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Excremental Postcolonialism

Author(s): Joshua D. Esty


Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 22-59
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208818
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JOSHUA D. ESTY
ExcrementalPostcolonialism

Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?


JamesJoyce,A Portraitof theArtistas a YoungMan

Next to death ... shit is the most vernacular atmosphere of our beloved
country.
WoleSoyinka,TheInterpreters

ostindependence African fiction features a striking conjunc-


tion of scatology and political satire, borne out most clearly
in two landmark novels of the 1960s: Wole Soyinka's The In-
terpreters (1965) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones
Are Not Yet Born (1968). In The Interpreters, a story of intellectuals in
decolonized Nigeria, Soyinka uses excremental language to present
political and corporate misdeeds in terms of unhealthy digestion. In
Armah's grotesque vision, shit (not to mention its corporeal familiars
phlegm, drool, vomit, sweat, piss, and blood) emerges as an index of
moral and political outrage in a new Ghana bedeviled by greed and
bureaucratic corruption. These works-along with such notably ex-
cremental contemporaries as Gabriel Okara's The Voice (1964) and
Kofi Awoonor's This Earth,My Brother(1971)-suggest that scatology
has a formative (and underexamined) significance in the develop-

I would like to thank Anthony Appiah, Ian Baucom, Larry Buell, Andrea Goulet, and
Graham Huggan for their comments and suggestions at various stages in the writing of
this essay.

ContemporaryLiteratureXL, 1 0010-7484/99/0001-0022 $1.50


? 1999by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
E S T Y * 23

ment of contemporaryAfrican literature.1We might begin to account


for this shared excremental vision by noting that the literature
emerges from a discursive arena saturated by the tropes of what Dain
Borges calls "belly politics" (109); such a reading would seem to be
strengthened by Achille Mbembe's recent and widely discussed hy-
pothesis that postcolonial politics (particularly in sub-Saharan
Africa) is characterizedby an "aestheticsof vulgarity" (1). However,
more searching forms of analysis are required, I think, to explain the
remarkable currency and symbolic versatility of excrement in the
postcolony-to account for shit's function not just as a naturalistic
detail but as a governing trope in postcolonial literature.
This essay will attempt such an account from a comparative liter-
ary perspective, a project inspired by the observation that excre-
mental language and novelistic vitality intersect not only in Armah
and Soyinka but in the works of celebrated scatologists James Joyce
and Samuel Beckett. Like their African counterparts, Joyce and
Beckett came to prominence during an era divided between anti-
colonial national revival and postcolonial national disillusionment.
The comparative analysis I propose reasserts the relevance of the
term "postcolonial" at a time when postcolonial studies has entered
its own era of disillusionment, marked by frequently recirculated
and skeptical interrogations from Arif Dirlik, Anne McClintock, and
Ella Shohat (among others).2 Although "postcolonial" continues to
thrive as an institutional label, it has been shown to betray a number
of conceptual weaknesses: it lumps together vastly different cultural
phenomena in a loose historical model; it defines the present in
terms of a European-dominated past; and it applies Western theory
to non-Western cultural objects. Moreover, as both its critics and its
champions acknowledge, the term tends to imply, against manifest
political and economic evidence, that imperial structures of domi-
nation have disappeared. Despite these objections, however, the

1. For a brief analysis of scatology in Awoonor and Okara, see Wright, "Scatology."
2. For a thoughtful survey of these arguments, see Stuart Hall's recent defense of "the
postcolonial" as a concept whose value stems from its ability to challenge and refine out-
moded models of global power that depend on first/third world binaries (244-46). Such
an apprehension of the postcolonial critical vocation is very much to the point here, for,
as I hope to suggest, excremental writing often serves to complicate the colonizer/colo-
nized binaries that have so often dominated the field.
24 CO N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E RAT U R E

term continues to have explanatory power when it sheds light on


shared discursive strategies among writers situated in similar his-
torical circumstances. This study, for example, begins with a specific
literary device-the excremental trope-and its function in Ghana-
ian, Nigerian, and Irish texts that locate themselves in the context of
failed or flawed postcolonial nationalism.
In Africa, scatological works by Soyinka, Armah, and Awoonor
(all published between 1965 and 1971) signaled a wide cultural re-
orientation in which questions about nationalist excess began to
mute the celebrations of independence. Similarly,we might identify
a second wave of writers in twentieth-century Irish literature:those
who came after the Celtic revivalists and looked askance at increas-
ingly rigid and cloying forms of cultural nationalism. Joyce and
Beckett are the dominant novelists of this "second wave," which
runs roughly from the Easter Rising (1916) to the Irish Republic
(1948). If Armah and Soyinka express disillusionment about the lost
promises of African independence, then Joyce and Beckett satirize
the tired conventions of the Irish Renaissance.3 In these roughly
comparable periods of their respective literary histories, Irish and
West African writers came to question political and aesthetic stan-
dards that were a legacy not only of Britishcolonialism but of heroic
national struggle against British colonialism.
The changing cultural politics of this postcolonial second wave
translate, in both settings, into changing literary forms. Anthony
Appiah has argued, for example, that African writers of the later
1960s evince a new suspicion of nationalism that underwrites their
formal challenge to the "originary"African novel (the latter exem-
plified by Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye's
L'Enfantnoir). For Appiah, the largely realist texts of the first wave
projecta version of Africa's "usable past" that tends to naturalize or
legitimize nationalism (150). By contrast, the second-wave works of
3. Recentstudies such as Declan Kiberd'sInventingIreland,David Lloyd'sAnomalous
States,and Enda Duffy's TheSubalternUlysseshave done much to suggest the value of
readingmodernistIrishtextsin termsof theirpostcolonialcontext.And C. L.Innes'scom-
parativestudy has describedimportantpoints of contactbetweenIrishand Africanwrit-
ers engaged in the projectof reviving and affirmingcolonized cultures(5-6). Although
Joycein many ways inauguratesthe skepticalturn away fromheroicnativism,I should
note (with Innesand Kiberd)thatmany "firstwave"Celticrevivalistswere alreadywary
of Romanticnativistexcess.
E S T Y * 25

Armah and Soyinka distrust nationalism and disrupt realism with


shifting perspectives, disjunctive episodic structures, and hallucina-
tory bouts of nonmimetic or surreal description. Similarly, one
might argue, the experimental modernist works of Joyce and Beck-
ett display a parodic aversion to overweening nationalism. Among
the most visible products of these movements in African and Irish
literature are picaresque, grotesque, and satirical fictions that share
a conspicuous investment in the language of excrement.
Criticsof Soyinka,Armah,Joyce,and Becketthave, of course, taken
note of excrementalimagery but have not treated it comprehensively
within the cross-cultural framework afforded by postcolonial stud-
ies.4 Scatological satire, though it extends back to classical (Aristo-
phanes and Juvenal) and early moder (Rabelaisand Swift) periods,
takes on new and distinctive meanings in postcolonial fiction. By ex-
amining excrementallanguage in Africanand Irishwriting, I propose
not to define postcolonial literatureas excremental but rather to ex-
amine the peculiarly rich life of scatology in texts that are already
identifiable-by their immediate contexts and concerns-as postcolo-
nial. Such a comparative project has been given fresh relevance by
new scholarly work on excremental tropes within the medical dis-
courses of moder colonialism (Anderson) and on vulgar tropes
within the political discourse of contemporaryAfrica (Mbembe).
In a recentarticleentitled "ExcrementalColonialism,"WarwickAn-
derson draws attention to the crucial role played by clean bodies-
imagined in almost transcendentalterms-in the modernization and
development enterprises of colonialism. In particular,Anderson de-
scribes the methods by which U.S. colonizers produced an image of
Filipino natives as unsanitary and excremental. Anderson's history
of this rhetorical and epidemiological debasement provides a good
point of departure for a study of excremental images in the postcolo-
nial era, when shit begins to operate counterdiscursively. In post-
colonial writing, shit can redress a history of debasement by display-

4. To take the case of Armah as an example, few critics have neglected the unmistakably
excremental features of The Beautyful Ones. In the first several years after publication,
Harold Collins, Emmanuel Obiechina, Richard Priebe, and Kofi Yankson offered accounts
of Armah's preoccupation with shit, generally in terms of symbolic de- and regeneration.
Both Yankson and Collins provide useful catalogs of excremental images but do not at-
tempt theoretical explanations of their function.
26 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

ing the failures of development and the contradictions of colonial


discourse and, moreover, by disrupting inherited associations of ex-
crement with colonized or non-Western populations. Picking up
where Anderson leaves off, then, this essay addresses shit not so
much as a material object but as a powerful "discursive resource"
within a new symbolic order.
The symbolic mobility of excremental images in postcolonial cul-
tures has been recently thrown into relief by the work of Achille
Mbembe. The vulgar aesthetics that Mbembe ascribes to sub-Saharan
African politics derives, he suggests, from "a tendency to excess and
disproportion" (2). Where Bakhtinian theory has proposed that ob-
scene language bubbles up from below to challenge official or state
discourse, Mbembe suggests that vulgar images, including the ex-
cremental, are often deployed by the state as part of its official dis-
play of power. This analysis of vulgar images that both represent
and resist power suggests the radical ambiguity of scatology. And if
excrementalimagery serves differentrhetoricalmasters in Mbembe's
political discourse, it is perhaps an even more complex and useful
resource in the literary languages of postcolonialism.
As both object and symbol, shit has long been read according to
psychoanalytic and mythic models. Such readings traditionally
focus on (transculturaland transhistorical)experiences of childhood
sexuality and sacred/profane dualisms. Meanwhile, literary read-
ings of postcolonial (particularly "third world") texts tend to inter-
pret most figures (including shit) in terms of specific historical and
political events. My aim here will be to synthesize these approaches
in order to apprehend the complex symbolic uses of excrement in
both private, psychological and public, political registers-and,
more importantly,to understand how these two registers intersect in
postcolonial writing.

