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Madness and Spirituality in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power


By Elinettie Kwanjana Chabwera

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 59-70]

In A Question of Power, the journey into Elizabeth’s “innermost recesses” allows Head to contrast Elizabeth’s frightening soul experience with the “public convulsions that range across the world and from one civilization to another” (Ravenscroft 183) Head’s vivid rendering of Elizabeth’s psychological chaos has compelled Ravenscroft to wonder, and rightly so, whether someone who had not undergone Head’s psychic experience would have been able to successfully invent the phantom world that comes to life every night when Elizabeth is alone (184). The idea that the stories are derived from personal experience and that Head weaves Elizabeth’s bouts of derangement into her everyday life-events and activities such as gardening, motherhood and friendships, gives her story its uniqueness. Through a juxtaposition of Elizabeth’s chaotic inner world with the realities of everyday life, Head traces Elizabeth’s development from alienation to acceptance.

In her book, Madness in Literature (1980), Lilian Feder demonstrates that humanity has long been intrigued with the mind, especially with extreme forms of psychic experience (3). Feder’s study is concerned with Western literature where interest in insanity is linked to interest in the workings of the mind. Black women writers in texts as diverse as Zee Edgell’s Beka Lamb (1980) to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) use the theme of madness, as a way of highlighting the “contradictions and tensions” characteristic of female being in their societies (O’Callaghan 37), and also as away of illustrating a powerful sense of resistance to their marginal situation. This is what Odile Cazenave (2000) means when she says: “madness becomes a sign of collective active resistance; it is no longer synonymous with abandonment and self-confinement” (199). Racism, classism and patriarchy, prejudices which constitute the divisive elements in society as well as women’s sense of themselves, are portrayed as causes of women’s mental fragmentation and their madness, illustrating the depth of their suffering and pain. In addition, however, insanity also demonstrates rebellion. A character’s madness often illustrates a strong sense of resistance to the conditions imposed on them by a patriarchal and/or colonial order. This, for instance, is what Nyasha in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) demonstrates. Nyasha’s psychological breakdown is her way of resisting patriarchal oppression in her society, which, in the story, is enforced through her father Babamukuru’s attitude and behaviour.

In much contemporary western literature, “psychic dissolution” is used to express a search for personal and artistic fulfillment as well as social and political freedom (Feder 9). In Michel Foucault’s opinion madness is an expression of the constraint of an individual’s freedoms. According to him, mad people communicate “truths” to a hostile society through the “dialogue of delirium” (Foucault 209-210). Feder warns against adulation of madness by describing Foucault’s theory as “an idealization of madness that actually confuses compulsion with freedom, anarchy with truth, suffering with ecstasy” (33). Feder’s point that the use of such words as “truth”, “freedom” and “glory” confuses the actual message of the mad with the philosophical significance society imposes on it is pertinent because in addition, it can lead to the assumption that all mad people are alike. Feder defines madness as: “a state in which unconscious processes predominate over conscious ones to the extent that they control them and determine perceptions of and responses to experience that, judged by prevailing standards of logical thought and relevant emotion, are confused and inappropriate” (4).

A close analysis of the patterns of madness in literary works by black women reveals suffering, and not necessarily achievement of glory as suggested by Foucault. The texts demonstrate how the oppressive nature of patriarchal and/or colonial structures of society affects women psychologically. What is significant in the portrayals however is that as well as illustrating their pain, more importantly, the texts also reveal women’s resistance to oppression. The texts suggest resistance through the mad women’s anger at the source of their oppression. In addition, resistance is expressed through the eventual ability of the women to recover physically and psychologically. In most cases therefore, the writers depict female protagonists who suffer physical and mental collapse, a fragmentation of the self out of which, however, they are beginning to recover or have recovered as the story comes to an end. This, in my view, suggests that the aim of these women writers is not to illustrate insanity per se, but rather, to reclaim woman’s place in society and celebrate what Laing refers to as “the return” of the female subject (quoted from Rigney 8). Elizabeth in A Question of Power offers an example of this kind of a “return”.

It is important to note, however, that there are different cultural understandings of psychic experience and that societies react differently to the variety of conditions called “madness”. In Women and Madness (1989), Phyllis Chesler observes that generally, in the West, madness is regarded as a “shameful and menacing disease, from whose spiteful and exhausting eloquence society must be protected” (34). In ancient Greece madness was seen as both a blessing and a curse. As a curse, it was expressed in epilepsy, mania, melancholia or paranoia, while as a blessing it was believed to bring gifts such as prophecy and poetry. In the Bible it was regarded as a “possession”, which sometimes necessitated removal from society (see for example the story of Legion in the New Testament). Removal of a mad person from society in effect becomes a blessing. It allows not only for escape from the confined position imposed by controlling patriarchal structures, but also from the penal code of the community.

