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An Idea of the Past


By Abdulrazak Gurnah

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 65 (March 2003), pp. 26-36]


Annual African Studies Lecture
University of Leeds, 24 April 2002

In a 1974 essay `The Muse of History`, Derek Walcott launches a brilliant polemic about the relationship of Writing to History.[1] It is a familiar place for many of us who teach and write on postcolonial literatures, but it is place worth revisiting. The idea of history is a strong and recurrent theme in Walcott’s writing, describing both an individual as well as a social dilemma for the Caribbean. In an early poem `A Far Cry from Africa`, Walcott debates the division in the poet between blood (he is `divided to the vein`) and language, between ancient ancestral obligations and individual need and hybrid realities.[2] The event that focuses the poem is the violence in Kenya during the Mau Mau Emergency, and Walcott partially resolves his questioning with a humanism that recalls Auden on Spain:

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands

Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again

A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,

The gorilla wrestles with the superman


The pain of the wounded or killed cannot be written off against historical need. Another early poem, `Ruins of a Great House`, looks at what is left of the prosperity of the slave plantation, and what such hard reminders mean to someone like the poet. It is a poem rich in allusion to English poetry from John Donne to William Blake, a poem which softly celebrates the way in which time and memory transforms events (`The river flows, obliterating hurt. ` p20), and it is indeed Donne who offers the mollifying vision – such pain is everyone’s -- that allows the poet to accept the contradictory legacy of New World Empire. We get a glimpse in these early poems of Walcott’s idea of history, one which he develops in the essay that I will come to in a moment, and in later poems such as `Laventille` and Another Life, and all the way through to Omeros (1990) which through its parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, constructs a mythic metaphor for Caribbean history. In `Laventille`, he mourns what he calls the `amnesia`, which allows people to forget historical oppression, and which then allows the oppression to continue in evolved forms.

We left

Somewhere a life we never found,


Customs and gods that are not born again,

Some crib, some grille of light

Clanged shut on us in bondage, and withheld


Us from the world below and beyond

And in its swaddling cerements we’re still bound.


The poem is written with a mixture of love and rejection, an angry love. In Another Life the poet is liberated from historical and cultural paralysis by privileging the life of the imagination, which he comes to through language and poetry, through English and poetry in English. It is a liberation already hinted at in `The Muse of History`, and here at last we come to the essay:

''I knew, from childhood, that I wanted to become a poet, and like any colonial child I was taught English literature as my natural inheritance. Forget the snow and the daffodils. They were real, more real than the heat and the oleander, perhaps, because they lived on the page, in imagination, and therefore in memory. There is memory of imagination in literature which has nothing to do with actual experience, which is, in fact, another life, and that experience of the imagination will continue to make actual the quest of a medieval knight or the bulk of a white whale, because of the power of a shared imagination…. [O]f course, later disenchantment and alienation will come.'' (p62).

In this championing of the imagination over the actual, it is not that Walcott is suggesting that `the actual` is not or is less than actual, but that what he calls `memory of imagination` is just as real. I am reminded of a moment in V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967), when the narrator has a clear memory of taking an apple to the teacher when he knows it was impossible that he could have done so, because of the scarcity and cost of apples in the Caribbean of that time. It must have been an orange, he thinks, and yet the memory that stubbornly comes to mind is of an apple. We might see this as the power of narrative over actuality, normative English childhood, insisted on by language, over Caribbean reality. Colonial English did not allow a child to take an orange to the teacher, it insisted on an apple, whatever the actual might have been. I think this is the sense in which Naipaul means this incident. But then Naipaul’s argument in that novel, and in the book which preceded it The Middle Passage (1962), and in other books since, is that the Caribbean has no history or no historical agency. Its history is the history of others, the history of Europe, which it is powerless to resist or influence.

Walcott has a different sense of what he calls `imaginative memory` which he sees as liberating because of the way it permits access to language and poetry, and allows even the colonial child in its imaginative scope, even if `disenchantment and alienation will come` later. The protagonists of the drama enacted in `The Muse of History` are the furious `radicals` -- this is 1974 and `black` has only recently become a term of  apparently irresistable political and intellectual power in the Caribbean – and those whose `sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable moment` (p36). What these latter have understood, and obviously Walcott places himself among them, is that `revolutionary literature is a filial impulse, and…maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor` (p36). Walcott’s idea of the past, then, is to admit and  accept the contradictory legacy of colonialism and slavery and the `gift` of language and poetry. It is a history which he cannot renegotiate and which gave him, forced on him, a language of which he cannot be dispossessed: `I could no more give it back than they could claim it` (p 63).

