Friday, October 13, 2006

Habila's Marechera.

Oxford was a huge culture shock for Marechera. Nothing in his background quite prepared him for it. He was astonished by the lazzez-faire approach to education displayed by the mostly upper-class students. His typical colonial upbringing had taught him to believe that education was the golden fleece to be pursued and attained at all cost: it was the only way out of the ghetto…From all accounts he never really encountered overt racism at Oxford—he was, after all, a member of the Oxford “aristocracy.” The brand of racism here was almost polite. Its tone is best captured in the semiautobiographical short story, “Oxford, Black Oxford,” where the Marechera-like narrator is questioned by his white fellow student, Stephen, a member of the real aristocracy.


This is Helon Habila writing about Marechera. It tells a nice tale. It also shows something that is noticeable in Marechera Studies: a little information produces many Marecheras. So, what is being slipped by in this version?

Yes, Oxford was a shock.
No, he was prepared for part it. The elitism of St Augustine’s, Rhodesia, would have been a good preparation for the elitism of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Yes, he was astonished by the lack of intellectual effort he encountered, the mediocrity among the so-called elite.
No, his colonial upbringing did not teach him to believe in education. (Here, Habila introduces his own Nigerian perspective). It was something much more personal that made Marechera cross out “school” and invent a box called “university” on his High School questionnaire in 1971. Marechera carried an inward belief in intellectual thought, at all cost, even if it isolated him.
No, he did not see education as a way out of the ghetto. (Again, Habila transfers his view of Nigeria to Marechera or the reality of modern day North America). He quite liked ghettos.
No, Marechera was not part of the Oxford “aristocracy”—his beliefs would have been fundamentally against an elitism as they were based on intellectual merit-- and Marechera was isolated equally from the White Class System and the Black Class System: the Nigerians at Oxford who did not value him as a Rhodesian intellectual and looked down on his aspect of Blackness.
Yes, Marechera did encounter racism at Oxford. This was of the institutional variety that UK establishments specialise in as much as learning.
No, the brand of racism was not “polite”. There is no such brand.
Yes, racism is captured in “Oxford, Black Oxford”, but it is not as gentle as Habila thinks.

Habila is a consummate writer, but here he tells his fiction too well.

Marechera arrived at New College, Oxford in October, 1974. According to the Dean of New College, Marechera had a “chip on his shoulder for being black.” Not the healthiest of attitudes by the college’s main disciplinarian. Marechera particularly resented the origins of his scholarship: a collection of funds from white students at New College. At Oxford, as at home, his mind was living on hand-outs from white patrons. Veit-Wild quotes Nyamfukudza as saying that Oxford University was difficult for students because it required continuous work rather than cramming for exams, which was the University of Rhodesia’s method. This does not seem to have been Marechera’s objection, however, and this had more to do with the staleness of literary tradition and a kind of teaching that removed the personal from criticism and so excluded identity. Apparently, he wrote a shocking comparison between himself and the black Heathcliffe…obviously aware of the possibility that Emily Bronte’s outcast might have been of African origin. Fitting in, culturally and intellectually, was a pre-requisite that Marechera did not really see. Sir William Hayter, the Warden of New College, summed it up matter-of-factly as Marechera was a somebody, but not “a somebody who could fit into the curriculum…”
Fundamentally, Marechera was expected to be the Other who showed obedience to his Master—whose job it was to whiten himself and undergo what Marechera described as “being mentally raped”. There is a lovely note in Lady Iris Hayter’s diary for September 18th, 1975:
“Charles Marechera and Owen Kibel appeared, Charles very neat in good form, but as usual wanting money, for the nice reason of going to stay at Romney with Owen’s friend.”
How well these few words betray Oxford’s English class set-up. Firstly, “Charles”, not Dambudzo, a good example of what Marechera describes in The Black Insider as how the white man has taken over “more than the geography of the African image.” Secondly, there was a warm reception because Charles came with a white Rhodesian. And finally, the request for money was a “nice reason” this time because Owen would be taking Marechera into that oh so delightfully, English county of Kent, a region of autumnal whiteness. And, of course, this would have been seen as proof of successful social engineering: Kibel and Marechera were introduced in the gardens of New College as a social experiment, white and black together, and were expected to get on because they shared the same country—even though that country was ripping itself apart along racial lines! Kibel’s reflections on Marechera at Oxford show a typical psycho-analytical view from a bridge over the River Isis: Marechera was Gollum (filtered through the Anglo-Saxon world of Oxbridge) with the possibility of Tourette’s disorder and coprolalia. (Not really, more a question of an imaginative mind—like Joyce—who was prepared to throw shit at mankind’s universe). Marechera’s New College was full of Old College prejudices.

