James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Next to death ... shit is the most vernacular atmosphere of our beloved country.
Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters
Postindependence African fiction features a striking conjunction of scatology and political satire, borne out most clearly in two landmark novels of the 1960s: Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters (1965) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). In The Interpreters, a story of intellectuals in decolonized Nigeria, Soyinka uses excremental language to present political and corporate misdeeds in terms of unhealthy digestion. In Armah's grotesque vision, shit (not to mention its corporeal familiars phlegm, drool, vomit, sweat, piss, and blood) emerges as an index of moral and political outrage in a new Ghana bedeviled by greed and bureaucratic corruption. These works--along with such notably excremental contemporaries as Gabriel Okara's The Voice (1964) and Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother (1971)--suggest that scatology has a formative (and underexamined) significance in the development of contemporary African literature.(1) We might begin to account for this shared excremental vision by noting that the literature emerges from a discursive arena saturated by the tropes of what Dain Borges calls "belly politics" (109); such a reading would seem to be strengthened by Achille Mbembe's recent and widely discussed hypothesis that postcolonial politics (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) is characterized by an "aesthetics of vulgarity" (1). However, more searching forms of analysis are required, I think, to explain the remarkable currency and symbolic versatility of excrement in the postcolony--to account for shit's function not just as a naturalistic detail but as a governing trope in postcolonial literature.
This essay will attempt such an account from a comparative literary perspective, a project inspired by the observation that excremental language and novelistic vitality intersect not only in Armah and Soyinka but in the works of celebrated scatologists James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Like their African counterparts, Joyce and Beckett came to prominence during an era divided between anti-colonial national revival and postcolonial national disillusionment. The comparative analysis I propose reasserts the relevance of the term "postcolonial" at a time when postcolonial studies has entered its own era of disillusionment, marked by frequently recirculated and skeptical interrogations from Arif Dirlik, Anne McClintock, and Ella Shohat (among others).(2) Although "postcolonial" continues to thrive as an institutional label, it has been shown to betray a number of conceptual weaknesses: it lumps together vastly different cultural phenomena in a loose historical model; it defines the present in terms of a European-dominated past; and it applies Western theory to non-Western cultural objects. Moreover, as both its critics and its champions acknowledge, the term tends to imply, against manifest political and economic evidence, that imperial structures of domination have disappeared. Despite these objections, however, the term continues to have explanatory power when it sheds light on shared discursive strategies among writers situated in similar historical circumstances. This study, for example, begins with a specific literary device--the excremental trope--and its function in Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Irish texts that locate themselves in the context of failed or flawed postcolonial nationalism.
In Africa, scatological works by Soyinka, Armah, and Awoonor (all published between 1965 and 1971) signaled a wide cultural reorientation in which questions about nationalist excess began to mute the celebrations of independence. Similarly, we might identify a second wave of writers in twentieth-century Irish literature: those who came after the Celtic revivalists and looked askance at increasingly rigid and cloying forms of cultural nationalism. Joyce and Beckett are the dominant novelists of this "second wave," which runs roughly from the Easter Rising (1916) to the Irish Republic (1948). If Armah and Soyinka express disillusionment about the lost promises of African independence, then Joyce and Beckett satirize the tired conventions of the Irish Renaissance.(3) In these roughly comparable periods of their respective literary histories, Irish and West African writers came to question political and aesthetic standards that were a legacy not only of British colonialism but of heroic national struggle against British colonialism.
The changing cultural politics of this postcolonial second wave translate, in both settings, into changing literary forms. Anthony Appiah has argued, for example, that African writers of the later 1960s evince a new suspicion of nationalism that underwrites their formal challenge to the "originary" African novel (the latter exemplified by Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye's L'Enfant noir). For Appiah, the largely realist texts of the first wave project a version of Africa's "usable past" that tends to naturalize or legitimize nationalism (150). By contrast, the second-wave works of Armah and Soyinka distrust nationalism and disrupt realism with shifting perspectives, disjunctive episodic structures, and hallucinatory bouts of nonmimetic or surreal description. Similarly, one might argue, the experimental modernist works of Joyce and Beckett display a parodic aversion to overweening nationalism. Among the most visible products of these movements in African and Irish literature are picaresque, grotesque, and satirical fictions that share a conspicuous investment in the language of excrement.
Critics of Soyinka, Armah, Joyce, and Beckett have, of course, taken note of excremental imagery but have not treated it comprehensively within the cross-cultural framework afforded by postcolonial studies.(4) Scatological satire, though it extends back to classical (Aristophanes and Juvenal) and early modern (Rabelais and Swift) periods, takes on new and distinctive meanings in postcolonial fiction. By examining excremental language in African and Irish writing, I propose not to define postcolonial literature as excremental but rather to examine the peculiarly rich life of scatology in texts that are already identifiable--by their immediate contexts and concerns--as postcolonial. Such a comparative project has been given fresh relevance by new scholarly work on excremental tropes within the medical discourses of modern colonialism (Anderson) and on vulgar tropes within the political discourse of contemporary Africa (Mbembe).
In a recent article entitled "Excremental Colonialism," Warwick Anderson draws attention to the crucial role played by clean bodies--imagined in almost transcendental terms--in the modernization and development enterprises of colonialism. In particular, Anderson describes the methods by which U.S. colonizers produced an image of Filipino natives as unsanitary and excremental. Anderson's history of this rhetorical and epidemiological debasement provides a good point of departure for a study of excremental images in the postcolonial era, when shit begins to operate counterdiscursively. In postcolonial writing, shit can redress a history of debasement by displaying the failures of development and the contradictions of colonial discourse and, moreover, by disrupting inherited associations of excrement with colonized or non-Western populations. Picking up where Anderson leaves off, then, this essay addresses shit not so much as a material object but as a powerful "discursive resource" within a new symbolic order.
The symbolic mobility of excremental images in postcolonial cultures has been recently thrown into relief by the work of Achille Mbembe. The vulgar aesthetics that Mbembe ascribes to sub-Saharan African politics derives, he suggests, from "a tendency to excess and disproportion" (2). Where Bakhtinian theory has proposed that obscene language bubbles up from below to challenge official or state discourse, Mbembe suggests that vulgar images, including the excremental, are often deployed by the state as part of its official display of power. This analysis of vulgar images that both represent and resist power suggests the radical ambiguity of scatology. And if excremental imagery serves different rhetorical masters in Mbembe's political discourse, it is perhaps an even more complex and useful resource in the literary languages of postcolonialism.
As both object and symbol, shit has long been read according to psychoanalytic and mythic models. Such readings traditionally focus on (transcultural and transhistorical) experiences of childhood sexuality and sacred/profane dualisms. Meanwhile, literary readings of postcolonial (particularly "third world") texts tend to interpret most figures (including shit) in terms of specific historical and political events. My aim here will be to synthesize these approaches in order to apprehend the complex symbolic uses of excrement in both private, psychological and public, political registers--and, more importantly, to understand how these two registers intersect in postcolonial writing.
What is scatology's vocation in the cultural zone of the postcolony? What is the symbolic meaning and narrative function of shit for Armah and Soyinka--and, in the Irish setting, for Joyce and Beckett? We can begin to answer these questions with a brief account of the central role played by digestive metaphors in general--and excremental ones in particular--in modern colonial encounters. It is by no means a coincidence, for example, that the classic source of the "excremental vision" (along with other forms of political indigestion) in Anglophone literature is also an early observer of colonial relations: I refer, of course, to Jonathan Swift, modest proponent of Irish cannibalism.
Swift's status as an excremental writer is legendary. The basic critical debate about Swiftian scatology divides those who see it as a sign of savage misogyny and outright madness from those who see it as an important literary device. In the latter camp, Norman O. Brown has offered the classic vindication of Swift's vision, claiming that his excremental writing is not a madman's filthy obsession but a devastating and profound insight into the "universal neurosis of mankind" (186).(5) For my purposes, Brown's most intriguing contention is that Swift produces a whole new kind of literary scatology, categorically different from that of Aristophanes or Rabelais. For Brown (despite his universalist critical idiom), the excremental vision truly arrives with--and offers deep insight into-- capitalist, Protestant modernity.
