemic has broken out on
campus. Interestingly enough, what the VC and the College
Council call a "rumor" and its resultant domino effects
together constitute the major subject of the entire story.
Realistically speaking, this is an incident that has killed
several principal officers of the university and a few
hundred students just within its first two weeks. In trying
to enlighten the public, the Vice Chancellor creates a
disjunction between reality as "we" know it and the
representation he wants to make. To the Vice Chancellor,
reality is rumor, and he therefore seeks to replace it with
truth. Dismissing him as an outright liar will amount to a
misreading, because in Kolera Kolei "reality" and "rumor,"
"honesty" and "lies" are not clearly differentiated. In
reporting the press conference, the narrator displays no
bias for any of these four "symbolic" options—reality,
rumor, honesty, and lies—except, arguably, for truth as
organized by the college authorities. The narrator, for
example, painstakingly describes the VC's suffering as part
of the meeting and not one of pain. By cheering the Vice
Chancellor's histrionics, the press corp also seems to agree
with this attitude. After his third jerk and accompanying
applause from the journalists, "the VC seemed to have
reckoned that the performance was getting monotonous, for

204
this time ... he added a low growling rumble of undecided
decibel from somewhere low under his academic gown." But
instead of betraying an intent to ridicule, the narrator
tells us "the journalists recorded fast," because the VC is
creating a new rhetoric. As "strange hot liquids" begin to
gush out the of the professor's anus and mouth, the assembly
disperses largely because the "rumor" is now a reality.
The press conference is paradigmatic of events in the
story as a whole because, as in several other "symbolic"
places, only the narrator, who is the "maker" of all the
strangeness, interprets for us. All the surrounding
characters simply believe whatever it says. The narrator
calls some of the VC's actions incredulous and at the same
time reports that journalists do not see anything curious
happening. As the VC violently bends down, "so suddenly in
fact that his chin hit the lectern" (9), press photographers
scramble to "record this spectacular manner of beginning a
speech" (9).
In a related episode, the Prime Minister of the Mother
Country, in order to discuss the college situation, calls an
emergency cabinet meeting that "took only a week to
assemble" (10): the delay is partly caused by the fact that
the Ministers are scattered all over the world. One of
them, the Finance Minister, flies in from Switzerland "where
he had gone to hide some of the nation's money" to prevent
it from coming "to harm within the country" (10). The major

205
means by which we can de-proverbialize this description is
to say that an emergency meeting should not take a week to
convene, and that national wealth is best protected within
national boundaries. We can then conclude, after such
rationalization, that the Finance Minister may be a rogue
who is stocking his loot in a coded Swiss bank account, and
that the entire Cabinet is lackadaisical in attending to
national issues. But such a reading will have to assume
that the narrative time frame is either irrelevant or agree
that the symbolic (literal) reference itself has no symbolic
(natural) time. If the latter is not so, it should not be
possible that the very indicators of absurdities (an
emergency summons that takes a week) be the foundation of
normal reading. The narrator certainly calls for a de-
ironization by adding the remarks "took only a week to
assemble" and "so it would not come to harm within the
country," but on the other side of its mouth, the narrative
offers unimpeachable ("un-ironic") pieces of evidence to
show that these events could be literally true. We can, for
instance, establish that the College is in Africa because
the epidemic reaches the College after devastating
"neighbouring countries" like Ghana and Gabon. Ghana is on
the West African coast and Gabon is in Central Africa. One
can deduce from this fact that Mother Country, in which the
college is situated, is somewhere between Ghana and Gabon,
taking these countries, for now, to be those places we know

