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The colours of life-existentialism and the short story form: a study of selected western and african short stories assignment

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THE COLOURS OF LIFE-EXISTENTIALISM AND THE SHORT STORY FORM: A STUDY OF SELECTED WESTERN AND AFRICAN SHORT STORIES IN GREEK MYTHOLGY, Orpheus, a bewitching minstrel whose lyre could hypnotize animate and inanimate elements at will, married a nymph, Eurydice. One day, Eurydice was bitten by a snake, and she died. In his quest to bring back the dead, Orpheus journeyed to the chthonic realm, played his lyre, hypnotised the underground deities, and secured the release of his wife. He was to return to the terrestrial world with his wife, albeit, with one proviso; that he should at no point of the journey look back whatever the distraction.

He consented. With his wife following closely at his heels, they left. Close to the egress, just when they were about entering the human world, he heard his wife screaming, and in a swift moment of agonising pathos, he looked back. Immediately, his wife disappeared, his dream evaporated, and he lost her forever. The myth is an overt dramatization of man’s experience on earth. Man loses the world the moment he gains it. Man, a victim of cosmic principalities is thrusted upon the world to face the inevitability of death. Death negates life.

His position is such that embraces anxiety, temporality, and the awareness of death (Heidegger), the assault foisted on human dignity (Jean-Paul Sartre), his heroic attempt at self- assertion like Sisyphus (Albert Camus), and the subordination of his being to a chronometric senescence. His attempts to achieve self-plenum and to actuate the Gidean’s “ existence is action ” dictum conflicts sharply, with his acceptance of defeat, his endless wait for an elusive salvation, and the consequent “ nothing to be done” temperament (Samuel Beckett). Eurydice will die. Orpheus will journey to the underground to bring her back.

Orpheus will look back, and Eurydice will disappear forever. All actions and inactions are part of the transcendental equation, and expressions of man’s vapourizing existence. The self cannot transcend itself. Essence is empty, existence, a veil for our ” falleness”. In” The Metamorphosis”, Franz Kafka begins his story with the climax, the death of the protagonist: “ As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic bug. ” It is a story about death in life, a spiritually inconclusive “ petering out” devoid of hope or salvation.

The transmogrification of Samsa defies logic, dramatizes the helpless state of man, and the bug, an insignificant insect, becomes a microdot version of the human cosmos. This mood of total impotence in the face of cosmic dictations is further reinforced in “ A Hunger Artist”, another story written by Kafka. In it, the state of man in the universe is shown as a triadic construction involving the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The image of a lone quester, the eternal seeker ignored and forgotten by the world is indicative of the author’s constant dichotomy between the real and the ideal.

The story is about an unnamed man in middle-aged Europe who employed fasting as a profession, a practice which was very popular at that time. He takes delight in his profession, fasts for forty days, and is taken from town to town as an exhibitionist piece, as people pay to see and evaluate him. For forty days, he would be encaged, and throngs of people would watch him day and night to assure themselves that there was no mischief: “…everybody wanted to see him at least once a day. “(400) The opening sentence of the story introduces from the onset, the concept of time doubling as antagonist to human ontology.

We are told that the only piece of furniture in the hunger artist’s cage is a clock, a cold, calculating, mechanical contrivance that ticks away with reductionist impact. In forty days, the hunger artist becomes emaciated. However: “ It was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such skeleton thinness… perhaps it was dissatisfaction with himself that had worn him down. “(401) Here, the artist appears disoriented, dissatisfied, but spurred on by an inner desire to satiate a never- ending abyss created by deep- seated melancholy, boredom and despair. He is a “…suffering martyr” (402) whose asting for forty days brings to mind Jesus’ similar exploit of spiritual restitution. To him, fasting is not just a profession, fasting is a monomania, an obsession, without which life becomes indefinable. Change, is equally abominable. However, change soon caught up with him. The taste of his people suddenly changed from professional fasting to other pastimes. The young generation loses track of the grandeur and the sense of heroism embedded in professional fasting. The self-sacrifice that used to draw large numbers of admirers from within and across the land pales into insignificance in the wave of new value systems.

Professional fasting becomes less lucrative, and gradually, the artist was eased out of business. In a last effort to rekindle the interest of the past in the spectators, the hunger artist hires his services out to a circus and agreed to have his cage placed beside the cage of animals. Still, this did not help matters. The crowd was more interested in the menageries instead. Soon, he was forgotten in the cage, where he loses count of time, continues fasting and degenerates into a sack of bones. One day, someone, obviously a breed from the old order, remembers the game of yore, looks into the seemingly empty cage, and only saw straw. They poked into the straw with sticks and found him in it. ‘ Are you still fasting? ‘ asked the overseer, ‘ When on earth do you mean to stop? ‘ ‘ Forgive me everybody’ whispered the hunger artist ‘…I have to fast, I can’t help it…because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else. ‘” (411) They buried his remains in the straw. The story is a symbolist-realist story that mirrors change in life as inevitable. Change affects man both physically and spiritually. Man is enchained in time, though he pretends to be free.