Brown, however, does not pursue the point that Swift, working in eighteenth-century Dublin, was himself located at one of the boundary zones of an advancing capitalist modernity. Indeed, surprisingly little commentary on Swift connects scatological satire to particular political targets, despite the ripe evidence of his Irish pamphlets of the 1720s and 1730s. Failed economic development is the predominant theme of the pamphlets, which excoriate the British for stunting Irish industry, warping Irish agriculture, and restricting Irish money-minting.(6) In An Examination of Certain Abuses, Corruptions and Enormities in the City of Dublin (1732), Swift turns scatology to his immediate purposes as an economic patriot when he tries to account for "an immense Number of human Excrements at the Doors and Steps" of the streets of Dublin (167). Some observers, Swift reports, have identified these excrements as of British--not Irish--issue, planted on Dublin streets as evidence of local digestion in order to disprove the Irish "Clamour of Poverty." After a detailed forensic consideration of the shape and source of Dublin's shit piles, Swift abandons the discussion in a gesture of political inconclusiveness. Already, though, excrement functions not just as a naturalized detail but as a national matter. Moreover, it functions as a potentially obfuscating sign--a trace of uneven development whose unfortunate presence may be attributed to either side of the colonizer/colonized divide.
Although Swift uses digestive and excremental terms to expose economic misrule in Ireland, he is no simple Irish patriot and certainly not an anti-imperialist in any contemporary sense.(7) As much as he criticized the neglectful British, he also attacked the Irish for their backwardness. Such double vision seems to generate the vexed tone of much Swiftian political satire.(8) As a cultural intermediary or interpreter who links scatology to failed development, Swift stands as a distant precursor to the excremental writers of postcolonial Africa and Ireland.
Swift's frequent criticism of the barbarous Irish--his representation of the "filthy native"--belongs to a familiar rhetoric of colonial denigration. The rhetoric of empire, as David Spurr has noted, includes an arsenal of debasement tropes that describe colonized populations as dirty bodies, linking them to filth, shit, and disorder (76-91). Warwick Anderson, too, points out that tropical colonial possessions came to represent the lower strata both geographically and physiologically--an association that tended to reinforce the idea of unclean, base natives (652).(9) Such habits of thought were integral to the colonizer's rationalization and abstraction of native excrement. The toilet, as Anderson reminds us, is a powerful symbol of technological and developmental superiority--one that has the corollary effect of intensifying, via a newly potent scientific language, the negative valence of shit.
Within the less scientific, more literary discourses of modern imperialism, there are ready examples of the tropological link between the native and the excremental. In A Passage to India, for example, excremental symbolism extends from Chandrapore town, an "abased" and "monotonous" excrescence of river mud that smells of "burning cow dung," to the Marabar caves--a place that approximates the "anus of imperialism" (Forster 4-6; Suleri 132). Forster's symbolic geography echoes that of Kipling's Kim, in which a bottomless trash pit called the Shamlegh-midden seems to function as a horrifying embodiment of the colonial bowels.
With that horrifying embodiment, though, we are reminded that the discursive production of filthy natives and excremental landscapes is a tricky business. In both Forster's cave and Kipling's pit, the excremental site not only evokes the debased native but also threatens European identity (by disturbing Mrs. Moore's liberal self-possession) and knowledge (by swallowing the Russian optical and surveillance tools). If natives are coded in excremental terms and are taken as embodiments of the colony's unmodernized, unassimilated material, then they persist as a living threat to the hygienic symbolic order of empire. In Spurr's version of this point, the debasement trope has a dangerous and unanticipated consequence: the production of an abject other that cannot quite be banished (81-84). Likewise, Anderson suggests that American health officials in the Philippines were "themselves victims of the abject," driven in part by a fascination with shit, waste, and pollution. At pains to "suppress the abject Other," the colonizers end up revealing their vulnerability to it, triggering what Anderson sees as a key conflict in colonial modernity (668).(10) I would argue that this vulnerability--the dangerous mobility of the excremental signifier within colonial settings--accounts in part for its recurring presence in later, postcolonial literary texts.
To assess the importance of Euro-American vulnerability to excremental tropes in this context, we should also recall that the story of Western imperial expansion, at a number of points, resembles nothing so much as a massive voiding of symbolic wastes, economic surpluses, and societal dregs. As Patrick Brantlinger points out, for example, the deportation of a poor, criminal class from Victorian Britain to Australia not only could be but was understood as a flushing of Britain's waste matter, its societal excrement (116-17). The colonial setting thus witnesses the intersection of different excremental tropes, with both native and colonizer subject to debasement. Shit circulates as a crucial sign in this field because it is, as Mary Douglas's famous formulation would have it, a kind of dirt, or "matter out of place" (36). On the one hand, excremental language seeks to debase a rejected (native) population, but, on the other hand, as Kristeva's analysis of abjection has suggested, what is rejected can also confound. If, in the colonial era, shit often functioned as a sign of the actively denigrated native, it also comes to function, in the decolonization era, as a sign of the actively repudiated ex-colonizer, the alien and unwanted residue of a sometimes violent political expulsion.
Writers like Soyinka and Armah have altered, inflected, and redirected the symbolic associations of excrement inherited from colonial discourse, turning scatology to the new task of representing postcolonial disillusionment. Armah's The Beautyful Ones quickly identifies itself as a sad chronicle of independent Ghana, documenting the replacement of European power with local elites (Fanon's comprador class) who are unwilling or unable to follow through on the high promises of freedom, equality, stability, and prosperity.(11) The Teacher, one of Armah's most profoundly disillusioned characters, recalls the fall in scatological terms: "We were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs.... How were these leaders to know that while they were climbing up to shit in their people's faces, their people had seen their arseholes and drawn away in disgusted laughter?" (81-82). Similarly, in Soyinka's satirical The Interpreters, the young, educated protagonists view with revulsion their comprador elders who are marked by fat bellies and the stench of bad digestion.
The prevalence of excremental language in these satires is perhaps unsurprising. After all, satire is an ancient form of mudslinging; as Irvin Ehrenpreis notes, "satire is traditionally associated with filth, and the satirist is described as throwing turds and urine on those whom he ridicules" (691).(12) The particular satirical exposure performed by excremental images in The Beautyful Ones and The Interpreters often turns on the unmasking of corrupt economics. If shit, according to infantile logic, is a form of property or money, then writers like Armah and Soyinka reveal money and property as a form of shit. In their fiction, neocolonial capitalism appears in its uncloaked, cloacal form.
But excrement is not just a device borrowed from classical satire, nor simply a neo-Freudian depth charge; it is also, as Emmanuel Obiechina reminds us, an element of local oral traditions and an ordinary part of material conditions in urban Africa (125-27). Shit fills the streets of Lagos and Ibadan in Soyinka's The Interpreters. Sagoe, a journalist and part-time philosophe de merde, works adjacent to a "stagnant, clogged" lagoon where "huge turds floated in decomposing rings" (72). Even when understood according to the representational codes of realism, however, shit has a political vocation: it draws attention to the failures of development, to the unkept promises not only of colonial modernizing regimes but of postindependence economic policy.
To the extent that excrement serves as a sign of failed development in these novels, it becomes part of a vexed political (and interpretive) question. Is shit the residue of colonial underdevelopment or evidence of failed African government? In the case of Swift, the satiric beam shone on both local and absentee causes of economic backwardness. Should Armah be read analogously? Armah's harsher critics observe that The Beautyful Ones betrays a deep distaste for its own setting; the narrator's recoil from the shit-ridden city is not simply an abstract device but a visceral rejection of public life in Ghana. His bleakly excremental vision leaves Armah open to charges that he represents a self-loathing view of his society that internalizes colonial-era denigrations of the third world.(13)
Still, Armah takes pains to lay bare the neocolonial and historical dimensions of Ghana's situation; indeed, he uses excremental language throughout to describe uneven development as a particular combination of surplus and shortfall produced by the legacies of European imperialism. In The Beautyful Ones, the prevailing excremental metaphor operates in tandem with a figurative opposite, "the gleam," which signifies the allure of consumption, the luxurious sheen cast around Ghana's sheltered elite. Armah's symbolic axis runs from dirty (excremental) to clean (gleaming), with the protagonist, a railway clerk, suffering the grotesque life of the impoverished masses and his antagonist, the prosperously corrupt Minister Koomson, enjoying the "clean life." However, the protagonist also insists, "Some of that cleanness has more rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump" (44). Armah's fundamental satiric maneuver is to reverse the apparent assignments of clean and dirty, revealing the perversion of a system in which the ethically besmirched comprador enjoys a perfumed existence while the longsuffering masses wallow in shit.
