Monday, March 12, 2012

Thoughts on reading The Masque of Africa

There is the old story of the four blind men describing an elephant. One feels the side, and says it feels like a wall, the second feels a leg and says it feels like a pillar, the third feels the tail and says if feels like a snake, and the fourth feels the trunk and says it feels like a hose.

What if one blind man is taken to feel a wall, shortly thereafter a pillar, later a snake and finally a hose? Might he not conclude that he then understands the essence of the elephant?

The plural of anecdote is not data.

(Actually, in the hands of a competent professional social scientist, anecdotes can be data, but in the hands of a travel writer-novelist they are more likely to be anecdotes, used for effect.)

In fairness, V. S. Naipaul is interested in exploring the nature of his own conceptions as well as the nature of African beliefs in his book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.
According to Merrium Webster, a masque is 1: masquerade or 2: a short allegorical dramatic entertainment of the 16th and 17th centuries performed by masked actors.
Source of Naipaul sketch

Generally, the book is written in a clear, easy to understand English. Robert Butler provides us with Naipaul's rules for learning to write:
(1) write sentences of no more than ten to 12 words; (2) make each sentence a clear statement (a series of clear linked statements makes a paragraph); (3) use short words—average no more than five letters; (4) never use a word you don’t know the meaning of; (5) avoid adjectives except for ones of colour, size and number; (6) use concrete words, avoid abstract ones; (7) practise these rules every day for six months.
I note however in his chapter on Gabon, the author describes a young man he meets as a former Peace Corps volunteer now married to a woman for Gabon (the mother of his children). In a later page he says that on a trip to Libreville he "met the woman he would marry. She was his mother's neighbor." Now an American's mother would presumably not have a neighbor Gabonese woman from the Fang tribe; the text is unclear. In his visit to the Ivory Coast, Naipaul twice mentions a soccer game between the national team and that from Malawi at which 69 people died. In the first reference it appears that they may have died as a result of an out-of-control crowd after a part of the stadium had collapsed; in the second that the people died in the collapse of the building. Perhaps not a major problem, but still a lack of exactitude in the prose.

I have a thought experiment for you. Assume that you are visited by someone from another planet with his interpreter. The interpreter tells you that the alien has heard you are a Catholic (substitute your own religion) and wants you to tell him about being a Catholic. At least three things would be involved:
  • Religion is not only complex, but much is implicit. You might not be able to articulate what it is to be a Catholic.
  • Articulating religion to yourself is one thing, communicating that to someone else is a far different and even more complex undertaking.
  • You might want to examine closely what you wanted to communicate and why. What perception did you want to leave? What would be the threats and the opportunities in the communication.
Naipaul,  an Indo-Trinidadian-British Nobel Laureate writer, is pretty alien to the average African, and says that he discovered on an earlier trip to Africa that directly questioning tribal practitioners didn't work. So in this book, Naipaul combines visits to African religious sites, information from more cosmopolitan people (Africans who have considerable contact abroad or foreigners who have lived long in Africa), and reading. As his subtitle describes, the book provides only glimpses of African beliefs.

Naipaul has lived in many places and visited more. He is not shocked by Africa. I too have lived in several places and visited some 50 countries but I did not go to sub-Saharan Africa until late in my career, and I found it different than Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia, and much different than North America or Europe. Some of the responses of Naipaul to these differences come through the text. He appears distressed by the destruction of forests, the expansion of slum filled cities, and the seeming indifference of Africans to rubbish piled in the streets. He  also seems disturbed by the willingness of the Africans to eat any kind of meat, including dogs, cats, elephants, and bats. (One wonders if there was less protein malnutrition and more affordable sources of protein whether Africans too might prefer other meats.) He seems to regret the decay of things built by European colonists in the days of empire, without celebrating the independence of the indigenous population and their successes (improved health, improved access to education, etc.)