Marechera’s own view of Oxford is radically different from Habila’s. Towards Oxford, Marechera adopts an almost Thomas Love Peacock stance, an intellectual, ironical distance. In Black Sunlight, his pastiche of Oxford and Blanche Goodfellow (White+Fellow, in the academic sense+Good) captures a world of decadent eroticism before which he is simply prostrate. In The Black Insider, Oxford is a place of intellectual repression, against which, with a sense of irony, Marechera stands as a black Shelley, a black Prometheus Unbound, a heretic who is thrown out and shunned by his black friends for daring to provoke whiteness. They repeat the white man’s literary lectures and method of education and “lecture” him on the “I-Told-You-So-Got-What-You-Deserve” theme. Oxford taught Marechera about “parasitism”, the living in a corpse, life-amongst-death. In “Oxford, Black Oxford,” Marechera begins and finishes in golden ironical vein. His portrait begins with a reference to an earlier satire on Oxford, Zuleika Dobson. She was a magician and Marechera takes up her role, the cosmic joker he references in Black Sunlight and The Black Insider. Now, it is All Souls College that he attends…a place again chosen with irony, for Oxford is a soulless place. With his white tutorial friend, Stephen, Marechera visits Dr Martins-Botha—a brilliant type name in the style of Peacock. This Fellow resembles Dr Martins, a sign of his trendy boot-boy nature, whilst being inhabited by the mind of a cultured racist, P.W. Botha. Before Dr Martins-Botha, the representative of Oxford’s liberal intelligentsia, Marechera is the “monkey face”, whilst Stephen (not exactly Dedalus) is his erotic, prized, class object. All Souls leads to All Souls Day and Walpurgisnacht, and a moment of black conjuring when Marechera notices that the teacher is fondling his student in a literary, Decadent way. No, there is nothing polite in Oxford’s racism--as depicted by Marechera-- and nothing gentlemanly in his satire.

14 comments:

Unsane said...

Unfortunately, what I see going on here is that Habila is actually trying to neutralise some of the much harsher criticism against Marechera, without playing the race card and thereby risking the representation of both himself AND Marechera as those suffering from ressentiment. So, he is stepping very carefully as if to say, "there was a bit of a problem, but all parties behaved in a basically reasonable way". He doesn't want to be seen as an hysteric, screaming and saying "Marechera was hard done by!" So actually Habila is deferring to power -- which happens to be white power -- but he is a strong ally of Marechera.

You would have to see some of the harsher criticism that has been directed against Marechera. It's absolutely toxic stuff. So Habila is probably aware that the extremist of Marechera's actual postion (as opposed to the "reasonableness of all parties" which Habila himself represents) can open the doors to a very harsh critical attack and misrepresentation of Marechera's real character. He wants to soften the blows against Marechera. It's much harder (as I am finding) to actually deflect the blows, rather than soften them.

Unsane said...

I meant "extremism" --not "extremist" -- (in other words, Marechera was a political hot coal).

Unsane said...

By the way, I have fredric jameson's very telling 1986 article on third-world literature in the era of multinational capitalism, if you are interested. It's quite amusing concerning criticism of "third world" literature. Here is a piece from the ending:

"I must admit that old habits die hard and that for us such unaccustomed exposure to reality [as that of the laborious telling of the experience of collectivity itself]is often intolerable, leaving us in Quentin's position at the end of ABSALOM, ABSALOM! murmering the great denial, "I don't hate the third world, I don't, I don't, I don't!"

Even the resistance is instructive, however; and we may feel, confronted with the daily reality of the other two-thirds of the globe, that "there was nothing at all attractive about it in fact." But we must not allow ourselves that feeling without also acknowledging its ultimate mocking completion: "Its life was based on the principles of community interdependence".

Unsane said...

