Fiction and the Meaning of Life

How can we imbue the novel with a quality that is less about social realism, more about the meaning of life? (“The ‘meaning of life’ is really the center about which the novel moves — Walter Benjamin”) This is the question for the African novelist who seeks to escape the niche of polemicism and social realism. It goes further to the root of the complaint people make nowadays about the inadequacy of fiction to compensate for the hyper-realness of the occurrences in the world. If novels can somehow be tasked with something other than realism, perhaps with meditativeness and a proliferation of ideas, then we can gift stories that are not judged by their familiarity with social realities but how they are seeped in meandering through the pressing questions of our time.

(“The novelist…cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis.'” — Walter Benjamin.)

My point is that the imaginative work of fiction cannot be circumscribed only as social realism. In the wake of growing interest (and growing commodification) of African literature, we have to demand for other narrative niches that approach the meanings and purpose of life differently. This is not merely a call for genre-bending narratives, or experimental writing.

A Great Expectation

There is a poem for every feeling, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Transcription of Organ Music” for the feeling of great expectations. To expect is to imagine a future, sometimes without colour, sometimes without direction, like the wind.

In my case the colour I see is white smoke. I see myself in the middle of whiteness. And despite the noise and movement around me, is an essential quietude.

The first stanza of that Ginsberg poem reads:

The flower in the glass peanut bottle formerly in the kitchen
                crooked to take a place in the light,
the closet door opened, because I used it before, it kindly stayed
                open waiting for me, its owner.

Being young is that feeling of a great expectation. People tell me this all the time, “You are young.” Before now I took it badly. To emphasize my youth, I felt, was to shoo away the importance of my presence in today’s moment. And worse, I didn’t feel young at all. Deadlines and to-dos whirled in my head. For me youth was a relative I was growing up with, who made constant journeys to undisclosed locations, yet familiar in his absence.

But now, reading this Ginsberg poem, youth is rushing into focus. The poem’s questions are side by side with its answers –

Can I bring back the words? Will thought of transcription
haze my mental open eye?
 
                The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of
the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them
                The privilege to witness my existence – you too must seek
the sun…

What does expectation mean if not to witness one’s own existence as it unfolds? What else does expectation mean except to have hazy dreams of tomorrow?

Being told I am young, I realize, is the greatest compliment anyone can pay me. It means I am expected to grow, to acclimatize. It means I am not being watched – the demands are less, the promise is endless. It means I am up to something. It means my ambition is utilitarian, my life is of use. And these facts wouldn’t change until I am old.

My favourite stanza of that poem –

My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t
disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use –
my words piled up, my texts, my manuscripts, my loves.

This feeling of great expectations thrives on the endlessness of time. Ginsberg writes mostly backward, recollecting amongst other things his first homosexual experience. My project, in response to his, is situated at the point where I wait to ‘transcribe’ my own music, as he has done in his poem.  It is mostly an ideal, but an ideal is okay since an ideal is mostly an unclaimed utopia. The way I feel is like I have the right currency to buy time; for all I care there will be no change in time’s market value.

How has time managed to become my ally? How has it left its quality for my use?

Christopher Okigbo had written in “The Passage”:

Ray, violet, and short, piercing the gloom,
Foreshadow the fire that is dreamed of.

In all, lulled by the feeling of great expectations, I have to listen for the wind. I have to wait for the passage of time, and enjoy my place in it.

Okigbo agrees,

For we are listening in cornfields
Among the windplayers,
Listening to the wind leaning over
Its loveliest fragment…

And, with deafening clarity, Nina Simone sings,

 “…tomorrow will be the twenty-second century.”