206
to bear such names. This location is further confirmed when
we notice that all the characters' names are undoubtedly
Yoruba. Yoruba people live in the southwestern part of
Nigeria and along the West African coast up to some parts of
Ghana. All the characters "speak" Yoruba and even throw
Yoruba ethnic slurs at one another. It is also a historical
fact that a cholera epidemic broke out Nigeria in 1970 and
briefly again in 1971. But these are all that we can say
about the location of Mother Country being Nigeria—a nation
state created in 1914 by the British colonial adventurers
out of an amalgam of several hundred independent nations.
Like "we" in "proverb is the horse of words, when words
get lost we use proverb to search for it," these empirical
facts weave a maddening referential maze. The novel
perennially sets up contexts for a shuffle over "symbolic"
figures that call for interpretation and an insistence on
the validity of the non-symbolic figure that, in the
narrator's eyes, is the literal truth of the story itself.
First, Mother Country is a linguistically and culturally
homogenous group, and Nigeria is not one. Second, Mother
Country is an imperial power, and no African country is.
Third, there are other unsustained hints which suggest that
Mother Country is England. In some other novels, these
incongruities could be overlooked as results of editorial
sloppiness and inconsistency, but in Kolera Kolei these
infelicities constitute the story itself.

207
The following conversation takes place at the beginning
of the emergency meeting, when it finally gathers.
"Gentlemen of the cabinet, . . . I'm sure you've
all heard the news. A serious situation has
developed in one of our colleges. Cholera seems
to have taken over power there. Now what shall we
do?" [the Prime Minister asked].
Even before he finished, one of the Ministers
was on his feet. "It's a lie!" he shouted
angrily, and so furious was he that for some
seconds the Cabinet saw his heavy jowls working up
and down rapidly like some engine gone out of
order, without any coherent words coming through.
He was an Ekiti man, of illustrious background,
but ever since his student days he had never been
able to control his fits of temper. (11)
In the broadest terms, the Prime Minister's words constitute
a figure, a personification, if you will, and the Ekiti
Minister understands it to be so, but the meaning that the
Ekiti man ascribes to the figure enrages him. The meaning
deceives the Minister because he thinks the Prime Minister,
by cholera, refers to his moral predisposition. He knows
cholera is a disease, and he also knows, if nothing else,
that he is not a "disease," but he still suspects the Prime
Minister is commenting on his marital infidelity. Hence, he
cuts into the Prime Minister's speech by saying, "'It's a
lie! ... I have not broken out anywhere or seized power.
All I did was pay a visit to the campus last week'" (12).
Since he is the Minister of Education, he asks, "'Can a
Minister no longer perform his public duty without the
rumble of rumors?"' (12). This is not an isolated case of
confusion of identities, because every time the Prime
Minister uses a figure of speech, a verbal contest over

208
meanings erupts, and usually nothing is settled in the
aftermath. In this particular instance, "the Prime Minister
hastened to restate the subject, taking great care to
explain this time that the cholera he was referring to was,
in fact, the epidemic, and had nothing to do with the
Minister's moral obligations" (12). The Prime Minister
pacifies his colleague by saying that his figure of speech
is not a figure of speech. He maintains that the cholera in
his personification is actually a disease, and this
information seals up the fertile mind of the Ekiti Minister
who then replies, "'you should have said so before, sir'"
(12). Actually, the Prime Minister has initially "said so"
but the Ekiti Minister wrongly assumed that he meant more
than he said. Afterall, cholera has not taken over power.
When the cabinet meeting resumes after lunch, the Prime
Minister begins with another figure of speech. He says,
"so many winds are blowing, winds of change, and
the call upon us now is to spread our sails. But
the question that arises is this: do we have
enough courage to face our choices, or shall we be
content merely to drift?" (15)
Earlier, there was a problem because the Ekiti Minister
abandoned the terms of the figure for those of its supposed
meaning, but in the present situation, the Okitipupa
Minister, apparently of a riverine people, adopts the terms
of the figure and becomes even more confused than his Ekiti
colleague. While all the other Ministers frown their faces,

