Tolstoy of the Zulus: A Meditation on the Excellent Other
One evening late in the year 1385, the Ooni of Ife held a consultation over a land dispute. The Ooni was seated on his throne in the shadowy inner room of the palace. He was arrayed in magnificent flowing white robes, which signified his purity and his association with the god Obatala. It was the god Obatala who had been tasked by the great god Olodumare with the creation of human beings. This Ooni was named Obalufon II, for this had been his father’s name, too. Obalufon II was the third king to ascend the throne of Ife. Unlike his father, but like his grandfather Oduduwa (named for the mythic hero Oduduwa, founder of the Yoruba race), Obalufon II was a strong king. He had been crowned, but then there had been a terrible succession dispute and he had been deposed by his uncle Oranmiyan. But the struggle had continued, and through a series of alliances and subterfuges, Oranmiyan was overthrown and Obalufon II had come back to power. In one battle, Obalufon II’s warriors had masked themselves in disguises made of grass. To their rivals, they looked like spirits. These masks made them victorious in that battle. Later, after a number of reversals and betrayals, Obalufon II ascended the throne a second time.
By 1385, he is older, wiser. The city state of Ife, a hundred and thirty five miles north of West Africa’s Atlantic Coast, has been secured. On the face of Obalufon II is a serene prosperity. He has the cheeks of a man who laughs. But he is not laughing. Were we able to properly see his dark-complexioned face, were it not obscured by the beaded crown, which scatters the light across his face, we would see his calmness and ingenuity, the natural set of his lips into an enigmatic smile. But still, we can see that it is him. Aspects of the physiognomy come across unmistakably.
So, on this evening, deep in the fourteenth century, Obalufon II leans over to an advisor and whispers his judgment. The king is second only to the gods, and his voice is not to be heard trivially. The advisor speaks out, rendering the verdict on the matter at hand: where the demarcations of land are to be set, to whom restitution must be paid, what the penalties are against anyone who contravenes the royal decision. Given the variables at play, given the various feelings of the various parties involved, his Majesty has spoken wisely. Jurisprudence always contains an element of guesswork anyway. In a hundred years or so, as with so many things in human affairs, this particular decision won’t matter so much. There will be other conflicts, other contests.
The Ooni rises, leaves the room, and the people of Ife fall and bow in piety. His white robes cloud him in the half-darkness, and the air is full of his special music, the music of Obatala: an ensemble of igbin drums, with their slack and deep sound, and a chatter of metal percussion. Only a few of those gathered in court, sworn to secrecy, know that this man is not actually the Ooni Obalufon II. It is someone else, pretending to be him: a high chief wearing a hyper-realistic mask. Obalufon II himself has been dead for years now. The mask is now him. It is made of almost pure copper, expensive and difficult to cast. It is made to the precise size of the dead king’s face, and when it is worn, it extends his beneficial rule. In a few months, the sacred subterfuge will be over. The next king, the fourth Ooni of Ife, will ascend the throne. Obalufon will be deified, and become the god of sculptors, and one of the most honored of Ife’s kings. But for now, on this evening in 1385, we are still suspended in a necessary deception. Here is that mask.
Yoruba, the language of Obalufon II and the kings of Ife, is my first language, the only language I knew until I began school in Nigeria about the age of six. I was born into Yoruba and I am trained as an art historian. To begin with, I studied general art history as an accompaniment to my practice as a sculptor. Later on, in graduate school in London, I wrote an MA on the art of Ife in the medieval period, with a minor field in Japanese art. Then I moved to New York and receiving my MPhil in sixteenth century Northern European visual culture, with a focus on the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder around the time of the Dutch revolt. I have, in other words, been long accustomed to thinking of language, literature, history, and art as four strands of an inseparable braid.
It is important not to speak of the “discovery” of Ife sculpture in general. The Ooni’s palace as well as certain shrines in Ife have in perpetuity had certain of these artifacts, including the Obalufon mask, on display. It is a conventional arrogance to declare “discovery” only at the point when a European comes in is worth querying. The German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, on seeing the bronze and terracotta sculpture of Ife in 1911 was so astonished that he declared them the work of a now-vanished white race, possibly of Mediterranean origin. He simply could not reconcile the magnificence of the works with his opinion of the black people who lived in that territory. It was easier for him to nonsensically posit a new Atlantis.