Many African societies perceive madness as both “disease” and “possession”. People believe that greed, jealousy or malice can induce some evil people to afflict whoever they wish with the disease of madness. As “possession” madness is believed to come from the realm of the spiritual. Possessing spirits can either be good or bad depending on the purpose and nature of possession (Soko 1992). People believe that bad spirits cause affliction and disease while good spirits induce divine prophecy, which, when heeded by whoever it is directed at, society or the individual, ensures protection, prosperity, good health and peace. Even in the case of possession by good spirits, when a possessed individual ignores the instructions of the possessing spirit their condition can degenerate into a “disease” (Soko 1992). Even when deemed a disease, madness is still not regarded as an ordinary disease per se. It is believed that ancestors or the gods can communicate through such people.

Amongst the Anyanja of Malawi and Zambia for instance, in addition to perceiving madness as a condition from which some members of society, especially children and pregnant women, need to be protected, the people also believe that a mad person can possess prophetic attributes. Consequently, what a mad person says is never taken lightly. The belief that a mad person might be a messenger of the gods is, for example, expressed through the social practice of offering them food when they come to one’s compound. The impression that mad people can possess prophetic attributes is also reinforced through the Chinyanja saying “wamisala anaona nkhondo” which literally translates into “it was the mad man who foresaw the war”. Implicit in this saying is acceptance and tolerance of mad people and madness. In this sense madness becomes an enabling illness. It allows the possessed person space in society.

Similarly, possession allows the women of the Zar cult in Northern Sudan space in their society. Although the society perceives a woman’s possession by a Zar jinn as an illness, through it the women are able to ameliorate their status of subordination. For instance, Boddy (1989) demonstrates that whatever a woman demands whilst in a state of possession--gold jewellery, expensive perfume or fine clothing--is readily supplied by her husband or brothers because it is believed that that is the only way she can regain her well-being (189). In addition, as well as, and due to its link with fertility, Zar possession is enabling because as Boddy points out, “it enables a couple to modify an overly polarized, increasingly schismogenetic marriage…and forestall its disintegration in the face of negative gossip” (190). Possession by a Zar jinn “provides an idiom through which spouses can communicate about and even resolve issues it might otherwise be inappropriate for them to discuss” (190).

It is in the sense of madness as agency that A Question of Power has been read by feminist scholars and critics such as Carol Davison (1990) and Sara Chetin (1991). By becoming “mad” Elizabeth is able to find a voice for resisting the oppressive conditions of the society. She becomes a disruptive woman who refuses to be situated within the mythologies of race and gender. Madness enables Elizabeth to subvert her social condition of silence, which her identity as a woman and as non-white in South Africa and non-black in Botswana, imposes on her. Yet Head also demonstrates that madness is not necessarily an individual or personal condition only. Her work illustrates that madness can also be a socio-political condition. This, for instance, is how she explains the ferocious and brutal, yet senseless nature of apartheid’s laws against non-whites. Her conviction is demonstrated in her frequent references to the apartheid regime of South Africa as “mad”.

As well as using insanity to demonstrate women’s resistance, Head also uses madness to illustrate women’s ostracization, oppression and the extent of their suffering. Since mental illness can amount to a loss of one’s place in society, by having a mad female protagonist, Head illustrates the extent of women’s pain in addition to illustrating the force of the women’s resistance. In her analysis of psychosis in African women’s literature, Cazenave (2000) identifies two broad categories, those who exist on the margin of society from birth and those whose marginalization is a result of evolution, that is, those who move from a position of favor or power economically or due to physical beauty to a marginalized position which causes insanity (66). Elizabeth’s position in A Question of Power is outside society from birth. In the racialized society of South Africa and Botswana, Elizabeth’s multi-racialism denies her a central place in either nation.

A Question of Power captures the quintessence of Elizabeth’s suffering by tracing her life from childhood in South Africa through exile in Botswana. Through this technique Head demonstrates the entirety of her heroine’s suffering. The story illustrates the role of society and childhood experience in the protagonist’s adult life of mental aberration. Adetokunbo Pearse (1983) hypothesizes that A Question of Power is not particularly concerned with Motabeng, the site of most of the action in the novel; it is, rather, more concerned with Elizabeth’s psychological retention of her South African experience which is key to her breakdown (82). The Elizabeth who goes to Motabeng is one already predisposed to mental breakdown. A Question of Power indicates that Elizabeth first suffered rejection as a child. As a consequence of her birth, no one wanted her. Her maternal family immediately put her up for adoption because she was multi-racial and illegitimate. Her father is non-existent in the story. As a result, Elizabeth was shuttled between prospective adoptive families before being given to foster parents from whom she was also finally taken away and sent to an orphanage. In the orphanage Elizabeth learnt the circumstances of her birth and the fate of her mother.