209
in helplessness in the presence of the Prime Minister's
lyricism,
the Okitipupa Minister smiled with condescension,
with the knowing air of one accustomed to sails
and drifting. What he did not see however was the
relevance of such things, since there was no boat
in the room. (16)
In other words, the Okitipupa Minister recognizes the
literal importance of the figure but cannot go beyond it.
He is a person, who, due to circumstances of birth,
seemingly knows the technicalities of winds and sails but
cannot recognize their poetic worth. He finds it difficult
to appreciate the significance of sails, boats, and winds in
a dry, air-conditioned conference room.
In trying to unfathom the Okitipupa Minister's dilemma,
I strike several dead ends. I cannot quickly decide how to
explain the narrator's seemingly contradictory figural
postures: it denies the importance of meaning in the Ekiti
man's interpretation but now highlights the significance of
interpretation with the Okitipupa Minister's ignorance. I
read the Okitipupa Minister as someone who has apparently
heeded the narrator's advice, but whose knowledge still does
not save him from trouble. As the conversation shows,
literal knowledge of the idioms does not purchase a
proverbial understanding for the Okitipupa Minister. His
knowledge does not relieve him of the anxieties that his
colleagues suffer in deciphering the connection between the
situation and the Prime Minister's figure. Both Ministers

210
know that the speech is apparently the situation, and
arguably, the situation is the Prime Minister's figure. In
effect, the Okitipupa Minister's "knowing smile" is not
different from the Transport Minister's visible torment. It
could be further argued that their conflicting, though
equivalent, apprehensions of the Minister's figures
reinforce my thesis that the story traverses, in several
places, a figurative line that literalizes and symbolizes in
the same breath.
The final instance at the cabinet meeting that I want
to mention occurs where the narrator announces, as the
cabinet prepares to close their deliberations, "that the
well-known Professor of Religious Studies educated in
Dublin, Ontario, and Kontagora, had been recalled to God's
peaceful bosom" (18-19). Dublin (Ireland) and Ontario
(Canada) are well-known cities with reputable universities
that many Africans, indeed Nigerians or Mother Country
citizens, attended. Nonetheless, these positive
identifications are obfuscated by Kontagora: a prominent
city on the Nigerian railroad system but which has no
institution of higher learning. "Kontagora" nullifies any
referential succor that Dublin and Ireland might provide.
The story again refers beyond itself and quickly pulls a
curtain over the reference. In all, the narrative tone of
the cabinet meeting sets the volume for further narration,
and it also lays the foundation for a perennial teaser

211
between the world of the story and that of its possible
referents.
3
The novel also actively prevents "normal" reading by
maintaining neutrality in situations that, even in anti¬
realist novels, require partisan comments. With its
neutrality, the story reiterates the correctness of its
apparent "illogicalities." It is striking, for instance,
that the narrator expresses no attitude—negative or
positive—towards the "absurdities" it piles up, and reports
the events as they happen with "impartiality."
Consequently, the novel poses as a voice of truth and
projects cynicism not as a negative value but as a
disinterested virtue that draws attention to the veracity of
the absurdities it reports. By "neutrally" employing
devices that we normally call sarcasm, euphemism, allusion,
caricature, and irony, etc., the story distorts the normal
course of events and points, in effect, to the normality of
the said course. A sarcastic remark, for instance, owes its
recognition to a non-sarcastic one, while a euphemism is so
realized only if there is a comparable other that is not.
In Kolera Kolei these devices are denied their defining
opposites: it thus removes, to my mind, the ground on which
critics can de-figuralize such tropes.
During the independence ceremonies, the Education
Minister, pretending to be a patriot, goes to the campus to