After Frobenius’s time, further archaeological finds in Ife, at the Wunmonije compound in 1938 and at Ita Yemoo in 1957, added to the corpus of sculptures. The metal sculptures—copper, bronze, and brass—are fewer than twenty in all, and most of them life sized heads. The terracottas are a few dozen, usually of equal refinement to the cast metal sculptures, but smaller in size and wider in subject matter: heads as well as standing figures, couples, animals, stools, ritual objects.
The terms in which Frobenius and other scholars after him have praised the work from Ife has tended to focus on their naturalism. And it is true that several of the heads seem to have the breath of life in them. They have a fidelity to the appearances of persons, and they make use of the lost wax process, a sophisticated technique lost in Europe since classical antiquity. (Donatello, the Italian master of casting, will only be born in 1386.) But I want to suggest that the power of Ife art is connected to that of the other great African sculptural traditions, and that it cannot simply be reduced to a question of mimesis. Rather, it is a question of sensitivity, or of the way that intention is settled into a plastic form.
It is this sensitivity that connects Ife with sixteenth century Benin bronze sculpture, with seventeenth century Kongo minkisi, and with nineteenth century Dogon figurines. The flawless form of the Obalufon mask, its high finish, its delicate lines and sinuous surface, can be a distraction from the deeper power it conveys: that such an object arises out of a given cultural current, out of certain sophisticated political and commercial arrangements that make ateliers, quality control, and the transmission of technical knowledge possible. The resultant form, whether naturalistic or stylized, is secondary to the forms of sensitivity manifest in the work, just as the stylization of Gothic sculpture is no less valuable than the extreme mimetic facility of the Baroque period. Looking at fourteenth century Ife art, I am deeply impressed by this sensitivity: the raised edge of the lips, the softness of flesh over bone. I am deranged by it and believe it to be the literal equal of anything that has been made by anyone anywhere.
Leo Frobenius was wrong: the Ife sculptures were not made and then abandoned there by a foreign race. But his attitude remains today in many curious forms. Some scholars still think the Ife works were made by an outsider. The zenith of what we recognize as artistic excellence does not reside only in the West. This, unfortunately, is one of those things that does not need saying that continues to need saying.
In March 1994, Alfred Kazin wrote the following about something his friend Saul Bellow had said in a 1988 interview: “My heart sank when I heard that Bellow once said, ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” Bellow’s statement was both shocking and not completely surprising, since his pronouncements had been taking a notably conservative turn for a number of years. The latest statement did add a hectic few weeks to the American culture wars in the mid-nineties, and Bellow had both defenders and detractors. Bellow took to the pages of the New York Times to write in his own defense.
The self-defense was a curious one. Reading it now, one can still see Bellow’s pique rising off the page like steam. In almost every successive paragraph, he takes a different turn. His feelings have been hurt. He slashes in all directions as though he were Cuchulain, sword aloft, wading out to sea, fighting with the invulnerable tide.
First he says that he is only alleged to have said any such thing about the Zulus and the Papuans. Then he says he certainly said it nowhere in print. Then he says “the scandal is entirely journalistic in origin, the result of a misunderstanding.” Then he seems to concede that he did say it, in some form, but it was in order to make a distinction between literate and pre-literate societies.
I didn’t say it, Bellow says, but by the next paragraph, he says his remarks were “off the cuff obviously.” And then he makes the bizarre argument that since neither the Bulgarians nor the Americans have a Proust, they should be offended too. Of course, he did not say anything about Americans or Bulgarians—the reason being (to quote the argument he makes in a later paragraph) that we have to “make allowance for what we outsiders cannot hope to fathom in another society.” Americans and Bulgarians are not foreign to this conception of the world as he imagines Zulus to be.
