[This is an analysis of Chris Abani’s novel Song for Night. It is a very well written, although very disturbing book about a child soldier named My Luck whom the reader follows as he attempts to find his platoon.
The book presents an anthropology that stands in stark contradiction to the core assumptions of postmodernism, and yet there are postmodernists who see this book as supporting their ideas.
I refute that notion.
Please keep me in prayer as I endeavor to be faithful in my witness for Christ in my secular school.
Soli Deo Gloria.]
Homogenization is a Mother Goddess Swallowing Up Difference
By H.R.Diaz III
In Song for Night, My Luck teaches the reader how he and his comrades once communicated with one another after having had their vocal chords severed. Major Eissen, more colloquially known to them as “John Wayne,” did this “…so that [they] wouldn’t scare each other with [their] death screams…[which] are a risky distraction”1 from their assigned duty of defusing land mines. Unskillful, or unlucky, soldiers had no means of giving voice to their plight; and the remaining soldiers were trapped in their own minds, forced to hear “the screams of those dying around [them]” which “were louder than if they still had their voices.”2
Voicelessness produces and perpetuates death and fragmentation in a time of war. Hence, My Luck, himself the victim of a land mine explosion, opens his narrative by asserting that what the reader “hears” is not his voice. Likewise, upon reuniting with his mother he closes his narrative by peacefully stating: “…my voice has returned.”3 What colonialization and war have rendered dysfunctional and fragmentary, i.e. his voice and identity, are restored to him upon returning to his mother. This return entails his abandonment of the identity foisted upon him by the dictatorial Westerner John Wayne, competing non-Igbo religions, and his present quest to be reunited with his platoon.
Underlying My Luck’s narrative is the complex philosophical anthropology of the Igbo people, in which the unity of the subject is privileged and the disunity/fragmentation of the subject is marginalized. The subject was created by the Supreme Being to be a unity, not a hodge-podge assembly of disjointed signifiers. Therefore, in Igbo philosophical anthropology that which disrupts the unity of the subject is not neutral or good, but is bad and undesirable. My Luck’s killing the other (i.e. John Wayne), and his rejection of those who still adhere to the oppressive and alienating ideology of the other (i.e. his platoon) mark his return to his mother (who serves as an archetypal image of the mother goddess) and, therefore, the return of his voice and identity via his re-absorption into the One.
Death is Two Fingers Sliding Across the Throat
As mentioned above, My Luck begins his narrative by describing his voicelessness. “What you hear is not my voice,” he says, “I have not spoken in three years: not since I left boot camp. It has been three years of…senseless war…”4Paradox grips the reader and thrusts him into My Luck’s mind, with an abruptness that echoes how he entered the war. “They approached me,” he says, “and said I had been selected for a special mission…to be part of an elite team…highly trained in locating and eliminating the threat of clandestine enemy explosives.”5 Although he was presumably only twelve years old at the time, he was recruited as a soldier, training only three weeks in boot camp prior to being thrown into the battlefield.
There is no sense, i.e. no meaning, behind the war (at least for the child soldiers);6 nevertheless, “the reasons for it are clear,” according to My Luck, “…we are simply fighting to survive.”7 Their war equipment did not only consist of defensive weapons, however, but also “crucifixes, scapulars, and other religious paraphernalia to keep [them] safe.”8 In the absence of speech, My Luck gathered symbolic objects through which he could express himself. He utilized the speech of the other, subverting its original meaning. Thus, the crucifix served to protect him against evil, and was repeatedly carved onto his arms to function as “mnemonic devices.”
To ground myself, I run my fingers meditatively over the small crosses cut into my left arm…they are like a map of my consciousness, something that brings me back from the dark brink of war madness…9
These symbols were a surrogate voice, another language through which My Luck re-membered himself from the fragments of his pre-colonial subjectivity that the war had dismembered.
