Research in African Literatures 36.2 (2005) 122-131
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Calibrations as Close Reading
I wish in opening to thank Prabhu, Esowanne, and Adéèkó for the many windows that they opened onto Calibrations with their remarks. However, rather than attempt a point-by-point response to their many insights, I want instead to spend some time delving into my own formation as a literary critic as a preamble to attending to some of the points they make. This seems to me apposite in the context of thinking about the theoretical dispositions that went into the book, something that Adeleke Adéèkó perceptively identifies in his piece as sharing an impulse with the recent works of Achille Mbembe and Olakunle George, among others. One of the central elements of my education was the place given to close reading. It is only later that I discovered that the New Criticism heavily influenced this. But what did it mean to be taught close reading in the context of an African education? And how did I move from there to the point of Calibrations in terms of my critical and theoretical interests?
From its inception in the work of I. A. Richards, William Empson, R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, and others, New Criticism was a reaction against Indo-European philology on the one hand and a certain kind of historical scholarship that had a strong interest in sociology and biography on the other.1 The focus on the text as such was meant to rescue it from obscure and extraneous considerations. Central to the close reading inspired by the New Criticism was an attempt to identify ambiguity, irony, and paradox as different levels at which the text signaled tensions within its structure. A methodological implication that derived from this focus was that the external world of politics and society was effectively bracketed out of consideration. Furthermore, the aesthetic object, most often a poem, was elevated to a superior ontology and became the privileged gateway for knowing the world. Indeed, the aesthetic text acquired an almost sacred and awe-inspiring status. Nowhere was this elevation better expressed than in R. P. Blackmur's comment in his essay on the poems of Wallace Stevens. He pauses after quoting a section of "The Death of a Soldier" to state that "to gloss such a poem is almost impertinent," before going on to provide his opinion.
In the African education that I had, these New Critical tendencies were manifested in an attenuated form in the classroom, and were not unrelated to the Commonwealth literary criticism we were exposed to and that went side-by-side with the [End Page 122] New Criticism. Commonwealth criticism had two contradictory sides to it. On the one hand it sought to expose the literature of the newly independent nations and therefore had to take account of social and political aspects of that literature. Yet on the other hand, the social and political aspects were to be discerned only as residual dimensions of national, ethnic, or cultural spirit captured within the writings themselves. The pursuit of the national/ethnic/cultural spirit was conjoined to what was essentially a kind of ethnographic and documentary sensibility. Thus, writing of Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People, one early reviewer could say that the novel was "worth a ton of documentary journalism" (qtd. in Larson 16).
Coupled to close reading and Commonwealth critical tendencies was also a concern with identifying the distinctive aspects of African literature. At the heart of the debate about what constituted an authentic literature was the place of orality. The rationale for the ethnographic grid of African literary criticism derived partly in the interest in orality and literacy that marked a dominant trend in social anthropology and other academic fields from the fifties through to the seventies. As the work of Eric Havelock, Parry and Lord, Marshall MacLuhan, Jack Goody, and others gained recognition, a new paradigm in the social sciences began to gain shape. The interest of these writers in tracing what...