Thursday, February 04, 2010

The middle ground

We grew up with Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer. His 1958 book Things Fall Apart was the perceived epitome of African literature, and a promise of a bright cultural future for that continent. Since that time, some bright things have happened -- notably, the end of apartheid in South Africa. But we have also witnessed chaos and atrocity in Rwanda, Congo, Sudan and elsewhere.

Now Achebe has published a collection of essays called (whimsically and ironically) the Education of a British Protected Child, reviewed in last Sunday's NYT Book Review. Apparently, the overarching theme is the colonial legacy in Africa.

According to the reviewer, Achebe's voice, as always, is moderate, eschewing extremes of radicalism or reaction. He occupies what he calls "the middle ground," what he defines as "the home of doubt and indecision, of make-believe, of playfulness, of the unpredictable, of irony."

I suppose there are those who would chastise Achebe for his moderation, who would call him wishy-washy, and urge him to thunderous wrath in the face of manifest injustice. Yet, there he sits, with his sweet, ironic smile, his critical faculties intact and held on a gentle rein.

In a world so fraught with sloganeering from left and right, with anger, self-righteousness and true belief, I am happy to resort to Achebe's place of measured doubt and playfulness, of humor and irony. There is truth in the middle ground, but it comes wrapped in hesitation, humility, tolerance, and (let us hope) grace.

There is a line of dialogue in another novel I read back in 1958. The narrator asks the eponymous Mr. Blue: "Isn't the golden mean the secret of something or other?" "Yes," replies Blue, "mediocrity." At the time, I was ready to agree with Blue, to opt for a muscular religion and politics, to avoid the namby-pamby gray. No more. I'll leave the doctrines of infallibility and placard-wielding indignations to those who have the stomach for them -- and play with Achebe in the artful middle.