The War on ‘Morality’
Dambudzo Marechera is a household phenomenon in contemporary literature.
Power-brokers often operate from the political domain, but Zimbabwe’s lost generation writer still commands notable influence since his tragic death in 1987.
If critical acclaim was a credible basis for establishing ethical value in literature, Marechera would have been the posthumous Pope of the domestic arena while Memory Chirere and Tinashe Mushakavanhu would be his Swiss Guards.
Marechera has remained the object of emulation for budding writers and a framing point for liberal schools of thought, chiefly because the evolving standards of morality now authenticate his notoriety and unsettling world-view.
The laboratories of literary criticism still submit that Zimbabwe’s noisy bad boy writer was one enigma too sophisticated to break down in conventional literary test tubes.
Forensic proponents like his biographer, cheer leader and illicit partner, Flora Veit-Wild, have made a virtual trade and earned a claim to fame out of the eccentric Oxford wit.
Marechera’s literature, which crossed the genres, exacts the enthused appeal of left-leaning social engines, pressure groups, pandering critics and the current crop of aspirant writers, owing to its forceful diction and dissembling social outlook.
He has been often eulogised in his own words: “I think I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met.”
His estate, the Dambudzo Marechera Memorial Trust, gathered all his slapdash writings into three volumes, with the last one published in 1997, ten years after he succumbed to an AIDS-related illness.
Reverence for Marechera has become mandatory in literary circles to a point where August 18 is set apart for his annual memorial, a keynote event that attracts international critics.
The House of Hunger Poetry slam contested monthly on the Book Café turf was named after the nutty novelist and poet’s best-known book.
In 2005, controversial Zimbabwean musician Alicious Musimbe, better known as Maskiri, evoked fond reminisces of Marechera in an interview with a local magazine: “I think if Dambudzo Marechera was alive he would understand me. There is nothing done to contain his literature but with my music it is road-blocks all the way.”
This was after a leading radio station banned Maskiri’s music because of its lewd lyricism.
Which reminds me of how George W Bush blacklisted Eminem as “the second-biggest threat to American children after polio”.
The Morality War
Artists’ work is always prone to a battle of morality.
Marechera’s debut novel, “Black Sunlight”, was banned by the Zimbabwe government in 1984 on the grounds of blasphemy, obscenity and deliberate offence to Christians.
His contemporaries, notably Musaemura Zimunya, took the fight to the Censorship Board and successfully lobbied for the lifting of the ban urging that the grounds for the ban were “outdated”.
One recalls EM Foster contesting the ban of DH Lawrence’s “Rainbow”, which had been blacklisted for similar reasons.
Marechera was later to equate his plight to DH Lawrence in a posthumous poetry anthology.
Owing to evolving “standards of morality”, Marechera has risen to become one of the best-known Zimbabwean authors. In January alone, three books were published focusing on Marechera.
It is now fashionable for young artists to celebrate Marcehera’s lewdness and sado-masochism as the workings of a great mind.
I beg to differ.
Marechera was a dangerous pervert, plain and simple; an anarchist fermenting immorality and facilitating social disintegration.
I could have excused myself from dabbling in this issue as it will no doubt draw unfavourable opinions from Marechera fans. After all, Ray Comfort once said: “You don’t have to stick your nose into the sewer to know that it stinks.”
However, I am obliged to pass this short shrift to Marechera’s literature because it is within my responsibility as a Christian to contend earnestly for the faith.
Marechera exorcised his uncouth psyche on God and left a literary legacy that questions tenets fundamental to Christianity.
As the premium figure that he now is in academic circles, Marechera is a power broker in the formulation of opinion and articulation of discourse.
Why then it is an ethical imperative long overdue to debunk the notable deficiency of judgement that runs the tapestry of the bad boy’s literature.
Marechera himself outlined his work ethic or rather lack thereof in an interview with Alle Lansu: “I like to write the kind of thing which destroys things people take for granted because in my mind original thinking can only come when we have destroyed the idea of taking anything for granted.
“That’s why, for instance, I always attack people’s ideas of morality because morality is one of the things taken for granted.”
Marechera was a proponent of anarchy and individualism. He preached blind faith in a world devoid of morality and family values; one revolving around the individual’s selfish instincts.
When he was dating Flora Veit-Wild, another man’s lawful spouse, he once said to her: “You know me: I always throw a tantrum when I don’t get what I want.”
This is evidently the method he used in all his writings whose uniform bedrock was self-interest.
He wrote of opposing “everything that diminishes the individual’s blind impulse” and “insisting on your right to go on a tangent.”
Marechera worshipped on the altar of fornication and drug abuse and, unlike Nicolai Gogol – the Muscovite playwright who repented and burned his manuscript “Dead Souls” in the twilight of his life – Marechera remained loyal to his profane gods unto death.
