Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

African literature has done a great deal to form the conventional wisdom about the cultural side of colonialism, that conventional wisdom being that African societies used to be communitarian, spiritual, and close to nature, but then these virtues were eroded by contact with the individualistic, calculating, and earthly-minded West. This generalization has enough truth in it to make a good starting point (at least for thinking about the cultural side of colonialism; the political and economic sides are obviously something else again). Unfortunately, when pressed to go into more detail about the exact nature of the West’s cultural inferiority, the argument often runs like this:

“The West is materialistic. It is spiritually impoverished.”

“How do you know?”

“They have motorcars.”

But a man may have a motorcar and yet be a saint. Capitalism and technology are not, in and of themselves, proof of spiritual impoverishment. African writers who set up Western culture as a bugaboo without displaying any familiarity with its riches are no better than the Western writers who romanticize tribal society based on a one-dimensional knowledge of it—the sort of Western writer who can’t tell the difference between a man who is close to nature and a man who is only close to nature because he is desperately poor, or the difference between a strong sense of community and oppression under a tin-pot dictatorship.

Which is why I have such admiration for An Ambiguous Adventure (1962) by Cheikh Hamidou Kane. It is exactly the sort of African novel that Westerners ought to read—one in which the main character is equally knowledgeable on Western and African culture and feels himself more drawn to his native one, but not simply because it is his native one. The narrator, Samba Diallo, is a young Senegalese man whose forward-thinking parents remove him from an Islamic school, where he had excelled, and send him first to a Western school in Senegal and then to France for university. (Cheikh Hamidou Kane himself studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne.) His peers are impressed by his deep knowledge of history and philosophy, and some are dazzled by his African “authenticity,” but he finds himself less and less interested in joining their world and their way of thinking.

We know that Samba Diallo is able to articulate his reasons for this preference, because he does so at a dinner with a French university classmate, Lucienne, and her family. To put it in terms they will understand, he focuses his criticism on the Enlightenment:

It seems to me that this history has undergone an accident which has shifted it and, finally, drawn it away from its plan. Do you understand me? Socrates’ scheme of thinking does not seem to me, at bottom, different from that of Saint Augustine, though there was Christ between them. The plan is the same, as far as Pascal . . . . But don’t you feel as if the philosophical plan were already no longer the same with Descartes and Pascal?

It is not that they were preoccupied with different problems, but that they occupied themselves with them in different ways. It is not the mystery which has changed, but the questions which are asked of it, and the revelations which are expected from it. Descartes is more niggardly in his quest; if, thanks to this and also to his method, he obtains a greater number of responses, what he reports also concerns us less, and is of little help to us.

Lucienne’s father, a Protestant pastor, tell him to “hold firmly to this opinion . . . . Those who are on your side are fewer every day.”

Lucienne turns out to be a member of the Communist party, and she is a wonderfully well-drawn example of the kind of Western intellectual who would later visit such suffering upon Africa by making excuses for its dictators as long as they professed to be socialists:

“You have delved deeply into the Russian mind of the nineteenth century [she says], the Russian writers, poets, artists. I know that you love that century. It was filled with the same disquiet, the same impassioned and ambiguous torment. To be the extreme eastern end of Europe? Not to be the western bridgehead of Asia? The intellectuals could neither answer these questions nor avoid them. As you with the word I coined [négritude], so they did not like to hear talk of ‘Slavism.’ Yet who among them has not bent the knee, in filial devotion, before Holy Russia?”

Samba Diallo interrupted. “I was just saying that to you! And no priest or doctor would be able to do anything for this torment.”

“Yes, but Lenin?”

Critics have described Samba Diallo as an exemplary victim of colonialism in that he is a man buffeted by historical forces beyond his control. This was not my impression. He certainly recognizes that the end of Africa’s isolation is inevitable and his countrymen will have to adapt one way or another—the author compares this inevitability to “a woman who consents to intercourse: the child that is not yet conceived is calling to her . . . but in order that the child may be born, the country must give itself.” But for Samba Diallo, the pursuit of Western wisdom is not simply a form of self-defense or resignation; he truly feels its draw. When asked why he has chosen to study philosophy rather than something more practical like medicine or law, he answers:
“When I think about it now, I can’t help wondering if there hasn’t been a little of the morbid attraction of danger. I have chosen the itinerary which is most likely to get me lost.”

Like a moth drawn to the fire. What philosophically minded Westerner could not say the same?

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles