Salvation history in Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.
This article attempts to unveil the philosophy of history deployed in Ayi Kwei Armah's fourth novel Two Thousand Seasons (1973). Armah is a Ghanaian writer, whose reputation was established by the biting social and political satire of his earlier novels, namely The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Fragments (1970), and Why Are We So Blest (1972). In these social commentaries he fiercely assaulted the failure of African governments to achieve the promises of independence and the increasing Westernization of African cultures under neo-colonialism. With the publication of Two Thousand Seasons, however, he shifted his interest in social reality and political leadership toward a deep concern with the continent's past. His ambitious project led him to engage the field of history, to adopt the form and voice of traditional oral epics, and to envision an eschatological pan-African ideal.
Central to the plot of Two Thousand Seasons is the episode of the slave trade during the last millennium. This episode is revisited via a communalized narrator, who recounts the native revolts against the Arab and the Western invasions of Africa and advocates an inspirational ideology for the future. The plural narrative voice of the novel, its spatial setting, time span, and the actions of its protagonists are all epic, and its vision of the future is eschatological and attains the level of myth-making. In Myth in Africa: A Study of its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), Isidore Okpewho praised Armah's achievement because he took "his visionary programme one step further, and in this way perhaps gives us something more than traditional myths do: the potential victory over the forces of destruction is actually realized" (204). The mythopoetic thrust of the novel led Okpewho to identify similarities between some of its narrative situations and biblical archetypes. The consistency of the similarities demonstrates that Two Thousand Seasons may also function as a kind of a religious tract.
It is the interweaving of the religious and the historical as constructed discourses involved in revisionism and reconstruction that I propose to tackle here. My argument is that for Armah to graft to his epic narrative a teleological eschatological dimension (encompassing past, present, and future), he not only returned to the strategies and the pleasures of orature, as amply demonstrated by critics, but he also borrowed the Puritans' ecclesiastical history through which they construed and historicized their removal to New England. In my view, Armah accommodated the main tenets of this philosophy in order to articulate a politics of African history which is different from Leopold Sedar Senghor's philosophy of Negritude and the colonial historiography and to produce a historical vision which encompasses the past, the present, and the future of the continent.
Armah's appropriation of the American Puritans' historical imagination results in two different discursive moments in the narrative: one, an agonistic moment in which Armah contests the versions of African history as inscribed in the philosophy of Negritude and Western colonial anthropology; two, a systematic construction in which eschatological historiography concurs with traditional oral epics to create epic actions and situations and a millenarian vision of renaissance and revival. In so doing, Armah distances his literary creation from Western (secular) epics, which in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin bear no direct relationship to the present (13), and aligns it on native oral epics which, according to Okpewho in his Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), never represent a "fossilized tradition": "the material of the song [i.e. epic] may have come from far back in the past, but for the bard that material reflects an ever-living potential or an ideal worth keeping alive" (75).
The innovation brought to Two Thousand Seasons in order to approximate the dimension of myth has not escaped the attention of critics. Beside Okpewho, Neil Lazarus reads the novel as an attempt at the "remythologization of African history" (217), and Derek Wright writes that Armah's fiction "bursts the bounds of historical realism, period-setting and naturalistic narrative and moves into the terrain of myth, legend, and racial memory" (222). For his part, Sebastian Mahfood in Radical Eschatologies: Embracing the Eschaton in the Works of Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Nuruddin Farah, and Ayi Kwei Armah (2009) demonstrates that one of Armah's most powerful political weapons is teleological eschatology. By focusing on Armah's "traditional African vision" (Mahfood 109) and on his formulation of "resistance as a collective practice" through the "idiom of orature" (Lazarus 221), however, these critics pay no heed to the type of historiography deployed in this fiction. This historiography is modeled on the epistemological foundations of American Exceptionalism, and is consistently developed through the millenarian ambition inscribed in the protagonists' action and the dimensions of time and space embedded in the narrative's temporal and spatial settings.
