Okot p'Bitek | Critical Essay by Annemarie Heywood

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Okot p'Bitek.
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Critical Essay by Annemarie Heywood

SOURCE: "Modes of Freedom: The Songs of Okot p'Bitek," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XV, No. 1, August, 1980, pp. 65-83.

In the following essay, Heywood argues that p'Bitek's songs form an "ongoing meditation on Freedom."

Seen against the evolving context of historic change, the work of the leading African writers marks phases of ideological radicalization. The process stamps the oeuvre of Ngugi, Achebe, Armah, and Soyinka. In Okot's Songs it finds its most poignant voice.

The antinomy Lawino/Ocol utters the phase of hope and assertion: future roles and modes of self-perception are being defined in the positive, active mood of struggle for nationhood, a struggle which is still experienced as a struggle for freedom from colonial exploitation and alienation. With the antinomy Prisoner/Malaya we find ourselves in a later perspective. Freedom from has been attained, and what Berdyaev calls "the second freedom", the freedom to, is experienced as destructive chaos and painful anarchy. Uhuru has become a prison, the sustaining mother country a punitive, barren nightmare.

      … The stone floor
      Lifts her powerful arms
      In cold embrace
      To welcome me
      As I sit on her navel.
      My head rests
      On her flat
      Whitewashed breasts …
               [Song of Prisoner]

This chill blankness recalls that "tabula rasa" which Frantz Fanon says [The Wretched of the Earth, 1967] "characterises at the outset all decolonisation." As early as 1961 he pointed out how such a disillusioned, blank phase is a necessary condition in that "total change from the bottom up" without which decolonisation must remain merely a change of masters.

In a way which seems to me fruitful the sequence of four Song cycles can be viewed as an ongoing meditation on Freedom—not a private meditation, to be sure, but an interactive meditation by, and on behalf of, the whole social web which is undergoing change. It is from this angle that I propose to look at Okot's work, and I shall deliberately give less attention to what has already been well described and analysed in the critical literature than to what seems to me to have been neglected, if not misapprehended.

Okot's meditation is from the outset troubled and painfully torn by conflicting loyalties and belief structures. He explores the conflicting claims of the Old and the New by means of complementary personae. Lawino and Ocol confront one another not as fictional 'characters' but as choral presences. They are masks which hold our attention precisely because they are vividly and vitally particularised, but choral masks nevertheless. Soyinka did something similar in Kongi's Harvest where Kongi and Danlola confront and mirror one another in dialectical opposition. But Soyinka's approach was still Hegelian: he sketched a proposed third term, a saving synthesis, in Daodu/Segi. Okot's rendering is more penetrating, uncompromising, radical. He presents us with a true antinomy, a confrontation of irreconcilable and equally valid positions, and does not resolve the painful tension between them with even a hinted conciliation. There is something profoundly moving, truly tragic, to the laments and recriminations of these two lovers torn apart by the growth process of liberation. Listen to them both:

      Lawino: … But oh! Ocol
       You are my master and husband,
       You are the father of my children,
       You are a man,
       You are you!
 
       Do you not feel ashamed
       Behaving like another man's dog
       Before your own wife and children?
 
       My husband, Ocol
       You are a Prince
       Of an ancient chiefdom.
       Look!
       There in the middle of the homestead
       Stands your grandfather's Shrine,
       Your grandfather was a Bull among men
       And although he died long ago
       His name still blows like a horn,
       His name is still heard
       Throughout the land …
 
       Has the Fire produced Ash?
       Has the Bull died without a Heart?
       Aaa! A certain man
       Has no millet field,
       He lives on borrowed foods …
                   [Song of Lawino]
      Ocol: … Sister
       Woman of Acoliland
       Throw down that pot
       With its water,
       Let it break into pieces
       Let the water cool
       The thirsty earth;
 
       It is taboo
       To throw down water pots:
       With water in them,
       But taboos must be broken,
       Taboos are chains
       Around the neck,
       Chains of slavery;
 
