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  • Disembodying The Corpus: Postcolonial Pathology In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’
  • Deepika Bahri

Directing his “attention to the importance of two problems raised by Marxism and by anthropology concerning the moral and social significance of biological and physical ‘things,’” Michael Taussig argues in The Nervous System that “things such as the signs and symptoms of disease, as much as the technology of healing, are not ‘things-in-themselves,’ are not only biological and physical, but are also signs of social relations disguised as natural things, concealing their roots in human reciprocity” (83). If Taussig’s observation with regard to the cultural analysis of an illness and its treatment in the USA in 1978 is extrapolated to a very different scene but not so distant time, the machinations of illness in a fictional case study reveal the usually syncopated socio-personal reciprocity Taussig suggests. The scene is Rhodesia on the brink of its evolution into the nation now named after a ruined city in its southern part. The “subject” under analysis is Nyasha, the anorexic, teenage deuteragonist of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 novel Nervous Conditions (a title inspired by Sartre’s observation in the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, that the native’s is a nervous condition1). The novel, narrated in the first person by Nyasha’s cousin Tambu, catalogues the struggles of the latter to escape the impoverished and stifling atmosphere of the “homestead” in search of education and a better life, as well the efforts of other women in her family to negotiate their circumstances, offering the while a scathing critique of the confused and corrupt social structure they are a part of. Tambu’s movement from her homestead, which symbolizes rural decay, to the prosperous, urban mission of her uncle introduces us to a cast of characters scarred by encounters with the savagery of colonialism in the context of an indigenously oppressive socius. One of many characters in the novel suffering from a nervous condition, young Nyasha demonstrates in dramatic pathological form what appears to ail an entire socio-economic construct. If “the manifestations of disease are like symbols, and the diagnostician sees them and interprets them with an eye trained by the social determinants of perception” (Taussig 87), and if, as Susan Bordo argues in “The Body and Reproduction of Femininity,” “the bodies of disordered women . . . offer themselves as aggressively graphic text for the interpreter—a text that insists, actually demands, it be read as a cultural statement” (16), Nyasha’s diseased self suggests the textualized female body on whose abject person are writ large the imperial inscriptions of colonization, the intimate branding of patriarchy, and the battle between native culture, Western narrative, and her complex relationship with both. Not surprisingly, Nyasha’s response to this violence on the body is not only somatogenic but it is to manifest specifically that illness which will consume that body.

The pathological consequences of colonization, signaled in the heightened synaptic activity which, according to Fanon, produces violence among colonized peoples, take shape in Nyasha in the need to target herself as the site on which to launch a terrorist attack upon the produced self. According to Sartre, the violence of the settlers contaminates the colonized, producing fury; failing to find an outlet, “it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves” (18). The quest for an outlet takes grotesque forms in Nyasha through the physical symptomatology of disorder. But it would be entirely too simple to attribute her disease to the ills of colonization alone: Nyasha responds not only as native and Other, she responds as woman to the ratification of socially en-gendered native categories which conspire with colonial narratives to ensure her subjectivity. The implication of precapital and precolonial socio-economic systems in the postcolonial state, moreover, makes a simplistic oppositionality between colonizer/colonized meaningless. Her response to Western colonial narratives which enthrall as they distress at a time when she is also contending with her burgeoning sexuality in a repressed society, further complicate any efforts to understand and explain her pathology. Living on the edge of a body weakening from anorexia and bulimia, Nyasha’s involuntary reaction to the narratives competing for...

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