In advancing the thesis that Armah found inspiration in American Puritans' philosophy of history, I am challenged by his silence on the sources of his fictions and, worse, his open hostility toward comparative scholarship voiced many years ago in his article "Larsony, or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction" (1976), published in response to Charles Larson's The Emergence of African Fiction (1972). Even as he published his memoir a few years ago, nowhere does he acknowledge the influence of any Western writer or trend of thought on his fictions. Further, in The Eloquence of the Scribes (2006), he eulogizes the Akan epic poetic chronicle Oguaa Aban of Reverend Gaddieh Acquaah, a Fantse convert to Christianity, published in 1939, and tells us that his fascination with such local narrative forms "deepened into increasingly systematic, specialized studies in fiction, drama and poetry, [... as well as in] history, philosophy, [and] sociology" (30-31). Elaborating upon this authorial pronouncement, Nana Wilson-Tagoe published a paper titled "The Politics of History and the Vernacular in Early Twentieth-Century Ghana: Situating Gaddiel Acquaah's Oguaa Aban in Ghanaian Social and Literary History" (2006), in which she demonstrates, among other things, the intertextuality that binds Two Thousand Seasons to Acquaah's Oguaa Aban, which tends to confirm Armah's local inspiration.
The survey of Armah's academic career and the range of his literary and non-literary works, however, provides many certainties concerning his knowledge on the subject of history. One of these certainties is his early dismissal of the philosophy of Negritude, voiced in one of his early essays, "African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?" (1967). The other certainty is that he was conversant right from his youth with different philosophies of history, such as the cyclical, the linear, the evolutionary, etc., as amply exhibited in his article "Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-a-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis" (1984). His knowledge of the subject might have been acquired during his education in sociology at Groton School and then Harvard University during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
These university years, furthermore, coincided with the time when Perry Miller's conceptualization of American Puritans' experience and his ideas on American Exceptionalism were in full swing, leading to my assertion that Armah's familiarity with the Puritan history of the United States is more than probable. My claim is sustained by a passage in his third novel, Why Are We So Blest? in which an American-born character called Mike develops a scheme of thought borrowed from the Pilgrim fathers' rhetoric and argues that "the myth of paradise finds its full meaning here in the New World" (98). Mike further explains
Paradise is a state of grace, and grace is space--the distance that separates the holy from the merely human, the sacred from the profane, separates and protects. [...] And that is the distance between the American commonwealth and the remnant of the world. It is the measure of our blessedness. (98-99)
Inherent in this passage are Perry Miller's thoughts on the ultimate mission of the Puritan migration to America, announced in his Errand into the Wilderness (1956). One of these concepts is the Puritan utopia built in purity in the new continent out of their theocratic reconceptualization of the wilderness.
Though repudiated by Armah's main character, Modin, much of this millenarian thought informs the experience of the twenty African youngsters in Two Thousand Seasons whose initiation into manhood in a traditional rite of passage leads them to play a providential role in the liberation struggle of their tribe and assume responsibility over the historical fate of the whole continent. The intentions and purposes of this guerrilla faction show that Armah willfully returned to the Puritan's eschatology, as interpreted in Miller's text, in order to articulate an African sense of mission and politics of history. The main thrust of this endeavor revolves around Armah's dissatisfaction with the historical frameworks within which African historical experience was hitherto inscribed, and his ambition to bring "reformation" to the present-day corrupt African governments. Central to Miller's interpretation of the Puritan colonial experience is indeed the assumption that their emigration to New England would entail the fulfillment of religious reformation in America and then the exportation of this reformation to their mother country. Miller writes that the early Puritans who removed to the New World were
an organized task force of Christians, executing a flank attack on the corruption of Christendom. These Puritans did not flee to America; they went in order to work out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and Europe, but which would quickly be accomplished if only the saints back there had a working return model to guide them. (11)
It is clear from this passage that, according to Miller, the causes of the Puritan "errand into the wilderness" was their lack of identification with the Church of England, and that their political agenda involved a return to their native country, England, in order to bring religious reformation to it. Avihu Zakai concurs with this idea in Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America (1992) and writes: "separation from--and not identification with--England constituted [...] the very theme of the Puritan migration to America [... f]or according to the Puritans only alienation from sinful England could bring them a true reformation, and hence to reconciliation with God" (122).