       Shatter that pot,
       Shatter taboos, customs,
       Traditions …
 
       Listen not
       To the song of the poet
       The blind musician
       Plays for his bread,
       The bread owners
       Are your slavers …
 
       Lift up your head
       Walk erect
       My love,
 
       Let me see
       Your beautiful eyes,
       Let me caress
       Your sultry neck,
       Let me kiss your dimples …
 
       In Buganda
       They buy you
       With two pots
       Of beer,
       The Luo trade you
       For seven cows …
       They purchase you
       On hire purchase even,
       Like bicycles,
 
       You are furniture,
       Mattress for man
       Your arm
       A pillow
       For his head!
 
       Woman of Africa
       Whatever you call yourself,
       Whatever the bush poets
       Call you
       You are not
       A wife!
             [Song of Ocol]

Each addresses the other's freedom, a nobility which is not realised: Lawino addresses the forgotten nobility of the past, Ocol the potential nobility of the future; but for all their passion they no longer meet in the present. The only escape from this painful tension is total change, a radical leap into the undefined, still-to-be-created future. Fanon of course makes the same point. The men who will create the new society have still to create themselves in the struggle to do so (in Armah's words, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born!).

… this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture. After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of colonised man. This new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others. [Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth]

In the same vein, Marcuse speaks of a Nietzschean "radical transvaluation of values" which can, by its very nature, not be programmatic.

… What kind of life? We are still confronted with the demand to state the 'concrete alternative'. The demand is meaningless if it asks for a blueprint of the specific institutions and relationships which would be those of the new society: they cannot be determined a priori; they will develop, in trial and error, as the new society develops. [An Essay on Liberation, 1969]

Once one perceives the lawfulness of chaos within the radicalisation programme, and one's sympathies are opened to the "positive and positing effect of negative thinking," the Songs of Prisoner and Malaya take on a new colour. "But so long as we insist that disintegration is bad per se and that anyone producing it can only wish to 'destroy'," says Charles Hampden-Turner in Radical Man, "we shall fail to understand the growth process itself." The anguish, rage and moral anarchy of these Songs, justly seen, are tokens of radicalisation "oriented towards," in the words of Marcuse, "and comprehending a future which is 'contained' in the present. And in this containment, the future appears as possible liberation." Marcuse's term 'containment' employs the same metaphor as Prisoner: as Camus remarked, à propos of The Plague, imprisonment is the most suitable metaphor for life in the Absurd which is the expression of radical Freedom. (I am further moved by the correspondence of this metaphor to certain icons which portray the Christ child as contained within the body of the dark Virgin).

It is in this light that I propose to view the progression of the Songs. Okot's greatness lies in the—I think—unique achievement that he leads his reader fully into the human experience of each position. He brings each home to heart and mind as experience, in all its shades and nuances and implications—and then sets it against an opposite developed with equal attention and compassion; and in doing so, avoids all judgemental rancour. His Songs, moreover, are truly popular, truly accessible to every reader. Originally written in Luo and employing, with tremendous success, the conventions of traditional laments, mocking songs and songs of challenge, they have even in the English versions an irresistible authentic life.

But my focus must be on themes rather than form. To summarise the relationship between the four cycles, I shall use a typology proposed by Raymond Williams in Chapter 3 ('Individuals and Society') of The Long Revolution which offers a useful shorthand in describing African Literature generally. Williams defines a spectrum of ways in which a given individual may relate to the social structure within which he finds himself. Society and its structures, he says, are by definition oppressive. They impose restraints on the free play of human energy and regulate its expression into controlled forms which permit the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. This restraint is experienced as anything from benevolent to intolerable according to the degree to which the individual identifies with it, or accommodates to it. Williams proposes six types of stance:

To the MEMBER society is his own community which he endorses unconditionally, and the demands of which he perceives as his own. To the SERVANT society is an establishment within which he finds his place. He is comfortable within it so long as he studiously avoids all friction and consents to serve collective goals loyally; his conscience is in abeyance. To the SUBJECT society is an imposed system in which his place is determined without choice; he must conform or perish. To the REBEL a particular society is a tyranny. He actively opposes it, fights to change it. He exercises his freedom to offer it a new and better future. The EXILE withdraws. He may hope for change, but does not participate in the struggle to attain it. The VAGRANT repudiates the condition of society as such. He is a liminal, radically withdrawn from all collective goals, and serves his individual conscience alone.