The hunger artist is an outsider who finds it difficult to adjust to life as it is, or optimizes change. He is a lone quester seeking spiritual fulfilment which he never finds. Dread in the artist becomes a source of existential courage, as despite neglect, he continues to fast, remaining adamant, even to the point of death. The indomitability of death is again stressed in Edgar Alan Poe’s “ The Masque of Red Death. ” The story is a brilliant coruscation of colours for signification. The writer, an ingenious chiaroscurist, makes use of colours to delineate the contrasting phenomena of life and death, appearance and reality, etc.

The story is about a middle-aged Prince (Prospero) and his attempt and his desperate attempts to insulate himself and his friends from the raging pestilence of “ red death”. Prospero, a Shakespearean, self-aggrandizing, coloniser figure is a projection of man at the apex of his glory; man the heliocentric being, who has gained primacy over other creatures, except death. In his effort to escape the pestilence which has been tormenting the ordinary people, Prospero withdraws into isolation along with his friends into a remote abbey.

The abbey, a beautiful and ornate building with lavish grotesques was “ amply provisioned” with foods, drinks, ballet dancers, entertainers and masquerades: “…there were musicians, there was Beauty, and there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘ Red Death’ “. The abbey contains seven chambers and the windows of each of the chambers opens into a long interminable partially dark corridor. The windows which are of ‘ stained glass’ have colours that vary “…in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened” (291).

The first chamber is blue with blue windows and blue decorations; the second, purple, the third, green, followed by orange, white, violet and black. It should be noted however, that unlike in the other chambers where the colour of the ‘ stained glasses’ of the windows agree with the rooms, the seventh chamber is painted black with black decorations, but scarlet window ‘…a deep, blood colour. ‘(292). A brazier of fire burns behind each window, and reflecting through the windows, the fire illumine the rooms with the colours of the windows, accentuated by the conforming colours of the room.

The effect produced in all the other rooms are expectedly different from that produced in the seventh chamber, as the ‘ blood colour’ of the window stands out on the black background of the room, thus, presenting a gory sensation and a ghastly appearance. While the different impressions engendered in the first six rooms span through gaiety, pomp, to even conviviality, the macabre impression of the last room registers a death-blow and a threnodic twist to all the previous interpretations. The impressions of the other six chambers are appearances. The seventh chamber is the reality.

Death tears the veil of constrained joy and pretence by abiding in the last chamber. Death is the last chamber of reality. Also in the last chamber,’…a gigantic clock of ebony’ is placed in a corner. Each time it strikes, the gaiety of the musicians, the waltzers and the maskers seize momentarily. The chronometer thus becomes the painful reminder of the inevitable. The tyranny of time is emphasized; time, a delimiting factor underlining the vapourizing nature of man. Essence is empty. Existence, a veil for our ‘ fallenness. ‘ Even the Prince must die.

The entertainments have been going on for some time when suddenly, a masquerade, different from the other entertaining masquerades, appeared: “ This figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave…His vesture was dabbed in blood-and his broad brow with all the features of the face was besprinkled with the scarlet horror. ” (293) There is no escaping the ‘ Red Death’. The masquerade, the image of the benevolent dead ancestor in Yoruba cosmogony, becomes an instrument of death in Poe’s story. The Prince dies fighting. All his cronies also died one after another: And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flame of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”. (294) The story is told at two levels: On the one hand, colours are made to speak and pass allegorical comments on the passages of man. The life of man starts on a blue note in the first chamber. Blue signifies youth, innocence, and purity. It passes through a combination of bright, gaudy colours which are mere embellishments, and terminates in a black and scarlet affair.

It is a tapering process from strength to senescence, from joy to despair, from appearance to reality, from life to death. Vivid characterisation also presents the issue of the primacy of man in the universe as a fluke, and presents Time and Death as the inexorable victors over humanity. By a psychologising process, Lev Tolstoy in his story, “ The Death of Ivan Ilych mirrors life as a tapestry of falsities and deceptions, with pain and death being the terminal points. Death for Tolstoy is an inalienable fact that is individual.

Tolstoy, a religious and ethical seeker and a Salvationist, paints a picture of dishonesty, distrust, corruption, selfishness, pretence and despair. The story is a triadic involvement in the themes of man’s awareness of death, assault on human dignity, and man’s self-assertion against the absurdity of the universe. Most of all, it is man’s individual experience of death that is emphasized, his ontological solitariness, his loner-status, subject to the whims and caprices of: “…wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant. The story begins with a climax, the announcement of the death of Ivan Ilych, a judge, a bureaucrat and a gentleman who has acquired education, status and social afflatus. The announcement was received with equanimity by friends and professional associates, each of whom only ponders on how the death might affect their promotions, and each feeling that: “ It is he who is dead and not I” Schwartz, one of the closest friends of the deceased represents life, youth and vigour, while at the same time, he reflects the nexus of apathy felt towards the victim of death by those who are not yet dead.