Naipaul is not your average tourist. He is escorted by diplomats from Trinidad or contacts of his publisher; in Gabon he is accompanied by officials assigned by the Minister of Defense. He interviews presidential candidates and ex presidents as well as top tribal religious leaders. He stays in the best hotels. His is not the grass roots experience of the anthropologist nor the long term immersion of the Peace Corps volunteer, although he can relate what he sees and hears to his early life in Trinidad.

The book is in part a travel log but rather an unusual one. The author devotes chapters to visits to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa. Naipaul provides sketches of the places he visits or passes through, but I am reminded of the painted backdrops used in theater rather than detailed information for the traveler. He seems to write as often of this problems as a traveler (getting through the airport in Lagos, lodging or finding an address) as he does on "the glimpses of belief".

The narrative voice is usually detached, sometimes expressing frustration or even fear, but seldom pleasure nor joy. He describes kissing off visits to sites that other people had taken pains to arrange. I don't think I would enjoy traveling with V. S. Naipaul.

Taxonomy: Naipaul is primarily interested in this book in "indigenous African religious beliefs". This is not a book about political, economic, governmental, aesthetic or other kinds of beliefs. Nor is it a book about varieties of Christian or Islamic beliefs that exist in Africa. It does include beliefs about supernatural spirits, some sources of illness and some treatment of illnesses, sites of spiritual power, and leaders of religious institutions. It does not deal with the African who perceives he has a fever and that the cause is best diagnosed and treated by a doctor or health center. It seems obvious to me that the class of things of interest to Naipaul  in this book is not necessarily a class that would be recognized by most Africans as homogeneous -- of things to be linked under a single category. Rather the category derives from European thought, and I suspect from imperial attitudes towards the people of African colonies.

In this blog I have often described my preference for scientific knowledge. Comparing the knowledge developed over centuries of science of the causes and treatment of disease with that developed by other more traditional institutions in Africa, I think there is a clear superiority for the former. Indeed, I suspect that most Africans would go to a doctor rather than a traditional practitioner for many conditions were the modern doctor available and affordable. Of course, there are health conditions which modern doctors can't cure. Indeed, many conditions are treated by modern medicine based on traditional practices (aspirin, quinine, etc.).

What would "The Masque of America" read like. How many beliefs of Americans would appear to be odd or false to someone following Naipaul's investigative technique? There would of course be sections on haunted houses, faith healers, herbalists, cult leaders, and sites believed to be invested with spiritual power by New Agers. I suspect there would also be sections that would offend the most modern and logical Americans regarding some of their closely held "scientifically based" beliefs as quaint or simply false. There might also be beliefs thrown into the mix (manifest destiny, American exceptionalism?) that most Americans would not see as related to the others listed above.

The past is another country and we can be foreign observers of our own nations as they were in the past. In America it is not so long ago that we sterilized people of low IQ to improve the race, we did lobotomies to cure mental disease, we believed Blacks, Irish, Italians, and Asians to be inferior races, many of us believed slavery was a divinely inspired institution needed to improve the lives of blacks. We will be another country for our descendants, and they no doubt will find some of our beliefs today to be equally strange as those I cite from the past seem to us.

I came away from the book with the feeling that Naipaul chose to study a class of beliefs in Africa that would tend to be deprecated by his readers in the global book-buying public. I have not read his other books, and it may be that his books on Christianity and Islam similarly trigger his skepticism. It may be however, that this book is an allegory for our beliefs, and that he is indirectly deprecating of the beliefs of Americans and Europeans. Indeed, that might be the point he is trying to bring us to understand in this book.

On the other hand, the book seems to chronicle a change in Obama's own views towards a greater appreciation for beliefs that draw more from nature and the forest than from society and the city. Perhaps more fundamentally, the book is a chronicle of the failure of European colonization of Africa and the work that lies before the world in finding a way to forward out of the mess left by the clash of African and failed colonial cultures.

Naipaul ends this book with a discussion of the parable at the end of Rian Malan's book, My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. In that discussion he writes that a book which combines autobiography and reportage must also meet the narrative needs imposed on any book, and must conclude with some kind of resolution. In his final pages, Naipaul includes this quote from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of fore-sight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.

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