If we apply Williams' typology to Okot's Songs, we find an interesting progression. Lawino is a MEMBER at that unreflecting stage where the question of individual freedom has not yet arisen. She appears politically unawakened; her focus is clannish; she sees only the tribal community. Her political ignorance is the focus of Ocol's impatience. Ocol has been a REBEL as an activist in the liberation struggle; he now is a SERVANT of independent nationhood in its primary form, that established by the departing colonial masters; and striving to become a MEMBER by freely accepting responsibility for the shaping of a new, authentically structured society. One of his most potent accusations against Lawino is that she is blind to her SUBJECT status within the system she so ignorantly seeks to perpetuate. He calls on her to assume the freedom which is her due—but only if she rouses herself to claim it. Ocol's status then is that of REBEL turned SERVANT. (There is an interesting parallel here to the progression in Armah's Beautyful Ones: the Man who was REBEL finds himself the impotent SERVANT of a rotting system, and is reborn into VAGRANCY). Later, in Song of Prisoner, the Ocol-type again turns to REBELlion. Within Williams' typology the choral personages of Prisoner and Malaya are both VAGRANTS, with moods of REBELlion. Their rebellion however is anarchic and radical; it is no longer the structured programme which inspired Ocol.

Prisoner and Malaya are polar antinomies just like Lawino and Ocol. Ocol and Lawino polarised the Old and the New. Prisoner and Malaya polarise, if you like, the masculine and the feminine Eros or ethos; or the NO and YES as found in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, a book which affords a truly remarkable record of the radicalisation process. The conscientious, rational, compassionate SERVANT of humanity undergoes a violent rebirth; an inconceivable sphincter convulses and the VAGRANT is born:

… with all my strength I refuse to accept that amputation. I feel in myself a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit. I am master and I am advised to adopt the humanity of a cripple. Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disembowelled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralysed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.

[In Minima Moralia, 1951] Theodor Adorno writes beautifully on this radical conversion:

Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one's own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love, that must remain oblivious, lives a demand not to be blinded. He was wronged; from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. In such distress he who is rebuffed becomes human.

This stripped, liminal human potential knows itself only in its commitments. On a later page, Fanon notes passionately:

… man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that. Yes to life. Yes to generosity. But man is also a no. No to scorn of man. No to degradation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. [Black Skin White Masks]

It is this voice of the primary libido, of Love and Rage, which speaks through the masks of Prisoner and Malaya. In these later Songs Okot gives utterance to moods of bitterness and frustration the only release from which lies in explosive violence and anarchic hedonism. Prisoner's rage has gone beyond structured rebellion. It envisions no social future, puts forward no causes:

    … I am intoxicated
    With anger
    My fury
    Is white hot,
    My brain is melting
    My throat is on fire
 
    Fan the fire
    I am engulfed
    By a red whirlwind of pains
                [Song of Prisoner]

Malaya's last song is a radiant Yes to the fertile chaos of life in its anarchic phase of dissolution. Having defied every institution and authority, she declares her radical freedom:

       … Who can command
       The sun
       Not to rise in the morning?
                    [Song of Malaya]

In order to reach this position of positive commitment Malaya had to become a social nothing and rid herself of all collective restraints and dependencies. The lines preceding her affirmation read like a ritual stripping, or like a formal exorcism. She casts off in succession all familial, social, and societal bonds, defying in turn men and their wives; parents and brothers; church and state; God himself (if he is on their side); and every power of civic law and persecution. We have come a long way indeed from Lawino: these were the very ties, connections, bonds of responsibility and affection which were so precious to her.

