On Life Turns Man Up & Down
High Life, Useful Advice & Mad English
by Kurt Thometz
NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT but fools do not know. What was up is down. September 11th, 2001, was also the publication date of Life Turns Man Up and Down, a selection from Eastern Nigeria’s Onitsha Market literature. That morning, my intention was to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Borders bookstore in the World Trade Center to sign copies; 10:30 a.m., precisely when I’d watch that building collapse from the Right Bank of the East River.
I have profited by the pamphletry’s useful advice many times in collecting them. From Igbo land’s struggle for independence come Socratic arguments in which words take thoughts from their realm in the senses and render them, first time, mortal in print; words to live by from literacy’s fundament. Their simplicity, their poetic justice, has great virtue.
I need forewarn potential readers, the market writers’ advice comes to us from the cusp of a world beyond the reach of anyone reading it, from the age-old oral world before the written word. In the difference lay presumptions about ourselves, our black and white selves, that are not native to the human condition but are the result of the two thousand year old technology of literacy.
As any linguist will tell you, literacy doesn’t make people smart or happy. It has a life like ours, it sounds like us, but literary life is a foibled reflection of the world we live in. As these writers sometimes tortured syntax and less than punctual punctuation spell out, we are limited in our ability to comprehend and we see life “through a glass darkly.” It is our language; the dizzying words. The predicament of the Word is the predicament of man himself; I can feel it genetically in me. The abstract words and gratuitous fictions of a lost world are the Word. The Word is at the heart of darkness and implicit in the Word’s appearance is a cataclysm.
At the time these literary anomalies were written, both author and audience have learned to speak and read English and most have just come to metropolitan life from the bush. Readers turn to them for useful advice on how to win a good girl’s love, how to cope with the modern emancipated party girls and wives, how to cope with the money mongers of the market and the sleek-headed nuts of the night life, and how to get up in a difficult world that turns men up and down.
This is the Age of Modern Ladies (whose characters toward boys leaves something to be desired) and Radical Stars. With independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria took on a wild edge musicians and artists mirrored. Nationalization and local pride embraced Africanization of the new popular arts. These artists have fallen in love with the romance of true love, whether in the convenient pulp paperback or vis-à-vis the silvery cinema screen, and they have discovered highlife.
Highlife is the code of modernity. Highlife can sound like the common denominator between black and white sensibilities in Africa. As jazz, rhythm & blues and rock and roll can be understood as musical dialogues between black and white in America, the Young English of Eastern Nigeria, commandeered by the market writers has that jazz vernacular, that reducing of the don’ts into the doings of some kind, that seems intuitively in touch with language’s ability to Shine.
As the best jazz singers seem most comfortable in a limited range, the Highlife authors turn their limited vocabularies to great advantage. The virile style is as peculiar as is the matter. Colloquial, racy with simplicity and full of the humor of the average guy, the author of the pamphlets are closer in style to the highlife musicians who played the bars of the market than to the novelists of the university towns.
Literary and musical forms that started out as copies of Western pulp fiction and Top 40 tunes assimilated themselves to the indigenous culture, reversing the presumption that Africa was getting more Westernized. Both comment and philosophize on social wiles. Both find their precedents in the oral traditions of the village griot. Both are adapting to new technologies; the printing press and the radio.
In Eastern Nigeria, the crucible of literacy would effect a change of consciousness difficult for most moderns to comprehend. Here in demotic, uncooked English composited by illiterate printers in broken type, newspaper bound in bush bruised wraps and distributed from hand to mouth, is an English literature’s growing pains on display. The Onitsha writers’ laborious and traumatic transfer of an oral culture through a foreign language to print on paper in the 1950s and 60s are a measure off the vast difference between an oral and literate culture.
As newcomers to the technologized word, the writers of remote Igbo land retain a healthy suspicion of its presumptions. The mysticism of the oral world is in direct opposition to the materialism of the literate world. As wisdom differentiates itself from knowledge, the oral world differentiates itself from our world. Ours is a world in which papered ideas are materialized into existence. Theirs is a world where things happen, if for no other reason than because God wants them to be that way. When these worlds collide, things fall apart.
