Jun 12 2012

Reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

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Monday nights, I TA a class called “Death and the Sacred.”

This is an unusually easy gig, in that I get to attend the class, have a good time, participate in the discussion, possibly present a lecture in a few weeks, and generally be there as a resource to discuss class material with anyone who wants to discuss it between classes.

Nobody in the class has taken advantage of this offer yet.

The class is reading Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart. The idea behind assigning this book, is looking at “what happens when a culture dies.”

Interesting idea.

I’ve never read the book before, and have gotten through the first half. So far, it’s “okay”. I’m wondering how quickly I’d get sick of yams while living in this culture. It seems to be a primary food substance for them.

Anyway, the discussion last night centered on the idea that within the span of 25 years (give or take), the old way of doing things was utterly let go in favor of Christianity. The nice thing about this book being written by an actual member of the culture in question, is that it shows some of the warts of the old way of doing things, such as human sacrifice and murder. These warts tend to get conveniently ignored a lot of the time, it seems, when talking about indigenous cultures. I’ve got bad news. Shamanism isn’t always about “healing” and “light”. The romanticization of indigenous cultures is in many ways equally as terrible as murdering them. It’s another form of exploitation. Even in the “holistic” community, it would appear the concept of the “noble savage” hasn’t been put to rest, many times.

The professor compared this culture’s decision to embrace Christianity as a step forward for them, culturally, because the old ways were no longer working (as Achebe illustrates throughout the book). This was similar (contends the professor) to the Scandinavian conversions to Christianity, and possibly the Khazar conversion to Judaism. Something in these new ways of thinking appealed to these cultures, and allowed them to move beyond vendetta cultures and tribalism.

One of the class members took offense at this. “They only traded one type of oppression for another! One set of lies for another! This was cultural imperialism!”


Personally, I find the reality of these situations to be a bit more nuanced, and multifaceted.

Anyway, something was irritating me about his sureness of his point. That Achebe’s people had been ruthlessly and mercilessly exploited, though in a number of ways, life improved for the people after the conversion. Sure, one could make the argument that perhaps Achebe is deluded, having become a part of the Christianized culture.

The interesting thing for me, on a meta-level, was that many of the people who come to my school (this person, seemingly included, based on other remarks I’ve heard him say in class) because for them, the “old paradigm” is no longer working, and they are here to learn about the “new paradigm.” So, I pointed out, that perhaps Achebe’s people (or the Vikings or the Khazars) had found themselves in a similar boat, in many ways. Their old paradigm was no longer serving their needs, and a new paradigm was presented to them that they chose to embrace.

Now, sure, in some instances, such paradigm shifting is done under duress. But that’s not my point.

And besides, one could probably put forth an argument that student loans are a form of predation as well.

The incident is reminiscent of an awkward situation I’d run into a few years ago, when a friend was presenting some research about a case of spirit possession in the Middle East. After the exorcism, the formerly-possessed woman embraced traditional Islam, in a way that she never had before. The people in the audience, who claimed to be “holistically minded” and “integral” (whatever that is), were simultaneously happy that this woman had found a spiritual path, but also disappointed/nervous that she had chosen traditional Islam.

It’s interesting to me that some paradigm shifts are viewed as more approved than others.

Furthermore, as much as it becomes tempting to judge Achebe’s people as misguided, and victims of the Evils of the Church™, would this student be willing to place the same critical eye on his current experiences at school? Does he truly know that the lifestyle he is embracing has his best interests in mind? Does he know he isn’t being lied to? Seems like quite a few people are more than willing to make a buck on this stuff.

I’m finding lately that truth resides in the places between.

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