Lewis Nkosi (1936-2010): An Appreciation


Ntongela Masilela

Lewis Nkosi, who passed away on September 5, 2010 (Sunday) at the Johannesburg Wellness Clinic after a prolonged declining health, will undoubtedly be remembered in many years to come as one of the truly outstanding literary critics Africa has been privileged to have had in the twentieth century. Although he was a novelist of note in his later years (The Mating Birds [1986], Underground People [2002], Mandela’s Ego [2006]) and a respectable playwright in his middle period (The Rhythm of Violence [1964], The Black Psychiatrist [1978] as well as a budding poet in his early [“To Herbert Dhlomo”, Ilanga lase Natal, October 22, 1955; in his whole life he wrote seven poems, the last one written in Lusaka in the early 1980s where he was then living and published at that time in Sechaba, the political and cultural review of the African National Congress], it was through his formidable critical imagination that he dazzled his contemporaries from Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967) to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938-  ) as well as those generations who followed in his wake represented by Mbulelo Mzamane (1948-  ) and Njabulo Ndebele (1948-  ). Not to be forgotten is the fact that he was a brilliant essayist who was fascinated by the Germanic essay form represented by Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and György Lukács. This is not to deny that he had a passion for the African American essay as created by master practitioners such as James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son [1955], Nobody Knows My Name [1961], The Fire Next Time [1963]) and Ralph Ellison (Shadow and Act [1964]).

This appreciation of European and American intellectual culture  mediated within the cultural splay of the New African Movement resulted in his most renowned work of literary criticism and appreciation: Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (1981). All of this makes clear that Lewis Nkosi’s critical and historical imagination was forged by the coordinates that emphasized the future against the past, valorized the outside and devalued the inside process: in other words, he believed that modernity must be created at the expense of tradition rather than as a dialectical structure of the dialogical process. He seemed to have believed that culture is a constant and perpetual reinvention in the present disconnected from the lineages of the past. The consequences of this philosophy of history will be apparent in a moment.

Lewis Nkosi’s forte for the essay form was evident in his first collection of essays and newspaper articles assembled in Home and Exile (1965) that were made possible by his long foray into literary journalism in many newspapers and journals in Africa and in Europe: Drum, Ilanga lase Natal, Golden City Post, Transition, The Guardian, Africa Report, Afro-Asian Writings, Sechaba, New Society, Spectator, New Statesman, The Observer, Negro Digest, Black Orpheus, Fighting Talk, Contact, The African Guardian, Southern African Review of Books, London Review of Books, Genèva-Afrique, The New African, Harvard Crimson, and probably other publications in Poland where he lived for extended periods in the 1980s. This forte was inherited from arguably the master of the essay form in the history of the New African Movement, whom the nineteen-year old Lewis Nkosi celebrated in the pages of Ilanga lase Natal and began his column “Life As I See It” in 1955 when the unattributed weekly columns of his master (“Busy Bee” and “X”) cease publication because of terminal illness, yet in subsequent years never mentioned him at all: this was H. I. E. Dhlomo. In his budding years he expressed his admiration for the great intellectual in the elegy “To Herbert Dhlomo”:
          H. I. E., H. I. E.,
          Me and all my brothers dark,
          Those that mumble in the dust,
          Without a hope, without a joy,
          Streaked with tears for ravaged Africa
          Have, with thy silence, ceased to live.

          In vain we seek the lost dream to regain,
          In vain the vision yet to capture:
          The Destiny of a Thousand, million dark folk
          Who seek, who yearn---Alas! A fruitless toil.

           H. I. E., H. I. E.,
           Speak to us again;
           Whisper thoughts yet to impower us
           To live the Dream, to live the Vision
           Of a free Africa over again.
Lewis Nkosi’s unrelenting and unwavering commitment to modernity was based on his belief that this was the only way to create and construct the “Dream and Vision of a Free Africa”. This possible lived experience required the perpetual re-invention of the new. This could be taken to have been the philosophical credo of the Drum journalists and photographers of the Sophiatown Renaissance.