The political impulse behind the military struggle of Armah's revolutionary faction in Two Thousand Seasons seems to partake to a separatist spirit analogous to the Puritans' ideology. After their ultimate exploit of freeing their tribe from the corrupt rule of "the parasites" and the political domination of "the destroyers," the narrator warns that this is only an intermediary step in the whole process of purifying the continent from foreign rule: "What are we if we see nothing beyond the present, hear nothing from the ages of our flowing, and in all our existence can utter no necessary preparation for the future way?" (204).
The hopes enclosed in this quotation imply more than a similarity in the political agenda between Armah's revolutionary youths and the New England church leaders. Through the narrative, the Ghanaian writer makes his protagonists operate in epic time and space settings that are deeply embedded in salvation history. Simultaneously, he also arms them with historical consciousness that enables them to reinterpret Africa's past in light of his own struggle with the colonial historiography and the Negritude philosophy. As I have already outlined, however, Armah broke with colonial history only to turn back to another Western philosophy of history, namely the Puritan ecclesiastical historiography.
What is ecclesiastical history? What are its characteristics? The answers to these questions are contained in Zakai's Exile and Kingdom, which explores the ideological origins of the Puritan migration to America and their political, social, and religious experience in New England. For Zakai, for the Puritans to explain their dissent from the Church of England and fulfill their mission in the New World, they developed a historical thought that was apocalyptic and eschatological, and, in the process, created categories of sacred space and sacred time. The two dimensions of space and time enabled them to reconstruct in their new homeland a unique culture based on their interpretation and perception of the word of God. Zakai's identification of migration as the heart of ecclesiastical history and the distinction he establishes between the two types of Elizabethan plantations in the New World prove very useful to our investigation into the historiography charted in Two Thousand Seasons.
Zakai describes ecclesiastical history in Exile and Kingdom as "a system of thought in which history is defined exclusively as the story of salvation and redemption, comprising a special dimension of space and time in which progress is made from promise to fulfillment, from prophecy to realization" (4). A strong element of religious and prophetic revelation, whose fulfillment seems to be the focal point in the progress of historical time, is central to this definition. Considering that Armah is an atheist and his narrative abjures both Christianity and Islam, these two dimensions may seem incompatible with the secular vision of his historical thought. To claim so, however, is to ignore the religious dimension he grafts to his narrative and the millennial expectations he attaches to it. Anoa's prophecy and its influence on the unfolding of the action of the protagonists confirm the eschatological dimension of Armah's epistemology, even though he takes care to distance himself from the faiths of Christianity and Islam. It is probably this religious dimension that Okpewho had in mind when he wrote in Myth that Anoa's appeal is analogous to Jesus' exhortation to his people to cast away all family ties and sentimental connection in favor of a more rewarding and enduring ideal. Okpewho concluded: "Whether he likes or not, the socialist vision which underlies the concept of 'the way' bears a strong relation with Judeo-Christian myth and dogma" (214).
It was in a season of rains, the narrator tells us, that Anoa spoke in two voices. The first voice is one which spoke of "a terrifying catalogue of deaths--deaths of the body, deaths of the spirit; deaths of single, lost ones, deaths of groups snared in some killing pursuit; death of nations, the threatened death of our people" (15). To this vision of hardship, torments, and destruction, Anoa added another prophecy, serene and optimistic: "For every shrieking horror the first voices had given sound to, this other voice gave calm causes, indicated effects, and never tired of iterating the hope at the issue of all disasters: the rediscovery and the following again of our way, the way" (16). A strong sense of history emerges out of Anoa's utterance. The narrator says that "until the utterance of Anoa the reason itself for counting seasons had been forgotten" (2). In other words, Anoa's prophecy is the dividing line between a primordial past, probably assuming the form of an African utopia embedded in an uncharted African setting, and an historical time which relates to the future vicissitudes of the tribe, its struggles, persecutions and triumphs.
The link between prophecy and history implied in Anoa's utterance is at the heart of Armah's eschatological thought. In their historiography, the Puritans placed prophecy within history and situated history within prophecy. As Zakai puts it in Exile, the "sacred and profane history [...] became one and the same, giving rise to a new sense of history" (54). This new sense of history fused the sacred with the secular and produced a belief in man's ability to comprehend the course of history (Zakai 24). One of its most important achievements was the transformation of the saints' role, from alienation from the world to active participation within it (ibid). Salvation, providential history, hence, enabled Protestants to develop a new critical awareness and historical consciousness through which they examined the English historical context and interpreted their break with Rome in religious, and yet increasingly nationalistic, terms.
