Nathaniel Manheru THE OTHER SIDE—
A cryptic but interesting response to my piece last week came from one “yowe” who advised me to read George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm. I can only surmise that “yowe” is unaware that literature, English literature especially, is my forte, a situation that makes the helpful advisory somewhat a bit superfluous.
All the same, I have always believed that I owe my readers a healthy temperament, which is why their sovereign advice, however ignominious, is mine to heed. All the more so when the advisory directs me to reading matter. There, I am always ready and indefatigable, all the more so nowadays when there are very few who read, fewer still who finish, let alone grasp “long reads”. We live instant times, and share those times with a generation given to keyboard literacy, ever diminishing attention span, is that not so? Cry the beloved mind, until now so wont to book nourishment, but henceforth fated to be supplanted by restless fingers, and by shifty, fleeting attention.
No game for fools
So, dear Cde “yowe”, at your behest, I have had to re-read Animal Farm, having read it countless times before, both in youth and in more mature age. I hope your recommendation is not from high school memory. If it is, what follows might leave you infinitely baffled. But also enriched if you brave through this piece. Again many thanks for giving me a third party excuse to go back to literature in two consecutive weeks. Nothing could be more satisfying; literature is my first love.
Politics requires no qualifications, that is, assuming like me you do not regard stubborn thick-headedness as a qualification. Our President put it so well once upon a time. Politics, he said (or did he warn?) suffers fools. Looking around, you only say “how true!” For with 2018 virtually upon us, aren’t we slouching towards the age of the dunciad, to borrow from Alexander Pope?
Investing in bile
To restore context, my piece last week lampooned deserters. Those men and women, girls and boys, who break away from our clan — from Umuofia in the symbolism of Achebe — to adopt and advance the ways and interests of outsiders who differ from us in all respects. I dramatised the new dilemma and destiny from which our forebears had been spared, namely that of having to spill the blood of those of our clan for betraying the cause, much against the founding tenets of the clan.
Judging by the hefty reaction to this piece, I seem to have touched a raw nerve, earning myself a hefty backlash that left me thrilled. I have never believed in doing pieces that leave the seven humours of my readers balanced, settled and happy. Such pieces, no doubt, would be useless, boring, uneventful, certainly not worth it. To disturb, to upset, to challenge, to vitiate, to trigger outrage: such is my vocation. Hence the thrill. And it’s no sin for a man to labour for his own vocation. I promise no less in this one, as in many others to follow. William Blake it was who once said: a tiger of wrath is better — far better — than a horse of instruction. Let the priest teach meekness; I invest in bile, in wrath, I, a literary Hotspur.
Eric Blair or George Orwell?
Given the frequency and situations which George Orwell’s Animal Farm is often invoked, I often wonder whether his countless readers’ comprehension ever approximates the tertiary. Or could this be the unintended consequence of our literature syllabus — both before and after Independence — which made and repeatedly makes this simple book of profound literature an “O” Level reader?
There is no gainsaying that at high school age and stage in human evolution, the brains are still tender and impressionistic, peppered with levity even, far too young to grasp and cope with the myriad meanings which Eric Blair’s book triggered and continue to trigger across times, cultures and sensibilities. But first, two things that I need not take for granted with my readers. Not many would know that Eric Blair was the writer’s real name, George Orwell being but a pen-name.
I happy, you happy, palaver finish
Secondly, unless one is a student of literature, not many would know also that no book, less so of a creative cast, ever conveys one meaning to all readers, however imposing or high-handed the authorial intention might have been. A sophisticated way of reading literature — of reading any text for that matter — is to accord mutual sovereignty both to the book, and to you, the reader.
It is to regard reading as an encounter — a creative encounter between the text as constructed and given by the author on the one hand, and a reader who brings a whole baggage of things to bear on the text: mental capabilities and limitations; cultural values, political and ideological predilections, etc, etc, on the other. From this basic interpretive and semiotic rule comes the notion of polysemy: infinite or multiple meanings attaching to a finite text. It is such a reckoning which inspires my respect of your own reading of my weekly offering, dear gentle reader.
