HISTORICISM AS A LITERARY DISCOURSE: A STUDY OF ISIDORE OKPEWHO’S THE LAST DUTY, ELECHI AMADI’S SUNSET IN BIAFRA AND BIYI BANDELE’S BURMA BOY

HISTORICISM AS A LITERARY DISCOURSE: A STUDY OF ISIDORE OKPEWHO’S THE LAST DUTY, ELECHI AMADI’S SUNSET IN BIAFRA AND BIYI BANDELE’S BURMA BOY

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CHAPTER ONE:

INTRODUCTION

1.0    CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

As Chidi Amuta (1988) puts it, the Nigerian civil war literatures represent a ―significant step towards the politicization of the Nigerian literary imagination‖. Similarly the Second World War has also continued to attract intellectual discourse especially by African Scholars on the role played by Africans in its prosecution. Such treatises have often questioned the rationale behind the participation of Africans in a war that was not theirs. However, analysts of the international political system such as Louis J. Halle (1984) and K.J. Holsti (1972), have dubbed the Second World War as ‗the war to end all wars‘ on accounts of its gruesome devastation. The depiction of the horrors of Second World War has further fuelled the resentment of African intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cessaire against the involvement of Africans.

The two war situations provide the setting for writers to accentuate and articulate the devastation suffered by individuals and societies. As evidenced by historical records and literatures, the two wars occasioned physical suffering and psychological dislocation. However, despite these gruesome effects, the two wars serve as platforms for Africans and Nigerians respectively to reassess their conditions and the means by which they contribute to nation-building, world peace and progress.

This study is premised on the conviction that wars, like revolutions, are historical convulsions usually with devastating effects on the psychology of individuals and societies. In this context, the novels used in this study are assessed as an imaginative


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reconstruction, or the telling, of historical experiences and this is thrust on the framework of historicism. Historicism both as a theory and literary discourse emerged as a ―critical movement insisting on the prime importance of historical context to the interpretation of texts of all kinds‖ (Hamilton: 1996). This is a complete departure from – and even subordinates – the assumptions of formalism which discountenance the important correspondence between literature and the reality that shapes it. Formalists argue that ‗literature was not and could not be a reflection of reality but only a particular semiotically organized signification of it. And that literary texts tend only to make that reality strange, to dislocate the habitual perceptions of the real world so as to make it the object of a renewed attentiveness‘.

In contrast, however, historicism, apart from its concern with situating any statement in its historical context, also typically ―doubles back on itself to explore the extent to which any historical enterprise inevitably reflects the interests and bias of the period in which it was written‖ (Hamilton: 1996). As philosophers and scholars have tried to show since the ancient times, history and fiction have close affinity. Aristotle demonstrated this by concluding that ―history was distinguished from poetry not by greater seriousness of purpose but by the different balance of probability and possibility proper to each discourse‖ (Hamilton: 1996). Plato‘s use of myth to describe the ultimate truths of philosophy implicates history in fiction (Hamilton: 1996).

Similarly, at the twilight of the formalist period in Russia, Mukarovsky of the Czech Structuralism, notes that ―the work of art exists as an ‗aesthetic object‘ located in the consciousness of an entire community (Hartland: 1999). According to him, this


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inevitably ―confers enormous power upon the community and the predispositions which it brings to the business of construction‖ (Hartland: 1999). Mukarovsky further argues that ―the very boundaries of what is to be construed as aesthetic are socially determined and immensely variable from period to period‖ (Hartland: 1999). This means that history and fiction form important relationship especially within literary discourse and that external factors, or what Foucault calls ‗exteriority of accidents, form important discourse of historicism.

This study then is an affirmation of the assumptions of historicism which raises the possibility of locating texts of all kinds in their historical contexts. It, however, does not pretend to be the first of its kind in the field of literary appreciation, but perhaps the first in the application of historicism to the analysis of texts under consideration. It, therefore, affirms that Biyi Bandele‘s novel, Burma Boy, is an expose of both the historical role of Nigerians in the Second World War, and the history of the events that shaped the war. In the same context, Isidore Okpewho‘s The Last Duty and Elechi Amadi‘s Sunset in Biafra are no less telling representations of the dastardly effects of the Nigerian civil war on individuals and communities.

