Echerou: Language and Service

“Amongst His signs [i.e. of His massive power] are the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and complexions; indeed, in that are signs for the people of knowledge.”(Quran 30:22)

Classical Muslim scholarship emphasizes the student-teacher relationship over a student-book relationship. In our tradition, the bond between living students and teachers is more important, since it is through the medium of the teacher that inanimate books are unlocked. This is not saying that the student can never acquire the principles and intellectual resources to venture forth on his own, but is meant to highlight the importance of teachers in the educational process. I have had the privilege of studying two essays in this book under Dr. Iwuanyanwu last year and will attempt to present a few ideas that came to me while I was trying to figure out how to approach this paper.

In the first essay of this book, entitled “Cultural Icon: Michael J. Echeruo and the African Academy”, Dr. Iwuanyanwu notes Dr. Echeruo’s “love of language” and gives us a definition of what Dr. Echeruo sees as the role of the scholar. It is these two points that I would like to focus on while looking at this book (i.e. language and scholastic responsibility).

A poet once said: اِنَّ الكلامَ لفي الفؤادِ و انما\جُعِلَ اللسانُ على الفؤادِ دليلاََ [words are in the heart, and the tongue is only made as a guide to what is in the heart]. That is, the heart has within it certain meanings and ideas which it manifests in the physical world through the tongue, regardless of whether what is manifested is meant to deceive or not. Language, the ability to communicate our thoughts, is one of the greatest gifts that we have been given. Words are our link to the outside world. They allow us to inspire, to uplift, to bring solace to broken hearts, and to convey the wisdom of past generations. What then are we to do when the words strung together defy our intellect? Lacan once remarked during a seminar, “If they knew what I was saying, they would never have let me say it.”(86) The words Lacan uses are deliberately meant to bewilder. Assistance is needed to untangle them, which leads to the second point.

There is a term in Arabic for, what Dr. Rudolph Ware III calls clerics, that is مَوْلَانَا. This word has two meanings: (a) Master, and (b) Slave. It is the latter meaning that is intended when referring to Muslim scholars who are seen as servants to the community. Echeruo sees the scholar in this same light, as “an intellectual who is always in the service of the community”(2). The task of the scholar is to assist humanity and anyone who has read Lacan knows that his obscurantism is in need of translation back into standard English. Dr. Iwuanayanwu, an Igbo from Nigeria, has taken up this task in his essay.

Over the space of 19 pages, Dr. Iwuanyanwu has highlighted the role of the African continent in the formulation of Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, something which has influenced the way literature is approached and critiqued. Among the numerous contacts Lacan made with Africa, we are told of two trips in which Lacan studied the hieroglyphics, and “‘scrupulously noted down the complicated genealogies’ of the [Sa
cdī] dynasty”(83). Dr. Iwuanyanwu links these to Lacan’s ideas concerning the symbolism of dreams, the importance of the father, etc.

In the same vein (i.e. love of language and scholastic service), Dr. Nwosu approaches the concept of African Literature in his essay: “The Figuration of the Un”. Though he does not give out answers and nicely packaged definitions, he does question what makes a literary work African (is it enough for a work to be set in Africa to make it African?), and offers comments on the universal bonds of humanity. That is, he points out the fact that while literature may be bound by geographical scenery, it has the ability to touch on universal themes that are experienced by everyone regardless of their location on this planet. Thus, a Nigerian, like Chinua Achebe, can write a novel spanning precolonial and colonial Nigeria and have Koreans see something in it that makes them say that “‘[it’s] our history’”(32).

People like to use the word ‘multicultural’ and act as though pluralist societies are a recent innovation in human history; that in the not so distant past we lived in isolated enclaves and were chained in the prison of relativity. I would like to think that these essays show that human beings have been bound together for a while now, and have always borrowed ideas, thoughts, and powerful words from one another in order to enrich their own lives. In the service of humanity, they prove that our differences are not causes for division, but a powerful source of innovation and ingenuity.