After all, myth and ritual are conventions created by a community to rationalize and perpetuate its relation to, and understanding of, experience. As conditions change so do the myths and rituals, or at least their application and meaning. It might be argued that in so far as such traditions are made relevant to contemporary developments – in so far as they are made new and serve to integrate the past with the present – they should be considered meaningful and good. For myself, I would even go so far as to say that using myth and ritual as a negation of socio-economic or political developments is a perfectly valid and worth-while enterprise – so long as that negation reflects the experience and aspirations of a significant number of people. Literature is the reflection of a society’s collective consciousness, and the recognition of change is important – it must be reckoned with.    

Take, for example, the literature of Great Brittan and Ireland at the turn into the present century: the much villified Art-for-Art’s-Sake movement. Here is a body of literature which experimented with form and technique according to the precepts of scientific method then dominant. Its procedures were advanced (avant garde) while the subject matter was altogether Romantic and ideal – as well as metaphysical and psychological. In socio-economic terms this was the dominant literature of the period which followed the greatest development in scientific investigation, manufacturing, and material wealth that Europe had ever known. At that time Symbolism, and later, Expressionism, vied with Realism and Naturalism as alternative responses to contemporary human experience. The first sought to escape from the harsh reality and social injustice of the Industrial Revolution into a world of ideal form and texture – of spirit, emotion as well as psychological states. The latter sought to expose the actual conditions under which the victims of that socio-economic situation suffered – economic determination and personal degradation. The need to take part in such an escape tells us a good deal about the psychological and intellectual reaction of those communities to their real experience. Just as much, I would suggest, as the less wide-spread attempt to participate in the direct exposure of those brutal and dehumanizing pressures. The best literature cannot help but reflect the prevailing, as well as the dissident, realities of its time. The better critics evaluate what is written. They do not prescribe which realities are valid or, worse still, exclude artistic visions merely because that view does not coincide with their own.

The relativity of social realities is a vexing question as is the exact relationship between those realities and individuals. That is a major tenant of one critical school, and one often repeated:


Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness. It
is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the
contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. | 5 |

5 | Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology and Contribution to the of Political Economy as quoted by Terry Eagleton in Marxism and Literary Criticism (London; Methuen, 1976), p. 4.

No serious observer of life would doubt that social being determines consciousness, but is the second part of that statement really true? In Paradise Lost Milton’s Satan, an everlastingly real creation, says that he has:

A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time,
The mind is its own place, and the self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n | 6 |

6 | The Poetical Works of John Milton, 1, ed. Helen Derbyshire (Oxford; Clarendon, 1952), p. 12.

W.B Yeats, taking an extreme and Romantic position towards he end of his long writing career, included these lines in ‘The Tower’.


Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul. | 7 |

7 | The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell B. Alspach (New York; Macmillan, 1957), p. 415.

The symptoms of psychosomatic diseases are no less real because they have no basis in organic malfunction or infection by parasite, bacillus, or virus. Othello’s jealousy is none the less operative because it is unfounded in fact. People do act according to their beliefs, their particular view of reality, and societies are influenced by individual consciousness. Even low-church schools of criticism which hold that literature is only valued in so far as it demonstrates ethical and political morality, actually exist to propagate ideas which are meant to condition the consciousness and behavior of others. I should like to suggest that the relationship between the social realities of a given society and its artists or critics is one of reciprocal interaction, one in which it is equally possible for the various social realities, as they actually exist, to be defined, explored. and exposed as well as for the author or critic to anticipate the development of those realities – in other words to refine and educate public taste so that new aesthetic forms, intellectual attitudes, and ideologies might be embraced. The interplay of imagination and experience is the key to such a process.

At its best, however, the socio-political approach to literary criticism has a number of original and important insights to offer – particularly with reference to the growing relevance of comparative literature. Marxism is based on a revolutionary understanding of history, an examination and exposure of the sociological and economic determinants of particular systems, but Marxist criticism involves much more than an evaluation of the effect that the means of literary production, distribution, and exchange have on literature, more than a mere estimation of literature’s social function.


Marxist criticism is not merely a ‘sociology of literature’ concerned with
how novels get published and whether they mention the working class.
Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully, and this means a
sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings as the products of a
particular history. | 8 |

8 | Eagleton, p. 3.


Little violence is done to that statement by substituting the word ‘culture’ for ‘history’ so long as we remember that culture is also determined by the attitudes, ideals, and aspirations of a community as well as by social, economic, and political pressures. It has always been obvious that themes arise and develop in direct relationship to changes in the realities of a given society, and the study of literature has traditionally been based on the expression of a single ethnic, national, linguistic, or cultural group as it evolves and develops through time. Until fairly recently, however, ideas about literary form and style, as they exist within any given culture, were taken by that group to be absolute and universally applicable. Yet when one thinks that new criteria of values are needed to assess a radical development in literary forms and style, it is untenable that critics of one community should superimpose their culturally-determined ideas of effective expression and excellence on the literature of another. Unfortunately it happens all the time. Western critics (that is: European, New World, Australian, etc.) whose culture is predicated on Christian morality, materialism, rationality, and individualism are guilty of woeful errors in judgment when dealing with literature other than their own – unless they are able to understand and appreciate the relevant cultural values and aesthetic precepts on which those are based.