Therefore, not only is it the case that “bullets and shrapnel from mines and mortar shells can tear a body to pieces,”10 it is also the case that the loss of one’s voice, due to the intrusion of the other, can dismember the subject. Physical fragmentation runs parallel to the fragmentation of the subject, of his consciousness which can only be expressed through the language of the other – a language that is insufficient to keep one alive or re-member those who have been torn apart by war. Accordingly, although John Wayne says that “we can never be lost as long as we follow the manual,”11 My Luck is lost. And again, although John Wayne says that if one “follow[s] the protocols…[he] will survive,”12 Ijeoma (his addressee) and many others have died. Additionally, although John Wayne’s protocols require that a count be taken of the dead, it does not take into account that the war tears persons apart:
An arm here, a leg over there in the foliage – all of which have to be retrieved and assembled into the semblance of a complete body before there can be a count…Many of the parts do not add up. This is the enemy’s cruelty – that much of the generation who survive this war will not be able to rebuild their communities…13
My Luck initially is speaking of the dismemberment of bodies and then abruptly begins to speak of communities that have been torn apart. Contrary to Western philosophy’s recent valorization of difference and fragmentation, My Luck understands fragmentation to be a result of trauma, war, and not the universal condition of humanity. Moreover, he specifically identifies permanent fragmentation as a cruel effect of the war in which he is fighting under the command of Westerner, John Wayne.
This is most strikingly illustrated by My Luck’s horrific account of his discovery of cannibal women who were preparing to eat a dismembered baby (pp.27-29), a baby whose head fell to the ground, rolled across the ground toward him to thereafter haunt his dreams and “keep [him] from rest.” These are the effects of war: One’s voice is lost, one’s consciousness and body are fragmented, and one’s community, even the sacred relationship between mother and child, are reduced to meaningless fragments as well.
The Maternal Matrix
My Luck is “recuperating his humanity through this journey,”14 and this humanity is a unified whole. The source of fragmentation, therefore, is not good or neutral but bad. Significantly, it is John Wayne the Westerner who has taken My Luck’s voice, forced him to follow the dictates of an imaginary war manual, and caused him to shoot and kill a pregnant woman.15 Likewise, it is John Wayne who threatened to rape and kill Faith and, thereby, brought about her death and his own at the hands of My Luck, her unfortunate protector.16 Without killing Faith, John Wayne would have continued to perform and perpetuate violence against the Igbo people; therefore, My Luck had to kill Faith, for without doing so he would have remained a slave to his illegitimate master. Yet these women, however much they affected My Luck, seem to be symbols of a more important woman, viz. his mother, who is herself an archetype of the mother-goddess, the all embracing One.
According to Theophilus Okere, threatening to kill another person’s mother is the ultimate curse among the Igbo people, which helps explain why it is that My Luck must be completely severed from John Wayne and those who still adhere to his violent ideology (i.e. his platoon) before he returns to his mother. Okere writes:
Father and mother…(the Igbo reverse the order) are the sacred source of one’s existence. An insult to one’s parents is an insult that touches to the depths of one’s being. The ultimate curse among young people and which inevitably starts a fight is nne gi nwuoka, May your mother die!17
John Wayne’s actions have not directly affected My Luck’s mother, but they have affected women who stand as her representatives. “The human being,” writes Okere,
“is conceived as the focus of a web of relationships [see, Abani pp.62-63]…related first of all to parents and siblings but gradually to a whole kinship network that widens in concentric circles to include the entire village or town.”18
The seriousness of the offense is heightened further when the importance of the mother’s role in the emergence of the child’s identity/voice is understood. Commenting on the sociological importance of the mother-figure in Igbo society, Kalu Ogbaa states:
To the traditional Igbo, women should not be exposed to war. They should rather preserve their bodies and emotions for childbirth and the upbringing of their infants and children. The training of children is the most important work an Igbo man or woman can do for their society…Motherhood is so important in traditional Igbo society that men name their daughters Nneka, mother-is-supreme.19
Whereas the soul of each person is given the symbolic title of “Grandfather,”20 it is the mother who is the source of the individual and, consequently, the source of the entire society. All belong to her; all differences are swallowed up in their return to her.
Perhaps this is why it is My Luck’s grandfather who teaches him about Idemilli, the goddess who “took all the power from men.”21 The grandfather would, in this instance, serve as a symbol of My Luck’s soul which is connected to the mother-figure. And as it is the war caused by Westerners which has killed his mother, My Luck must abandon the vain pursuit of his platoon and be re-united with his mother/the mother-figure.