The perception of history as an economy of salvation, involving secular and divine elements and entailing a special dimension of space and time in which progress is made from promise to its fulfillment, informs Armah's historical project, too. The Ghanaian writer subordinates the realization of Anoa's second prophecy, the vision of salvation and regeneration, to the people's return to "the way": "two thousand seasons, a season going into it, a second thousand crawling maimed from it, will teach you everything about enslavement, the destruction of souls, the killing of bodies, the infusion of violence into every breath, every drop, every morsel of your sustaining air, your water, your food. Till you come again upon the way" (17, emphasis mine). Inherent in this prophecy is a strong eschatological sensibility conferred to the concept of "the way." Presented as a sort of religion "whose beginning is reciprocity, [and] whose continuation is reciprocity" the way is much more than a simple tribal ethics seeking "balance in human relationship" (Mahfood 121); it is a "guiding eschatological construct" (124), a vision of a future reunification of Africa, an apocalyptic promise of a coming glory, analogous to the Kingdom of God in the Bible.
The full implications of Anoa's prophecy may be noticed in the unfolding of the actions of the novel, which imply something beyond the fate Of the twenty rebellious youngsters. These developments assert the centrality of Anoa's personality and vision within Armah's historical vision, in the same way Christ was the main focus of the Puritan Church history. For the Puritans, Christ's first coming augured the beginning of history. The latter gradually unfolds toward the divine plan of his second coming, which signifies the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God. For Anoa's tribe, likewise, Anoa's prophecy was the beginning of the "counting of seasons," i.e. history. It is through faith in her vision that the tribe secures participation in salvaging Africa's tormented condition. Simultaneously, all subsequent African history is said to move toward the fulfillment of her two prophecies, of destruction and then recovery. In this sense, the tribe's history would bear the scar of Anoa's first vision until the continent recovers its unity and returns to the way of reciprocity preached by the prophetess.
By configuring Anoa and her vision as the center of Akan history and its secular religion, Armah has drawn the center of the salvation history he is creating to his people. Two other components were necessary for him to re-contextualize Protestants ecclesiastical history and to chart an analogous salvation history for his people. These are the agent(s) through which to implement the millennial revelation of the "Way" and a sense of (providential) struggle through which to give sense to the action of Anoa's faithful subjects. These two components are embodied in Protestant ecclesiastical history respectively by the institution of the Church and the apocalyptic struggle between "the city of God" and the "city of Satan" (Zakai 5). The Church, Zakai understands, is "the spiritual body of Christ" since, until Christ's Second Coming, it is the faith in the Church which determines history (5). As for the apocalyptic struggle, it is the very theme of Protestant history, the scenario through which the Church attempts to bring the post-Edenic world to reconciliation with God. In this sense, Zakai explains, history is interpreted as a "divine epic of salvation and redemption," stretching back in time to creation and pointing forward to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God (5).
The "people of the way" are Armah's body of followers through whom he gives life to the spirit of Anoa's prophecy. In these men, the ideal of reciprocity is fully personified. Bent on action, these people are pathfinders actively engaging the "destroyers'" hegemonic practices and developing strategies of cultural and military resistance. Their liberating vision is fully endorsed by the twenty youngsters, eleven girls and nine boys, who perform the initiation rites of their tribe. The youths ensure the spiritual continuum between the departed and the living. What distinguishes them is no personal, individual achievement; they are rather noted for the transcendental, providential force and the communal spirit which inhabit them:
there is indeed a great force in the world, a force spiritual and able to shape the physical universe, but that force is not something cut off, not something separate from ourselves. It is an energy in us, strongest in our working, breathing, thinking together as one people; weakest when we are scattered, confused, broken into individual, unconnected fragments. (96)
Classless, united, dedicated, and disciplined, the twenty initiates are inhabited by a providential spirit. Their struggle against foreign invaders and local stooges achieves sense in the wider historical framework of the Akans' ancestral struggle against foreign dominations. With an eye on the tribe's present destruction, made of (royal) treasons and dissent from the way, and another eye on the fulfillment of Anoa's millennial prophecy of regeneration, these peoples' struggle infuses meaning into African history at large and brings it to bear on the continent's past, present, and future. The wide time span implied in the youths' experience elevates African history in Armah's narrative to an epic of salvation and redemption. Through this epic, Armah transforms the Protestant experience into an African one, without losing sight of the apocalyptic dimension that his (hi)story ought to carry.
