Not a “clash of cultures”, but a clash between the individual and the community

By Alex Tellez

After finishing the play, I wondered what function the Colonial presence plays the story. It is hard not to think of the play as way to compare and contrast two cultures through their conflict. Soyinka stresses in his Preface that the play does not demonstrate a clash of cultures but that “the would-be producer of this play” should focus on “the play’s threnodic essence” (3).  The footnote defines threnodic as “having the quality of death and lamentation”.  He states that the confrontation is not between the “Colonial Factor” and the Yoruba culture but between “Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind” (3).   I had the initial impression that Elesin was about to transition to the afterlife, but was prevented from doing so by the British guards.  In this case, it would be the fault of the
British and this would support the notion that the play is a clash of cultures.  However, by observing the play as Soyinka intended, the issue is complicated.

We discussed in class how there were indications that Elesin was perhaps not ready
to complete his task.  Iyaloja senses his uncertainty.  By the end, she blames
Elesin for his inability to will himself to die.  His failure seems to be his inability to
overcome the “Colonial Factor” as an obstacle. Iyaloja views their presence as a mere obstacle but not a factor that should determine the fate of their culture. This view is reflected in the way the women of Yoruba regard the white culture.  They do not seem to be affected much by their presence.  It is as if the British presence is just an afterthought; Iyaloja describes Pilkings as a ghost which implies that she does not think he has a substantial presence. Elesin tries to defend himself by comparing the white’s presence to temptation.  He claims he could have overcome the temptation but that “the alien hand pollut[ed] his source of will”, that “a stranger force of violence shatter[ed] the mind’s calm resolution” (56).  Essentially, he tries to say that the alien race destroyed his will to die. Iyaloja, however, sees through his excuses and responds by imitating him and saying, “‘there’s a wild beast at my heels’ is not becoming language from a hunter” (57). She asserts that as the member and respected figure of the community, he should have had the resilience and strength to assert his will despite interference from Colonial powers.  He fails in thinking that they have “a force of violence” at all (56).  He should have had the strength to remain impervious to their temptations: their idea that he should not have to die.  Iyaloja feels that it was his responsibility to prevent British ideals from affecting him in order to complete his task.

When she takes a step farther past Pilkings’ designated line, Elesin defends
her.  Iyaloja sees this as further proof that he has bought into the white man’s rules and customs (unlike his son Olunde who has remained faithful to Yoruba values).  The imaginary line indicated by Pilkings represents British rules and customs.  By defending her, Elesin demonstrates understanding of their culture and respect for it.  He views this imaginary line as something concrete. This shows how he has let another culture influence
his thinking.  British values have affected him and he identifies with them.
By identifying himself with them he was unable to value death in the same way as his culture.  The fault is not of the ignorant “alien culture” but of the individual’s weakness to stay true to the values of his community. Soyinka shows how a confused identity of just one man can effect and change his own culture.  The play does not show the clash of cultures, but demonstrates how a changing personal identity results in the death of values and customs of one’s original culture.  The conflict is between how the individual identifies himself and his community.  Soyinka laments how personal weakness and uncertain identity destroys the community.

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