The knowledge that she had been born in contravention of the South African Immorality Amendment Act of 1957, that her mother had been deemed insane and committed to a mental asylum where she gave birth to Elizabeth before committing suicide, plays a crucial role in the creation of the person Elizabeth becomes as an adult. Society, through the principal’s actions, believes that because she had been born of an insane woman who also committed the “insane” crime of killing herself, Elizabeth would naturally, also end up insane. The principal of her school cruelly tells Elizabeth when she is barely thirteen that:

We have a full docket on you. You must be careful. Your mother was insane. If you’re not careful you’ll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native. (16)

Though the information distresses the child, the principal goes on to “live on the alert for Elizabeth’s insanity” (16). While other children get away with more serious breaches of school regulations, Elizabeth is punished for trivial offences. Recognizing Elizabeth’s “difference”, the other pupils take advantage. They constantly deliberately provoke her because they are aware that if she reacts she will get in trouble.

The psychological effect of this social persecution proves enormous for Elizabeth. Eventually, she starts to imagine her mother appealing: “Do you think I can bear the stigma of insanity alone? Share it with me” (17). This identification with a mother socially judged “mad, sexually depraved and evil” is partly responsible for Elizabeth’s negative attitude towards society (Myers and Roberts 231). The knowledge of her mother’s “abnormal” sexuality, carried in her subconscious all along, finally expresses itself through the phantoms in her horrific mental ordeal. I suggest this because the phantoms of Medusa, Dan and Sello of the brown suit all torture Elizabeth with sex and accusations of her sexual ineptitude.

Besides using madness to capture the essence of women’s suffering and to demonstrate the extent of their pain, like other African women writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo in Anowa (1965) and Mariama Ba in Scarlet Song (1981), Head uses madness to demonstrate women’s ability and determination for survival. A significant difference between Head and the other African women writers is that Head deals with the crossover between two worlds. In addition, rather than portray madness per se, Head focuses on the process of mental breakdown. By portraying the process, Head communicates the women’s strength and resolve through their ability to finally overcome threats to their sanity.

Elizabeth’s nightmarish “journey of the soul” starts with the mystical appearance in Part I of the monk-like figure of Sello. Sello appears constantly for some time until Elizabeth gets used to his presence and starts to communicate with him as she would a living person. Eventually however Sello creates the company that makes Elizabeth question his divinity and goodness. He creates Medusa (37), and from his figure also emerges the figure of Sello of the brown suit, who, together with Medusa and the figure of Dan who appears in Part II, terrorizes Elizabeth with accusations of sexual inferiority and perversity. Every night the phantoms rise in Elizabeth’s bedroom denying her rest and sleep. At one point she is brought to a cesspit:

It was filled almost to the brim with excreta. It was alive, and its contents rumbled. Huge angry flies buzzed over its surface with a loud humming. He caught hold of her roughly behind the neck and pushed her face near the stench. It was so high, so powerful, that her neck nearly snapped off her head at the encounter. She whimpered in fright. She heard him say, fiercely: “She made it. I’m cleaning in it up. Come I’ll show you what you made”. (53)

The cruelty of this revolting experience does not kill Elizabeth; rather, the fall into the deep darkness that follows this harrowing experience provides an opportunity for Elizabeth to look inside herself. Therein she discovers a still and sane self and that the evil that was threatening to take over her life had a parallel of goodness. Thus holding on to this reassurance of goodness, Elizabeth reclaims physical reality and therefore life. To the amazement of the nurse attending her, Elizabeth abruptly jumps out of her sick bed, declares herself better and discharges herself from the hospital.

Elizabeth’s determination to survive is displayed again a year later when after descending one more time into derangement, she is subjected to the most evil and hair-raising experience:

She had seen two large, familiar black hands move towards her head. They had opened her skull. He’d bent his mouth towards the cavity and talked right into the exposed area. His harsh, grating voice unintelligible. It just said: “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaa.” It had shot through her body with the pain of knife wounds. She’d pulled and pulled, struggling to free herself of the hands holding her head. She’d awoken gasping for breath. (177)

The violence of this experience is met with a physical struggle for freedom.

Even though Elizabeth’s horrendous experience is at the level of the unconscious, Head conveys its significance by linking it with consciousness. The reality of Elizabeth’s struggle is conveyed through the fact that she wakes up from her haunted sleep gasping for breath.