It is necessary to be clear that Walcott is not antagonistic to an interest in history. It would be absurd to do so, and we have seen how it is a recurrent theme in his work. What he is adamant against is what he calls `servitude to the muse of history`, and I might just as well quote his words here, where he puts the matter more brutally than any paraphrase I could manage:

''In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters…. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognise it as a creative or culpable force.'' (p37).

The poets he sees manifesting this `tough aesthetic of the New World` are Whitman, Neruda, Borges, and in a more nuanced sense, the Cesaire of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939). His essay has for its epigraph the line from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916): `History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake`. What he is antagonistic to is what he sees as a destructive and partial obsession with history among Caribbean artists, and what he argues for, in tones that echo the tough reconciliation of  `Ruins of a Great House`, the poem I mentioned earlier, is a personal sense of historical involvement. In another echo of Whitman, he declares: `I accept this archipelago of the Americas`, seeing the Caribbean not as the end of a brutal history but as part of something new, something hybrid and West Indian. Later he gives this line to Shabine in `The Schooner Flight`:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,

I had a sound colonial education,

I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,

And either I’m nobody, or I am a nation.


It is worth adding that Walcott specifically refuses Caliban as a literary metaphor for the dispossessed Caribbean subject. George Lamming had argued this so persuasively in The Pleasures of Exile (1960), and Cesaire had re-written The Tempest (Une Tempete 1969) with Caliban as a street-wise rebel, but to Walcott these revivals of the brutishness of Caliban as a metaphor for the present seem self-defeating. Equally, he refuses the obvious reading of Robinson Crusoe that sees Friday as a fitting parallel for the Caribbean subject.[3] He sees Crusoe as a more fitting figure for the Caribbean, shipwrecked on an island and building life again. To embrace Caliban or Friday as a proper metaphor for Caribbean creativity is to be obsessed with grievance.

Let me make one final observation here on Walcott’s essay, and identify what I think is yet another echo. The essay distinguishes between `tradition` and `servitude to history`. It sees tradition as `alert, alive, simultaneous` whose complexity is that it `accepts the miracle of possibility` and whose true originality lies in its imitation and transformation of the old. What is often celebrated as `originality`, he suggests, is a strategy for disguising poor writing. In tones that may sound familiar to some of you, he argues:

''Fear of imitation obsesses minor poets. But in any age a common genius almost indistinguishably will show itself, and the perpetuity of this genius is the only valid tradition, not the tradition which catagorizes poetry by epochs and by schools. We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first work appears to be the accumulation of other people’s trash…'' (p62)

It is what T.S Eliot calls `the historical sense` in his essay `Tradition and the Individual Talent` (1919), whose argument, I think, informs important aspects of Walcott’s. Eliot it was who claimed European poetry as his heritage, indeed saw it as necessary preparation for the poetic vocation. It is in that essay that he argued that in order to write something `truly new`, the poet had to write with an exhaustive knowledge of the old. That is the meaning of originality as Eliot saw it. The new poem then re-arranges what we know of the old, and history rewrites itself. This sense of tradition then, is not of something known and fixed forever, but of something `alert, alive, simultaneous`. Slightly supressed under that, you can hear a distinction being made between the enabling provisionality of the literary enterprise and the paralysing hand of history.


Let me move on. At about the same time as the appearance of Walcott’s essay, Wole Soyinka was giving a series of lectures at Churchill College, Cambridge. The lectures later appeared as a book, Myth, Literature and the African World.[4] Soyinka at this time was living in the aftermath, even the afterglow, of his imprisonment by General Yakubu Gowan during the period of the Nigerian Civil War. From his release in 1969 to the mid-70’s, Soyinka produced some of his most passionate, and among them some of his most brilliant work. There was a collection of poems A Shuttle in the Crypt (1969, 1972), the play Madmen and Specialists (1972), the prison memoir The Man Died (1972), a novel Season of Anomy (1973), another play Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), and Myth, Literature and the African World (1976). It is very impressive productivity, and amongst them perhaps Soyinka’s greatest play. I refer to Death and the King’s Horseman. He was also editor of Transition during these years, which perhaps was not such good news for Transition, to be in the hands of such a busy man.