The ideology of history in Two Thousand Seasons looks forward to achieving three objectives, which are all analogous to the objectives of Puritan historiography: one, to create a millennial eschatology based on the religion of "the way" and Anoa's prophecy; two, to append to the fulfillment of Anoa's prophecy a dimension of eschatological time; three, to provide directions for the future generations and incite further actions in order to complete the continent's liberation. By accounting for these three dimensions, and by correlating them with Anoa's primordial prophecy, Armah has created a dimension of time which is analogous to the Puritans' sacred time.
In addition to appropriating the three components of Puritan ecclesiastical history and re-contextualizing the dimension of sacred time entailed in it, Armah also appropriates and projects the Puritan notion of sacred space. This notion is strongly bound to the English Protestants' apocalyptic tradition which upheld the idea that God's providence would select a (holy) land upon which His chosen people would play a crucial role in the unfolding of the Christian drama of salvation. Immanent in this creation of sacred space is the idea of migration and the ethical and religious meanings inscribed in it. In this context, Zakai identifies two models of English migrations, and two types of Elizabethan plantations, whether they are dominated by Protestant or Puritan thoughts. The first, Protestant, was based on the Genesis model. It posits "a peaceful religious migration" which extends without ever challenging the political authority of the mother country. The second model is a Puritan rather than Protestant type of migration, based on the Exodus model. Here, the mother country is repudiated and denied the status of the center of sacred history. This "judgmental crisis" is followed by an "apocalyptic migration"; America, not England, is said to stand for the center of sacred time and the site of the coming kingdom.
Both ideological models described above can be checked in the geographical movements of the people of Anoa in Two Thousand Seasons. The narrator tells us: "we are not a stagnant people, hating motion. But in that fertile time before Anoa's utterance even our longer journeys were absorbed in a lasting evenness. From that long, forgetful peace our exile has been harsh and steep has been our descent" (3). This assertion makes it clear that the people of Anoa witnessed two kinds of migration. The first was peaceful journeys ending always in harmony with the host land; they mostly happened before Anoa's utterance. The second was forced "exile" from the land; this type of movement occurred after Anoa's utterance. These two types of migration are analogous to the two models of English settlements in the New World, as described in Zakai's study of the history of the English migration to America.
The communal narrator of Two Thousand Seasons locates their homeland somewhere in north-east of Africa, about present-day Sudan or Egypt. The narrator does not, however, give any precise location of their land, nor does he map the different locations of their geographical displacements: "Of our first home we have more certainty. That it was here, on this land, we know. We have crossed lakes and forded rivers changing resting places, but never have we had to leave our land itself, though we have roamed thousands of days over it, and lit a thousand thousand fires in thirty thousand places" (3). This statement connects the motion of the tribe with a geographical description of a vast landscape. It tries to define and appropriate African space by connecting it to the migrations of the people. Though the firestones may hint at an attempt at historicizing the space, the vague and general configuration of the landscape makes it a symbolic rather than a real space. The symbolism of this setting makes it assume the form of a utopian land, unspoiled by the tribe's intrusion into it. It is no wonder that just below this passage the narrator declares: "This land is ours, not through murder, not through theft, not by the way of violence or any other trickery. [...] Here we began. Here we will continue" (3-4). Obviously, this passage alludes to the foreign invasions which claimed African lands for themselves. Inherent in it is Armah's assertion that the land belongs to the one who identifies harmoniously with it, not the one who destroys it.