What is scatology's vocation in the cultural zone of the postcolony?


What is the symbolic meaning and narrative function of shit for
Armah and Soyinka-and, in the Irish setting, for Joyce and Beckett?
We can begin to answer these questions with a brief account of the
central role played by digestive metaphors in general-and excre-
mental ones in particular-in modern colonial encounters. It is by
E S T Y * 27

no means a coincidence, for example, that the classic source of the


"excremental vision" (along with other forms of political indiges-
tion) in Anglophone literature is also an early observer of colonial
relations: I refer, of course, to Jonathan Swift, modest proponent of
Irish cannibalism.
Swift's status as an excrementalwriter is legendary. The basic criti-
cal debate about Swiftian scatology divides those who see it as a sign
of savage misogyny and outright madness from those who see it as an
important literary device. In the latter camp, Norman O. Brown has
offered the classic vindication of Swift's vision, claiming that his ex-
cremental writing is not a madman's filthy obsession but a devastat-
ing and profound insight into the "universal neurosis of mankind"
(186).5For my purposes, Brown's most intriguing contention is that
Swift produces a whole new kind of literary scatology, categorically
different from that of Aristophanes or Rabelais. For Brown (despite
his universalist critical idiom), the excremental vision truly arrives
with-and offers deep insight into-capitalist, Protestantmodernity.
Brown, however, does not pursue the point that Swift, working in
eighteenth-century Dublin, was himself located at one of the bound-
ary zones of an advancing capitalist modernity. Indeed, surprisingly
little commentary on Swift connects scatological satire to particular
political targets, despite the ripe evidence of his Irish pamphlets of
the 1720s and 1730s. Failed economic development is the predomi-
nant theme of the pamphlets, which excoriate the British for stunt-
ing Irish industry, warping Irish agriculture, and restricting Irish
money-minting.6 In An Examinationof CertainAbuses, Corruptions
and Enormitiesin theCity of Dublin (1732),Swift turns scatology to his
immediate purposes as an economic patriot when he tries to account
for "an immense Number of human Excrements at the Doors and

5. Swift's reputation as scatologist par excellence stems largely from a series of late
poems that confront readers with the brute material unloveliness of the body, thereby un-
dermining human pretensions and sweeping aside the abstractions of courtly love and
spiritual aspiration. His prose, too, from A Taleof a Tubto Gulliver's Travels,is heavily ex-
cremental. Many have been critically disgusted by Swift's scatology, most famously John
Middleton Murry, who coined the phrase "the excremental vision." For a close study of
Swiftian scatology in its classical context, see Lee.
6. For thorough treatments of Swift's Irish pamphlets, see Ferguson and Mahony. Sea-
mus Deane, somewhat exceptionally, locates Swift as a founding figure in an Anglo-Irish
literature predicated on "the failure of the English colonial mission in Ireland" (36).
28 * CONTEMPORARY LIT E RA T U RE

Steps" of the streets of Dublin (167). Some observers, Swift reports,


have identified these excrements as of British-not Irish-issue,
planted on Dublin streets as evidence of local digestion in order to
disprove the Irish "Clamour of Poverty." After a detailed forensic
consideration of the shape and source of Dublin's shit piles, Swift
abandons the discussion in a gesture of political inconclusiveness.
Already, though, excrement functions not just as a naturalized detail
but as a national matter. Moreover, it functions as a potentially ob-
fuscating sign-a trace of uneven development whose unfortunate
presence may be attributed to either side of the colonizer/colonized
divide.
Although Swift uses digestive and excremental terms to expose
economic misrule in Ireland, he is no simple Irish patriot and cer-
tainly not an anti-imperialist in any contemporary sense.7 As much
as he criticized the neglectful British, he also attacked the Irish for
their backwardness. Such double vision seems to generate the vexed
tone of much Swiftian political satire.8As a cultural intermediary or
interpreter who links scatology to failed development, Swift stands
as a distant precursor to the excremental writers of postcolonial
Africa and Ireland.
Swift's frequent criticism of the barbarous Irish-his representa-
tion of the "filthy native"-belongs to a familiar rhetoric of colonial
denigration. The rhetoric of empire, as David Spurr has noted, in-
cludes an arsenal of debasement tropes that describe colonized pop-
ulations as dirty bodies, linking them to filth, shit, and disorder
(76-91). Warwick Anderson, too, points out that tropical colonial
possessions came to represent the lower strata both geographically
and physiologically-an association that tended to reinforce the

7. As an Anglo-Irishman, Swift identified with both the absentee colonizing regime and
the exploited colony, attacking English misrule from the Ascendancy perspective of a ne-
glected fellow (Mahony xv, Eagleton 160).
8. This Swiftian double vision also characterizes writers like Beckett and Patrick Ka-
vanagh who, in the 1930s and 1940s, produced what Declan Kiberd has described as "un-
derdeveloped comedy." Both writers frequently ascribed to Ireland a particularly dung-
ridden quality. But both understood Irish culture in the context of a colonial double
whammy whereby the British underdeveloped the country, then enshrined its inhabitants
as a backward but colorful lot whose rustic charms made good entertainment. Kavanagh's
excremental antipastoral poems satirize the mythified Irish peasant-an invention, he
thought, of English taste (Kiberd, "Underdeveloped" 723).
E S T Y * 29

idea of unclean, base natives (652).9 Such habits of thought were in-
tegral to the colonizer's rationalization and abstraction of native ex-
crement. The toilet, as Anderson reminds us, is a powerful symbol
of technological and developmental superiority-one that has the
corollary effect of intensifying, via a newly potent scientific lan-
guage, the negative valence of shit.
Within the less scientific, more literary discourses of modern im-
perialism, there are ready examples of the tropological link between
the native and the excremental. In A Passage to India, for example, ex-
cremental symbolism extends from Chandrapore town, an "abased"
and "monotonous" excrescence of river mud that smells of "burning
cow dung," to the Marabar caves-a place that approximates the
"anus of imperialism" (Forster 4-6; Suleri 132). Forster's symbolic
geography echoes that of Kipling's Kim, in which a bottomless trash
pit called the Shamlegh-midden seems to function as a horrifying
embodiment of the colonial bowels.
With that horrifying embodiment, though, we are reminded that
the discursive production of filthy natives and excremental land-
scapes is a tricky business. In both Forster's cave and Kipling's pit, the
excremental site not only evokes the debased native but also threatens
European identity (by disturbing Mrs. Moore's liberal self-possession)
and knowledge (by swallowing the Russian optical and surveillance
tools). If natives are coded in excremental terms and are taken as em-
bodiments of the colony's unmodernized, unassimilated material,
then they persist as a living threat to the hygienic symbolic order of
empire. In Spurr's version of this point, the debasement trope has a
dangerous and unanticipated consequence: the production of an ab-
ject other that cannot quite be banished (81-84). Likewise, Anderson
suggests that American health officials in the Philippines were "them-
selves victims of the abject," driven in part by a fascination with shit,

9. As we shift focus from Ireland to the European-ruled tropics of Asia and Africa, race
becomes a more important variable (though the Irish were, of course, also subject to mod-
ern pseudoscientific discourses of race). Scatological language has long been woven into
a racist logic that links nonwhites to sexualized and debased matter, including excrement.
For a survey of psychoanalytical understandings of excremental racism, see Terence
Collins (75-79). Collins argues that U.S. Black Arts poetry (which, like so much African
literature, takes Frantz Fanon as a political touchstone) uses shit imagery to reassign the
function of "excremental dumping ground" from blacks to whites (80).
30 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

waste, and pollution. At pains to "suppressthe abjectOther,"the col-


onizers end up revealing their vulnerabilityto it, triggering what An-
derson sees as a key conflict in colonial modernity (668).10I would
argue that this vulnerability-the dangerous mobility of the excre-
mental signifier within colonial settings-accounts in part for its re-
curring presence in later,postcolonial literarytexts.
To assess the importance of Euro-American vulnerability to ex-
cremental tropes in this context, we should also recall that the story
of Western imperial expansion, at a number of points, resembles
nothing so much as a massive voiding of symbolic wastes, economic
surpluses, and societal dregs. As Patrick Brantlingerpoints out, for
example, the deportation of a poor, criminal class from Victorian
Britainto Australia not only could be but was understood as a flush-
ing of Britain's waste matter, its societal excrement (116-17). The
colonial setting thus witnesses the intersection of different excre-
mental tropes, with both native and colonizer subject to debase-
ment. Shit circulates as a crucial sign in this field because it is, as
Mary Douglas's famous formulation would have it, a kind of dirt, or
"matter out of place" (36). On the one hand, excremental language
seeks to debase a rejected (native) population, but, on the other
hand, as Kristeva's analysis of abjection has suggested, what is re-
jected can also confound. If, in the colonial era, shit often functioned
as a sign of the actively denigrated native, it also comes to function,
in the decolonization era, as a sign of the actively repudiated ex-
colonizer, the alien and unwanted residue of a sometimes violent
political expulsion.