They were equally precious, of course, to Okot when he embarked on Song of Lawino. He tells about his innocent frame of mind then, in the early 60s, in the Serumaga interview published in African Writers Talking:

When I was doing my work on the oral literature of the people of Northern Uganda, I first got the inspiration. I found that the poetry was rich, the oral literature was full-blooded, the dance was wonderful and the music just inspiring; and I just couldn't stop; I just wanted to go on and on.

From this euphoria of rediscovery sprang Song of Lawino, published in 1966 to instant critical and popular acclaim, and much imitated since. The Song projected a base situation with which every African reader could identify in the dilemma of Lawino, the first wife fighting for the loyalty of her Europeanised husband. As a village wife she is at one and the same time highly cultured and accomplished within the tribal context, and an incompetent illiterate within that of the new nationhood. She is a daughter of chiefs, the leader of her age group, a celebrated beauty in her youth and in her maturity an accomplished exponent of the treasured arts of song and dance and a repository of skills and lore. She is also obsolete. Illiterate and uninformed, she lacks the flexibility and the drive to adapt to wider horizons. The formula works admirably: form and impulse are perfectly married. Lawino's songs allow Okot to build up an extended lyrical celebration of a coherent dignity of life from which the African intellectual is in danger of being alienated, and at the same time unrestrained mockery of the imitative urban consumer culture of the nascent black bourgeoisie which is replacing it, thus throwing into vivid relief the alienation of the colonised which Fanon analyses so brilliantly. Lawino was the perfect persona for Okot's mood in the early 1960s, and was a stirring reminder of cultural integrity for his audience in the early days of independence.

She represents that cultural Eden which Fanon [in The Wretched of the Earth] tells us the colonial freedom fighter passionately rediscovers only to leave it behind, for

the desire to attach oneself to tradition or bring abandoned traditions to life again, does not only mean going against the current of history but also opposing one's own people. When a people undertakes an armed struggle, or even a political struggle against a relentless colonialism, the significance of tradition changes….

The "seething pot out of which the learning of the future will emerge," alas, is not to be found with the beautiful clay pots in the orderly homestead of Lawino's mother. The euphoria of rediscovery which Okot spoke of to Serumaga informs every line of this song cycle nevertheless. Lawino speaks direct to the heart and inflames it with affection for, and pleasure in, the tribal ways.

Whereas Lawino appeals to the heart, Ocol's reply addresses itself to the head, and the traditional song formula does not support the character and his message in the same way. There is no traditional format adequate to what Ocol has to say. His song is shorter, harsher, more urgent and abrupt. It rarely allows itself the space to build up an argument by iterative persuasion: instead it harangues. The traditional song format is here turned against the very life style from which it sprang.

Fanon remarks, "The task of bringing the people to maturity will be made easier by the thoroughness of the organisation and by the high intellectual level of its leaders," and in Ocol Okot has created the persona of an intellectual leader of this sort whose political acumen is attained at the cost of cultural alienation. For the primary model of organisation is, quite inevitably, that inherited from the departed masters and uncritically adopted by a leadership which has emerged, in Fanon's words, from

an intellectual elite … which will attach a fundamental importance to organisation, so much so that the fetish of organisation will often take precedence over a reasoned study of colonial society. The notion of the party is a notion imported from the mother country … and thrown down just as it is upon real life with all its infinite variations and lack of balance.

Ocol is such a party politician who still hopes that the new wine may be contained in old bottles, and thus does not yet perceive the necessity of "total change from the bottom up." Song IX deals with this thorny dilemma direct. But it may be best to summarise the drift of the whole cycle song by song, in order that both the validity and the tragic incompleteness of Ocol's position may reveal itself.