Actually, he did desperately want to get out of the "ghetto", which was not really a ghetto, but the situation he was stuck in with his family. He wanted an education at any cost -- not just because it was the way out of the situation he was in, but because he was a natural intellectual. He felt very bad knowing that his mother had to prostitute herself to pay for this education. It wasn't just on this level that he felt he was betraying his parents -- it was also the fact that he was keen to receive a colonial education, and IN ENGLISH (which was the language of the colonial masters).

There is a passage in one of his books which says "I'd always thought that I'd killed my parents" I think it is in House of Hunger, when he's having a hallucination. It indicates the level of guilt he felt in escaping the "ghetto" in the way he did, and so betraying his parents cultural ideals.

Unsane said...

Throughout The Black Insider, there is a yearning for authentic community -- a grinding yearning. Thinking about how he was isolated and denied fellowship because of the racial preoccupations of people at Oxford, it is not surprising that he decided to seek companionship among those who were as "down and out' as he felt he was. This is the "attraction" to the ghetto which you sense. But it was actually an intellectual turn towards seeking out those kinds of social reject characters which Dostoevsky had written about -- it was a literary turn.

eshuneutics said...

Thanks for your reflections which are always interesting. Yes, I can see what you are saying about Marechera and Habila: the piece from VQR is an attempt to bring M into the mainstream...a bit like showing him the local AA group. There are some lazy errors by Habila--Marachera's Catholic upbringing, for instance--and Habila is avoiding the mistake of Mr Marechera in TBI: bite the academic hand that feeds him. I have seen bad criticisms of Marechera. Where are the toxic ones? I am probably missing this perspective.

eshuneutics said...

The VQR article is a sanitizing of the Bad Boy of Black Literature image or the Bad Black Boy of Literature attitude, depending where a person sits. I remain puzzled by the echoes Habila raises but does not truly hear. "The sun was coming up." That has to be an ironical echo of Langston Hughes, not just a trite start to THOH.

Unsane said...

There are some toxic criticisms, I feel, in the book called Emerging Perspectives on D Marechera. I think that David Pattison's Freudian analysis is the strongest misrepresentation of him. I find Pattison's pathological analysis most strange, because you know, when you decide to make a pathological analysis of someone who actually tried to do something under particularly difficult circumstances, and who actually succeeded to some degree, then who are you implicitly holding up as sane, healthy and well-adjusted? Maybe its the little housewife who lives in the little village, who minds her own business by looking at her toes, and pays her taxes, does her citizenly duties, and won't back to any man. I mean, really, the mind boggles. If Marechera was "sick" then who is healthy?

Unsane said...

Was Habila's writing intended as a literary analysis -- and explicatory view -- or was it written for political motivations?

Unsane said...

I also wonder whether Dambudzo had experienced much genuine elitism before he went to Oxford. Certainly, I did not experience it in Rhodesia, and I was a colonial white. Therefore, as a black, he probably experienced even less of it than I.

The schools in that colonial regime were hardly places where one might posture in terms of one's sense of privilege. If anything they were military cadet training grounds. Discipline, not privilege, was the constant tone. I'm sure that a self-conscious appropriation of one's rights (in the privileged sense, rather than in the desperado revolutionary sense)was not something he would have expected to encounter.

eshuneutics said...

I take your point. I should have made this a bit clearer. Oxford--at the time Marechera went there--was doing its "we are cosmopolitan" bit. It was reaching out to the UK's wild regions, the North! Intense competition was generated consequently. Two systems operated--the aristocrats who got in by nepotism and the old boy network--and those who had to achieve incredibly high exam marks.
I meant that the intense academic competition that Marechera would have known to get into St Augustine's and stay there would have prepared him for an over competitive academia: Oxford. I was not buying into the statement that Marechera could not cope with the continual hard work because he was accustomed to the relaxed atmosphere of the Uni of Rhodesia. I recognise you will know far more about this than me, however. Why did he go to New College? What was the link bewteen Rhodesia and the UK here?

Jennifer said...

Not sure of the exact link. But he did receive a scholarship especially for black students, I think.

sarahjane said...

How do I cite this article? Are the ideas here published elsewhere? I'd like to quote your brilliant interpretation of Oxford, Black Oxford...

Mercuneutics said...

The ideas are not published elsewhere. Cite the blog or contact me here. Thanks.