So-Called Elitism in Anthills of the Savannah

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

After Ikem has shown both the power of traditional storytelling and the ways it threatens those in power, he next points out that writers also threaten would-be revolutionaries, something they do because, according to him, they ask questions rather than provide answers or instructions for direct political action. For this reason the revolutionary attacks the author as an elitist:

"The charge of elitism never fails to amaze me because the same people who make it will also criticize you for not prescribing their brand of revolution to the masses. A writer wants to ask questions. These damn fellows want him to give answers. Now tell me, can anything be more elitist, more offensively elitist than someone presuming to answer questions that have not even been raised, for Christ's sake? Give us the answer! Give us the answer! You know it was the same old cry heard by Jesus Christ from his lazy-minded, soft-brained, bread-hungry hangers-on in Galilee or Gadarene or wherever it was." Tremendous outburst of cheers. "Give us a miracle! Give us a miracle and we will believe in you. Cut out the parables and get to the point. Time is short! We want results! Now, now!" Renewed laughter and more cheers greeted this un- expected and quixotic exploitation of the Holy Writ. "No I cannot give you the answer you are clamouring for. Go home and think! I cannot decree your pet, text-book revolution. I want instead to excite general enlightenment by forcing all the people to examine the condition of their lives because, as the saying goes, the unexamined life is not worth living . . . As a writer I aspire only to widen the scope of that self-examination. I don't want to foreclose it with a catchy, half-baked orthodoxy. My critics say: There is no time for your beautiful educational programme; the masses are ready and will be enlightened in the course of the struggle. And they quote Fanon on the sin of betraying the revolution. They do not realize that revolutions are betrayed just as much by stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate action as by doing noth- ing at all." [Ch 12, pp. 145-46]

How much of this passage represents Achebe's own views as expressed elsewhere in his criticism, and is it fundamentally political or apolitical?

In contrast to other portions of this speech that emphasize indigenous tradition and African self-determination, this passage both draws upon the European tradition in a number of ways. How, for example, does he use the Gospels and, by the way, who said, "the unexamined life is nmot worth living"? To what extent does this passage comment upon Marxist and Socialist battles over the role of the artist during the 1930s?

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