His rejection of Christianity as a demobiliser of originality was a lame pretence, for Marechera had his own deities whom he looked to for alternative inspiration; from whom he derived his vile methods.
In an interview titled “Literary Shock Treatment”, Marechera says: “Responsibility. Yes, as a writer I feel that word echo in my head all the time, but I see my responsibility as a writer not so much to society, if I may say so, but to my voice.”
This effectively debunks Marechera’s claims to originality, the red line he professed to outweigh the need for morality. Now, voice would mean views emanating from within his personality, but it is only fair enough to probe how much originality this “voice” embodied.
Man’s psychological anatomy consists of conscience: (con) with and (science) knowledge.
But since Marechera dispelled the distinction between right and wrong, it passes that his inbuilt value mechanism was evidently seared with a hot iron and what he counted to be original was just acquired knowledge from familiar texts and previous associations adapted to his own weaknesses.
Rejection of the Christian tradition, which he often attacked in his literature, was not sufficient ground for claiming originality because it only meant resorting to an alternative tradition.
Marechera made allusive reference to Greek and Roman mythology in justifying his methods. In the conversation with Lansu, he appeals to the example of Cassandra whom he says obtained prophetic powers after an encounter with the “god” Apollo.
His critics make reference to his heavy allusiveness to Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence, James Joyce, PB Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron and others.
He often used their own methods to justify his eccentric literary output.
Perhaps “Diary of a Madman” was his Bible just as Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was Hitler’s Bible.
So what counter-morality did Marechera’s distinct orientation prescribe? What did the voice he was loyal to assign him for responsibility?
In critical circles, obscenity and blasphemy have come to be known as “Dambudzo relics”.
While it’s unconventional to lift a finger against Marechera’s work for fear of stirring the hornets’ hive of his noisy followers, Marechera himself was irreverent not only to institutions but God as well.
In all his published books, Marechera professed to be a proponent of freedom but was a pitiable slave of wickedness. He claimed on several counts that the purpose of life was to be wasted by drugs and fornication and unlike Pharisees’ infamous disclaimer never said “do as I write not as I do” but became the chief exponent of his vile philosophy: in short; a willing tool in the service of social destruction.
What then was the voice to which Marechera owed his inspiration? It was not conscience. Nay, the writer himself defied the whole notion of morality.
The options in this range are acquired knowledge and spiritual influence. Both of these would be incompatible with his claims of originality.
Acquired knowledge would be the familiar texts and previous associations which would formed the basis of judgement.
From his own admission, Marechera was a devotee of perverts like DH Lawrence and James Joyce.
If this were the case, then the claim of original thinking would still be beside the point. Whether, the basis of his inspiration was instinct or tangent the informing paradigm was the nature of acquired knowledge.
Still another possible option would be spiritual influence.
For example, Charles Mungoshi once said: “I write subconsciously as I am inspired by my ancestors.” He was conducting a magazine interview when his short story collection, “Coming of the Dry Season”, was all the rage.
That was his voice. It spoke to the rejection of conventional morality embodied in Christianity, but could not be classified as original thinking.
While standing in denial of imposed morality as illegitimate, Marechera waxes lyrical in the same interview on how one Cassandra in Greek mythology was his epitome of the “prophetic power” after her intimate encounter with the “god” Apollo.
Hence, Marechera also wrote from a spiritual incentive. Just that his particular avenue for inspiration is a contaminated source.
All the same, there was no room to profess originality because it simply does not factor in the existing range of options.
For Marechera, detachment from tradition meant that ancestral agents were not in the picture, but how do you account for using the name “Jesus” as a filth word and interlacing it with vulgar words without the least urge of conscience? How do you explain the extolling of vice in the name of going at one’s tangent; the vile allusiveness to obscene expressions and blasphemy? What is this voice, Marechera claims to have been responsible to more than society?
It takes stepping out of the beaten track of the conventional around Marechera to zero in on the plain truth: Marechera was a rugged edge to a sinister clique whose work is unduly precipitating into today’s society because of the secular onslaught against morality gaining currency in the universal media terrain.
Those who adore him for what he wrote call him a voice of independence from external forces the claiming man’s allegiance. So, though, Marechera says he was aware of his mortality and the futility throwing views and ideals around this is what he precisely did, just in reverse.
The overall dynamic is that Marechera sought the utopia or dystopia of sorts, where the world began and ended with an egocentric individual; a world where man was free from moral accountability to God and not obliged to the respect of fellow man.
Flora Veit-Wild’s recent paper “Me and Dambudzo” implies that her lawful husband and children were the ripple casualties of the two’s adulterous affair which led to disease and premature death.
The irony lost on Marechera and his accomplice is that in the quest for the individual’s immunity from moral responsibility there are bound to be ripple casualties who bear the fatal consequences associated with the forfeiture of responsibility.