To put this another way, Armah uses excremental language to perform an extended Freudian unmasking or desublimation: he reodorizes money, converting it into shit and forcing readers to see wealth as polished waste. He reduces the comprador's foreign cars, fancy hotels, and luxury goods to excremental status--denouncing them as the cruelest form of excess. In a system entirely out of economic balance, shit flows through the novel like an alternative currency, a cruel displacement of productive capital. The shit and the gleam are figurative expressions of underdevelopment and over-consumption, of failed modernization in the streets and hypermodernization in the luxury estates.(14)
What gives scatology an even more pointed relevance for Armah and Soyinka, though, is its satiric application to an elite that is, after all, a residue of colonialism--a lingering efflux of the despised and departed European body politic. In The Interpreters, for example, we see the corrupt comprador Sir Derinola turned into a coffined "turd" sticking out of a 1945 Vauxhall (111). Comprador respectability often means pathetic imitations of white or British institutions and manners. Such moments of inauthenticity among the neocolonial elites fall squarely into Armah's sights: "He was trying to speak like a white man, and the sound that came out of his mouth reminded the listener of a constipated man, straining in his first minute on top of the lavatory seat" (125). Tropes once used to code natives as filthy are now reassigned to Africans who mimic the (ex-)colonizer; the "matter out of place" is no longer the native but the Europeanized comprador.
In Armah's novel--as in other postcolonial texts--excrement assumes a variety of figurative guises and narrative functions: shit acts as a material sign of underdevelopment; as a symbol of excessive consumption; as an image of wasted political energies; and as the mark of the comprador's residual, alien status. Even a partial list of this kind captures the bleak political outlook of African writers during the era of disillusionment; it also underscores the figurative aptness and versatility of scatology under the circumstances. But the key to excremental writing--and what I think has been missing from more straightforward accounts of these political satires--is the psychoanalytic insight that scatological aggression carries a secret charge of self-implication.
Scatological satire, from Swift to Beckett to Soyinka, seems to be motivated and shaped by its practitioners' recognition of their own implication in ethical, aesthetic, or political failure. I take this point as fundamental to an analysis of excremental motifs because excrement's primary symbolic value--as both psychoanalytic and anthropological theory would suggest--is that it marks the fuzzy boundary between inside and outside, between the self and the not-self. Psychoanalysis codified (but did not invent) this reading: "shit, the first extension of the self, is also the first instancing of the other" (Pops 50). It makes sense in this light that shit-figures complicate moral and political binaries by diffusing guilt and shame.(15) The self-implicating dimension of excremental literature has been visible on the ethical plane at least since Swift. What the new currency of scatology in postcolonial cultures suggests is that excremental satire is also an index of national or collective self-implication in folly or excess. Such a hypothesis begins, at least, to explain the close correlation between excremental writing and antinationalist critique in African and Irish literature.
The postcolonial texts examined here deploy excrementalism as a literary mode of self-reproach on two levels: first, through a complication of binaristic anticolonial politics (good native/bad imperialist) by the recognition that local forms of exploitation and excess have emerged; second, through the complication of a simplistic anti-comprador position by the recognition that intellectuals are themselves implicated in neocolonial failure. The literature of disillusionment brings excremental motifs--with their symbolic disturbance of inside/outside models--to bear on African societies as they move from an era of heroic decolonization to the postlapsarian realities of stalled revolution.
Of course, the danger of an excremental vision as profoundly disillusioned as, for example, Armah's is that political distinctions become impossible--or that disillusionment is converted into a complete rejection of African life. The possibility that The Beautyful Ones may at points effectively "blame the victims" for neocolonial corruption seems to motivate Derek Wright in a recent rereading of the novel. Wright argues that the novel loses occasional control of its figurative devices, resulting in a lack of metaphoric precision. For him, images of ghostliness and excrement spread out and implicate everyone in the novel, embracing "alike those who pursue and those who shrink from the gleam, the oppressor and the most abjectly oppressed" ("Dystropia" 29). My argument proposes that excremental language is invoked here precisely in order to diffuse guilt and shame. At the level both of national politics and of individual ethics, excremental writing tends toward complex models of systemic guilt, rather than toward the sharp absolutions and resolutions that attend moral or political binaries. In Armah and Soyinka, for instance, scatological satire attaches shame to previously immune classes--including detached artists--who are, by apparent inaction, also to blame for the execrable state of affairs in the postcolony. Shit--as wielded by these writers--is a perfectly precise instrument for recording a tragically imprecise kind of predicament.
Thus Armah and Soyinka, while slinging mud at the new commercial and bureaucratic elites of Ghana and Nigeria (and their neocolonial sponsors), take pains to scrutinize those who would exempt themselves from the public site of corruption. Emmanuel Obiechina has shrewdly observed that both Armah and Soyinka use flexible third-person narration to direct satiric commentary at their own protagonists (122). Excremental language casts doubt reflexively onto both Armah's unnamed man and Soyinka's callow interpreters. Accordingly, both novels manifest a certain involution, apparent in the multiplying and self-generating imagery of The Beautyful Ones as well as in the dividing and self-mutating narrative structure of The Interpreters.
In The Interpreters, whenever our attention becomes focused on corrupt, powerful men such as Sir Derinola, the narrative beam swings back to Sagoe (or another young intellectual), stuck in the position of cynical outsider. The novel's real interest lies not so much in Soyinka's satire of the venal comprador but in his clear-eyed questioning of the interpreters themselves--cultural mediators with no real power (Kinkead-Weekes 236-37). Stymied by his lack of social power, Sagoe, for instance, resorts to mock-philosophical disquisitions on shit. Similarly, in The Beautyful Ones, the protagonist seems to voice Armah's own doubts about the self-exempting intellectual in a disintegrating and corrupt society: "And the man wondered what kind of sound the cry of the chichidodo bird could be, the bird longing for its maggots but fleeing the feces which gave them birth" (49). What, in other words, is the characteristic form of expression for an artist who seeks an audience but courts social disengagement?
This line of self-interrogation by African novelists constitutes what we might call the autocritical function of excremental postcolonialism--the shared tendency of these texts to question the status of aesthetic discourse itself in the new nation. Scatology reveals the problems of uneven development and neocolonial corruption in the public sphere while underscoring the artist's own representational predicament. In particular, both Armah and Soyinka drive their stories toward a reckoning with the limitations of the realist and existential novel, a form conventionally dedicated to the fate of individuals. Shit, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation (the matter that is both self and not-self), becomes a symbolic medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in new postcolonial societies.
Soyinka and Armah both describe individuals surrounded and preoccupied by shit, though the excremental schemes of the two novels initially seem quite different. From the start, Soyinka's hyperarticulate Sagoe manages to absorb excrement into his own urbane, absurdist philosophy. Armah's unnamed man, by contrast, cannot find any form of escape from the grotesque and disorienting social ordure that prevails in his city. He suffers through a darkly picaresque pilgrimage, seeking refuge from the public world of excremental corruption while nursing his own "clean" moral status. His search for a sanitized existence takes the ironic form of a quest to defecate with dignity. Shit thus structures both the relentless public incursions on the man's selfhood and his attempts at private self-possession. When he encounters a sewage collector who is dead drunk, Armah's protagonist reflects, "Surely that is the only way for a man to survive, carrying other people's excrement; the only way must be to kill the self while the unavoidable is being done" (103). With unflinching consistency, Armah presents the social accumulation of excrement as a threat to frail selfhood.
At the start of Soyinka's novel, by contrast, Sagoe masters societal excrement through the elaborate language and erudite mockery of Voidancy, his own "philosophy of shit." Voidancy, Sagoe explains, is entirely idiosyncratic: "If I am personal, it is because this must rank as the most inward philosophy in human existence.... Voidancy remains the one true philosophy of the true Egoist" (71). In the rituals of Voidancy, shitting is an utterly private act of self-consolidation. Sagoe expresses his wry cynicism by promulgating the Voidante's existential and anticollective doctrine; he also cultivates the habits of a cosmopolitan individual--a hygienically modernized subject in Warwick Anderson's sense.(16) For Sagoe, in short, the importance of voiding is that it is the "most individual function of man" (97).
Imagine Sagoe's frustration when his Voidante privacy is violated by the uneven plumbing of postindependence Nigeria. In a scene that no doubt inspired Armah, Sagoe walks the city at night, encountering filth and excrement of every variety: "God is ... washing out his bloody lavatory.... Next to death, he decided, shit is the most vernacular atmosphere of our beloved country" (107-8). As a vernacular, shit presents an immediate democratic challenge to Sagoe's high-cultural discourse of the peristaltic egoist; indeed Sagoe sees the night-soil men as profaners of "true Voidancy." Soyinka satirizes intellectual fastidiousness by narrating the moment that shit, no longer the object of mock-aesthetic connoisseurship, becomes a collective and unavoidable fact.
In both novels, then, excrement marks the intersection of individual and collective demands. In Armah, shit represents social horror from the outset but also comes to be associated with the vain quest for private refuge. And in Soyinka, where shit initially serves as the medium of Sagoe's polished solipsism, it also comes to be associated with social horror. The excremental nature of an imperfect collective forces itself upon the ethical and aesthetic consciousness of individuals hungering after the sanitary perfection of utopia/art. When Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe recoil from the urban marketplace, they become perfect representatives for novels split between disgust at the public cesspool and recognition that recoil, or retreat, is unacceptable. This political dilemma, fueling the tension between private disengagement and public engagement in the two novels, constitutes the crux of excremental postcolonialism.