Lewis Nkosi arguably went the furthest in the belief that the re-invention of the new should be anchorless and disconnected from the past. He reveled in the accelerated temporality of modernity in the direction of the future. This explains his fearlessness of the future and of “the Other”. “The Other” was understood in the multiplicity of its possible permutations: be it Joseph Conrad, or Ernest Hemingway, or African American jazz, or the Jewish woman, or European cultural space: all these were forms of the new or the allowable. Concerning the dialectic or the binary between modernity and tradition: Lewis Nkosi believed at the most in the tradition of the new and sought to banish from South African intellectual and cultural landscape the tradition of the past. Witness the most celebrated or rivaled critical writing ever penned by our premier literary critic that originally appeared in Africa Report magazine (“African Fiction Part I: South Africa: Protest”, October 1962 and “African Fiction: Part II: English-Speaking West Africa”, December 1962) in which he banished a swath of African literature from aesthetic worthiness because its supposed obsequiousness to the tradition of the past rather than valorization of the tradition of the new. With this bifurcation or demarcation, Lewis Nkosi dismissed the literary work of many of his contemporaries within the Sophiatown Renaissance, even dismissing African literature in the African languages by the literary giants of the previous constellations of the New African Movement (S. E. K. Mqhayi, J. J. R. Jolobe, Thomas Mofolo) through confusion with “Vernacular literature” which was belaboring in the 1950s under Apartheid edicts producing pulp literature for Primary School children. But it must be remembered that Lewis Nkosi was writing a few months after the also equally famous or infamous Conference of 1962 by Writers of English Expression that took place in Kampala sponsored by Transition magazine in which African literature in the African languages was delegitimized from articulating the modernist literary experience. Nkosi was an active participant at this Conference where he begun interviewing contemporary African writers for his famous London based “Writers’ Talk Series”.

With the publication of Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (1981), Lewis Nkosi was universally acclaimed as a premier scholar and literary critic of African literature. This brilliant book was the actualization of his philosophy of literary criticism that he later outlined in his Inaugural Lecture on assuming a Chair in the Department of Literature at the University of Zambia in June 1983:
               In short, I would like to defend a cultural practice, a critical activity, a
               discursive practice whose object is literature. I want to say, and I am
               going to say, that to study literature may be dangerous but that it is
               worthwhile, that it is important and a productive activity which should
               be encouraged rather than discouraged; that even if we were
               parsimonious enough to curtail the study of literature in our academic
               institutions it is difficult to see how critical discourse on a purely
               informal level could be prevented from taking place outside the
               universities, in the street or in bars, in whatever attenuated form, since
               the appearance of any work of literature or its performance is an act of
               provocation, an insertion of a material object into the world, which leads
               naturally to its scrutiny, appraisal, assimilation or denunciation by the
               public . . . To ask what value has literature is to ask a related question.
               Does society need writers? On the surface of it, this is a strange question
               because no one ever asks whether or not we need historians. The reason
               why this question is never put to historians is presumably because what
               historians retail is taken to be fact; and this facility is not assumed to be
               admirable for its own sake as an accumulation of knowledge, it is also
               what gives history the status of an evidence which a society or its
               factions need in moments of conflicts or disputes. Before an international
               court historical evidence can be produced in self-justification or for the
               apportionment of guilt. In the arbitration of border disputes no one ever
               goes to a novel or a poem for evidence. Literature, on the other hand, it
               is generally supposed, cannot do much more than entertain us and
               perhaps stimulate in us an aesthetic pleasure. Nevertheless, modern
               scholarship disputes this facile demarcation not only between literature
               and history, but between literature as such and other resources. Not only
               is literature a valuable source of information upon which the other
               human sciences can bring to bear their various disciplines and
               methodologies but history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy are
               themselves species of literature; they are particular types of discourse, a
               set of discursive practices bearing upon the same reality, sometimes
               using the very tropes and strategies that were supposed to be the
               distinguishing features of literature. The discourses of Foucault, Levi-
               Strauss, Lacan, Althusser and Derrida, abolish any space between
               literature and anthropology, between political enquiry and history . . .
               Literature is a broad category, containing within its boundaries many  
               writing practices, but even when narrowly conceived to mean only its
               imaginative form, literature not only provides us with timely critiques of
               society, but fleshes out for us in concrete images the ‘lived experiences’
               of men and women who are the human subjects in historical process.
               When I say literature ‘fleshes out’ this lived experience I do not wish to
               be understood as saying that novels or drama simply duplicate
               existence, that they provide knowledge of reality by reflecting it
               photographically. To quote Theodor Adorno, ‘in art knowledge is
               aesthetically mediated through and through’.
               (“In Defence of the Study of Literature” by Lewis Nkosi. Professorial
                 Inaugural Lectures No. 2, University of Zambia, 1997).
This grappling with the meaning of literature and the discursive practices that seek to illuminate the complexity of meaning, content and form that inhere in the literariness of its object, is comparable to the great essays H. I. E. Dhlomo wrote on literary theory in various scholarly journals in the late 1930s. Both of these instances of the 1930s and 1980s represent some of the high moments of reflection on the philosophy of artistic form within the history of the New African Movement.