Soyinka announces the purpose of his essays in Myth, Literature and the African World in the following way:

''It is engaged in what should be the simultaneous act of eliciting from history, mythology and literature…a continuing process of self-apprehension…in contemporary world reality.'' (p xi)

The emphasis of this eliciting, as he makes clear in his preface, is on `self-apprehension` `whose reference points are taken from within the culture itself` rather than from `external` ones. He argues that the time requires such a task, by which I presume he means the period after independence and the problems and the failures that followed. After what he calls `externally-directed and conclusive confrontation`, by which I think he means the intrusion of European colonialism and the neo-colonial duplicity which came after, must come a `reinstatement of the values authentic to that society, modified only by the demands of the contemporary world`. If the phrasing here is a little bit stubborn, it is none the less incontestable that Soyinka’s work, particularly his dramatic work, has amply demonstrated this desire to reinstate  `the values authentic to` his society, and we can only applaud and agree when he says, also in the Preface: `I have long been preoccupied with the process of apprehending my own world in its full complexity, also through its contemporary progressions and distortions` (pix).

It is not my intention here, nor would it be possible even had I wished it, to summarise and debate the concerns of this book, but I will give a very very brief account of its shape before focusing on one argument within it. The first chapter discusses Yoruba mythology and some of its contexts, and it is perhaps most useful as a source for Soyinka scholars, who see within it the uses that he puts the myths in his own writing and the revisions he subjects them to. The second chapter attempts to propose an African dramatic archetype, quite unconvincingly, I think, although perhaps it is unfair of me to say that without going into a detailed discussion. Let me at least say that I am sceptical about any proposed dramatic archetype, sceptical about its intention as much as of its essentialising impulse, when its justification must inevitably be based on the examination of a narrow range of cultural practices. The second half of the book – chapters 3 and 4 -- deals with contemporary African fiction, reading a number of African novels through analytic frames that Soyinka calls `religious vision` and `secular vision` in the respective chapters. In his Preface he had described what he calls `the literature of a secular social vision` as marking `the beginning of a prescriptive validation of an African self-apprehension` (xii). I take that to mean that the writing he studies in the `secular vision` section will offer some idea and direction, a prescription, towards `an African self-apprehension'.

One of the three texts he studies in this section is Yambo Oulouguem’s Bound to Violence, which he praises for its `iconoclasm`, especially in its account of  Islam in native African societies.[5] Soyinka has his own objections to Oulouguem’s novel, principally to do with the portrayal of the central figure’s emotional surrender towards the end of the narrative, but here he is interested in defending it against charges of nihilism and morbidity in its understanding of history:

''Reinterpretations of history or contemporary reality for the purpose of racial self-retrieval do generate extremes of emotion, most of all among claimants to intellectual objectivity.'' (p105)

Notice how the `self-apprehension` of the Preface has turned into `racial self-retrieval`, and objections to this implicitly legitimate task usually apparently take the form of claims to objectivity. Of course, any one who might object to it because they  find its arguments against African Muslim societies partial and distorted, especially if that one is a Muslim, is being even less than objective. Soyinka thinks of Oulouguem’s novel as `a deck-clearing operation for the commencement of racial-retrieval` because it exposes `Moslem incursions into black Africa to be corrupt, vicious, decadent, elitist and insensitive` (p105). The suggestion here is that it is not so much what Oulouguem has to say that is valuable but its unsettling effect. I wonder what Soyinka expects will happen to these Africans when they get to read Oulouguem’s novel? That they will be purged and cleansed and turn to their authentic African selves? What conceptions of history does he think societies which in some cases have been Muslim for a thousand years or so have? As an idea of history, this has an authoritarian ring to it. It decrees an authentic self for others, moments after it has refused one decreed for itself.

Another text that Soyinka cites in this section which will provide `prescriptive validation of an African self-apprehension` is Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons, a bombastic and misanthropic work, written with a self-righteousness so absurd and an idea of Ancient African Society so egalitarian and caring that it is embarrassing beyond ridicule.[6] But Soyinka likes it, because it not only condemns the European colonial enterprise, but shows in lurid detail the other `whites` who have colonised Africa, that is to say the Arabs. Armah knew about Arabs. He had lived in Algeria for a while, at a time when Algiers was the glamorous destination for black activists from the US. At the time of writing Two Thousand Seasons, he was living in Dar es salaam, at a time when that city was the capital of the African liberation movements. It was also the capital of Tanzania, which only a few years before this, while it was still Tanganyika, had gobbled up Zanzibar, and with it its hate-driven government under Karume. That government under Karume had used the category `Arab` to dispossess, expel, and murder thousands of people who had a different idea of who they were. They thought they were Zanzibaris. It is perhaps worth noting in passing that among the heroes of `racial retrieval` that Soyinka mentions in his book is the same Karume.