In The Beautyful Ones, such private-public tensions drive the narration of the protagonist's crumbling integrity, his eroding ethical frame of reference. As Gareth Griffiths observes, the protagonist is (like an Orwell or Kafka character) trapped inside a corrupt system without any access to external, Archimedean perspectives (1). Facing the shit pile of corruption, the man thinks, "Unnatural, I would have said, had I not stopped myself with asking, unnatural according to what kind of nature?" (62). Is the accumulated excrement of his social environment an ordinary or extraordinary development? Is it part of a natural cycle wherein excremental excess will give way to regeneration in the new Ghana? These questions turn on excrement's dual significance as "natural," healthy and "unnatural," polluted. The pressure they exert on the protagonist forces him to ask, in turn, whether it is existential vanity for him to reject the excremental rot that pervades his society. His self-doubt on this score increases when his wife accuses him of nursing a futile ethical finickiness, equating him with the chichidodo that hates excrement but feeds on shit-bred maggots (45). As the novel wears on, the protagonist seems to relent, almost persuading himself to abandon his private rules and "play the national game." In the end, though, a presidential coup reverses the novel's roles, forcing the corrupt comprador Koomson (now a fugitive) to beg shelter from the protagonist. In the last act, Koomson (guided by the protagonist) makes a nightmarish escape through the city sewers to the sea.
At the end of the novel, then, in the wake of Koomson's humiliation, Armah seems finally to endorse the protagonist's stubborn resistance to the excremental current. The coup's immediate aftermath reconsolidates the man's ethical selfhood and restores his domestic harmony. In the last scene, he glimpses a bus bearing the slogan "THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN" and a painted flower that is "solitary, unexplainable, and very beautiful" (183). Many readers have seized on the slogan and flower as symbols of political hope--an interpretation made all the more attractive in that it would seem, at long last, to transcode excrement from the residue of colonial debasement into the fertilizer of a beautiful postcolonial future. Armah, however, is not so sanguine. The protagonist's fleeting glimpse of beauty is almost immediately displaced by the sight of (yet another!) latrine, triggering a final "aching emptiness" of thwarted desire (183).
Despite personal and domestic reconciliation in his own life, the protagonist is left in despair. The latest coup (like independence itself) promises only an exchange of one overfed exploiter for another; in real collective terms, nothing has changed. Indeed, in my view, Armah combines his closural symbols--flowers and latrine---precisely to signify the inadequacy of the protagonist's merely individual (and familial) horizon of closure, beyond which would lie the possibility of wider social regeneration. Consider, from this perspective, the protagonist's groping insight:
Was there not some proverb that said the green fruit was healthy, but healthy only for its brief self? That the only new life there ever is comes from seeds feeding on their own rotten fruit? What, then, was the fruit that refused to lose its acid and its greenness? What monstrous fruit was it that could find the end of its life in the struggle against sweetness and corruption? (145)
Living only for and as his own "brief self," the protagonist clings to an ethical-individualist perspective. Despite misgivings about his own self-limiting status, he sees no other option, for to yield to the dialectical and communal urgings of history (to the growth and rot of an uncertain "new life") seems, in an era of neocolonial corruption, like sinking into the abyss.
The protagonist--and, in effect, Armah's novel itself--grudgingly withdraws from the public sphere, taking last refuge in ethics (his individual sense of right) and aesthetics (frail symbolic gestures toward the flowering collective future). But both Armah and his protagonist recognize the painful inadequacy of their refuge. So much is clear from Armah's representation of "the Teacher," a refined intellectual who buys freedom from social filth at the cost of utter isolation from the life of his community. The protagonist (like the novel itself) wishes to but cannot avoid becoming a "monstrous fruit"--a green and acid autoteleology with no part to play in the transformation of society.
The problem of merely individual resolution--described so far in terms of the novel's thematic content--is also a problem of literary form for Armah. The protagonist cannot quite come into his own as a figure of political resistance; he remains a tragically (if stubbornly) inert principle of ethical nonalignment. His reconsolidated selfhood cannot, thus, serve as the basis for a dialectical or historical transformation. This limitation of perspective should not, however, be read as an aesthetic flaw; quite the contrary, I take it as a powerful intersection of thematic and formal concerns in the novel. A narrative that explores an individual's existential suffering cannot suddenly convert itself into an allegory of political hope, especially when the conditions documented do not warrant a final burst of symbolic optimism. What is striking about this novel--and, as I will argue, other excremental fictions written under similar circumstances--is its double refusal of, on the one hand, the comforting retreat into reconsolidated selfhood/aesthetic pleasure and, on the other hand, the false prophecies of national redemption. Armah establishes the protagonist's psychological and moral coherence but concludes with an unflinching assessment that such characterization is symbolically inadequate to the situation.
As an act of generic self-questioning, the excremental novel first proposes, then refuses, its own allegorical meaning. Armah fulfills the first phase of this process by stocking the text with potential embodiments of the nation, from the rattletrap bus on the first page to the flower-painted bus on the last page. Such figures invite us to read for signs of the collective destiny of his people--they have, indeed, encouraged allegorical readings of the novel that understand the final scene in terms of collective redemption.(17) In the redemptive reading, the shit piles are merely prelude to the arrival of the "beautyful ones"; organic cycles of decay and growth predict the political cycles of African nationhood. In my view, however, Armah concludes not with the inevitability of social regeneration but with a simple and profound uncertainty. Not the natural beauty of the sea (23), nor the transient communality of the wee-smokers (72), nor the educated cynicism of the Teacher (85), nor the comforts of repaired domesticity (165), nor the conventional motif of the flower (183) provides solace (for the protagonist) or a hopeful resolution (for the novel). All of these moments turn out to be aesthetically evanescent or merely individual forms of escape rather than the basis for collective renewal. Shit is not the future's fertilizer; it is an antitranscendental sign of the present's failures. When tempted to interpret the novel toward a hopeful future, we do well to remember the spare negation of Armah's title: "not yet."
Although the novel does not support a political allegory based on natural cycles of growth, it does, I think, afford interpretive possibilities beyond the failure of the organic motif. Richard Priebe and Derek Wright have, for example, read the novel according to pollution rituals that result in social cleansing. Such anthropologically informed readings move our focus away from the agony of the individual protagonist (or, by extension, African artist) facing the inefficacy of his own ethical and aesthetic gestures. In a nuanced treatment of The Beautyful Ones, Wright offers a coastal West African interpretive model: the Akan carrier rite. In Wright's reading, the protagonist cleanses the nation of polluted matter (the comprador Koomson); the carrier rite that he performs is "pre-transitional," indicating an act of preparation, not regeneration ("Motivation" 125). Wright's persuasive interpretation does not challenge the social efficacy of the protagonist's actions; it simply revises downward the magnitude of his final, purifying gesture. By contrast, I have emphasized the symbolic and political limitations of the protagonist's individualism. Where Wright sees an allegory of incomplete transition, I see an incomplete allegory--one that is blocked by the novel's residual commitment to the perspective of the autonomous ethical subject.(18)
The Beautyful Ones is itself a transitional work: it keeps faith with the novel's traditional investment in the ethical destiny of the individual but insists that individual destiny does not in this context serve as a figurative basis for social regeneration. We return, then, to the typically scatological maneuver of a double rejection: the text seeks individualist refuge from the demands of a corrupt public sphere (riven by uneven development and neocolonial politics) but also exposes individualism as socially unproductive. This double rejection produces what I see as a distinctive (and excremental) post-colonial subgenre: the national allegory that reflexively questions itself, whether in the semicomic vein of Soyinka (and Joyce and Beckett) or in the more serious vein of Armah.
Excremental satire throws national allegory into doubt and insists that the reconsolidation of an ethical subject is not, in itself, a workable basis for socially utopian or historically transcendent fiction. Ten years ago, Fredric Jameson famously argued that third-world texts tended to use allegorical logic to align private and public destinies, coordinating libidinal, personal plots with political, collective plots (69). Initially, Armah's text seems to follow this logic, especially insofar as wider social conditions are represented in terms of the corporeal and libidinal malfunction of excremental excess. Ultimately, though, Armah's novel represents a dissenting subgenre with its attention directed at the painful uncoupling of private and public destinies. Armah's disillusionment in fact stems from the discovery that the subjective world of his protagonist does not have allegorical implications for his society.(19)
Excremental satire, then, lacks the utopian content that Jameson ascribes to conventional satire (80). As we have seen in the case of Armah, this literary strategy grows out of the absence of that analytical, Archimedean perspective needed to see beyond current moral and political systems. The emergence of political scatology in African fiction of the 1960s and 1970s reflects the profound shock administered by the lost promises of independence. What would have been a more traditional satirical mode--wielded against the corruption of, say, neocolonial Ghana--is displaced by an excremental mode that not only decisively rejects false signs of social regeneration but also radically suspects the terms of its own symbolic action. Where the liberal satirist believes in reform and the utopianradical satirist believes in revolution, the excremental satirist bears witness to the conversion of his society's political energies--and his own aesthetic efforts--into shit.
