Ionesco, Achebe, Yeats, Chekhov, Harrison Ford, and The Reader

In his Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong mentions Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart as an example of the near sacredness of print for those in an oral society who have learned to read (every scrap of paper being “too remarkable to throw away”). In his play The Lesson Eugene Ionesco presents something similar when his Pupil, upon first encountering the Professor, hugs to her chest her notebook as if it is a magical protective shield against assault.

 But there is much more about the novel and the play that becomes understandable using the O-L theory. [And don’t bother reading the psycho lit analyses unless you love to be deceived while feeling so intellectual.]  Achebe takes his title from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,”: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The poem has nothing directly related to orality and literacy; however, it is an apt description of the collision of the world of orality and literacy portrayed by Achebe. The tribal world of his hero, Okonkwo (“His fame rested on solid personal achievements”) is gradually torn apart by the missionaries and imperial functionaries in service of Empire. They loose the anarchy of literacy upon the oral world of the tribal peoples. These book people serve empire, but first they serve literacy.

Over two-thirds of the novel deals with Okonkwo’s tribal, oral, life before the missionaries. Okonkwo is a proto-capitalist, a self-made man who “did not have the start in life which many young man had.”  He is a leader, aggressive: “Okonkwokew hot to kill a man’s spirit”. Like all real heroes, he is flawed: he kills a boy who has been like a son because caught up in a tribal revenge “[h]e was afraid of being thought weak”. He is banished, and after many years he returns to his tribe, diminished but still a man of respect and power. And then, “The arrival of the missionaries had caused a considerable stir in the village of Mbanta”.

The first missionary to lead his church is a good liberal. He did not impose his will directly on the people. He was a genuine student of culture: “Mr. Brown leaned a great deal about the religion of the clan and he came to the conclusion that a frontal attack on it would not succeed”.  But later, “Mr. Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation”. Brown is likeable; Smith is odious. And so little difference it makes. Regardless of the missionaries’ moral or political stance, the oral culture of the tribe is doomed, and so is the hero who most represents it.

As the missionaries succeed in teaching their converts the true religion, teach them to read the word of God from the true book, Okonkwo saw the end of his world: he “was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart…”.

In a fit of rage brought about by his frustration at being unable to unify his tribe through the power of his speech, he strikes out at a messenger of the literate world that threatens him and his people: he kills him. And he must be brought to justice, for the missionaries have brought with them not just the word of their god but a court in which to try those who cannot follow the letter of the law. And rather than face the court, a court like the one that Chekhov portrayed in “A Malefactor,” Okonkwo hangs himself.

Questions arise, as they must, should. How has literacy affected us, changed our consciousness, our society, how difficult it is to “get outside” of our literate mentality, our culture. An answer, of sorts, not from a book to be read but a film to be seen (and read), a film that gives us a way, not a true view or a return to our own oral world, but one that offers clues as to what that oral culture is like, what we have gained by our immersion in the world of literacy and what we’ve lost. Witness starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis to see if the oral-lit theory applies.

            The movie seems made to order for an analysis of the conflict of cultures, Amish and “English” (how the Amish refer to the Other), oral and literate. One scene is especially revealing. John Book, the Harrison Ford character, is dancing with McGillis. And he sings along:

Don't know much about geography

Don't know much trigonometry

Don't know much about algebra

Don't know what a slide rule is for


But I do know that one and one is two

And if this one could be with you

What a wonderful world this would be. (Weiss)


John Book is drawn to this music as he is drawn to the simpler world, “the one and one” practical world, of the Amish. Book sings along with the music, “I love you.” He voices the words, but for the McGillis character (in an oral society) to voice the words is also to mean them.  Words themselves have power. They mean what they say. The voice unites. And this mutual misunderstanding is the source of all of the conflicts in the story. [The complete shot sequence for the film and detailed analysis.]

There is no question that the O-L theory has heightened understanding and appreciation of the film. The fact that the main character, played by Ford, the character who disrupts the patriarchal, oral, Amish society, who threatens its very existence, is named Book, a detail hardly noticed before applying the insights from the theory. We could spend much more time re-viewing this movie and examining scenes and shot selections and apply the theory, but take a look at another, aptly named The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry.

            The Reader is a popular film, having received a lot of press because of the star power of Kate Winslet (Hannah Schmitz) and controversy because of the background of the love story between Hannah and Michael (Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael Berg, David Kross the young Michael) is the Holocaust. And it’s the misunderstanding of this background that distorts all of the criticism of this film. The New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis who calls the film “fatuous” and signals with this statement that she is less interested in the film’s issues than her own:

Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard.

The backdrop for this film is the Holocaust, essential to the story. But reviewers such as this miss the obvious. And that is understandable because it’s obvious only with the help of our theory. This film is not, or not only, a conflict between Hannah and Michael. This story is not about guilt, about survival guilt, certainly not about using or abusing the Holocaust to get selected by Oprah and garner a best seller. This film is about seduction, but not erotic seduction. Nor is it essentially about any of the themes that Dargis and many of the online commentators to her review claim it to be. The main conflict in the story is between the oral culture of Hannah and the literate culture of Michael.

            Dargis sneers when she refers to others who might have sympathy for Hannah:

            It is also, more obliquely, about the Holocaust and the generation of Germans who came of age after that catastrophe. …


Outrageously, Hanna is a victim too, because she took the guard job only to hide her illiteracy, as if illiteracy were an excuse for barbarism.

But there is no “as if” in the portrayal of Hannah’s illiteracy. And there is no hint of the director excusing Hannah for barbarism. When after she learns to read, she understands what her participation in the Holocaust has meant; she climbs bodily up on the stack of books, the books that support her entrance into the world of literacy, and from her a rope in her study, her prison cell, she hangs herself. But Dargis? She sees it this way:

You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.

The filmmaker makes no comparison of the plight of the illiterate prison guard to the Holocaust victims, but it is undeniable that Hannah is also a victim. The other prison guards on trial brutalize her by twisting the truth, lying about her role in the camp. She too is a scapegoat.

The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews was a war, a real war but also a symbolic war, a war of the Dictator, the spellbinding voice of mystical un-reason capturing the oral residue of a frustrated and fearful public to eliminate the People of the Book, the most learned, the most rational, the most literate population of Europe. [For a more detailed look at The Reader + plus Melville's BillyBudd]

            The suicide of Achebe’s hero, Okonkwo, the suicide of Hannah, the murder of the Pupil in The Lesson, the death of Lady Alroy in Chekov’s short story The Lady With the Dog, the many killings in Witness, should signify to skeptics that the clash of oral and literate cultures is violent, violence for individuals, and for cultures violence magnified.

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