Monday, July 8, 2013

Ambiguous Adventure ~ Essay

I wrote this paper for a senior-level class on African literature led by Dr. Susanne Houyoux at the University of South Carolina. It was not my first choice but soon enjoyed immersion in a study of metaphorical depth. The concepts in this essay inspired not just the song that shares its title but "Lives of the Poets" as well. ~ f.

Frederick Ingram
(c) 1992


For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."--Luke 15:12


     Samba Diallo, the hero of Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, is a young man whose existence is a part of many spheres.  In this story of his moral and intellectual development, he tries to find a harmony through which he may satisfy the necessities of physical existence while remaining true to the word of God.  The problems that he faces parallel those of his people, the Diallobe, for whom he is being prepared to take the role of leader, either spiritual or secular.  He is both a prince of blood and a prince of spirit (18).   

     He is being educated spiritually by Thierno, also known as the Teacher, a man of frail body but with a powerful spiritual influence over the Diallobe.  The education that Samba receives at his Muslim school consists of rote memorization of the Quran reinforced by physical punishment.  This is designed to instill in him the code of living contained in the Quran which is based on the submission of the individual to the laws and harmony of God revealed therein. 

     At the same time, however, his aunt, known as the Most Royal Lady, believes Samba should be groomed for the nobility, and should be versed in the ways of earthly power and influence.  This is directly in opposition to the wishes of the Teacher, who believes the concept of nobility arises from paganism:  "Nobility is the exaltation of man, faith is before all else humility, if not humiliation" (23).

     This basic conflict of spirit versus flesh is echoed throughout the book.  The Most Royal Lady feels Samba is being prepared for death, not life (27).  Her concern is over the physical state of the Diallobe, or what the Teacher refers to as "weight" (33)--his body's "sorry propensity to remain glued to earth" (29).  The people want to send their children to the Western schools to learn how to take care of their physical needs better.  The chief--more spiritually-interested than his sister, the Most Royal Lady--questions this "vertigo," or reluctance of spiritual heights, on the part of his people.  The Teacher views it as his mission to master this weight through submission to God's laws.  Significantly, his gait due to his inflamed joints is like that of a bird (29). 

     The pupils of the Muslim school are not ignorant of the problems of poverty, either.  As part of their duties, they are obliged both to humiliate themselves and to gain compassion for others by dressing in rags and begging for substinence for a period of time.  When Samba Diallo does this, it is appropriate to the above imagery that he is surrounded by wind (14).

     The question of physical survival is contemplated by both Samba Diallo and the "Knight," his father.  The Knight reasons that attention to the physical necessities of life via working is justified to the degree that that life is devoted to God (100).  Samba derives from this the idea that work need not be a source of conflict if it is undertaken in accordance with God's law, a source of harmony:  "There is no antagonism between the discipline of faith and the discipline of work" (104). 

     The knight sees Western infidelity as a cause of strife regarding work.  After Nietzsche decreed "God is dead," he states, "God was no longer there to measure and justify man's activity."  Beyond providing what was needed for a prayerful and justified life, work then became for Westerners "frenzied toil."  It then ceased to value man (101).

     The Diallobe adopt Western methods for dealing with the demands of corporeal existence.  After the Teacher retires, Demba, Samba's practically-oriented rival, is named as his replacement, promising to make "short work" of problems (121). 

     But Samba has experienced negative aspects of the West.  Both he and the "Fool," also once an observer of Western ways, agree that a void exists in the heart of Western society.  Pierre-Louis, a former African jurist that Samba meets in Paris, agrees also, noting the feeling of "vacuity" the busy streets paradoxically give (148).  A literal and spiritual lack of feeling is mentioned, Westerners being distanced from death (148).  In Paris, "the world is silent," Samba states, and "nothing touches me any more" (150).  The Knight sees his people dazzled by the blinding light of the West (70).  Elsewhere, the events of Western life are seen as obscuring the truth (128, 167). 

     The coldness and narrow focus of Western philosophers is contrasted with the warmth of remembered traditions and the wholeness of Islam.  The culture of Islam and the Diallobe is associated with shadow (74-81, 104) and night (71).  Samba feels the shadows of his home closing in on him after moments of doubt in Paris (161).  Thought and God are associated with the sea (128, 178).  During a philosophical debate between the Knight and the father of one of Samba's schoolmates, the office they occupy takes on the appearance of "a bluish-green aquarium" (74).

     This imagery illustrates an important difference in the tools the two cultures use to describe the world.  Orality informs African modes of expression; the West is influenced by features of print.  According to Walter Ong (paraphrasing Levi-Straus), "the oral mind totalizes" (56).  Context is most important in societies where the primary mode of intellectual discourse is spoken language.  However, reading is an activity that "throws the psyche back on itself" (69), hence Western-styled detachment.  In relation to human perception and consciousness, "sight isolates, sound incorporates" (72), hence the Diallobe likenings of God to media that surround, e.g. the sea and the wind.

     Samba Diallo recalls his experience of the alphabet (158-160).  "With it, they struck the first hard blow at the country of the Diallobe.  I remained for a long time under the spell of those signs and those sounds. . . .  My happiness knew no further limit."  Contrasted with the extended process of Islamic education, he was now entering "a universe which was, at the very first, one of marvelous comprehension and total communion. . . . "  McLuhan has commented on the suddenness with which it is possible for an individual to be made independent from his traditional society via the easily acquired skill of reading with the phonetic alphabet (86).

     However, strong psychocultural forces exert an effect on Samba Diallo to remain close to tradition.  Endleman has listed five types of social classes from a psychological standpoint which offer a framework for understanding how the social roles which Samba Diallo and others play interact and how they are related psychologically.

     One of Endleman's classes is the "culturally-stylized psychopathological variant," the definition of which seems to fit the "Fool" exactly:  he is characterized as being considered deviant by the society, which affects his ego negatively (86-87); his behavior is influenced by traumata some of which is not typical to his society (i.e. his experience with Westerners, 88-93); and he is recognized (169) and typecast by his society, since his histrionic behavior (85-93, 165-174) helps the society relieve stresses that cannot be resolved otherwise.  The Fool's naming of Samba Diallo as successor to the Teacher is further evidence of his undeniable de facto role in this society (166). 

     It is also possible to identify psychocultural forces that act on Samba Diallo.  Through his traditional education he is exposed to culturally prevalent traumata:  the negative reinforcement involved in memorizing the Quran (1-7) and the experience of poverty (13-17).  Both the traumata he experiences and his means of expression are controlled by his society, characteristic of individuals considered normal in their societies.  However, the Western experience is a new one both for Samba Diallo and for the Diallobe people.

     When the Fool describes his experience with the Westerner, he uses a great deal of figurative literature.  However, when the author describes the people of the Diallobe, he makes comparisons from the European tradition; e.g. Samba Diallo comparing his father with a medieval knight (55).  This is a forerunner of his immersion in "text-formed thought" (Ong 55), since his father reminds him of an engraving of a knight in his history text. 

     This book is similar to The Notebook of Malte Larids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke in its mixture of personal observations, reminiscences, and philosophical speculations.  Like Rilke's protagonist, Samba muses philosophically in the Paris heat (128-29).  He realizes the similarity of his story with Pascal, a believer who strayed and could return.  Pascal's story is similar to the biblical story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

     Samba, too, comes home after an ambiguous adventure.  If the West is the light and his tradition is the shade, during his journey he falls into the penumbra, the part of the shadow into which some light has spilled.  He finds enduring universal beauty only in the context of his religion, and in the end, he is called back from his doubt into its purity and truth.