The predicament of characters torn between subjective vision and collective norms is, in other words, also the predicament of postcolonial writers torn between what we might call the existential novel and the political novel. But why does this predicament take on excremental contours? As I have suggested, these African writers (and their Irish counterparts) use excremental tropes to register the tension between the demands of the ethical or aesthetic subject and the demands of the social collective. Shit marks this conflict symbolically because it acts as a primary and mobile signifier of fundamental self/other (or private/public) divides.(20) Moreover, shit signifies the subject's inevitable entanglement in time and history; it works at a subtextual level to reveal the gaps between individual or existential time and the mystified temporality of the nation. In short, the case of Armah's The Beautyful Ones would suggest that excremental satire operates as a reflexive narrative mode driven by the tensions between the postcolonial subject and the demands of national allegory. In order to test this model, I will return to Soyinka's The Interpreters and to Irish texts whose scatological features now begin to take on new meanings.
The Interpreters seems to mark Soyinka's discovery of a problematic relation between private and public destinies in the postcolonial novel. This text does not suggest that prevailing social conditions are bound for improvement, much less redemption. Nor--more importantly--does Soyinka imply that those outer conditions are at all affected by the moral, libidinal, and aesthetic preoccupations of his protagonists. The absurd conversation that ends the novel leaves the interpreters immured in their semi-thwarted individual existences. Even more to the point, Soyinka represents the limitations of the autonomous subject (and the concomitant "present absence" of national allegory) in distinctly excremental terms. Sagoe's philosophy of shit provides the clearest instance of escape from cruel social reality into the ultimately cold comforts of ethical self-satisfaction and aesthetic self-indulgence. His posture of metaphysical retreat, while verbally charming, smacks of political despair. Here Soyinka's own suspicion about the value of self-justifying aesthetic gestures fuels his ironic treatment of the protagonist. By the end of the novel, an enervated Sagoe feels the pressure to translate his private rituals into some wider, socially effective gesture. He directly engages his excrementally imperfect society:
it is disgraceful that at this stage, night-soil men are still lugging shitpails around the capital. And in any case, why shouldn't the stuff be utilised? Look at the arid wastes of the North.... You should rail the stuff to the North and fertilise the Sardauna's territory. (239)
It is tempting to take this scheme as Sagoe's (and Soyinka's) attempt to convert shit into the national fertilizer. Such a reading, however, would overlook the strong tonal ironies of the scene. Sagoe turns quickly from the public to the private satisfactions of the sewage project: the picturesque vision of a shit caravan trekking north and the metaphysical appeal of "bringing the wheel full circle" (239). In a political system less thoroughly corrupted, Sagoe (and the other interpreters) might be able to take national regeneration seriously, but here it becomes the occasion for a sophisticated jest. The irony of the scene underscores once again a fundamental nonalignment of private vision and public works.
At the level of content, Soyinka's protagonists cannot find a meaningful way to contribute because the public arena has been claimed and polluted by neocolonialism. It is perhaps unsurprising that the interpreters do not serve as allegorical vehicles for the national destiny, given that their dilemmas are those of an educated but disempowered minority. Yet the novel does not simply resign itself to the limitations suffered by the protagonists; instead it replays the frustrating discovery of limitations at the level of form. The result is an uneasy generic tension between subjective satiric fantasy and objective realist presentation, between the novel of consciousness and the novel of the condition of Nigeria.
When Sagoe veers from the public and national arena, he describes his own "retreat into the lavatory" as "not so much a physiological necessity as a psychological and religious urge" (71). Such writing--with its playfully erudite tone and its charming embrace of solipsistic withdrawal--resembles nothing so much as a line from Beckett, another writer with a penchant for scatological dismissals of the nationalist imperative. Beckett's scatology runs the literary gamut from puns (such as "voltefesses" and "afflatulence" in Murphy) to psychological description (as when Molloy imagines his own birth as an anal delivery) to character and place names (such as Krapp, Countess Caca, Turdy, and Saposcat). "Saposcat," with its whiff of etymological dung and echo of the Saorstat (or Irish Free State), reminds us that much of Beckett's scatological play in the 1930s and 1940s aims at puncturing the nationalist pieties of postcolonial Ireland. In an exemplary moment of Irish literary heresy from Murphy, for example, Beckett's hero requests that his ashes be flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theatre, "if possible during the performance of a piece" (269). In the same novel, a distraught literary type named Neary dashes his head against the buttocks of Cuchulain's statue in the GPO, a veritable altar of the Irish Revival.
Joyce, too, uses excremental language to deflate national pieties, an attitude captured with beautiful economy in Finnegans Wake when he punningly refers to the Celtic Twilight as the "cultic twalette" (344). In the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses, Joyce punctuates Robert Emmet's famous patriotic valediction with the obscene patter of Bloom's postprandial flatulence (238-39). In the following chapter, "Cyclops," he presents his most developed portrait of an Irish nationalist, a bombastic Fenian who denigrates the English as glorified toiletmakers (267). The scene echoes MacHugh's comic historical lesson in "Aeolus": "The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: "It is meet to be here. Let us construct a water closet" (108). Although it would appear that Joyce here turns scatology on the English, it is also true, as Kelly Anspaugh has recently noted, that Joyce ascribed to the Fenian a "cloacal vituperativeness" of his own.(21) Thus Joyce not only renarrates Anglo-Irish exchange via excremental figures but, in keeping with the idea of diffused satire, he also assigns the cloacal role both to the imperialist and to his one-eyed reagent, the nationalist.
These moments, where scatology deflates nationalism in Irish literature, suggest with new force the correlation of textual and political concerns that I have been calling excremental postcolonialism. Beckett's struggle against the inherited imperatives of nationalism provides the starting point for David Lloyd's groundbreaking analysis of scatology in First Love (1945). In Lloyd's view, nationalism itself--as a political form--constitutes a baleful residue of colonialism. It seems fitting in this light that postcolonial writers use excremental terms to confront the problems inherent in building a new political culture from the institutional byproduct (Fanon's national bourgeoisie) and ideological residue (nationalism) of an alien regime. But if new nationalisms in Ireland and Africa are, in Partha Chatterjee's term, "derivative discourses," they have also been potent and necessary forms of collective identity. In this sense, such discourses are both authentic and inauthentic, both local and alien, both "self" and "other." Hence the prominence in this symbolic field of that primary excremental formula self/not-self. In times of disillusionment or ambivalence about nationalist excess, postcolonial scatologists are, in a sense, adapting the "matter out of place" formula. Excremental satire, in other words, expresses the partial misconception (or anal birth) of postcolonial nationalism.
In proposing this comparative account, I have no wish to ignore the many historical differences between the Irish and West African contexts. Ireland's history differs substantially from that of African ex-colonies in terms of language, race, religion, climate, geography, settlement patterns, and governing institutions.(22) For the immediate purposes of this argument, it seems most important to distinguish postindependence Irish writing that contends with choking cultural norms from postindependence African writing that addresses crushing political failures. But, of course, these differing emphases do not preclude us from observing that a Fanonite political analysis can well be applied to 1930s Ireland, or that 1960s African intellectuals also had to contend with strongly normative forms of cultural nationalism. If shared and visible patterns of scatological discourse appear in Irish and African novels written under historical circumstances that are, at the very least, connected by the potent presence of a new nationalism, then we have what would seem to be a genuinely postcolonial phenomenon, requiring a genuinely postcolonial (as opposed to latently "third world") form of explanation.
What a comparative postcolonial approach brings to light is the fact that new national cultures in both Ireland and Africa were shaped by a colonial legacy in which local forms were taken to be colorfully "backward" and "primitive." Romantic colonizers--and, in their turn, Romantic nativists--saw the intactness and authenticity of the subaltern culture as compensation for the dispossessions and dislocations of imperialism. This history bequeathes to postcolonial writers a sometimes unwelcome custodial role within a fetishized national culture shaped partly by the imagination of the ex-colonizer. And, as a result, that national culture is always in danger of chasing after magical sources of precolonial authenticity or devolving into hackneyed nativism. What is more immediately to the point is the excremental coding of the resulting national culture.(23) Lloyd has shown that Beckett, for example, presents Irish nationalists as ardent seekers after "history's ancient faeces": "Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire" (Short Prose 34). In First Love, the obsessive quest for real national roots takes scatological form--an excremental debunking that, for Lloyd, stems in part from Beckett's suspicion of a fetishized and defensive Irish identity.