Writers like Soyinka and Armah have altered, inflected, and redi-
rected the symbolic associations of excrement inherited from colo-
nial discourse, turning scatology to the new task of representing
postcolonial disillusionment. Armah's The BeautyfulOnes quickly
identifies itself as a sad chronicle of independent Ghana, document-
ing the replacement of European power with local elites (Fanon's

10. Spurr and Anderson draw on Julia Kristeva's discussion of the abject as a discursive
phenomenon that is associated with defiled matter and that "disturbs identity, system,
order" (Kristeva 4).
E S T Y * 31

comprador class) who are unwilling or unable to follow through on


the high promises of freedom, equality, stability, and prosperity.ll
The Teacher,one of Armah's most profoundly disillusioned charac-
ters, recalls the fall in scatological terms: "Wewere ready here for big
and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hug-
ging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome
them onto our backs.... How were these leaders to know that while
they were climbing up to shit in their people's faces, their people
had seen their arseholes and drawn away in disgusted laughter?"
(81-82). Similarly, in Soyinka's satirical TheInterpreters,the young,
educated protagonists view with revulsion their comprador elders
who are marked by fat bellies and the stench of bad digestion.
The prevalence of excremental language in these satires is per-
haps unsurprising. After all, satire is an ancient form of mudsling-
ing; as Irvin Ehrenpreisnotes, "satireis traditionally associated with
filth, and the satirist is described as throwing turds and urine on
those whom he ridicules" (691).12The particular satirical exposure
performed by excremental images in TheBeautyfulOnes and TheIn-
terpretersoften turns on the unmasking of corrupt economics. If shit,
according to infantile logic, is a form of property or money, then
writers like Armah and Soyinka reveal money and property as a
form of shit. In their fiction, neocolonial capitalism appears in its un-
cloaked, cloacal form.
But excrement is not just a device borrowed from classical satire,
nor simply a neo-Freudian depth charge; it is also, as Emmanuel
Obiechina reminds us, an element of local oral traditions and an or-
dinary part of material conditions in urban Africa (125-27). Shit fills
the streets of Lagos and Ibadan in Soyinka's TheInterpreters.Sagoe,
a journalist and part-time philosophede merde,works adjacent to a

11. Given that Ghana was to be the model for African nationhood, it was particularly
disappointing for Armah to have to record that "only the name had really changed with
Independence" (9). Across Africa, writers saw the late 1960s as an era of failed hopes.
Arthur Ravenscroft and Emmanuel Obiechina provide a contemporary assessment of po-
litical conditions and literary responses during the so-called era of disillusionment. For a
more recent treatment, see Neil Lazarus's detailed discussion of Fanon's relevance to this
period in general (4-26) and to Armah's text in particular (27-45).
12. Ehrenpreis's commentary was brought to my attention by Ashraf Rushdy, whose re-
cent article on the "emetics of interpretation" thoroughly updates and improves the de-
bate on Swiftian scatology.
32 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

"stagnant, clogged" lagoon where "huge turds floated in decom-


posing rings" (72). Even when understood according to the repre-
sentational codes of realism, however, shit has a political vocation: it
draws attention to the failures of development, to the unkept
promises not only of colonial modernizing regimes but of postinde-
pendence economic policy.
To the extent that excrement serves as a sign of failed develop-
ment in these novels, it becomes part of a vexed political (and inter-
pretive) question. Is shit the residue of colonial underdevelopment
or evidence of failed African government? In the case of Swift, the
satiric beam shone on both local and absentee causes of economic
backwardness.Should Armah be read analogously? Armah's harsher
critics observe that TheBeautyfulOnes betrays a deep distaste for its
own setting; the narrator'srecoil from the shit-ridden city is not sim-
ply an abstractdevice but a visceral rejectionof public life in Ghana.
His bleakly excremental vision leaves Armah open to charges that
he represents a self-loathing view of his society that internalizes
colonial-era denigrations of the third world.13
Still, Armah takes pains to lay bare the neocolonial and historical
dimensions of Ghana's situation; indeed, he uses excremental lan-
guage throughout to describe uneven development as a particular
combination of surplus and shortfall produced by the legacies of Eu-
ropean imperialism. In TheBeautyfulOnes,the prevailing excremen-
tal metaphor operates in tandem with a figurative opposite, "the
gleam," which signifies the allure of consumption, the luxurious
sheen cast around Ghana's sheltered elite. Armah's symbolic axis
runs from dirty (excremental) to clean (gleaming), with the protag-
onist, a railway clerk, suffering the grotesque life of the impover-
ished masses and his antagonist, the prosperously corrupt Minister
Koomson, enjoying the "clean life." However, the protagonist also

13. Charges of this kind have frequently been leveled at V. S. Naipaul who, also writing
in the mid-1960s, produced a notoriously graphic description of Indian defecation in An
Areaof Darkness(72-75). Naipaul's descriptions of shit have been taken as part of his much
excoriated program of denigrating the third world as dirty and chaotic and of seeing India
in particular as a "diseased society" (Naipaul 74). I am not immediately concerned with
rereading Naipaul (though I think there is more to his discussion of excremental India
than the effete recoil of a Westernized intellectual), but it is worth noting once again the
central importance of scatology to postcolonial representations of underdevelopment.
E S T Y * 33

insists, "Some of that cleanness has more rottenness in it than the


slime at the bottom of a garbage dump" (44). Armah's fundamental
satiric maneuver is to reverse the apparent assignments of clean and
dirty, revealing the perversion of a system in which the ethically be-
smirched comprador enjoys a perfumed existence while the long-
suffering masses wallow in shit.
To put this another way, Armah uses excremental language to per-
form an extended Freudian unmasking or desublimation: he re-
odorizes money, converting it into shit and forcing readers to see
wealth as polished waste. He reduces the comprador's foreign cars,
fancy hotels, and luxury goods to excremental status-denouncing
them as the cruelest form of excess. In a system entirely out of eco-
nomic balance, shit flows through the novel like an alternative cur-
rency, a cruel displacement of productive capital. The shit and the
gleam are figurative expressions of underdevelopment and over-
consumption, of failed modernization in the streets and hypermod-
ernization in the luxury estates.14
What gives scatology an even more pointed relevance for Armah
and Soyinka, though, is its satiric application to an elite that is, after
all, a residue of colonialism-a lingering efflux of the despised and
departed European body politic. In TheInterpreters, for example, we
see the corrupt comprador Sir Derinola turned into a coffined "turd"
sticking out of a 1945 Vauxhall (111).Comprador respectabilityoften
means pathetic imitations of white or British institutions and man-
ners. Such moments of inauthenticityamong the neocolonial elites fall
squarely into Armah's sights: "He was trying to speak like a white
man, and the sound that came out of his mouth reminded the listener
of a constipated man, straining in his first minute on top of the lava-
tory seat" (125).Tropesonce used to code natives as filthy are now re-
assigned to Africans who mimic the (ex-)colonizer;the "matterout of
place" is no longer the native but the Europeanized comprador.

14. Excremental language plays a similar figurative role in another (also contempora-
neous) postcolonial fiction of uneven development, Albert Wendt's 1974 novella Flying
Fox in a FreedomTree.Wendt describes modernized, urban Samoa in scatological terms and
attaches an excremental identity to the despised generation of compradors who have
adopted papalagi(Western) values. In Wendt's novel, as in Armah's and Soyinka's, scatol-
ogy signals both the material underprivilege of the masses and the wasteful overcon-
sumption of fat neocolonial elites.
34 - CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

In Armah's novel-as in other postcolonial texts-excrement as-


sumes a variety of figurative guises and narrative functions: shit acts
as a material sign of underdevelopment; as a symbol of excessive
consumption; as an image of wasted political energies; and as the
mark of the comprador's residual, alien status. Even a partial list of
this kind captures the bleak political outlook of African writers dur-
ing the era of disillusionment; it also underscores the figurative apt-
ness and versatility of scatology under the circumstances. But the
key to excremental writing-and what I think has been missing
from more straightforward accounts of these political satires-is the
psychoanalytic insight that scatological aggression carries a secret
charge of self-implication.

Scatological satire, from Swift to Beckett to Soyinka, seems to be mo-


tivated and shaped by its practitioners' recognition of their own im-
plication in ethical, aesthetic, or political failure. I take this point as
fundamental to an analysis of excremental motifs because excre-
ment's primary symbolic value-as both psychoanalytic and an-
thropological theory would suggest-is that it marks the fuzzy
boundary between inside and outside, between the self and the not-
self. Psychoanalysis codified (but did not invent) this reading: "shit,
the first extension of the self, is also the first instancing of the other"
(Pops 50). It makes sense in this light that shit-figures complicate
moral and political binaries by diffusing guilt and shame.15 The self-
implicating dimension of excremental literature has been visible on
the ethical plane at least since Swift. What the new currency of scat-

