Another excellent reason for entering into the aesthetic and cultural conventions of a literature other than one’s own is the wider perspective gained on the nature of literature itself. No community or culture can possibly evolve and develop its artistic awareness without the impetus of contact with other cultures which employ different artistic techniques or new and exciting world views. It is small wonder that in an age of almost instant communication and a global revival of interest in mankind as social and political entities that literary investigation is moving towards an insistence on comparative study. The closer communities come together, in character or historical intercourse, the more significant the process. A comparative study of French and English literatures, for example, is not very likely to enlarge one’s apprehension of the almost infinite possibilities in the relationship between imagination and experience to any startling extent. A far more valuable enterprise might be a comparative study of the various literatures of Europe (Latinate, Germanic, Slavic, etc.) which could identify just what common factors exist among them – to characterize and explain the principle aesthetic precepts as well as the value systems involved. Still more interesting studies are yet to be undertaken between Western literatures and those which developed in other cultural contexts – studies which will ultimately lead to the definition and comparison of European, Asian, and African aesthetics on the one hand and their poetics on the other. After all, critics are as interested in the formulation of the dominant conventions and principles of composing a work of literature as they are in the criteria of evaluating that literature and its relation to life. Comparative studies between literatures of dissimilar cultural backgrounds promise exciting discoveries about the universal nature of literature and they also promise a rich vein of inspiration, influence, and assimilation.    

Ethnic literatures have always developed both as a response to conditions and realities within a given culture and to those outside which have impinged on their consciousness. My own research into the influence of classical Japanese drama on the plays of W.B. Yeats is just such an example of cross-cultural intercommunication. In that particular case Yeats was groping his way towards new dramatic form in response to the moral and intellectual pressures of his time. His vision of life experience centered on the relation between the natural and supernatural worlds, on heroic possibilities in human character and on the nature and provenance of individual satisfaction or fulfillment. His themes reflect the preoccupations of his time: disillusionment over the outcome of Victorian ‘Progress’ and a reaction against materialism. One of the modes of expression with which he experimented was verse drama. His idea was to escape from the confining conventions of traditional forms with its insistence on more or less realistic action, logical plot progression, and character analysis. Instead of a dramatic narrative Yeats proposed the more direct presentation of emotions, attitudes, and ideas which is common to lyric poetry.

The first eleven plays he wrote derived their form and dramatic method from a number of widely different sources: Greek tragedy, medieval mystery and morality plays, and then-contemporary French Symbolist drama. In his search for an alternative form of expression none of the precedents within his own culture, either contemporary or historical, quite suited his subject matter. An impasse had been reached. After 1913 he was introduced to the medieval Japanese Noh Drama and discovered in it a challenging conception of production techniques which allow emotion to be expressed through music and dance at those moments when words alone, however lyrical, fail. What knowledge he had of Noh came from the garbled notes and unfinished translations left at the death of an American scholar whose information had been obtained at first hand. Unfortunately there was little published information on the subject in any Western language at that time, and without comparisons it was impossible for him to assess the reliability of Ernest Fenollosa’s archive. It is no great surprise that Yeats’s understanding of Noh was both incomplete and inaccurate. It sufficed, however, to act as a catalyst, inspiring him to create a new (and altogether different) form of brief and intense lyrical drama which combined poetry, music, mime, and dance, and in which the heroic or supernatural quality of a past action is ritualized and recreated through the imaginative participation of the audience. For many years the strangeness and inaccessibility of Yeats’s later plays have been generally attributed to the exotic influences of the Japanese Noh.

It is, however, important to distinguish which ideas were borrowed from the Fenollosa notebooks from those which were overlooked, nor had there been, much critical analysis of the Japanese form, itself. Comparisons require a thorough grounding on both sides. More importantly, a historical context needs to be put in place – just what were the contemporary, European ideals of dramatic subject matter and performance techniques. The aesthetic practice and cultural underpinnings of the Modernist Movement (1910-1970) are also relevant as well as the structured imagery of the Mystical-occult Revival and Symbolism. The technique of supra-positioning was confirmed, if not derived, from Indian and East Asian models. Perhaps the mainspring lies in the scientific theories and philosophical idealism of the late Victorians as well as our present involvement with African literature in European languages. Is there, in fact, a consistent mode of literary appreciation in response to the social realities and aspirations of a given time and cross cultural contact?

There still exists an assumption that the Modernist period of literature in English is a second phase in the long life of Romanticism, and one in which aesthetic concerns provide a common ground for the disparate world-views of individual movements. The fascinating question is the confrontation of realistic and naturalistic views or modes of expression with those of Romanticism. That conflict gives rise to opposed, but not mutually exclusive, approaches to criticism. The issues are very much alive, and nowhere so lively as in the contemplation of African literature.