What Beckett shares with Joyce and, at a slightly greater remove, with Armah and Soyinka, is the pressure to address questions of national identity. The conditions that encourage postcolonial writers to address the historical destiny of the new nation are, moreover, precisely the conditions that make national allegory unappealing: the twin curse of a public culture bound by rigidly celebratory (but derivative) forms of nativism and a political economy suffering the wastes of uneven development. By following the scatological connection across African and Irish texts, we can begin to see the relation between these cultural and political features of postcoloniality. The writers in question share a satirical view of their nation's new symbolic and political order and, as a result, they evince a profound ambivalence about the felt imperative to tell the nation's story. As we have seen in the fiction examined here, both predicaments take excremental form. Excremental language registers the tension between narratives devoted to national destiny and narratives devoted to the ethical or aesthetic consolidation of the subject. If national allegory attempts to realign human and historical time, to repair the colonized subject's fragmented history in a fantasy of restored identity, then excremental satire casts doubt on that fantasy and opens up the gap between subject and nation.
If, however, the question of national allegory impinges with particular tenacity on the representational freedom of postcolonial writers, it also provides an opportunity for searching literary reassessments of nationhood and, in turn, of ethical selfhood. In Lloyd's view, for example, Beckett's unusual willingness to abandon the false comforts of the consolidated bourgeois ego derives partly from his (pointedly postcolonial) doubts about the false comforts of overcooked nationalism. Beckett's excremental writing implies a rupture in the mutually reinforcing allegorical link between personal and national identity; he, like the African writers, exploits shit's symbolic vocation as an ambiguous marker of the self/not-self divide. Here again, excrement functions as a primary and tangible sign of the nonunity of the subject. Indeed, Lloyd's interpretation of First Love starts from the psychoanalytic premise that shit is the first gift "and therewith the first realization of a potential self-alienation." Thus the "fetishization of excrement" works as an "index of a negative dialectic of identity" (49).
Lloyd's negative dialectic provides a refined model for interpreting the tensions--both characterological and formal--in the African novels. Both Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe shuttle between self-identification (linked to private voiding and/or retention of ethical integrity) and a commitment to the other--that is, to the national collective. Of course, in the first movement of this dialectic, where Beckett offers only what Lloyd describes as simulated selfhood, the African texts seem to propose a genuine reconstitution of the protagonist's ethical (Armah) or aesthetic (Soyinka) self.(24) However, in such moments--when Armah's protagonist recognizes his existential predicament or when Sagoe indulges in a Voidante flight of fancy--we become aware of selfhood as a problem, a trap, a vain solipsism. Since neither protagonist can find a stable point of identification in the thoroughly corrupted public sphere, both find themselves recontained by their original gestures of self-definition. Shit surfaces here in its most fundamental symbolic guise--as a dangerous matter that is neither self nor other--to indicate the troubling discontinuities between subject and society. At this point, we can formulate the following two-part thesis about excremental postcolonial writing: (1) scatological tropes mark a complex engagement with the limitations of ethical individualism; and (2) the acknowledgment that the ethical self exists only for and in itself (or, as in Beckett, does not exist at all) produces a disavowal of national allegory that is particularly problematic given the contextual pressures of new nationhood.
To take a final instance of this kind of writing, I want briefly to consider Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which famously narrates a struggle to disengage from the norms of nation, language, and religion. In the novel, shit surfaces at the pressure points of engagement. For example, Stephen Dedalus's heart is sickened by the excremental world of the market, figured in the Stradbrook cow yard, "with its foul green puddles and clots of liquid dung" (63). Later, Stephen's Jesuit-inspired vision of hell features a harrowing profusion of shit. Stephen defines his developing self in successive moments of recoil from public, excremental filth. He flies the nets of social affiliation in an exquisite (if callow) attempt to forge an autonomous self and a freestanding personal aesthetic. From this perspective, Stephen's desire to awake from the nightmare of history might serve as a slogan for the postcolonial subject--or artist--wishing to resist the imperatives of new nationalism. Certainly Stephen's struggle to forge a workable personal identity in the face of a shit-tainted public sphere resonates with the existential and aesthetic goals of Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe. All three protagonists face a similar predicament: the wish to escape history--to step away from horrible social conditions, to not write the Great Irish or Nigerian Novel--is met by the countervailing demand to forge the uncreated conscience of a new nation.
As we have seen, the guilty recoil from history and from the national public sphere takes excremental form in these fictions. Following Lloyd, I have thus far presented excremental language as an index of self/other instability, but excrement serves another symbolic function as well: it betokens the unavoidable implication of the would-be autonomous ego in objective time. It rules out ethical or aesthetic self-exemption from the nightmare of history, or from the cycles (digestive, reproductive) that tether the body to the phenomenal world. Shit proves that our flesh is a burning matter; it insists on our mutability and mortality, on what Paul de Man calls our "authentically temporal destiny" (206).(25) Indeed Joyce and Beckett frequently use scatological images to capture the inevitability of time's march. In "Laestrygonians" (the "digestive" chapter of Ulysses), for example, Bloom measures time in the form of microcosmic and macrocosmic peristalsis. William Hutchings offers a decisive reading of Beckett's How It Is as a prolonged "metaphysical conceit" of the "cosmic digestive tract" in which the human-as-turd suffers time along an alimentary canal. Such scatological moments have mostly been understood as meditations on human mortality. But shit's representation of the existential bottom line also takes on a more specific historical dimension in the postcolonial field.
History, whether in the form of the Irish nationalist's "ancient faeces" or in the form of postcolonial Africa's confrontation with rapid modernization, becomes particularly visible--and excremental--in these texts. The syncopated cycles of uneven political and cultural development lead to irrational, unpredictable excesses and shortfalls in both discursive and material economies of the postcolony. In Armah's text, for example, Ghana suffers from a kind of hyperactive metabolism: accelerated modernization means accelerated rot. Hence the accumulation of shit and, moreover, the uncanny presence of a dying seven-year-old, an "old manchild" whose progeria obviously reflects the premature senescence of the postcolonial state (63).(26) Armah makes it explicit that such diseases reflect a historical process run amok: "Here we have had a kind of movement that should make even good stomachs go sick. What is painful to the thinking mind is not the movement itself, but the dizzying speed of it" (62). Once again, Armah offers the most immediately legible instance of an excremental connection that is operative in several postcolonial texts: scatology--with its figures of excess and waste---signals the temporal dislocations of new nationhood.
As Stephen Dedalus makes clear in his celebrated "uncreated conscience" journal entry (and as Timothy Brennan has suggested in discussions of "the national longing for form"), new nations seem to beg for allegorical treatment, asking writers to give shape to collective origins and ends.(27) In the postcolonial texts examined here, excremental language reflects a wariness of allegorical fulfillment, claiming instead an anti-utopian temporality of deferral and postponement: the beautyful ones are not yet born. In some ways, scatology always signals the postponement, if not the outright refusal, of utopia. Bakhtinian analysis would propose that scatological excess (a subset of the carnivalesque body) tends to insist on the "constant unfinished character of the world" (432). In Lloyd's terms, too, the excremental vision is preeminently a vision of deferral; Beckett's "writing in the shit" signifies the postponed reconciliation between subject and object, between self-identity and desire for the other (figured as father, lover, nation) (Lloyd 47-50). The postcolony of Joyce, Beckett, Armah, and Soyinka, caught in a limbo state of historical unfulfillment, fosters an aesthetic of disharmony between the protagonist/subject and the new nation.