15. As Everett Zimmerman points out, excrement is "a sign of undifferentiation" (144).
At its most intense, the excremental vision tends to generate political complication rather
than clarification. For a pertinent example, consider Swift's Gulliver'sTravelsand its noto-
riously unclear politics, especially with regard to burgeoning forms of European and En-
glish imperialism. Despite many historical differences, the example is apposite because the
question at hand is whether Armah (for example) occupies the same kind of "schizoid"
position as Swift, who "reviles the British for reducing the Irish to slaves, then condemns
the Irish for internalizing this slavery, which is at once more and less reason for excoriat-
ing the British, and excellent reason for loathing oneself" (Eagleton 160). This kind of self-
division certainly afflicts a writer like Armah, whose aesthetic dissent from (his own)
comprador class requires double-edged attacks and self-reproaches whose most charac-
teristic expression comes, I think, in excremental tropes.
E S T Y * 35

ology in postcolonial cultures suggests is that excremental satire is


also an index of national or collective self-implication in folly or ex-
cess. Such a hypothesis begins, at least, to explain the close correla-
tion between excremental writing and antinationalist critique in
African and Irish literature.
The postcolonial texts examined here deploy excrementalism as a
literary mode of self-reproachon two levels: first, through a compli-
cation of binaristic anticolonial politics (good native/bad imperial-
ist) by the recognition that local forms of exploitation and excess
have emerged; second, through the complication of a simplistic anti-
comprador position by the recognition that intellectuals are them-
selves implicated in neocolonial failure. The literatureof disillusion-
ment brings excrementalmotifs-with their symbolic disturbanceof
inside/outside models-to bear on African societies as they move
from an era of heroic decolonization to the postlapsarian realities of
stalled revolution.
Of course, the danger of an excremental vision as profoundly dis-
illusioned as, for example, Armah's is that political distinctions be-
come impossible-or that disillusionment is converted into a com-
plete rejection of African life. The possibility that TheBeautyfulOnes
may at points effectively "blame the victims" for neocolonial cor-
ruption seems to motivate Derek Wright in a recent rereading of the
novel. Wright argues that the novel loses occasional control of its fig-
urative devices, resulting in a lack of metaphoric precision. For him,
images of ghostliness and excrement spread out and implicate
everyone in the novel, embracing "alikethose who pursue and those
who shrink from the gleam, the oppressor and the most abjectly op-
pressed" ("Dystropia"29). My argument proposes that excremental
language is invoked here precisely in order to diffuse guilt and
shame. At the level both of national politics and of individual ethics,
excremental writing tends toward complex models of systemic
guilt, rather than toward the sharp absolutions and resolutions that
attend moral or political binaries. In Armah and Soyinka, for in-
stance, scatological satire attaches shame to previously immune
classes-including detached artists-who are, by apparent inaction,
also to blame for the execrable state of affairs in the postcolony.
Shit-as wielded by these writers-is a perfectly precise instrument
for recording a tragically imprecise kind of predicament.
36 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

Thus Armah and Soyinka, while slinging mud at the new com-
mercial and bureaucraticelites of Ghana and Nigeria (and their neo-
colonial sponsors), take pains to scrutinize those who would exempt
themselves from the public site of corruption. Emmanuel Obiechina
has shrewdly observed that both Armah and Soyinka use flexible
third-person narration to direct satiric commentary at their own
protagonists (122). Excremental language casts doubt reflexively
onto both Armah's unnamed man and Soyinka's callow inter-
preters. Accordingly, both novels manifest a certain involution, ap-
parent in the multiplying and self-generating imagery of The Beau-
tyful Ones as well as in the dividing and self-mutating narrative
structure of TheInterpreters.
In The Interpreters,whenever our attention becomes focused on
corrupt, powerful men such as Sir Derinola, the narrative beam
swings back to Sagoe (or another young intellectual), stuck in the po-
sition of cynical outsider. The novel's real interest lies not so much in
Soyinka's satire of the venal comprador but in his clear-eyed ques-
tioning of the interpreters themselves-cultural mediators with no
real power (Kinkead-Weekes236-37). Stymied by his lack of social
power, Sagoe, for instance, resorts to mock-philosophical disquisi-
tions on shit. Similarly,in TheBeautyfulOnes, the protagonist seems
to voice Armah's own doubts about the self-exempting intellectual in
a disintegrating and corrupt society: "And the man wondered what
kind of sound the cry of the chichidodo bird could be, the bird long-
ing for its maggots but fleeing the feces which gave them birth" (49).
What, in other words, is the characteristicform of expression for an
artist who seeks an audience but courts social disengagement?
This line of self-interrogation by African novelists constitutes
what we might call the autocritical function of excremental post-
colonialism-the shared tendency of these texts to question the sta-
tus of aesthetic discourse itself in the new nation. Scatology reveals
the problems of uneven development and neocolonial corruption in
the public sphere while underscoring the artist's own representa-
tional predicament. In particular, both Armah and Soyinka drive
their stories toward a reckoning with the limitations of the realist
and existential novel, a form conventionally dedicated to the fate of
individuals. Shit, operating as the preeminent figure of self-alienation
(the matter that is both self and not-self), becomes a symbolic
E S T Y * 37

medium for questioning the place of the autonomous individual in


new postcolonial societies.

Soyinka and Armah both describe individuals surrounded and pre-


occupied by shit, though the excremental schemes of the two novels
initially seem quite different. From the start, Soyinka's hyperarticu-
late Sagoe manages to absorb excrementinto his own urbane,absurd-
ist philosophy. Armah's unnamed man, by contrast, cannot find any
form of escape from the grotesque and disorienting social ordure that
prevails in his city. He suffers through a darkly picaresque pilgrim-
age, seeking refuge from the public world of excremental corruption
while nursing his own "clean" moral status. His search for a sani-
tized existence takes the ironic form of a quest to defecate with dig-
nity. Shit thus structures both the relentless public incursions on the
man's selfhood and his attempts at private self-possession. When he
encounters a sewage collector who is dead drunk, Armah's protago-
nist reflects, "Surelythat is the only way for a man to survive, carry-
ing other people's excrement; the only way must be to kill the self
while the unavoidable is being done" (103). With unflinching consis-
tency, Armah presents the social accumulation of excrement as a
threat to frail selfhood.
At the start of Soyinka's novel, by contrast, Sagoe masters societal
excrement through the elaborate language and erudite mockery of
Voidancy,his own "philosophy of shit." Voidancy,Sagoe explains, is
entirely idiosyncratic: "If I am personal, it is because this must rank
as the most inward philosophy in human existence.... Voidancy re-
mains the one true philosophy of the true Egoist" (71). In the rituals
of Voidancy, shitting is an utterly private act of self-consolidation.
Sagoe expresses his wry cynicism by promulgating the Voidante's
existential and anticollective doctrine;he also cultivates the habits of
a cosmopolitan individual-a hygienically modernized subject in
WarwickAnderson's sense.16For Sagoe, in short, the importance of
voiding is that it is the "most individual function of man" (97).
Imagine Sagoe's frustrationwhen his Voidante privacy is violated

16. Voidancy was nurtured, if not invented, during Sagoe's extended stays in Europe
and North America. Consider his lavish fascination with the kind of privacy available
38 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U RE

by the uneven plumbing of postindependence Nigeria. In a scene


that no doubt inspired Armah, Sagoe walks the city at night, en-
countering filth and excrement of every variety: "God is... washing
out his bloody lavatory.... Next to death, he decided, shit is the
most vernacular atmosphere of our beloved country" (107-8). As a
vernacular, shit presents an immediate democratic challenge to
Sagoe's high-cultural discourse of the peristaltic egoist; indeed
Sagoe sees the night-soil men as profaners of "true Voidancy."
Soyinka satirizes intellectual fastidiousness by narrating the mo-
ment that shit, no longer the object of mock-aesthetic connoisseur-
ship, becomes a collective and unavoidable fact.
In both novels, then, excrement marks the intersection of individ-
ual and collective demands. In Armah, shit represents social horror
from the outset but also comes to be associated with the vain quest
for private refuge. And in Soyinka, where shit initially serves as the
medium of Sagoe's polished solipsism, it also comes to be associated
with social horror.The excremental nature of an imperfect collective
forces itself upon the ethical and aesthetic consciousness of individ-
uals hungering after the sanitary perfection of utopia/art. When
Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe recoil from the urban market-
place, they become perfect representatives for novels split between
disgust at the public cesspool and recognition that recoil, or retreat,
is unacceptable. This political dilemma, fueling the tension between
private disengagement and public engagement in the two novels,
constitutes the crux of excremental postcolonialism.
In TheBeautyfulOnes, such private-public tensions drive the nar-
ration of the protagonist's crumbling integrity, his eroding ethical
frame of reference. As Gareth Griffiths observes, the protagonist is
(like an Orwell or Kafka character)trapped inside a corrupt system
without any access to external, Archimedean perspectives (1). Fac-
ing the shit pile of corruption, the man thinks, "Unnatural,I would
have said, had I not stopped myself with asking, unnatural accord-
ing to what kind of nature?" (62). Is the accumulated excrement of
his social environment an ordinary or extraordinary development?

there: "The silence of the lavatory in an English suburban house when the household and
the neighbours have departed to their daily toil, and the guest voidates alone. That is a si-
lence you can touch" (96).
ES TY * 39