Ocol does recognise of course the hypnotic power of Lawino's Song. To him it is a siren song of the past. Such nostalgia for a golden age in the tribal Eden can only cripple those who are actively engaged in forging a possible future. He therefore sees as falling to him the unpleasant task of demystifying the potencies of the past which paralyse the minds of his people. The fierceness of his Song must be seen, I think, as springing from the strength of his love. He sees the minds of his people—exemplified by Lawino—enslaved by apathy; they must sever the bonds—bonds of habit and of love—which bind them to kin, village, tribe, in order to embrace the new nationhood. Only by assuming this new dignity as responsible citizens and servants of the future can they, he sings, save themselves from degradation and express their freedom. The dream, Ocol sings, is a possibility in the future, not a memory of the past.

In I, he addresses Lawino direct: her Song is ineffectual, of a past already in decay—

      It's the dull thud
      Of the wooden arrow
      As it strikes the concrete
      Of a wall
      And falls to earth

In turning the clans into a nation there must be destruction—

      We will obliterate
      Tribal boundaries
      And throttle native tongues
      To dumb earth

Nostalgia is a waste of energy and vision. Africa as a human reality, he sings in II, is backward and afflicted—

      Diseased with a chronic illness,
      Choking with black ignorance,
      Chained to the rock
      Of poverty,
 
      And yet laughing,
      Always laughing and dancing,
      The chains on its legs
      Jangling;
 
      Displaying his white teeth
      In bright pink gum,
      Loose white teeth
      That cannot bite,
      Joking, giggling, dancing

III: To this wretchedness Ocol opposes a programme of change and reform which will free the people from superstition and disease. Deliverance must come from science and technology; Negritude offers only a barren pride in ignorance and dread. Song IV is a call to tribal woman to awaken her degradation in poverty and servitude. When Ocol challenges Lawino to prepare to take her place as equal in the new nationhood, he sees with Fanon

the danger of perpetuating the feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not just in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

In seeking to demystify the warrior code, Song V is aimed at the liberation of the masculine element. Cuttingly Ocol asks what has been achieved by all the glorious tribal wars—

     A large arc
     Of semi desert land
     Strewn with human skeleton
     Barely covered by the
     Hostile thorn bushes
     And the flowering cactus,
     A monument to five hundred years
     Of cattle theft!

He calls on the young warrior to abjure customs which dissipate productive energies and degrade not only his own human dignity but also that of his female partners in love and marriage—

     Come brother …
     Walk into your City
     With your head up …
     Here you do not have
     To kill a man or a lion first.
 
     Take that girl
     She wants you.

These five songs are harshly iconoclastic; their tone of insulting bitterness springs from their defensive stance. Song V is Ocol's self-justification, and the remaining three songs are increasingly pierced with poignant sorrow. Ocol praises the liberating effect of his education; yet whilst his generation were dedicating their youth to rigorous and painful self-training, the tribes were dancing, hunting, talking—

      We spent years
      In detention
      Suffering without bitterness
      And planning for the revolution;
 
      Tell me
      My friend and comrade,
      Answer me simply and frankly,…
      What was your contribution
      In the struggle for uhuru?

He points to his progressive fertile farm and exhorts those who have been left in the wake of progress to help themselves by acquiring the knowledge and the skills required. Uhuru is not a magic privilege; it is a responsibility which each man must grasp for himself. VII offers an interlude, the crippled beggar's song of Uhuru: a lament over the decaying of the dream and its exploitation by cynical selfseekers. Ocol replies with a challenge—

      Out of my way
      You cowardly fool …
      Vex me no more
      With your hollow wailings
      And crocodile tears
      Over uhuru!
 
      You pigmy men …
      What is uhuru to you?

He asserts that freedom is for the free, those ready to seize it. Uhuru is no mirage, it is progress and transformation achieved through applied knowledge and energy. Ocol's savagery in this song of bravado barely subdues a mood of raging pity for the impotent afflicted whom he scourges. This mood is sublimated in VIII which invites the new nation to celebrate the passing of the old/homestead. It is a formal, elegiac salutation of the old sanctities before passing on, and a controlled purging of grief. (There is a direct parallel to this in the dirge in Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest—"This the last / that we shall dance together …").