Under these circumstances of ambivalence, where the artist flies from the squalid constraints of history yet is impelled back to the question of the nation, it is not surprising to find texts that are profoundly self-divided. This predicament accounts for some of the aesthetic complexity and explosive irony in Joyce and Beckett, who view their own product through satirical eyes and in excremental terms. Their works, like those of Armah and Soyinka, are artifacts of scatological self-doubt. Facing a frozen dialectic of personal and collective identity, these writers come to acknowledge that their own texts exist only in the non-utopian time, the endless "meanwhile," of art. At this final level of scatological self-implication, the text itself becomes excrement, excess, superfluity. We should not be surprised, then, to discover that Joyce's corpus (for example) is replete with indications of art's deep excremental status.(28)
Scatological excess in both African and Irish postcolonial fiction seems to direct itself not only against the transcendent clean body of Warwick Anderson's colonial modernity but against the canons of decorum, economy, and post-Jamesian rationality in the English-language novel. Whether in comic or satiric mode, writers like Armah, Soyinka, Beckett, and Joyce display the vulgar body of the ex-"native" in a way that sends up both colonial discourse and literary convention. Insofar as these texts tend to yoke graphic treatment of Bakhtin's lower bodily strata to excessive, digressive, stylistically adventurous forms of narrative, they constitute an implied challenge to the standards of modern fiction. Irish representations of the vulgar body were certainly taken in England as a violation of literary taste; remember, for example, Virginia Woolf's wrinkled-nose response to Ulysses.(29) If Anglophone postcolonial writers have revived oral, traditional, and vernacular forms that revise the English novel, it is also true that traditional and vernacular forms often contain frank bodily images that challenge the sanitized and bourgeoisified canons of modern European taste. The linkage between the corporeally vulgar and the formally gratuitous is cinched by the metaphorics of excremental waste. Textual or literary surplus becomes not just a vulgar fetish but a masterful device in the hands of writers like Joyce or Soyinka, who remind us that excremental excess is both a discursive weapon and an occasion for artistic virtuosity.
Discursive and scatological excess, taken together, form what Bakhtin would describe as radical literary energy--an energy sharpened by the contrast between shit's signification of, on the one hand, symbolic excess and, on the other, material underprivilege. In both African satires and Irish comedies, writers use excremental language to indicate the failures of colonial development, the corruptions of neocolonial politics, and the residual quality of postcolonial nationalism. But beyond its more straightforward functions as a counter-discursive trope, scatology also marks one of the central representational problems in postcolonial literature. It announces an unstable contest between the reconsolidated individual self and its insistently collective other, registering the pressure of history on the postcolonial subject and on the postcolonial novel. Shit, then, is the governing sign of a literary mode that (1) captures the lure of ethical selfhood and aesthetic freedom, but throws their value into question, and (2) acknowledges the burden of national representation, but resists allegory. Torn by these doubly countervailing pressures, Irish and African writers turn the excremental fire on their own textual practice, destabilizing in the process inherited conventions of novelistic discourse and inherited forms of personal and national identity.
Postcolonial scatology gives full literary expression to the predicament of the writer in a new nation. It turns context into text, transforming the external conditions of possibility into the thematic precipitate of a distinctive fictional experiment, condensing the agonizing struggle of aesthetics and politics into the figure of excrement. The possibility that this potentially marginal artistic gesture, one that courts self-defeat and critical disgust, might nonetheless have discursive force or cultural influence emerges, ironically, in one of Sagoe's flights of scholastic fancy:
For definition, ladies and gentlemen, let this suffice. Voidancy is not a movement of protest, but it protests: it is non-revolutionary, but it revolts. Voidancy---shall we say--is the unknown quantity. Voidancy is the last uncharted mine of creative energies, in its paradox lies the kernel of creative liturgy--in release is birth. (71)
I would like to thank Anthony Appiah, Ian Baucom, Larry Buell, Andrea Goulet, and Graham Huggan for their comments and suggestions at various stages in the writing of this essay.
(1.) For a brief analysis of scatology in Awoonor and Okara, see Wright, "Scatology."
(2.) For a thoughtful survey of these arguments, see Stuart Hall's recent defense of "the postcolonial" as a concept whose value stems from its ability to challenge and refine outmoded models of global power that depend on first/third world binaries (244-46). Such an apprehension of the postcolonial critical vocation is very much to the point here, for, as I hope to suggest, excremental writing often serves to complicate the colonizer/colonized binaries that have so often dominated the field.
(3.) Recent studies such as Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland, David Lloyd's Anomalous States, and Enda Duffy's The Subaltern Ulysses have done much to suggest the value of reading modernist Irish texts in terms of their postcolonial context. And C. L. Innes's comparative study has described important points of contact between Irish and African writers engaged in the project of reviving and affirming colonized cultures (5-6). Although Joyce in many ways inaugurates the skeptical turn away from heroic nativism, I should note (with Innes and Kiberd) that many "first wave" Celtic revivalists were already wary of Romantic nativist excess.
(4.) To take the case of Armah as an example, few critics have neglected the unmistakably excremental features of The Beautyful Ones. In the first several years after publication, Harold Collins, Emmanuel Obiechina, Richard Priebe, and Kofi Yankson offered accounts of Armah's preoccupation with shit, generally in terms of symbolic de- and regeneration. Both Yankson and Collins provide useful catalogs of excremental images but do not attempt theoretical explanations of their function.
(5.) Swift's reputation as scatologist par excellence stems largely from a series of late poems that confront readers with the brute material unloveliness of the body, thereby undermining human pretensions and sweeping aside the abstractions of courtly love and spiritual aspiration. His prose, too, from A Tale of a Tub to Gulliver's Travels, is heavily excremental. Many have been critically disgusted by Swift's scatology, most famously John Middleton Murry, who coined the phrase "the excremental vision." For a close study of Swiftian scatology in its classical context, see Lee.
(6.) For thorough treatments of Swift's Irish pamphlets, see Ferguson and Mahony. Seamus Deane, somewhat exceptionally, locates Swift as a founding figure in an Anglo-Irish literature predicated on "the failure of the English colonial mission in Ireland" (36).
(7.) As an Anglo-Irishman, Swift identified with both the absentee colonizing regime and the exploited colony, attacking English misrule from the Ascendancy perspective of a neglected fellow (Mahony xv, Eagleton 160).
(8.) This Swiftian double vision also characterizes writers like Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh who, in the 1930s and 1940s, produced what Declan Kiberd has described as "underdeveloped comedy." Both writers frequently ascribed to Ireland a particularly dung-ridden quality. But both understood Irish culture in the context of a colonial double whammy whereby the British underdeveloped the country, then enshrined its inhabitants as a backward but colorful lot whose rustic charms made good entertainment. Kavanagh's excremental antipastoral poems satirize the mythified Irish peasant--an invention, he thought, of English taste (Kiberd, "Underdeveloped" 723).
(9.) As we shift focus from Ireland to the European-ruled tropics of Asia and Africa, race becomes a more important variable (though the Irish were, of course, also subject to modern pseudoscientific discourses of race). Scatological language has long been woven into a racist logic that links nonwhites to sexualized and debased matter, including excrement. For a survey of psychoanalytical understandings of excremental racism, see Terence Collins (75-79). Collins argues that U.S. Black Arts poetry (which, like so much African literature, takes Frantz Fanon as a political touchstone) uses shit imagery to reassign the function of "excremental dumping ground" from blacks to whites (80).
(10.) Spurr and Anderson draw on Julia Kristeva's discussion of the abject as a discursive phenomenon that is associated with defiled matter and that "disturbs identity, system, order" (Kristeva 4).
(11.) Given that Ghana was to be the model for African nationhood, it was particularly disappointing for Armah to have to record that "only the name had really changed with Independence" (9). Across Africa, writers saw the late 1960s as an era of failed hopes. Arthur Ravenscroft and Emmanuel Obiechina provide a contemporary assessment of political conditions and literary responses during the so-called era of disillusionment. For a more recent treatment, see Neil Lazarus's detailed discussion of Fanon's relevance to this period in general (4-26) and to Armah's text in particular (27-45).
(12.) Ehrenpreis's commentary was brought to my attention by Ashraf Rushdy, whose recent article on the "emetics of interpretation" thoroughly updates and improves the debate on Swiftian scatology.
(13.) Charges of this kind have frequently been leveled at V. S. Naipaul who, also writing in the mid-1960s, produced a notoriously graphic description of Indian defecation in An Area of Darkness (72-75). Naipaul's descriptions of shit have been taken as part of his much excoriated program of denigrating the third world as dirty and chaotic and of seeing India in particular as a "diseased society" (Naipaul 74). I am not immediately concerned with rereading Naipaul (though I think there is more to his discussion of excremental India than the effete recoil of a Westernized intellectual), but it is worth noting once again the central importance of scatology to postcolonial representations of underdevelopment.
(14.) Excremental language plays a similar figurative role in another (also contemporaneous) postcolonial fiction of uneven development, Albert Wendt's 1974 novella Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree. Wendt describes modernized, urban Samoa in scatological terms and attaches an excremental identity to the despised generation of compradors who have adopted papalagi (Western) values. In Wendt's novel, as in Armah's and Soyinka's, scatology signals both the material underprivilege of the masses and the wasteful overconsumption of fat neocolonial elites.