Armah's narrator devotes but a short narrative space to record the motion of the early African tribes. Migration achieves significance in the course of his (hi)story only after the bloody contacts induced by foreign white intrusions to the continent. It is the confrontation with the Arab "predators" which gives Anoa reasons to move away from its land and transforms its tribal experience into a historical one. Through the contact with the Arabs, first, and the Europeans, second, migration achieves prominence in the narrative as a dramatic event which ideologizes the entire historical imagination of the fiction. At the same time, the revolutionary significance accorded to migration as a flight for racial survival and regeneration testifies to the extent to which the Puritan separatist eschatology fired Armah's historical imagination. In the context of early English settlements in America, Puritan eschatology operated a "revolutionary shift" in the Protestants' perception of providential history and fashioned "a new vision of America as an independent and autonomous sacred space within the confines of providential history" (Zakai, Exile, 130). It is this revolutionary dimension that Armah exploited in order to dramatize Anoa's tribal experience within the confines of Anoa's prophecy.
Unlike the Protestants' migration to America, the Puritans' removal was an intentional repudiation of England as the center of salvation history. In the context of their theocratic universe, their migration, Zakai continues, transformed the New England "wilderness" into "the new stage of acts" with the puritan emigrants as the new actors (122). Modeled on the Exodus type, Puritans perceived their migration as an escape from the impending judgment to fall upon England. For them New England was both the place of hiding from the divine punishment to come upon the mother country and the land of ecclesiastical experiment. The Puritans, thus, rooted their migration in a radical new ideology, the premises of which ultimately meant the separation of the New World from the Old. "Puritans" Zakai adds, "construed the first original American ideology which stressed, for the first time since the discovery of America, that the New World had a unique destiny of its own within the boundaries of sacred, ecclesiastical history" (130).
"Errand" and "wilderness" are two concepts intrinsically woven in the Puritan version of ecclesiastical history. Interpreting their pilgrimage as an errand from a doomed world to an unknown place of peril, the Puritans rapidly came to associate their experience in New England with the wilderness state or condition. Their "Errand into the Wilderness" became the sacred, prophetic, and redemptive "Church of the Wilderness," through which they attempted to desacralize England in order to make possible the sacralization of New England. The "Errand of the Church of the Wilderness" fulfilled, therefore, two functions: an apocalyptic flight into the wilderness for shelter and refuge and reformation in a vernal landscape unspoiled by any corrupted religious experience or political rule. In this eschatology, and amidst the believers' religious fervor, wilderness acquired a singular formative and redemptive role: "The wilderness was [for the Puritans] a place of temptation and danger, or the realm of demons and death. And yet, it was the place of covenant, as well as the place of refuge, shelter, purgation, and consecration" (Zakai 147).
The meaning of errand in the wilderness as a radical and uncompromising quest, inherent in the Puritan historical imagination and their ideological experience, is projected through Anoa's migrations in Two Thousand Seasons. Aware as he was of the exceptional experience of the Puritans in the New World as a minority, persecuted group looking for religious and political reforms, Armah modeled the journeys and motives of Anoa and the twenty youngsters on their religious eschatology. For this, he conceptualized the journeys of his primordial African tribe and its establishment in the town of Anoa on the framework of the Puritans' providential errand and their settlement in New England. In so doing, Armah aimed at imbuing Africa--the land of wilderness in European colonial imagination--with a redemptive significance. The underlying structure of his historical creation is the tribe's quest for the fulfillment of Anoa's millenarian prophecy of the regeneration of Africa from the scars of foreign colonization, a quest that can be fulfilled only by the retrieval of the eschatological meaning of "the way" and the faithfulness to its providential spirit.
The first movement toward the land of Anoa, i.e. modern Ghana, was triggered by the intrusion of the Arabs to the community. Welcomed into the tribe as poor "beggars" in need of hospitality, the white foreigners from the desert rapidly turn into "predators" whose "pernicious" religion is used to ensure the "spiritual enslavement" of the blacks. The first result of native conversions to the religion of Islam was the splitting of the tribe into different warring factions. Willing neither to give up the religion of the Way and embrace a new religion, nor to cause further schism and bloodshed among their community, the majority of the people decide to go on a long journey in search of a new land. Faithfulness to the traditional way of reciprocity seems to be the ultimate motive behind their journey into unknown and dangerous places: "For how were we, a people of friendship, a people of reciprocity, people of the way, how were we to accept a road of life constructed by a god of hate, god of unreasoning violence, a childish god who promises each of his heavy-lidded dotard slave followers virgins for his final, unending lechery?" (42).