I never write to give you meaning; or dispute the meaning you derive from my piece, however wild or esoteric; rather, I write to motivate you to explore, develop and find your own meanings. To make sense out of the welter of fragments of reality that daily hit you. And when you post back, I get a glimpse of that unique meaning you will have culled from my piece. I happy; you happy; palaver finish!
Age of reaction
Of course the whole process of meaning construction occurs within bounds. There are many cues — verbal, non-verbal, direct and indirect, pointed and oblique — which provide a meaning or semantic range to your effort. There is always a caveat. However Freudian you may “pleasure” to be, you really need to stretch to the uttersemantic limit to read sexuality in the yell of an infant whose feeding time is come! Not that you can’t. Only that you have a lot to do to motivate your interlocutors into wanting to suspend disbelief.
And to suspend their sense of human decency, too! Less sweat if they are child molesters, of course. Eric Blair belonged to a generation of early 20th Century British leftists who hobnobbed with Marxism for a while, before getting disenchanted by the actualisation of that radical world view in pioneering leftist societies, led by the then Soviet Union. Blair was not alone. The strand of leftist radicalism had run through British labour politics from well before the days of Chartism. In fact, nowhere in Europe was the fear of revolution ever more keenly felt and feared than in Monarchical England. Worse so after the 1789 French Revolution whose sheer violence, both during and after, had shaken monarchical Europe.
The likes of Edmund Burke — then a leading scholar in Britain and Europe — had been enlisted by the powers-that-be to provide emphatic intellectual rebuttals to the noxious premises of the French Revolution, even then not so radical after all. It was a bourgeois revolution, was it not?
Ruling ideas and epochs
Except the people — demos as they had been known from the Elizabethan days — had entered history, in the process raising the spectre of uncharted social changes with gory prospects for rulers. The after-effects of the French Revolution, principally its virulent ideas, its violence against rulers, had to be combated through any means by all monarchs of Europe who still stood. Check your history, the notion of thinkers or intellectuals tethered to “crowns” —what Gramsci would later term “organic intellectuals” — had a lot to do with containing ideas of popular revolutions which threatened ecclesiastical and monarchical status quos. When Marx then observes that the ruling ideas in every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class, he was not making a wonderfully new point; maybe only wonderfully putting across a mundane idea.
Throughout conscious history, rulers have required and hired thought-leaders, developers and defenders/demolishers. I see a bit of that in you and me! The key is to recognise such partnerships when it daily shows in different polities. For beyond organising societies they rule, rulers do organise knowledge that drive and (mis)lead those societies. With what success, well, it really depends with each age, each generation and the repertoire of thoughts and influences in circulation. We can’t complain about false consciousness; we can only complain about how much of it we endure without a counteract!
Cold War and the sponsored
Where am I headed for? Well, to Eric Blair, the writer of Animal Farm. Because of his leftist cast, Blair naturally attracted the interest of the British security establishment. Remember that Britain was not a very happy place before, during, between the world wars, and way after. The rulers feared serious social ruptures, especially after the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent launch of the USSR in place of Czarist Russia. Gentle reader, although you most probably know something about the Cold War, I doubt very much that you know much about the contestation involved in that war at the level of ideas, itself the subject matter of this piece.
A good read is “Who Pays the Piper” by one Staunton. That little, hard-to-get book should help you trace the lineaments of thoughts struggles between the East and West in the age of the Cold War. And you will be shocked to discover what teachers of literature have never told you, namely that many literary theories and interpretive tenets which you meet in literary studies, and possibly by which you tackle texts, were developed as part and parcel of the hard Cold War tussle.
They are much more than mere epistemological adventures, more than mere tools for reaching the kernel of truth. Both the USSR and the US infiltrated and sponsored fields and interpreters of the arts, all to claim creative vibrancy for their systems, to dominate scholarship and human thought. Consequently, there is nothing innocent about the leftist theory of “socialist realism”, or its successive western antipodes of formalism and structuralism. At no stage in human history has knowledge ever been an innocent province.