Traditional Oriental literature, for example, has been popularly dismissed by Europeans, or misunderstood, simply because it is characterized by a Buddhist detachment from life and yearning for spirituality which gives rise to a sequence of floating, shifting perceptions and projections of isolated emotions and states of being, instead of the logical plot progression and character development so highly prized in the West.

European critics, I believe, have made the same mistake with African literature and have often leveled the accusation that character development and psychological insight are lacking. The point that such critics have overlooked is that contemporary African society holds to a traditional view of communality in which the individual realizes his or her identity as a member of a larger group whose good takes precedence over that of any member within it. Fictional characters are acceptable to a West African readership in so far as they are representative and participate in actions whose social relevance is of primary importance.

Another unfounded challenge is that African literature lacks multiplicity or diversity of themes. The unspoken assumption is that art is a universal instrument of intellectual and individual speculation. African ideals of art, it seems to me, both literary and otherwise, are primarily functional, and a work is considered valuable in direct relation to whatever social or communal good it advocates and produces. Western critics often imply that African literature is rather thin and lacking in interest because of the scarcity of invention or experimentation in form and style. They obviously overlook the fact that such aesthetic considerations, while accepted as important in African literature, are subordinated to function. Invention and experimentation do exist, forms and styles evolve and develop, but they are not yet discernable as a primary concern. Originality does not seem to be anything so highly prized for its own sake as in Western literature, and this perhaps offers a clue to some the positive, rather than negative, misconceptions of non-African critics.

One of the first works of African literature to burst on the scene of the English-speaking world was Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard which charmed a wide readership through the originality of the language and the exotic nature of its world-view. The broken and ungrammatical English delighted Western critics because of its freshness and spontaneity. In it the words and phrases of a worn-out literary language (English) were renewed and revitalized. Tutuola’s language seemed to be consciously reformed into a perfect vehicle for the expression of a wonderfully naïve and innocent fictional world in which the actual and the supernatural, the modern and the traditional, are integrated into a single vision. To the Nigerian reader, however, Tutuola’s language is often an embarrassment. Within that culture the execution of a work of art is valued in relation to the quality and refinement of its craftsmanship, not necessarily on its aesthetic relevance and expressiveness. Traditional views of artistic creation, on the other hand, allow for the incorporation of new material in an established and fixed form No objection is made to the idea of a television-handed ghostess or a director of medical services in the dead’s town. That kind of innovation is as natural in Nigeria as it is startling and wonderful to the European who has been conditioned for generations to sort out and compartmentalize experience. The attraction of Western critics to Tutuola – and to much of the first wave of African literature in English – lies in just that imaginative and exotic world-view. The vision of modern and traditional life experience as an integrated whole, of an antecedently spiritual universe within calling distance, so to speak, was infinitely reassuring to a culture whose separation from the natural world and traditional values had become almost total. Criticism as well as literature is the product of a particular cultural history and that fact should be taken into more consideration than it has been up to now.

Not only in the imaginative projections of Tutuola, but also in the realistic projection of political and cultural imperialism, Western readers find a corresponding image of their own plight and victimization, an image of cultural dispossession and alienation. Europeans turned their attention to African literature, not from a disinterested commitment to criticism or even to cross-cultural understanding, but rather because of its relevance to their own preoccupation and needs, a possible source of influence and inspiration.

However much Western critics celebrated the vigor of the new literature whose language was exciting and whose themes seemed relevant to their own situation, they invariable measured that literature against the aesthetic criteria of their own. Take, for example, the divergent critical opinions as to Chinua Achebe’s best known novel. Western critics acclaim Things Fall Apart because of its formal basis in classical Greek Tragedy, its developed characterization, and the depiction of excesses in traditional Igbo life which seem to be at least partial justification for its downfall. African critics prize Arrow of God more highly because of its more immediately relevant social reality. Ezeulu is more representative of the community than Okonkwo, and there is a greater emphasis on the interaction between the chief priest and the culture which he is charged to protect. Ezeulu’s fall is that of the community while Okonkwo’s is individual, however much it also derives from cultural disruption.

A different kind of example is found in the reaction of African critics to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson in the novel of that name. I have not yet heard of anyone being offended by the very similar figure of Lakunle, the egregious village schoolmaster in Wole Soyinka’s Lion and the Jewel. The point that I believe Cary to be making through the confrontation between Rudbeck, the colonial District Officer, and Mr. Johnson is the inanity and total inapplicability of British culture outside its own context.

It should be obvious that all works of literature are best examined in the light of their individual cultural values, both aesthetic and social. The critic of an alien literature must necessarily acquire an intimate understanding of, and sensitivity to, the genius of its own language and underlying values. The interplay of experience and its imaginative projection in art, trips us all up from time to time, and mainly because our unspoken and often unacknowledged assumptions actually give rise to literary conventions, styles, and techniques, as well as to the critical criteria with which we evaluate literature.