We in the West, Bellow suggests, are members of the same species as “primitive men” like Papuans and Zulus. By this logic, it is not slander to classify them as preliterate. And, listening to Bellow, we are also aware that “Tolstoy of the Zulus” and “Proust of the Papuans” has a comic, sing-song tone to it. He said it because, in part, to him, such a notion is patently absurd. Then he’s off to another argument: that anthropological curiosity is the preserve of Westerners alone. “Papuan field-workers do not come here to learn what makes Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami or New York tick.” In Bellow’s world, Yoruba boys do not grow up to study Bosch and Bruegel, or give lectures at the University of Amsterdam. It would be the most absurd thing. His incredulity is like Dr Johnson’s who said: “Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” It is a comic incredulity. Proust. The Papuans. Worlds apart.
And on it goes, in the space of Bellow’s short opinion piece. One incensed and internally incoherent argument after another: people no longer have a sense of humor, rage is prestigious, black child gangsters are killing people for saying the wrong thing. Nowhere in this ranting cascade is there any notion that the Zulu or the Papuan might have a right of response, or have the eloquence to parse the layers of condescension involved. They are simply too primitive to be imaginable inside this argument, other than as the fodder itself. There are already actual Zulu and Papuan novelists. They are made to disappear.
Finally, coming to the end of his enraged screed against rage, Bellow decides that anyone who criticizes him is to be equated with anti-Semites and Stalinists, and that his right to discuss a “major public question” is being infringed. Deeply weary, he concludes: “We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists, or fascists.” This phrasing is unfortunately familiar now. It’s actual meaning is frequently as follows: “We can’t say racist, misogynist, supremacist, imperialist, or fascist things without having them recognized as such.” It is about longing for the time when you were the center of the world, and all these outsiders didn’t complain so much about you taking up all the space.
The bronze sculpture, about a foot high, that depicts an Ooni of Ife and his Olori is naturalistic in the facial features but “African” in the proportions. What I mean by that is that instead of the body being eight head lengths, it is only about three, a ratio common in West and Central African sculptural traditions. The reason for this is because of the importance of the head, the “ori,” as the seat of the self. Your “ori” is literally your head, but it is also your fate, your luck, your destiny, a synecdoche of your existence. For this reason, the highly detailed work on the facial features in Ife art is unsurprising. Sadly, there have been losses in this particular sculpture, most notably in the king’s face, which seems to have been subjected to a blow, perhaps during a hurried burial at the time of a siege. The royal pair was discovered in Ita Yemoo, Ife, in 1957, by builders working on the foundations of a house.
What is resonant about this image, what is obviously resonant about it, is the excellence of the craft involved in its facture. But, to employ the Barthesian photographic term “punctum,” what is piercing about this image is the gesture, visible on the reverse view, of the Ooni’s foot twined round his wife’s ankle. I am moved by this simple depiction. It occurs within the context of a visual assertion of state power, but it embeds an intimacy. This Ooni and Olori, from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, their names lost to us, were united in both power and affection. There is an excellence in this kind of subtle gesture. It is universally human. what we go to art for.
Bellow’s “off the cuff” distinction, he claimed in one of the arguments, was between literate and pre-literate societies. But his assertion, in its phrasing, was not fundamentally about literacy. It was about excellence. He named Tolstoy and Proust, and they are notable not for their literacy (which would be banal) but for their excellence. If what was at stake was mere literacy, Bellow might have reached for newspapers or correspondence, or business documents, which form the bulk of the writing that societies do.
We needn’t play Bellow’s game on his terms. We needn’t point out the contemporary widespread literacy in the places he mentions, or literary excellence from all over the “darker nations.” List-making is a mug’s game. You’ll never satisfy your interlocutor. If you say “B.W. Vilakazi,” someone will say, “But what about this?” If you say “Wole Soyinka,” someone else will say “But what about that?” A talk that Toni Morrison gave in 1975 states the matter succinctly, and recognizes that a query like “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” is an empty provocation that it is. Morrison says:
“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
The link between the older sculpture from Ife and the more recent (and more widely dispersed) nineteenth and twentieth century Yoruba sculpture is subtle but visible. And the link between these art traditions and the linguistic practices of the Yoruba is complex but present. In Yoruba language, there are many usages that go beyond conventional form. There is, crucially, the corpus of Ifa, the Odu Ifa, an extremely complicated system of divination based on two hundred and fifty six verses, all of them memorized by the priest. There are the various Oriki, praise poems applied to specific situations and tutelary gods, where the Yoruba love of allusion, word play, and literary conceits finds full expression. And there are the proverbs which do make their way into quotidian speech. Yoruba has only been written down since the mid-19th century, but we call all this oral literature because it contains a layering and intricacy that is often denser than ordinary prose. I’ll give four of these proverbs, chosen pretty much at random, which all speak about skepticism and worldly wisdom, and which all deliver the message with economy and grace, where English might be forced into a certain wordiness.
