Taking Responsibility: A Discussion of Ideological Positioning in Anthills of the Savannah and The Remains of the Day

by Beth Soucar '91 (EL 34, 1991)

Both The Remains of the Day and Anthills of the Savannah reveal the ideological implication of people who have secondary or "helping" roles in the support of someone else's political project. These roles raise questions about the nature of a vocation and the dynamics in the relationship between employer and employee, government and the people. In Remains, the character Stevens discusses that leap of faith necessary to give one's life focus. In other words, without a vocation (a project, goals, or ideals), we remain in limbo, immobile, but when we choose one, we now become partially responsible for maintaining a power structure that helps some people and harms others. It is this responsibility from which Stevens' seems to shirk in the following passage. However, if he is writing this persuasive passage in his diary, it is my impression that he must have some doubts about its verisimilitude.

If a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: 'this emplyer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him.' This is loyalty intelligently bestowed. What is there 'undignified' in this? One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to serving him to the best of our ability....How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington's efforts were misguided, even foolish? (200-201, The Remains of the Day)

In this passage, Stevens understands that at some point, one must make a commitment to what one believes. However, he does not want to accept the responsibility for helping further Lord Darlington's racist projects, thinking that if he did not know what was going on at the time, then he cannot be held responsible. This bad faith, however, is a cowardly shirking of responsibility. If Stevens' had a fuller understanding of power dynamics, he would know that an ideological commitment means supporting some ideals at the expense of others, that no cause is without its bad side. Of course, Stevens need not openly supported a racist program, either. Taking responsibility is an important theme in some postcolonial literature because it makes a person face up to his or her complicity in the colonial structure, so that, when the structure shifts to internal rule, we realize that we must take responsibility for the problems of the new (including some of the same) ideologies and not just ascribe blame to those persons currently in power. Blaming leaders may be satisfying in the short term, but it does not change the power dynamics, which should be the first priority.

Postcolonial authors must make this political point clear in the context of secondary roles, such as Stevens' service-oriented profession, because political problems are often blamed on the leaders alone. We are all implicated in the establishment and perpetuation of the social and political orders of our society. Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah articulates this theme in a Nigerian context. Two taxi drivers visit Ikem, who is a government official in a post-colonial African nation (implied to be Nigeria). Good questions to consider while reading this passage are: What role do the cabbies play in the maintenance of the oppressive government? What kind of power structure is familiar to them, and why does familiarity (habit, ritual, shared social codes) make a power structure desirable, even enjoyable, despites its oppressiveness?

As he drove to Mad Medico's place that afternoon Ikem turned over and over in his mind one particular aspect of the visit of the taxi-driver and his friend--how it seemed so important to him to explain his failure to recognize an admired "personality" like Ikem; and how adroitly he had shifted the guilt for this failure round to the very same object of admiration for driving a battered old Datsun instead of a Mercedes and for driving with his own hands instead of sitting in the owner's corner and being driven. So in the midst of all their fulsome and perfectly sincere praise of Ikem those two also managed to sneak in a couple of body-blows.

Ikem could understand well enough the roots of the paradox in which a man's personal choice to live simply without such trimmings as chauffeurs could stamp him not as a modest and exemplary citizen but as a mean-minded miser denying a livelihood to one unemployed driver out of hundreds and thousands roaming the streets--a paradox so perverse in its implications as to justify the call for the total dismantling of the grotesque world in which it grows--and flourishes.

But even in such a world how does one begin to explain the downtrodden drivers' wistful preference for a leader driving not like themselves in a battered and sputtering vehicle but differently, stylishly in a Mercedes and better still with another downtrodden person like themselves for a chauffeur? Perhaps a root-and-branch attack would cure that diseased tolerance too, a tolerance verging on admiration by the trudging-jigger-toed oppressed for the Mercedes-Benz-driving, private-jet-flying, luxury-yacht-cruising oppressor. And insistence by the oppressed that his oppression be performed in style!

What half-way measures could hope to cure that? NO, it had to be full measure, pressed down and flowing over! Except that in dictatorships of the proletariat where roots have already been dug up and branches hacked away, an atavistic tolerance seems to linger, quite unexpectedly, for the stylishness of dachas and special shops etc. etc., for the revolutionary elite. Therefore what is at issue in all this may not be systems after all but a basic human failing that may not only be alleviated by a good spread of general political experience, slow of growth and obstinately patient like the young tree planted by David Diop on the edge of the primeval desert just before the year of wonders in which Africa broke out so spectacularly in a rash of independent nation states! (127-128, Anthills of the Savannah)

Ikem finds that he cannot fathom the massive changes necessary at all levels of society to prevent people from supporting social systems that oppress them. His remarks make me wonder if such changes could occur. Must revolution mean only that people will always be circulating around in order to fill the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed? Is there anything in between? Or beyond? As I have said, one of the messages of postcolonial authors, in their project to educate people on the complexity of relationships and power dynamics, is that the responsibility for the existing power structure is shared by all, and that getting rid of "the bad guys" does not purge the society of unwanted ideologies. Can we face this responsibility? Does it render us paralyzed, in the fear that we are hurting our own cause? How would people relate to one another if the roles of dominant and dominated were to disappear?

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