The road of escape led Anoa's community to undertake a long journey and to cross a vast and dangerous area of bog lands, which barred their passage to the land the pathfinders had already located farther ahead. The crossing of the bog was so tiresome that some of the people refused to move; the four pathfinders who had reached the end of the swamp became delirious and three of them died. Their death brought more doubt and anxiety among the community, especially as the bog ended only to reveal a hilly landscape. The hills, though, were the last ordeal before that the people reached the land of their dream and settled there.
The hardships encountered by the people of Anoa at their crossing of the swamps reminds us of the Puritans' sea voyage across the Atlantic and, by the same token, the Exodus of the people of Israel because the three events are all mass migrations involving escape from both religious and political oppression and the passage of a whole people across a vast, hostile landscape. The significance of the bog and the ocean in Armah's novel and the Puritans' experience, respectively, is hence encoded in the very symbolism of the desert in the Old Testament. According to Eric Voegelin, the desert is not only a redemptive space, but also a
symbol of the historical impasse. It [is] not a specific but the eternal impasse of historical existence in the "world" that is, in the cosmos in which empires rise and fall .... When the world has become Desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit that with its urgent whispering has already driven and rescued him ... (quoted in Zakai 148)
As a redemptive space implying suffering and hardship, the passage of the swamps refers to the physical and spiritual initiation of the whole people. As an historical impasse, however, it problematizes the issue of space embedded in the possession of African lands and riches. Before this cathartic event, Armah's configuration of space is vague; it draws a vast, utopian land marked by grasslands and rivers which function as archetypal images of fertility and bounty. When the people of Anoa cross the bog and settle in a new homeland near the ocean, though, Armah endows his setting with definite and concrete topographical contours. The sharp change in his spatial descriptions informs his attempt to historicize the African space. It also discloses his intention to counter the arguments of Western imperial narratives, such as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which present Africa as an empty, blank space to be subdued for the service of European empires and civilization.
The analysis of Armah's appropriation and re-contextualization of the Puritans' historical experience can be pushed still further since his literary imagination pursues historico-ideological ends analogous to the apocalyptic eschatology utilized by the English Puritans to vindicate their break with the religious and political authorities in the Old Continent. His protagonists' rebellion against king Koranche's corrupt rule, indeed, evokes the English Separatists' political experience and the whole process through which they reacted against the symbols of power in seventeenth-century England. Writing about the early English political dissenters, Miller asserts that their "errand" in the New World "was being run for the sake of Reformed Christianity; and while the first aim was indeed to realize in America the due form of government, both civil and ecclesiastical, the aim behind that aim was to vindicate the most rigorous ideal of the Reformation, so that ultimately all Europe would imitate New England" (12). Accounting for the revolutionary task of the twenty protagonists, the narrator voices an analogous ideological aspiration: "That is our destiny: to end destruction--utterly; to begin the highest, the profoundest work of creation, the work that is inseparable from our way, inseparable from the way" (157).
The parallels between the early Puritans and the twenty youngsters do not stop at this analogy in their revolutionary aspirations. The concrete experience of the initiates involves them in another rite which has much in common with the Puritans' errand into the wilderness. When they are about to fulfill their initiation's ultimate rite, the group is sold into bondage, and it is as slaves bound by heavy shackles inside a slave ship that they achieve full awareness of their political and historical condition. At this moment, the group decides to dissent from Koranche's rule and to lead liberation actions. For them, Koranche is an apostate, a betrayer of the Way and a deceiver of his people, just as for the Puritans, the Church of England was comparable to Laodicia, the most sinful church in Revelation. The revolutionary faction hence decides to fight against both their king and his white allies. Their rebellion, started inside the slave ship, endows the ship with an ambivalent connotation, because it stands for both the leviathan state, i.e. the state of chaos and the place of formative wilderness from where their movement for African freedom is first launched. The connotations of disorder and chaos common to the wilderness and the leviathan state are the junction through which Armah parallels the formative elements of his twenty initiates at the bottom of the slave ship with the Puritan experience in the untamed setting of New England.