Onitsha Market literature, Africa’s incunabula, is from the part of Africa the great humanist Chinua Achebe wrote about in Things Fall Apart, which is the story of the struggle between the oral and literate worlds. His Igbo land would become Biafra – the world’s first televised genocide. A popular literature prefaced by the pamphletry did not arise from the ashes of the Biafra War. Obliterated as much by a hostile environment as by violence and the viral spread of the electronic word, the pamphletry’s promise can hardly be said to have been fulfilled. The people of Biafra know about the sky falling.
I came a step closer to my soul and mortality on witnessing thousands of people die once and die twice from over the river. The storm of debris enveloped New York so that you could not see the Manhattan from the Brooklyn waterfront. In the event’s undertow, those of us who experienced the sky falling have been asking ourselves the same questions as others for whom things have fallen apart.
While the spoken word lives within the written, the opposite is not true. The literate have always used this to their Darwinian advantage. The history of colonialism is as much about the triumph of the literate over the illiterate than it is about any racial or national superiority. Once a people have learned to read, write, and print, oral culture is lost. The virus the written word releases in any oral society effectively renders much of tradition the stuff of nostalgia.
The technological word is a new strain of the word virus. Literacy precedes print culture by a mere five hundred years and print is now ceding its primacy as the receptacle of history to electronic media. Nigeria is already a post-literate society and in all of history is likely, in retrospect, to have been print literate for about sixty years.
As the world turns, cultures that have survived print are finding themselves better immunized to the ill-effects of what linguists call Secondary Orality than we are. Secondary Orality is post-literacy. Its media is electronic. It is about pixilated pictures talking, it is immaterial; reality is topped by virtuality and apprehension betters comprehension.
I am sometimes ill at the thought of such an insubstantial media replacing print on paper. Print on paper has a body, an anatomy, a physique that can be physically grasped, that can be dissected, that can be felt up. In my preface to Life Turns Man Up and Down, I write about a consciousness clothed in an alphabet playing by different rules than one an aural-tactile vocabulary scantily attires, about how language wrought by the hand for the eye can reproduce thoughts that can’t be seen; hidden wisdoms.
While this may sound esoteric it is practical knowledge that I place among what the writer Albert Murray, in his wisdom, calls “the fundamental and existential texts for living.” A substantial part of my experiencing an oral mind expressing itself in an alphabet has to do with the difference in consciousness the act of reading effects. I put it to purpose as a tool by which I could understand and communicate with my son when he was diagnosed autistic.
In autism, a seemingly congenital deformity, the ability to reason is handicapped. My kid couldn’t comprehend congruity. Much of what others intuit he didn’t and he needed a tool to affect the simple strategies governing our behavior. Autism, I postulated, is to Literacy as Literacy is to Orality but in the other direction. And as literacy undermines orality, why shouldn’t it autism?
Literacy, being a tool for coming to terms with my one’s otherness, effects a change of consciousness more significantly than any other stimulant to the mind. Once accomplished, concepts like consecutive order and liberty and justice and romance (for all) can take hold. Without the reason literacy makes tangible, the world is a mystifying place. Literature is, by contrast, a finer world within the world.
Autistic children’s ritualistic behaviors, before such terms were invented, gave them a reputation as “children of the fourth dimension;” their otherliness seemed so perfect. Orality, in its turn, experiences the mystical reality of a poetic justice increasingly lost to us. The Onitsha writers, coming to us from the cusp between orality and literacy, touch on autisms near shores from the far side of here.
My strategy was to read to my son. For two and a half years I did so consistently, cradled so he could see the words, though he gave no clue of comprehension. One night I was reading to him from the books about Thomas the Tank Engine in the Rev. W. Audrey’s Railway Series, a story I’d repeatedly read, and he supplied a word I skimmed over.
As he had never used a word on purpose before, it astonished me. Not Mommy, Daddy, water, nothing. It was as if he couldn’t speak until he could read.