Is it part of a natural cycle wherein excremental excess will give way


to regeneration in the new Ghana? These questions turn on excre-
ment's dual significance as "natural,"healthy and "unnatural,"pol-
luted. The pressure they exert on the protagonist forces him to ask,
in turn, whether it is existential vanity for him to reject the excre-
mental rot that pervades his society. His self-doubt on this score in-
creases when his wife accuses him of nursing a futile ethical finicki-
ness, equating him with the chichidodo that hates excrement but
feeds on shit-bred maggots (45). As the novel wears on, the protag-
onist seems to relent, almost persuading himself to abandon his pri-
vate rules and "play the national game." In the end, though, a pres-
idential coup reverses the novel's roles, forcing the corrupt
comprador Koomson (now a fugitive) to beg shelter from the pro-
tagonist. In the last act, Koomson (guided by the protagonist) makes
a nightmarish escape through the city sewers to the sea.
At the end of the novel, then, in the wake of Koomson's humilia-
tion, Armah seems finally to endorse the protagonist's stubborn re-
sistance to the excrementalcurrent.The coup's immediate aftermath
reconsolidates the man's ethical selfhood and restores his domestic
harmony.In the last scene, he glimpses a bus bearing the slogan "THE
BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN" anda paintedflowerthatis "soli-
tary, unexplainable, and very beautiful" (183). Many readers have
seized on the slogan and flower as symbols of political hope-an in-
terpretationmade all the more attractivein that it would seem, at long
last, to transcode excrement from the residue of colonial debasement
into the fertilizerof a beautiful postcolonial future. Armah, however,
is not so sanguine. The protagonist's fleeting glimpse of beauty is al-
most immediately displaced by the sight of (yet another!)latrine,trig-
gering a final "achingemptiness" of thwarted desire (183).
Despite personal and domestic reconciliation in his own life, the
protagonist is left in despair. The latest coup (like independence it-
self) promises only an exchange of one overfed exploiter for another;
in real collective terms, nothing has changed. Indeed, in my view,
Armah combines his closural symbols-flowers and latrine-pre-
cisely to signify the inadequacy of the protagonist's merely individ-
ual (and familial) horizon of closure, beyond which would lie the
possibility of wider social regeneration. Consider, from this per-
spective, the protagonist's groping insight:
40 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

Was there not some proverbthat said the green fruit was healthy,but
healthy only for its brief self? That the only new life there ever is comes
from seeds feeding on their own rotten fruit?What, then, was the fruit
that refused to lose its acid and its greenness?Whatmonstrousfruit was
it that could find the end of its life in the struggle against sweetness and
corruption?
(145)

Living only for and as his own "briefself," the protagonist clings to
an ethical-individualist perspective. Despite misgivings about his
own self-limiting status, he sees no other option, for to yield to the
dialectical and communal urgings of history (to the growth and rot
of an uncertain "new life") seems, in an era of neocolonial corrup-
tion, like sinking into the abyss.
The protagonist-and, in effect, Armah's novel itself-grudgingly
withdraws from the public sphere, taking last refuge in ethics (his
individual sense of right) and aesthetics (frail symbolic gestures to-
ward the flowering collective future). But both Armah and his pro-
tagonist recognize the painful inadequacy of their refuge. So much
is clear from Armah's representation of "the Teacher,"a refined in-
tellectual who buys freedom from social filth at the cost of utter iso-
lation from the life of his community. The protagonist (like the novel
itself) wishes to but cannot avoid becoming a "monstrous fruit"-a
green and acid autoteleology with no part to play in the transfor-
mation of society.
The problem of merely individual resolution-described so far in
terms of the novel's thematic content-is also a problem of literary
form for Armah. The protagonist cannot quite come into his own as
a figure of political resistance;he remains a tragically (if stubbornly)
inert principle of ethical nonalignment. His reconsolidated selfhood
cannot, thus, serve as the basis for a dialectical or historical trans-
formation. This limitation of perspective should not, however, be
read as an aesthetic flaw; quite the contrary,I take it as a powerful
intersection of thematic and formal concerns in the novel. A narra-
tive that explores an individual's existential suffering cannot sud-
denly convert itself into an allegory of political hope, especially
when the conditions documented do not warrant a final burst of
symbolic optimism. What is striking about this novel-and, as I will
ES TY * 41

argue, other excremental fictions written under similar circum-


stances-is its double refusal of, on the one hand, the comforting re-
treat into reconsolidated selfhood/aesthetic pleasure and, on the
other hand, the false prophecies of national redemption. Armah es-
tablishes the protagonist's psychological and moral coherence but
concludes with an unflinching assessment that such characteriza-
tion is symbolically inadequate to the situation.
As an act of generic self-questioning, the excremental novel first
proposes, then refuses, its own allegorical meaning. Armah fulfills
the first phase of this process by stocking the text with potential em-
bodiments of the nation, from the rattletrapbus on the first page to
the flower-painted bus on the last page. Such figures invite us to
read for signs of the collective destiny of his people-they have, in-
deed, encouraged allegorical readings of the novel that understand
the final scene in terms of collective redemption.17In the redemptive
reading, the shit piles are merely prelude to the arrival of the "beau-
tyful ones"; organic cycles of decay and growth predict the political
cycles of African nationhood. In my view, however, Armah con-
cludes not with the inevitability of social regeneration but with a
simple and profound uncertainty.Not the natural beauty of the sea
(23), nor the transient communality of the wee-smokers (72), nor the
educated cynicism of the Teacher (85), nor the comforts of repaired
domesticity (165), nor the conventional motif of the flower (183) pro-
vides solace (for the protagonist) or a hopeful resolution (for the
novel). All of these moments turn out to be aesthetically evanescent
or merely individual forms of escape rather than the basis for col-
lective renewal. Shit is not the future's fertilizer; it is an antitran-
scendental sign of the present's failures. When tempted to interpret
the novel toward a hopeful future, we do well to remember the
spare negation of Armah's title: "not yet."

17. Even Armah's most probing readers, ranging from Richard Priebe in the 1970s to a
more cautious Neil Lazarus in the 1990s, tend to affirm the existence of a symbolic calcu-
lus pointing beyond the bleak sociopolitical conditions described in the text. The most op-
timistic readings of the novel, such as those by John Coates and Tess Akaeke Onwueme,
tend to proceed in the language of "myth and structure." Such readings are generally con-
cerned to rescue Armah from charges of political nihilism by arguing that the novel's
symbolism trumps its satiric realism, implying a foreordained, if not imminent, social
redemption.
42 ? CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U RE

Although the novel does not support a political allegory based on


natural cycles of growth, it does, I think, afford interpretive possi-
bilities beyond the failure of the organic motif. Richard Priebe and
Derek Wright have, for example, read the novel according to pollu-
tion rituals that result in social cleansing. Such anthropologically in-
formed readings move our focus away from the agony of the indi-
vidual protagonist (or, by extension, African artist) facing the
inefficacy of his own ethical and aesthetic gestures. In a nuanced
treatment of TheBeautyfulOnes,Wright offers a coastal West African
interpretive model: the Akan carrier rite. In Wright's reading, the
protagonist cleanses the nation of polluted matter (the comprador
Koomson); the carrierrite that he performs is "pre-transitional,"in-
dicating an act of preparation, not regeneration ("Motivation" 125).
Wright's persuasive interpretation does not challenge the socialeffi-
cacy of the protagonist's actions; it simply revises downward the
magnitude of his final, purifying gesture. By contrast, I have em-
phasized the symbolic and political limitations of the protagonist's
individualism. Where Wright sees an allegory of incomplete transi-
tion, I see an incomplete allegory-one that is blocked by the novel's
residual commitment to the perspective of the autonomous ethical
subject.18
TheBeautyfulOnes is itself a transitional work: it keeps faith with
the novel's traditional investment in the ethical destiny of the indi-
vidual but insists that individual destiny does not in this context
serve as a figurative basis for social regeneration. We return, then, to
the typically scatological maneuver of a double rejection: the text
seeks individualist refuge from the demands of a corrupt public
sphere (riven by uneven development and neocolonial politics) but
also exposes individualism as socially unproductive. This double re-
jection produces what I see as a distinctive (and excremental) post-
18. One might argue, theoretically, that allegorical readings are not necessarily re-
demptive ones and that, in this instance, we have an allegory of national uncertainty. In-
deed, Stephen Slemon has proposed that postcolonial writing (including The Beautyful
Ones) has forced a modification of the very category of allegory. Slemon identifies a new
postcolonial literary form that is allegorical but nonredemptive, that meditates on collec-
tive destiny but represents "history" in conditional, discursive, and thus potentially
transformative terms (158-61). Nonetheless, in this instance, the text seems more dedi-
cated to questioning the self/society correspondence of allegory than to redefining the
traditional givens of positivist history.
E S T Y * 43

colonial subgenre: the national allegory that reflexively questions it-


self, whether in the semicomic vein of Soyinka (and Joyce and Beck-
ett) or in the more serious vein of Armah.
Excremental satire throws national allegory into doubt and insists
that the reconsolidation of an ethical subject is not, in itself, a work-
able basis for socially utopian or historically transcendent fiction.
Ten years ago, Fredric Jameson famously argued that third-world
texts tended to use allegorical logic to align private and public des-
tinies, coordinating libidinal, personal plots with political, collective
plots (69). Initially, Armah's text seems to follow this logic, espe-
cially insofar as wider social conditions are represented in terms of
the corporeal and libidinal malfunction of excremental excess. Ulti-
mately, though, Armah's novel represents a dissenting subgenre
with its attention directed at the painful uncoupling of private and
public destinies. Armah's disillusionment in fact stems from the dis-
covery that the subjective world of his protagonist does not have al-
legorical implications for his society.19
Excremental satire, then, lacks the utopian content that Jameson
ascribes to conventional satire (80). As we have seen in the case of
Armah, this literary strategy grows out of the absence of that ana-
lytical, Archimedean perspective needed to see beyond current
moral and political systems. The emergence of political scatology in
African fiction of the 1960s and 1970s reflects the profound shock
administered by the lost promises of independence. What would