Although so many times Elizabeth is near death in her pain and suffering, she is shown to possess an inner capacity to survive her horrific experiences. In addition, the participation in the gardening project and her friendship with Kenosi and Tom help her pull out of her excruciating ordeals and regain sanity. Added to this is her role as Shorty’s mother. The responsibility of motherhood which is commonly portrayed as vital to black womanhood by many black women writers also helps Elizabeth recover her psychological and physical balance. Head reinforces the idea of women’s strength and determination through the portrayal of Elizabeth who, after her horrific experiences, returns to reclaim herself both as a woman and as an African. The symbolic placement of her hand on the Batswana soil at the end of the story is acceptance of who she is. It is a rejection of the marginalizing and oppressive impositions of the power games of apartheid and patriarchy, and acknowledgement of her identity as an African woman.

Furthermore, Head uses madness to illustrate the presence of different levels of reality. Analyzed in the context of African perceptions of madness, Elizabeth in A Question of Power clearly experiences madness on different levels. The situation of being haunted by apparitions resembling real living men suggests the malice or jealousy of witchcraft. Dan’s malicious role in her nightmares links with the bad and therefore disease-causing spirits as documented by Soko (1992). The idea that Elizabeth becomes physically unwell and is sometimes violent as a result reinforces this link with witchcraft. Yet at the same time the presence of the figure of Sello the monk, who comes to sit in her chair every night and with whom she has conversations, expresses the communication with the spiritual, which, according to African philosophy, can be a source of prophetic wisdom.

I view the whole ordeal of Elizabeth’s experience with the spirits as exemplifying the idea of attainment of knowledge and wisdom as a result of contact with the spiritual. I suggest this because it is during those moments when struck with neurosis that she makes the most pertinent observations and criticisms of society. And despite the horror and brutality of her experience, Elizabeth emerges out of her ordeal more knowledgeable. She emerges with a strong consciousness of her identity, so that rather than deny or try to erase her black background, she finally comes to accept and identify with it. In addition, Elizabeth learns more about humanity, about issues of power and about real love through her suffering. She comes to a consciousness of the power games played out in society and the truth about the position of ordinary people in the political games of the powerful. Elizabeth sees parallels between power-hungry men or societies and the high God in the heavens who jealously guards his power. Elizabeth realizes the role such a god plays in human suffering because “personalities in possession of powers or energies of the soul” imitate him (A Question of Power 190). By portraying Elizabeth as making such crucial observations in a state of neurosis, Head also challenges the social construction of madness and extends an invitation for a re-examination of the condition society labels “mad”. She acknowledges and participates in the theory of possession and dreams as expressions of different levels of reality and as alternative sources of knowledge.

In her article “Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality” Boddy’s (1994) definition of “possession” is “the hold exerted over a human being by external forces or entities more powerful than she” (407). Boddy’s idea of possession as a powerful hold by external forces, which echoes Soko’s analysis of spirit possession in a Vimbuza performance in Northern Malawi is also reflected in Head’s novels. In A Question of Power, the two Sellos, Dan and Medusa, are separate and real to Elizabeth and her experience of them is as independent beings. They are distinct bodies, different from each other and from her, and they exert a very powerful hold of Elizabeth’s psyche.

A Question of Power also links spiritual bodies with dream activity. The spiritual beings in A Question of Power predominantly manifest themselves in the darkness of night or sleep. While the presentation of the phantom’s manifestation as being specifically in dreams connects Head with the western theory of Sigmund Freud who proposes that the experiences and fears of our waking life are replayed in dreams, I am in agreement with Maggie Phillips (1994) who argues that Head goes beyond Freud by exposing another dimension to dreams (90). Through her linking dreams with the spiritual, Head demonstrates a belief prevalent amongst many Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora, which holds dream, as it does spiritual possession, as the site of a different level of reality. Phillips’ exposition of the significance of dreams for Africans is most illuminating and in my opinion, clearly locates Head within this African philosophy:

Throughout the ethnic diversity of Africa, dreaming is a gift passed down through a multitude of forebears and the dreaming received is full-bloodied experience. Dreams predict and torture or protect; dreaming enters other realities and is the site of ritual psychic healing; dreamselves travel out of bodies, and sorcerers, gods, goddesses, spirits, and the dead physically enter the dreamer’s presence…dreaming transgresses chaos and contacts the highest sacred authority. (90)

In his study of phenomenology, the psychologist Carl Jung suggests the existence, in the psyche, of “subtle bodies” which are neither facts nor ideas but which belong to the “soil of the soul” or the “third place between things and mind” (Romanyshyn 27). Jung’s hypothesis is that these bodies exist in the psyche not as productions by the person but that they produce themselves and have their own being. Jung illustrates his views through the description of Philemon, an “imaginal being” who resides in Jung’s psyche and with whom Jung says he interacts as if he were another person. Jung points out that although there is a “differentiation” between himself and Philemon, there is no “separation” (Romanyshyn 28).