     Weep long
     For the village world
     That you know
     And love so well
     Is gone …
     Say Goodbye
     For you will never
     Hunt together again,
     Nor dance the war dance
     Or the bwola dance …

Song IX starts with salutations to the new rulers, the Courts of Law, and the entire political and civic organisation representing the three estates of democratic government on the European model. Painful perplexities are exposed. Ocol is aware of absurdities implicit in the transplantation into the newborn body politic of institutions developed by the erstwhile oppressors, and of their inadequacy to the social distress. Yet the New cannot be based in the African past either, for that has contributed nothing to human evolution—

      What proud poem
      Can we write
      For the vanquished?

Ocol's Song ends here, abruptly, without harmony. Ocol emerges as a complex, tortured persona aware of his alienation and of the paradoxes inherent in his position, but too proud to whisper. His Song is one of challenge, an arrogant call to action. The way onward lies, he believes and says, away from the social and psychological impotence of the tribal, as well as the colonial, past. In spite of the bravado, however, his Song leaves the impression, at the end, of a mind totally exhausted by awareness of what has had to be left behind, and by the magnitude of the task ahead.

The first two Songs define the aspirations feeding the new nationhood. The second pair deal with Uhuru, actual liberty and chaos. "The truths of a nation are in the first place its realities," says Fanon [in The Wretched of the Earth]. In a newly independent state these realities may, he warns, include three major threats to full decolonisation: firstly, the rise of an urban bourgeoisie, "a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster"; secondly, "the heartbreaking return to chauvinism i.e. tribalism, feudalism, regionalism in its most bitter and detestable form"; and thirdly, the automatic "building-up of … yet another system of exploitation" through the very mechanics of militancy itself. Fanon thus anticipated the rise of military dictatorships, tribal enmity, and the continuing economic humiliation of the common man, which have been the scourges of African independence. These grinding realities form the background to the second pair of Songs.

Song of Prisoner lacks the mask of a single persona. It is a choral song of those who are trapped by freedom. The reader is taken into the very heart of that "zone of occult instability where the people dwell," which Fanon speaks of as the place where "our souls are crystallised and … transfused with light." Different social roles and stances are represented in individual laments, but the Song is of a collective, a corporate bewilderment and despair. Every song speaks of entrapment: disappointment, frustration, rage at the cruelty of man to man. In some cases the trap was sprung on apathy and helplessness, in some on militant partisanship; one prisoner at least is a committed assassin. None are criminals in the ordinary sense: all are victims of either social or political change which has overwhelmed them. Hence the refrain of 'confessions'—

    I plead drunkenness
    I plead hunger
    I plead insanity
    I plead smallness
    I plead fear
    I plead helplessness
    I plead hopelessness

"In such distress," Adorno observes, "he who is rebuffed becomes human." The bafflement turns into anarchic outrage—

    I plead guilty to hatred
    My anger explodes
    Like a grenade

In some songs this hatred and anger is turned on existence itself, "the foul smell / of the world"; both father and mother are blasphemingly accused for engendering life at all; the malaise is ingrained.

The songs are indictments of social abuses, to be sure. But their bitterness goes much deeper. They rail against the betrayal of life's promise, against the dissolution of human roles and functions, against the denial of hope. There is also a pervasive sense of collusive pollution. Again we turn to Fanon for a clinical description of this contradictory anguish—

The collective struggle presupposes collective responsibility at the base and collegiate responsibility at the top. Yes; everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good. No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers; we are all soiling them in the swamps of our country and in the terrifying emptiness of our brains. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.

(This very bitter condition of necessary pollution has been magnificently explored in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat).