A ki i koni nika bi a o ba nika ninu; ta ni nkoni ka sere? No one learns evil who does not already have evil within; who can teach a person to be good? In other words, there’s such a thing as innate nature.
Ese giri giri n’ile anjofe; ofe tan, ese-e si da. Heavy is the noise of footsteps in the gift-giver’s house. But when the gifts are finished, the place goes silent.
A ni ka roju jeko obun, o nda eko re kere. We pityingly buy from the squalid cornmeal seller, then she decides to cut corners. In other words, making concessions is no guarantee that you won’t be further inconvenienced.
Bi inu ko ba ni odi, odi a ninu. Even if you don’t make enemies, enmity will seek you out. In other words, conflict is the way of the world.
“Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.” These are extraordinary words that were delivered in a lecture in 1976. The truth of those ideas is what I have tried to defend here today: a broader conception of the human, a more comprehensive account. The author of the words was none other than Saul Bellow himself, and he spoke them on the occasion of his Nobel award. On that occasion, Bellow went on to add:
“The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it, is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as ‘true impressions.’ This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away, it leaves us again in doubt. But our connection remains with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes.”
I am deeply interested in the account Bellow gives here of what is at stake in the human condition, and the role that art can play in it. It is certainly interesting that, in speaking about the fundamentals, he has reached precisely for Tolstoy and Proust: they evidently represent far more than mere literacy for him. As a novelist, I recognize what Bellow is describing: the central role that contingency, uncertainty, and doubt play in all our best work. On a technical level, he is talking about the play of light and shadow across the surface of the work. Without having read Bellow, I knew that this was something I wanted to incorporate in my own fiction, and I did so, as in this passage from “Open City”:
“All the darkness that surrounded him, the various reminders of frailty and morality, were lit brightly from some unknown source, but even that light was shadowed. I thought of how clouds sometimes race across the sunlit canyons formed by the steep sides of skyscrapers, so that the start divisions of dark and light are shot through with the passing light and dark.”
When I gave the description of one evening in 1385 in the royal court at Ife, I had to draw on my knowledge of the scholarship on Ife art. Some scholars believe that the Obalufon mask had a vital role to play in coronation ceremonies, others believe is had a more funerary role, and I suggest that it might have been used for intrigue. There’s what is known for sure, but I had to fill in the rest with imagination. To know that a field of inquiry is highly complex is more important than uncovering every detail of the complexity, since many of those details are irretrievable. But without allowing for an antecedent complexity, we give it no chance of enchanting us.
I believe that the ethical demand works in much the same way: to use the powers of imagination and sympathy to believe that the other is not only similar to you, but equal to you in depth and excellence. The value of this belief is that it makes it easier to recognize the various forms of disregard you might be engaging in. When an African says to you, much to your surprise (since you don’t have a racist bone in your body), that you have acted in a racist manner, your defensiveness might be tempered by an honest query to yourself about what you perhaps have missed, about what complexities you have not allowed.
I speak specifically of Yoruba art and language because those are the spaces in which I am grounded. There’s little to be gained from arguing for Africa in general terms. But imagination is demanded of all of us, whomever we might be assessing. The world worth building is one that recognizes a priori the discursive excellence of Zulus, of Papuans, of Swedes and Indonesians and Greeks and Yoruba and Mexicans. It is one that countenances the intense specificity of place and experience, that recognizes Obalufon, Oduduwa, Obatala, and Oranmiyan, and imagines the rhythm and lived experience of a language like the one I grew up with. It is one in which other people are much more than a punchline to an off-the-cuff joke. On that basis—on the idea that the maximum intensity of human cultural experience is available in all human societies—another aspect of the dream of equity can take hold. But that move, the move that embraces the excellence of the other, requires both believing in others and imagining the world alongside them.