Monday, August 11, 2008

Obama, Marechera and the Apes.

A few weeks ago there was an outcry in the US as racist connections were made between Senator Obama and monkeys. The monkey t-shirts made obvious what has long existed in the communal mind. As Henry Louis Gates Jr puts it, Black is seen as simian-like. The monkey/ape (as an image) invariably carries a negative sense in modern culture, but this one-sided image is the product of a one-sided culture— a culture that has strayed from the doubleness of all imagery. It is by no means the whole story.

When Marechera submitted The House of Hunger to his publishers, in 1977, it received one single-minded reading by Esther Kantai:

“The same kind of negative views of human nature permeates through Marechera’s other stories. Take the story “Burning in the Rain”. The main character is a guy who is convinced that he is just like a gorilla…It is clear that the writer does not have a high opinion of the black man. (A Source Book, p182).”

Marechera’s ape=black man equation is, as Kantai correctly points out, very noticeable in the volume of short stories. It is a theme in “Black Skin What Mask,:

“And Christ! when it came to dancing he really made himself look a monkey.” (House of Hunger, p.103).

And runs through a key episode of The House of Hunger, when a Roman Catholic Priest delivers a scathing attack to the novella’s narrator:

“It’s the ape in you, young man, the heart of darkness.”

Repeating Conrad’s phrase, the Priest equates the ape with primitivism, as a symbol of what Africa was before Christ (and the White man) came to redeem it. Yes, it is true that Marechera explicitly links Blackness with Apeness. There is, however, something else implied in the response to the Priest. Insurrection breaks out in the classroom…serious monkeying around. The monkey, here, is a double image, stating the apelike darkness of ignorant youth, suggesting that monkey-mockery is a weapon of the free mind. This theme is heard pointedly in Marechera’s short story from 1981, “Oxford Black Oxford”. Dr Martins-Botha (a name which signifies Botha/apartheid and Dr-Martins/violent and trendy right-wing skinhead shoe wear) attempts a put-down:

“Were you supposed to see your Warden at nine o’ clock?”

To which comes the reply:

“First I’ve heard of it. You see I did not check my mail. Survival instinct, I suppose.”
But the lame joke fell flat on its face. Its monkey face.

(The Black Insider, p.161).

The “monkey face” here has two meanings: by giving a weak response, Dr Martins-Botha has his prejudicial thoughts about class structure and the African simian male affirmed; by failing to monkey around effectively, within language, the narrator falls flat on his own banana skin and does not use the double-sided nature of monkey language to his own advantage.

Outside the commonplace imagery of the Western tradition— a rationalist tradition of single-meanings— the monkey has a very different meaning.


In African tribal art, the monkey connects to the opposite of civilisation. For the Dogon, it represents the anti-rational, that energy which works against civilised values. For the Hemba, it is a marginal figure standing between death and life. The monkey mask guides the passing over into death and provides the humour that restores life. The Chokwe view the monkey as a symbol of wisdom, as a mirror of the human. The Baule carve gbekre or monkey statues which serve as liminal figures between the present and the future, between the world of the here-and-now and the world beyond. The monkey, as Henry Louis Gates Jr establishes in The Signifying Monkey, is a reversal of a “received racist image”; truly, a symbol of the artist “who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language….” (The Signifying Monkey, p.52). The monkey is a prime symbol of doubleness connected to Eshu(neutics) and hermeneutics.

In the hermeneutical tradition, the monkey is viewed as the interpreter. In De Naturae Simia (1624), Fludd cast the monkey in a teaching role, as the artistic intermediary between Anima/Spirit and Microcosm/Nature. This echoes his position in the supposed Hermetical Wisdom of Egypt where the ape accompanied Thoth, the ibis headed god of Wisdom. One of the interesting connections made by Marechera is between the monkey image and religion. They stand in opposition. Bataille adopted a similar position in Erotism, Death and Sensuality, seeing religion as that force which stands between man and the sexual potency of the ape (p.156). Religion is the humanizing element that depletes man of sexual power and leads towards slavery and away from the free and irrational.


The monkey image in “Burning in the Rain” is a complex one. The story opens with a figure and a mirror. The narrator, who likes to “mock” the ridiculous human body, is faced with “The Ape in the Mirror” (p.91). Progressively, the narrator falls under the spell of the ape. He becomes a Black man who experiences cultural blackouts (p.94). His Blackness merges into a psychological blackness. As a result of this, he finds himself covered in soot and in possession of a bag of obscene Christmas cards. The suggestion is that he has come down the chimney with Santa Claus and has become Zwarte Piet, a parody of himself as a Black male blacked-up. In Black Peter, there is also a pun on “peter” as an ancient word for penis. This intimates the nature of his taboo cards. As the possession develops, he next finds himself covered in “whitewash” with a “wig” (p.94). This follows the madness advised by the Priest in The House of Hunger: he has turned himself White and literally “wigged out”, become a frenzied African-European. Finally, he covers his room in excrement and goes ape-shit”(p.95). He covers his universe in excrement and has to biblically uncreate it. (Again, monkey and religion stand opposed). The ape becomes an ominous image, but there is a possible counter-point. At the head of the stream, where the narrator and Margaret are “fused into one” by living power, the unmoving “frost” of the mirror-mind is contrasted with an image of the mind in flux such that opposites meet as “A great breaking spray of it sparkened by rainbows.” (p.93). This image of water and light recalls a sunshower, the South African umshado wezinkawu, the “monkey wedding”.

The monkey/ape in Marechera is an image that encapsulates his writing style: one that refuses to settle and consequently crosses fictional genres like a trickster swinging on tropes.

4 comments:

Unsane said...

Great writing!
(You may also be interested in a draft chapter on my blog, concerning his shamanism).

Well, all I can add is that Marechera seems to claim a certain amount of power for himself by claiming the monkey. It's like in Capoiera, when the ludicrously submissive grin of the slave masks his real, serious intent, which is combative.

Also there is an aspect of Zimbabwean culture, which independent of any dynamic of oppression, is deeply irreverent and jestful. These days I realise how Zimbabwean I actually am. You know I was of the generation of whites who were assimilated into black culture in ways that are too hard to trace or determine. However we used to monkey around at school a lot, and a lot of this was somehow tolerated (not like in the West, I presume, where a certain sobriety is demanded in order to prove one's willingness to fit in with the system as it is.)

Eshuneutics said...

Hello. Thanks for your view-point, which is pertinent as ever. Of course, your point about Capoeira is a good one-- I hadn't gone as far as examining how the mask would function. The Persona, for Marechera, is closer to modern Jungians rather than the Great Shaman Jung himself. The Persona is an intermediary between the inner and outer, thus allowing the mask to protect (Jung) and permit social functioning (modern Jungian philosophy). Marechera's comment to Curry about Heinemann was quite to the point: "You are making a monkey out of me." Your biographical understanding of Zimbabwean culture is important first-hand experience. The West has developed a no-nonsense attitude to education. No monkeys. No bananas. And witch-hunts for those who cannot discipline the primates. I've read your thoughts on Shamanism. I find them all stimulating and they make such sense.

Id it is said...

Obama apparently has 'claimed' the monkey as his lucky talisman that he carries in his pocket because the monkey god in Hindu mythology is the epitome of wisdom, grace, valor, and righteousness.

Eshuneutics said...

Hi, that is a very interesting irony. Obama and Hanuman. I did not know this: interesting details like this do not reach the UK. We are just beginning Obama-watching...a new cultural interest here.