After the success of their mutiny, the rebellious group becomes fully aware of the necessity for revolutionary action and resolves to wage war against the white invaders and their African collaborators. It is very significant that for the group to organize themselves and lead guerrilla actions against the whites' strongholds, they recognize the fifth grove as shelter. Located deep in the forest, the fifth grove is the land of the rebels' early initiation. It is a virgin place that Armah refrains from describing as a wild landscape. Much like Victor Turner's "liminal space" the fifth grove is a place that exhibits the features of a spiritual shrine and detaches itself both from the dangerous life in the bog land and the corrupt life in the town:
The fifth grove is not a place of visible paths. Dwellers there have always been quiet movers, disturbing nothing they need not disturb. Yet even here the eye searching for easy access is drawn naturally to openings between plants, openings that would be beginning of paths and obvious passages if other than seers, hearers and utterers had heard the voices of their soul calling them this way. (186)
This description gives clear indications that Armah constructs the fifth grove as a landscape of both formative and redemptive significance. The redemptive dimension of the place shows in the fact that only the most virtuous members of the community can get access into it. For instance, when wise Isanusi and Idawa fled the town of Anoa, they found refuge there. When the group of initiates escapes from the slave ship and achieves awareness of the necessity of resistance, furthermore, they walk in the footsteps of Isanusi and decide to transform the fifth grove into a bulwark, where they can hide, plan, and execute military operations. Concerning its formative dimension, the site hosts the group's childhood rites of initiation and, following their return, serves as the place where they take Isanusi's knowledge on the art of the ancestral fundis, the masters of eloquence. A liminal space, the fifth grove is a place which abolishes the community's structure and establishes a true communitas, which, in the words of Victor Turner, gives recognition "to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society" (97).
The initiates' identification with the fifth grove is, nonetheless, only a momentary identification, for their task extends the liminal, formative stage, and they look forward to redeeming and reforming their society at large. The redemption of the community's misgivings being inscribed in the spirit of Anoa's prophecy and in the faith in the Way, the group embarks on the mission of cleansing their community from its "parasites" To this end, they raise an army of freed slaves who overthrow king Koranche, put a ritual end to his life, and free the town of Anoa. The group's liberation of Anoa stands too much at the level of symbol because it is presented as a victory which should pave the way for many others and which would augur new forms of resistance against the invaders. It is no surprise, therefore, that the communal narrator closes his (hi)story by praising the youths' way of resistance and evoking Anoa's millenarian prophecy, whose fulfillment, the narrator assures, is unmitigated:
What a scene of carnage the white destroyers have brought here, what a destruction of bodies, what a death of souls. Against this what a vision of creation yet unknown, higher, much more profound than all erstwhile creation! What a hearing of the confluence of all the waters of life flowing to overwhelm the ashen desert's blight! What an utterance of the coming together of all the people of our way, the coming together of all people of the way. (206)
Ultimately, then, the above assessment of the revolutionary role of Armah's protagonists and the extended symbolism he encodes in the fifth grove convince us that his ideology of resistance and reformation looms large in the Puritan concept of the "Errand of the Church of the Wilderness," as highlighted by Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness.
Taken beside the analogies that I have already underlined between the Puritans' salvation history, which is at the heart of their eschatology, and the double meaning of Armah's imaginary creation of Anoa's millenarian prophecy, these analogies testify to Armah's conscious borrowing from the source of American Exceptionalism, represented by the ideological foundations of the Puritans' ecclesiastical history. In re-contextualizing the premises of this apocalyptic tradition, Armah rejected the colonial Eurocentric vision of Africa's past and derived a unique African culture made of a utopian past, millenarian expectations, and a secular religion which preaches unity and reciprocity. Through these constructions, Armah not only escapes Western historicism, but he equally designs an eschatological view of time, revolving around Anoa's prophetic revelation and involving the continent's past, present, and future. This eschatological perception of time charts history, not through a progressive time of successive evolutionary phases, but through periods strongly bound to the fulfillment of a prophecy. It progresses in a continuum from a prophecy to its realization and from a revelation to a future unveiling glory. Armah projects all these meanings on Anoa's utterance and on the youths' revolutionary activities, and his narrative assumes the form of a Jeremiad that attempts to give a new impetus to the long process of African (cultural) decolonization, not so much by the retrieval of some racial pride in Africa's past, but by inscribing a sense of purpose and glory in its future.
Mouloud Mammeri University of Tizi-ouzou, Algeria
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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