And I watched him emerge. And it appeared to me that as he discovered the structures of experience in the simplest grammatical conjugations, these fundamentals altered his perception of reality sufficiently so he could join the cognizant; much as it affected the oral society of the pamphletry’s writers engagement beyond their immediate ken in the bush of ghosts.
Literacy diminishes the power of the great unknown but does not conquer it. The Bible has it that to be human is to see reality Through a glass darkly. We may even give literacy too much credit. For instance, romance is a literary construct invented by the troubadour poets in 14th Century France and not native to the human condition. The damsel in this dress and the night with shining amour are constraining stereotypes when one’s accustomed to a society in which there are men who are daughters and where women have wives. In introducing romance to Igbo land we ruined their love lives.
In Secondary Orality, the Oral world of the majority is in ascendance as the literate world assumes the embattled mantle of Empire in the Age of Globalization. Ultimately this war, like all others, will be a racist war fought for money. In this war, the growing difference between the haves and the have-nots could transcend nationalist identities and assume the proportions of faith. In its re-empowerment, orality could revenge itself by assuming modernism’s destructivist methodology of tearing everything down and putting something different in its place. Things are not what they seem. We need to listen closely to what we don’t understand.
From How to Live Better Life and Help Yourself by Okenwa Olisah, Writing With Sharp Pen:
This world is a vanity.
It is not our permanent house.
That is why you must sometimes enjoy a bit of life.
Death gives no notice. So don’t go hungry in order to make a lot of saving and become a millionaire.
Eat while you struggle, and struggle while you eat.
Don’t carry the world on your head because it is very very heavy and must break your head in course of time.
THINK OVER THESE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR LIFE WHEN SOMEBODY MAKES YOU ANGRY?
ANSWER: I will leave the person at the spot he offends me. And after cooling down, I will either take a few cups of wine or sing a religious song, or read a very amusing book. And I shall be happy again and overcome anger.
IS LOVE MAKING A WAY OF HELPING LIFE?
ANSWER: Yes, it is a way of helping life because love-making inspires abundant happiness and enjoyment of life.
WHAT DOES WICKEDNESS DO TO OUR LIVES?
ANSWER: It makes people to hate somebody and to boycott his communications. Wickedness does not help life. It spoils it.
IN CASE YOU WAKE UP ONE MORNING WITH ANGER WHAT WILL YOU DO?
ANSWER: I will know that devil has slept with me and I shall go back to bed or sit on my comfortable cushion chair and tune my radio for music, or kneel down and say a special prayer. I will abandon the day’s business if the anger persists, to stay indoors for sometime. During my indoor stay, I will do all within my power to overcome the anger in no distant time. I will read my bible and sing a religious song. It is very dangerous to go out in the morning with anger.
From No Condition Is Permanent by The Master of Life. Onitsha: Njoku & Sons Book-shop, 1959?:
I AM TIRED OF THIS WORLD
Here comes a letter from a man who is tired of this world and the advice given him including you. His letter reads.
I am popularly known as Mr. Cool Cat, by nickname, but my real name is Boby D.C. Pius. I am 42 years old, and still a bachelor, not that I like to be it, but there is no money to marry. I have worked under many firms, but none was praying to me.
My mates have been promoted, not because that they are more humble or worked harder than I did, but as God may like it. To be plain. I am tired of this world. I don’t know whether to kill myself or continue to hope against hope. Please advise me.
First of all, I should like to tell you that under no circumstances will you be free from the judgment of God if you kill yourself. It is also against the law of the state. The second thing is that I should also like to tell you is that, things are not what they seem, and life is but an empty dream, and no condition is permanent.
Image: Emmanuel Obieachina, KT, Tess Onwueme. African Literature Association, 28th Annual Conference. U of Calif., San Diego, Ca. 2002.
Afterword. 05.31.12 Adam Adolfo Thometz, reading and composing in English, Latin, Arabic and music, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Psychology, graduated Magna Cum Laude from City College New York. He is currently learning the family business.