This understanding of the philosophy of form in literature is based on a literary critical practice Lewis Nkosi promulgated two decades earlier in a review of Wole Soyinka’s ‘big novel’ The Interpreters (1966): 
               In his first novel, The Interpreters, the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka
               has given us the nearest approach we have yet had in Africa to a big
               novel. The panoramic sweep of this book, with its multitude of
               characters, its energy, and its grinding pace, has not been matched by
               any other English-speaking African novelist. I include, of course, Chinua
               Achebe who is, in many ways, a more controlled and more finished,
               though also more conventional, writer. The Interpreters is by no means a
               wholly successful novel. It is, however, a book written by a man
               prepared to push his ambition, talent, and language---the instrument of
               his craft---as far as they can stretch to serve his purpose. At the center of
               a multitude of characters are “the interpreters”---a small circle of young
               Nigerians who grew up as close friends and fellow boozers. After
               leaving the university to go their separate ways, they still meet from
               time to time as intellectuals-in-arms to drink and whore together and to
               conceptualize traditional and modern Nigerian. There is no recognize
               plot in this sprawling work. Apparently it is planned as a number of set
               scenes with dialogue, an adaptation of Soyinka’s dramatic techniques.
               Reinforcing this format are some atmospheric descriptive passages and
               large dashes of a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Soyinka manages,
               nevertheless, to let his characters interpret modern Nigeria and also at a
               deeper level, Yoruba tradition . . . The Interpreters has some very obvious
               shortcomings which impair the total impact. A sense of form is almost
               non-existent. There are episodes certainly; there are characters; there is
               energy and vitality---but to what end? There seems to have been some
               idea in Soyinka’s mind of using a painting of “the group” by one of its
               members as some kind of central framework pulling the strands of the
               book. If so, it did not come off. An even more serious flaw stems from
              what, at first sight, might be viewed as his particular strength. I mean, of
              course, his play with the English language. The vitality in his use of
              language reflects Soyinka’s restless intelligence and this is a laudable
              quality in a novelist. The problem is that often there is a gap between
              thought and language. Either the ideas are not there or there is confusion
              about their precise rendering. At any rate, Soyinka tends to want to
              appear more profound than he actually is; too often, he uses verbal
              pyrotechnics to try to give his lines the necessary depth when profundity
              of ideas is lacking. This results in imprecision or more often a ludicrous
              pomposity . . . Wole Soyinka obviously has some of the qualities of James
              Joyce, and may one day even warrant bracketing with the old master. But
              the English critic who put Soyinka as his present stage of development in
              the same category as Joyce is surely premature. This kind of silly
              uncritical adulation does Soyinka a disservice. He should be encouraged
              to grow . . . Where does African literature go from here? After the initial
              excitement about any African who could put two sentences together,
              critics are going to harden toward African books and treat them like any
              writing from anywhere in the world. Already the Africans themselves
              and foreign scholars working intelligently in African universities have
              begun to sort out the aristocracy of creative talent from hack writers
              drawn to writing only by the attractions of instant publication.
              (“Where Does African Literature Go From Here?” by Lewis Nkosi, Africa   
              Report, December 1966.)
What is remarkable about this review of African novels published in 1966 is the wide spectrum of authors it encompasses in its analytical sweep: The Second Round by Lenrie Peters, Efuru by Flora Nwapa, No Easy Task by Aubrey Kachwinge, The Voice by Gabriel Okara, Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono, A Few Nights and Days by Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Toads for Supper by Chukwuemeka Ike, A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe, and The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka. This essay itself could be taken as demarcating that serious literary criticism in postcolonial Africa by Africans themselves had begun with the utmost urgency. Although his name is not mentioned at all, this review in many ways was self-conscious that these books were being published in the context of political instability that Frantz Fanon had so prophetically predicted in his posthumous book The Wretched of the Earth (1961, 1965).