The real problem, however, is at least as much a question of defining African aesthetics as it is of social realities and world-views. Africa, south of the Sahara, exhibits a vast number of diverse communities and cultures. The present, and very artificial, nation states are made up of countless ethnic groups – each with its own traditional forms of expression and an oral literature which is not only very much alive, but also functions as an expression of cultural identity. Nothing like enough work has been done by way of collecting and analyzing this heritage, nor comparing and contrasting traditional literatures and the differing realities from which they spring. Identifying and distinguishing African experience/aesthetics from those of Europe and Asia is of paramount importance.

The greater problem, however, is that contemporary African literature, whether written in foreign or African languages, is the result of a complex and as yet incompletely assimilated cultural background rather than being monolithic and homogenous. More than any other, the criticism of African literature requires a comparative approach because of the composite nature of its culture; the confluence of traditional and modern experience, of African and Western aesthetic ideals. Because of a colonial heritage – economic and cultural imperialism – there can be no mindless assumption that ‘traditional’ is African, ‘modern’ is European.

Current African experience and aesthetic ideals are a mixture of the traditional and modern, an expression of interaction and often of conflict – sometimes of congruity and fortunate assimilation. Rather than trying to focus on a singular social reality, critics ought to analyze the works themselves and identify the nature of the experience exposed as well as the technical means used to express it. The point would be to evaluate the truthfulness and value of the representation. Criticism should investigate which aspects of literary experience – modes of expression – are ‘traditional’ and which are ‘modern’. It is unfortunately rare to find such disinterested and objective criticism as Kofi Awoonor’s commentary on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:


It is in this work that [Amos Tutuola] achieves a fantastic unity between
his folkloric sources and his own inventiveness which tends to be
syncretic and dependent on his observations of Western or European
institutions, norms, and practices. | 9 |

9 | The Breast of Africa (New York; Doubleday, 1976), p. 238


All too much of the criticism of African literature in so-called metropolitan languages by both Africans and Europeans, has assumed the overwhelming influence of Western models. Another rich vein for research in African literature surely lies in the study of traditional aesthetics and the principles of composition in oral literature. At the present time African writing is not so much based on western forms and aesthetic concepts, as that of a few formal devices have been grafted on to traditional modes.

For example, the novel is obviously a Western genre and did not exist in oral tradition, but almost every aspect of novels written by Nigerians is perfectly in keeping with the conventions of those oral prose-narratives which have been translated. The social function of subject matter is always important as is the broadly representative nature of characterization and the linear/unitary nature of plot construction, not to mention brevity of composition. Foreign languages are universally refashioned to reflect specifically African thought processes and values. African novels may appear to approximate contemporary European models in their brevity and directness of expression, but these are also features of the folktale. Attributions of direct influence by specific foreign authors are rare – that is, outside the concept of tragic heroes which crossed the Sahara when the first African universities were founded in Freetown and Ibadan. Chinua Achebe’s Ezeulu in The Arrow of God does have character flaws (pride/stubbornness), but he is brought down because he sins against his people (not the Gods), and, furthermore, the ‘tragedy’ is precipitated by the interference of an equally proud and stubborn colonial administration which is all-too-believably blind.

The case for poetry is something else again. Obviously, Hopkins and Yeats, Eliot and Pound (among others) have had an undeniable effect on Anglophone literature in Africa. Here too, one might suggest that ‘direct influence’ is not more a function of natural affinity than of cultural congruity. At the turning into the Twentieth Century Western art, both visual and verbal, reached out for new forms and modes of expression, seizing on the simultaneity of multiple perspectives and juxtapositioning of images or symbols as found in East Asian models. It also battened on to the bold and expressive stylization of African carvings to project abstract qualities and states of being. A natural affinity of ends and means led to cross-cultural borrowing and assimilation of influences between Modern European and contemporary African poetry.

The basic method of traditional oral poetry is the naming and celebration of things, places, people, and acts – an evocation of qualities and characteristics through an accumulation of associations, comparisons and contrasts. The principle is exactly that of the discontinuous image clusters so common to Modernist poetry in English. Critics with the requisite background in both the poetics and aesthetics of oral traditions and the competence to compare them with the methods and models of written poetry in ‘metropolitan’ languages, might just conclude that Agostino Neto’s “African Poetry” is characteristically Anglolan rather than derived from the Portugese.


Out on the horizon
there are fires
and the dark silhouettes of the beaters
with arms outstretched,
in the air, the green smell of burning palms.

African poetry

In the Street
a line of Bailundu bearers
tremble under the weight of their load
in the room
a mulatto girl with meek eyes
colours her face with rice powder and rouge
a woman wriggles her hips under a garish cloth
on the bed
a man, sleepless, dreams
of buying knives and forks so he can eat at table
in the sky the glow
of fires
and the silhouette of black men dancing
with arms outstretched,
in the air, the hot music of marimbas

African poetry

and in the street the bearers
in the room the mulatto girl
on the bed the man, sleepless

The burning consume
the hot earth with horizons afire. | 10 |

10 | In When Bullets Begin to Flower, Poems of Resistance from Angola, Mozambique and Guiné, Poets of Africa 3, selected and translated by Margaret Dickenson (Nairobi; East Africa Publishing House, 1972), pp.64-65.