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Reith 2004: The Climate of Fear: Rhetoric That Binds and Blinds

Updated Tuesday, 23rd March 2004

The third lecture looks at rhetoric as the weapon of political leader, while the written word is the refuge of the political prisoner. Lynda Morgan helps decode the rhetoric that binds and blinds.

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Robben Island, where Dennis Bruton was held Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Eldred Durosimi Jones describes the "unnecessary cruelty and viciousness of the conditions of Soyinka's... imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement, deprived of books, both his mental and his bodily health massively assaulted ." Yet he emphasises that in writing about his prison experiences in The Man Died (1973), Soyinka is "concerned to put this in perspective against the backdrop of a larger evil" and to regard his own case as "an item, albeit a prominent one, in a catalogue."

Clearly writing is a vital tool for Soyinka in his fight against tyrannical brutality. In his introduction to Prisonnettes, (in 1972's A Shuttle in the Crypt) he explains how he managed to continue to create poems during his imprisonment:

'The form was quite arbitrary, something short enough and as self-containing as possible to remain in the head until, at night-time or in a slack moment of surveillance I could transfer it to the inside of a cigarette packet or an equally precious scrap of salvage.'

These poems obviously helped Soyinka to resist the mental assault of his imprisonment, and in particular those he refers to as 'the "cursifying" or letting-out-rage genre, of whose efficacy let no man stand in doubt', and those he calls the 'Animystic spells', which "induced a state of self-hypnosis (by constant repetition, accompanied by a mental pacing of the images.)" Soyinka says that both rage and hypnosis were a necessary counter to each other, since during imprisonment "it is easy to be self-destructively violent (internally)" and equally easy "to be self-destructively quiescent and forgiving."

A number of African writers imprisoned by tyrannical regimes have stated the absolute necessity of finding a way to write. For example, in his prison diary Detained, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong'o describes writing a novel on toilet paper during his imprisonment without trial in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. (This is the novel that appeared in 1981 in an English translation as Devil on the Cross):

'Toilet-paper: when in the sixties I first read in Kwame Nkrumah's autobiography, Ghana, how he used to hoard toilet-paper in his cell at James Fort Prison to write on, I thought it was romantic and a little unreal despite the photographic evidence reproduced in the book. Writing on toilet-paper?

Now, I know: paper, any paper, is about the most precious article for a political prisoner, more so for one like me, who was in political detention because of his writing.'

Robben Island, where Dennis Bruton was held Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

The Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, who was held in Mikuyu Prison, also speaks of this imperative to write. Now resident in the North of England, in York, Mapanje regularly gave poetry readings at Open University Summer Schools held there for the course Literature in the Modern World. I vividly remember him amusing a delighted audience of OU students with his tale of the benefits of having African hair: it is apparently very useful to hide a pencil in!

Continuing to find ways to write clearly helps the writer to resist the appropriation of part of the Self that Soyinka referred to in his first lecture. In Detained, Ngũgĩ quotes a poem by the South African poet Dennis Brutus, who was imprisoned on Robben Island. The poem makes a powerful statement about the imperative to write in order to resist the collapse of the self:

'A flicker, pulse, mere vital hint
which speaks of the stubborn will
the grim assertion of some sense of worth
in the teeth of the wind
on a stony beach, or among rocks
where the brute hammers fall unceasingly
on the mind.'

But writing is not just about maintaining self-esteem. It is also about finding ways of continuing to speak out against tyranny, and about bearing witness to atrocity so that tyrannical regimes cannot maintain secrecy about their brutalities. Using his characteristic irony, Soyinka says that the Prisonettes "are dedicated to all who participated in the two-year experiment on how to break down the human mind." Ngũgĩ describes the urge to write as:

'Picking the jagged bits embedded in my mind,
Partly to wrench some ease for my own mind,
And partly that some world sometime may know.'

This, he says, is "almost irresistible to a political prisoner."