In ‘postcolonial’ South Africa, the indefatigable mind of our foremost literary critic was equally busy analyzing and reflecting on the political inequalities of cultural production in a “New South Africa”. In anticipation of the historic changes that were to occur 1994, in the Introduction to the 1990 Penguin edition of Bloke Modisane’s autobiography Blame Me On History, which was originally published in 1963, Lewis Nkosi defined the fundamental nature of the problem of cultural politics that a ‘changed’ South Africa will be forced to confront:
               A serious examination of South African culture must at some time come
               to terms with a fact which may be uncongenial to both black and white
               progressives, given our prior commitment to a nonracial democratic
               future; and that fact is the near total hegemony within the various
               cultural practices of South African society of an unrepresentative white
               hegemony, consisting not only of diehard upholders of the apartheid
               system but also of white liberals and progressives as academics, as
               critics, as anthologists.
Nearly two decades after these words were written, their prescient nature still remain incontestable. This can only indicate or prove that Lewis Nkosi was a superlative cultural critic.

Since Lewis Nkosi alignment himself with the tradition of the new in negation of the tradition of the past, he was incapable of providing solutions to this historical conundrum.

We South Africans owe it to his everlasting memory to resolve this contradiction or antinomy by historically integrating the tradition of the new and the tradition of the past into a new synthetic whole.

