Down "the alley", turn right.


Object relations psychoanalysis teaches us that as humans we keep many of the intra-psychological devices concerned with ego self-regulation, from our early childhood. As adults we defend our place within society by projecting, for instance, the qualities of masterliness upwards within a hierarchy, so as if to perceive our social context as if our own superior qualities were emanating from elsewhere, from those in the strata of social hierarchy above us. (Menzies Lyth). Likewise, to adapt to the logic of a pre-existing social hierarchy, we may be inclined to project onto those in the social strata below us our negative psychological qualities, being those we find less desirable in ourselves – in the terms of Menzies Lyth, we project downwards our incompetence.

To project upwards or downwards our emotional needs can end up with us losing touch with those particular elements. Along with the infantile but nonetheless adaptive tactic of projection, is the splitting of the self, so that parts of the self are acknowledged as being “really me”, because others are dissociated from, as being “other”.  The loss of parts of oneself – whether that be in the form of the sense of ones competency or the sense of one’s human fallibility (as the loss of the sense of this is also a loss in terms of self-understanding) comes under the contemporary or “new age” shamanistic rubric as “soul loss”. The restoration of the “soul” – that is, of one’s true self, existing in a form that isn’t compromised by social and political necessities – is the key to shamanistic healing. It is not just the person who is restored and made whole by virtue of “soul retrieval” [term: Ingerman]. Society as a whole needs restoration from the states produced by primeval splitting, to move from stress-related (pathological) modes of coping towards a healthier model of relating within the social whole.

“The Alley” is a play that deals with this issue of societal and personal healing, through an encounter with the split-off aspects of the self. The play examines the traumatic legacy of post-war Zimbabwe (post the second Chimurenga that ended in 1980). Marechera is keen to show how the dissociation from the past (and from aspects of one’s self), in post war Zimbabwe, leads to a mode of forgetfulness that is the forgetting of the self. In such a condition, one goes through life without the sense of who one really is, or how one got there. One needs to face the trauma of the past to affect “soul retrieval” – that is, in order to become who one is, again.

In “The Alley”, a black and white tramp struggle with their tendencies to forget, as they fraternize in the streets of Harare, unable to recognise the cause of their demise. They had both fought in the war of liberation on opposite sides, and they had both had the privileged status of career lawyers, before making their descent into the grey mists of fugue and loss of social status, entailed in living the hobo lifestyle. Marechera borrows from Beckett – in particular from “Waiting for Godot” – in his idea of exploring the life of tramps through an aesthetic and conceptual lens of forgetfulness. His approach involves more of a psychological and political study of post-war Zimbabwe, however, and not being concerned with an existential statement of the human condition, which is how Beckett has generally been read.

The complication that Marechera introduces in “The Alley” is the question of gender and how that impacts on how trauma and recovery are experienced. Whereas Beckett also subtly implies a gendered aspect to his play in naming one of his male tramps Estragon (which sounds like estrogen), Marechera takes the issue of gender further, in order to show that post-war trauma in his contemporary Zimbabwe of the eighties, had a distinctly gendered quality. His mode of writing is both slapstick – Cecil Rhodes is introduced as “Cecilia” – and tear-jerking. This tragicomic mode is designed to break down the current ego-defences of the audience, with their current stress-based and probably pathological adaptations to the social world. It is designed to guide us, through laughter and tears, to see the real tragedy of those whose lives and potential were sacrificed during the bush war. 

Only then, upon recognition of what was sacrificed and lost, can a real restoration of the soul begin to take place. As is common in Marechera’s writing, the aesthetics of the play are based upon the tacit psychological understanding that others often join with the “other” that is really a part of myself, and not something entirely separate from me. Just as we might be inclined to socially eschew the other for being black or of the wrong gender, so we are also socially invested in maintaining the normal state of affairs that keeps others at a hierarchical distance as the psychologically dissociated aspects of oneself. To be compelled to know the other, through tears and laughter, is to come to know the socially alienated aspects of one’s self – the aspects denied when one adapts to a social role, within what is normal in society: a social hierarchy.
Marechera’s work shows to us the link between psychological self-alienation and societies that are organised by political and social hierarchies. The cost we pay for the latter is in terms of the former. In terms of the patriarchal and socially conservative society that was post-war Zimbabwe (and as it still is to a very large degree), Marechera’s exploration of the gendered base of traumatic dissociation is very radical indeed. Marechera shows that Rhodesia, on the sides of both black and white cultures, has had a patriarchal history, and leaves a patriarchal legacy to those in the present. To fully heal, society has to face that which it has dissociated from – which is hidden behind “the wall” of consciousness, in the unconscious or semi-conscious parts of the mind. Marechera points out that where the black and white men fought each other like “dogs in heat” ( p 46) , redirecting their erotic impulses towards aggression, those who really paid the emotional cost of the war were women – specifically the daughter and sister of the black and white men (who are represented by the two tramps).

The traumatic spectre that hides behind the wall is the damage done by this excessive “sexual” self-indulgence of the bush war to the women whom the men had no doubt sworn to protect. Rhodes – the black tramp – has been given slightly greater authority by author in terms of the moral ground for fighting for his liberation. It is he who introduces his “other” – the white tramp, Robin – to the spectre of his sister, Cecilia, who was raped and murdered by the Rhodesian forces, and now abides behind “the wall” of consciousness.

RHODES: Your daughter, Judy, is right there with her. I can see them. They are kissing.

Robin’s daughter, in turns out, was also a victim of the war, raped and murdered by the black “comrades”. Only when the brick wall in the alley is struck, with determination to know what is behind it, does it give us these traumatic answers about the cause of the tramps’ pathologies. Surmises Rhodes to Robin, speaking again with a margin of greater authority than his colleague has the right to:

I used to suffer from world weariness, but the wall says that too was nothing. I cannot get away from you, though that’s the only thing I want from life, from the whole last ounce of the universe. You also want to get away, but like me, you can’t, and for the same reason. I am your wall, and you are my wall. And the game we tried during the war of mounting each other like dogs in severe heat has not yet been settled. ( p 46)

The way to healing is to face the traumatic and dissociated feminine aspects of these men’s identities, which lies behind the wall of consciousness.


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