Role of “turns” in ideological struggles
I said Eric Blair attracted the attention of the British Security Establishment. And this was not unique to Britain. Leftist scholars and writers came under surveillance in practically the whole of Europe, and especially in America where communists were lynched in an unprecedented pogrom. Of course the British were a little more subtle, where they could afford it, that is. And on Blair they could and did. Already disenchanted with Stalinism in the USSR, Eric Blair only needed a bit of nudging to desert and abandon communism, to morph into an ideological turncoat, an avowed anti-leftist. And to get him to denounce Marxism would be a real propaganda coup for the cause of capitalist right-wingers.
For in political and ideological struggles, the weapon of choice is always a disenchanted, once-upon-a-time staunch believer of a cause. We saw it here during our struggle when the Rhodesians used “turns” like Nyati, and Commander Marx who operated in the area of Musana, near Bindura. The whole notion of Selous Scouts was based on “turned” guerrillas. Or how Zanla used Tom Wigglesworth, the Rhodesian British ex-servicemen captured in the north-east part of our country by a group of fighters led by Cde Chinodokufa who lives and now farms in Mt Darwin.
Television is watching you!
Blair in his phase of left-wing political disenchantment was thus re-launched by the British intelligence in its fight against communism, both at home and abroad. One spectacular result of that Blair re-launch by the British intelligence, was Animal Farm, the book Cde “yowe” exhorts me to read! And that it is such a compelling read, one beating time or age, simply attests to the hegemonic impeccability of British propaganda output. Not many even know that Blair was also a key creative producer for the Empire Marketing Board, EMB, whose vocation in the 1920s was to sell and popularise the British Empire back home. He was the voice behind films meant to market the empire.
Lest I panegyrise British propaganda as an unmatched success, as a nonesuch, the French and Americans also scored spectacular propaganda goals during the same era. As also did the USSR on the other side of the ideological spectrum. For the Americans, a good many of our leading African scholars and writers, as well as many formative writers’ conferences at which the likes of Mazrui, Achebe, Soyinka, Nkosi and Ngugi participated, often mingling with black writers from the diaspora, were sponsored by the CIA. The CIA also sponsored many members of the American literati. And the Waldorf Estoria in the heart of Manhattan, was a key venue for CIA-sponsored ideas summits. The revelation in the latest Wikileaks, though stunning are not at all surprising. That among CIA intelligence-gathering tools are those television sets that entertain us in our homes! Check your New York Times or British Guardian, if you are in the mood to be frightened.
Big catches from our own
Also check out the history of scholarships of Fulbright and various Foundations, including Ford, and you begin to understand how knowledge and the academia are organised globally for hegemonic purposes. Closer home, a key scholar and nationalist who lies at the National Shrine actually confessed to association with the CIA. They sponsored his studies in the US.
The confession is there on the internet for your reading of you are not lazy. Check, too, the grand purpose of Reith Scholars and Lectures Series, and then tell me what you get. Or the British Chevening Scholarship Programme! I repeat: the Empire does much more than conquer and organise peoples, minerals and territory; it conquers and organizes knowledge and those wielding it. Caveat Emptor!
Another beast of England
Which is why my qualified hero is Shakespeare’s Caliban, a character in one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest. Irked by the oppressive and colonising Prospero who never loses a chance to remind Caliban — a personification of colonised natives — of the “gift” of language which Prospero bequeathed him, Caliban retorts: “And my profit is that I now know how to curse you!” To aspire to be a Caliban, all against the calculations of Empire: that in my view is what an enlightened beneficiary of all such knowledge enticements and dragnets must seek to do! Not so with my good friend “yowe” who appears to have been inveigled by Blair’s Animal Farm, in the process winding up just another “beast of England”. Animal Farm satirises and scoffs at the sheer degeneracy of high-intentioned revolutions.