The corpse of Ivan Ilych has a foreboding for the living. It bears an expression of reproach and warning for the living. It serves to remind them of the inevitable end. Through flashback, the life-story of Ivan Ilych was told as he advances from infanthood to adulthood, his innocuous exploits as a youth, the falsities surrounding his family life and by extension, the artificiality of Russian lifestyles, the sudden changes he experienced from friends as his state of health depreciated, and the tapering process: There is one bright spot there at the back, at the beginning of life, and afterwards all becomes blacker and blacker and proceeds more and more rapidly-in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death. “(540) Ivan Ilych’s story is a story of how he was able to climb to the top of his legal profession and the domestic accident that incapacitated him, how he took a false step from a height while trying to show his upholsterer to hang his drapes. The seemingly trifling accident later aggravated and was diagnosed as a case of floating kidney and appendicitis.

The story is a delineation of a deteriorating relationship between a sick man and the world. It is a process of epiphany for a dying man, his sudden awareness of the true state of man as regards life, death and salvation: “ It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent, life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death. “(539) The incomprehensibility of life and the inevitability of death are underlined in the story.

Life appears too immense for man to cope with, or to understand. Ilych struggled against death. In his struggles, he despaired. Despair changes to resignation, to courage, to salvation, and to a feeling of triumph over death: “ There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death, there was light” (544) Tolstoy is an incurable Salvationist. Despite having been beaten down by life and his gradual dissensions to death, his hero still sights light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike in “ The Masque of Red Death” where death is portrayed s the “ end all”, death to Tolstoy is not a finitude, but an enhancement. Rousseau’s contrast between “ civilized men” and “ natural men” came to the fore in the story where educated colleagues make the dying man feel more miserable with their artificial solicitude, while the peasant Gerasim sees death in the hero and does not attempt to behave as though there was no death. Apartheid to date is the most obnoxious form of racism since slavery. A large number of literary corpuses denounced the system which was drawn along the lines of racial policies.

Most stories are overt duplications of general sufferings of the black man in South Africa in an atmosphere of inequalities and man’s inhumanity to man. Kaizer Ngwenya’s Dreams Wither Slowly 4 is not one of such stories, for though it treats the same theme of oppression and denial, it uses the soul as theatre of contest. His story transcends the ethno textual to the universal. It is a story swathed in fictional guise to portray man in a prevailing mood of negativism under an obnoxious system. Soul ??? denial, the denial of self-expression within a mainstream forces man “ to act” rather than “ to be”.

Benny Mosholdi, a popular tenor saxophonist was discovered by David Goldstein, a white producer with a midas touch. Although Goldstein, wants Mosholdi to play the popular “ funky mbaqanga” sound which is the delight of the public, an inner depth, empty, insatiate, defines for him a contrary tune. He wants to express himself through jazz, to be ” as jazzy as Charlie Parker. ” Thus, he remains poor. His predilection for jazz stems obviously from his temperament of protest. Jazz becomes a lust, a monomania for self-expression for the unmitigated assertion of black ego.

The funky tune is too much of a lie, a smokescreen for “ a happy world”. He wants to express himself in the dark recess of experience, striping reality naked. The individual, a bearer of profound message, is gagged. His success is not determined by deep-seated truth but by emphasis of happiness in a cesspool of unhappiness. The purpose of Benny’s Jazz is to remove the veil: “ Goldstein, who knew everything about the business but nothing about a musician’s inner feelings, could not understand Benny’s increasing reluctance to churn out endless albums and seven singles” (54)

Benny has just one more year to deliver the esoteric sound, the message that simmers in him like lava. His target is posterity, beyond the observable facts of the present to the new worlds of the future: “ He did not want to be like other black musicians who disappeared into oblivion because they did not play to expose what was inside them but to get rich quick. He feels that any musician who deviated from the established black music formula was not likely to fire enthusiasm in the youngsters who rehearsed in the backyards of the townships. ” (55)

The established “ black music formula” is a tacit protest against an abominable system which keeps the black people confined to “ the backyards of the townships”. His refusal to play for money splits his marriage. His wife shouts at him whenever he brings peanuts from the studio. His daughter, Montso, shakes her head contemptuously, while his “ laggard” son threatens to beat him up whenever there is a brawl between him and his wife. His poverty tears the family apart as they deserted him leaving him with an empty home and a bruised pride. All his hopes and desires are put to nought.