The predominant mood in Prisoner is rage. One example must suffice, that of the outraged prisoner whose wife is betraying him with a member of the new élite. A famous passage describes the adulterous exploiter's Mercedes on his way to the assignation—

      A black Benz
      Slithers smoothly
      Through the black night
      Like the water snake
      Into the Nile,
      Listen to it purring
      Like a hopeful leopard,
      Listen to its
      Love song,
      The soft poem
      That embraces the valleys
      And caresses the hills …

The Mercedes is a stunning metaphor of what Fanon calls "the libidinal tie of the second nature"—

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.

The Mercedes, the commodity form at its most ostentatious and recognisable, is here metaphorically exhibited as, literally, the vehicle of this secondary libido and aggression. In this metaphoric process the singer's anguished mind has made the leap into recognition, and is therewith casting off the chains of the second nature—a process which in turn, as Fanon is at pains to demonstrate, leads to a release of "primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented scale." And so we find the singer, the impotent watcher in the grass, exploding into a desire which is wholly and radically destructive—

      I want to drink
      Human blood
      To cool my heart,
      I want to eat
      Human liver
      To quench my boiling thirst

Marcuse says, rightly, that—

in art, literature and music, insights and truths are expressed which cannot be communicated in ordinary language, and with these truths often an entirely new dimension is opened, which is either repressed or tabooed in reality; namely the image of human existence and of nature no longer confined within the norms of the repressive reality principle, but really striving for their fulfilment and gratification, even at the price of death and catastrophe. ["Herbert Marcuse on the Need for an Open Marxist Mind," The Listener (9 February 1978)]

The 'confessions' of weakness and guilt are one strand in Song of Prisoner; the other is the irrepressible stirring of primary human energy. From the prisoners' guilt, anguish, and anger breaks a new raw libido, expressed in "I want…." The betrayed husband wants to drink blood. The singer of 'Youthful Air' wants—

     … to drink
     A whole bottle of whisky
     To quench my thirst
     For freedom …
     I want to drink
     With the peasants
     In the fields
     And with the old women
     In my constituency, (surprised, we recognise Ocol)
     I want to suck lacoi beer
     And share the sucking tube
     With the old men
     Around the fire …
     I want to drink
     All the drinks
     Of the world …
     I want to forget
     That I am a lightless star,
     A proud eagle
     Shot down
     By the arrow
     Of Uhuru

This is the song of an Ocol released from his second nature and waking to his primary freedom—

     I want to breathe the air
     Of my own choice

Lawino is here too, in 'Cattle Egret'

     Free my hands and feet,
     I want to clap my hands
     And sing for my children

Apart from primary rage and aggression, then, there emerges also a dream of universal anarchic hedonism which is the positive expression of the primary libido. It is a dream that is only partly 'escapist'; more importantly it signals what Marcuse calls "the ascendancy of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt" [An Essay on Liberation], a coming to the senses: "The revolution would be liberating only if it were carried by the non-repressive forces stirring in the existing society" [Armah, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born]. 'Oasis' is blindly escapist (I want to dance all the dances, and I want to dance with all the girls)—

     Let me dance
     And forget my sorrow.

But the singer of the final song 'Undergrowth' does not seek to forget: he remembers the sorrows of the whole wretched world, and still dances—

     Free my hands and feet
     You uniformed Stone,
     Open the steel gate,
     I want to join the dances
     Of the world

"The form of freedom," says Marcuse, "is not merely self-determination and self-realisation, but rather the determination and realisation of goals which enhance, protect and unite life on earth." One dream in the Song does transcend the anarchic hedonism of the primary libido as it breaks its bonds. 'Voice of a Dove' is a song of love and defiance expressing only transpersonal drives of joy, tenderness and militant courage. The prisoner, a man facing his death, is fully liberated, free of both anger and personal desire. This one song within the choral fever of Song of Prisoner anticipates, embodies those goals Marcuse speaks of which "enhance, protect and unite life on earth."

