Naked Skulls

It should be clear by now that I am slightly obsessed with Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard. Faced with Tutuola, I turn into Mr. Casaubon, convinced that it is the Key to All Mythologies. In big and small ways, at the level of ideas and the level of syntax, Tutuola provides a critique of Afro-modernity that remains unmatched by any Anglophone writer of his generation.

(I need to manage this Tutuola-addiction.)

My favorite narrative sequence in The Palm-Wine Drinkard is about the “complete gentleman.” Briefly, a “complete gentleman” visits a market and, while there, attracts the attention of the town beauty, a young woman who has refused to marry because she finds all other men lacking. Infatuated with him, she decides to follow him home, despite his repeated warnings that she should turn back. On the way home, he begins to shed parts of himself, returning his borrowed accoutrements, including clothing, limbs, and skin. Fully denuded, the “complete gentleman” is revealed to be a Skull. He imprisons the young woman in a community of Skulls and renders her dumb by tying a cowrie shell around her neck. The narrator rescues her. Of course.

The tale of the deceptively beautiful young man is fairly common in African folktales. And it is striking that it’s often men, not women, whose beauty is considered deceptive. One could stage an encounter between urban and rural forms of masculinity here, and, following an East African vein, relate this sequence to that between Lawino and the absent Clementine. Interesting tangent. Will not pursue.

Two questions: what does it mean that a “complete gentleman” is composed of a series of discrete, borrowed parts? And, what does it mean, especially within Afro-modernity, that the “real gentleman” is a silencing Skull?

(I should confess that the African fetishization of “the gentleman,” and our point of reference is invariably “the colonial gentleman,” irritates me to no end. That we continue to valorize this figure and aspire to it is really quite silly.)

In disassembling the “complete gentleman,” Tutuola makes visible the various elements that, cumulatively, create the gentleman, elements that, when disaggregated, function as fetishes, a term that has the same suturing effect as Afro-modernity. It sutures the anthropological-religious element with the psychic-capitalist. (Yes, I know, it’s a lazy formulation.)

I raise this point regarding the fetish because I am interested in how authors such as Senghor and Kenyatta re-embed certain anthropological-religious concepts back into their “African”/ “primitive” contexts from their abstraction in Marxist and psychoanalytic thought. Tutuola’s Afro-modern approach re-embeds such concepts in their African contexts while also leaving open possibilities for Marxist and psychoanalytic readings. In fact, I think Tutuola makes it impossible for us not to consider this suturing. (My best critics have suggested that I should distinguish between what texts do and what I do with them. I’m still learning. It’s hard for me not to fetishize the text as my Key to All Mythologies.)

It is no coincidence that Tutuola de-structures the “complete gentleman” following WWII, the experience that transformed the idea of the colonial gentleman for many Africans. As is often acknowledged, African veterans of WWI and WWII acquired radically different understandings of white masculinity. Seeing white men killed in battle, vulnerable to dirt and disease, demystified white masculinity, often materializing what might have been, until then, quite abstract. But this materialization was also accompanied by a realization that white masculinity was an abstraction, a Skull, an idea that even many white men found difficult to realize.

This is a complex double movement: simultaneously to make concrete what appears abstract while also making abstraction material. And it is one of Tutuola’s signature moves. It is also one of the reasons Tutuola is my drug of choice for thinking through the complexities of Afro-modernity.

Tutuola does not follow a Senghorian line that opposes European abstraction to African feeling. He offers, instead, a meditation on Afro-modernity as a form of living death, anticipating Paul Gilroy’s provocative idea that Afro-modernity is inextricably bound to terror. This is one of those head-scratching ideas.

The Skull’s “skullness” represents a form of living death and, through its actions, it traps others into forms of living death (as texter reminded me, slavery works its way through Tutuola’s corpus in any number of ways). It terrorizes the young woman by rendering her dumb and immobile. It needs her to be both, to embody living death for it. (Hegelians will recognize the origin of this formulation.)

Freud writes that interpretation can continue interminably. There is no natural “finally.” One chooses among arbitrary endings. Here is one.

Any analysis of Tutuola’s meditation on the “complete gentleman” and the “real gentleman” remains incomplete if it does not account for the young woman’s actions. The easy folktale reading is that she is punished for her pride, for refusing to marry the young men around her. I agree with this familiar interpretation. But we can pursue a “grown-up” reading.

Unlike in similar folktales, the “complete gentleman or terrible creature” does not pursue the young woman. He does not attempt to seduce her. In fact, he warns her away, but she chooses not to listen. How do we think about her choices? This is where it gets hairy. We could argue that the “complete gentleman” misrepresents himself and, consequently, seduces her by default. But this explanation is unconvincing.

If Afro-modernity represents a site of terror for the black subject, it also represents a series of decisions on the part of the black subject: to listen, to pursue. Although he approaches this question very differently, Robert Reid-Pharr, in his recent work, asks why we have been unwilling to grant the black subject (my term, not his) this ability to choose. This is not to deny the terror of Afro-modernity. It is, however, to stop making Afro-modern subjects purely re-active, to stop identifying resistance as the privileged signifier of agency within Afro-modernity.

But now I have wandered far, and I still want to hit that “finally.”

I am interested in a certain kind of conceptual density. And I often cross over into Skull territory. While Tutuola lends himself to this kind of conceptual play, he also warns about the dangers of pursuing Skullness.

And it is this final lesson in humility that might be the most useful.

3 thoughts on “Naked Skulls

  1. This is a lovely reading, and evocative. I’ve been teaching the “Complete Gentleman” as an excerpt for a while, but you’ve seen much more in it than I have. The manner in which the skull signifies as death, for example, does marvelous things for how the entire narrative figures the kind of masculinity “gentlemen” are able to signify and maybe speaks to the problems of social reproduction implied by adopting colonialist categories and identification structures.

    I wonder, though, if part of the power of the complete gentleman’s glamor is that he does not need to desire or pursue; unlike a relationship in which desires are mingle in some sense, his might be the kind of heterosexuality implied in this horrifying ad (, in which the male can exert power over feminine desire without, in turn, her being able to exert power over his desire.

  2. Many thanks. Perhaps one day when I can have some distance it will find life in some “recognized” form.

    One of my ongoing (or recently discovered) preoccupations is how the relationship between social and biological reproduction is complicated in African texts from the 50s and 60s. In the recently completed diss-a-monster, I begin to make an argument that we can develop a queer archive in such texts.

    So, I raise the specter of queer studies to consider what happens (or doesn’t) with sexuality in this incident. If the “complete gentleman” is an aggregation of borrowed parts, is it even possible to speak of heterosexuality? In fact, if we want to push this reading in a certain direction, it makes visible desire as always fetishistic and, in that sense, never quite sedimenting into heterosexual or homosexual.

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