Having said all this, one needs to conclude by noting and acknowledging that although Lewis Nkosi rarely made overt political statements about our situation, especially in his writings, he possessed a complex political imagination as evident in this brilliant portrait of Robert Sobukwe written a few months after leaving South Africa for exile in 1961, in all probability written while he was still holding a one-year Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University:
               . . . Who is this man who so nearly paralyzed the country? What is his
               claim to political power and leadership, and what is his future in this
               perplexing country where power and influence in the black community
               have never been constant? . . . His moral ire has been provoked, for
               example, by “wasteful living” among upper echelon politicians, who
               spend their valuable time “dancing with white women in the
               Johannesburg interracial parties instead of getting down to the job of
               freeing Africa from white domination”. [Lewis Nkosi is quoting directly
               from an interview conducted with Robert Sobukwe for a political
               portrait which was originally intended for the Golden City Post in
               Johannesburg, a weekly sister newspaper of Drum magazine; but in the
               event appeared in a London monthly] . . . Although the Defiance
               Campaign made a tremendous impact on the white population and
               indirectly caused the formation of Alan Paton’s Liberal Party, the
               campaign was crushed by the government and therefore failed in its
               main objective. After the collapse of the Defiance Campaign, a number
               of white dissidents formed the Liberal Party and others farther to the left
               founded the Congress of Democrats. Some members of the COD were
               refugees from the Communist Party, which had recently been
               suppressed by government legislation. The ANC and the Indian
               National Congress thereafter joined hands with the Congress of
               Democrats and the South African Coloured Peoples’ Organization
               (mixed-bloods) in what is now popularly known as the Congress
               Alliance. It was at this time, too, that the extreme nationalistic wing of
               the ANC began to chafe against the party leadership. Stories began to
               filter to the press that Sobukwe was waging a minor war within the
               Congress movement. It was not clear in the beginning what the issues
               were, but by the latter 1950’s, just before Sobukwe’s ultimate break with
               the movement, some of these main issues had emerged clearly enough
               to become a matter of public debate. By this time, Robert Sobukwe was
               no longer teaching in the sleepy village of Standerton. He had joined the
               faculty of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and was
               therefore near the center of the storm. One day in 1958, after the
               newspapers had for weeks been printing stories of Sobukwe’s
               maneuvers inside the ANC, I was entrusted, as a chief political reporter
               of my newspaper, with the task of tackling him for a series of interviews
               on his political activities. Specifically, I was to find out the nature of his
               conflict with the official leadership of the ANC and his intentions if
               these differences persisted . . . Why does Sobukwe object so
               uncompromisingly to the Marxian analysis of the South African
               situation? First, he is wary of any organization that seems to be speaking
               in a foreign voice. He is seeking to activate the African masses as a
               “corporate group,” sharing an identity of a certain history of
               disenfranchisement, against the privileged white minority. He sees the
               struggle, therefore, as inevitably between black and white in South
               Africa . . . Although the Pan-Africanist Congress [PAC}---which
               Sobukwe formed in 1958 after he finally left the ANC altogether---would
               not admit whites to its membership, he contends that the organization is
               not racialistic. “We stand for equal rights for all individuals. But the
               whites have to accept allegiance to Africa first; once a truly non-racial
               democracy exists in South Africa, all individuals, whatever their color or
               race, will be accepted as Africans. Naturally, we cannot put the cart
               before the horse. We have to realize that at the moment the struggle is
               between a white minority and the oppressed black majority.” It is
               difficult to make an impartial evaluation of Sobukwe. He is not the
               racialist some ANC leaders have charged that he is. However, the tactics
               he is using for strategic reasons encourage chauvinism and, ultimately
               perhaps, genuine racialism. It seems to me that this strategy is a very
               dangerous one . . . The paradox of the South African situation is that a
               man like Albert Luthuli of the ANC would make the best Prime
               Minister---but he is not revolutionary enough to lead the oppressed to
               freedom. On the other hand, Sobukwe has the militancy to lead a
               revolution---but he is too rigid to create the necessary organizational
               instrument. The white men and women whom Sobukwe so deeply
               distrusts are some of those who have fought  most bravely and often at
               great personal risks against the Verwoed regime. While Luthuli can,
               with his great flexibility, command the sympathy of even the most
               conservative elements among the white populace without giving ground
               on essentials, Sobukwe alienates even those liberals from whom he has
               least to fear. Yet, with all these faults, he still remains an imposing figure
               in South African politics.
               (“Robert Sobukwe: An Assessment”, Africa Report, April 1962.)
Given this dazzling assessment of the political personality of Robert Sobukwe, written at a very turbulent moment in our political history, one can only speculate that his imagination, like that of H. I. E. Dhlomo and also of other outstanding New African intellectuals, was endlessly fascinated by ideas and inimical to ideologies of any kind.

In following on this intellectual tradition, Lewis Nkosi has bestowed on us who come after him an extraordinary legacy of continuity through transformation and inventiveness.

Claremont [Los Angeles], California, September 7th and 8th, 2010.