212
re-enact the imagery enshrined in his ancestors' panegyric
line as a "son of illustrious warriors." When the epidemic
kills him, his eulogist calls the Minister "the friend of
the oppressed peoples of the world to the very end, who had
given his life in order that the wretched of the College
might be free" (40-41). First, it is an ironic praise, but
the fact that it is not an outright lie, at least to the
college citizens, undermines such labelling. We could
rightly call the eulogy an irony only if the Minister had
been an opposer of the wretched of the college. The college
gets its independence at the whim of the Prime Minister who
does not want to deny the college community the right to
"express" itself to its satisfaction. Though not true, the
praise is not totally falsifiable. Second, and more
important, the Minister does not recklessly throw his life
away. He dies in spite of the fact that "he had himself
thoroughly vaccinated, and revaccinated," in spite of the
secret service's bullet proof jacket, and in spite of the
Red Cross vans ready to crack with a full detail of
specialist doctors "trained in Israel, Taiwan, and
Bangladesh" (41). The Minister gives his life not as
selflessly as the eulogy portrays, but partially so because
other Ministers are afraid of stepping into the campus.
The college's search for a new name is equally very
instructive. Each of the final four entries—Odua-land,
Howlland, Cadaver Coast, and Kolera Kolej—aspires to

213
capture the historical circumstances of the college-nation.
The People's Republic of Kolera Kolej is a transliteration
of history and denomination; Howl-land is a salute to the
cacophony prevailing over the campus. Odualand, the most
arbitrary of them all, is an apparent allusion to the legend
of Oduduwa, founder of the Yoruba nation. Of the four
names, it has the least bearing on the college history. The
fourth, Cadaver Coast, commemorates the demise of the
thousands of people cut down by the disease remarked by the
first name. During the cabinet deliberations over the
names, none produces more hilarity than the debate over
Howlland. A certain Professor Tenibegiloju of Geophysical
Sciences mistakes the suggested name for Holland and thus
gueries, "'How come Holland? I thought there's already a
town in Russia which bears that name.'" Another, Professor
Sugbon of Population Studies, condemning his colleague's
ignorance, says "'Ignoramus! The problem is not with
tenses. Holland is neither a town nor is it in Russia,
idiot! It's a fishing company in Denmark!"'
Do the names Russia and Denmark refer to the same
places in Europe? The belly laugh we get out of this scene
arises from the possibility of an affirmative response, but
are Tenibegiloju and Sugbon professors somewhere on this
planet? The name Howlland and the setting of the story
block the realistic opening that Russia and Denmark provide,
but the obstacle is not strong enough to prevent us from

214
peering over the wall and laughing at the "ignorant"
professors. We laugh because the characters are ignorant
about the Europe that we know, and if Professor Sugbon, who
pretends to know the Europe that we know, had not corrected
his colleague, we would have had no quarrel with the
accuracy of Tenibegiloju's observation. In such a
hypothetical situation, we would not have laughed along with
Sugbon who ridicules his colleague and also exposes his own
geographical illiteracy.
In the midst of the cabinet deliberations, a coup
d'etat takes place, and the coup leader, who happens to be
the husband of the Name Changing Committee chair, decrees
that the "'The People's Republic of Kolera Kolej' be chosen
in conformity with our arbitrary constitution" (102). The
name is arbitrarily selected, thus obeying an arbitrary law
arbitrarily, and the professors gladly consent.
The absurd trend of events does not abate under Dr.
Paramóle's leadership. Paramóle, in his first nationwide
broadcast, somewhat like the novel's plot, piles up words
that make meaning by virtue of their disconnectedness. The
new Vice-Chancellor says,
"I cannot promise you everything you desire. . . .
But if it's heaven you want, here on earth, I'll
build it for you, with your cooperation! I will
rid you of corruption and disease! I will give
you freedom without lice or licence!" (103)
Dr. Paramóle is a political opportunist whose idea of a good
government resides in the ruler's ability to confound the