19. It would not be fully accurate, though, to describe the text as anti-allegorical, pre-
cisely because the lost alignment of self and society is felt as a painful or problematic ab-
sence. The excremental despair projected by Armah depends on the idea that there could be
or should be an allegorical connection between the hero's ethical vindication and the soci-
ety's political salvation. The counterexample thus in a sense confirms the basic logic of
Jameson's original thesis. Jameson proposed, roughly, that Western literature tends to as-
sume and perpetuate the separation of alienated and fragmented subjectivities from the
social collective, whereas third-world literature tends not to assume such a "radical split"
(69). It makes sense, then, that Armah's text registers the absence of national allegory as a
shock or problem. Consider a comparison of The BeautyfulOnes with Ousmane Sembene's
Xala (one of Jameson's key examples of national allegory). Both texts satirize neocolonial
society, then conclude by showing the comprador (Koomson or the Hadj) subjected to rit-
ual abasement. For Armah, this ritual does not translate into imminent social transforma-
tion; we discover; at the end, that the personal fates of the protagonist and Koomson have
no real bearing on Ghanaian politics. By contrast, readers of Xala discover at the end that
the hero's libidinal curse is in fact symptomatic of wider economic and political problems.
44 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U RE

have been a more traditional satirical mode-wielded against the


corruption of, say, neocolonial Ghana-is displaced by an excre-
mental mode that not only decisively rejects false signs of social re-
generation but also radically suspects the terms of its own symbolic
action. Where the liberal satirist believes in reform and the utopian-
radical satirist believes in revolution, the excremental satirist bears
witness to the conversion of his society's political energies-and his
own aesthetic efforts-into shit.
The predicament of characters torn between subjective vision and
collective norms is, in other words, also the predicament of post-
colonial writers torn between what we might call the existential
novel and the political novel. But why does this predicament take on
excremental contours? As I have suggested, these African writers
(and their Irish counterparts) use excremental tropes to register the
tension between the demands of the ethical or aesthetic subject and
the demands of the social collective. Shit marks this conflict sym-
bolically because it acts as a primary and mobile signifier of funda-
mental self/other (or private/public) divides.20 Moreover, shit sig-
nifies the subject's inevitable entanglement in time and history; it
works at a subtextual level to reveal the gaps between individual or
existential time and the mystified temporality of the nation. In short,
the case of Armah's The Beautyful Ones would suggest that excre-
mental satire operates as a reflexive narrative mode driven by the
tensions between the postcolonial subject and the demands of na-
tional allegory. In order to test this model, I will return to Soyinka's
The Interpreters and to Irish texts whose scatological features now
begin to take on new meanings.

The Interpreters seems to mark Soyinka's discovery of a problematic


relation between private and public destinies in the postcolonial
novel. This text does not suggest that prevailing social conditions

20. Most post-Freudian observers of excremental symbolism locate its meaning in the
suspended zone between subject and object-as a matter that is uncannily familiar yet, as
Kristeva puts it, "radically separate" and "loathsome." Even more suggestively for the
purposes of my argument about excremental markers of threatened selfhood, Kristeva
writes, "Excrement and its equivalents... stand for the danger to identity that comes from
without: the ego threatened by the non-ego" (71).
E S T Y * 45

are bound for improvement, much less redemption. Nor-more im-


portantly-does Soyinka imply that those outer conditions are at all
affected by the moral, libidinal, and aesthetic preoccupations of his
protagonists. The absurd conversation that ends the novel leaves the
interpreters immured in their semi-thwarted individual existences.
Even more to the point, Soyinka represents the limitations of the au-
tonomous subject (and the concomitant "present absence" of na-
tional allegory) in distinctly excremental terms. Sagoe's philosophy
of shit provides the clearest instance of escape from cruel social re-
ality into the ultimately cold comforts of ethical self-satisfaction and
aesthetic self-indulgence. His posture of metaphysical retreat,while
verbally charming, smacks of political despair. Here Soyinka's own
suspicion about the value of self-justifying aesthetic gestures fuels
his ironic treatment of the protagonist. By the end of the novel, an
enervated Sagoe feels the pressure to translate his private rituals
into some wider, socially effective gesture. He directly engages his
excrementally imperfect society:
it is disgracefulthat at this stage, night-soilmen are still lugging shitpails
around the capital.And in any case, why shouldn't the stuff be utilised?
Look at the arid wastes of the North.... You should rail the stuff to the
North and fertilisethe Sardauna'sterritory.
(239)

It is tempting to take this scheme as Sagoe's (and Soyinka's) attempt


to convert shit into the national fertilizer. Such a reading, however,
would overlook the strong tonal ironies of the scene. Sagoe turns
quickly from the public to the private satisfactions of the sewage
project:the picturesque vision of a shit caravan trekking north and
the metaphysical appeal of "bringing the wheel full circle" (239). In
a political system less thoroughly corrupted, Sagoe (and the other
interpreters) might be able to take national regeneration seriously,
but here it becomes the occasion for a sophisticated jest. The irony of
the scene underscores once again a fundamental nonalignment of
private vision and public works.
At the level of content, Soyinka's protagonists cannot find a mean-
ingful way to contribute because the public arena has been claimed
and polluted by neocolonialism. It is perhaps unsurprising that the
interpreters do not serve as allegorical vehicles for the national des-
46 - CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

tiny, given that their dilemmas are those of an educated but disem-
powered minority. Yet the novel does not simply resign itself to the
limitations suffered by the protagonists; instead it replays the frus-
trating discovery of limitations at the-level of form. The result is an
uneasy generic tension between subjective satiric fantasy and objec-
tive realist presentation, between the novel of consciousness and the
novel of the condition of Nigeria.
When Sagoe veers from the public and national arena,he describes
his own "retreatinto the lavatory" as "not so much a physiological
necessity as a psychological and religious urge" (71). Such writing-
with its playfully erudite tone and its charming embrace of solipsis-
tic withdrawal-resembles nothing so much as a line from Beckett,
another writer with a penchant for scatological dismissals of the na-
tionalist imperative. Beckett'sscatology runs the literarygamut from
puns (such as "voltefesses" and "afflatulence"in Murphy)to psycho-
logical description (as when Molloy imagines his own birth as an
anal delivery) to characterand place names (such as Krapp, Count-
ess Caca, Turdy,and Saposcat). "Saposcat,"with its whiff of etymo-
logical dung and echo of the Saorstat(or Irish Free State), reminds us
that much of Beckett's scatological play in the 1930s and 1940s aims
at puncturing the nationalist pieties of postcolonial Ireland.In an ex-
emplary moment of Irish literary heresy from Murphy,for example,
Beckett's hero requests that his ashes be flushed down the toilet of
the Abbey Theatre, "if possible during the performance of a piece"
(269). In the same novel, a distraught literary type named Neary
dashes his head against the buttocks of Cuchulain's statue in the
GPO, a veritable altar of the Irish Revival.
Joyce, too, uses excremental language to deflate national pieties,
an attitude captured with beautiful economy in Finnegans Wake
when he punningly refers to the Celtic Twilight as the "cultic
twalette" (344). In the "Sirens"chapter of Ulysses,Joyce punctuates
Robert Emmet's famous patriotic valediction with the obscene pat-
ter of Bloom's postprandial flatulence (238-39). In the following
chapter, "Cyclops," he presents his most developed portrait of an
Irish nationalist, a bombastic Fenian who denigrates the English as
glorified toiletmakers (267).The scene echoes MacHugh's comic his-
torical lesson in "Aeolus": "The Roman, like the Englishman who
follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set
ES TY * 47

his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He
gazed about him in his toga and he said: "It is meet to be here.Let us
constructa watercloset"(108). Although it would appear that Joyce
here turns scatology on the English, it is also true, as Kelly
Anspaugh has recently noted, that Joyce ascribed to the Fenian a
"cloacal vituperativeness" of his own.21 Thus Joyce not only renar-
rates Anglo-Irish exchange via excremental figures but, in keeping
with the idea of diffused satire, he also assigns the cloacal role both
to the imperialist and to his one-eyed reagent, the nationalist.
These moments, where scatology deflates nationalism in Irish lit-
erature, suggest with new force the correlation of textual and politi-
cal concerns that I have been calling excremental postcolonialism.
Beckett's struggle against the inherited imperatives of nationalism
provides the starting point for David Lloyd's groundbreaking
analysis of scatology in First Love(1945). In Lloyd's view, national-
ism itself-as a political form-constitutes a baleful residue of colo-
nialism. It seems fitting in this light that postcolonial writers use ex-
cremental terms to confront the problems inherent in building a new
political culture from the institutional byproduct (Fanon's national
bourgeoisie) and ideological residue (nationalism) of an alien
regime. But if new nationalisms in Ireland and Africa are, in Partha
Chatterjee's term, "derivative discourses," they have also been po-
tent and necessary forms of collective identity. In this sense, such
discourses are both authentic and inauthentic, both local and alien,
both "self"and "other."Hence the prominence in this symbolic field
of that primary excremental formula self/not-self. In times of disil-
lusionment or ambivalence about nationalist excess, postcolonial
scatologists are, in a sense, adapting the "matter out of place" for-
mula. Excremental satire, in other words, expresses the partial mis-
conception (or anal birth) of postcolonial nationalism.