That writers should use words to resist and protest is hardly surprising, since it is usually because of words that they have been imprisoned. Ngũgĩ describes what led to his own detention:

'I am told ... that some time in December 1977, two gentlemen very highly placed in the government flew to Mombasa and demanded an urgent audience with Jomo Kenyatta. They each held a copy of 'Petals of Blood' in one hand, and in the other, a copy of Ngaahika Ndeenda. The audience granted, they then proceeded to read him, out of context of course, passages and lines and words allegedly subversive as evidence of highly suspicious intentions. The only way to thwart those intentions - whatever they were - was to detain him who harboured such dangerous intentions, they pleaded. Some others had sought outright and permanent silencing, in the manner of J.M. Kari u ki, but on second thoughts this was quashed for "national stability". And so to detention I was sent!'

Such events leave us in no doubt as to the power of the pen, and the threat it poses to those who are engaged in the destruction of justice. But of course words can be used just as readily to promote tyranny as to resist it. In one of his Prisonettes Soyinka, by taking on the voice of his captors, and through ironic play on the idea of a writer's poetic licence, deftly satirises the manner in which tyrannical regimes distort truth:

Fiction? Is truth not essence
Of Art, and fiction Art?
Lest it rust
We kindly borrowed his poetic licence.'

A child at 'Suicide bombers school' Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Jack Mapanje makes a similar point by employing as an epigraph to his collection of poetry, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, a verse from Proverbs (29:12): "When a ruler listens to false reports, all his ministers will be scoundrels." We are very familiar with the idea of the 'false report' presented as truth. George Orwell satirised it in his highly influential (this, after all, is the novel that gave us the phrase 'Big Brother'!) Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with his 'Ministry of Truth' that insists on such lies as "War is peace," "Freedom is slavery," and "Ignorance is strength." Soyinka himself, in his play Madmen and Specialists (1971), reveals the distortion of truth to devastating effect, when the torturer, Aafaa, refers to himself as a 'Specialist in truth', yet says to his victim, "Say anything, say anything that comes into your head but SPEAK, MAN!"

But in his third lecture Soyinka is concerned with more than such obvious distortions. He refers to "our season of rhetorical hysteria," by which he means the deliberate willing of oneself into a state of hysteria, through phrases that become commonplace and generate fear. He cites religion as an example of this use of language, and claims that it is a technique that has been taken over by politicians. We have seen recently how phrases like "the axis of evil" are used to promote intense anxiety about certain parts of the world and certain peoples. They become unthinking clichés, reiterated in newspapers, radio and television interviews, and casually in the pub. Thus they perpetuate a climate of anxiety that is fuelled by fear of the 'racial other'.

And how do we resist such clichés, so that they do not end up infecting us all? The answer that Soyinka proposes in Madmen and Specialists is by encouraging people to think. This is surely such an obvious solution that one might wonder why it needs to be stated. But Soyinka's ironic script reveals that one of the strategies of powerful regimes is to try to prevent independent thought. Bero, another 'Specialist' in torture, refers with horror to what his father has done with the victims of torture. His assignment was "to help the wounded readjust to the pieces and remnants of their bodies;" for example, to "teach them to make baskets if they still had fingers," or to use their mouths "to sing if their vocal chords had not been shot away." Instead, Bero says, "he began to teach them to think, think, THINK! Can you picture a more treacherous deed than to place a working mind in a mangled body?" But who is this an act of treachery against? The victims themselves or the torturers who have tried to control these victims?

Soyinka is of course writing in Madmen and Specialists about the atrocities of tyrannical regimes. But his third lecture raises uncomfortable questions about the ways in which governments that we do not see as tyrannical use rhetoric to generate thoughtless hysteria. Apparently safe in the West from the obvious cruelties of tyranny, we cannot afford to allow our minds to be dulled by complacency. No government is free from the drive towards power, and we must follow Soyinka's incitement to 'think' if we are to remain alert to the linguistic strategies employed to generate 'unthinking' agreement. Next, lecture 4 - A Quest for Dignity.





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