Everything we know about hubris we learned from Chinua Achebe. We read Things Fall Apart for the first time in eighth grade. Our teachers used the term ‘tragic pride’ so much that our friends dropped it into daily conversations like it was going out of style.
‘How tragic’ has always been a catchphrase, we know, but ours went something more like: “Dude, I just pulled another Okonkwo.”
So perhaps it’s only fitting that, last Wednesday afternoon, as we began to experience an unusual sense of boredom and apathy, we found ourselves–to our mild surprise–in an audience with the man–Achebe himself.
Earlier that day, which Achebe spent touring Princeton, a roommate came into one of our rooms and said,
“Yo, we’re going to see this Achebe guy speak after dinner, you wanna come?”
“Definitely” Kevin said, with relief, because not only did we then have something to do for the night, but, what was more, it was clearly a brochure-worthy way to pass the time: we were going to hear the most important African–some might say living–writer, Chinua Achebe speak. About something.
We brought our trusty notebooks in tow, and we were sincere.
Things Fall Apart, set in a Nigerian Igbo village, chronicles the daily triumphs and downfalls of Okonkwo, a strong man, as he attempts to hold his own, as well as his family members’, lives together. But let’s start at the beginning – a nice place to start, if we do say so ourselves.
We got there late. We ran into some friends at dinner–you know how things are–-and ended up talking about something funny–what other friends did when he was recently drunk, I think.
As we were walking there, we both expelled an irritated “What?” when our friends corrected us–Achebe was speaking at the Presbyterian Church instead of McCosh 50.
We knew that the church space was smaller than McCosh 50. We had never been, but we figured it had crummier acoustics.
We didn’t want to be distracted. Why the hell did they have to make this a pseudo-religious thing?
The setting irritated us the way things tend to when Princeton aims to emphasize its diversity or community–here so blatantly we couldn’t help but wonder why they seem to spend only half the equivalent time and cash on addressing these issues themselves.
Anyway. We got there. Princeton reads – the town, the university, the borough, the happy citizens, the ambitious, intellectually-stimulated students. Every element of the greater metro area was represented!
But when we walked in, we realized that a lot of other people were also late arrivals, and none of them seemed to know how to navigate a mezzanine, so we didn’t at all stick out.
We managed to get seats at the front of the church so that we had nice profile views of Achebe and Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah (of Appiah.net).
As Achebe, Appiah, and their attendants took the dais (decorated with flowers and plastic pots), we realized that a third of the audience seemed to have cameras. We noticed in large part because they used them, and their flash functions, unabashedly.
Numerous professional photographers floated and ducked and crawled around the sanctuary. There was a spectacle about the man, and we were all about to receive Achebe’s revelation, hype and all – and in person!
+ + + + +
Achebe opens Things Fall Apart – the first subject of the ‘Princeton Reads’ treatment, as far as we can tell, scattered in paperback form throughout the downtown – with a 1920 poem, “Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Achebe aptly uses this verse as his epigram for Things Fall Apart, which revolves around grace and downfall, and more importantly, grace in downfall.
However, at least as far as Achebe seems to see it, the “Second Coming” has nothing to do with It (whatever It is); and rather than, as Yeats suggests, anarchy unleashing its fury upon a regimented world, in Achebe’s vision, life is an eternal struggle to gain a foothold in the first place.
The title may be Things Fall Apart, but it’s unclear how together they ever were to begin with, in Achebe’s portrait of the world.
In Things Fall Apart, as the situation (you guessed it) begins to convolute and deteriorate before the eyes of the hyper-aware participants in life’s morbid little dance, the trials, tribulations, cataclysm, havoc, and the Armageddon all appear to be part of the inevitable aftermath of the human experience.
+ + + + +
When Achebe’s introducer was introduced, we learned that Achebe would be doing a reading from Things Fall Apart, after which there would be a Q & A. As soon as Achebe began prefacing his reading, we realized that we could barely hear a word he was saying and that our experience would be, therefore, severely compromised.
As we sat sullen, we doubted that many of the people in the audience were receiving a coherent message from him either, and we began to turn our focus to them.
Everyone did his (or her) best to keep quiet. In fact, many people in the crowd seemed to have colds, and they were all very intent on muffling themselves, including their shifts in posture. There were lots of hands on faces and reproving glances shot at the coughers among us.
Eight minutes after Achebe’s relaxing, rhythmic voice began to waft over us, most of the old people were already asleep. It was a bizarre sight to behold. Many of these elderly must have come early to get the great seats they were occupying.
The memory card of the camera belonging to someone in the front-row quickly filled, and thereafter it sustained a long beeping sound which this someone did little to mask, as if the device with which he’d been making clicking noises for the past few minutes hadn’t at all disrupted the various people around him, listening intently to the man and thinking of ways in which they too, could use ‘post-colonial’ in a question later that night.
After Achebe’s words on “the responsibility, meaning, and penalty for being black”, he started to read. The beginning of his selection dealt heavily with reconciling the self and the homeland when your government tries to kill you.
Achebe allegorized the government as the father and the family as the mother: “When a father beats a child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s heart.” Yet moments later, the terms of his metaphor changed, and the wise man to whom Okonkwo, his protagonist listens, reminds him, “A man belongs to his family, not his motherland . . . Is it right that you come to your mother with a heavy face and refuse comforting? Be careful.”
In the character of an Igbo wise man, Achebe waded without segue into a controversial criticism of the complaints of Okonkwo’s fellow tribespeople:
“You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world. Do you know that some men are banished for life? Some men have all their yams and even their children taken away.”
Achebe’s words belied his underlying (or not so underlying) want for Africa to take responsibility for Africa’s problems; for the continent to spend less of its time attributing these issues to its colonized past. We were reminded that one of the reasons that we like Achebe in the first place was that he is more concerned with solving problems than assigning blame.
After eighteen minutes, he’d finished reading his excerpt. We counted nine people leaving during the applause, including the lady next to me.
But some people started getting excited by the chance to ask Achebe questions as Appiah finished up his own set of queries.
The last of Appiah’s questions: “What do you think of Nigeria’s politics today?”
Achebe: “Nigeria has been a great disappointment to me.”
Appiah: “What do you think of the current crop of young writers?”
Achebe: “There is a lot of writing across the States. There is a lot of talent. I expect in the next generation there will be a very strong body of writing. Something is cooking.”
Dorothea Von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books, was the first audience member to ask a question. “When Jane Austen published her first book, she said she had given birth to a child. Fifty years after giving it birth, how has your child changed?”
Achebe didn’t seem to like this metaphor. We got the hunch that he felt she was feminizing him or mischievously turning his own mother metaphor against him. “It’s not my child, really,” he said.
Someone asked how Conrad influenced his writing, after explaining that his English teacher had told him that Things Fall Apart was a reaction to Heart of Darkness.
“If Conrad had not been born,” Achebe replied, “I would still have written this book.” The reason for the ensuing applause seemed obvious, until we realized that we didn’t know what that reason would be.
Next question: guy stands up, says he teaches the novel at a local community college, and says his students always like the chapter with the argument between white missionaries and villagers: “Which religion do you practice now: evil or Christianity?”
From Things Fall Apart, we presume this must have been the way white missionaries broached the complex topic of faith and religion with their new converts. Or maybe this guy is just an evangelical.
Achebe walked around the question. “I owe something to both of them. So I respect them both.”
A little girl stands up to ask the last question. “Are there heroes and villains in your book or just wise people and rash people?” The crowd laughs. A little girl’s read his book! A nice, reassuring ‘Yes, We Can!’ moment, right here in our sleepy little burg.