But extracting such a straightforward meaning from this timeless British propaganda project wins no one any accolades, in my view. And those given to such straightforward and simplistic readings of Animal Farm will get no more and no deeper than the regressive transformation of the main character, Napoleon (a pig), from being a champion of an emancipatory revolution for oppressed animals, to being the chief oppressor and exploiter of the same animals he purported to be leading in the overthrow of oppressive humans.
And there is a lot that justifies such a narrow and facile reading of the book. But does that exhaust its meanings, nay make the book speak to our social circumstances like both Blair and the British never intended? Does that help us turn Britain’s propaganda project against its empire; indeed get us to seize her language for cursing it? Much like Achebe’s slave who denied his own instruments, seized the white man’s saxophone, blew it like it had never been blown before, all to create a new musical reality we now call jazz?
What power does
I hope I carry Cde “yowe” with me, and here we go. The regressive transformation of Blair’s pig-character, Napoleon, yes, takes on physical attributes. For example he fattens to become “a mature boar of twenty-four stones”, among other bodily changes, against progressively thinning fellow animals he supposedly liberated. More important, his poise, habitat, habits and entire living ethos changes. For example, he now occupies farmer Jones’s house; his colour changes; his eyes, and he develops a penchant for good wine, for toasts.
Much more spectacularly, he now walks on his hind legs, much like the humans he overthrew, gayly walks to “a tremendous baying of dogs and a shrill crowing from the black cockerel”, all the time “casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him”. Yes, power is noisy; it loves yodels. And in his trotter, he carried a whip, itself a symbol of, and instrument for coercive compliance. Yet another facet of power: it needs instruments of coercion. Nor is that all. The seven commandments by which the Revolution had been based and executed, had to be re-written, had to be readjusted to fit a new normal in which two legs “are better”. The rule book, in other words. Yet another facet of power: it re-writes history, contemporary values and rules of the game.
A new song for a new reality
And in place of the old, revolutionary song, a new song is needed, provided and sung! New paraphernalia is also needed: whips, wireless, telephone, smoking pipes and newspapers. New clothes both for Napoleon and “a silk dress” of Mrs Jones for the Sunday wear of Napoleon’s “favorite sow”. Even the symbols of Animal Farm, its flag changes to comport with the new ethos. Penultimately, the name of the Farm — Animal Farm — is reversed. It reverts to Manor Farm that it was under human-farmer Jones. Company too, changes! Farmers in the neighbourhood — half a dozen of them, and all humans — become comrades, become companions, guests, drinking partners and bosom friends. Above all, they become fellow-farmers to Napoleon, holders of title to the land they exploit through animal labour, all of it better paid, better fed than Napoleon grants to fellow animals on Animal Farm.
An exemplar to humans
Following a tour of Animal Farm, Napoleon, accompanied by six important pigs, and six visiting farmers from the neighbourhood — all humans — sit down to drinks, speeches and, finally, to a game of cards, all in ousted human-farmer Jones’s house, at human-farmer Jones’s Manor Farm. Arm to arm, heart to heart with Napoleon is Mr Pilkington, owner of Foxwood, the next Farm still needing emancipation. He toasts to new found amity and friendship between animals led by Napoleon, and humans led by himself.
He flatters Napoleon, praises him for his inventiveness as the new landlord. Says Pilkington in a toast after the tour: “ Not only the most up-to-date methods (of farming), but a discipline and an orderliness which should be an example to all farmers everywhere. He (Pilkington) believed that he was right in saying that the lower animals on Animal Farm did more work and received less food than any animals in the country. Indeed, he and his fellow-visitors today had observed many features which they intended to introduce on their own farms immediately.” Manor Farm this time under Napoleon, becomes the quintessence of oppressive efficiency and innovativeness. Above all, it becomes the example, legitimating example to humans on overworking and exploiting animals.