The line is drawn between him and a world which keeps him down. He would revolt: “ Things fell apart one day in the studio during a recording session. According to the score, Benny and the drummer were supposed to answer submissively the joint demands of the bassist and pianist. The musicians were playing superlatively and the recording producer and engineers were busy balancing the sound. Suddenly, Benny started to blow powerfully and fingered the keys of the sax deftly. Everybody in the studio was perplexed since the musicians had stopped playing and looked at one another with popping eyes. (Emphasis mine) (55) A war of words ensues between him and Goldstein. He reiterates his resolve to play the way he feels: “ If you don’t want to do as you are told, Goldstein said and pointed at the door,’ get out and stay out. ‘ Benny looked at Goldstein and spat on the floor. ‘ There is no man living who can tell me what I can do and what I can’t do. ‘ Benny said, jabbing an emphasizing finger in the air… (He) put his saxophone in its case and walked to the door slowly like a man who was lost in a concrete jungle. ” (56) He is alone, on his own, in a survivalist fight for self-expression.

Nobody seems to comprehend him in a context where pretension is enshrined. His quest for self-affirmation is thwarted. Perhaps the youngsters in the township’s backyards would sizzle up to the challenge and actualize it. For him, the struggle is over. Four days later, Goldstein discovers him in his room, dead. He has taken the easier way out. Suicide. His note reads: “ I tried to offer to the people my music and happiness. But everybody scorned and ridiculed me. Now I have taken a one-way ticket to the unknown world. Maybe there I will be permitted to play the way I feel”. 57) The writer has succeeded in reifying a whole cartography of oppression and subjugation of self-will apparent under apartheid, the system which killed the dreams of every black man by shutting them out of self-realization. The themes of oppression and betrayal, of helplessness and escapism are subsumed in a story that vibrates to the dark music of the negro in apartheid South Africa. Self-affirmation conflicts with self-denial. Many South Africans “ escaped” the hardships by taking to drug addiction, alcoholism and crime. Benny Mosholdi escapes by committing suicide.

Our next story, a creation myth written by Gerard Felix Tchicaya U Tamsi represents the attempt of an African writer to translate orality into a written form. Creation myths abound in Africa, and it is an attempt to explain primordial mysteries beyond human comprehension; a priemeval cerebration to rationalize extra-mundanity. The Two Ghelas: a Creation myth 5 underscores the state of flux evident in African cosmogony, a constant kinesis between the sacred and the profane. It tells a story of two metaphysical creatures, the Ghela-on-High and the Ghela-down-Below.

The story opens when the Ghela-down-Below out of lassitude, decides to create much in the “ let us create men in our own image” fashion of the Bible. He creates not only men, but women, fish, animals and plants from the clay that issues forth from his mouth when he yawns. After the creation, the Ghela-on-High causes rain to fall and destroy some of these creatures. He strikes a pact with Ghela-down-Below to give them life, and in return he wants them as toys. The Ghela-down-Below promises to give them to him as toys, reneges on his promise, and the two quarreled: “…

Ever since, the Ghela-on-High has been seeking to take back the life which he caused to enter the clay bodies of the men, women, fish, animals and plants… Every time the Ghela-on-High succeeds in taking back the life which he caused into the men, women, fish, animals and plants, a man, a woman, a fish, an animal or a plant dies. ” (10-11) Apart from reifying the enterprise of creation, the story harps on three themes. First, it introduces the reader to the existential premonition of fate. Men are seen as “ toys” by the two Ghelas.

Man has become articles to be possessed having no say in determining his fate. Jean Paul-Sartre’s version of this mythic premonition is that man is dumped upon the world and left alone to bear his responsibilities by himself. Man’s experience is a “ Gewonforheit” or “ falling- into- being”. He is a victim of cosmic principalities, a toy in the hands two Ghelas. The myth also introduces the theme of archetypal betrayal: “ In those times (when) the night was always under the ground. In those times (when) the earth was always wrapped in night. ” (10)

The murky, indistinguishable confusion that represents man’s existential beginnings has a foundation of betrayal as a cause of dissension between two gods. This would be inevitably extended to men. The myth is also an attempt to explain the mystery of death, why all creatures die, an aetiological story. In all, the myth is not out to close any credibility gap. Rather, it is out to present a version of explanation, and to add up to the traditional repository. It is a presentation of a world-view that is traditional, pro-western and cultural.

To capture it is to record it for posterity. Writing therefore is merely a recording technique used to preserve a pre-literate culture for a westernized, jaundiced and displaced indigenous generations. It is to say that we had a culture, a way of life that suits our own simple mode that explains our mysteries and hopes. The story presents a timeless, pre-existent cosmos. Note that only denizens were created and not the world. The traditional storytelling motif and the use of simple, free-flowing diction give the translation a desired effect.

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