I’ve been teaching Chinua Achebe’s Nigerian masterpiece Things Fall Apart (as a follow-up to Heart of Darkness in my 20th century English-Language Literature Survey) and am struck by how much America today can learn from the novel. That’s because we have our own version of one of its key conflicts, that between individual drive and the community’s collective tradition.
In our case, Republicans like Paul Ryan trumpet Ayn Randian individualism as they accuse Obama of collectivist socialism, and the president counters with Americans’ need to help each other. As he said in his inaugural,
The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security— these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Warrior Ibo culture in late 19th century society is far more collectivist than the United States, but even they have members who clearly fall into Ryan and Romney’s takers category. One of these is the protagonist’s father Unoka, who fits Romney’s 47 percent designation and legitimately deserves to be castigated:
In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gours of palm-wine, called round his neighbors and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.
At one point Unoka goes to the village priestess to complain about his poverty, and she proceeds to chew his butt out for not working harder:
You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and your hoe. When your neighbors go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labor to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man.
Okonkwo, impoverished and humiliated by his father, determines that he will be the opposite: he will make himself into a success:
He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.
Against all odds, Okonkwo succeeds and goes on to become a respected man. In the words of the Romney campaign, he did build that. As a result, he is impatient with those who don’t work as hard as he does. In one meeting he humiliates a man by calling him a woman and is called upon to apologize. He does so, but he’s not really sorry:
Everybody at the kindred meeting took sides with Osugo when Okonkwo called him a woman. The oldest man present said sternly that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble. Okonkwo said he was sorry for what he had said, and the meeting continued.
But it was really not true that Okonwo’s palm kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself. Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky. If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.
So far, Okonkwo sounds like an American success story. But here’s what we can learn from Things Fall Apart. There is something too reactionary about Okonkwo’s ambitions, and as a result he starts getting into trouble. While individual initiative should be celebrated, it must come from a clean space. Just as Republicans like Ryan often talk about success as a way of berating the 47% of Americans that they claim are moochers, so Okonkwo sees success mostly as a way of contrasting himself with his father:
[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and clas. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
Because of this fear, there is something never quite right about Okonkwo. He can’t enter fully or joyously into festivals because he wants to be back at his farm working. He is a stern father who alienates his son. As a result, things begin to go wrong. His culture interprets this as his having a bad chi.
For instance, he forgets to observe the sacred week of peace and beats one of his wives, drawing stern reprimands from the village elders. Then his gun goes off accidentally at a funeral, killing a son of the dead man, and he is banished for seven years. His son rebels and becomes a Christian. Finally, at the end, Okonkwo erupts in anger at the white colonialists, kills one of their messengers, and chooses to hang himself rather than be taken off and executed. It is the book’s final irony that his body is thrown into the same “EvilForest” where his disgraced father ended up, the man he has spent his entire life distancing himself from.
Here’s Achebe’s lesson about individual success: When we throw our accomplishments in the face of those who are not successful, our chi is bad and our tribe suffers. On the other hand, when we acknowledge that our palm kernels have been cracked for us by a benevolent spirit, our chi smiles and all around us benefit.
So work hard, love life, and, when you are successful, be humble about it.
Can I hear an amen?