In any case, these are the Arabs that figure in Armah’s novel. The terms in which these Arabs are described, as in Soyinka’s own Season of Anomy (1979), derive from the Orientalist tropes of sensuality and cruelty: tortures for fun, permanent occupation of the harem, endless variations on depraved sex. And Armah lovingly details all these, or rather invents them, and Soyinka cites them in his discussion, finding that `the humane sensibility tends to recoil a little` (p111). He then excuses all his own anxieties in this way:

''In spite of this, Two Thousand Seasons is not a racist tract; the central theme is far too positive and dedicated and its ferocious onslaught on alien contamination soon falls into place as a preparatory exercise for the liberation of the mind. A clean receptive mind is a prerequisite for its ideological message, and there is no question that this work is designed for the particular audience of Armah’s own race.'' (p112).

It is interesting that Soyinka uses terms of disease (`contamination`) and biology to define an audience for this text. Notice also that Armah’s is a truth that can only be properly received by an `audience of Armah’s own race`. This then is another idea of the past, the construction of a narrative which is inhumane and false but which none the less is a valid prescription for African self-knowledge. As with Oulouguem’s, the purpose of this text is to purge and cleanse, regardless of its other effects, to prepare the mind for the discovery of its authentic self.


For many people in Africa, European colonialism and its aftermath are urgent contemporary events. I want to put the emphasis there not so much on colonialism but on the contemporaneity of its consequences. I don’t have to detail these consequences to an an audience such as this, as I am sure you are aware of them in their complex manifestations. For many African states, though not for all, colonialsm is the constitutive past and its significant present. What I mean by that is that the states came into being as colonial administrative units and continued in an unchanged territorial form into independent states, often with the administrative machinery and its coercive instruments intact. Whereas it is possible, and even preferable, to administer a territory with a fragmented population, it is a nightmare to do so with the assumption that such a population constitutes a nation. The instruments of colonial rule were blunt and appropriate for  keeping subject peoples politically disorganised and rivalrous, but disastrous as a method of formulating an idea of nation, especially when resources, social infrastructure and expertise were limited.

We can anticipate that ideas of the past in such a context will be even more fiercely contested than they are ordinarily, because of the way they give legitimacy to claims of priority. I have indicated one example which I will now expand on briefly. Until December 1963, and for 67 years before that, Zanzibar was administered by the British. For a hundred years before that it was an Omani colony, ruled at first from Oman and then by resident sultans of the same dynasty, the al Busaids. Before that it was briefly under the influence of the Portuguese medieval empire. And before that it was organised in small communities which ruled themselves, but which none the less were open to influence by others, both near and far. I grew up with these several narratives simultaneously. The primacy of British intervention in Zanzibar, and in Africa as a whole, and its beneficial effects was given to us in our colonial education. I remember my first History lesson in secondary school, which was taken by a Rhodesian of Danish descent, who for some reason was teaching school in Zanzibar. On the first page of our history books was a map of Africa in outline, with a dotted line separating North Africa from the rest. I can’t remember the rubric that accompanied this map, but I remember the first question that the teacher asked the class. He asked us to explain why it was that Africa below this dotted line was uncivilised throughout the centuries until the arrival of the Europeans.  I can’t remember (again) the answer he provided for us in the end. I think it was something to do with the Sahara, and impenetrable forests and forbidding mountains. Perhaps the reason I don’t remember his answer was that we did not believe we were uncivilised, and his seemed just a quarrelsome question. Islam had been the dominant religion on the coast of East Africa for centuries before then, and that and Omani rule had inserted us into another narrative, that of belonging to the great house of Islam, and its great achievements were also ours. This narrative and other  popular narratives of trade and travel connected us to the great world. There was yet another narrative: the founding myth of the original inhabitants of the coast, from Lamu to Kilwa, has in it somewhere the arrival of a ship from Persia. In the way of myths, this event is always made more ancient in the telling, which is intended to add greater potency to the myth. People who describe themselves as the original indegenes of Zanzibar call themselves Shirazis, people of Shiraz. And in fact, when Karume formed the party that he intended to contest for African rights, he called it the Afro-Shirazi Party, where the Afro stood for people of migrant origin from the African mainland and Shirazi for the original inhabitants of the island.

The uprising in January 1964, was driven by a desire to remove Omani rule, and after its success it banished these competing but not contradictory narratives of the past, and inaugurated another of Omani colonialism and the primacy of African power. The latter was an idea impossible to establish without the use of extreme cruelty and oppression in such a hybrid society as Zanzibar then was and still is. None the less, the authorities understand that their ability to govern, in whatever slap-dash fashion, depends on legitimising its rule by possession of the past, and the reiteration of a mendacious narrative of unrelieved oppression by Omani rule. It is as if British colonialism did not happen.