With Song of Malaya we find ourselves in Fanon's "seething pot out of which the future will emerge." The fundamental shattering of the old strata of culture has been accomplished. Malaya sings the positive anarchism of the radicalised humane. For the seething

which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture.

In a review of this Song Behadur Tejani remarks, "There is no discipline better suited than anthropology when you want to destroy the reading public's concept of morality" ["Okot p'Bitek," African Literature Today (1973)]. There is also no better anthropologist's persona than the prostitute. Like him, she knows all men both as they present themselves and as they nakedly are; is no respecter of social roles and pretensions; is herself a liminal, a professional outsider, and thus singularly well equipped for the exposure of collusive hypocrisy and cant. The prostitute persona has been so used through the ages, e.g. by Dostoyevski, by the existentialists, and in Blake's poem 'London', which indicts the "mind-forg'd manacles" of social man.

Malaya then is positive, combative, and free. "The token of freedom attained," says Nietzsche in Die Frönliche Wissenschaft, "is no longer being ashamed of ourselves." Malaya is not ashamed of anything. She has cast off the manacles of social stricture and browbeating morality—

     Sister Harlots
     Wherever you are,
     The bedcovers of the world
     Have been removed

—and who bugs and parasites, one might ask, need scuttle from the exposure? Her values are radically different, boiled down into "enhancing, protecting, and uniting life on earth." All men come to her—the needy, the debauched, the unfaithful, the timid—and all are welcomed, comfronted and entertained each according to his fantasy. Her knowledge of their ways is unclouded by sentiment, hence expert, and uninhibited by customary restraints and judgments. Husbands are looked after and cherished as by a wife; she advises realistically and shrewdly on hygiene; she solaces those who have no other haven—sailors, soldiers, convicts, travellers; and tenderly initiates the novices. She has no prejudices and very little snobbishness; on the contrary, she shows herself wrily tolerant, wise, shrewd, joyous and humane. To condemn Malaya is to condemn vitality, fecundity, woman, nature herself.

It is also hypocritical. When it comes to hypocrisy, and to the social evils and human suffering caused by authoritarian norms, Malaya's laughing voice becomes harsh. Her humanism is militant, whether she is battling for the dignity of her child ('Peals of Crying') or exhorting her married sister to freedom and solidarity ('Part-Time'). She is saltily feminist, and has only scorn for those who purchase comfort by collaboration in a system of mutual bondage—

     Look at the slaves
     Of the world
     Calling themelves
     Wives,
     Penned like goats
     To unwilling pegs.

Malaya's marvellous vigour, humour, and defiance find their fullest expression in the final song 'Flaming Eternity' which enacts the stripping of the "mind-forg'd manacles" and culminates in a radiant assertion of basic natural freedom—

     Let the disappointed men
     Shout abuses at us …
     Let their jealous wives
     Rage and beat them …
     Let the bitches
     Pour boiling water on us …
     Let their secret
     Schoolgirl wives hiss …
     Let our parents
     Spit curses,
     Let our brothers
     Choke with shame and anger
     And run mad
 
     .....
 
     Let the black Bishops
     And priests
     Preach against us …
     Let the Lord
     Grant their prayers
     And condemn us all
     To flaming eternity
 
     .....
 
     Let Parliamentarians
     Debate and pass laws
     Against us,
     Let the police arrest us
     And lock us up
     In their cells,
     Let the magistrates
     Sentence us to jails
 
     .....
 
     But
     Who can command
     The sun
     Not to rise in the morning?…
     Sister prostitutes
     Wherever you are
     Wealth and health
     To us all …

The stance of Malaya is not a final one. Like the others, it is transitional. Malaya is VAGRANT, antisocial. She is, of necessity, a denizen of the unstructured alternative, the liminal underground. But her lively warmth, her awareness, and her militancy are the soundest base for the transvaluation of values, through trial and error, by the radically humane in the process of positing a political future which is worthy of humanity.

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