(15.) As Everett Zimmerman points out, excrement is "a sign of undifferentiation" (144). At its most intense, the excremental vision tends to generate political complication rather than clarification. For a pertinent example, consider Swift's Gulliver's Travels and its notoriously unclear politics, especially with regard to burgeoning forms of European and English imperialism. Despite many historical differences, the example is apposite because the question at hand is whether Armah (for example) occupies the same kind of "schizoid" position as Swift, who "reviles the British for reducing the Irish to slaves, then condemns the Irish for internalizing this slavery, which is at once more and less reason for excoriating the British, and excellent reason for loathing oneself" (Eagleton 160). This kind of self-division certainly afflicts a writer like Armah, whose aesthetic dissent from (his own) comprador class requires double-edged attacks and self-reproaches whose most characteristic expression comes, I think, in excremental tropes.
(16.) Voidancy was nurtured, if not invented, during Sagoe's extended stays in Europe and North America. Consider his lavish fascination with the kind of privacy available there: "The silence of the lavatory in an English suburban house when the household and the neighbours have departed to their daily toil, and the guest voidates alone. That is a silence you can touch" (96).
(17.) Even Armah's most probing readers, ranging from Richard Priebe in the 1970s to a more cautious Neil Lazarus in the 1990s, tend to affirm the existence of a symbolic calculus pointing beyond the bleak sociopolitical conditions described in the text. The most optimistic readings of the novel, such as those by John Coates and Tess Akaeke Onwueme, tend to proceed in the language of "myth and structure." Such readings are generally concerned to rescue Armah from charges of political nihilism by arguing that the novel's symbolism trumps its satiric realism, implying a foreordained, if not imminent, social redemption.
(18.) One might argue, theoretically, that allegorical readings are not necessarily redemptive ones and that, in this instance, we have an allegory of national uncertainty. Indeed, Stephen Slemon has proposed that postcolonial writing (including The Beautyful Ones) has forced a modification of the very category of allegory. Slemon identifies a new postcolonial literary form that is allegorical but nonredemptive, that meditates on collective destiny but represents "history" in conditional, discursive, and thus potentially transformative terms (158-61). Nonetheless, in this instance, the text seems more dedicated to questioning the self/society correspondence of allegory than to redefining the traditional givens of positivist history.
(19.) It would not be fully accurate, though, to describe the text as anti-allegorical, precisely because the lost alignment of self and society is felt as a painful or problematic absence. The excremental despair projected by Armah depends on the idea that there could be or should be an allegorical connection between the hero's ethical vindication and the society's political salvation. The counterexample thus in a sense confirms the basic logic of Jameson's original thesis. Jameson proposed, roughly, that Western literature tends to assume and perpetuate the separation of alienated and fragmented subjectivities from the social collective, whereas third-world literature tends not to assume such a "radical split" (69). It makes sense, then, that Armah's text registers the absence of national allegory as a shock or problem. Consider a comparison of The Beautyful Ones with Ousmane Sembene's Xala (one of Jameson's key examples of national allegory). Both texts satirize neocolonial society, then conclude by showing the comprador (Koomson or the Hadj) subjected to ritual abasement. For Armah, this ritual does not translate into imminent social transformation; we discover; at the end, that the personal fates of the protagonist and Koomson have no real bearing on Ghanaian politics. By contrast, readers of Xala discover at the end that the hero's libidinal curse is in fact symptomatic of wider economic and political problems.
(20.) Most post-Freudian observers of excremental symbolism locate its meaning in the suspended zone between subject and object--as a matter that is uncannily familiar yet, as Kristeva puts it, "radically separate" and "loathsome." Even more suggestively for the purposes of my argument about excremental markers of threatened selfhood, Kristeva writes, "Excrement and its equivalents ... stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego" (71).
(21.) Joyce's comment comes from a letter to Frank Budgen (qtd. in Ellmann 427-28). The MacHugh passage is a sly riposte to H. G. Wells who, in a 1917 Nation review of A Portrait of the Artist, had accused Joyce of a neo-Swiftian "cloacal obsession" (see Anspaugh, "Ulysses" 12). Anspaugh argues persuasively against the notion that Joycean scatology is a predominantly anti-English device, noting how often Joyce also uses scatology to debunk Irish nationalism. By reading Joycean scatology alongside that of Beckett, we gain new insight into the usefulness of excremental language for this form of postcolonial double rejection.
(22.) Ireland's centuries-long imperial connection and geographical proximity to England alone make it an unusual, if not unique, case among ex-British colonies; these factors at once conceal and reveal, modify and intensify the cultural effects commonly ascribed to imperial influence. For more on the differences (and similarities) between Irish and other postcolonial cultures, see Lloyd 2-9 and Kiberd, Inventing 4-6, 551-61.
(23.) Students of Celticism and Negritude--and other postcolonial nativisms--are by now familiar with the pitfalls of cultural revivals that recirculate (even if in affirmative form) images derived from colonial discourse. To the extent that a postcolonial culture contains such recycled images, scatological satire can reveal them to be imperial residue. Moreover, as a symbolic inversion of "natural" value, shit perverts or lampoons the Romantic idea of the individual whose spontaneous efflux has aesthetic value. In this century, Romantic-expressive theories have been applied nowhere more rigorously than to the colonized artistic "naif" whose closeness to natural fonts of rhythm and color are seen as an automatic aesthetic. Such ideas were often absorbed by the "native artists" themselves; Declan Kiberd cites W. B. Yeats and Leopold Senghor as instances of this phenomenon ("White Skins" 168). Excremental satire tends to debunk the figure of the mystic national bard, revealing the debased matter that lurks within the poetry of native essences.
(24.) To be clear: Armah and Soyinka produce a fiction of intact ethical/aesthetic selves but disconnect those selves from the symbolic possibilities of social redemption or national allegory. Beckett pursues the more radical possibility of disavowing both national myths and the intact self.
(25.) The temporal-existential reading of excremental symbolism extends back, in Kenneth Burke's discussion, not to Freud but to Schopenhauer (312). In a somewhat truistic version of the point, Martin Pops argues that the retention of feces is an attempt to escape time: "Peristalsis is a process in time. No time, no peristalsis" (34). In this sense, the excremental visions of these postcolonial writers signal an attempt to confront historical time itself while satirizing the time-denying forms of essentialism associated with transcendent selfhood and mythic nationhood. If, as Everett Zimmerman proposes, excremental symbols operate frequently to violate the pastoral and its mystified temporality (137), then excremental satire can be seen as an antipastoral form that reckons the ravages of time.
(26.) As Neil Lazarus observes, Armah's progeric nation derives from Fanon's view of the "national bourgeoisie": "It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness or the will to succeed of youth" (Wretched 153; qtd. in Lazarus 9).
(27.) I restrict my claims about new nationhood to a specific period in (second-wave) African and Irish literature because, as Aijaz Ahmad and others have suggested, postcolonial or third world writing need not continue to engage obsessively and perennially with questions of nationalism and national allegory (Ahmad 102). Even the largely reflexive and ambivalent engagement with national destiny common to these texts may become a less prominent concern as the moment of national independence recedes further into the past.
(28.) In the fourth chapter of Ulysses, Joyce famously brings literature itself into metonymic and metaphoric contact with shit as Leopold Bloom sits in the jakes reading from Titbits, comparing his own alimentary product to a titbit (56). And at one point in Finnegans Wake, Shem makes ink from shit (182-85). For a thorough survey of Joycean scatology used to describe literary expression, see Cheng 87-96. Lindsey Tucker, Susan Brienza, and Kelly Anspaugh ("Powers of Ordure") also read Joyce's excremental imagery in relation to the "creative process."
(29.) In Ireland's postcolonial period, the scatological comedy of Beckett or Kavanagh or Joyce articulates a genuine cultural difference from English decorum, but it also suggests that vulgarity is an Irish trope only within the asymmetrical culture of Anglo-Irish colonial relations. The satiric views of Kavanagh and Beckett divide the blame for reductive images of underdeveloped Irishness between the imperial British and those Irish nativists who both acceded to and--what's worse---proudly recirculated the sterotype. In a sense that will only seem contradictory if we lose sight of the interconnection of English imperial influence and new forms of Irish nationalism, the vulgar, scatological register of this literature was as much directed at the bourgeois puritanism of the De Valera era as at Anglo-Victorian mores. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford describes the conditions in which scatological satire might be effective against official Irishness: "In posttreaty Ireland, the conservative and petit bourgeois politicians of the new Free State allied themselves with the clergy to construct a monologic and humorless version of Irish postcolonial identity as Gaelic, Catholic, and sexually pure" (20).
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JOSHUA D. ESTY is assistant professor of English at Harvard University and, for the 1998-99 academic year, a research fellow at the Center for Humanities, Wesleyan University. He has published articles on George Eliot and Flann O'Brien and is at work on a book on late modernism, late imperialism, and the rise of cultural studies in England from 1930 to 1960.
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|Author:||ESTY, JOSHUA D.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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