215
populace with "excellent" rhetoric. As evidenced in the
above citation, Dr. Paramóle, unfortunately, has little
ability for meaningful rhetoric.
For the following reasons, however, I refrain from
condemning Dr. Paramóle's contradiction as a sign of his
inability to grasp the organic nature of the problems of the
land. He tells the people he cannot promise everything and
goes on to promise heaven, which in Dr. Paramóle's mind is
not necessarily everything. I surmise that those who
associate heaven with everything are no more intelligent
than the learned Dr. Paramóle. As I argued above, Dr.
Paramóle can only be condemned if there is any connection
that he has broken in refusing to associate heaven with
everything. The narrator repeats this frame of mind when it
informs us that after the speech and the subsequent
celebration of the coming to power of a new potentate, "hope
was rekindled in the land. . . . And the people could begin
to die again with renewed fervour" (105). The phrase "with
renewed fervour" represents the voice of cynicism or of
irony that the narrative buries. The statement can be
deemed ironic or cynical only if the rekindled hope has not
been that of dying with enthusiasm as we have it in this
story.
Earlier in the story, the narrator told us that Kolera
Kolej, "like all nations forged out of the heat of crises
. . . had its traitors, men who were secretly sworn to

216
arrest the visible progress of the state and turn it back
onto the right course" (53). Traitors are normally
unpatriotic felons whom every society always keeps out of
sight, but in the Kolej they occupy the frontline in the
combat for national survival. If the traitors retard
progress and thus put the nation on the right course, then
some things must have gone wrong with either the reporter—
apparently the narrator—or the traitors are stupid and
self-centered. Or better still, the traitors have not done
anything strange, and as such the narrator is not deluded.
A few paragraphs down, the narrator continues, "thus in
spite of the fact that hunger was a pretty common thing in
the land, some unscrupulous, unpatriotic persons still
contrived to die of it, in such public numbers that,
finally, the VC's legendary god-fearing patience was
exhausted" (53). In retaliation, the Vice-Chancellor
punishes the corpses with abandonment and orders that they
be left to decompose on the streets so that they could
provide "fodder for the dogs and vultures employed in the
United Nations Experiments in World Intra-Mammalian
Cannibalism, the UNEWIMC" (53). In this passage, the
emphasis is on numbers, and the logic is that if some
commodity is available in abundance, hunger included, it
should satisfy demand at an extremely low price. The
unpatriotic elements in Kolera Kolej seem to be unaware of
that law and decide to starve (in the face of abundant

217
hunger) to death. What is the meaning of this passage?
Does the narrator justify the Vice-Chancellor's actions or
blame the unpatriotic citizens? What does it take to be
patriotic? The passage offers no definite answers and
blocks every access to the outside.
The obfuscation of interpretation is repeated on the
next page, again of malcontents, "whose only provocation was
the inability to feed their families out of the abundant
want" (54). It does not matter in the college whatever is
abundant, for quantity is what fills the mouth and sustains
life. As long as it is plentiful, scarcity is subject to
the rule of numbers, and if one is available in the other,
then both are available. The corollary is that the
patriots, the contented, and the conformists feed their
families on abundant want.
All these descriptions, I propose, show that this work
does not just simply reverse referents which could be easily
un-reversed. It totally occludes them and drops hints that
compound any assumed conversion of the absurd into the
"reasonable." Thus, the colonizing Mother Country is ruled
by unmistakably "Yoruba" people, but after independence, it
is "white staff" that depart the university. Given the
nature of this story, this is not an error of oversight, for
it will not be unusual to have white Yoruba Ministers of
State in the Mother Country. The name Yoruba, afterall, has
no nature-endowed habitat.