When I first read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) as a schoolboy, it was a million miles away from my experience, but I understood that I was to read it as if it was part of my experience. It is still very often read that away, particularly by schoolchildren, as a narrative about first encounter and its consequences. Similarly, when I read Ngugi at about the same time, I was required and did not resist, to see the rural environment of those early novels as familiar and `natural`, when it was not. I remember we were encouraged to submit a short story for a regional Short story competition, and several of us wrote stories about village life and stealing chickens when our reality was as urban as could be imagined. Decolonisation had heightened our idea of solidarity with `Africa`, and we understood that the appropriate way of reading such texts was as Africans who had that sense of progressive solidarity. Of course the texts invited such a reading because of the way they figured the past that was their subject. I can’t believe that there is anybody left in the world that has not read Things Fall Apart, but in case anybody here hasn’t, the events of that novel take place in the 1890’s. The present time of Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child (1964) is the approach of the Mau Mau uprising in the early 1950’s, but its mythic time, which is crucial to the legitimacy of the uprising, is the early 1900’s. So both these texts occupy, in an important sense, the same period of colonial encounter and in their narrative strategies and their later exegesis offer this encounter as normative. In what ways did these texts invite a reading as archetypal African experiences? Not in the particular narrative drama, perhaps, but in the foregrounding of the encounter with Europe. There is little or no sign of African rivalries to obscure this encounter, and there is no possibility in these texts of confusing where our sympathies should lie. Ngugi’s idea of the past, for example, is a celebration of oppresion, and that celebration in itself is to be seen as a liberation. And his texts, especially later ones, allow no room for demur or reservation. What makes A Grain of Wheat (1967) his most interesting novel, I think, is that it allows room for ambivalence and doubt about the meaning of  resistance and freedom. At least this was so until Ngugi revised the novel in 1987 to reflect the historical triumph of the oppressed.

When I started to write, and I think probably long before then but writing made a resolution imperative, I understood that the idea of the past which had become the legitimate African narrative of our times, would require the silencing of other narratives that were necessary to my understanding of history and reality. These narratives which were familiar to me and which allowed room for negotiation, what Walcott called `the miracle of possibilities`, were not available to me in these texts either, even though it might be said that it was not their intention to provide them for me. I understood also that history, far from being a rational discourse, is successively re-written and fought-over to support a particular argument, and that in order to write you had to find a way through this competing babble. Writing operates in terms of its own procedures, not in terms of the procedures of history  and arrives at conclusions which it would be inappropriate to check by history. Writing can challenge history’s idea of itself and reveal it as discourse, just at the same time as writing reveals itself as discursive. Why then argue with Armah’s historical metaphor of Africa’s past, and with Soyinka’s championing of it as a prescription for self-knowledge? Because it deludes with an originary fantasy of order and tolerance that also requires compliance, and the only miracle it promises is an authoritarian one. And because it silences rather than give room to other voices.

Controlling the past is a pre-condition of  power. Power forgets the past and constructs a new one.This was as true of the colonising project as it is of the new imperialism which we are now being told about as a way of rescuing Africa’s `pre-modern states` from themselves. And of course those states and their polity also construct new pasts. As Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1955), warning us to be alert: 'Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins'.[7] Ultimately we have to be resigned to the notion that the past will always be beyond our grasp, that in reading the past we are reading back from the present, and that at best we should resist the possibility of capture and paralysis.

[1] Derek Walcott, `The Muse of History,` What the Twilight Says, (London: Faber & Faber) 1998. All quotations from the essay will be from this edition, and will be referred to in the text by a page number.

[2] Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 1986, p17. All further quotations from the poems will be from this edition, and will be referred to in the text by a page number.

[3] This is clear in The Castaway poems, where Crusoe is seen as a mythic progenitor. It is also clear in his play Pantomime (1978), in which an hotel owner on the island of Tobago, one of the proposed sites of Crusoe’s island, plans to entertain his guests with a panto performance of Robison Crusoe. He is to play Crusoe himself, and he asks his West Indian employee to play Friday. The latter refuses, saying that he is better suited to the part of Crusoe than the Englishman is. Walcott also discusses the Crusoe figure in an unpublished lecture at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, referred to Kate Jones, `Land and Sea,` in The Art of Derek Walcott, Edited by Stewart Brown (Bridgend: Seren Books) 1991, pp 37-48.

[4] Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1976. All quotations from the text will be from this edition, and will be referred to in the text by a page number.

[5] Yambo Oulouguem, Bound to Violence, translated Ralph Manheim (London: Secker and Warburg) 1971.

[6] Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House) 1973.

[7] Walter Benjamin, `These on the Philosophy of History,` from Illuminations trans H. Zohn (London: Fontana Collins) 1977, p257; first published in German 1955

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