Playing an ace of spades
In consternation, the lowly, labouring animals cannot comprehend this new normal which in effect is but post-revolutionary Animal Farm put up side down! An old Manor Farm only under a pig boss who looks all too human. And in remarkable prose Blair captures the consternation: “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” True, this is a moving part of the novel which many readers are wont to quote and even recite. But for me, it is the preceding paragraph which is loaded. What causes the din which then attracts the rest of the animals to the house where these fat eminences are partying? “The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously!”
Getting the real antimonies
Key to drawing an upsetting reading of Animal Farm is not dramatizing how Napoleon, a fellow pig, creates an adulatory ruling caste around himself in order to oppress fellow animals. Rather, an upsetting reading is arrived it through an appreciation of the fact that Napoleon and Pilkington are situational antimonies.
In simple terms distinct, contrasting species who can only swop or ape roles, but never identities. Much as Napoleon tries to walk on his hinds, he never quite becomes human. He can only ape the human poise, to great self-ridicule and awkwardness. The gaping animals are not confused by Napoleon’s bodily transfiguration, which never succeeds beyond a mere self-parody. They are confused by the voices. They are confused by the demeanour. They are confused by the dressing. Yes, they are confused by the new role, new habits, new proclivities, new recreations. Above all, they are confused by the sameness of interests with their mortal enemies.
Not human; only a pig
Yet significantly, it is this sameness of interests — symbolised by the aces of spades — which lead to conflict. Indeed which threatens and destroys the new found amity between humans and neo-colonial animals. The Story of Animal Farm is the story of pervasive neo-colonialism which is the bane of post-independent contemporary African histories. The issue of oppression of one’s kind is not only lesser; it is not also the essence of the problem.
The essence is when the pig seeks to be human, itself the basis for then becoming different from other pigs, other animals. And because it cannot be human — only a parody of humans — it can only approximate humans by role, by aping, by tastes, by interests, by admiration. And the real betrayal of Napoleon did not subsisted in oppressing his kind; rather it subsisted in devaluing his kind by striving to be something else other than his intrinsic nature. In striving to be a Pilkington. A human. Not a pig. Not an animal. And the more he tried to be something else, the more ridiculous he looked. Much worse, the more he tried to play the role of humans, the more he found himself increasingly on a collision course with his idol: Pilkington. And to one Animal Farm, now Manor Farm anyway, were six farms run by humans. In the long run Napoleon stands no chance, historically the fate of all quislings.
Dining with Pilkington
If Eric Blair used animal kingdom, it is our duty to restore humans, to re-join the worker-a-day world. We are poised to have a major harvest, thanks to the heavens which have opened up. Thanks, too, to the Land Reform Programme and resources availed under Command Agriculture. In the lands of erstwhile white-controlled Banket, the black hand breaks and turns the clod. The same setting for fat cheques that were signed by a race that told us why it was wise to invest in Napoleon. And the fat cheque became a red tongue in a black mouth. A mouth that spoke a language which was not ours. It did not see the recovery of a birthright; it saw little huts that sprouted like mushrooms! It haughtily asked: “Mati maziya? Hamusati! Muchati monyatsoziya zvechokwadi!” Haughtily again, it urged us to vote for those with friends with money. The Pilkingtons! But before long, Napoleon and Pilkington collided around the “ace of the same spade”!
Muriel’s National Party
Not to be outdone the dandy Muriel came along, prancing. She, too, had deserted other animals, and liked bright colours of life. Much like Mrs Jones. She even ingratiated herself with humans, against animals; and sought to compensate and restore the ousted Mr Jones. Followed him to England, coddled him. Feted, inflated, she pranced and walked the hallways and vaults of Empire, addressing the high and mighty, giving a toast and wishing long life to this newly found amity between pigs and humans. Nor was that all. She needed a new name, and called herself National Party, after Verwoerd! Before long, the coquettish Muriel shall cat-walk and an endless dalliance dance game shall begin. And not only will each want to play the ace card of spades at the same time. So, too, will Mr Pilkington and Mr Jones! Amidst the ensuing vicious brawl, the disgusted Boxer shall kick, curse and reject all. Being an African Boxer, he will neither age not die. Hark, 2018 beckons.