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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Things fall apart Professor MacRae...

What sociological connections did the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who died last month, have? Well, several actually. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, was "discovered" by Heinemann's Alan Hill, the father of my old LSE colleague and collaborator Stephen Hill and was published on the recommendation of the legendary (notorious?) LSE professor of sociology Donald Gunn MacRae whose reader's report apparently consisted of seven words: "The best first novel since the war". MacRae had held some sort of visiting professorship at the University College of the Gold Coast just prior to Ghanaian independence. One can only speculate about exactly what he was doing there - his African experience seems to have had no marked effect on his intellectual interests or development. Perhaps there is an entirely innocent explanation. UC Gold Coast was an affiliate college of the University of London and students read for a University of London degree. Someone from the motherland was probably dispatched to mind the shop in the run up to independence. 
MacRae was a personal friend of Alan Hill so that probably contributed as much to Achebe's good fortune as the laconic report. Slightly later MacRae benefited from this friendship in an important way. His case for promotion to a chair at the LSE  was weakened by the fact that he had not published a book. Hill was able to arrange quickly for MacRae's scattered essays  to be published by Heinemann as the volume Ideology and Society and  this was sufficient to ensure promotion. Almost 20 years later when I was an  undergraduate at the LSE the book was still, curiously, on the reading list for the first year Introduction to Sociology lecture series delivered by Professor Percy Cohen. Quite why was never really apparent as neither the book nor its contents were ever discussed. There is an  unpublished but rather delicious review of it by Ernest Gellner in I. C. Jarvie's archive of Gellner's writings. The final sentences, which were meant to be redacted in the published version, give you a pretty accurate idea of Gellner's opinion of MacRae. Speaking of the essays he says:
"Their merit is the wide range both of  learning and ideas, and their suggestiveness and intelligibility. Their defect, occasional lapses into showiness and Olympian pompousness and a lack of a unifying theme or centre of gravity".
Perhaps MacRae could have discovered a unifying theme if he had been able to give his scheduled course in the 1979-80 session on the History of the Social Sciences. Alas he was unwell and, I believe, the course was cancelled.
Achebe has been quoted as saying that he wrote Things Fall Apart partly as a response to Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson. I read the latter recently and enjoyed it enormously. It is, in places, very funny. I can see though why a colonial subject might not find it so amusing. But in a way that is to miss the point. What it does do, brilliantly I think, is to tell you some real truths about the world from the point of view of the colonialist. You might not like that point of view, but it is told from a real basis in experience - Cary was a district officer in Nigeria and much of what he writes has some basis in fact. The ending of the book is both shocking and moving and reminds me very much of the sentiments expressed by Orwell in his essay Shooting an Elephant.

1 comment:

Neha Shayar said...

This particular book and its title establish a greater meaning as we read the book. The change, the struggle to preserve a traditional society and the reaction which Okonkwo receives to his premeditated yet spontaneous action. It's beautifully narrated and it tells how important it is for Okonkwo to maintain a status and position in the village, to hide his weaknesses and to protect what he feels consecrated since generations. It also tells us about the gender inequalities prevailing especially on Okonkwo's family. His authority over his wives and children, his anger on the new religion of Christianity and the people following it and his concealed love and concern for his children.
It's definitely a must read as it different from the culture we live in but similar also in some terms.