When the Right Hand Washes the Left [Part Two]

In Nigeria literature became the line of commerce between me and my students as people, a common interest and prime mover in the coming together of white American and black African. Ours was a dialogue between equals, articulate representatives of two articulate and in many ways opposing heritages. Because literature deals more directly with life than other art forms, through it I began to know Nigeria as a country and my students as friends. An idealized case history might read something like this: A student brings me a story he has written, perhaps autobiographical, about life in his village. I harrumph my way through a number of formal criticisms and start asking questions about customs in his village that have a bearing on the story. Soon we are exchanging childhood reminiscences or talking about girls over a bottle of beer. Eventually we travel together to his home, where I meet his family and live in his house. And then what began, perhaps, as a rather bookish interest in comparative culture becomes a real involvement in that culture, so that each new insight does not merely add to a store of knowledge, but carries the power of giving pain or pleasure. If there is any lesson in this, it is simply that no real intellectual understanding can exist without a sense of identification at some deeper level. I think this is what the Peace Corps, when it is lucky, accomplishes.

This sense of identification is not a mysterious thing. Once in Nsukka, after struggling to explain the social and intellectual background of some classic Western literature, I began teaching a modern Nigerian novel, Achebe’s No Longer At Ease. I was struck by the concreteness of the first comments from the class: “That place where the Lagos taxi driver runs over the dog because he thinks it’s good luck . . . it’s really like that.” It seems that the joy of simple recognition in art is more than an accidental attribute – not the recognition of universals, but of dogs and taxicabs. Before going to Africa I read another book by Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I enjoyed it and was glad to learn something about Ibo culture, but I thought it a mediocre work of art. I read the book again at the end of my stay in Nigeria and suddenly found it an exceptional work of art. It was no longer a cultural document, but a book about trees I had climbed and houses I had visited in. It is not that I now ignored artistic defects through sentimentality, but that my empathy revealed artistic virtues that had previously been hidden from me.

We in America know too much about the rest of the world. Subjected to a constant barrage of information from books, TV, photographers, we know how Eskimos catch bears and how people come of age in Samoa. We gather our images of the whole world around us and succumb to the illusion of being cosmopolitan. We study comparative literature and read books like Zen in the Art of Archery and think of ourselves as citizens of the world when actually vast reading is simply the hallmark of our parochialism. No matter how many Yoga kicks we go on, we still interpret everything through the pattern of our own American existence and intellectual traditions, gleaning only

Disembodied ideas from other cultures.

If, as the critics have it, ideas are inseparable from their style of expression, it is equally true in the cultural sense that ideas are inseparable from the manner and place in which they are lived. This to me is the meaning of the Peace Corps as a new frontier. It is the call to go, not where man has never been before, but where he has lived differently; the call to experience firsthand the intricacies of a different culture; to understand from the inside rather than the outside; and to test the limits of one’s own way of life against another in the same manner as the original pioneer tested the limits of his endurance against the elements. This is perhaps an impossible ideal, surely impossible in the narrow scope of two years; but it was an adventure just the same. It was an adventure to realize, for instance, to what extent irony is an attribute, even a condition, of Western life and thought; and to live for nearly two years in a society in which irony as a force is practically nonexistent. But that is too complex a thing to get started on right now.

[End of Part Two]

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