Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Drowned Innocence: The Decline and Fall of the Ibo Civilization

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Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart documents the decay of the Ibo society through internal erosions and external catalysts. The title of the novel originates from William Butler Yeats' 11 poem "The Second Coming" which asserts Yeats' view of a catastrophic end to the world brought on by mankind. In borrowing Yeats' words and subsequently his apocalyptic concept, Achebe places the decline and fall of the African civilization in Western imperialism and the coming of Christianity.

In the name of the noble cause, the Europeans gain a foothold in the lives of the people of Umuofia and through that begin to spread their power of colonialism by suffocating the tradition of the Ibo. Tradition and custom are the center of the Ibo culture. When the people loose faith in that lifeblood, the glue or "the center [of the culture] cannot hold" (Yeats ). The center cannot withstand the pressure exerted by the teachings of the missionaries combined with the inherent corrosion of the native converts. Tradition is the first thing that is sacrificed, and when that foundation is destroyed, the rest falls with it. It is a time when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" ( Yeats 7-8), a time when "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" (Yeats 4). In Yeats' meaning, anarchy exists when the conventional system, the traditional belief, or the core of Christianity that has been holding society together shatters. "Mere anarchy" the dissolution of a political authority can be thought of as a society without God, without any guiding principle. "The best [Christians, Yeats might mean] lack all conviction" or certainty about themselves, while Satan or the evil power is devouring the world with an intense passion. In a different sense, Achebe contests that "the best" are those that adhere to the old Ibo order while "the worst" are those that follow the footsteps of Christianity. "Lack[ing] all conviction," Okonkwo commits suicide because the faith and the clan that he believes in heart and soul fail him in the end when they refuse to follow him and charge after the messengers. Obierika resignedly chokes on his last words over Okonkwo's body because of the injustice in this world that drives "one of the greatest men in Umuofia […] to be buried like a dog" (Achebe Ch4). They have all lost faith in their beliefs and are ultimately crushed by the cultural confrontation. On the other hand, Enoch, the zealous Christian convert is "full of passionate intensity," to the point of madness, "such [is] the excessive energy bottled up in Enoch" (Achebe Ch). He destroys an integral piece of the Ibo tradition by unmasking and symbolically killing an ancestral spirit. Through him as a vehicle, Christianity and the white man are able to weaken the resistance of the clan. The growing influence of the Christian mission allows the outcasts of the society to turn against their culture and throw away their traditions, "like a hunter's dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master" (Achebe Ch1). These supporters of the new religion are "the falcon[s] [that] cannot hear the falconer" (Yeats ), ignoring the calls of their ancestral roots, spiraling further and further away from their mores. This is Achebe's twist on Yeats' original interpretation of the falconer as God and the falcon is mankind. The people of God cannot hear God's voice, or they are unwilling to listen to Him, hence, everything falls apart.

Under the peaceful guise of Christianity, the Europeans manifest the "rough beast" that will destroy mankind in Yeats' poem. The monster with the shape of a "lion body and the head of a man" (Yeats 14) highlights the fact that the British use a very humane reason, Christian Evangelism, for their imperialistic expansion. Their deceitful appearance seeks to convey a message of humanity, benignancy, and normality. However, "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun" (Yeats 15) suggests their true nature, their "pitiless" way of treating the natives. The lethargic movement of its "slow thighs" (Yeats 16) belies the lethality it is capable of dispensing, similar to the deceptive slowness and peace first offer by the Europeans. The beast is "vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle" (Yeats 0) of mankind's own hand. The cruelty and violence demonstrate by the Great War unleash the slumbering beast. It carries with it the human image because it's humans who create wars, spreading carnage everywhere. Yeats' apocalypse is self-inflicted while both outside mediums, Christianity and colonialism, and inside forces, converts and the loss of cultural identity, bring on Umuofia's annihilation. The Second Coming of Christ is supposed to save mankind from God's wrath, which comes in the form of "the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon" (Revelation 11). Abaddon and Apollyon both mean destroyer. But here, the Second Coming is not of Christ but is of the "rough beast," the fallen angel that rises from his prison in the abyss of darkness and spews violence upon the earth. Instead of a heavenly deity, this perverse and demented god of nightmare is sent in his place. The beast "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born" (Yeats ). The birth of the beast in the holy birthplace of Jesus will replaces Christ and the whole system of Christian belief. Achebe parallels this to the coming of the Christians, whose god to the Ibo is not virtuous and liberating but twisted and immoral, like Apollyon. The Christ they bring only kills the Ibo by debasing their civilization and drowning their "ceremony of innocence" (Yeats 6) the beauty and integrity of African culture.

Achebe's literary allusions to Yeats' poem serve more to contrast the ideas between the two works than to liken them to each other. Yeats views Christianity as the center, human violence as the beast, and God as the falconer. Through similar patterns but different interpretations, Achebe regards tradition as the center, Christianity as the beast, and culture as the falconer. According to the Christian religion, wars, chaos, confusion, and disasters signal the Second Coming of Christ, which will establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. At the same time, the Second Coming described in the poem could also be the attempt of the West to establish a new system on earth through colonialism, which in turn creates wars, chaos, confusion and disasters. The poem expresses a perfect irony the co-reliance of Christianity and Colonialism.

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