218
The only instance in which Kolera Kolei uses straight
irony is in characterization. The story borrows this
technique from African story-telling traditions in which a
character's name suggests an index of a host of predictable
behaviors. But Osofisan turns the tradition around by
making his characters act contrary to what their names
suggest. Professor Gedu'nyaju is emblematic of this
technique. Gedu'nyaju, "almost-log-of-timber" in English,
in spite of his name, is as thin as a broomstick and ''no
vitamins in this world could repair any longer the havoc
done to his physique by years of studious isolation, hard
acada, and frugal meals" (20). In preparation for his sixth
contest for the college Vice-Chancellorship, and on the
advice of his political science colleague, he "wore padded
breast coats over his gaunt ribs, a long-sleeved shirt and
baggy trousers to hide his shriveled limbs, and a fat cigar
wedged in a corner of his mouth" (20). But as if out to
destroy all bases for constructing the laws of identity
(which in Gedu would have been that of opposites), Osofisan
transforms Gedu from grotesque thinness to even more
grotesque fatness after spending 18 months as the head of
Finance and Nutrition. Professor Gedunyaju is now a man
much altered in weight: his stomach protrudes loudly, so
loudly that he holds his trousers with braces, "and the
slightest effort, of speech or of physical displacement,

219
caused him so much discomfort that he had to pause often to
recover his breath" (64) .
I know of two works that have tried to grapple with the
complexity of this little story, and both of them have
solved the problems of reference by appealing to different
shades of realism. Balogun says that the narrative "is not
realism but beyond realism" ("Kolera Kolei" 24) while Kole
Omotoso calls it "marvelous realism" (67). Of the two,
though no less haunted by the ghost of realism, Balogun is
closer to describing the work better were it not for the
surrealistic tag which he later adds.2 To my mind, the
novel is better described as' a proverb, given its obvious
debts to folk narrative devices and more so for its open-
ended referencing. At the subject level, the entire plot
functions like the Yoruba trickster character, iiápá oko
Yánníbo (Tortoise the Husband of Yánnibo), whose praise line
is, "afogbón gba1ra ré lóió tó burú, afáigbón dera re ninú
jgbékün (the one that employs wisdom to save himself on the
terrible day, the one that employs foolishness to [further]
incarcerate himself in captivity)." As íjápá's intelligence
is not univocally determinable, so is the reference of
Kolera Kolei: both behave, so to say, randomly. The tale is
constructed such that no disclaimer is required to absolve
it of any reference to any person living or dead. When one
enters Kolera Kolei. one enters Kolera Kolej and nowhere

else, a place where electric fans stop to remark a brutal
take over of government.
220
Notes
1. We can notice, in this regard, Chief Nanga of Achebe's
A Man of the People. Nderi wa Riera of Ngugi's Petals of
Blood, and Professor Oguazor of Soyinka's The Interpreters.
2. At any rate, from the point of view of standard
critical language, Balogun is also right, for Abrams (183)
characterizes surrealism as a movement that advocates the
removal of all formal, logical, and social conventions of
creativity. In a sense Kolera Kolei does this, for it
violates the norm prevalent in its time.

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
Adéléké Adéékó was born on November 9, 1957, in Ijébú-
Imusin, Ógün State, Nigeria. In Nigeria, he attended St.
Mary's Anglican School, ijébú-Imusin? ijébú-Óde Grammar
School, ijébú-Óde; and Methodist Teachers' College, Ságámü.
He received a B. A. (Education/English) and an M. A.
(Literature in English) from the then University of Ife (now
Obáfémi Awólówó University), Ilé-Ifé, Nigeria. He is
married to Táiwó (nee Ógúnkdyá). They have two daughters,
Omótáyó and Adébólájí. From August 1991, Adéléké will be an
Assistant Professor of English at the University of
Colorado-Boulder.
229

I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality,
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Chairman
Joqijr P. Lea^jay, Jr.,
Professor of English
as
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degjee of Doctor of Philosophy.
Daniel A. Cottom
Professor of English
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
l/C
'â– 'V-'J
Alistair M. Duckworth
Professor of English
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate^ifl scope and quality, as
a dissertation for
egree of D/octdr of Philosop hy.
Jolhn M. Perle/tte
Associate Professor of English

I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for th^ degree of Doctor hi1osophy,
£ n
Olabiyi B. Yai /
Professor of African Languages &
Literatures
This thesis was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of
the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences and to the Graduate School and was accepted as
partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy.
May 1991
Dean, Graduate School

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
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