Each of these three novels represents a striking metaphor and satirical representations of the gruesome effects of war on Nigerians both at home and abroad. Together they succeed as an interpretation of the histories of the wars they depict. What is particularly striking about these novels nonetheless is the extent to which historical data is fictionalized and presented ‗as the story‘ of both the Second World War and the Nigerian civil war. In doing this, the thin line dividing facts from


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fiction is blurred, and attempt is made to reconcile history to literature as modes of mutually reinforcing conception of reality. For instance, the blurb accompanying Biyi Bandele‘s Burma Boy indicates that it is not only ―the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War‖ but also ―a story of real-life battles‖…(2007).

Similary, the commentary by the The Times Literary Supplement on Elechi Amadi‘s Sunset In Biafra quotes the writer as saying ―this is not a story of the war‖; it is an intimate, personal story, told for its own sake‖ (1973), perhaps as a way of exonerating himself from the animosity that the war engendered. However, such animosity is the thrust of Isidore Okpewho‘s The Last Duty as it touches off on ―fundamental social bonds and institutions such as marriage and friendship thereby exposing individuals to often difficult moral choices‖ (Amuta: 1988).

The novels under consideration belong to the world‘s tradition of war literature. To be sure, war literatures generally seek to recreate historical experiences, a past which always seeks to be the present because as Yuri Nagibin (1985) argues, ―war will never become the past for those who still carry bits of lead in their flesh and bones, the lead of the losses in their hearts, and the eternal burden on memory and mind…‖. This dialectical relationship between past and present underscores historicism as a discourse. In other words, historicism like the post modernist discourse, ―distrust not only tradition but also any interpretation which does not acknowledge that its history of the past is relativised by being also a history of the present‖ (Hamilton: 1996).


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The writers whose works are treated here have been aided by history and literature in the way they articulated the travails and psychological trauma of their characters. This means that there is a reconciliation of the fragile boundary that exists between what is probable, which is literature, and what is possible, which is history, in the appropriation of the stories for the novels. This is made possible through the use of imagination, self-reflexivity, and the emplotment of the stories in the reconstruction of the events of the wars. In other words, as fiction writers, they have attempted to find ―ways of making the possible and the probable interact, balancing truth to the facts against the need for those facts to make sense‖ (Hamilton: 1996). In this sense, the writers have employed the realism of the novel and the hard facts of history to depict the war situations as an insistent reminder of man‘s unsociability.

This is in conformity with Hayden White‘s reference to the historical work as a ―verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that classifies past structures and processes in order to explain what they were by representing them as models‖. The views of structural Linguists like Bakhtin‘s treatise on the polyphonic or dialogical novel can also be linked to this. According to Bakhtin, the novel is composed of many voices, that is, ―there are the different‖ voices of the speaking characters, the different voices of narrators within the text, the different voices of ‗reproduced‘ letters or journals, and the different voices assumed by the author in addressing the reader‖ (Hartland: 1999). To him, ―many authorial manners are infact borrowings from non-fictional discourses: the discourse of the historian, for example, or the travel-writer, or the moral assayist‖ (Hartland: 1999).


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Given this praxis, therefore, the texts under consideration, being a dialogue with the past, can be taken as polyphonic or dialogical novels as well as verbal structures which typify them as narrative prose discourse. This is moreso because of their inclusion of, and indebtedness to, non-fictional discourses. It can then be argued that the writers under consideration wrote as historicists in the sense that it is possible to situate their novels within the historical contexts to which they refer, and to the extent that their articulation and depiction of the stories bear an interpretation (or understanding) of the periods of the wars.

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM:

Although there is a plethora of critical works such as Chidi Amuta (1988), Funsho Aiyejina (1988), Akachi Ezeigbo (1991), Christopher Anyokwu (2008), and Hugh Hodges (2009) on Nigerian civil war literatures, none of these uses strictly the critical perspective of historicism. Christopher Anyokwu‘s (2008) essay, ―Inheritance of Loss: Narrative and history in Helon Habila‘s Measuring Time, is not on the Nigerian civil war but richly reviews literatures on the mediating role of imagination in historiography thereby foregrounding the historicity of the discourse of Measuring Time. Akachi Ezeigbo‘s book Fact and Fiction in the Literature of Nigerian Civil War (1991) as the name implies, only scours through the fictionalization of the lived facts of the Nigerian civil war thereby skirting the discourse of historicism.

Similarly, Chidi Amuta‘s essay, ―Literature of the Nigerian civil war‖ (1988) only traces the development of the civil war literature and their thematisation of the war experiences. While Funsho Aiyejina‘s essay, ―Isidore Okpewho‖ (1988) focuses on


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