Due to the greater weight of the machine of industry (and indeed, the post-industrial machine of cultural dominance and submission) in the advanced world, humour has taken on a different sense of value. Rarely is it used to effectively critique the dominant social orders. Perhaps rather, it is a refuge, a means for diffusing one’s underlying feelings of antagonism, away from the force of retributive effect of entrenched social power. [Cf. Nietzsche about the force of guilt increasing at the power of the tribe increases — Genealogy of Morals.]
In Africa, at least in terms of my own experiences of it, the spirit of humour is far lighter. Most likely this is because the weight of industry has not had its solidifying effect of reinforcing the intensity of superego, along with superego’s injunction to not make fun of powers over you, no matter what. So humour held its own, as a form of pacifying the tension between dominant authorities and one’s own personal values. In my school life in Zimbabwe, the psychological tension maintained between obeying the authorities and listening to one’s own impulses — which were always inclined to humorously mock the propriety of the established authorities — was experienced by me and no doubt many others as providing an experience both tender and endlessly delightful.
When I read Marechera, I often read the same subtle pause for gasp and intake of air before the humour against the appropriate authority is about to take place. You can almost hear the rotars of the mind turning over in the form of, “Do I dare say this?” and then, almost without a second’s hesitation, the confirming answer: “Yes, indeed, I will!”
By the age of 14, I knew that colonialism’s powers were anything but consolidated — at least where I was, in the classroom. Humour was the constant means of undermining the pomposity of various regimes and authorites that would rule over us, if only they knew how.
When I read Marechera, I see the humour put to the same use, again and again. Whereas others (of a more supergo-weighted position) may read the parts in The House of Hunger where the priest is being pelted with sadza (after trying to preach Christianity to a black classroom) as an appropriate — and rightfully moral comeuppance for his attempt to impose colonialism on a black classroom — I read the whole event more in light of a humorous détournement of priestly aspirations. “The priest, with his strict sharp lines of morality and race is forced to confront the amorphous qualities of the African staple, sadza?” Great! In fact, not much could be more dramatically more perfect as an undoing of the contrived commanding imposition of the priest. Score one to the classroom, zero to the priest!
Because I understand the way that Zimbabwean humour works to deflate pomposity — or even, indeed, against an alien threat that threatened to usurp one’s power to direct one’s ways as one might choose to — I do not see the same moral critique as those invested in a more moral view of culture must do.
Perhaps Marechera’s earlier text — the one called The House of Hunger, that was awarded the Guardian prize — was mistaken for being more of a conventional moral critique than it in fact was. It’s not that it lacked guts — but naive humour is used as a political critique probably far more than the average Western critic can imagine.
The stamp of approval to the early work was probably taken by Marechera as being a stamp of approval regarding his general outlook and style –whereas it is uncertain that the full scope of the humour entailed in his general outlook and style was ever known.
The weight of morality in Western Culture cautions us not to offend against our superiors and our betters, whereas the relative light-weight of culture in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe guaranteed that humour would nearly always be a recourse, whenever the actual force of power and one’s own impulses were found to be odds.
Western culture, feeling the weight of superego, reads the impulse of humour towards the threat of an authoritarian individual to be too impetuous, mischievous — or probably even a sign of mental illness. That is why born Westerners prefer to read a form or moral discourse into Marechera’s writings, in stead of the much more politically sharp — and indeed, more humourous discourse — that Marechera had actually put in place.
Perhaps this analysis of different cultural outlooks goes some way to explaining the perception of Marechera’s apparent decline into a form of mental illness. My readings — even of his later works — reveal no trace of it. Yet what is revealed to me through the commentary is a gradual sense of Marechera’s intellectual alienation.
Could it be possible that some of the Western applause for The House of Hunger had been based on a misunderstanding — that Marechera was adopting a more precise moral perspective (rather than the political and preposterously humorous perspective that was part of his calling card)?
It has been misunderstood how Marechera was always more of a conditioned subject of his cultural upbringing than he was assumed to be — his adoption of intellectual airs whilst writing his first “novel” (The Black Insider) would have been as a result of his highly intellectual absorption of First Colonial Lessons: That Education is the definitively orchestrated means for the colonial subject to get ahead. But, whilst Marechera was fighting his concrete colonial battles, Western culture itself was on a much more abstract, moralistic, post-colonial crusade. Wasn ‘t there therefore an essential (and, moreover, possibly fatal) misunderstanding between Marechera and his would-be ideologically driven benefactors?
As I said — I find only scant evidence of Marechera’s “mental illness “, which was very much in relation to the amount of legal and illicit substances he consumed as well as the actual political opposition he faced. I do find evidence of an increasing social alienation and sense of despair as one manuscript after another was rejected for not commercially viable. The quality of the writing I have read — and indeed the tones and themes — do not seem more disjointed, but rather less so — more relaxed, contained, and more politically focused and concerted –as Marechera progresses through his life. Despite the sense of opposition and disappointment he faced, he seems to have largely kept it together — at least in terms of his own writing.
So the “mental illness” of Marechera may be to some large extent a projection of Western middle class premises and concerns:. “If we were living on the street, we must surely have gone mad by now, given the immeasurable demands of our own superegos.” In Marechera’s case, his upbringing was different from those born in the West — and therefore the nature of the demands of his superego and indeed his propensity to madness as an outcome of his relationship with superego has been overblown.
One hesitates to quote Uncle Remus, because one realises that the force of Western superego is exceptionally strong, making it less than funny to be politically incorrect — but one should not underestimate the importance of Marechera’s roots in shaping him and his eventual desire to live it out on the streets:
“I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,” he called. “Born and bred.”