There are interesting parallels between Jung’s theory and the figures Head draws which make Jung useful for understanding the complex spiritual bodies in Head’s narratives. Like Jung’s Philemon, Head’s Sello, Dan and Medusa are different from Elizabeth. They have their own reality and being at the same time as their origins, Elizabeth’s dreams, locate them in Elizabeth’s psyche. Although the presence of the figures affects Elizabeth physically, they nonetheless exist “on the border of the real and the ideal” (Romanyshyn 32). One aspect of Head’s uniqueness is, I believe, her ability to offer optical representation of theories such as Jung’s that the imaginal bodies reproduce themselves through having the figures come into being by walking into and out of other figures. Sello walks into the figure of the “Father” (A Question of Power 30); a beautiful woman walks out of the monstrous woman and walks into Elizabeth (A Question of Power 33); Sello of the brown suit is projected from Sello the Monk (A Question of Power 37). Their connection with reality, which represents the intermingling of reality with the spiritual, is suggested through the figures walking into real people such as the fictional Elizabeth represents in A Question of Power.

The idea of “difference” without “separation” between Jung and Philemon or between Elizabeth and the phantoms of Dan, Medusa and the two Sellos brings to the fore the issue of “projection” in relation to possession. Head’s narrative, like Jung’s, complicates the concept of projection as an external force which transfers itself onto the mind of the possessed, a way of thinking that has been used to explain much of the splitting of psychic fragmentation. By complicating projection and yet suggesting existence of what Romanyshyn calls a “metaphorical reality” or the “third place between the two of things and thought” which is occupied by imaginal beings (32), the constraining limitation of the perception that knowledge results from reality or thoughts only is demonstrated. This complication of projection does not suggest erasure of the concept because as Romanyshyn notes, projection as a psychological experience does occur (31). Elizabeth’s story, like Jung’s, illustrates the existence of a different level of reality and of being, and by implication, a source of knowledge which exists in an in-between space of “matter and thoughts”. I suggest that in the African worldview, this is the location of the activity of spiritual possession, of witchcraft, and of dreams. Head’s narratives illustrate that although commonly disregarded or undermined, the activity of this in-between space affects and is a part of the people’s lives.

The idea of “in-between” space being a source of a different level of knowledge and therefore positive, compares with Homi Bhabha’s (1994) hypothesis of the possibilities of in-betweenness. Using an architectural analogy he identifies the stairwell as being in between the attic and the boiler room and illustrates how as in-between designations of space, the stairwell “becomes a connective tissue that constructs the difference between upper and lower” (5). This in-between location is the space in which “something begins its presencing” (5). In the postcolonial context of race and culture, this in-between space is the space of hybridity and mimicry which Bhabha identifies as strategies developed by the postcolonial subject in order to have her/his difference felt and known (5).

Head deals with the crossover between reality and the imaginal in A Question of Power once again through the relationship between Elizabeth, Tom and Sello the monk. Not long after he makes himself a permanent presence in Elizabeth’s hut, Sello the monk crosses the confines of his spiritual boundaries into the real so that not only Elizabeth, but also Tom hear him (24). The instance of Elizabeth’s dream of Sello attacking a little boy in the bush, which corresponds with a radio announcement the following day of the real death of a boy in the bush (141), also portrays the link. On yet another night Elizabeth dreams of brown suited Sello transforming his facial features to an owl’s, when she wakes up the following morning Elizabeth discovers a dead owl on her door step (48). Complex as these instances are, they nonetheless demonstrate an intermingling of the real with the spiritual, which in traditional African worldview, is a part of the people’s everyday reality (Mbiti 74).

Head’s conviction is clearly that madness is an expression of resistance and therefore enabling. By interweaving madness with spirituality, a position which locates her in the belief of existence of an African reality that needs acknowledging and understanding, she challenges commonly held views about madness, particularly in the West. The fact that Head was able to engage with and utilize such issues as madness and spirituality at the time she did illustrates self engendering power and resolve. Like most other black women writers her strength and ability is most vivid when she or her heroines take charge of the narrative.

Elinettie Chabwera teaches at the University of Leeds.  She completed her PhD at Leeds in the School of English in 2004 and specialises in postcolonial literature (especially new writing) and black women writers.


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