The Dissolution of Difference & the Return of My Luck’s Voice/Identity
“There has been nothing but blood since the night my mother died,”22 My Luck says, briefly summarizing the complex relationship between his soul, his mother, and his identity/voice in a short sentence. The blood he mentions is, no doubt, to be understood literally, but that does not purge it of its symbolic functionality. In this instance, the word blood is also a synecdoche representing all of the distress, dismemberment and disintegration My Luck has witnessed and experienced. All of the voices that have been silenced, all of the bodies that have been dismembered, all of the persons who have become “half-persons” – all of these are suggested by the word blood.
In this way, then, My Luck’s journey is an inversion of Lacan’s model of the development of the subject. Whereas Lacan’s theory begins with the subject inhabiting the Imaginary (where he cannot speak), moving on to identify the Symbolic stage (where he can only interact with the world, however failingly, by means of language and symbolism), My Luck’s failing attempts to represent the world-in-itself via his utilization of the other’s language (religious and socio-cultural) are representative of the fact that, because of the war, he has become something only a little better than an animal. As Hans Bertens notes, while the subject is in the Imaginary stage of development he experiences reality immediately, without the mediation of language/symbols. It is only
…via the mirror stage…[that] the child enter the Symbolic: it enters the world of language in which the Real –real world which we can never know – is symbolized and represented by language and other representational systems that operate like language.23
My Luck’s situation is one from which he must be freed, and one from which he is eventually freed. And yet for Lacan, the subject’s entrance into the Symbolic is indicative of his development, his growth, and his individuation.
A brief comparison of Lacan’s stages of development with My Luck’s experiences will suffice to show the reader that Song for Night bears prima facie similarities with much of postmodern/poststructuralist thought, but these similarities do not go beyond the surface of their respective sources. Postmodern/poststructuralist theories of the subject assign to it an originally fragmentary nature;24 Igbo philosophy, on the other hand, privileges the unity of the subject, taking its unity and capacity to express itself as its natural and good state.25 Postmodern/poststructuralist theories of language, moreover, privilege instability, uncertainty, and insufficiency (as exhibited either in complementation or supplementation); however, Song for Night identifies these phenomena as unnatural, and valorizes original voice/identity over and against what it deems to be the effects of colonialization.
Ironically, it is only by neglecting to take Igbo philosophical anthropology into account that Song for Night and postmodernism/poststructuralism can be said to share many things in common. There exists, rather, an antithetical relationship of the former to the latter, an opposition that can only be resolved by means of either (a.)the West’s perpetuation of fragmentation, dismemberment, division and disintegration by means of war that is overtly fueled by ideologies promoting the deconstruction of all things, or (b.)by means of the many being reabsorbed into the mother-figure and, thereby, regaining their proper voice/identity. Heteroginization vs. Homogenization: Song for Night presents no third option. Things fall apart, and their only hope is self-abandonment to the all-encompassing reign of the mother-figure. But how is this a solution? Is it not rather a rather knotty impasse?
Song for Night’s resolution, perhaps unconsciously, resolves nothing at all but rather perpetuates the problem of colonialization. My Luck must kill John Wayne, and to do so he must kill Faith (presumably the Christian faith as embodied in either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism). In order to regain his voice, he must abandon his platoon (which is under the command of the vile John Wayne) and rejoin his mother, the head of Igbo society, the mother-figure. In other words, in order to be himself, to be a unified subject, My Luck must kill the other and isolate himself from and reject those who still adhere to the ideological commitments of John Wayne the Westerner. My Luck must subject all things to his worldview, to his mother, to his religion. He must become the colonializer as well, erasing all differences, feeding them to the mother goddess.
4 p.21 (emphasis added)
6 The war could “mean” financial gain for American cigarette companies, as My Luck indicates on p.152.
10 p.50 (emphasis added)
13 p.50 (emphasis added)
14 “’Song for Night’ Highlights Hope, Despair,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14982742, accessed 11/02/12
15 p.103 (emphasis added)
17 “The Structure of the Self in Igbo Thought,” in Identity and Change: Nigerian Philosophical Studies, I, ed. Theophilus Okere, (Washington: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1996), 159
19 Igbo, (NewYork: The Rosen Publishing Group, 1995), 30 (emphasis added)
20 See Okere, p.154
23 Literary Theory: The Basics, Routledge (NewYork: 2010), 126 (emphasis added)
24 For more on this, see Léon P. Turner, “First Person Plural: Self-Unity and
Self-Multiplicity in Theology’s Dialogue With Psychology,” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, (42:1) 2007: 7-24.
25 See Okere, p.160-161