21. Joyce's comment comes from a letter to Frank Budgen (qtd. in Ellmann 427-28). The
MacHugh passage is a sly riposte to H. G. Wells who, in a 1917 Nation review of A Portrait
of the Artist, had accused Joyce of a neo-Swiftian "cloacal obsession" (see Anspaugh,
"Ulysses" 12). Anspaugh argues persuasively against the notion that Joycean scatology
is a predominantly anti-English device, noting how often Joyce also uses scatology to de-
bunk Irish nationalism. By reading Joycean scatology alongside that of Beckett, we gain
new insight into the usefulness of excremental language for this form of postcolonial double
rejection.
48 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U RE

In proposing this comparative account, I have no wish to ignore


the many historical differences between the Irish and West African
contexts. Ireland's history differs substantially from that of African
ex-colonies in terms of language, race, religion, climate, geography,
settlement patterns, and governing institutions.22For the immediate
purposes of this argument, it seems most important to distinguish
postindependence Irish writing that contends with choking cultural
norms from postindependence African writing that addresses
crushing politicalfailures. But, of course, these differing emphases
do not preclude us from observing that a Fanonite politicalanalysis
can well be applied to 1930s Ireland, or that 1960s African intellec-
tuals also had to contend with strongly normative forms of cultural
nationalism. If shared and visible patterns of scatological discourse
appear in Irish and African novels written under historical circum-
stances that are, at the very least, connected by the potent presence
of a new nationalism, then we have what would seem to be a gen-
uinely postcolonial phenomenon, requiring a genuinely postcolo-
nial (as opposed to latently "third world") form of explanation.
What a comparative postcolonial approach brings to light is the
fact that new national cultures in both Ireland and Africa were
shaped by a colonial legacy in which local forms were taken to be
colorfully "backward"and "primitive."Romantic colonizers-and,
in their turn, Romantic nativists-saw the intactness and authentic-
ity of the subaltern culture as compensation for the dispossessions
and dislocations of imperialism. This history bequeathes to post-
colonial writers a sometimes unwelcome custodial role within a
fetishized national culture shaped partly by the imagination of the
ex-colonizer. And, as a result, that national culture is always in dan-
ger of chasing after magical sources of precolonial authenticity or
devolving into hackneyed nativism. What is more immediately to
the point is the excremental coding of the resulting national cul-
ture.23Lloyd has shown that Beckett, for example, presents Irish na-

22. Ireland's centuries-long imperial connection and geographical proximity to En-


gland alone make it an unusual, if not unique, case among ex-British colonies; these factors
at once conceal and reveal, modify and intensify the cultural effects commonly ascribed
to imperial influence. For more on the differences (and similarities) between Irish and
other postcolonial cultures, see Lloyd 2-9 and Kiberd, Inventing 4-6, 551-61.
23. Students of Celticism and N6gritude-and other postcolonial nativisms-are by
E S T Y * 49

tionalists as ardent seekers after "history's ancient faeces": "Wher-


ever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our
patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire" (Short Prose
34). In First Love, the obsessive quest for real national roots takes
scatological form-an excremental debunking that, for Lloyd, stems
in part from Beckett's suspicion of a fetishized and defensive Irish
identity.
What Beckett shares with Joyce and, at a slightly greater remove,
with Armah and Soyinka, is the pressure to address questions of na-
tional identity. The conditions that encourage postcolonial writers to
address the historical destiny of the new nation are, moreover, pre-
cisely the conditions that make national allegory unappealing: the
twin curse of a public culture bound by rigidly celebratory (but de-
rivative) forms of nativism and a political economy suffering the
wastes of uneven development. By following the scatological con-
nection across African and Irish texts, we can begin to see the rela-
tion between these cultural and political features of postcoloniality.
The writers in question share a satirical view of their nation's new
symbolic and political order and, as a result, they evince a profound
ambivalence about the felt imperative to tell the nation's story. As
we have seen in the fiction examined here, both predicaments take
excremental form. Excremental language registers the tension be-
tween narratives devoted to national destiny and narratives de-
voted to the ethical or aesthetic consolidation of the subject. If na-
tional allegory attempts to realign human and historical time, to
repair the colonized subject's fragmented history in a fantasy of re-
stored identity, then excremental satire casts doubt on that fantasy
and opens up the gap between subject and nation.

now familiar with the pitfalls of cultural revivals that recirculate (even if in affirmative
form) images derived from colonial discourse. To the extent that a postcolonial culture
contains such recycled images, scatological satire can reveal them to be imperial residue.
Moreover, as a symbolic inversion of "natural" value, shit perverts or lampoons the Ro-
mantic idea of the individual whose spontaneous efflux has aesthetic value. In this cen-
tury, Romantic-expressive theories have been applied nowhere more rigorously than to
the colonized artistic "naif" whose closeness to natural fonts of rhythm and color are seen
as an automatic aesthetic. Such ideas were often absorbed by the "native artists" them-
selves; Declan Kiberd cites W. B. Yeats and Leopold Senghor as instances of this phenom-
enon ("White Skins" 168). Excremental satire tends to debunk the figure of the mystic na-
tional bard, revealing the debased matter that lurks within the poetry of native essences.
50 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U RE

If, however, the question of national allegory impinges with par-


ticular tenacity on the representationalfreedom of postcolonial writ-
ers, it also provides an opportunity for searching literary reassess-
ments of nationhood and, in turn, of ethical selfhood. In Lloyd's
view, for example, Beckett's unusual willingness to abandon the
false comforts of the consolidated bourgeois ego derives partly from
his (pointedly postcolonial) doubts about the false comforts of over-
cooked nationalism. Beckett'sexcremental writing implies a rupture
in the mutually reinforcing allegorical link between personal and
national identity; he, like the African writers, exploits shit's sym-
bolic vocation as an ambiguous marker of the self/not-self divide.
Here again, excrement functions as a primary and tangible sign of
the nonunity of the subject. Indeed, Lloyd's interpretation of First
Lovestarts from the psychoanalytic premise that shit is the first gift
"and therewith the first realization of a potential self-alienation."
Thus the "fetishization of excrement" works as an "index of a nega-
tive dialectic of identity" (49).
Lloyd's negative dialectic provides a refined model for interpret-
ing the tensions-both characterologicaland formal-in the African
novels. Both Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe shuttle between
self-identification (linked to private voiding and/or retention of eth-
ical integrity) and a commitment to the other-that is, to the national
collective. Of course, in the first movement of this dialectic, where
Beckett offers only what Lloyd describes as simulatedselfhood, the
African texts seem to propose a genuine reconstitution of the pro-
tagonist's ethical (Armah) or aesthetic (Soyinka) self.24However, in
such moments-when Armah's protagonist recognizes his existen-
tial predicament or when Sagoe indulges in a Voidante flight of
fancy-we become aware of selfhood as a problem, a trap, a vain
solipsism. Since neither protagonist can find a stable point of identi-
fication in the thoroughly corrupted public sphere, both find them-
selves recontained by their original gestures of self-definition. Shit
surfaces here in its most fundamental symbolic guise-as a danger-

24. To be clear: Armah and Soyinka produce a fiction of intact ethical/aesthetic selves
but disconnect those selves from the symbolic possibilities of social redemption or na-
tional allegory. Beckett pursues the more radical possibility of disavowing both national
myths and the intact self.
E S T Y * 51

ous matter that is neither self nor other-to indicate the troubling
discontinuities between subject and society. At this point, we can
formulate the following two-part thesis about excremental post-
colonial writing: (1) scatological tropes mark a complex engagement
with the limitations of ethical individualism; and (2) the acknowl-
edgment that the ethical self exists only for and in itself (or, as in
Beckett, does not exist at all) produces a disavowal of national alle-
gory that is particularly problematic given the contextual pressures
of new nationhood.
To take a final instance of this kind of writing, I want briefly to
consider Joyce's Portraitof theArtist as a YoungMan, which famously
narratesa struggle to disengage from the norms of nation, language,
and religion. In the novel, shit surfaces at the pressure points of en-
gagement. For example, Stephen Dedalus's heart is sickened by the
excremental world of the market, figured in the Stradbrook cow
yard, "with its foul green puddles and clots of liquid dung" (63).
Later,Stephen's Jesuit-inspired vision of hell features a harrowing
profusion of shit. Stephen defines his developing self in successive
moments of recoil from public, excremental filth. He flies the nets of
social affiliation in an exquisite (if callow) attempt to forge an au-
tonomous self and a freestanding personal aesthetic. From this per-
spective, Stephen's desire to awake from the nightmare of history
might serve as a slogan for the postcolonial subject-or artist-
wishing to resist the imperatives of new nationalism. Certainly
Stephen's struggle to forge a workable personal identity in the face
of a shit-tainted public sphere resonates with the existential and aes-
thetic goals of Armah's man and Soyinka's Sagoe. All three protag-
onists face a similar predicament: the wish to escape history-to
step away from horrible social conditions, to not write the Great
Irish or Nigerian Novel-is met by the countervailing demand to
forge the uncreated conscience of a new nation.
As we have seen, the guilty recoil from history and from the na-
tional public sphere takes excremental form in these fictions. Fol-
lowing Lloyd, I have thus far presented excremental language as an
index of self/other instability, but excrement serves another sym-
bolic function as well: it betokens the unavoidable implication of the
would-be autonomous ego in objective time. It rules out ethical or
aesthetic self-exemption from the nightmare of history, or from the
52 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E RAT U R E

cycles (digestive, reproductive) that tether the body to the phenom-


enal world. Shit proves that our flesh is a burning matter; it insists
on our mutability and mortality,on what Paul de Man calls our "au-
thentically temporal destiny" (206).25Indeed Joyce and Beckett fre-
quently use scatological images to capture the inevitability of time's
march. In "Laestrygonians"(the "digestive" chapter of Ulysses),for
example, Bloom measures time in the form of microcosmic and
macrocosmic peristalsis. William Hutchings offers a decisive read-
ing of Beckett's How It Is as a prolonged "metaphysical conceit" of
the "cosmic digestive tract"in which the human-as-turd suffers time
along an alimentary canal. Such scatological moments have mostly
been understood as meditations on human mortality. But shit's rep-
resentation of the existential bottom line also takes on a more spe-
cific historical dimension in the postcolonial field.
History, whether in the form of the Irish nationalist's "ancientfae-
ces" or in the form of postcolonial Africa's confrontation with rapid
modernization, becomes particularly visible-and excremental-in
these texts. The syncopated cycles of uneven political and cultural
development lead to irrational, unpredictable excesses and short-
falls in both discursive and material economies of the postcolony. In
Armah's text, for example, Ghana suffers from a kind of hyperactive
metabolism: accelerated modernization means accelerated rot.
Hence the accumulation of shit and, moreover, the uncanny pres-
ence of a dying seven-year-old, an "old manchild" whose progeria
obviously reflects the premature senescence of the postcolonial state
(63).26Armah makes it explicit that such diseases reflect a historical
process run amok: "Here we have had a kind of movement that

