“The Second Coming”, which so happens to be one of my favourite poems, inspired the title of the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The poem prophesies the downfall of culture as we know it and that something new, but not necessarily good, will arise from it. Its imagery of future destruction and desolation, and its unsympathetic allusions to Christianity are awesome. I like the poem primarily because it is a total hands-up-in-the-air-and-fuck-everything kinda poem… and it also reflects how I feel about now:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Wasn’t that nice. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is also just as depressing. It follows the life of Okonkwo, a courageous and aggressive Igbo clan leader who struggles with the impositions of both his own traditional culture and the new Christian one that threatens his way of life.
The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first half explains Okonkwo’s origins and facets of his family life leading up to their exile, and the second half deals with the impact of white Christian colonialism in Nigeria and Okonkwo’s reactions against it. On having a vague idea about the novel beforehand, I figured the novel would be (pardon the expression) very black and white; by that, I mean there would be a dichotomy of morals at play where one culture would stereotypically be depicted as “good” and the other “bad”. But there was the ambiguity of the two cultures instilling both spiritual fulfilment as well as harm.
I felt that the narrator was very neutral and didn’t necessarily promote one way of life over the other, and if it did, it was certainly done by absorbing a character’s opinions and perspective into the act of narration. Nevertheless, the process of colonisation is obviously depicted as harmful but there are other facets of traditional Igbo culture that are morally questionable. At one point, the Oracle of Umuofia declares that the captive child, Ikemefuna, who Okonkwo had to incorporate into his family and who Okonkwo becomes very attached to, has to be killed. Not wanting to lose face by kicking up a fuss and seeming unmasculine, Okonkwo administers the killing blow to the boy himself despite the fact he need not really have done so. For Okonkwo, upholding the laws of his culture and carrying himself with the respect that ultimately hurts him on the inside is more important than betraying his sense of individuality. Similarly, Okonkwo deems the new Christian influence on the region as unmanly and he ultimately cannot cope with these new changes that break tradition. Everything that Okonkwo has learned and has worked for and has sacrificed as a citizen of his culture falls crashing down around him.
The novel was very interesting in terms of learning about all the customs, traditions, rituals and laws that constitute Igbo culture. Achebe also writes about all this in a very matter-of-fact way and this breathes life into his characters and makes their trials seem authentic. But lawdy, I felt bad for Okonkwo. Poor Okonkwo.