The stand Marechera took against morals has now gone viral among contemporary artists, but there was no credibility – not the faintest vestige of credibility – in it whatsoever!
Notwithstanding the veneration he has earned from the literary establishment, there is nothing to redeem from Marechera’s work.
Marechera’s universally venerated volume of literature was sophistication without substance, salt without savour, a well without water, a critique without solutions.
Marechera once said: “In other words, the direct international experience of every single living entity is, for me, the inspiration to write. But at the same time, I am aware of my vulnerability — that I am only me — and of my mortality; and that’s why it seems to me always a waste of time to waste anybody’s life in regulations, in ordering them.”
Whether or not this was the case Marechera’s philosophy of the individual’s freedom from responsibility has earned his fanatic adherence.
It has become a reference point for proponents not of freedom of religion but freedom from religion. Videos have been packaged where morality is considered fascism and libertarian anarchism, the new normal, thanks to the bad boy Zimbabwean writer.
Another giant misconception latent in Marechera’s literature is the erroneous view that Christianity is the white colonialist’s ideology for gullible Africans.
This view, embodied, for instance, in the satirical account of an African priest in “House of Hunger”, is rife in African literature.
Ngugi WaThiongo, for one, writes: “I am not a man of the church, I am not even a Christian,” before citing various churches’ complicity with colonialism as the reason for his revulsion.
Naturally, the playwright is entitled to his views.
I remember falling prey to this textual subversion when I was a teenager who lacked judgement and believed everything I read just because it was in print. Worse still, I was not content to keep what I counted newfound enlightenment with my peers.
And so the syllabus of errors always ripples wider.
Three years on, older and wiser after accepting Christ at 17, I remember having the same old school script about the Bible as a dispossession, displacement and disorientation package thrown back at me as I tried sharing my Christian faith with acquaintances in front of pubs.
It was, incidentally, a debate I collided with my first morning as a Journalism and Media Studies freshman when a casual discussion about the aftermath of the Arab Spring unduly veered to the incrimination of Christianity as a religion fashioned to demobilise people.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
It’s simply a gross misnomer to diminish Christianity into a mere sub-text of the colonial discourse. Christianity cannot be folded into the discourse of mere mortals or classified as a European religion.
Professor Kotoney-Ahulu notes in a treatise for New African magazine (August-September 2011): “Many people, both in Europe and Africa think Christianity is a European religion. Wrong!”
Indeed, whoever suggests that Christianity is a European, African or Semitic religion misses the nature and essence of Christianity and demonstrates a deficient appraisal of the plain truth.
Christianity is not an ethnic, racial, political or religious construct.
It is a dire symptom of Attention Deficit Disorder to subject Christianity to the imperialists’ rehearsed entry point to Africa when the Bible was written over a period of 1 500 years, a fistful of centuries before it came to England.
It is positively immune to error that Christianity was instituted from Heaven through the incarnation of Jesus Christ close to two thousand years before the Pioneer Column trooped into Zimbabwe or any part of Africa, for that matter.
Can God, the author of Christianity, be discredited for unscrupulous people’s manipulation of the scriptures for their own ends which the Bible itself does not condone?
If a farming implement is used to perpetrate a crime by a base fellow, is it the manufacturer or the criminal who exacts blame? Nay! Let God be true and every man false.
Ironically, Marechera thought the tag “Africa writer” demeaning to the import and expanse of his function as a universal commentator.
Yet it never occurred to him that Christianity was not a mean phenomenon for him or anyone to circumscribe into a sub-text of a racial discourse. There are simply no legitimate grounds for doing that. Note Veit-Wild’s requiem: “Marechera refuses to identify himself with any particular race, culture or nation; he is an extreme individualist, an anarchistic thinker.
“He rejects social and state regimentation — be it in colonial Rhodesia, in England, or in independent Zimbabwe; the freedom of the individual is of the utmost importance. In this he is uncompromising, and this is how he tries to live.”
Why then should a mere mortal the size of a minute molecule in the ocean relative to his immediate setting, amplify his function to universal proportions and disown the sovereignty of God?
While conforming to its model function of being a miniature of society, a reflection of the circumstances reeling in the writer’s terrain, Marechera’s literature lost ethical value when he condoned instead of condemning degeneration.
As it were, the doppelganger became a participant observer; keynote exponent for the purposelessness, moral decadence and spiritual bankruptcy what he must have resisted.
The varied inconsistencies and fatal delusions embodied in the work of Dambudzo Marechera were informed by one instinct: disinclination to bear moral accountability to God.
In this Marechera is in league with many other writers, artists, media practitioners, academics and pressure groups who are drumming up support for all sorts of alternative discourses just to evade God’s perfect law of love. As long as you follow them on this path of perdition, the world will always be a 3D image of death, destruction and despair.
• Stanley Mushava can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can see more of his work on his blog: mschavar.wordpress.com