25. The temporal-existential reading of excremental symbolism extends back, in Ken-


neth Burke's discussion, not to Freud but to Schopenhauer (312). In a somewhat truistic
version of the point, Martin Pops argues that the retention of feces is an attempt to escape
time: "Peristalsis is a process in time. No time, no peristalsis" (34). In this sense, the excre-
mental visions of these postcolonial writers signal an attempt to confront historical time it-
self while satirizing the time-denying forms of essentialism associated with transcendent
selfhood and mythic nationhood. If, as Everett Zimmerman proposes, excremental sym-
bols operate frequently to violate the pastoral and its mystified temporality (137), then ex-
cremental satire can be seen as an antipastoral form that reckons the ravages of time.
26. As Neil Lazarus observes, Armah's progeric nation derives from Fanon's view of the
"national bourgeoisie": "It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the
fearlessness or the will to succeed of youth" (Wretched153; qtd. in Lazarus 9).
E S T Y * 53

should make even good stomachs go sick. What is painful to the


thinking mind is not the movement itself, but the dizzying speed of
it" (62). Once again, Armah offers the most immediately legible in-
stance of an excremental connection that is operative in several post-
colonial texts: scatology-with its figures of excess and waste-sig-
nals the temporal dislocations of new nationhood.
As Stephen Dedalus makes clear in his celebrated "uncreatedcon-
science" journal entry (and as Timothy Brennan has suggested in
discussions of "the national longing for form"), new nations seem to
beg for allegorical treatment, asking writers to give shape to collec-
tive origins and ends.27 In the postcolonial texts examined here, ex-
cremental language reflects a wariness of allegorical fulfillment,
claiming instead an anti-utopian temporality of deferral and post-
ponement: the beautyful ones are not yet born. In some ways, sca-
tology always signals the postponement, if not the outright refusal,
of utopia. Bakhtinian analysis would propose that scatological ex-
cess (a subset of the carnivalesque body) tends to insist on the "con-
stant unfinished characterof the world" (432). In Lloyd's terms, too,
the excremental vision is preeminently a vision of deferral;Beckett's
"writing in the shit" signifies the postponed reconciliation between
subject and object,between self-identity and desire for the other (fig-
ured as father, lover, nation) (Lloyd 47-50). The postcolony of Joyce,
Beckett, Armah, and Soyinka, caught in a limbo state of historical
unfulfillment, fosters an aesthetic of disharmony between the pro-
tagonist/subject and the new nation.

Under these circumstances of ambivalence, where the artist flies


from the squalid constraints of history yet is impelled back to the
question of the nation, it is not surprising to find texts that are pro-
foundly self-divided. This predicament accounts for some of the

27. I restrict my claims about new nationhood to a specific period in (second-wave)


African and Irish literature because, as Aijaz Ahmad and others have suggested, post-
colonial or third world writing need not continue to engage obsessively and perennially
with questions of nationalism and national allegory (Ahmad 102). Even the largely re-
flexive and ambivalent engagement with national destiny common to these texts may be-
come a less prominent concern as the moment of national independence recedes further
into the past.
54 - CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

aesthetic complexity and explosive irony in Joyce and Beckett, who


view their own product through satirical eyes and in excremental
terms. Their works, like those of Armah and Soyinka, are artifacts of
scatological self-doubt. Facing a frozen dialectic of personal and col-
lective identity, these writers come to acknowledge that their own
texts exist only in the non-utopian time, the endless "meanwhile," of
art. At this final level of scatological self-implication, the text itself
becomes excrement, excess, superfluity. We should not be surprised,
then, to discover that Joyce's corpus (for example) is replete with in-
dications of art's deep excremental status.28
Scatological excess in both African and Irish postcolonial fiction
seems to direct itself not only against the transcendent clean body of
Warwick Anderson's colonial modernity but against the canons of
decorum, economy, and post-Jamesian rationality in the English-
language novel. Whether in comic or satiric mode, writers like
Armah, Soyinka, Beckett, and Joyce display the vulgar body of the
ex-"native" in a way that sends up both colonial discourse and liter-
ary convention. Insofar as these texts tend to yoke graphic treatment
of Bakhtin's lower bodily strata to excessive, digressive, stylistically
adventurous forms of narrative, they constitute an implied challenge
to the standards of modern fiction. Irish representations of the vulgar
body were certainly taken in England as a violation of literary taste;
remember, for example, Virginia Woolf's wrinkled-nose response to
Ulysses.29 If Anglophone postcolonial writers have revived oral, tra-
ditional, and vernacular forms that revise the English novel, it is also
true that traditional and vernacular forms often contain frank bodily
images that challenge the sanitized and bourgeoisified canons of
modern European taste. The linkage between the corporeally vulgar

28. In the fourth chapter of Ulysses, Joyce famously brings literature itself into meto-
nymic and metaphoric contact with shit as Leopold Bloom sits in the jakes reading from
Titbits,comparing his own alimentary product to a titbit (56). And at one point in Finnegans
Wake,Shem makes ink from shit (182-85). For a thorough survey of Joycean scatology used
to describe literary expression, see Cheng 87-96. Lindsey Tucker,Susan Brienza, and Kelly
Anspaugh ("Powers of Ordure") also read Joyce's excremental imagery in relation to the
"creative process."
29. In Ireland's postcolonial period, the scatological comedy of Beckett or Kavanagh or
Joyce articulates a genuine cultural difference from English decorum, but it also suggests
that vulgarity is an Irish trope only within the asymmetrical culture of Anglo-Irish colonial
relations. The satiric views of Kavanagh and Beckett divide the blame for reductive
E S T Y * 55

and the formally gratuitous is cinched by the metaphorics of excre-


mental waste. Textual or literary surplus becomes not just a vulgar
fetish but a masterful device in the hands of writers like Joyce or
Soyinka, who remind us that excremental excess is both a discursive
weapon and an occasion for artistic virtuosity.
Discursive and scatological excess, taken together, form what
Bakhtinwould describe as radical literary energy-an energy sharp-
ened by the contrastbetween shit's signification of, on the one hand,
symbolic excess and, on the other, material underprivilege. In both
African satires and Irish comedies, writers use excrementallanguage
to indicate the failures of colonial development, the corruptions of
neocolonial politics, and the residual quality of postcolonial nation-
alism. But beyond its more straightforward functions as a counter-
discursive trope, scatology also marks one of the central representa-
tional problems in postcolonial literature. It announces an unstable
contest between the reconsolidated individual self and its insistently
collective other, registering the pressure of history on the postcolo-
nial subject and on the postcolonial novel. Shit, then, is the govern-
ing sign of a literary mode that (1) captures the lure of ethical self-
hood and aesthetic freedom, but throws their value into question,
and (2) acknowledges the burden of national representation,but re-
sists allegory. Torn by these doubly countervailing pressures, Irish
and African writers turn the excremental fire on their own textual
practice, destabilizing in the process inherited conventions of novel-
istic discourse and inherited forms of personal and national identity.
Postcolonial scatology gives full literary expression to the
predicament of the writer in a new nation. It turns context into text,
transforming the external conditions of possibility into the thematic
precipitate of a distinctive fictional experiment, condensing the ag-

images of underdeveloped Irishness between the imperial British and those Irish nativists
who both acceded to and-what's worse-proudly recirculated the sterotype. In a sense
that will only seem contradictory if we lose sight of the interconnection of English impe-
rial influence and new forms of Irish nationalism, the vulgar, scatological register of this
literature was as much directed at the bourgeois puritanism of the De Valera era as at
Anglo-Victorian mores. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford describes the conditions in which
scatological satire might be effective against official Irishness: "In posttreaty Ireland, the
conservative and petit bourgeois politicians of the new Free State allied themselves with
the clergy to construct a monologic and humorless version of Irish postcolonial identity
as Gaelic, Catholic, and sexually pure" (20).
56 * CONTEMPORARY L I T E R AT U R E

onizing struggle of aesthetics and politics into the figure of excre-


ment. The possibility that this potentially marginal artistic gesture,
one that courts self-defeat and critical disgust, might nonetheless
have discursive force or cultural influence emerges, ironically,in one
of Sagoe's flights of scholastic fancy:

For definition, ladies and gentlemen, let this suffice. Voidancyis not a
movementof protest,but it protests:it is non-revolutionary, but it revolts.
Voidancy-shall we say-is the unknownquantity.Voidancyis the last un-
chartedmine of creativeenergies,in its paradoxlies the kernelof creative
liturgy-in releaseis birth.
(71)

HarvardUniversity

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