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“To read a text with the eyes of the world”

By Geoff Wisner

The book I most look forward to from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is the next volume of his excellent memoirs. But in the meantime we have Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, based on a series of lectures delivered in May 2010.

A fine novelist is not necessarily a fine literary critic. Ngũgĩ’s novel Devil on the Cross, reportedly the first modern novel in the Gikuyu language, was written on toilet paper while the author was in prison. It was a book I wanted to like. (Who wouldn’t root for a book written under those conditions?) But for me it was seroiusly damaged by eruptions of heavy-handed Marxist rhetoric. I came to Globalectics warily, therefore, but had some enjoyable surprises.

The first of the essays collected here, “The English Master and the Colonial Bondsman,” begins this way:

I returned to Kenya from Leeds University, England, in 1967 and became a member of the English Department at the University of Nairobi. Within a year, I had joined two other colleagues, not in the department, to write a document that called for its abolition.

Why abolish the English Department? To answer this question, Ngũgĩ turns to the mode of memoir, recalling his childhood during the struggle for independence in Kenya, and his university days, which saw the independence of Tanzania and Uganda. “I had entered Makerere as a colonial subject and emerged as a citizen of an independent country.” Under the circumstances, Ngũgĩ was not alone in finding the works of Jane Austen a bit beside the point.

At university Ngũgĩ learned the discipline of close reading, “which I value to this day.” He also learned the value of viewing English literature from the point of view of the colony. It was useful to know, for instance, that Boswell defended slavery and that Samuel Coleridge campaigned against it, and that the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner could be seen as “the moral burden of slavery hanging on the psyche of the trading nations.”

While researching Caribbean literature, Ngũgĩ discovered Marxist theory. “Marxian dialects," he writes, "were of course essentially Hegelian dialects, but rooted in history and actual social being.” Marx gave him another perspective on literature.

After Marx released me from a one-dimensional view of reality, I could now go back to texts I had already read and find a whole world I had not seen earlier. In the London working-class poor of Dickens’s world I found echoes of the colonial world, making it easier for me later to understand Césaire when he talked of the European bourgeoisie as having simultaneously created the problem of the colonial subject abroad and that of the working class at home. The poor at home and the colonial subject were products of the same process; in that sense Dickens’s sarcastic jibe at telescopic philanthropy in Bleak House made a lot of sense, as did his hinting at the bourgeois gentleman as a product of colonial labor in Great Expectations.

These Marxian insights led Ngũgĩ to a new perspective on literature that he calls globalectics. But what exactly is it? Ngũgĩ's definition begins rather murkily but gradually clarifies itself.

Globalectics, derived from the shape of the globe, is the mutual containment of hereness and thereness in time and space, where time and space are also in each other…. Reading globalectically is a way of approaching any text from whatever times and places to allow its content to form a free conversation with other texts of one’s time and place, the better to make it yield its maximum to the human…. It is to read a text with the eyes of the world; it is to see the world with the eyes of the text.

The call by Ngũgĩ and his colleagues to abolish the English Department was not, as it might have appeared at first, a call to dethrone Shakespeare and put Soyinka (or Ngũgĩ) in his place. It was a call to read authors like Shakespeare and Soyinka more broadly, and to use their works to see beyond the English and African soil from which they grew. 

Published Apr 11, 2012   Copyright 2012 Geoff Wisner

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